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An Overview of Saltwater Baits and Lures

An Overview of Saltwater Baits and Lures
An Overview of Saltwater Baits and Lures

When deciding which bait or lure to use, consider how fish feed. Scent, sound, and movement are the ways fish detect meals. Fish use sound vibrations to communicate and find prey. Since sound travels faster through water than through air, fish can hear food or saltwater lures that are a long way off. Scent is another powerful weapon for fish; they can pick up one particle of scent and use it to hone in on prey, communicate danger, or navigate through the water.

Fish actually have a sixth sense that humans do not. The lateral line running down each side of a fish is filled with tiny hairs that can detect movement in the water. A fish can pick up a moving object, such as a fishing lure or bait, even in complete darkness. Just before it strikes, the fish will use sight to check out its victim. Even in clear water, fish can only see about 15 feet, but they can see colors and shapes. Finally, a fish will use its highly sensitive sense of taste to verify that what it has eaten is actually edible. To fool a fish, you must first fool all of its senses.

Live Bait

When trying to fool a fish, nothing beats live bait. Live bait may be hard to catch and hard to keep, but it’s hard to beat when targeting finicky fish. Whether you catch live bait with a hook or a net, avoid touching the bait before putting it on the hook. The livewell in that you store your bait should simulate the current, oxygen content, and temperature of the bait’s natural environment. You can transport bait short distances in a bucket with a battery-operated aerator. When fishing with live bait, use the lightest hooks, leader, and line possible to avoid further stressing the fish. Passing the hook through the bait fish’s lips, eye sockets or nostrils will allow it to swim most naturally. Hooking the bait in front of the dorsal fin will encourage the bait to swim down. For delicate baitfish, tie a bridal out of rigging floss to hold the hook.

Cut/Frozen (Dead) Bait

The next best thing to live bait is cut bait; however, cut bait can be as difficult to obtain and maintain as the live version. Use the freshest saltwater fishing bait you can find. Natural fishing bait should be firm and smell fresh. Fish that will be used for cut bait should have clear eyes and red gills. Frozen bait should be vacuum-packed and free from freezer burn. Keep the bait on ice in a well-drained cooler. Typically, it’s best to use the smallest piece of bait that you can get on the hook. Larger chunks give fish the opportunity to nibble the bait off the hook. To keep the bait from falling off, try to run the hook through bone, skin or shell. The rule for any bait is: If you wouldn’t eat it, then neither will the fish.

Soft Plastic Lures

Soft plastic lures come in a variety of colors, shapes, and sizes and can be used in many ways. Twister tails and shad bodies make good lure additions to jigs and bucktails. Flukes also look good as trailers, or they can be rigged on a hook without any weight to sink slowly or shoot across the surface. Swim baits feature a lead-head jig molded inside a soft plastic body. Use a soft plastic that matches the size of the bait.

Bright colors work best on sunny days while darker colors present a better silhouette against overcast or dark skies. Soft plastics can be cast and retrieved, dropped to the bottom and bounced, even used in place of live or cut bait. The only limit to the way soft plastics can be used is your own imagination.

Scented Baits

In the last few years, scientists have developed artificial saltwater fishing baits laced with powerful fish attractants. Scented fishing baits come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from popular trailers for jigs to flat sheets for cut bait. These soft plastic baits last longer than natural bait and don’t require refrigeration. Always keep a scented bait in the liquid it came in, and never leave it on your hook or it will harden like a rock and become impossible to remove.


Borrowing a tactic from the freshwater playbook, saltwater anglers are using spinnerbaits on a variety of inshore species. Featuring a lead-head, wire arm and metal blade, a spinnerbait does not look like anything that swims; instead, it fools a fish’s sense of sound and movement. The lead-head is usually dressed with a soft plastic jig or rubber skirt. The arm and blade should be made out of non-corrosive material. Cast out a spinnerbait and work it quickly to propel it across the surface, or retrieve it slowly to drag the jig along the bottom.

Lead-headed Jigs

Jigs are probably the most popular artificial saltwater fishing lure. Consisting of a hook with a lead head and a trailer, jigs imitate everything from saltwater bait fish to crustaceans to invertebrates. A streamlined jig head will sink faster, while a wider head will flutter down or work higher in the water column. A jig with deer hair tied to its head is called a bucktail. The size of the hook on the jig should match the size of the trailer. Thread the trailer on the jig so that the hook comes out of the trailer ahead of the bend. When using a strip bait trailer, pass the hook once through the wide end of the trailer.

The newest generation of jigs, which feature squid shaped heads and living rubber skirts, make great saltwater fishing lures. “Living rubber” is extremely pliant, soft rubber that moves in a lifelike manner. Drop one of these rubber jigs to the bottom and crank it up a few feet, then pause for a few seconds before dropping it again. Fish see the jig hovering over the bottom and come in to investigate. They will often nibble their way up the skirt to the hook, so use a light drag and a soft-tipped rod to feed the fish.


Popping plugs, or “poppers,” are saltwater fishing lures that splash across the surface, drawing a reaction bite from aggressive predators, and they work best at dawn and dusk when fish are more likely to feed on the surface. To work a popper, reel at a steady pace while jerking the rod tip to make the lure splash and chug. “Walking the Dog” is a special technique used with torpedo-shaped top water plugs. Hold the rod with the tip pointing toward the water and retrieve line while jerking the tip from left to right, making the fishing lure zigzag across the surface.

Spoon Lure

Like the name implies, spoons are metal saltwater fishing lures that are usually wider at one end and concave so they wobble and flash like a swimming fish. Spoon lures come in two styles: casting and trolling. Casting spoon lures are heavier than trolling spoons so they can be thrown a long distance. Trolling spoons are either high speed or slow speed. High-speed spoon lures are narrower and heavier than slow-speed models.

If you’re trolling a spoon behind a weight, use a long leader to get the lure far away from the other tackle. Casting spoons work great when you need to imitate a small bait as they can be cast out and retrieved, or dropped to the bottom and bounced. Casting and trolling spoons should be used with high-quality snaps and swivels to avoid line twist.

There may be a dozen ways to catch the same species, and many techniques will work for more than one type of fish. Knowing how to use your tackle and bait is as important as knowing where to find fish and how to catch them. Doing your research beforehand will save time and money when selecting the right type of equipment and bait. Good luck and tight lines!

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