If you list the many things that new anglers need to master, you’ll find live bait near the top.
Often the most productive means to get fish biting, the right live bait, rigged properly, is fundamental to successful fishing. And as complicated as the subject might seem at first, we’ll help you break it down, get a handle on the common choices, and teach you the best ways to present each of them.
Table of Contents (clickable)
Common Fishing Bait Types
If there’s something big bluegill can’t resist, it’s a fat cricket kicking its legs for all its worth.
That’s no exaggeration. I’ve thrown crickets under a bobber and had bluegill after bluegill strike the moment my bait hit the water!
If that sounds hard to believe, check out this video:
Experts like James T. Davis at Texas A&M agree. As he says, “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.”
So don’t let anyone try to convince you that insects are “second best” live bait choices.
Crickets are stocked by virtually every bait shop in the country, and all you need to take them with you is a cricket cage like the Frabill Cricket Cage Tube.
It’s easy to fill at the store, small, and lightweight, and it allows you easy access to your crickets on the water.
Crickets are very easy to rig.
My favorite technique is simple.
Hold the cricket firmly but gently - you don’t want to smash it or injure it anymore 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:
I like to use a long-shank hook like the Mustad Classic Cricket in #6 or #8.
I prefer to rig my crickets below a slip float, weighting the line with split shot to allow me enough weight for an actual cast. We’ve written about the advantages of slip floats before, and from easy, accurate casting to simple adjustments in depth, they’re the way to go when rigging crickets for panfish.
My pick is the Thill Pro Series Slip Float. It’s easy to use, very high quality, and with just a touch of lead on the line, it casts like a dream with a kicking cricket underneath.
Wax worms aren’t worms at all, but rather the larval stage of the wax moth (Galleria mellonella). Especially popular with anglers chasing trout on clear, cool streams, they can also be effective on panfish like bluegill.
The unique scent and appearance of wax worms works magic on fish, and you can count on strike after strike with this live bait:
They’re widely available in bait shops, inexpensive, and easy to transport and handle. Just be aware that they’re not particularly hardy, and once they die, they’re not nearly as effective.
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!
Just as for crickets, I recommend you throw your wax worms beneath a high-quality slip float, using just a touch of split shot to weight your hook.
Pretty much every bait shop sells nightcrawlers, but they’re also easy to find in your own backyard, making them a very popular live bait choice.
And trust me, a writhing nightcrawler is nothing short of amazing at catching everything from panfish to channel cats.
Just watch these freshwater drum hammer nightcrawlers on a river:
And while any hook can hold a worm, the baitholder hook is just perfect. Its barbs help keep your worm in place during the cast, and tiny bait-stealing fish have a hard time stripping your nightcrawler off your hook.
For bluegill and other sunfish, give a #6 Eagle Claw baitholder a try.
They come pre-snelled, meaning that they’re attached to a short length of tough leader, allowing them to be easily attached to the end of your line.
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:
These are both great examples of WHAT NOT TO DO.
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 the kind of thing you’re looking for.
You want a bit of worm dangling off the end of the hook while keeping the point exposed.
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!
But for catfish, you’ll want to run a treble hook. For eating-size channel cats, treble hooks in the neighborhood of #2, #4, #6, and #8 are just right.
I prefer a Mustad Classic Treble Standard Strength or channel catfish, as the extra durability of thick-gauge hooks just isn't necessary.
You’ll want to use the biggest nightcrawlers you can buy or find, and you’ll need quite a few.
With your treble hook in one hand, wrap, pierce, and hook three, four, or even five nightcrawlers, doing everything you can to keep them attached to the hook. It doesn’t need to look pretty - just get the worms attached.
You’re just looking for a big mess of nightcrawlers to create enough scent to attract smell-oriented channel catfish.
I rig my nightcrawlers under a big slip float like the Billy Boy, rigging it to suspend my hook about a foot off the bottom.
I’ll attach enough split shot to my line to allow me to cast as far as I need - and don’t worry, catfish won’t be scared off by the weight!
If there’s something that all walleye fisherman can agree on, it’s that leeches are a nearly magical live bait choice.
Popular anywhere wallies are found, the humble leech is hard to beat. It wriggles and oozes scent, ringing the dinner bell and summoning big fish from far and wide. And as many veteran anglers can attest, when the fishing gets slow, swapping to a live leech can turn things around.
Leeches have proven themselves to be exceptionally versatile, and from trolling to jigging, weightless presentations to slip floats, there’s no wrong way to fish one.
Leeches are easy to find at bait shops anywhere walleye are popular, and you’ll find them in four common sizes: medium, large, extra-large, and jumbo. It’s a good idea to ask the good folks at your bait shop about the size of the walleye being caught where you plan to fish. Match the leech size to the walleye you plan to catch and you’ll have a great time on the water.
When in doubt, buy plenty of each size and experiment.
For new anglers, two techniques really stand out, and we’ll discuss both.
The first is the same basic technique you’d use for nightcrawlers or crickets: a hook suspended under a slip float.
The best hook for leeches is undoubtedly an octopus-style option. Its pronounced bend brings the point back toward the shank, allowing the hook to bite without any need to set it.
Rigging a leech is simple. The leech has a fat end and a skinny end; the fat end is used to attach itself to objects, while the skinny end does the feeding.
Grab the leech by the fat end and pass your hook through its body just above the “tail.” This leaves the leech alive and encourages it to swim for all it’s worth.
Suspend your leech beneath a good slip float, and add just enough split shot to allow you to cast where you need to.
The second technique is even more simple. Using a 1/16-ounce jig head, rig the leech just as described above. Then, cast your rig near weed beds and other cover that holds fish.
Lift your rod gently and pull the leech off the bottom, reel a few turns, and let it drop again. Work slowly, and many fish will hit your leech on the fall. You can also gently vibrate the jig with short motions of your wrist, setting the leech dancing as you pull it along the bottom.
Among crappie fishermen, minnows are revered as the live bait choice without equal. They’re also effective on everything from smallmouth bass to catfish, too.
You’ll find two kinds in your local bait store: the fathead and the golden shiner.
If fatheads are available, they’re the better choice. They’re more robust than golden shiners, and they can tolerate heat, low oxygen, and sharp hooks for longer than their alternative. And since live minnows move and swim, attracting more attention than when they’re dead, robustness matters.
You can always choose to catch your own minnows, baiting a trap like the one offered by Frabill, and that can be super effective as you’ll be offering fish a meal they see regularly.
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 isn’t rocket science.
For crappie, you’ll want to switch to a very different hook than you might use for other panfish.
Crappie have earned the nickname “papermouths” for their large and delicate mouths. And while you might bait a #6 or #7 hook for bluegill, I typically throw a #2 and #4 hook, moving up to a #1 for really big minnows. In short, the first thing to note is that you should use a larger hook for crappie than you would for other fish of the same general size.
The second point to note is that crappie love structure like brush piles and blowdowns. Using a thin wire Aberdeen hook is going to help you a lot when you inevitably get hung up. Instead of breaking off your line, you can pull the hook free and reshape it with a pair of pliers once it’s back in hand.
That thin-wire construction is also going to extend the life of your minnows, which is always a good thing.
I like to run my minnows under a slip float, rigging them just like I would for bluegill.
Now, there are a number of different ways you can rig a minnow, and it’s worth reviewing your options:
- Tail hooking - To tail hook a minnow, run the point through the minnow’s tail between the dorsal and tail fins. You’re looking for the spot where there’s plenty of meat to secure your hook, but no delicate organs to pierce.
Your minnow will be alive and kicking for quite a while rigged like this, and it’ll be encouraged to swim away from the hook, causing erratic motions and lots of action.
Keep in mind, however, that crappie and other fish take minnows head first to avoid their spines. You’ll need to pause after the strike, give the ish a chance to really take your hook, and only then move to set it.
That pause is essential, and if you wait just a heartbeat, you’ll lock them up tight!
- Dorsal hooking - To dorsal hook a minnow, run the point through the flesh just under the fin along its back. You want to bury your hook through the meat below the fin, not in the fin itself.
If you do this right, your hook will be held fast but miss the minnow’s organs, keeping it alive and kicking.
Thin wire Aberdeen hooks are great for this technique, as thicker options can kill your minnows quickly with dorsal hooking.
- Lip hooking - To lip hook a minnow, pass the point under the lower jaw and out through the upper jaw forward of the minnow’s eyes.
Don’t do this!
You want to miss the minnow’s brain - you’re just looking for mouth tissue here.
If you do hit the brain or eyes, you’ll end up with a dead minnow, and that’s not ideal when you’re looking for live bait!
This technique is great for encouraging erratic action, but it isn’t as secure as the options above. That can lead to trouble in rivers, where the current can pull your minnow free.
It can also impair your minnow’s breathing, shortening its life on your hook.
But it places the hook right where it can do the most good, and a lip-hooked minnow is simply great for attracting bites.
- Snout hooking - An alternative to lip hooking is snout hooking, where you pass the point in through the minnow’s open mouth and up and out the upper lip forward of the eyes.
Like lip hooking, this isn’t as secure as meatier options, but it does put the hook right where you want it. And unlike lip hooking, the minnow is free to open its mouth and gulp oxygen-rich water, keeping it swimming longer.
- Trick hooking - If you end up with a mess of dead minnows, don’t worry.
To trick hook a dead minnow, pass your hook’s point into its mouth and push it through behind its gill plate or head.
I don’t recommend this technique with live minnows, as it will kill them very quickly. But when all you’ve got is dead minnows, or you really need a secure hold in a hard current, the trick hook gets the job done.
For a closer look at some of these techniques, check out this video:
If you’re not fishing for crappie, don’t worry! These are general hooking techniques that will work for any fish species you’re chasing.
If you’re new to fishing, using live bait may seem complicated. But with a little forethought, you can master your live bait options, dramatically improving your odds of a successful day on the water.
As always, we’re here to help you and answer any questions you might have.
Please leave a comment below, and we’ll be in touch!