The most common types of baitfish you’ll find on fishing trips include carp, shad, sunfish, smelt, and bluegill, but there are plenty of other types of smaller fish that anglers use as bait.
They are an important part of any fisherman’s fishing gear, and there are several different types of baitfish, each with its own unique characteristics. Knowing the different types of baitfish and their characteristics will help you determine which one to use when targeting certain types of fish, especially if you’re using live bait to catch fish rather than artificial baits, lures, or other devices.
Baitfish come in many forms and sizes, which makes it difficult to know where to start when you’re trying to understand what baitfish are available, how to use them, and how they work. But if you’re not familiar with them, you’re missing out on a lot of information that could help improve your next fishing trip!
Here’s everything you need to know about these colorful freshwater creatures.
What is baitfish
Baitfish are smaller fish that anglers use to catch larger fish, such as bass, pike, and other gamefish, by attracting them to the area with the scent of their bodies and the movements that they make in the water. However, not all baitfish are small and scaly; some are even bigger than what some people would consider average-sized fish!
They can be roughly broken down into three categories:
- Shallow-water baitfish: live in or near the water’s surface, where they are easily seen by predator fish (like bass).
- Deep-water baitfish: live at or near the bottom of the water column, and thus can also be easily seen by predator fish.
- Mid-water baitfish live between these two extremes, at depths that are too deep to see with the naked eye but not too deep to be found by predators.
If you want to use bait fish, there are two ways to do so: stock your pond with them and keep a separate supply for use while fishing.
In order to stock your pond or lake with bait fish, you should buy a supply from your local sports shop or pet store and acclimate them to your pond or lake. For your fish, you should provide a habitat, such as a Honey Hole Attractor log, a shrub, or a tree, so they can reproduce (and fatten up), keeping the population healthy.
Also, you can grow bait fish in a separate tub or tank so you can use them as lures when you’re fishing. Make sure the water is cool and fresh to reduce stress, and use a bubbler to increase the oxygen level in the water. Despite their ability to tolerate less-than-ideal conditions, oxygen is still essential for their survival.
Common types of baitfish
There are over 150 known species of baitfish, but as many as five times that number may be present in any given body of water. Many are indistinguishable from one another to an untrained eye. There is also a wide variety of similar fishes that can be used as bait; here is a quick list of some common types of baitfish you might encounter when fishing. Remember, just because something looks like bait doesn’t necessarily mean it is!
Most freshwater baitfish are small and skinny, with a few exceptions. Live-bearing species include darters (Etheostoma spp.), but these fish can be difficult to care for and their range is mostly limited to the southeastern United States. Killifish (Fundulus spp.) are more common in aquariums, but not all of them make good bait fish. Some good examples are:
Creek Chub (Semotilus atromaculatus)
The creek chub, also known as Semotilus atromaculatus, is one of those fish that anglers may not think about unless they’re fishing in a specific location. Their range extends from South Dakota to New York and Virginia to Texas, so it’s unlikely for you to see one when fishing for bass or trout. Nevertheless, creek chubs are great baitfish species because of their widespread abundance.
They can be found in ponds, lakes, rivers, and creeks throughout much of North America. They are also very easy to catch with a variety of different baits. As such, many anglers keep some on hand as an option for catching panfish. If you’re looking for an alternative to nightcrawlers or minnows, try using creek chubs instead!
Alewife fish (Alosa pseudoharengus)
Alosa pseudoharengus, also known as the alewife fish, is a small, forage fish that lives in coastal areas. The alewife gets its name from its habit of congregating in large schools and swimming upstream to spawn in rivers with cold, swift water.
It is also called a river herring or river smelt and can grow up to five inches long. Alewives are commonly used as bait for larger fish because they have a soft mouth, meaning their prey can be torn apart easily with little effort on behalf of predators.
Threadfin Shad (Dorosoma petenense)
The Threadfin Shad (Dorosoma petenense) is one of many types of baitfish that are not only used as live-bait for larger fish but can also be put to use by anglers as topwater lures. There are a number of reasons why these little shads are so popular among anglers.
These include their attractive colors and interesting swimming style. They’re also easy to catch in large numbers, making them a great choice for those who want to stock up on bait. Finally, they are extremely affordable; you’ll find them at most tackle shops or online retailers at very reasonable prices.
Fathead Minnows Fish (Pimephales promelas)
Commonly known as Pimephales promelas, these tiny fish are not only effective when used on their own but also serve as an excellent trailer for a jig. Fathead minnows come in a variety of colors, including black, olive, and brown.
Although they can often be found living in weedy bays and coves, they are less likely to resist striking on a jig than other baitfish that inhabit these areas. Because of their size, it’s best to use a smaller hook or one with a larger gap. This allows you to cast farther without putting too much stress on your catch.
Anyone who’s ever gone fishing has probably used a piece of bait that could be considered a sucker fish. Most commonly, people call these kinds of bait chum. Chumming is creating an area with a large amount of little fish to attract bigger ones, like salmon and tuna. Some examples of sucker fish are Hypostomus Plecostomus (suckermouth catfish), White Sucker (Catostomus Commersonii), River Redhorse (Moxostoma carinatum), Northern hogsucker (Hypentelium nigricans), Blue sucker (Cycleptus elongatus), and Quillback (Carpiodes cyprinus).
Bluegill sunfish (Lepomis macrochirus)
The bluegill sunfish (Lepomis macrochirus) is a small, freshwater panfish prized for its sweet flavor. The fish have many color variations, including white-blue and orange-yellow; they also boast a few black spots on their bellies.
Bluegills are considered panfish because they’re not sought after by anglers like bass or trout, but rather enjoyed after catching them by accident in fishing nets. They are often used as bait to catch larger game fish such as walleye and muskie. They can be found throughout North America, especially in rivers, lakes, and ponds with shallow water that has lots of vegetation.
Perch fish (perca)
Perch are great for fishermen because they’re considered perfect baitfish. Perch have a high oil content and firm flesh, making them good for frying and grilling (eating) too. They range in size from one to six inches long. Some common species of perch include yellow perch, white perch, silver perch, black crappie and bass perch, largemouth bass, and spotted bass.
Golden shiner (Notemigonus crysoleucas)
Golden Shiner is a small minnow-like fish that ranges from 2 to 4 inches in length. It is actually a killifish and as such can be extremely hardy. Because of its small size, it is often used as bait for larger game fish, like largemouth bass, striped bass, and bluegill. When using shiners for bait, it’s important to remember that they are schooling fish and will swim in a tight ball when scared or caught by another predator.
This hardy species was introduced to North America from Europe. They’re good in waters with a high nutrient level and can withstand pollution, making them great bait for larger fish like pike. However, they don’t have much taste, so it’s best to mix them with something more flavorful if you plan on eating them.
Common shiner (Luxilus cornutus)
A baitfish commonly found in rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. These fish are often used for baitfish like bluegill and perch, but they’re also used as an attractant or to stimulate feeding response in larger fish species such as bass and walleye. The common shiner is a voracious predator that can reach up to 12 inches long. Although they’re not popular with anglers, they provide valuable feeding stimulation and attractor services to game fish.
Common shiners are omnivorous, eating insects, crayfish, and small fish. In fact, they may eat their own young if food supplies run low! They lay between 50-100 eggs each spring. They have a relatively short lifespan of two years on average (though some live as long as four years). Adult males have orange bellies while females have white bellies; both genders have dark vertical bars along their sides and yellow eyes with red irises.
Northern Redbelly Dace (Chrosomus eos)
The Northern Redbelly Dace, Chrosomus eos, is a small minnow species native to Pennsylvania and most of North America. The fish gets its name from its bright red-orange belly and red lateral line which extends onto their dorsal fin. These are medium-sized baitfish reaching up to 6 inches (15 cm) in length.
They can be found living in cold mountain streams or in large lakes with heavy vegetation. In warmer months, they migrate into smaller tributaries to spawn. Their diet consists mainly of zooplankton, aquatic insects, and other invertebrates. This makes them a good choice for live bait as well as cut bait when fishing for trout or salmon.
Other animals that can be used as baitfish in freshwater habitats are Salamanders and Newts, Frogs, Tadpoles, Crayfish, Leeches, and Worms.
Common types of saltwater baitfish include anchovies, silversides, herring, and mackerel. Saltwater baitfish are used extensively in fishing, though not fished for directly, but rather used as an attractant. In order to catch something large and important like a tuna or marlin, you need something that can entice these high-value targets. For example, if you were trying to catch a marlin on your favorite sportfishing charter, your bait would be sardines!
Common saltwater baitfish are:
European pilchard (Sardina pilchardus)
A small, silvery species of fish native to both Europe and northern Africa, European pilchard, also known as sardina pilchardus, makes for a great bait fish. Because it’s most commonly found in colder waters, it’s not as common in North American fisheries as other species like herring. Nonetheless, these silver minnows are one of many go-to baitfish used by anglers around the world. They tend to swim in large schools near rocky reefs or underwater cliffs at depths of 40 feet or less.
Sardine populations are important to both commercial and recreational fishermen. The sardine species is considered a keystone species due to its large numbers, which allow it to feed many other animals. They also feed on plankton and consume phytoplankton, which they need in order to thrive. They live in deep waters (between 200 and 800 meters) where there are few predators. This causes them to swim up near the water’s surface at night where they can be caught more easily by humans.
Scaled Sardines (Harengula jaguana)
Scaled sardines, also known as Harengula jaguana, are one of the numerous species of fish that can be used as bait or chum to attract larger fish. They’re a schooling species and swim in large groups, which makes them an ideal choice for attracting bottom feeders and other predatory species.
These baitfish, known in some areas as jacksmelt or sand launce, are found in waters throughout North America. Scaled sardines spawn in both salt and freshwater, depending on their environment; they are anadromous fish that spend most of their adult lives at sea but return to freshwater rivers and streams to spawn.
Ballyhoo fish (Hemiramphus brasiliensis)
A ballyhoo fish is a translucent bait fish that can be fished near coral reefs or in open water. The most common species, Hemiramphus brasiliensis, ballyhoo halfbeak, has an elongated body covered with small scales and eyes on top of its head that allows it to see above waves. It gets its name from a luring device known as ballyhoo used for deep-sea fishing for blue marlin and tuna fish.
Also called the Ballyhoo halfbeaks, ballyhoo fish are baitfish of the halfbeak family. They share many characteristics with Balao halfbeaks. Among saltwater fishermen, ballyhoo is commonly used as bait for trolling and as cut bait. Ciguatera poisoning in humans has been linked to this fish.
Flathead grey mullet fish (Mugil cephalus)
The flathead grey mullet, also known as silver grey mullet or just mullet fish in some regions, is native to southern Asia and northern Africa. This fish lives for about two years and reaches up to about 24 inches long. It eats algae, zooplankton, small insects, and mollusks. It uses its sharp teeth to scrape algae off rocks and floating surfaces. The flathead grey mullet lives in warm seas near mudflats and coral reefs.
They are small schooling saltwater fish native to southern Europe, North Africa, and western Asia. It can grow up to 60 cm long and has been introduced into waters all over Australia. They prefer temperate waters, but can be found in tropical areas as well.
In Australia, it is found along sandy beaches in large schools close inshore where they feed on amphipods and other small crustaceans. They have very important commercial uses.
Menhaden fish (Bunker fish)
Menhaden, also called bunker fish or mossbunker, are small, oily forage fish that live near coastal waters. The name comes from an Algonquian Indian term meaning good to eat. Despite their small size (around 5-8 inches), menhaden are important in several aspects of our world.
For one thing, they feed many larger predators including striped bass and osprey. They’re also used as bait for bigger game fish like tuna and cod.
And finally, menhaden are harvested commercially for use as fertilizer and omega-3 fatty acid supplements.
Herring are small, silvery fish found in coastal waters. They’re a popular form of natural, wild-caught fish food that works well for larger aquariums. Herring eat plankton and krill, so they also help to control algae growth. Packed with omega-3 fatty acids, herring are considered an excellent option for saltwater aquariums due to their high nutrient value. They also breed quickly and live under even lower oxygen levels than other types of baitfish!
A needlefish (phylum Belonidae) or long tom is a species of piscivorous fish that typically inhabits very shallow environments or the surface of the open sea.
These small fish are often used as live bait. They are also popular sports fish because of their speed, fighting spirit, and ability to jump over obstacles in rivers. The most common needlefish include keeltail needlefish (Platybelone argalus), sailfins, greenbacks, and sharpnose. The name comes from their slender body and mouth full of needle-like teeth that make them perfect for catching smaller prey.
The keeltail needlefish, or keel-tail needlefish (Platybelone argalus), is popular as a live baitfish among many species of gamefish. These long, slender fishes are found along both coasts of Australia. They are often used in Estuary and Ocean Bait fishing and are known to be effective live bait for Salmon, Bass, and other Game Fish.
They are usually caught at night on small hooks baited with worms or crickets and fished from piers. Their silver bodies reflect light well and make them excellent lure baits for anglers who wish to catch Barramundi, Threadfin Salmon, Flathead, Whiting, and Snapper. Keeltail Needlefish grow up to 6 inches (15 cm) in length.
Round scad (Decapterus punctatus)
The round scad, also known as cigar minnows or Decapterus punctatus, is small deep-water fish found in all tropical and subtropical oceans, although it occasionally wanders into warm temperate waters. It feeds on shrimps and other crustaceans, mollusks and plankton. In fact for aquarium purposes, they may be your only option if you don’t have access to live crabs or shrimp.
Round scads are considered one of the best fish baits for catching red snapper, grouper, and amberjack. They are often marketed under names like redtail kingfish or corkys because they closely resemble king mackerels at a glance.
These tiny fish are a common species of live bait used in fresh and saltwater fishing. Glass minnows are small silver fish with black dots on their backs. They swim at about 4 to 8 inches below the surface of the water. Their small size makes them an ideal snack for larger fish.
They can be found on every continent except Antarctica, but they’re most common in areas with warm water, such as Mexico and Malaysia, due to their low sensitivity to low temperatures.
It has been overfished in some parts of Europe, though, which has resulted in restrictions on its use as bait. The use of glass minnows isn’t just limited to fishermen; they have also been eaten by Native Americans since prehistoric times.
Although they aren’t usually considered food anymore, they were consumed by Native Americans, throughout North America, prior to European settlement because they were easy to catch and easy to dry for storage during winter months when other foods weren’t available.
Anchoa mitchilli (Bay anchovy)
This small, transparent minnow, commonly known as a bay anchovy, grows to just four inches long. Despite its name, it’s not related to anchovies at all, in fact, it’s most closely related to silversides and smelt. It is found in both warm- and cold-water environments around Australia and New Zealand.
Anchovies are eaten by larger fish, such as trevally and kingfish, but they’re also used for human consumption. In some areas of Australia, anchoas are even farmed for human consumption.
The mackerel family of fish are some of nature’s most fast and most powerful swimmers. Their large, muscular body allows them to pursue their prey at great speeds in multiple directions. It can often be hard to catch these quick swimmers, but using smaller hooks with baits such as herring or minnows will help attract one.
You can use mackerel as both live and dead baitfish. Dead mackerel tend to last longer than other types of bait because they have fewer predators. This makes them ideal for fishing during the winter months when other food sources are scarce. They also have an excellent flavor that attracts many types of game fish.
Pinfish (Lagodon rhomboides)
These freshwater fish hail from large lakes across Central and Eastern North America. They can grow up to 12 inches in length, but average around half that size. Pinfish are voracious predators that eat other small fish and insects; they also consume invertebrates, such as worms, mollusks, crustaceans, and leeches.
As you might guess from their name, these fishes are often used as baitfish for larger game fish in addition to being marketed fresh or frozen. Some fishers target pinfish with nets, but many others use rod-and-reel gear to catch them.
Bonito are small, silvery fishes that can grow up to 36 inches in length. The name bonito translates to pretty or handsome in Spanish and also is known as mackerel pike or small tuna in many parts of Europe. You can catch bonito by trolling for them on slow-moving waters at night with lures like glowsticks and lights. They are an important part of the ecosystem because they feed on plankton, which helps keep ocean waters clean.
The bonito is part of the family of fish called tuna but it isn’t really tuna at all. The true tunas belong to their own family and are not called bonito by most people. Still, there are many similarities between tuna and bonito, which may lead you to mistakenly call them both tuna. In any case, if you’re talking about bonito, you’re referring to fish in either of two families, the Scombridae or the other family.
Flying fish are members of the family Exocoetidae. The Exocoetidae, also known as flying fish or flying cod, is a family of marine fish. They belong to the order Beloniformes, class Actinopterygii. They include approximately 64 species within seven to nine genera.
There are many different species of flying fish, but all can be identified by their long fins, which extend to form wings. They spend much of their time in schools and therefore form a large part of many commercial and recreational fishing endeavors. The flying fish also has bright colors and metallic blue stripes that provide added attraction for fishermen and charter boat captains alike.