Fundamentally, fishing is very simple. A rod, a reel, line, a hook, and some bait are the only reel tools needed to do the job effectively. However, the only part of that arsenal that the fish really care about is the bait, and it’s the nature of fishermen to spend far too much time searching for the right type for their expedition. Here, I will take you through a few tried and true methods of selecting the right bait for any location, climate, season, or species.
Match the hatch. Fishermen hear this phrase more than anything, and understandably so. It’s not uncommon to spot bait fish, crustaceans, grubs, or flies as soon as you come to a new location and it’s important to study these small creatures because they’re the main sources of food for the local fish species. Imitate these small creatures as closely as possible to target the water’s larger predators and maybe even try to catch a few to use live.
Match the color. In many instances, the most important attribute to imitate with these baits is color. For instance, if you’re fishing in a freshwater river and there are crayfish (crawdads for you southerners) all over the shallows, don’t stress if they are missing from your bag. Look for bait colored closest to these crays and make the cast.
Examine the conditions and adapt. One of the most important conditions to consider is water clarity. In clear water, fish will be much wearier of artificial-looking baits and may be turned off by something out of the ordinary. Likewise, murky or discolored water hampers the fish’s visibility and prevents them from easily spotting a natural-colored bait as easily. If you drop your bait a foot under the surface of the water and cannot see it, chances are, the fish can’t either. In this case, try a more vibrant color. It may seem odd using a chartreuse jig in water with no baitfish that color, but it could be just what you need to get the fish’s attention in muddy water.
Continue examining the conditions. Water temperature is also another important condition to consider. Warm water often makes fish more aggressive in their feeding patterns at different times of day and causes them to chase after larger baits. On the other hand, cold water tends to make fish more sluggish, making them more likely to react to a subtler presentation.
Know what you are targeting. Targeting fish like barracuda, bluefish, and mackerel is very different than targeting flounder, speckled trout, or redfish. The baits are different, the strike is different, and getting them to bite requires a different mindset. Almost any of these species will react to a baitfish they are used to seeing at the right time, but using artificial lures for each of these becomes more of an art form. Metallic shines and flashy colors often trigger strikes best with cudas, blues, and macks, but fluke, specks, and reds make you work for it a little more. For these, and many other species like them, it is important to understand their feeding habits and use them to your advantage.
Ask a bait shop. Don’t be afraid to swing into a local tackle shop and ask for some pointers. When you arrive in a new location, it can be difficult to figure out how to catch fish right away. These shops are often given intel from their charter affiliates and locals on the status of fishing in the area. They want you to catch fish because it’s good for the sport in the area. However, you must always be willing to adapt. Don’t just stick with a bait because the shop said it was working. Try something new until you find a tactic that works for that day.
Pay close attention when you filet your catch. It may not seem particularly sanitary in the moment, but don’t be afraid to look in the stomach of fish you are fileting. These undigested items can provide valuable information for future trips.