Your job as an angler is to trick fish into thinking your bait is their food. The bait presentation has to be so convincing the fish can't help but take a bite. The problem is that every fish has a diverse diet that changes between locations and conditions. However, we can observe the eating habits of our target fish to improve the chances of making the right choice.
The more you fish, the more you'll learn about how that fish hunts, what they eat, and how they like seeing their food presented. Fish can be picky customers, but as you experiment with different surf fishing baits, you'll learn what they want and how they want to see it.
Now that we’re on the same page, let's look at your tools of deception and how they stack up against each other. Each bait type has its pros and cons. It's important to understand how your choice will affect your ability to catch fish. So let's look at the best types of bait for surf fishing. Afterwards, we'll cover the best bait for targeting specific species.
What's The Best Bait For Surf Fishing?
There are four different types of bait for surf fishing - live, fresh cut, frozen, and artificial bait. There are pros and cons to each as I will now cover.
1. Live Bait
As the name implies, live bait is any bait you put on the hook that's still alive. You'll need to learn the proper way to bait a hook so your bait will stay alive and moving. But, once you have the technique down, your bait can move the way it would if it didn't have a hook through its body.
Focus On Natural Movement
Fish are used to seeing their food moving around. That’s why the natural movement displayed by live bait is so effective. Let's imagine we're using live shrimp as bait. After we hook it up and cast it out, we want that shrimp to go about its day as if nothing is wrong. It should walk along the bottom or swim headfirst with the current in natural shrimp style. The hope is that fish will recognize them as their food and think, "yup, that's how they usually move," and then gobble it up.
Any deviation from how the fish is familiar with seeing their food presented increases the chance of spooking them. If the bait's appearance or smell is even a little off, it will affect your catch rate and ability to catch larger fish. That's why live bait is an excellent bait for surf fishing. You're literally taking a fish's food and presenting it back to them.
Catch Bait From Local Area
It's even better if you catch the bait yourself from the area where you're fishing because it's exactly what your target fish is feeding on.
So not only is fishing with live bait effective but learning to catch your own bait is gratifying. It's like growing a plant from seed instead of buying one from a nursery. Plus, catching bait becomes a fun part of the process and is a skill that makes you a better fisherman overall.
The Downsides Of Live Bait
Although live bait is great for surf fishing, it has a few drawbacks. For starters, it's not as easy to find as other baits for surf fishing. Some bait shops don't have live bait or might not have the specific bait you're looking for. And, it'll be more expensive than fresh-cut or frozen bait if they do.
If you want to catch live bait using a cast net or bait fish lure, it'll add time to the process, and it's not always a guarantee you'll get what you're after. So for anglers with limited free time or anyone who wants to maximize fishing time, catching live bait may not be a realistic option.
Whether you buy or catch live bait, you'll need a bait bucket with an aeration system to keep them alive. These live bait storage containers add extra expense and make transporting bait to your fishing spot more difficult. Also, you'll have to invest some extra time into keeping the water clean of bacteria by replenishing it with new water and removing any dead bait.
Beginners should keep in mind that live bait is more difficult to hook than other bait types. Hook it the wrong way, and you won't be able to classify it as "live" for very long. That said, it's an easy enough skill to learn and worthwhile if you're serious about catching fish.
Live Bait Options:
- Sand fleas (sand crabs)
- Fish (pinfish, mullet, mackerel, herring, sardines, anchovies, grunion)
- Worms (sandworms, bloodworms, lugworms)
2. Fresh Cut Bait
Fresh cut bait is an effective bait choice. Although it may not have the natural movement advantage of live bait, the strong scent of fresh blood might be all you need to whet a fish's appetite. I love that it's easier to hook than live bait and stays on the hook better than live and frozen bait. Also, targeting specific fish species and sizes is easier because you can custom cut your bait size.
For example, if I'm feeling patient and want a big striped bass, I'll cut off a piece of bunker big enough that small bass and other species will pass on the bait. Conversely, if I just want to catch fish, I'll cut off a small chunk of fresh shrimp that all species and sizes will go for.
It's also worth noting that fresh cut bait is a moderate 'catch-all' bait. It's easier to target specific species than artificial bait but less accurate than live bait. To the same extent, I'd also say fresh bait is more effective than frozen or artificial bait but less effective than live bait. Not the best, not the worst.
Pros & Cons Of Fresh Cut Bait
Fresh cut bait is more difficult to find at tackle shops than frozen bait but is easier to find and cheaper than live bait. Just like with live bait, you can catch your own bait to cut up. Again, keep in mind that catching your bait takes time, and you may come up empty-handed.
You won't have to keep it alive with a bait bucket and aeration system, so it's much easier to transport than live bait. However, you will need a cutting board for bait prep and a cooler with ice to keep the bait fresh. I also love that if you still have a cut bait supply at the end of the day, you can easily freeze the leftovers to use in the future.
Fresh Cut Bait Options:
3. Frozen Bait
Frozen bait is the most convenient, however, least effective natural bait.
Let me ask you something. If you go to your local seafood store and the guy behind the counter offers you fresh sea bass caught by a local fisherman earlier this morning or a frozen sea bass filet from Norway for the same price, which one would you choose? You'd choose fresh and local every time, and so would your target fish.
Pros & Cons Of Frozen Bait
Frozen bait doesn't have the same attractive, fresh blood scent as fresh cut bait. It also lacks the advantage of natural movement and presentation like live bait. Due to thawing, the meat can get mushy, which makes it less appealing to fish and harder to keep on the hook.
On the plus side, frozen bait, such as frozen shrimp, is easier to store than live bait. It's also cheaper, and you can find it at pretty much every bait shop. Like fresh cut bait, you can also cut frozen bait sized to target specific fish species and sizes. And although frozen bait is more of a 'catch all' bait than live or fresh cut bait, it's still easier to target species with than most artificial bait.
Frozen Bait Options:
- Sand fleas
4. Artificial Baits
Artificial baits such as lures, soft plastic worms, fish, squid, and shrimp are convenient alternatives to natural bait.
I mainly use artificial bait for cast and quick retrieve fishing. They're also useful when fishing with bait rigs and a sand spike. When I use artificials on bait rigs, I know they'll stay on the hook better than any natural bait. That means less time reeling in to check on bait and more time with bait in the water.
Aside from that, the best thing about artificial baits and lures is their storage and transport efficiency. They never really go bad, so I'll buy more than I need and know they'll come in handy somewhere down the line. And since you don't need ice or bait buckets to keep them fresh, they're easy enough to keep in your fishing backpack as a backup for natural bait.
Are Lures & Artificial Baits Cheaper?
I'd like to say lures and artificial bait are cheaper than buying natural bait because, on paper, they're cheaper and last longer.
However, once you start buying artificials for different conditions and species (plus backups of your favorites), you tend to drop serious money expanding your collection. And, once you learn how to catch your own natural bait, the cost difference is dramatically different.
Are Lures & Artificial Baits Effective?
Are lures and artificial baits as effective as live bait, fresh cut bait, or frozen bait?
The easy answer is that artificial baits are less effective than natural baits. However, the more accurate answer is that it depends. It depends on your fishing style and location. It also depends on which type of artificial bait or lure you're using and what (if any) fish species you're targeting.
Artificial baits have special designs to mimic natural movement and give off a fish-attracting 'real bait smell'. But, realistically, they don't compare to live bait. Using them risks spooking smarter (often bigger) fish.
To confuse the matter, sometimes artificial options are too effective. The problem is, they catch EVERYTHING. Sometimes I don't even reach the bottom before a sea robin grabs my rig baited with Gulp. And I can't tell you how many rigs I've lost to skates that suction to the bottom after chomping on a soft plastic.
All that said, if the bites slow, I'll switch it up to an artificial just to get some action going. So, artificials aren't a bad gamble if you want to improve your hook-up rate. But, if you're targeting a specific species and size, you may have to sift through the junk fish to find what you're looking for.
Artificial Bait Options:
- Soft plastic worms, shrimp, fish, and squid
The Best Bait For Your Target Fish Species
Best Bait For Pompano Corbina, Surf Perch, Porgy, Yellowfin Croaker, Sheepshead
- Sand fleas, worms, clams, fresh squid, shrimp
Best Bait For Bonefish
- Conch, crab, sardines, worms, shrimp
Best Bait For Spanish Mackerel
- Sardines, mullet, squid, shrimp
Best Bait For Snook
- Pinfish, mullet, worms, shrimp
Best Bait For Blackfish
- Green crabs, shrimp
Best Bait For Flounder / Fluke
- Clam, mullet, croaker, minnows, squid
Best Bait For Bluefish
- Eels, mullet, bunker, mackerel, squid
Best Bait For Striped bass
- Clam, eel, bunker, herring, shad, porgy, worms (bloodworms/sandworms)
Best Bait For Redfish
- Crabs, porgies, greenies, mullet, squid, shrimp
Best Bait For Codfish
- Clam, eels, crabs, squid
Best Bait For Tarpon
- Ladyfish, mullet, crabs, pinfish, shrimp
Best Bait For Black Drum
- Clams, crabs, worms, shad, shrimp
Best Bait For Red Snapper
- Bonita, pinfish, tomtate, porgies, minnows, squid, shrimp
Best Bait For Bonito
- Anchovy, mackerel, herring, whiting, menhaden, sand eels, bunker, silversides, pilchard, squid
Best Bait For Whiting
- Sand fleas, worms (ragworm, lugworm), clams, hermit crab, herring, mackerel, pilchard, shrimp
Best Bait For Halibut
- Salmon (bellies/head), octopus, herring, sardines, mackerel, squid
Best Bait For Sharks
- Mackerel, mullet, skate, bluefish, Bonita, or any other local schooling fish (oily fish are best)
Best Bait For Redfish (Red Drum)
- Crab, mullet, pogies, herring, croaker, squid
Best Bait For Speckled Trout
- Mullet, pinfish, shrimp
Best Bait For Smelt
- Mackerel, pinfish, menhaden, anchovies, shrimp
Best Bait For Tautog (Blackfish)
- Green/blue crab, rock crab, hermit crab, clams, squid
Best Bait For Stingray and Skate
- Herring, worms, clam, squid, shrimp
Best Bait For Cobia
- Pinfish, eels, croaker, minnows, menhaden, crab, squid, shrimp
Best Bait For Barracuda
- Mackerel, Bonita, minnows, sardines
Best Bait For Ladyfish
- Sardines, mullet, herring, pinfish, shrimp
I want you to give predator fish more credit than they usually get. They're smart enough to know the difference between their food and an impostor. Live bait is real fish food, not just a close imitation, which is why it's an excellent bait for surf fishing.
That said, if the bite is slow, it doesn't hurt to switch things up. Try a different type of live bait. Try a cut, frozen or artificial piece of bait. Using popular surf bait is all about experimenting and observing the results. You'll learn what works and what doesn't the more you experiment. Over time and testing, you'll catch more fish.
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.