The Best Smallmouth Bass Bait: An Angler's Guide 

May 13, 2024 | 7 minute read Comments
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Whether you found this article because you were specifically looking for Smallmouth Bass bait or because you’re simply interested in fishing, you’re here because you want to learn. Speaking from my own experience, I’ll give you a breakdown of the best ways to get your hands on these beauties. 

A man in a baseball cap and sunglasses holds a large Smallmouth Bass on a river on a cloudy day
Photo courtesy of SR Fishing

Smallmouth Bass are tough fighters and powerful swimmers. So much so that they’re among the most sought-after fish in the freshwater angling world. They average between 2 and 3 pounds, and any Smallie that weighs over 5 pounds is generally considered to be a trophy specimen. Smallmouth Bass also pretty muscular despite their slim body type, and they have decent-sized fins and thick tails to quickly ambush prey or swim away from threats.

Of course, there’s plenty more to learn about the characteristics of Smallmouth Bass, but we’ve covered that in more detail in this article. Here, we’ll get into the good stuff. And, by that, I mean Smallmouth Bass baits!

Smallmouth Bass Bait Basics

A woman holds a Smallmouth Bass towards the camera while standing aboard a boat on a lake on a sunny day
Photo courtesy of Big Ridge River Guides

When you get out there on your Smallmouth fishing journey you need to know how to get them to bite. It should come as no surprise that your choice of Smallmouth Bass bait is critical here.

The good news is that Smallies are fans of live and artificial bait. The bad news is that they like to change their feeding habits quickly. One minute they may be hungry for a crawfish, the next, they’ll be looking for a bait fish! That means you want to stock up well with a range of baits. 

I’ll get into the specifics in a second but not before I give you one piece of advice. Don’t be fooled by the word “small” in the name Smallmouth Bass. These fish love to gulp on decent-sized bait, so you’ll want to present something decent. And, as usual, try and match the hatch. Any bait fish or imitation that mimics what’s swimming locally is a must!

Live Bait

There are plenty of popular options for live bait for Smallmouth Bass. You can get an array from most local bait shops or you can attempt to catch some on your own. Let’s take a closer look.


A closeup of a hand holding a small shiner to be used as bait fish

Shiners are a great option for live bait when Smallmouth Bass fishing. These little fish are very lively and will have no problem capturing a Bass’s attention. You can try and cast net some on your own or you can purchase some from a bait shop.


These are another lovely bait choice. Hungry Smallmouth love to slurp down on Minnows! They’re a bit on the smaller side but you’ll be surprised when you see a large Bass bite.

Other Bait Fish

There are plenty of other small fish species that are effective bait for Smallmouth Bass. You’ll probably come across a bunch as you get out there! Just be sure to look at your region’s regulations to understand the rules for using certain species for bait.


A closeup of a cage full of crickets aboard a boat, ready to be used as bait for fishing

Moving away from fish, some anglers swear by crickets. The best way to present these as bait is by placing the hook through the back of the head so they can still maneuver around. You can easily walk into a pet store and purchase crickets. You can try to catch your own, too, but it may be a little difficult and take a while.


What most consider to be gross and dirty creatures, Smallmouths consider a tasty treat! Maggots are on the list of favorable baits for Smallmouth Bass, and you can find luck if you’re using them as bait. They may be pretty yucky to touch but, once you get your hands on the big Bass they bring in, you’ll understand why so many people use them.


Is there anything creepier than maggots? Well, hellgrammites sure give them a run for their money! These bugs are pretty creepy-looking and have long, spiky legs. They also have very strong jaws and can pinch you if you’re not careful.


A closeup of a worm being spiked, ready to be used as bait for Smallmouth Bass

This classic bait option has been around for many years and plenty of anglers have plenty of experience with them. You can dig these critters up yourself if you’re feeling earthy or head to a bait shop, as most have containers of worms you can buy.


One thing about Smallmouth Bass is that they love a little variety. They love crustaceans, so you can land them with a mixture of shrimp, crawfish, crabs, and more. Depending on where you’re located, you may be able to find crustaceans in nearby sand or dirt. Be sure to check with your local bait shops too!

Artificial Bait 

A close up of an angler's hand holding a Smallmouth Bass with an artificial lure hanging out of the corner of its mouth
Photo courtesy of David Holmes Guiding LLC

But that’s not all. As I already said, Smallmouth Bass bite artificials too. And a lot of fishermen are big fans of lures because they can be used repeatedly. You can also whip them out quickly without having to spend time or money locating or buying some! Here are some popular Smallmouth Bass artificial lures:

  • Soft plastics and jig heads are probably the most common artificial approaches to Smallmouth Bass fishing. Why? Well, first, there’s a never-ending supply of different styles, colors, and sizes to choose from. And second, you can mimic the looks and appearances of a Bass’s favorite bait without having to deal with catching it.  
  • Weedless baits also come in handy when Bass fishing because there are typically a bunch of plants and structures near Bass habitats. With these baits, you can cast and reel as much as you need without worrying about your hook snagging on something.
  • Topwater lures are amongst my personal favorite artificial baits because you can watch all the action at the surface. When you jerk your bait along the water top and listen to that clicking sound, your heart will race once you see that wake come up behind it. Things get even more intense once the fish lunges at the bait.
  • Jigs are helpful when trying to reach Smallmouth below the surface. With their flashy, loud movements and various colors, it’s sure to catch the attention of nearby Bass.
  • Crankbaits. With a crankbait, you have a piece of plastic that’s meant to resemble a bait fish, with a long lip attached to the “mouth” area. It almost looks like a little duck’s mouth! Crankbaits also have the ability to wobble all around to appear more lively and entice Smallmouth to eat.

How to Use Smallmouth Bass Baits

A view along the side of a boat of a young girl casting for a Smallmouth Bass from a boat on a lake on a sunny day
Photo courtesy of Long Line Charters – 23′

But how to utilize the baits I’ve mentioned above? A big piece of advice I can give you is to cast near any structure such as fallen tree branches, as well as near vegetation like lily pads. You can also check for fish beds along the shorelines of the body of water, that you’re fishing. Typically, this is where most Smallmouth hang out.

For live bait, once you cast and get settled in your spot, let the bait do the work and wait for the Smallmouth to come to you. Once you feel a thump, wait a couple of seconds to ensure the hook is in its mouth before you set it. 

It’s similar when artificial fishing, except you put the work in to get the bite. Whether you’re bouncing your jig on the bottom or walking your top water across the surface, it’s a rewarding feeling when the work you put in pays off.

Some days you may bring in 20 fish in under 10 minutes, while other days you may be going on 3 hours without a bite. That’s just part of the challenge! Just remember, patience and consistency are key.

An angler's hand holds a Smallmouth Bass by the side of a boat next to a fishing rod and spinning reel as well as a release net
Photo courtesy of Hooked on Niagara – Lake Erie

Since you’re learning about the best bait for Smallmouth Bass, it’s beneficial you learn about the most useful gear too. While Smallmouth Bass aren’t very large fish, they fight hard and are pretty darn strong. With that being said, you don’t need heavy-duty gear. But it’s a good idea to have a setup that can withstand tough fights. Using a light or medium rod with a 2000 reel is perfect for Smallmouth Bass.

When it comes to tour line, braid, and fluorocarbon leader, 8 pounds or more is a good start. For hooks, 1/0 or 2/0 is good sizing. A lot of Smallmouth Bass anglers like to use rigs such as the drop shot rig. If you’re interested in using rigs, do a quick search online and you’ll come across plenty more Smallmouth rigs, as well as instructions on how to make them.  

One more thing to note about recommended gear when Smallmouth Bass fishing – you may need a fishing license. Most areas require licenses when freshwater fishing, so just check with your state’s fish and wildlife conservation to be sure.

You’re All Set to Get In on the Fun!

A happy angler on a boat on a shallow river holds a large Smallmouth Bass that still has the artificial lure in its mouth that was used to catch it
Photo courtesy of David Holmes Guiding LLC

These feisty fish are ones to be reckoned with, but now you know how to outsmart them. Make use of the information I’ve shared on the best bait to use and you’re sure to enjoy every minute of your fishing adventure. I hope for tight lines for those who are heading out to the water soon! There’s no time like the present!

What’s your personal best Smallmouth Bass? What bait do you prefer? Leave a photo and description in the comments below! 

Author profile picture

Hi! My name is Caitlyn Gatrell and I'm an outdoor writer and inshore saltwater angler based in Naples, Florida. My fishing is typically done in the Ten Thousand Islands region, as well as the Estero, Naples, and Marco Island areas, along with some Florida Keys trips here and there. I typically target game fish such as Tarpon, Snook, and Redfish, as well as some Jack Crevalle, Seatrout, Goliath Grouper, and Sharks. I have been involved in the fishing field since I was a little girl, and my passion has only grown since I’ve gotten older.

Comments (4)


May 19, 2024

Ned rig….20″ 3+ lbs….used to slay Canadian smaillies on rapala silver/ black back original minnows ( jerk bait)

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May 6, 2024

Whacky rigged senko style baits are deadly.

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May 4, 2024

I would love to know where you fish if you think the average weight of a smallmouth is 5lbs?? That is a trophy fishy just about everywhere. Smallmouth average 12 to 14 inches most everywhere i have fished in my home state of va.. I am a trophy fish hunter for smallmouth bass and the 5lbers are hard to come by with my personal best 5lb 15 ounce fish that measured 23.75 inces and witnessing 7.5lb. Like i said i live and fish in va. Where do you fish?

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    May 13, 2024

    Hi Brian,

    Thanks for taking the time to share you thoughts. And you’re completely right! I don’t think there’s any lake out there where Smallmouth average 5 pounds. 🙂 Even on Lake St. Clair, which is arguably the best Smallie fishery right now, the average is about 3 pounds.

    We’ve edited the article so it correctly states the average and trophy weights.

    Thanks again for getting in touch.

    Tight lines,


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