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Published Apr 13, 2022 3:22 PM

The best bait for striped bass varies on the time of year, weather conditions, location, and a wide array of other factors. Striped bass are opportunistic and will not pass up any kind of easy meal. When choosing bait, think more about what you want to accomplish with your fishing rather than what everyone else is doing. Are you fishing open-ocean beaches for big stripers? Or are you trying to catch as many fish as you can from a quiet, sheltered, back-water mudflat? Each kind of fishing requires something totally different. Yet, with all kinds of bait available at your local tackle shop, how do you choose? This guide will help point you in the right direction for choosing the best bait for striped bass.

  • Best Overall: Menhaden chunks
  • Best Surf Fishing Bait: Live Eels
  • Best for Spring Stripers: Sea Worms

Things to Consider When Fishing Bait

There’s no single bait that is best for striped bass. Instead, you should be thinking about these factors in choosing which is best for your next fishing trip.

Why fish bait when you can fish lures?

Quite simply, except in some rare exceptions, bait is going to be more effective in catching all sizes of stripers. This is especially true when stripers are being fussy. If you’re fishing in clear water on a bright day, stripers might be picky and wary of any artificial offering. The scent of the bait is really what makes the difference in this case, and it’s hard to replicate that with a lure. While there are certainly times that lures—and even flies—can be more effective than bait, over an entire season bait is going to produce more fish and larger fish on average.

How fresh is your bait?

Fresh bait is extremely important. Using bait that is spoiled, old, dried-out, freezer-burnt, or lacking any scent is a waste of time. I would urge you to only consider buying bait from a tackle shop with the freshest offerings. This often means bait that is caught locally; though that isn’t critical in most cases. Frozen bait can be effective, but if given the choice, always buy fresh—even if it costs a little more.

What are the locations you’ll be fishing?

Instead of choosing bait and then trying to figure out how you’re going to make it work, think about what you want your bait to do. If you want your bait on the bottom of a sand beach, you’re going to use some weight. You’ll want bait that works best with a sinker attached—cut bait, like mackerel, menhaden, or mullet. However, if you want to keep your bait up in the water column, you could consider either using your bait without weight or with a float. Cut bait works well weightless if there is no serious wave action pushing your bait back to shore. Worms and squid work well under a float, where you can easily keep an eye on your bait as it drifts with the current. Live eels also work great weightless as well.

What size fish are you targeting?

Of course, we all want to catch the largest fish we possibly can. However, if you’re fishing in an area with smaller stripers—let’s say, under 12-pounds—then using giant live eels is probably not your best bet. But if there have been reports of some giants in your area, big pieces of cut bait are going to attract the attention of a big fish more easily than a little piece of sand worm.

What tackle will you be using?

If you’re using a seven-foot, medium action rod, then casting five-ounces of lead and a three-ounce piece of menhaden is not going to be possible (or very effective). The same is true if you’re trying to cast worms with 1/4-ounce weight on a 10-foot rod rated to 8-ounces. Also, consider how difficult it will be to transport your bait. Keeping live bait healthy on a boat in a live well is easy—doing so on-shore can be much more challenging.

What is a circle hook, and how do I use it?

Non-offset, inline circle hooks are required by law when fishing for stripers with live bait up and down the entire Atlantic coast. Anglers that are caught fishing with bait and any non-circle hook are subject to fines, gear seizure, and even potentially jail time. Circle hooks are required because they substantially reduce the number of stripers that are hooked in the gut and gills, ensuring more fish are released healthy.

The good news is that circle hooks work great. I have been using circle hooks for a long time, and have caught everything on them from flounder and sea trout to stripers and bluefish. The key is knowing how to use them. With typical “J” hooks or treble hooks, the instant you feel a hit from a striper, you want to set the hook as hard and fast as you can. This does not work with circle hooks. Instead, when you feel a strike or the suspect a bite, slowly lift the rod and begin a moderate retrieve. The circle hook will travel back out of the striper’s mouth and catch at the edge of its bony lip. Once hooked, circle hooks are much harder for stripers to free themselves from. This means you lose fewer stripers while doing less damage to the fish you release.

Best Overall Striped Bass Bait: Menhaden Chunks

Why It Made the Cut

Also known as bunker and pogies, menhaden is a very oily fish that stripers feed on throughout their entire range—from North Carolina to Canada. Menhaden is a versatile bait that is generally easy to fish and can be presented in a variety of ways.

Pros

  • Very oily and attracts stripers from a distance
  • Can be fished live or dead from boat or shore
  • Works great for all sizes of stripers, particularly appealing to trophy-sized fish

Cons

  • Whole fish and large chunks can only be fished with heavy gear
  • Can be messy

Menhaden are a schooling filter fish that are more commonly known as “bunker” or “pogies.” The adults, which are what is sold for bait, range in size from about 10- to 15-inches and are relatively thin, but tall and round in profile. They are generally very reflective and silver in color, but have various shades of tan, blue, and yellow along their backs and tail. An important forage fish for stripers throughout their range, stripers absolutely love to eat menhaden!

Most tackle shops on the east coast will carry menhaden, either frozen or freshly caught. Look for fresh bait that is not overly slimy, is firm to the touch, has a good color (not white and dull), and is kept well refrigerated or over ice.

How to fish it: 

There are a few ways to fish menhaden. Use a small cooler to keep your bait in while fishing. Fish-finder rigs are very popular to use with all cut bait, including menhaden. This simple rig utilizes a circle hook, a short leader (6- to 20-inches of 30- to 80-pound monofilament), and then a slider with a weight to keep the bait on the bottom (typically 2- to 8-ounces). The slider allows the fish to pull on the bait without feeling the weight of the sinker, increasing hook-ups. Cast this into deeper troughs or channels running along the shore.

Instead of using a stationary bait, you can also drift chunks weightless, or with small egg-sinkers. This is best done in places with some current, but not too much. If you’re a boat fisherman, another popular method is to use a snag to hook live fish from a large school. Due to current regulations, the angler must then bring in the menhaden and put it on a circle hook. Then, let the fish swim back out with a circle hook (7/0-10/0 size) through the nose.  Menhaden can weigh nearly two pounds, so even smaller chunks often require a robust rod rated to at least five ounces.

Lure Alternatives: The round, tall profile of an adult menhaden is replicated by larger lures such as 3.5-ounce Gibbs Danny metal lip, Drifter Tackle The Doc, the 15-centimeter Westin Swim SW glide bait, or large swimbaits like the 9-inch Strom WildEye or 8-inch Lunker City Shaker. Smaller juvenile menhaden can be replicated much more easily, with lures such as Andrus Bucktails, Acme Kastmasters, the 140-millimeter Shimano Colt Snipers, and 1-ounce Heddon Super Spooks. From a boat or kayak, trolling large bunker spoons (Mojos) is a very popular imitator of menhaden.

Best Surf Fishing Bait: Live Eels

Why It Made the Cut

There is nothing that catches stripers like live American eels. All season long, under just about any conditions, the eel always works. They cast relatively well (for bait) and can be used as a lure, so surf fishermen, in particular, love the eel.

Pros

  • Irresistible to stripers
  • Can be cast and retrieved similar to a lure, and cover the entire water column
  • They work everywhere
  • Don’t require coolers or weights, easy to fish on the move

Cons

  • Expensive and can be tough to keep alive
  • Can quickly tangle your line

Live eels are one of the most popular baits for stripers up and down the coast. Trophy hunters and surf fishermen in particular love eels; many believe (myself included) that stripers will attack eels even when they’re not particularly hungry. You can cast and retrieve eels similar to how you would a lure, which makes them great for covering more water and appeals to shore-bound anglers.

Eels also work great in deeper or faster-moving waters because they’ll actively swim to the bottom. Just be careful around heavy structures like boulders, ledges, or wrecks—as the eels will swim right into them, tangle you, and hang you up. Eels are not available at all bait shops and are generally pricier. Call around to see what is available. They also must be kept damp over the short term (when fishing or transporting them) and totally submerged (freshwater is fine) for longer storage, or they’ll quickly die.

How to fish it: Eels are best fished with a simple rig but can be used just about everywhere. I suggest using a short, 8-inch leader of 50-pound monofilament and a 6/0-9/0 circle hook. Then, simply cast the eel out and then slowly reel it back. You really can’t go too slow, but don’t let it sit for very long, or the eel will find its way into rocks or other structure and hang you up. And while they cast better than menhaden chunks, you’re still going to want a relatively robust rod rated to at least three ounces; five ounces is best.

Lure Alternatives: It’s extremely hard to match the effectiveness of live eels under almost any condition. Soft plastics are best, and the Savage Gear Real Eel is about as realistic as they come. However, I prefer unrigged lures (to rig them how I want) like Joe Baggs Block Island Baits, Gravity GT Eels, and Zinger Colosseels. For hard baits, needlefish are best like the 24/7 lures 7-inch and 9-inch needlefish and the 1-3/4 ounce Super Strike Super N’ Fish.

Best Bait for Spring Stripers: Sea Worms

Why It Made the Cut

When fish first start moving up the coast in the spring, blood and sandworms are a popular choice because they are inexpensive, easy to fish, and ultra-effective.

Pros

  • Easy to fish and cast on all sizes of gear
  • Inexpensive and available at most bait and tackle shops
  • Can be fished on the bottom, under a float, or attached to a trolling lure
  • Great multi-species bait

Cons

  • Fragile, don’t always stay on the hook well

While sea worms can be fished all season long, they are particularly effective in Spring. When fish are still sluggish and moving north, worms are well-sized and can attract bass from a distance. Sea worms used for bait in the Northeast are actually two different closely related species called blood worms and sandworms. While there are slight differences, and some anglers prefer one over the other, in the end, they are very similar in how they fish.

How to fish it: There isn’t an easier bait to fish, and you can make your rigs as simple or complex as you want. I’d suggest using small circle hooks (3/0 to 5/0) on a two-way rig with small floats, such as with a Pompano Rig. This puts some weight at the end of the line, which helps it cast, and then the small floats keep the worms off the bottom where they could potentially be picked at by crabs and other small creatures. This rig is best fished on mudflats, backwater, and along sand beaches.

You can also fish your worm with a float very similar to how freshwater fishermen fish earthworms, allowing you to drift your worm with estuary, river, or tidal currents. Many boat and kayak anglers still use worms to tip the ends of trolling rigs, like the Tube and Worm. In those cases, just be careful to get it on the hook properly, and don’t overdo it with your speed or the worm will fly off. For spring tackle, you might go a bit lighter, but don’t underestimate the ability of worms to catch nice fish.

Lure Alternatives: In my opinion, there really is only one live-worm alternative out there for stripers. Because the bait is static or drifting slowly, you need a strong scent to attract fish. Therefore, anything from Berkley Gulp is a winner in my book, including the Gulp Alive Bloodworm. It’s not quite as good as the real thing, but they can be effective and will hold up better to multiple fish.

How I Made My Picks

My choice in striper bait is based on nearly 30-years of angling experience, with thousands of hours fishing for stripers. I’ve fished with lots of different bait over the years, from worms and squid, to menhaden, mullet, and mackerel, and eels. They all have their time and place, and no single bait is best. But in general, I think menhaden, eels, and worms are your best bet. I evaluated the bait choices in this article based on the following criteria:

  • Strengths and weaknesses of each bait: I went through a variety of baits and asked the following questions: What are the characteristics of each bait, and what kind of water can you fish them in? Is the bait species region-specific, or will it work anywhere? Can it be used both from a boat and shore?
  • Availability and cost: While there are a lot of different baits out there, not all are readily available, and some are very expensive. These choices are generally available up and down the East Coast.
  • Versatility: My picks are based on baits that are effective in as many places as possible, up and down the coast.

FAQs

Q: How much does bait for striped bass cost?

Bait is highly variable in its cost. Worms and frozen clams can be relatively cheap, while live eels and fresh, locally caught menhaden can be much more expensive. Expect to pay anywhere from a couple dollars for a full package of frozen bait (like squid), to over three for a single eel. But the fresher and more local a bait is, the better it is, and sometimes that will cost more. While stripers aren’t picky, in my opinion, fresh bait is much better than frozen bait.

Q: What hooks should you use for stripers?

To reiterate what I said in the introduction, except for rare exceptions, circle hooks must be used when fishing for stripers with bait. Size depends on the bait you’re using. Large cut bait—like menhaden, mullet, and mackerel—require larger hooks ranging from about 6/0 to 12/0. Small bait like worms, clams, and squid are best matched to smaller hooks in the 1/0 to 6/0 size. There are several great manufacturers of striper-grade circle hooks like Owner, Eagle Claw, Mustad, VMC, and Gamakatsu.

Q: Can you drift bait for striped bass?

Yes. It’s a common misconception that bait fishing for stripers (or other species) requires using a heavy weight, and sinking your bait to the bottom, where it will sit stationary. Instead, using no weight, very light weight, or floats to keep your bait moving with the current is a more natural and enticing presentation. In places with current that moves along or away from the shore, drifting bait can be one of the most effective tactics to catch striped bass.

Final Thoughts

While fishing with lures is fun, there is no substitution for bait, but a lot of anglers make the mistake of buying whatever they see other people fishing. Just like lures, not all bait works in all places, or at all times. If you’re looking to catch the most stripers this season, consider choosing bait from this list that fits with your style of angling.