How to

Alive & Kicking

How To: Fish with Livebaits

Bait is best, especially when it comes to livebaits. Few fish can resist food that’s alive and kicking. JAMIE CRAWFORD details how to catch and rig a range of popular livies.

NO matter how well you can present a rigged dead-bait, soft plastic or hard-body lure, there are still some species of fish that will refuse these offerings. Live-baiting is the go-to method when other techniques draw a blank, as few predatory species will pass up a kicking livie.

A little while back we had a morning’s fishing which underscored the importance of livebait. A mate and I had launched our 4.5m runabout at Coffin Bay, in SA, targeting the big kingfish which flood into this shallow waterway in late spring. We were at anchor in the channel shortly after sun-up, and it didn’t take long to figure out the kings were in and on the chew.

Garfish were skipping nervously across the water surface as large golden tails ripped through the shallows. We quickly rigged a couple of dead mackerel, and floated them out underneath their respective balloons. Slowly retrieving my dead bait, several keg-class kingies followed, but snubbed the offering in lieu of the real thing.

After persevering unsuccessfully with dead baits and surface lures for some time, we were left no choice but to up-anchor and leave the feeding kings while we targeted some livies. With the school of kingfish in the bay, the baitfish were skittish and it took us over an hour to secure four measly garfish.

However, when we arrived back in the channel, these four livebaits resulted in three hook-ups for two fish landed: a 27 and a 30kg kingfish.

This situation highlights the importance of live bait. Although the kings were active and feeding at the time, they still refused all presentations bar live gar.

Livies aren’t just used to target the apex predators, though. A long list of species with from whiting and bream to mulloway and barra will all fall to a well-presented livebait. The live-baiting banner includes more than just using live fish too; it incorporates squid, crabs, shrimps, yabbies and even worms. Below I’ll detail how to gather and look after your live baits, the rigs used and the species targeted on livies.

The list of species willing to eat a live fish is almost endless, with everything from flathead, kingfish, mackerel and mulloway to snapper, cobia, tuna and marlin being suitable candidates for a hook-rigged live baitfish.

Bait jigs such as the Ichiban Bait Jig, the Flasher Rig, Lumo Bead Bait Jig and the Wasabi Bait Catcher are bait-less rigs designed to catch schooling baitfish such as slimy mackerel, yakkas, herring and red bait. They work a treat, and if the baitfish are co-operative you can fill the live bait tank in no time. If you don’t have a bait jig on hand, a paternoster rig with size 10 – 12 hooks with a small cube of bait is the next best thing. Up north, cast netting is the accepted method for securing some livebait.

The species of bait fish will vary depending on location, and also on the species you intend targeting. On a beach situation live salmon trout, mullet or tailor are gun baits for surf roaming jew, while over an offshore reef or current line, dropping a live yakka or slimy mackerel is dynamite on pelagic species.

Although the species of baitfish changes between locations, the principals for maintaining healthy and lively fish remain the same, whether on a boat, beach, jetty or estuary. There’s nothing worse than putting in great effort to secure livebait, only to find they are dead when it comes time to use them.

There are three important water parameters to keep in mind when maintaining live fish.

Dissolved oxygen: Most finfish species can tolerate dissolved oxygen levels down to around 3ppm without distress, below this and asphyxiation will begin.

Temperature: Most species can tolerate a 5 – 6 degree temperature shock, but beyond this will start killing some species of fish. Ensuring there is minimal temperature difference between the ambient sea temp and the live well temp is important.

Ammonia: When live fish are maintained in a bucket or tank for a prolonged period without water exchange, their wastes break down to form dissolved toxins in the water.

A submersible pump used to exchange water is the best option to avoid the above three issues. If you are in a location where a pump cannot be used, such as on a beach or jetty, then using a battery powered aerator will help to maintain oxygen levels, but you will still need regular water exchanges to avoid temperature and ammonia issues.

There are two common rigs used for baiting live fish: the single and the double hook rig. The single hook rig is commonly used by offshore fishers targeting pelagic species such as tuna and marlin. A circle hook is used, and the baitfish is pinned via a rubber band or twine through the eye socket, called bridling.

The double hook rig is better for larger baits such as salmon and mullet, and is used when casting is required. Snelling a pair of live bait or Octopus style hooks around 5cm apart is effective for most bait fish. Hook size varies depending on bait size, but 5/0 to 9/0 hooks are the usual range. When rigging a live fish on a double hook rig, the bottom hook goes in first (in the flesh behind the head) and the second hook goes in last (through the flesh of the back below the dorsal spines).

Live squid are one of the best live baits available. They are hardy, they sit well and look great under water when rigged, and most predatory saltwater fish love ’em. It’s not uncommon to use the same squid during a full day of live baiting (if the action is slow). Squid are commonly caught around patches of inshore broken reef and weed, and can be targeted using any one of the prawn or fish style jigs, or with baited jags such as the Squid Witch.

Squid keep well in a live bait tank, provided there is good water circulation. They have a habit of inking the live well, which reduces the efficiency of oxygen transfer. Having a submersible pump is the best option, but an aerator combined with manual water exchanges will also suffice. The drawback of live squid is they are sensitive to temperature shock, so ensure the live bait tank hasn’t increased in temp before lowering your prized live squid into the drink – we’ve accidently shocked a few!

Because of their size, a double hook rig is the best option for live squid. We use larger hook sizes of 7/0 to 9/0 when rigging live squid. We snell the hooks around 15cm apart, but we also have a few rigs pre-tied at different lengths to match different sized squid. Be careful not to pierce the squid’s feather (backbone) with a hook, instead pierce the bottom hook through the opening of the mantle (just offset of the feather), and the top hook in through the tip of the mantle (tube).


Crabs are a great bait on a number of different species. From bream in the estuary, groper from the stones, and snapper from the reefs, crabs are a favourite food item for many species. By using crabs as bait you are effectively weaning through the smaller pickers and targeting mainly the larger models.

Rock crabs are the most common crab sourced as bait. These crabs can be collected from under rocks and in pools of rocky shorelines. However, be careful to check on local regulations for collecting crabs as there are some restrictions. In my home state of SA, for instance, the intertidal protection zone prevents the collection of crabs (and all other crustaceans, bivalves and worms) from the high tide mark down to two metres of depth. As with all live bait collecting – don’t go overboard! Collect just enough for your immediate needs.

Crabs are the easiest live bait to maintain, all they need is to be kept moist and away from direct sunlight. Don’t put them in a bucket full of water; instead just have enough water to cover the bottom of the bucket.

The drawback for using live crabs as bait is they have a habit of hiding or burying themselves when fished on the bottom. For this reason, we either fish our crabs under a float or with a light ball sinker so they slowly drift through the water. In the estuary we use a single size 2 hook for the smaller crabs, and a single 5/0 hook when targeting groper or snapper around reef.

Freshwater Crustaceans
Freshwater crustaceans such as shrimp, yabbies, red claw and cherabin are the staple diet of many of our inland native fish and, naturally, they are gun baits. From golden perch and Murray cod down south, to barramundi up north – all of our prized native freshwater species eat crustaceans.

Freshwater crustaceans aren’t strong swimmers and prefer the low water flow close to river banks or in backwaters. They burrow in the banks and in reed-covered shallows. Shrimps can be targeted using shrimp pots that are baited with meat or fish scraps. Shrimps are active when the water temps are higher, and thus during winter they become hard to catch.

The larger freshwater crustaceans, such as yabbies, red claw and cherabin, can be targeted by using opera-house nets, yabby traps or hoop nets baited with meat or fish scraps. Check local regulations as to which traps can be used in your local area. These larger crustaceans are more active during the night, so it pays to have fresh baits set during the night, and to check the nets first thing in the morning (or during the night if they are easy to access).

Freshwater crustaceans are tolerant to low oxygen levels, but sensitive to temperature fluctuations. The best set-up is to have a submersible pump exchanging water, or alternatively to do it manually, but regularly. The air temperatures around our inland waterways fluctuate a lot from cold night time air to warm day time air, and small live bait tanks will fluctuate in temperature as well, if not regularly exchanged.

To keep these baits alive and kicking while on the hook, it is best to pin them lightly in the tail. Choose hook size according to the size of the bait, but for shrimps a size 4 – 6 is good, with the larger crustaceans requiring a 2/0 – 6/0 hook.

Pink nippers or saltwater yabbies are a fantastic all-round estuary bait for species such as whiting, bream, flathead and school jew. They can be collected from sand flats at low tide with the aid of a bait pump. Wait for complete low tide, and then walk the flats looking for tell-tale holes with raised collars of sediment. The holes with discoloured collars (grey to black sand) are indicative of fresh activity, and usually span the width of a 10c piece.

Place the pump vertically over the hole, and with firm pressure lift the handle at the same time as pushing down on the pump tube. Release the sand to the side (it’s unusual to collect the nipper on the first pump) – this sand is often firm. Repeat the process another one or two times. You will notice the following pumps will be more water; now keep an eye out for the nipper.

It doesn’t take long to collect enough bait for a session, and it’s a fun activity to do with the kids. We release nippers that are berried (carrying eggs), and keep the others in a bucket of saltwater. These little guys are very sensitive to temperature increases, so keep them in the shade and renew the water as often as possible. I usually drop a frozen ice-pack into the bucket to prevent them from overheating (they will handle the lower temps a lot better than the warmer ones).

When using live nippers, we use a fine gauge size 4 hook pinned through the base of the tail, which keeps them alive for as long as possible. Inserting the hook up through the tail gives a better presentation, but the nippers soon die. We use a small running ball sinker to aid in casting, but keep the weight as light as possible.

Well that’s a brief summary of the live baiting options available to the everyday angler. Live baiting is an effective means of bagging some great fish, and getting kids involved in gathering the bait is a cool way to include them in the grass-roots of fishing.

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