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Top 10 live baits for inshore saltwater fishing

A hooked mud minnow.
A hooked mud minnow.
Jeffrey Weeks

Although lures have come a long way there are times that nothing beats live bait when inshore fishing. Saltwater anglers have a lot of choices when it comes to which live bait to choose for which fish, and they like to rig it many ways including on Carolina (fishfinder) rigs, under floats, or on fixed bottom rigs.

Below are the top 10 inshore saltwater live baits used along the coast:

10. Small croakers

Little croaker are surprisingly effective and hardy bait for big inshore fish. They are especially loved by trophy speckled trout. Many folks believe the "golden" color croaker that occur in some waters are the best to use for bait. They are also very good for big doormat flounder. In some states you can't use them, though, as croaker come with a size limit of their own.

9. Earthworms

That’s right, plain old garden variety earthworms make a fine saltwater bait for panfish like spot, croaker, sea mullet, and pigfish and will even catch the occasional redfish or flounder. You can cut them up if they are nightcrawlers, but whole redworms work best as they continue to move for a bit. Earthworms are one of the oldest and best pier baits during the fall Carolina spot run.

8. Fiddler crabs

Fiddlers are easy to gather (their little pinchers don't hurt) and make a strong, cheap bait when fished near pilings for sheepshead. Hook them any old way, and use just enough lead to get the fiddler in the sheepshead feeding zone, which is usually from the bottom to halfway up the water column.

The bite of a sheepshead is one of the most difficult of all fish to detect, so if you feel anything, like vibrations on the line, set the hook! Fiddle crabs will also catch the occasional redfish, black drum or flounder.

7. Small spot

Small spot are a bait very similar to croaker, and an even better bait for big doormat flounder. Fish them on the bottom near structure. Again, some states have size limits on spot so make sure they are legal to use, and some fishermen don't like to use spot as bait to help preserve the stock. Will also attract redfish and speckled trout.

6. Sand fleas

These little diggers are beloved by kids who like to gather them at the surf line. If you have some youngsters get them out there with a bucket, since sand fleas (sometimes called sand fiddlers) make great baits for the delicious pompano.

If you don't have kids around they sand fleas can be gathered up with special rakes available in coastal tackle shops. In addition to pompano, sand fleas will also take sea mullet (whiting) and the occasional flounder.

5. Pogies

Actually little menhaden, these numerous, delicate baitfish don't live long in a bucket or live well, but they are a top bait for slashing bluefish and big flounder. Just remember to add some action to the bait, since pogies die quickly once they're cast out. Hook them through the eyes and they'll live a little longer. Large ones are great chopper bluefish and king mackerel bait.

4. Mud minnows

There are a lot of little shallow-water baitfish that fall under the catch-all category of mud minnow, including kilifish. One of the big advantages of mud minnows is that you can buy them at coastal tackle shops and pier houses, in case you can't find any bait in your cast net or don't know how to use one.

They are also very hardy and will outlive most critters in your bait bucket, as well as surviving in freshwater. Mud minnows are a top bait for the bottom dwelling flounder, and will also take loads of redfish and speckled trout.

3. Pinfish

Few folks understand that these pesky little bait-stealing critters make excellent live bait for large gamefish. They can be fished under a cork for trophy speckled trout, but their best use lies on a bottom rig. Big doormat flounder just love a flashing little pinfish. Hook them around the tail for maximum action or through the eyes to drift or retrieve.

2. Live shrimp

Nothing beats a live shrimp fished under a float or popping cork for speckled trout. Live shrimp are such a terrific trout bait that in some places state agencies have actually considered making their use illegal.

Make sure to avoid the dark 'brain' area around the horns when you hook them. In addition to specks, live shrimp take tons of redfish, gray trout, sea mullet, and pompano. They can also be fished on the bottom for black drum, flounder, and sheepshead.

1. Finger mullet

Everything wants to eat the frisky, jumping finger mullet. The smallest version of the striped mullet, these little vegetarians at the bottom of the food chain are loved by roaming game fish, bottom-dwelling crabs, and high flying birds.

When a 'mullet blow' is in season hordes of jumping finger mullet schools whisk through inland waterways and the surf line. Hook one just above the eyes and toss it out on a simple rig (with no wire, spinners, or floats). There's no better bait for roaming redfish, bluefish, and flounder.

For many more fishing tips check out my book Surf and Saltwater Fishing in the Carolinas.


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