Best Bait for Saltwater Fishing: A Beginner's Guide

May 31, 2024 | 9 minute read
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Saltwater fishing is a beloved activity wherever there’s a sea or ocean around the world. It offers the thrill of the catch in unpredictable waters, making for lifelong memories. With an endless list of species awaiting their chance to eat a tasty snack, you’ll have plenty of opportunities for a great day’s fishing. However, success doesn’t only depend on skill and patience but also your choice of saltwater fishing bait. 

A view from behind of a man surf fishing into the oncoming waves on a beach in Redondo Beach, Florida on a clear day

In this article, I’ll dive into some of the best baits for saltwater fishing, giving you some insights and tips to enhance your fishing experience. I’ll also go over influential factors such as various environments, weather conditions, and different techniques to use. Now let’s get started so we can increase your chances of landing your next prized catch!

Understanding Saltwater Fishing Baits

Knowing what’s the best bait for saltwater fishing involves understanding the species you’re going to catch and the techniques best to catch them. Starting with inshore fishing, popular species include Redfish, Snook, Tarpon, Trout, Flounder, and Striped Bass. These are special favorites in my native waters of the Atlantic Ocean – including the Gulf of Mexico. You can free-line inshore baits – usually with a sinker in flowing water – or try drifting them across a flat or area with structure. Fly fishing and sight fishing are also a huge hit when it comes to fishing these areas.

An angler wades through shallow water close to shore holding a fly rod ready to go fly fishing

Offshore, you’ll be pursuing larger game fish, all the way up to Tuna, Marlin, Mahi-Mahi, and Sailfish. Techniques vary from bottom fishing with cut bait for Snapper and Grouper to trolling with rigged baits or lures for larger pelagic species. Kite fishing and jigging are also popular methods, especially for sport fish like Kingfish. 

But the technique doesn’t just depend on the species you’re targeting. You’ll want to take into account other variables, such as the weather. Overcast, cooler, windy, and rainy days are generally better for inshore fishing. With a break from the sun, inshore fish are more active and willing to consume your bait. On calmer, hotter days, predators may be heading offshore to reach cooler temperatures, and therefore deeper waters may produce better results.

In addition, the tide can impact your fishing results too. Higher tides bring species more inshore and on the search for crustaceans and smaller bait fish. Vice versa, lower tides will push bait and species out. 

Best Real Bait for Saltwater Fishing

Selecting the best bait for saltwater fishing can make all the difference in your angling success, whether you’re fishing inshore or offshore. It’s time to dive into the best baits for saltwater fishing and see why they’ve gained such a reputation. 

Mullet

A closeup of a hand holding a sliced finger mullet, ready to be used as bait during a night fishing trip, with a couple of other mullets on the wooden table next to it

Mullet is an excellent choice of bait for saltwater fishing. You can find them pretty easily, as they often stroll along beaches, islands, and mangrove lines. 3″ mullet are perfect for casting along the mangroves, while larger ones are great to throw in deep cuts. I often freeline them and, at times, I use a sinker if there’s a strong current. Snook, Redfish, Tarpon, Jack Crevalle, and Mangrove Snapper are just a few saltwater species that love mullet. You can also take the big boys offshore, where hungry Grouper and Sharks will easily strike.

Pilchards

Like mullet, you can easily capture some Pilchards with your own cast net. To find large pilchards, head towards pilings, reefs, and nearshore points. You can also find some smaller ones inshore near islands and within the mangroves. This bait is highly effective in mangroves, where nice Snook and hungry Snapper will eat them up. Larger ones are a treat for Tarpon in the backwater cuts too. 

Threadfin

Threadfin are very similar to pilchards, with the exception of being bigger and having a greenback. Part of the herring family, these fish are great bait for large Snook in mangroves or offshore reefs and wrecks. I can attest that a large shiny bait like this will also attract bigger game fish. If you can get some for your next fishing outing, you might feel that thump and quick drag scream – making your heart race, for sure!

Crabs

A crab being suspended mid-air from a fishing line, as it's being used as bait in an inshore fishing area

There are quite a few different crab species that are productive for saltwater fishing. Fiddler crabs are easily grabbed along the beaches, while blue crabs are particularly effective for attracting pelagic species like Tuna. Pass crabs, often used in channels around the Florida Keys, for example, are an amazing tool for Tarpon fishing. Crabs are also near the top of the favorite list for other inshore species like Black Drum and Sheepshead. 

Minnows

A versatile and effective bait for saltwater fishing, minnows are suitable for both inshore and offshore use. Small live minnows, such as mud minnows, are excellent for targeting species like Trout and Flounder inshore. Your best bet is to fish them around grassy flats, oyster beds, docks, and areas with structure. 

Offshore, larger minnows also entice a variety of species, especially when fished around reefs and wrecks. Their liveliness and natural scent make them a go-to choice for plenty of anglers. Whether free-lined or used with a sinker, they’re sure to bring in some action.

Squid

A Striped Bass held by an angler with squid hanging out of its mouth

Another effective bait for saltwater fishing is squid, known for its versatility and appeal to a wide range of species. It has a strong scent and tough texture that attracts offshore predators such as Mahi Mahi and Marlin. The best methods out there are jigging and trolling. Meanwhile, inshore, squid is commonly attached to popping corks and bottom fished

Ballyhoo

If you’re looking to fish offshore, ballyhoo should be in your livewell. Large ones are very appealing to Sailfish, Marlin, and Mahi Mahi thanks to their shininess and fast swimming skills. They skim across the water which highly attracts game fish. You can rig them to float, with a skirt, or free-line them. And you can also use them around structure, within currents, or by nearshore flats. 

Shrimp

A closeup of a shrimp being held by the fingertips of an angler, preparing to use it as bait with a blurry wooden dock and two fishing rods visible in the distance, along with water

A classic saltwater fishing bait, shrimp is always a good option. You can get them at any bait ship or frozen at most grocery stores, and they’re not too costly for a large amount either. Pretty much any species will bite shrimp if they’re in the mood for it. One species that loves shrimp is Tripletail, however. Throwing live shrimp at buoys offshore is a great way to ensure a good day on the water. 

Bonito

A game fish in its own right, bonito is also an exceptional bait for offshore fishing. Their oily and smelly nature attracts large game fish such as Tuna and Marlin, and, of course, the tax man! You can also use chunks as chum, which may produce a feeding frenzy and increase your chances of a prized catch. They’re very effective when you troll them fast, but you can also throw them near structure. 

That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the best real saltwater baits. I suggest you try a variety of the ones I’ve listed – and others – at your favorite spots to see which ones entice the local fish. In the end, it often comes down to personal preference!

Best Artificial Bait for Saltwater Fishing

A large summer Flounder on the floor of a boat with a bucktail jig lure in its mouth

Artificial baits offer a different but effective alternative to live and cut bait, with various types tailored to different fishing environments and target species. Soft plastic lures such as paddle tails and flukes are popular for their lifelike action, attracting species such as Redfish, Trout, and Snook. They’re great in mangroves, flats, backwaters, and around docks and jetties. Meanwhile, topwater plugs and jerkbaits are excellent for provoking aggressive strikes from game fish like Tarpon and Jacks. 

Offshore, larger artificials such as trolling plugs and jigs that bait fish are great for bigger speices. Tuna, Sailfish, Marlin, and Mahi Mahi lurk around in open water and around reefs and drop-offs in search of their next meal. Offshore lures are known for their vibrant colors, reflectiveness, and realistic movements. By matching the right artificial bait to your fishing location and targeted species, you’ll be in for a day of action.

If you want to know more about the best saltwater lures, check out our dedicated article, which takes a closer look at everything you can use!

Tips and Tricks for Using Bait When Saltwater Fishing

A photo featuring an angler standing on a charter boat while the boat is moving and trolling

You can come out successful when fishing using a number of techniques tailored to your target species, environment, and conditions. When inshore and nearshore fishing, free-lining live bait such as mullet, pilchards, or crabs with light to medium tackle is effective. Drift fishing near mangroves and jetties during a strong outgoing tide can also be productive. The same goes for walking topwater plugs across calm, overcast mornings and evenings. Game fish like Snook, Redfish, and Tarpon peruse flats, mangroves, and beaches, making these areas hotspots for action.

In contrast, offshore fishing techniques often involve trolling or bottom fishing. Trolling with ballyhoo or squid is a prime method for attracting fast-moving species like Tuna, Marlin, and Mahi Mahi. Bottom fishing around reefs and wrecks with cut bait or live threadfin and mullet is excellent for catching Snapper and Amberjack. Chumming is another way to quickly attract the attention of nearby fish, as well as jigging, with its flashy movements. 

Fishing an outgoing tide on a calm day, especially with live bait, significantly increases your chances of success. And that means a more enjoyable experience on the water!

Saltwater Bait Fishing Spots: What Works Where

Two anglers on a skiff fishing boat in the calm backcountry waters of Florida, with mangrove-lined shores either side of them, as one man is polling the boat from the rear and another is preparing to cast a fly fishing line
Photo courtesy of Capt. Larry Sydnor – Spin & Fly Poling Guide

To ensure a rewarding day on the water, it’s essential to know where to deploy your bait. Inshore, estuaries, mangroves, flats, and backwater bays are prime locations to fish. Bait such as mullet, pilchards, and shrimp are particularly effective for targeting species such as Snook, Redfish, and Tarpon. These areas provide abundant cover and food sources, especially during high tide. 

Looking at offshore areas, reefs, wrecks, and deep-sea structures are ideal spots to use ballyhoo, threadfin, squid, and mackerel. These baits are excellent for luring in hungry game fish like Snapper, Grouper, Tuna, and Marlin. The nutrient-rich waters around these structures create a very lively ecosystem where predatory fish feed. 

Let’s take a quick look at some of the world’s best locations to use the baits I’ve mentioned above:

Florida Keys

An aerial view of Key West, with a cruise ship docked in the foreground of the image, the town on the right, and numerous islands dotted in the crystal clear waters all the way to the horizon

The Florida Keys are world-renowned, with some of the best fishing in the world. This counts for both inshore and offshore fishing, with action everywhere. From fishing the inshore channels and flats for huge Tarpon to battling feisty Sailfish in thousands of feet of water, the opportunities are endless. 

Outer Banks, NC

An aerial photo of the Outer Banks near Nags Head in North Carolina with afishing pier visible in the foreground and the sounds visible in the distance on a clear day

The Outer Banks and their surrounding areas are great locations to find large Redfish and Black Drum in the inlets and marshes. Live shrimp and crabs attract them, as well as species like Trout and Flounder. You could also find yourself battling large Blue Marlin and Tuna in the offshore waters while trolling or jigging some bigger bait. 

Costa Rica

A photo of the Jaco Beach in Costa Rica taken from distance between two shrubs, with the beautiful turquoise waters visible as the beach curves in a crescent shape.

A beautiful, exotic location to experience some surreal saltwater fishing, Costa Rica is home to plenty of game fish. Tarpon and Roosterfish reign supreme in the local inshore waters, growing to impressive sizes. The geography here is a little different, with a mix of environments, such as volcanoes, islands, and mangroves. There’s plenty of structure around where hungry predators lurk – and the deep waters hold some of the greatest saltwater pelagic fish around. 

Cairns, Australia 

A photo of a lone angler standing on the shore and fishing at sunset in Queensland

This city sits right by one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems, the Great Barrier Reef. This zone blooms with life as species both small and large co-exist together to create a beautiful underwater world. There are tons of fish to come across at the reef such as Trout, Grouper, Snapper, Mackerel, Trevally, Barramundi, and more. Huge Marlin also lurk near the reef, where trolling and jigging are highly effective in bringing them in. 

Remember, though, the earth is over 97% saltwater. You have endless chances to get out there and hook up to some awesome saltwater fish! 

The Best Baits for Saltwater Fishing: Now You Know

A group photo of six anglers posing with their fish caught during a deep sea fishing trip on the wooden dock of Tybee Island Marina
Photo courtesy of Southern Saltwater Adventure

Choosing the right bait is key for a successful saltwater fishing trip, whether you’re angling inshore or venturing offshore. Factoring in the habitats and preferences of your target species, as well as the weather and tide conditions will help you select the most effective bait. From the versatility of shrimp and mullet inshore to the proven effectiveness of ballyhoo and squid offshore, the right bait will make all the difference. 

With the knowledge and techniques you’ve learned in this article, you’re well-equipped to pick the best bait for your saltwater fishing trip. So grab a rod, pick your choice of bait, and happy fishing!

What’s your go-to bait for saltwater fishing? Have you got some other suggestions? Let us know in the comments below – we love hearing from you!

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.

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