When to Use Each
Use live bait any time you want to catch fish! Depending on availability and your ability to keep bait alive, it will almost always out-fish any other kinds of baits. There may be some presentations that prohibit the use of live bait, but you can almost always find a way to present live bait to fish. Sometimes it may be slower to fish with live bait than with artificials but slowing down and using live bait will usually pay off in higher numbers of fish caught, as well as bigger fish landed.
Using live bait can create problems. Fish are usually hooked deeper and are harder to release alive when caught on live bait. Live bait like crawfish or minnows may also escape into waters where they are not native and establish populations that cause problems.
Some waters may be fished with artificial bait, only. Check regulations before fishing with live bait to make sure it's legal. Be especially careful on trout steams, because many of them are artificial bait, only.
Live Bait for Fresh Water
Some freshwater fish such as walleye are known to be finicky eaters, so you almost always have to use live bait. A jig may not catch many walleye but tip it with a worm, leech, or minnow and they will bite. Bream and crappie both will hit small jigs and flies but prefer live worms and minnows most of the time.
For trophy bass a big live minnow like a golden shiner is hard to beat. Some guides in Florida specialize in shiner fishing because it produces lunker bass better than anything else. Almost as many big bass are caught on live crayfish, which are good bait for smallmouth and largemouth, too. Drop a crayfish down around a rock reef in the Great Lakes and you can land a trophy smallmouth.
Stripers and hybrids will hit live herring and shiners much better than they'll hit artificial baits. Stripers and catfish love eels. And flathead catfish prefer live minnows to any other bait. Even the pickiest trout will readily eat a hellgrammite.
Yellow perch will hit wax worms and mealworms under the ice when they ignore everything else. Trout can be taken on worms and crickets better than on artificial flies and spinners. And the traditional baits for bream are earthworms and crickets.
Options for Saltwater Live Bait
All kinds of saltwater flats fish, including trout and redfish, love shrimp. A live menhaden or mullet will get a trophy tarpon to bite when all else fails. Flounder seem to prefer a live minnow drifted near the bottom to just about any other kind of bait. And surf fishermen catch everything from sea bass to sharks on live minnows.
You'll get more bites if you match the size of your bait to the fish you're after. For fish with small mouths, use smaller bait. And try to match the size of the bait to what the fish normally feed on. This is known as “matching the hatch.”
Saltwater stripers love eels just as much as their landlocked freshwater counterparts. Dropping a live squid or minnow to the bottom on a reef will quickly attract the attention of grouper, sea bass, and all the other predators around it. Trolling live bait for big-game fish like sailfish, marlin, and swordfish is the best way to take them. Bluefish eat up whole bloodworms, and croaker and spots in bays eat them up when the worms are cut into bite-size pieces.