The Importance of Bait

My introduction to fishing goes back as far as I can remember on a little sub-tropical creek on the outskirts of Coffs Harbour known as Boambee. My Grandpas doorstep was on the creek and when Christmas king tides combined with a big rain his door step was literally on the creek.

Back in those days (early seventies) the little creek represented possibly the best estuary fishing in NSW with a liberal mix of southern and tropical species. Securing a feed was never a problem and gazing in awe, upon my Pa’s return, into the tub full of silver bream, red bream (mangrove jacks) flatties, beer bottle sized whiting, estuary cod and mud crabs formed some of my most inspiring piscatorial memories.

Finally, my Pa declared that he was going to teach me how to fish. Pa’s teaching methods involved little talk but plenty of action. I can remember vividly my disappointment as he striped the foliage off the little green she oak twig, tied about a meter of line on and a tiny size 12 long shank. Surely this flimsy toy was not going to do battle with any one of those gleaming leviathans of the fish tub. Then it was down to the pontoon with a ball of dough where we proceeded to secure about a dozen glassies (a small transparent perchlet) which were kept alive in a bucket.

From here it was down to the sand banks with a strange cylindrical object which sucked these creepy looking pink critters from the sand. Despite their feeble disabled appearance as they lay there on the slurry I soon learnt that , given half a chance, the large claw packed a mean nip. It was midday now and Pa announced that we would go back for lunch. This had to be another one of Pa’s practical jokes. If this was fishing, then I wasn’t sure if I was interested.

The morning had been fun, but it wasn’t until after lunch that I saw its relevance to those tubs of fish. We motored off downstream and settled the boat on a deep hole. Here I learnt that the mornings effort was called bait gathering and nothing could have demonstrated its importance any better than my very own tub of fish at the end of the day. It would have probably been easier for Pa to gather that bait on his own or even buy some packet bait but then one of fishings most critical lessons would have been lost and that is the importance of live or fresh bait.

Nothing has changed, live and fresh bait is still the key to success despite the fact that a huge increase in processed bait sales in recent years would indicate the contrary. Processed bait is a fact of life and not because its superior but simply because most people just don’t have the time for bait collecting these days.

In the following piece I want to talk a bit about the use of processed and live\ fresh bait in our rivers and estuary. You will hear all sorts of different interpretations as to what’s the most important aspect of fishing success. Some think it’s line others think it’s hooks or high-tech rods and reels. The bottom line is, that the quality of the bait determines whether your hook is going into the fish’s mouth.

Bait is the vehicle that takes the hook into the fish’s mouth. If the fish rejects it then it will lay there on the bottom and it doesn’t matter how expensive or high tech the rest of the outfit is there will be no fish in the tub.

Bait(definition). n food to entice fish; any lure or enticement.

A lure is a bait, it’s an artificial bait, just ask any American. A lure in the hands of an expert is very often as successful, sometimes more successful than real bait, but I stress the word expert. There is a very high skill level required to take fish, in numbers, consistently on lures.

Don’t worry, I’ve got no intention (nor the space) to get technical to the extent where I would include lure fishing in a bait fishing article. The point that I am going to make is that a bait might get taken for a number of reasons.

Smell or taste is one, the other is movement. For example, the question must be asked, does a flathead take a prawn bait on the drift because it’s moving or because it smells like food. A flathead will take a lure bounced along the bottom and it has no smell or taste. Therefore, a natural baits presentation must be taken into consideration when concluding why a fish might have taken it.

On the other hand, take for example a lure like the Berkley ‘power baits’ range of soft plastic lures. They are primarily designed as a lure, but I know as a fact that fish will take them as a bait if they are left to sit on the bottom. Are they a bait or a lure?

We can assume that an unscented lure has been hit because of its movement but we can’t always assume that a natural bait has been taken because of smell. There’s no denying though that a bait is very often taken because of its initial smell. I am trying to highlight the importance of bait presentation.

Assuming that a fish can be coaxed into taking a bait on presentation alone there’s no denying that once it is in the fish’s mouth smell and taste come into play. An artificial bait with no scent will be rejected almost immediately. A natural bait will be rejected on a time scale in accordance with its acceptability to the fish. Stale baits will go first, right through to a point where the bait is fresh enough for the fish to decide to swallow it. Fresh or live bait is therefore the obvious choice.

In summary it’s all very simple;

Presentation is very important; your bait might be taken on presentation alone especially by predatory fish. Presentation doesn’t just mean the way the bait is put on the hook either. It also refers to the way it is presented in the water i.e.; moving floating or fixed etc.

Fresh bait is important for both the initial attraction and its acceptance once taken.

Live bait is the ultimate. Providing it is presented properly live bait offers the best in sensory attraction. Firstly, it’s wriggling, throwing off reflection and vibration — it might even be kicking up sand or mud offering further visual attraction. Once it’s taken, it feels right, it smells and tastes right — because it is right.

The hook is the only thing out of order with a livie and as fish are used to swallowing all sorts of hard sharp things every day I don’t think that would be such a problem. The line is of course a factor and as always, the lighter the better. Being extremely thin, soft and supply gel spun will make a very interesting trace line.

I was fishing for bream on lake Macquarie some time back using dead prawns. Action was painfully slow, so out of boredom I grabbed a scoop net and started pouncing around in the shallow weed beds. The prawns weren’t exactly running but in half an hour or so I had secured half a dozen live prawns. An hour later I had half a dozen healthy bream in the bag. This situation has occurred on many occasions.

This highlights two things. Firstly, you can’t always assume that there are no fish in your area simply because you haven’t caught them and secondly the effectiveness of live bait.

I’ll go through some of the baits and how to use them.


Most of the frozen packet stuff you buy, with the exception of things like gut and fillets, can be obtained one way or another in its live state. It’s exactly the same creature as in its frozen form but infinitely more effective.

Availability of live baits through tackle and bait outlets is sparse. The cost of collecting and then maintaining live bait is the limiting factor.

Prawns and shellfish are commonly available, live, through the fish markets thanks to the needs of our ever-growing Asian population. Livies available through tackle and bait outlets include worms (beach blood and squirt) and Nippers or yabbies. If you want anything else live you will have to catch it yourself.


Most of our rivers estuaries and especially lakes have prawn stocks to some degree. They are gathered at night using a bright torch and a scoop net or a drag net. They keep well in either an aerated bucket or in wet ribbon weed or sawdust. Keeping them cool is very important. Live prawns are the ultimate estuary bait and will take virtually every species. To hook a prawn a number 4 – 1\0, depending on the size of the bait, is pushed up from underneath the last segment towards the tail and out through the top of the shell so the barb is exposed.


Yabbies are found in the sand banks towards the lower reaches of rivers and estuary. The only practical way method of extracting them is via a yabbie pump. I’ve had an alvey pump for over twenty years and have replaced the washes only once. We brought it for about fifteen bucks, and have, over the years, pumped probably thousands of dollars worth of bait. They also work on squirt worms so as you can see they are well worth the investment. Yabbies are kept alive in much the same way as prawns. They are pinned on a number 4- 1\0 bait holder pattern hook by pushing the hook along the body, starting from the tail, until it reaches the eye of the hook. The point and barb should come out on the underside of the yabbie.


The most effective live fish baits include yellowtail, garfish, mullet and herring. If your living in a part of the country where cast nets are legal then they are a very worthy investment and once you’ve mastered them are highly effective method of collecting live bait. In other areas a good burly trail, light line and a size 12 hook will do the job. Alternatively, for mullet, a bait trap baited with bread is highly effective. Hook size varies greatly with the size of the bait and could range anywhere between 1\0 and 8\0. Hook placement depends on how the bait is to be fished. If it is to be fished under a float, then it is best placed through the shoulders just behind the head. If it’s to be free swimming (unweighted) or anchored to the bottom then the hook is pushed through, just ahead of the tail. In both cases the hook must not penetrate the lateral line. The lateral line indicates the position of the backbone. It runs the length of the fish and on bait species especially, is quite prominent. Livies are kept alive in a container of aerated water with regular water changes necessary for prolonged life.


Squid are one of the estuaries top live baits for big predatory fish. They also make a pretty a top dead bait dead bait so long as they are very fresh. The best way to catch them is with a squid jig fished slowly around the kelp or ribbon weed beds somewhere near deep water. They are very hard to keep alive but high aeration, plenty of water changes and room to swim are the key. A water circulating live bait tank is preferable. As with live fish the hook size varies according to the squid size. They are pinned around the middle of the tube being careful not to pierce the intestines.


The two major bait worms used in the estuary are blood and squirt. Squirt worms are found on the sand banks well up stream towards the waterways freshwater reaches. They are best extracted by pumping sand into a fine gauge sieve. You can also place an empty jam tin over the hole and stamp on it, forcing the worm out the other entrance but I prefer pumping. Blood worms like the firmer mud areas upstream around mangroves and weed beds. The only effective way to extract them is to dig them out. This is a fairly destructive practice and large scale digging on Sydney harbour eventually forced it to be banned in that area. They keep for short periods in a well aerated container of water or for longer periods in a box layered with hessian. The bottom of the box is perforated to allow water to drain then a layer of Hessian is placed on the bottom. The worms are placed on the Hessian and another layer of Hessian is placed over the top of them. Store them under the house where it is cool and dark and periodically pour water, taken from where you caught the worms, over the top layer of Hessian so it rinses them and then drains out the bottom. The worms are threaded lengthwise along the hook until a bunch forms, it is then nipped off about three centimetres below the hook leaving a small length waving about enticingly. Hook size varies from a number 8 to a 1\0 depending on species.



I always buy big frozen prawns and I have found none better than the big Hawkesbury prawns packaged by Windybanks Bait. If they are too big for bream, then cut them in half or into smaller pieces for the likes of leather jackets. A 400g packet is usually adequate for a days outing. The hook is fed along the body starting at the tail with the point protruding out from underneath. It is very important that the prawns body lies straight along the hook. Good quality prawns are the next best estuary bait to live bait.


The two common gut baits include mullet and chicken. Chicken gut is often marketed under the brand name of ‘fisho’. They are both readily available and cheap and make a conveniently bait. The gut is cut into lengths about eight cm long and thread on in the same manner as a worm with a short length trailing free.


Whole fish or fillets can be either purchased packaged or caught yourself. There a number of ways to use fish flesh
Fish such as whitebait and pilchards can be used whole either on a single or ganged hook.
Fillets of fish like yellowtail, pilchards, mullet and slimy mackerel make a very attractive bait by threading the hook through the tail end of the fillet so that the hook comes out with the barb on the flesh side.

Fillets of much larger fish like tuna and tailor can be further cut into smaller baits by cutting across the fillet widthways and feeding the hook through so, once again, the barb comes out on the flesh side.

Tougher flesh fish like trevally, yellowtail and the tail end of tuna make excellent flesh baits by skinning the fillet and cutting the flesh into cubes or long thin pieces.


Cabbage and hair weed collected on the ocean rocks or the fine strand weed found on the upper reaches of rivers and estuaries (especially Parramatta weed) is used primarily for the capture of estuary blackfish. It’s easy to collect once located and easy to keep. It will last for about two weeks kept in a damp Hessian sack in the fridge, or for months by putting it in an ice-cream container, covering it in water and freezing it. When you want to use it just place it in a bucket of water until it thaws. Cabbage weed is threaded on and hair or strand weed is platted on a size 10 or 8 hook.


I’ve been using skirt steak for years Bream are the main target species, but I have landed some incredible catches including flathead to four kg. The most notorious catch of all was a twenty-eight-pound jewie taken on a tiny piece of skirt steak on a no. four hook and four kg line set for bream. Skirt is cut into thin worn like strips and is threaded on much the same as a worm.

There are heaps of other live and packaged bait used in the estuary, but these are the most common and the most successful.


Live bait Dead Bait
Bream prawn, worms, yabbies prawn, fish pieces, gut
Flathead prawn, fish prawn, fish fillets
Whiting worms, yabbies
Blackfish weed
Jewies(school) prawn, fish, squid prawn
Jewies fish, squid fish fillets
Tailor fish fish – (whole) , fish fillets
Trevally prawn, yabbies, worms prawns (peeled), fish skinned
John Dory fish
Kingies fish, squid fish. whole squid
Hair tail fish fish (whole)
Leatheries peeled prawn pieces


You will have to check the type and size of the hooks used for individual species yourself, as I do not have the space to list them all here. What I will stress though is that you make sure your hooks are ultra-sharp. My personal choice is Mustad hooks and I find that the hoodlum octopus, baitholder, longshank and panfish sneck cover all the styles of bait fishing mentioned here. Match the hook to the size of the bait so that the hook is well hidden but leaves the point and barb exposed.

There are three main techniques of fishing baits in the estuaries — float suspended, free drifting (unweighted) and weighted.

Weather you fish bait weighted or unweighted depends largely on the current. As a rule just enough lead to hold bottom should be used. Any more is overkill and fish will become wary. There are situations where unweighted baits are a big advantage like when fishing a burley trail for trevally for example.

Floats are used extensively for black fishing and occasionally for live and dead fish baits for the likes of kingfish, tailor and shore based hairtail.

On a final note, one of the most common questions I get asked is weather you should let fish run with a bait or weather you should strike straight away. As a general rule I would say strike straight away. There’s only one thing a fish can pick a bait up with and that’s his mouth. If the bait is in the fishes mouth and the bait has been presented properly on the hook , then the hook is also in the fishes mouth. I’ve experimented with letting them run with the bait and find that I drop far more fish than I do by striking straight away. Giving the fish time to run is also giving him time to sense that something’s wrong and drop it. The compromise is that early strikes are usually lip or mouth hook-ups where late strikes are gut hooks. There’s good and bad sides to that too but ultimately if fish in the ice box is your main concern use fresh or live bait, ultra-sharp hooks, a bit of burly and strike when you get the chance.

Craig McGill

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