Using Fish As Bait

Ken Jones

Staff member
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Using Fish as Bait

In California, anglers are presented several species of fish that can be used as bait. Most can be caught by anglers themselves but most can also be bought at bait shops. However, most bait shops no longer carry live bait, just frozen bait. The exception is mainly in the Carquinez Straits-West Delta area that still sees quite a bit of live bait available. A few bait shops in SoCal and CenCal offer live bait, but it is generally limited to lug worms, possibly bloodworms, mussels and possibly ghost shrimp. Few offer live fish as bait. Below, listed alphabetically are the most common “fish” baits. Note also the notes on fresh versus frozen bait.

Anchovies. When I was a teenager fishing at Newport Pier live anchovies, northern anchovies, Engraulis mordax, were the bait used by the vast majority of anglers. Out at the end of the pier there was a ramshackle bait and tackle shop and at one end there was an open window where you got your anchovies. Anchovies were a little cheaper then, about $.50 a dozen (although they were a nickel apiece if you got them separately), and you used ticket stubs to get them. Generally, one man handled the money and another (usually a fellow student) handled the net for the anchovies. You stood in line—there was almost always a line—then you presented your tickets for a few anchovies. You always got just a few at a time. That way the anchovies wouldn’t die from the lack of oxygen in the small bait buckets. I always thought it must be a boring job for the person who stood there bailing out the anchovies hour after hour (although they did get to meet a few young ladies). As a fairly young resident pier rat, I made out pretty good. Many times anglers would buy tickets and then have some left over when they were ready to leave. They would give them to the kids, myself included.

Today, no piers offer live anchovies as a bait. It cost too much to have the bait boats visit the pier, it cost to much for the various tanks and equipment needed to supply the bait, and it cost way too much for the insurance that would be needed. However, live anchovies are still the top bait for many species including many of the most prized fish such as halibut, bonito and barracuda. Because of this, more and more anglers are using nets to catch their own live anchovies.

To keep the anchovies lively, and they must be frisky if they're going to be good bait, they buy an aerator. Many tackle shops carry small battery operated aerators, which clip onto the side of bait buckets. They usually cost under $10 and are well worth the expense since you’ll have much livelier bait. A second approach is to keep a live bait bucket with you which can be lowered down and pulled up from the water as you need fresh bait (although some object to a lot of equipment hanging down from a pier into the water where fish may be brought up since it gives the fish one more thing to become entangled with).

Of course once our sturdy anglers have live bait, they must know how to use it correctly. For live anchovies, most anglers use a Carolina rigging with a one or two-ounce sinker and a size 4-2 hook. Fishing this rig on the bottom is one of the best halibut rigs when fishing the depressions between the pilings. Although primarily used for halibut the same rig and bait can also catch bass, sharks and rays. Its not as productive in the surf or down around the pilings.

A sliding, live bait leader can also be used. The line is cast out with a sinker. A leader, generally 3-4 feet long with a snap-swivel at one end and a hook at the other is used. The baitfish is hooked and simply slid down the line to the water. If halibut are the goal, hook the anchovy through the nose or through the upper and lower lips; both ways will generally insure it heads toward the bottom. Or, you can hook it behind the anal fin. This also tends to move the anchovy toward the bottom and is useful since halibut like to grab bait from behind.

If the preference is fishing the upper levels of the water many anglers will cast out a Cast-a-Bubble. The hook and fish is at the end of the line while the Cast-a-Bubble is several feet up the line. The anchovy can be hooked a couple of different ways. One way is through the lower and upper jaws; this will prevent the fish from drowning. You can also hook the anchovy in the “collar” area just behind the gills; this is the most common way to hook live anchovies on boats although it is less effective on a pier. Collar-hooked anchovies will tend to stay nearer the surface of the water (which is better for mackerel, bonito and barracuda) until they begin to tire and move toward the bottom. At that point you should put fresh bait on your hook.

Perhaps the most common bait used by pier fishermen is frozen anchovies. These are sold border to border, usually in one-pound bags, and are one of the main baits throughout the state. Unfortunately when thawed out they quickly soften up and may need some “Magic Thread” to keep them from falling off the hook. Most commonly a whole anchovy is put on a hook and it is tossed out. A far better method is to use the frozen anchovies as cut bait. Cut the fish into two or three pieces using diagonal cuts then put these on your hooks. An exception is when fishing for sharks, rays, or striped bass when a whole anchovy is preferred.

Less common today but still seen at times, primarily in the Los Angeles and San Diego areas, are salted anchovies. They work the same as frozen anchovies but are tougher and will not fall off the hook when thawed. Many anglers swear they are better than the frozen variety.

Bullheads. This is the term commonly used for staghorn sculpin (Leptocottus armatus), one of most frequently caught fish on CenCal and NorCal piers, and a fish that is largely considered a nuisance. However, it is also one of the top baits for striped bass in the San Francisco Bay Area. Live bullheads are hooked through the bottom and lower jaws with hooks sized 2 to 4/0 and then fished at or near the bottom. Bullheads will stay alive for a considerable length of time in a little bit of water or even a damp gunnysack. Do be careful when handling live staghorn sculpins since they have a strong spine on the side of the head and can give a person a nasty jab if they’re not careful. Although many anglers prefer live bullheads for bait, some experts specifically prefer to use dead bullheads since the live’'uns have the audacity to burrow into the mud (which makes it a little hard for a fish to grab them). If using deceased bullheads do remember to use fish that are fresh and still coated with the slime that seems to act as an attractant.

Herring. The Pacific herring, Clupea harengus pallasi, is very similar to sardines as bait and used in the same manner. However, herring are primarily used as salmon bait in the north and will often cost more in a store than sardines if both are available. Locals who know what they are doing wait for the herring runs that occur most years in places like San Francisco Bay, Humboldt Bay and the harbor at Crescent City. San Francisco Bay often means large crowds on piers, people primarily netting the herring, and sometimes too many keeping more than their ten-gallon limits. It’s less crowded to the north. Some herring are eaten (they’re good) but most are stored for later use as bait. I’ve always taken them by using a Sabiki-type bait rig and have taken them from as far south as the Santa Cruz Wharf and north to Citizens Dock in Crescent City. For years, when I lived in Mendocino County, I would visit the pier in Noyo Harbor by Fort Bragg and catch them there. Surprisingly the best runs at Noyo were generally in May while San Francisco Bay and Crescent City typically see them during winter runs.
Sometimes people mistake Pacific herring for Pacific sardines but it’s easy to tell them apart. The herring lack the ridges downward on the gill cover that are seen in sardines and there are no black spots as there are on sardines.

Herring as bait are tougher than anchovies and don’t soften quite as quickly when set out. They can be used for striped bass but are especially good for fish seeking out strong smelling, oily bait (sharays—sharks and rays). They are a top bait and should be used when anchovies and mackerel are unavailable.

Frozen herring as used from piers in the north for bait would be primarily targeting sharays and possibly rockfish or lingcod although not the preferred bait for either. In San Francisco Bay they can be used whole for species like striped bass or the sharays or cut into chunks or strips. I prefer strip bait where I will cut a fillet off one side of a herring, cut it diagonally from the bottom to the top (with the size dependent upon the bait). Generally I can get two strips from a side and the hook, size 4 or 2 up to 2/0 is inserted into and out the bloody side of the fish. The size of the hook depends upon the fish being sought. I like to cast out the strip bait and then slowly reel it in. Although I am bait fishing, I rarely use a “cast and wait” strategy unless I am fishing for sharks and rays. I think most other fish like moving bait.

Lizardfish. If there were a “Hall of Fame or perhaps Hall of Shame” for fish disliked by anglers, lizardfish, Synodus lucioceps would rank up near the top alongside the white croaker (aka kingfish, tomcod, and roncador). They are most common in cold-water years but when they show up they are generally found in large schools (sometimes seeming to cover the bottom). That means they are easy to catch on Sabiki-type bait rigs, they generally don’t offer much in the way of fighting ability, and most are too small to eat. A bigger sin is that they often grab bait intended for more preferable species. Most people feel they are worthless so once caught they’re left to dry out on the deck of the pier or they are killed and tossed back into the water.

However, they make good live bait for some species, including halibut and bass. In fact, some years back an angler won the big-time, big money halibut derby in Santa Monica Bay using a lizardfish as bait. His “secret” bait surprised many people.

On a pier, use small lizardfish on a Carolina type rigging if seeking out halibut. If bass are the goal, fish straight down by the pilings using a hi/lo rigging and a size 4 or 2 hook. Although far less effective than when used live, lizzies can also be used for cut bait; cut them as you would most strip bait or cut small triangular pieces for bait. You can also cut them as strip bait and use them with plastics.

Mackerel. Two species of fish are sold as “mackerel” in California bait shops although only one is a true mackerel. The most commonly seen is the Pacific mackerel, Scomber japonicus, the true mackerel. Most often it is simply called mackerel but sometimes it is given the appellation chub, green mackerel or blue mackerel. The second type you will encounter is jack mackerel, Trachurus symmetricus that is usually called Spanish mackerel; it is actually a member of the jack family. Both can be excellent baits but there are differences.

Pacific mackerel are good bait for many species, especially other Pacific mackerel and bottom species such as bass, yellowfin croaker, white croaker, halibut, sole and turbots. The flesh is very oily and bloody and because of this it is one of the best baits for sharks and rays, including shovelnose guitarfish, bat rays, smoothhound sharks, leopard sharks, and larger sharks. Most anglers simply cut out a chunk of the mackerel for the bait but it is better to cut it in a triangular pattern (like strip bait) and place the hook in the wider end of the bait. For smaller species, the piece may only be an inch or so in length while those seeking the larger sharks may cut a fillet off one side of a mackerel that is several inches in length. If you cut the mackerel into strip bait, and are using a fairly large mackerel, remember to trim off the excess flesh. Keep the bait somewhat thin. Spanish mackerel is used in a similar manner but it is less oily and not as good a bait.

Unusual but excellent bait is the “strawberry,” a bloody mass of sacs, which are attached to the intestines of Pacific mackerel. At first glance this mass of flesh looks rather nasty but it is often the best piece of the mackerel. In fact, other mackerel really seem to be turned on (shades of the ‘60s) by this bloody sac and will attack it in a frenzied manner.

A problem with Pacific mackerel, but not as much with jack mackerel, is that it softens up quickly when left out in the hot sun; it should always be kept cool. If allowed to heat, the flesh becomes soft and easily falls off the hook. Years ago one could buy sugar-cured mackerel. This was superior bait but today it is almost impossible to find. You will occasionally see salted mackerel; it holds up better than frozen mackerel and is about as good a bait.

Both of these species are excellent live bait when you can acquire the miniature 4-6 inch fish (a.k.a. babies). At times they are thick around piers and that is the time to break out the multi-hook bait rigs, i.e., Lucky Lura or Sabiki riggings.

Halibut lurking on the bottom sands in the depressions between pilings love to dart up and grab a small mackerel. Sharks and rays love a bloody piece of mackerel sitting on the bottom or mid-depth. Thresher sharks like nothing better than a mid-size mackerel being used as live bait in top water areas. And yellowtail, when they come around the piers in the fall months, go somewhat giddy when they see a live mackerel jack (Spanish mackerel) being used as live bait. White seabass too, the larger mamas and papas as well as the smaller, so-called “seatrout,” also love live bait and both Pacific mackerel and jack mackerel make up part of their diet.

Mudsuckers. This is the name given by anglers to the longjaw goby, Gillichthys mirabilis, and excellent bait for striped bass in the San Francisco Bay Area. Unlike bullheads (staghorn sculpin), you’ll generally have to seek out this bait instead of simply sitting back and waiting for the fish to come to you. But it can be done. Several PFIC anglers have talked about catching them, especially in Benicia and Vallejo, but they’re actually in many bays up and down the state. Typical rigging to catch them: a small, size 10 or 12 hook, a light line, a split shot sinker, and a small piece of pile worm or shrimp. Cast down around the bottom between the inshore pilings. Most anglers simply buy them for bait. The good news is that almost any tackle shop located near prime striper territory will have them for bait. Like bullheads, they are very hardy. They will live in a little water or even in a damp gunnysack for several days. Although less often used on southern California piers, they are good bait for sand bass in inner bay piers.

Most of the bullheads are fished on a Carolina-like rigging although some people use a high/low. They are generally hooked up through the nose and fished near the bottom with a size 2 to 4/0 hook.

Sardines. There was a time when the commercial fishery for Pacific sardines, Sardinops caerulea, was the largest fishery in North America. Boats in California in the ‘30s and ‘40s saw peak catches of as much as 700,000 metric tons. Monterey was the center of action, although the fishery extended south to Los Angeles, and the canneries in Monterey (on Cannery Row) and in Los Angeles (Fish Harbor on Terminal Island) ran what seemed like non-stop shifts processing the fish (and disturbing neighbors by their smell). Then, by the late ‘40s, the fish began to disappear and in a few years most of the canneries had closed (although those in Los Angeles were able to switch to mackerel and tuna). Eventually, in 1967, a moratorium shut down the commercial fishing for sardines. The fish had been the victim of bad science and poor management by the Department of Fish and Game.

The water temperatures had dropped and when that happened the fish had a problem. We now know sardines and anchovies go up and down in cycles corresponding to water temperatures. When water temperatures increase the number of sardines goes up and the number of anchovies goes down. When water temperatures decrease the number of anchovies goes up but the number of sardines goes down. Unfortunately when the water temperatures went down in the late ‘40s, and the number of sardines started to decrease, the sardine boats and their big nets just kept hauling in the sardines—in unsustainable numbers. The Fish and Game Department was worried but didn’t limit the catch. Eventually there were no sardines, or at least very few sardine to be found.

However, the stock eventually began to rebound by the ‘90s and a new commercial fishery developed, one that thrived into the 2000s. However, by 2006, there seemed to be a new slide in numbers and eventually, in 2015, the fishery was closed once again. Today the sardines are still showing up, and available to pier anglers, but not in the numbers seen in the ‘90s.

I knew little about sardines when I began to pier fish back in the early ‘60s, I never saw them. Both their absence and rebound is reflected in my records. I never caught a single sardine at a California pier from 1962 until 1990 (hundreds of trips) when I finally landed a few at the Seal Beach Pier and Belmont Veterans Pier in Long Beach. I soon began to catch them at many piers and by 1994 had experienced some really phenomenal fishing at several piers (especially those in the Morro Bay area). Given the large-sized schools (called shoals), some as large as 10 million fish but usually under a million, if you catch one fish you are probably destined to catch more.

Today I have caught them at 29 piers ranging from the Imperial Beach Pier near the Mexican border to Citizen’s Dock in Crescent City, just over 20 miles from the Oregon border. Their numbers still go up some years and down others but I seem to catch a few each year.

Sometimes people mistake Pacific sardines for Pacific herring but ridges running downward on the gill cover, and a series of black spots on the back, distinguish sardines from their close relatives.

They are, of course, one of the best baits both as fresh, frozen or live bait. And, since the ‘90s, they have generally been available in bait shops (although some years sees shortages).

Sardines as bait are tougher than mackerel and don’t soften as quickly when set out. They may be the best striper bait but may not be quite as good as mackerel if you’re looking for a strong smelling, oily bait (as for sharks). Nevertheless, they are a top bait and should be used when anchovies and mackerel are unavailable. Of note, at the first Pier Fishing in California Mud Marlin (bat ray) Derby held at the Berkeley Pier, a combination bait of a sardine placed inside the body of a squid proved to be the best bait. A whole sardine can sometimes be used if you’re seeking out striped bass but strip bait should be used when seeking the smaller species.

Live sardines are generally fished on a Carolina rigging and the best place to hook them seems to be the upper snout although if fishing for halibut a hook placed above the anal fin often works best since the halibut like to attack from below and behind the bait. A second rig for the halibut is a double rig with one hook put in the nose area and one above the anal fin. If fishing from a pier for a top water fish like bonito or barracuda some people will insert the hook below the dorsal and fly line the sardine but it depends on the wind and current.

Frozen sardines are general used whole for species like striped bass or the sharays or cut into chunks or strips. I prefer strip bait where I will cut a fillet off one side of a sardine, cut it diagonally from the bottom to the top (with the size dependent upon the bait). Generally I can get two strips from a side and the hook, size 4 or 2 up to 2/0 is inserted into and out the bloody side of the fish. The size of the hook depends upon the fish being sought. I like to cast out the strip bait and then slowly reel it in. Although I am bait fishing, I rarely use a “cast and wait” strategy unless fishing for sharays; I think most fish like moving bait.

Shiner Perch. This small perch, Cymatogaster aggregata, is one of the main fish caught on piers by youngsters in California. It makes a good “live bait” when other, more preferable, species like anchovies are unavailable. In northern California, where live bait is generally unavailable on piers, it has become a bait of choice for halibut and striped bass. It is used far less frequently for bait in southern California but again comes into use when other species are absent.

Although rarely considered the “best” bait, it is hardy and easily caught. Most commonly used are the smaller perch, and the shiners are normally fished near the bottom with a Carolina rigging or a live bait sliding rigging. At times though, even high/low leaders baited with the small fish will produce a halibut, bass, shark or a ray.

Smelt/Silversides. Although not as good as live anchovies, 3-6-inch long smelt, are actually the main “live bait” used by most halibut fisherman in SoCal and the Bay Area. Small topsmelt, Atherinops affinis, and jacksmelt, Atherinopsis californiensis are the two species of “smelt” used although neither is actually a true smelt; both are actually members of the silversides family. Typically they are caught by net or Sabiked up via a bait rig. In southern California the small smelt will tempt bass, croaker (occasionally), halibut, and sharks and rays (especially guitarfish). In San Francisco Bay they tempt halibut, striped bass, shark and sturgeon. An advantage of smelt is that they are fairly hardy and will stay alive on a hook for some time, certainly far longer than anchovies, but live ‘chovies will almost always out fish them. For frozen smelt simply fish as you would any cut bait.

Live versus Frozen Bait

There is no comparison between fresh fish used as bait and frozen fish. Although it’s true that there are times when any bait seems to work (as during a “mac attack”), generally you need good bait and fresh bait out performs frozen bait.

By fresh I mean bait caught and used the same day or bait used within a day or so after capture. If saving bait, put it in a bait cooler immediately after being caught and when you get home put it in a Ziploc bag in your refrigerator. Do not freeze it.

Scent, blood and natural oils. The main advantage of fresh versus frozen bait is that fresh fish bait retains its natural scent, blood, and oils. Frozen bait sees a decrease in all of these things.

Fish contain cells full of amino acid proteins that attract other fish. That’s an important fact for those species that primarily rely upon their sense of smell, their olfactory system, to find their prey (aka food). Many of these species have poor eyesight but will follow “chemical signatures” in the water (such as blood scent trails) to find their prey. Sharays, sharks and rays, are the prime examples of this but it is true of many species, most being bottom feeders.

Unfortunately the freezing process negatively impacts these important cells. The why is seen in Kitchen Science by Howard Hillman. Osmosis is the natural passing of liquid through the cell walls to equalize the concentration of liquid inside and outside the cells. The process helps maintain the rigidity of the cells (and food). Unfortunately, “freezing diminishes the osmotic capability of the cells and their capacity to absorb and retain water.” Ice crystals form inside and around the cells when frozen, ”these crystals take up more space than the original water, and the expansion bursts many of the cell walls and pushes cells apart giving the seeping liquid an easy escape route.”

When thawed, the liquid flowing out of these ruptured cell walls carry some of the original flavors and nutrients. Less nutrients and scent mean less fish.

Additional problems can occur if the bait is stored for a long time in the freezer. One problem is that the bait may pick up foreign odors from the freezer. Secondly, if stored poorly, the bait can actually turn yellow and appear freezer burned. Neither situation makes for good bait.

Texture. Generally when frozen bait is thawed it has a softer, mushier consistency than fresh bait. This is especially true with the delicate anchovies but also is true with sardines, herring and mackerel.

The best approach is to keep the frozen bait in a semi-frozen state where it is still firm. Semi-frozen bait can generally be hooked and cast without losing the bait. You just need a bait cooler and a little ice or frozen plastic ice blocks, i.e., Igloo Maxcold Ice Blocks. However, remember that the bait will thaw in the water so frequently check to make sure you still have bait on your hook.

If the bait is thoroughly thawed out—and mushy, you will need to carefully cast out your bait and you may need to use something like “Magic Thread” to keep the bait on the hook. Of course the thread detracts from the appearance of the bait.


Well-Known Member
I can't believe no pier offers live anchovies today. It was a staple of pier fishing when I was a kid.
Still, frozen anchovies are a good bait for yellow perch up here so I get a dose of memories which I buy a bag.

Ken Jones

Staff member
I can't believe no pier offers live anchovies today. It was a staple of pier fishing when I was a kid.
Still, frozen anchovies are a good bait for yellow perch up here so I get a dose of memories which I buy a bag.
Yes, I miss the live anchovies on the pier but I also understand how hard it is today to make it work given the costs and liabilities. Sign of the times.

Ken Jones

Staff member
Was thinking of the loss of flavor and nutrients from frozen bait and was thinking of adding the following:

Although fish oil is often put on lures, it may seem somewhat ridiculous to put fish oil on fish used as bait. However, if the frozen fish is lacking in fish attracting oils, why not spice up the fish with additional oil? There are many different brands with Pro-Cure and Gulp! Alive being just a couple. Be willing to experiment and see if they help. Do match the oil to the fish you are using, i.e., anchovy oil for anchovies.