Fishing with live bait from a boat, bank, or pier is a time-honored tradition and an effective way to catch fish.
Especially for new anglers, it’s probably their first experience on the water and their initial chance to get hooked on the sport.
We love the idea of more people taking up fishing, and we’d like to help make your first trips to catch fish more productive.
To that end, we’ll explain “still fishing” and teach you everything you need to know about it in an easy-to-follow guide to get you up to speed quickly.
So if you want to learn more about still fishing, keep reading!
Table of Contents (clickable)
What is Still Fishing?
The easiest definition of still fishing is a comparison. When you fish a lure, you’re generally moving it through the water, either by reeling it toward you or with motions of your rod - or both.
In still fishing, by contrast, your bait remains still and you’re not retrieving it or moving your rod. Instead, you’re letting your live bait do all the work for you.
Now, don’t be fooled: still fishing with live bait can be incredibly effective, so you’re at no disadvantage at all if you choose this simple technique.
How to Still Fish With Live Bait
We’ve written quite a bit about live bait and bobber choice, and if you want a more advanced tutorial, check out these articles:
If you’re a new angler, it’s best if we start with the basics.
The easiest and probably most productive way to catch fish with live bait is to use a bobber or float. The idea is to suspend your bait - on a hook - to the depth where the fish are feeding.
This technique is most common when fishing panfish like sunfish, bluegill, crappie, and trout, and since nearly every lake and pond in America contains at least one of the species, there’s a good chance you’re interested in knowing how this is done.
For panfish, an ultralight or light rod is perfect. You’re looking for supreme sensitivity, enough power to fight small fish and still enjoy the thrill of the catch, and plenty of whip-like action to allow good casting.
We’ve reviewed this kind of rod before, highlighting what you want - and don’t want - in a rod of this kind.
One of our favorites is the St. Croix Premier Ultralight. At 6-feet, it’s got the length you need for longer casts, and plenty of fight for fish that are bigger than you think.
I’ve caught 3- to 4-pound bass on an ultralight, and this rod can more than take the biggest panfish out there.
If the St. Croix is a bit pricey for you, don’t worry! Bass Pro’s Micro Lite has you covered. I own and fish this rod, and it’s definitely a case of getting a lot more than you pay for!
I’d pair either of these rods with a small reel like the size 20 Pflueger President and never look back. If you wanted something a little more premium, I can’t recommend the Shimano Vanford VF500F highly enough.
It’s quite possibly the best spinning reel for freshwater ever available.
You’ll definitely want to run light monofilament for this application, and nothing beats Stren Original in 4- to 6-pound test.
It ties securely, holds fast, and can take a beating from rocks, stumps, pilings, and submerged trees.
If you want some other options check out our guide: Best Monofilament Fishing Line: Your Top Options Reviewed
Panfish have small mouths, and you need to size the hook with that in mind (with the exception of crappie).
For bluegill, sunfish, and trout, I like to use a #6 to a #10 hook, choosing baitholder styles when I’m planning on fishing with nightcrawlers. Eagle Claw’s 186 is just perfect, and there’s no reason that you can’t use it with crickets and leeches, as well.
Those rearward-facing barbs catch nightcrawlers and really hold them in place.
Crappie have small mouths, too, but very delicate “lips.” To prevent them from tearing out, you need to size up your hook, choosing something in the neighborhood of #4 to #1.
A standard red and white bobber will work fine, but they can be a challenge to cast.
Because they can’t be reeled in, you’re left with a length of line between the bobber and your hook that you sling during the cast. That’s not necessarily a big deal, but accuracy and distance are going to suffer.
We’ve all used them, and I promise you’ll catch plenty of fish with a red and white bobber!
But a better design is the slip float.
Slip floats like the Thill are designed to slide along your line, allowing much more accurate casting than the traditional bobber.
They’re very easy to set up, and we’ll explain that in the next section.
How to set up your rig
Start with a properly loaded spool:
Then, if using a slip float, slide a silicon stop or the included stop knot onto your line.
Slide the flat onto your line.
Now it’s time to attach your hook. Using the Uni Knot, attach your hook to the end of your line.
Adjust the float stop or knot to allow your hook to hang the desired distance below your float.
You may need to add a few pieces of split shot to get your baited hook to sink properly, but don’t add too much!
Live bait selection
Four types of live bait are the most common with this technique, though there are other options.
Insects are natural prey items for many species, and as any experienced angler will tell you, crickets are extremely effective as live bait. Everything from bluegill to perch will take a cricket, and bass have been known to hit them as well.
They often attract a strike immediately:
But don’t take our word for it. James T. Davis at Texas A&M reports that “Crickets generally are considered one of the most effective baits for both sunfish and catfish. They are especially effective for big bluegill in the summer and late fall.”
You can find crickets at your local bait sore, and you should arrive with a Frabill Cricket Cage Tube in hand.
This clever device lets you keep your crickets in one place, and the conical end has a stopper that allows you to shake a single cricket into your hand at a time.
Crickets are easy to rig, and they last a long time.
My favorite technique is simple.
Hold the cricket firmly but gently - you don’t want to smash it or injure it any more than necessary. Slide the point of your hook under the exoskeleton below the head, running it as shallowly as you can. Push the point back through the hard shell on the back, and push the cricket gently into place on the bend of your hook.
There are other effective ways to rig crickets, though, so watch this video for some alternatives:
Tiny wax worms are the larval stage of the wax moth (Galleria mellonella), and though they’re small, they have a scent and appearance that drives panfish wild. Probably the live bait of choice for trout, they’re no slouch on panfish of other kinds, either.
Waxworms can be found at your local bait shop, though they’re something of a regional choice.
They’re also easy to rig.
Using the same hook as you would for crickets, simply pierce the waxworm mid-body and feed it onto the hook, exposing the point. You’ll end up with both ends of the wax worm wriggling, and that’s a surefire recipe for a strike!
Nightcrawlers vie with crickets and minnows for the title of “most popular live bait.” Available in your backyard as well as in almost every bait shop, they’re easy to come by and amazingly effective.
As I mentioned above, I recommend a baitholder hook with nightcrawlers, and the #6 Eagle Claw baitholder is just perfect for a wide range of panfish.
Rigging nightcrawlers is pretty simple, but many people get it wrong. What you don’t want is a lot of hook exposed, as in the examples below:
Don’t do this!
To rig your worm correctly, start with the head of the worm and run the hook straight into the top, feeding the worm’s body onto the hook as you slip it around the bend toward the shank.
You'll notice that those upward-facing barbs let you slide that worm’s head up toward the eye - and that’s something you want to do.
Keep feeding that worm upward until you’ve got the head snug against the eye, or even over it a touch.
When you’ve got the right amount of worm on your shank, pass the point out of the worm’s body and let the rest dangle free.
This is a properly hooked worm.
A bit of worm trailing from your hook is perfect.
Now, if you’re using tiny worms, the process just starts with a pass of the hook into the body below the head and then continues as above. You’ll have some head running off to one side, too, and that’s just fine!
Minnows are ideal live bait because they’re a natural prey item, and while they’re alive and kicking, their frantic swimming brings fish running. As the bait of choice for crappie, minnows can be effective on other species as well, including smallmouth and largemouth bass, catfish, and walleye.
Two species of minnow are commonly available: the fathead and the golden shiner.
If you can find fatheads, that’s the way to go. They can take more abuse than golden shiners, tolerating heat, low oxygen, and being pierced by a hook better than other options.
Of course, you can always catch your own minnows by baiting a trap like the one offered by Frabill. That’s economical and effective, since you’re catching local prey.
But never catch minnows in one body of water and transport them to another - that’s how you introduce invasive species!
Instead, use them where you catch them.
Rigging minnows is an art, and there’s more than one way to do it.
Run your hook through the minnow’s tail between the dorsal and tail fins where there’s plenty of meat to hold it but no organs to pierce.
This is one of my favorite ways to rig a minnow as it keeps it alive the longest and drives it to swim erratically, attracting lots of attention.
A tail-hooked minnow attracts a lot of attention.
The only downside to this technique is that predators are going to hit your minnow head-first so that it can’t extend its spiny dorsal and pectoral fins. And since your hook is pretty far back along your minnow, they won’t have the hook in their mouth immediately.
The solution is simple: wait.
Just pause for a second when a fish takes your minnow, let it really get that bait into its mouth, and then set the hook.
In this technique, you run your hook through the minnow just below the dorsal fin and about ⅔ of the way up its body.
Dorsal rigging is deadly for most game fish.
The idea is to provide a firm anchor of the hook, avoid the body cavity and its organs, and leave the minnow wriggling both its head and tail.
I like this technique a lot, though there is some danger of killing your minnow quickly, especially with a heavier-diameter hook.
You can also pass the hook through the lower lip, up through the mouth, and out the upper lip. Lip hooking, as this technique is called for obvious reasons, leaves the minnow kicking furiously.
Proper technique with lip hooking is essential.
The idea is to pass the hook through the tissues of the mouth - but to avoid the brain and eyes, which are further back.
Always keep your hook’s passage well forward of the eyes; otherwise, you’ll prematurely end your minnow’s life and end up with dead rather than live bait!
Lip hooking works well with jigs, too.
Retention isn’t as secure as the other options, making it a poor choice for heavy currents.
And by pinning the minnow’s mouth closed, you reduce its ability to breathe, shortening its life on your hook.
If you pass your hook in through your minnow’s mouth and out through the top of the minnow’s head forward of the eyes, you've snout hooked it.
This technique leaves the minnow’s mouth open, allowing it to breathe - that is, live - longer.
Like lip hooking, proper technique is critical, as piercing the brain/eye area is pretty much “quits” for your live bait.
Done right, snout hooking provides long-lived minnows and fast hooksets.
Fish long enough, and you may end up with dead minnows. Or, you may need a really secure way to hook them in a strong current.
Enter the trick hook.
Simply pass your hook’s point into the mouth of your minnow and exit behind the gill plate or head.
This is going to kill a live minnow pretty quickly, but it is very strong. Your minnow will need to lose its head to lose your hook!
Still fishing with live bait isn’t just for beginners. Experienced anglers chase crappie and sunfish, trout and bluegill with live bait, sharp hooks, and slip floats every summer.
We hope that you’ve learned something from this article today and that you’re more confident rigging and fishing with live bait and floats.
As always, we’re here to answer any questions you might have, so please leave a comment below.