The 3 Best Live Bait Fish For Inshore Fishing In Florida [Gulf Coast]

By: Joe Simonds on April 17, 2017
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best live bait fish

It’s live bait time!

In today’s live bait discussion, we are going to talk about the top live bait fish (not including shrimp) for catching inshore fish in Florida (such as redfish, snook, trout, tarpon, and cobia).

I will also do my best to clarify some of the confusion on the different types of names people use to refer to live bait here in Florida.

For instance, did you know that if you hear someone talking about pilchards, scaled sardines, or whitebait, they are actually all referring to the exact same bait fish?

Yep. Just depends on where they live and/or who taught them about live bait.

At any rate, let’s dig in.

Here are my top three go-to live bait fish for inshore fishing here in Florida.

1. Whitebait (aka Scaled Sardine or Pilchard)

best live bait fish sardine

Whitebait is my overall #1 pick for inshore live bait.

Here are some facts about whitebait (and why I choose this as my favorite inshore live bait fish):

  • Whitebait (aka pilchard and scaled sardine) are great overall because they last a long time and can catch pretty much any inshore fish you would want to target.
  • You can tell a whitebait from a threadfish by the size of its eye (the whitebait has a much larger eye, and is also much stronger and less scaly than the threadfin).
  • The whitebait is found in the shallow water (although you usually find the big whitebait on deeper flats), and I usually get my whitebait in grass flats that are in 3-5 ft of water.
  • Whitebait is a strong bait and can hold strong overnight if placed in a bait pen.
  • You can chum up whitebait near the boat to throw the cast net (but know that whitebait hug the bottom more than threadfins do – so if you see bait raining all over the surface, it’s most likely threadfins… not whitebait).
  • Whitebait are very shiny (attract predator fish).
  • Approx 2 to 5 inches long.
  • Just about anything you can target inshore (and even offshore) will eat whitebait. We use whitebait to catch our redfish, snook, trout, cobia, tripletail, and even tarpon.

2. Pinfish

live bait pinfish

Pinfish are my second choice in terms of the best live bait.

Here are some facts about pinfish:

  • Pinfish, like whitebait, are also a very hardy bait, so they will not die in the livewell.
    • Note: Do not put your pinfish with your other bait because they are known to eat the eyes out of weaker bait.
  • They have spiky fins (because it feels like you are getting poked by a pin).
  • Approx from 2 to 6 inches
  • Pinfish are usually very plentiful and easy to find on most grass flats.
  • You can catch them using a cast net, pinfish traps, or a small hook and a really small piece of shrimp or Berkley Gulp (watch a cool trick on catching loads of pinfish using old Berkley Gulps here)
  • Redfish, snook, trout, tarpon, grouper, snapper, and pretty much all other predator fish love pinfish
  • Pinfish are also useful as dead bait or cut bait (we’ve caught some monster bull redfish using cut pinfish as bait)

Related: How To Rig A Live Pinfish For Catching Snook, Tarpon, And Grouper [VIDEO]

3. Threadfin Herring (aka Greenback or Greenie)

best live bait greenback

Threadfin, Greenbacks, Greenies.

These scaly bait fish are my third choice due to the following reasons:

  • They have a dark green back, and dark spots along the dorsal ridge, there is also a long thread-like fin on the back.
  • To find threadfins look for those in deeper water, they will show on your fish finder or can see the bubbling on the surface.
  • If you see bait fish “raining” on the surface, it is usually a school of threadfins.
  • You often don’t need to chum for these… usually you can simply find threadfins located around any structure (like Sunshine Skyway fishing piers the Anna Maria Island Pier).
  • You can also use a sabiki rig to catch the threadfins.
  • Threadfins are in high demand during tarpon season, but know that threadfins will not last all night in a bait pen (and in many cases won’t last all day in a livewell).
  • The threadfin’s scales come off easily and make a mess in your livewell.
  • Threadfins work great for cut bait as they release a lot of aromas (excellent for redfish).
  • Approx from 2 to 5 inches
  • Large threadfins can be awesome for big tarpon just offshore
  • Overall, threadfins are not very hardy, they die easily, but they are great and useful as dead bait and cut bait.

Related: How To Make Your Own Sabiki Rig

Best Live Bait Fish [VIDEO]

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Not all live baits are created equal…

And although each of these three live baits have their place for inshore fishermen, if I had the choice, I would pick them in this order:

  1. Whitebait
  2. Pinfish
  3. Threadfish

Of course, some days when the bait is tough to get, you’ll take anything you can get your hands on…

Any other live baits that make your top 3?

Let me know your favorite live bait in the comments.

Related Post: Inshore Fishing 101: Your Ultimate Inshore Fishing Resource (click here to see it)

inshore fishing 101 library

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ShadowfishermanAnonymousFortMyersSteveMichael MayJoe Estrada Recent comment authors
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So since you say threadfin are beat up in a Cast net, how does a Sabiki work? I’m looking for a guide who would take me out fishing for bait – show me where and when to find different kinds, tactics to use, chum, castnet, sabiki whatever, what bait to use where? for different kinds of live bait – any of the 3 you mention, plug any of blue crabs, fiddler crabs, shrimp, whatever. Do you know a guide who does a trip like that? I live in Fort Myers and mostly fish Estero Bay and it’s creeks or the Gulf areas nearby. But anywhere around here is ok.


Honestly Steve the best thing for you is YouTube.. it’s the learning spot for everything these days. There are some great fisherman who delve into the tricks. No one is going to show the spots. Put in your time and work. In the long run you’ll feel more proud of your techniques and newly found skills. I’ve been fishing for over 24 years in many bodies of water and still don’t know the exact techniques for catching plentiful bait, but I still come out nicely in my everyday fishing trip. Bait, location, what do they eat, habits, habitat, breeding periods, non breeding periods. Take a notebook with you mark your hours of the day, weather conditions, time of day, what type of bait it was, what their swim patterns are. Most importantly your dates for the time of year!! Good Luck out there 👍 tight lines

Michael May

Question about cast nets. As I get older I’m 76 the nets get heavier but my old Calusa 3/8 8’ seemed easier to throw than my new Pine Island Tool band Tackle custom fast sink. I guess there is a trade off between sink rate and ease of throwing. In your opinion do you give up much with less weight like a Calusa 3/8” 8’ vs the heavier nets if you are baiting white bait in 2-4 foot of water. I fish Estero Bay and Pine Island Sound but bait in shallow water 90% of the time. No causeway or other deep structure for me.


I fish from a kayak and catch my own bait most of the time.

I would say that the mesh size is more of a factor for how fast it sinks than the weight, but If you are casting for bait in shallow water, it doesnt really matter how fast it sinks. In that shallow of water it becomes near irrelevant. The thing you should consider then is the mesh size for the size of bait you are targeting. I like my 7 foot 1/4 inch because it stays cleaner between throws, and I do not have to worry about a christmas tree when bait is small on the flats. But, if I was throwing in deeper water, I would bring out my 10 foot 3/8 net. Also, I would consider using chum. As annoying as it is to have another thing to bring with you, it will save you lots of time.

Michael May

Snook love ladyfish. Don’t think you can net and I usually cut up into chunks for snooks and reds but hear stories about monster Snook and live ladyfish.

Joe Estrada

And the infamous CROAKER, no gator trout can resistant croaker high on oxygen.


What about fingerling mullet?