Bait Fish

Many Fisheries scientific studies show without doubt that approximately ninety eight percent of a Striped Bass diet is made up of Shad or Herring and other bait fish. So the more you know about forage base fish in your favorite striped bass fishing hole, the better your chance of catching more striped bass. Below are some favorite live bait fish used by striped bass fishermen around the country.


The Alewife is a primary forage of Striped Bass in northeast coastal waters as well as many Inland freshwater lakes and rivers. Although most found in freshwater will be 3-4 inches, they do reach a length of 6” in freshwater and when you can find them that size or larger you have found some great striped bass bait. In saltwater they grow up to 12-inches. They can be found from Maine to Tennessee. At night, they come into shallow water and up topward the surface especially under a heavy light, in the daytime they form dense schools and suspend in deep water. The easiest way to catch them is to attracted them to lights at night where they become easily to catch in cast nets. Because of their small size, I recommend a ¼-inch mesh cast net to prevent gilling the bait for freshwater while the 1/2-inch net is perfect for catching the larger ones in saltwater. Alewife and blueback herring are almost indistinguishable from one another, and in the northeastern coastal areas they are collectively referred to as river herring.

At one time they were very plentiful. Historically, they packed streams in such large numbers that settlers gave them another name: “glut” fish. One early Chesapeake historian Robert Beverly in 1705 wrote “In the spring of the year, herrings come up in such abundance into their brooks and fords that it is almost impossible to ride through without treading on them,”. Herring were so thick, he wrote, that “even the freshest of rivers … stink of fish.”

The following was copied from the September 2000 issue of the Chesapeake Bay Journal:
In sheer numbers, river herring greatly outnumbered shad. In the 1830s, as many as 750 million herring were taken during an eight-week spawning season on the Potomac River, compared with 22.5 million for shad. And the number of herring were considered to be “not more than one-fourth of the total number in the river during the season,” according to Spencer Baird, of the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries, in an 1886 report.

While shad are rebounding — helped in large part by major hatchery-based stocking efforts in all of the Bay states — river herring abundances remain low. “As much as we’ve been encouraged by statistically significant increased abundances for American shad and hickory shad in the James, the bottom has just dropped out for the blueback herring and the alewife,” said Greg Garman, head of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Environmental Studies.

In fact, a 1991 Bay Program report stated, “Of all the anadromous fish species harvested in the Chesapeake Bay, the river herrings experienced the most drastic decline in commercial landings.”

As recently as 1931, more than 25 million pounds of river herring were harvested in the Bay, making them second in quantity and fifth in value of all Chesapeake finfish.

By the 1990s, the commercial catch was almost nonexistent. In 1996, only 1.4 million pounds were caught along the entire East Coast.

Much of the population collapse was blamed on foreign fishing fleets. During the 1960s and early 1970s — before the United States restricted fishing within 200 miles of its coast — the fleets were often seen harvesting fish within sight of the beach.

In 1969 alone, the foreign fishery is estimated to have taken 74 million pounds of river herring — on top of the U.S. harvest. The heavy fishing pressure took many fish before they had a chance to spawn, sending the population into a downward spiral from which it has yet to recover.

Any comeback is hindered by plenty of other problems: the loss of essential spawning and nursery habitat because of water pollution and the construction of dams and other fish blockages. While little fishing effort is targeted at river herring today, concerns remain that large numbers may be taken as bycatch in other commercial fisheries.

River herring also suffer from neglect. Historically, people have always favored shad, their larger cousin. While early settlers greeted spring herring runs as a fresh source of food — one that often delivered them from starvation — the fish were often harvested for less glamorous purposes, such as fertilizer. Even today, most commercially caught herring are ground up for fish meal or pet food, or used as bait. In contrast, shad remain highly prized for their meat, their eggs or roe, and their fighting ability at the end of a fishing line.

As a result, justifying the large-scale hatchery operations for herring, like those that are rebuilding the shad stock, is difficult. “We have to downplay river herring because we can’t attach those huge recreational fishing benefits to them like we do with shad,” said Richard St. Pierre, Susquehanna River Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

So, while shad are stocked by the millions, the most that has happened for herring in recent years is that biologists trucked a few thousand upstream of dams on the Susquehanna and James rivers in the hope that they will produce young that will “imprint” on those upstream areas and someday return to spawn. Some small upstream dams have also been removed in the hope that herring will someday return.

The stocking effort was stepped up this year when, in the Anacostia River, 2.6 million hatchery-reared herring larvae were released as part of a larger multimillion dollar fish passage and restoration project funded with mitigation money from the construction of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge over the Potomac. Officials focused on river herring, because, unlike the larger shad, which confine themselves to bigger waterways, river herring will swim into smaller headwater streams.

“We don’t have much of a shad run in the Anacostia,” said John Galli, Anacostia restoration program manager with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. “We know from historic evidence that these fish did go pretty far up into these stream systems at one time, but in the past 100 or more years, they’ve taken it on the chin.

“We may not get big herring runs in the Anacostia for some time to come,” he added, “but we may be able to get the herring running pretty far up into these tributary streams and that will promote greater interest in the watershed, and in the restoration of the watershed, which is really what we are all about.”

But rearing herring in hatcheries is more difficult than it is for shad. So rather than releasing small fish, or “fry,” as is done with shad, the Anacostia operation released much smaller, almost microscopic larvae, which are more vulnerable to predation.

“When I throw the larvae in, I feel like I just fed all of the sunfish and the minnows and everything else hanging around in the area,” said Phong Trieu, an aquatic biologist with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. “Hopefully, if we do this a number of times over many years, we will get some good recruitment.”

In fact, efforts to rebuild river herring stocks may be compounded by the fact that almost everything likes to eat them, from other fish to reptiles, amphibians, mammals — even birds. A study at one Connecticut lake estimated that only one out of every 80,000 spawned alewife eggs produced a juvenile fish that escaped alive. (An adult female can produce between 100,000 and 467,000 eggs.) When millions of river herring packed spawning streams, such predation wasn’t a problem. But a recent Chesapeake Bay report raised concerns that high levels of predation on today’s reduced stock could slow the natural recovery of the stocks.

That problem could be compounded, Garman suggested, by the introduction of nonnative predators, such as the blue catfish, the flathead catfish and others. When there were big spawning runs in the rivers, he said, predators were few. “Now, they’ve got to run this gantlet of large, very efficient predators,” Garman said. “I think we’ve just seen the beginning of a significant new source of mortality.”

A restored herring population would bring a number of other benefits, although they are harder to quantify. More herring would mean more forage for predators in the rivers and the Bay. Research has shown that the large numbers of river herring that once glutted headwater streams were an important source of nutrients in those areas. This provided other ecological benefits as well. One study, for instance, found that the deaths of migrating alewife reduced sedimentation rates in lakes by furnishing nitrogen and phosphorus, which stimulated the growth of organisms that devoured leaf litter.

There is also economic potential for the fish. They are popular, especially in New England, both pickled and salted. As recently as the early 1960s, dip netting for herring during spawning runs was so popular at some locations on the banks of the upper Chesapeake Bay and lower Susquehanna River that it was sometimes difficult to find a space to dip on March and April nights during spawning runs.

While river herring are not targeted for restoration as aggressively as shad, efforts that help shad — such as cleaning the water, building fish passages and removing tributary dams — will also help alewife and blueback herring. In fact, biologists expect river herring to someday dwarf shad abundance in the Susquehanna basin, where targets are set. Above the southernmost Conowingo Dam, the goal is to eventually get 3 million shad — but 20 million river herring.

But, St. Pierre, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, acknowledges the river herring goal is “really a shot in the dark.” No one actually knows how many herring swam in the river in past centuries. Typically, though, smaller herring outnumber larger shad in coastal rivers, sometimes by as much as 10-to-1, St. Pierre said.

Big numbers remain a long way off. But, blueback herring and alewife have occasionally shown promising signs in various Bay tributaries. As many as 300,000 bluebacks have been seen at Conowingo Dam in recent years, although other years have seen only a few hundred.

That offers a glimmer of hope that, with the right mix of environmental conditions, and a bit of help, that number could eventually mushroom. “At some point, it could suddenly turn into several millions,” St. Pierre said.

River Herring

River herring come in two varieties, alewife and blueback herring. The two fish are almost identical in appearance and both are usually referred to simply as river herring. Alewife range along the Atlantic Coast from Newfoundland to South Carolina, with their population center off New England. Blueback herring range from Nova Scotia to northern Florida, with their population center off the southern states. Although both were historically abundant in the Mid-Atlantic. Both can grow to lengths of nearly 15 inches, the blueback is slightly more elongated, and has smaller eyes than the alewife.

BLUEBACK Herring (Alosa aestivalis)

As stated above, the Blueback Herring are very similar in appearance to Alewife and most people are unable to distinguish differences between the two. Their range pretty much overlaps the Alewife and the habits of both are similar. Landlocked Blue Backs grow larger with specimens of 8-10” common. Catching Blue Backs for bait works much the same as with Alewives. Both of these baitfish are photosensitive usually staying deep during daylight. They can be netted at sunrise in the back of coves with flowing creeks. Alternatively, they can be caught with Sabiki rigs or plain gold hooks in deep water.

Blueback Herring and Fishing

Blueback herring are a favorite food of bass where they live in the same waters. They are a saltwater fish that can live in freshwater and have become established in many freshwater lakes.

  • Blueback Herring Description – Blueback herring and alewife are very similar. They are flat sided fish with rounded bellies and forked tails. Both are silvery with dark blue or bronze backs and have small spiny scales along their belly. The TWRA have made a great comparison chart to try and tell them apart.
  • Blueback Herring Size – Their average size is 4-6 inches, but they do reach a length of approximately 16 inches (40 cm) and weight of 7 ounces (200 g.) Maximum age is about eight years.
  • Blueback Herring Distribution – From Nova Scotia to northern Florida and inland rivers and lakes.
  • What Blueback Herring Eat – Microscopic plants and animals (plankton), small insects, small fish and eggs of fish (including largemouth)
  • Blueback Herring Spawn – In fresh or brackish water by depositing eggs that stick to hard objects like gravel, rocks, plants and wood, and as many already know, your boat transom and outboard motor.
  • In lakes they like hard botoms composed of clay or gravel where wind and wave action keep silt clear. They will spawn on riprap, seawalls and pilings, too.
  • Blueback Herring Attraction to Light – Blueback herring seem to come to the surface when the sun is shining and go deep on darker days. For that reason the topwater bite is better on sunny days and largemouth and spotted bass tend to feed better when the sun is shining.
  • Blueback Herring Life Cycle – In saltwater adult blueback herring swim to fresh or brackish water to spawn. They spawn in water above 70 degrees, so lake herring spawn when the water reaches about 70 degrees. Many adults die after the spawn but a few survive to return to the sea. The larval herring live for a few months in spawning areas then move back to the sea. In freshwater herring are more likely to survive the spawn. Female herring are fully mature at five years old and produce 60,000 tp 100,000 eggs. Males are smaller and mature at three to five years of age.
  • Blueback Herring Problems In Freshwater Lakes – Since blueback herring eat fish eggs and fry as well as the food that game fish fry eat, they are director predators and competitors with them. Because of this they ahve caused problems with largemouth populations in Lake Burton and Nottely in Georgia and walleye populations in Lake Hiwassee in North Carolina. All state Departments of Natural Resources work to limit their spread in freshwater lakes and it is illegal to use them as live bait in lakes where they don’t already exist and it is always illegal to stock them.

Blueback herring are a mixed blessing in lakes and the long term effects might be very bad. Follow your state’s rules about stocking any species in any lake. The biologists know more about this than we fishermen do. Rember that they are illegal in Tennessee and in Alabama, just to name a few areas.


Silverside or Ghost Minnows are prime striper bait on Lakes West of the Mississippi. They are usually threaded several to a hook and fished on sand bottoms.Obtaining Ghost Minnows requires seining in most instances. Sandy beaches and boat ramps are favored seining spots. The bait ranges up to 6” in length and is usually not fished live. They make up an important part of a stripers diet as well as being white bass candy.

Bluegills are a member of the sunfish family. They are easy to cast net, or they can be caught
Fly rods, spinning gear, or cane poles. Early spring or Late fall are usually the best times to use them for bait

Gizzard shad have probably accounted for more striped bass than any other live bait in freshwater. They are usually easy to obtain on most lakes and are widespread across the United States. They are commonly found in the backs of muddy coves in water less than 6’ deep. Cast net the bait using a 7’ –3/8 mesh net. Look for dimpling of the lake surface to locate this schooling bait. Ideal size for bait are shad from 6 to 12” with gizzard shad capable of reaching weights of 4lbs. Striped Bass were stocked in inland lakes as a control for these prolific members of the Herring family.

Threadfin shad are usually found in the same ranges as the gizzard shad. They are not quite as hardy as the Gizzard. Like Gizzards, they are an important part of the forage base. Employ the same methods for locating and catching them as you would gizzards. Usual bait sizes are from 4 to 10”. Also called a yellowtail.

All Herring are PREDATORY; this includes gizzard and threadfin shad. Stocking any member of the Herring family should be carefully considered. They can adversely affect some fish populations! There are stiff fines in many states for importing or transporting some baitfish, make sure you check the state regulations !

Mooneyes are another predatory herring found in most drainage to the Mississippi. They are found from Sluggish streams to fast moving water. They can be caught on small spinners, flies, spoons, or earthworms fished on a small hook. Usually olive green on back with silversides. Striper fishermen have been known to go to GREAT lengths to obtain this seldom seen bait. Large specimens can weigh up to 3lbs. Ideal bait sizes are from 8 to 16”. They can be cast netted but it requires a 10-foot ½ “ mesh FAST sinking net. This is perhaps one of the speediest live baits to be found.

Spot tail minnows are also excellent Striper bait. You can usually find them under overhanging willows along rivers or lakes feeding on small flies. A ¼” mesh cast net will keep from gilling this small bait. Alternatively, they can be seined. Usual bait sizes range from 3” up to 5”.

Skipjack Herring aka Poor Man’s Tarpon, or River Herring, will readily take small artificial. Common in rivers from Texas to South Carolina. Seldom cast netted. Ranges up to 4lb. Ideal bait size is from 6 to 16”. They can be a ball to catch on fly rods or ultralite spinning tackle. Once hooked they will repeatedly jump from the water. Extremely hard to keep alive in a bait tank. A modified tuna tube will keep them lively. Many Striper over 40lbs are caught on this bait each year.

The Golden Shiner is favored wintertime bait. Shiners are found around moss beds and reed stands on many lakes and rivers in the US. They are easily cast netted after throwing breadcrumbs out on the water, or they can be caught on a rod and reel using a hair fine hook and about a 1/8” in diameter rolled piece of bread. Ideal bait size is from 5 to 12”.
A twelve-inch specimen will weigh about 3/4lb. extremely easy to keep for long periods and very tough bait.

White Perch or Waccamaws, are a Stripers relative but at times Striper can’t resist eating them. Similar to a White Bass in appearance but without pronounced lateral lines. Bait stealers UN paralleled in their range, which is from Maine to Kansas. Easily caught in cast nets, or with very small artificial or live baits fished on bottom. Ideal size for bait is from 4 to 8”. Extremely sharp gill plates so handle with care!!!

River Red horse sucker. Found in clear fast moving streams, several close relatives scattered across central US. Occasionally caught while cast netting, can also be caught fishing small earthworms on the bottom. Very hardy bait.

Well I have shown you some baits that work well all over the US. I left out trout, crawfish and drum, as most are familiar with their use as bait. There are also innumerable members of the Minnow family, which also make excellent bait. You may even have a favorite I have never used. GET THE NET!!!!


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