Never underestimate using live bait for bass.
You’re not going to see many live crawfish or shiners on the tournament circuit, but that’s not because they don’t work. In virtually every tournament, live bait is illegal, to say nothing of the endorsement issue!
The truth is that live bait works as well or better than any lure for largemouth bass.
Think about it: lures are designed to look, smell, and move like the real thing. But a minnow or crawdad is what a lure pretends to be! That, and the relative cost of artificial lures, may get you to reconsider your options.
If you’re thinking about live bait, keep reading!
Table of Contents (clickable)
Best Live Bait for Largemouth Bass
Live bait and slender-wire hooks are a match any angler can understand. The smaller the wire the hook is made from, the less damage it’s likely to cause your bait. That means more life, more kicking, and more hard hits!
Whichever live bait option you choose, pick slender wire hooks.
Pick the best hooks for bass
Pre-spawn bass meet the warming waters of spring with an insatiable hunger, and they’re looking for protein and fat to put on weight before their spawn-induced anorexia sends them on a crash diet.
Their meal of choice?
Bass swallow crawfish from behind to avoid both of these!
When the water starts to hit 50 degrees, crawfish will emerge from winter shelter, and when they do, they’re pretty much all a big female has on its mind. A tasty meal packed with calories, crawfish also contain more mineral micro-nutrients than other fare, helping her produce healthy eggs.
Pre-spawn bass are hard-wired to chase crawdads, and throwing these little devils to them is tantamount to ringing the dinner bell!
Whether you catch your own or buy them from the bait shop, the key is to keep them alive for as long as possible on your hook. Dead crawdads work, but using baits that lay lifeless on the bottom isn’t the best recipe for strikes.
Instead, you want a live, working crawfish, and the traditional option to get you what you need is tail-rigging.
Simply slip a hook through one of the fat segments beneath the tail and out through the back, turning the hook so that the point and shank run rearward:
While perhaps better known as a crappie guru, Richard Gene has a unique take on how to rig a crawdad with rubber bands. I’m desperate to try it!
Once rigged, you want to gently pull your crawdad, lifting and popping it to attract attention and keeping it from finding a cozy hiding spot where the bass won’t see it.
There’s no question that this works, and it’s my favorite cool water live bait, hands down!
Post-spawn, minnows are very hard to beat. “Think about it,” says one pro. "You don’t have to worry if you’re using the right bait, the right color, the right presentation etc… If you’re fishing minnows properly and aren’t getting bit, it’s likely the fish just aren’t there."
In my experience, that’s dead on. Minnows are that good at drawing-out big bass.
We’re not new to the minnow game, and if you want a full run-down on selecting and rigging minnows, take a look at our article on the subject.
Bait shops typically offer two choices: the golden shiner and the fathead. And while to you a minnow may just be a minnow, you want to become a live bait connoisseur!
Check out our top choices for minnow buckets
Shiners are nowhere near as robust as fatheads, and they won’t stay alive and swimming on the hook for very long. That’s no good, and if you have the option, always go for the fathead.
The ubiquitous golden shiner.
Fatheads often attract fat bass!
In the bait shop, healthy minnows will hold in tight clusters and should sport bright scales and intact fins.
Experienced anglers have decided rigging preferences, and you should experiment with what gets you the most bites. Four techniques are common:
- Tail hooking - By running your hook through the tail, about a ¼ inch off the fins, you allow the minnow to kick and swim without doing it serious injury. They’ll be lively and long-lived that way, and it’s one of our favorite options. But to make it work, you need to remember to pause, as Ivo Coia explains in the video below.
- Dorsal hooking - By running your hook through the back, directly below the dorsal fin, you also miss the minnow’s vital organs, allowing it to twitch both head and tail.
- Lip hooking - With this technique, you run the hook from under the minnow’s chin, through both lips. Obviously, this leaves the tail kicking furiously, but it does kill the minnow more quickly than the alternatives.
- Snout hooking - Essentially a modified lip hook, in this case, you run the hook down through the front of the head and out through its mouth. Like lip hooking, this lets the minnow move freely, but it doesn’t kill it as quickly.
demonstrating these 4 techniques
As Keith 'Catfish' Sutton explains, “Explosive strikes are rare. Instead, you’ll feel gentle tugs as the bass inhales the minnow, then turns it tail first to swallow it. Wait until you feel a steady pull on your line, then set the hook, keep a tight line and reel ‘em in!”
Large lakes and reservoirs are typically home to large shad populations, and for big bass, chasing schools of them is pretty much a daily habit.
This big shad is going to attract a big bass!
As you’d expect, shad spawn in the spring and mature in summer, and when the heat’s on, so are they! And while other anglers may struggle to find the right lure to turn on torpid summer bass, you won’t have that problem if you’re throwing shad.
I collect shad with a cast net right after sundown, when they tend to cluster in the shallows. Keep in mind that these are delicate fish and that they can’t take a beating or tolerate cold water well.
I find an aerated bucket does just fine overnight.
And of course, never fish the shad you’ve captured in any lake but the one they came from.
I’m looking for shad that are larger than minnows--I want to attract big, hungry bass, and if I wanted a smaller specimen, a flathead is perfect. I’m thinking 4 inches or more, to about as long as my hand!
I rig my shad in one of the four ways discussed above for minnows.
For shallow presentations, I run a plump shad under a slip float. For deeper water, I’ll crimp weight about a foot or two above the hook. That keeps the shad where I want it but allows it free action to attract a strike.
How much weight is determined by how big the shad is.
As with minnows, patience is key. Don’t expect to feel a hard strike, but rather a soft suck. Hold tight, let the bass really get its mouth around the shad, and then set the hook!
It’s somewhat ironic that artificial worms are insanely popular among bass anglers, while live nightcrawlers are virtually ignored.
That just doesn’t make sense to anyone but the companies that make soft plastics!
Whether I buy them or dig them up myself, I look for the biggest, fattest crawlers I can get my hands on.
Though not a natural prey item, big bass will pass up almost anything else when presented with a live nightcrawler. As Chris Wolfgram reckons, “That's reasonable since worms are high in protein; easy to swallow; lack sharp spines, bones, or claws; and are easily caught. Today, nightcrawlers are the most overlooked bait by serious anglers and trophy-bass hunters.”
One big tip can help you get the most from your nightcrawlers:
Light rods and line will allow the worm to do its thing and help you to sense the soft gulp when a bass takes its prize.
I like light power, fast action rods, and 6- to 8-pound mono or fluorocarbon. Braid can be a good choice, too, but in anything but opaque water, you’ll need a mono or fluoro leader.
Rigging and fishing live worms is pretty simple, and my favorite technique is to hook the worm through the head once or twice and crimp a bit of split shot a foot or two up the line from the hook.
My technique is essentially identical to a plastic worm: I cast, let the worm settle, and wait. Every 10 seconds or so, I’ll pop that worm off the bottom and let it settle again.
Repeat as necessary--but in my experience, it won’t take long if there are any bass around!
Frogs, salamanders, and baby catfish are also sometimes used as live bait for bass, and there’s no doubt that they work.
My reservations about recommending these are partly ethical and partly practical. Getting a ready supply of live frogs will probably be more of an adventure than the fishing itself--ditto for shad-sized catfish. And in both cases, I’m not convinced that they’re better choices than nightcrawlers, crawfish, minnow, or shad.
For my money, I’d use a good topwater frog lure and skip the live ones.
As for salamanders, there are many species that are endangered, and unless you really know what you’re looking for, you can be adding to the problem. For that reason, I’d go ahead and skip them as a live bait option and throw soft plastics designed to mimic them.
That said, this article has covered a range of serious--and effective--live bait choices, all of which will deliver big bass.
And if we’ve helped you catch a nice one, let us know!
We’d love to hear from you.