If you are like me, the first time you went fishing you had nothing more than a rod and some worms. Perhaps it was a relative who took you and maybe that relative didn't fish very often but took a couple of hours to take you for the first time. Or perhaps they were a passionate fisherman who was smart enough to know that worms and live bait would make the best first experience for you.
As I grew and continued to pursue my newly found passion, I mostly did it the way I was shown that first time. I looked for bait (worms, grasshoppers, or minnows) and I headed for the river. By that time I had traded my bobber for a sinker because my friends and I believed this was the 'adult' way to fish. After all, everybody knew that the really big fish live low and deep, right?
I remember the first time that I saw someone fish with an artificial lure and I have to admit I was a bit skeptical. A family friend had bought me a fish lure and took the time to show us how to use it. While I watched him cast and reel over and over again, I began feeling embarrassed for him. After all, he'd been duped. Everybody knew that you caught fish on worms.
Suddenly his rod doubled over and he reeled in a largemouth bass so big that we didn't think it could have possibly lived in the small pond that we were fishing in. Suddenly my fishing world had changed and what I thought I knew was turned upside down.
Many years have passed since then and I've spent many hours fishing for a multitude of species in a multitude of locations. In fact, if there's a body of water large enough to wade in, sooner or later I'm going to want to fish in it. But with what? Do artificial baits work better than live bait or should we all just drop everything and go back to searching for worms with our coffee cans?
The short answer, like many questions in life, is that it all depends on the situation. It depends on the species that you are fishing for, the manner in which you are fishing and the time of the year and even the water and weather conditions.
There's probably not very many people who would disagree that if you want to catch large numbers of fish, regardless of how small they are, live bait is the way to go. Live bait will outfish artificial, in most circumstances, nearly every time. This is why if you are trying to get a child interested in fishing then your best bet is live bait.
Children, like some adults that I know, have very short attention spans. They will try anything once or maybe twice. This means that perhaps you've got two chances to show your small protégé how fun fishing can be before he adds the experience into the same category as a pop-quiz in school. That's why most of us started out fishing that way. Some older person in our life either knew that this method was going to be the best chance for us to catch fish or we lucked out because they had never fished any other way.
Artificial baits begin to shine when you are targeting a specific species of fish as well as those of a certain size. After all, literally any fish will eat worms and once you tire of cycling between bluegills, catfish, and whatever other species might be living in the same water, there really is no other option. You have to either break out some lures or go home.
Man-made baits allow you to carefully tune your efforts for specific species and size and in addition to that, they allow you to compensate for otherwise poor fishing conditions. Perhaps the water is too muddy, or it was particularly cold the night before, you can compensate for that. When your live bait would be bobbing around getting water logged, your pink jerk bait can be hooking fish. It's for this reason that if you fish for very long, your tackle box will continue to grow as you add to your tools and options for overcoming different conditions and begin targeting different species.
The beauty of fishing with live bait is that it is very relaxing. It's also very economical. In fact, some people who have fished their entire life would find it difficult to fish any other way and purposely avoid falling into the 'one more spinner' trap that many of us do. All you really need is a good fishing chair, some bait and a hand full of replacement hooks. You can then sit back, unwind, and wait for the fish to find you.
At some point, though, you will find yourself sitting on the bank and wondering "Why aren't they biting?" What could you do differently and is there a way to catch fish at all or are they just "not biting?" That's when you get caught up in the puzzle. You see, as much as anything else, fishing is a puzzle. It's a game of searching for patterns and then staying with that pattern until it stops working and then you start looking for the next pattern all over again.
Patterns can be anything. It could be a pattern indicator if you are fishing with live bait and get bites using minnows while your friend gets no interest at all with his worms. Or it could be slow-crawling a texas rigged plastic worm on the bottom of a lake after a cold front has moved through as opposed to burning spinners past the brush along the bank. Once you figure it out, you start catching fish.
Patterns change with the conditions and as soon as the temperature rises or drops, currents change with a different wind or the sun has moved behind a cloudy sky, it's likely time to start looking for the next pattern. Artificial fishermen are problem solvers and they love the challenge of trying to unwind the mystery of "what the fish want". Live bait fishermen are looking for tranquility and relaxation.
However there are always exceptions and sometimes live bait can be a tool in even the most ardent lure fisherman's toolkit. In this case, it isn't an 'either-or' thing, it's an 'and' thing. I'll give you an example.
Walleye are a particular species of fish that will bite in cold water when most other species will not. They love murky water due to their superior eyesight and if you happen to have locations in your area where you can go fishing for them you will most likely do it with a jig (artificial lure) that is tipped with a worm or a minnow. Live bait can augment the effectiveness of artificials by trying to get the advantages of both.
If you want to catch really large bass, either smallmouth or largemouth, there is an old saying that "Big baits catch big fish". There are times, of course, when this is not always true but there are days when it very much is. If you are fishing with a 3" plastic worm and are being harassed to the point of insanity by small bass, simply move to a bigger plastic worm! That's the kind of flexibility and the fine-tuning abilities you gain from artificial bait that you cannot get from live bait.
The reverse can also be true. If you are a musky fisherman and have been throwing an 8’’ crank bait so long that your arm is numb and still have not had a bite, try hooking a small bluegill or carp and using it for bait. That might just be the "pattern" of the day.
Another example is trying to find something to fish for in the cold winter months. You can always take up fly fishing if you're so inclined and go after trout (they love frigid waters) but there is another option. Catfish are one of the few fish, in the northeast where I live, that will feed all year long. The magic of catfish is that they are roamers. They drift around on the bottom of the river or lake (very slowly when they are cold) until they find something that looks edible. This makes them a great fish to target in the winter because sooner or later they will make their way to you and your live bait. You'll need a lot of patience and there are some tactics you can use to increase your odds but it's very doable.
So the problem with our original question of which type of bait is most likely to outfish the other is that the question itself is flawed. As fishermen, we should not see the two as incompatible but as complimenting each other in the right conditions or when targeting a specific species.
If you are an artificial angler and you just can't get a bite, try tipping your lures with live bait. If you are a bait fisherman and can't seem to get a bite in your favorite fishing hole, tie on a spinner and try reeling it in at different speeds until you figure out which speed works. Think of live bait as just another lure in your tackle box.