fish caught with live bait still in it's mouth

Fishing with Bait

Fishing with bait is a unique challenge. This technique offers both benefits and drawbacks when compared to using lures. One of the best benefits is the scent that it creates in the water, driving those larger predator fish to strike hard. In fact, many experts who fish Panama will use a piece of bait on their artificial lures to get that smell stirring in the water.

There is also the choice between different types when fishing with bait. Live bait creates the exact movement and action you want, that of a wounded fish. However, dead bait can really intensify the scent attraction effect. The choice between the two is similar to that you must make when using using any other technique. It all depends on what type of fish you are trying to catch.

typical example of live bait used to catch big game fish in panamaLive Bait

The best thing about using a live bait is the movement of wounded baitfish is simulated perfectly, because that is exactly what you are using.. Most of the big predator fish you are trying to catch prefer the lone, wounded examples of their prey. When a baitfish struggles on a line, that is what drives them into the striking frenzy.

Catching your own baitfish can have some advantages as well. First, you save money getting it right off the side of the boat. Second, this bait fish is the exact type of prey moving through the waters where you are located. The predators are already attuned to striking the fish you find schooling around you. Bringing those baitfish in and putting them on a hook makes them exactly what your target fish are already looking.

Also, once you know the species of baitfish surrounding you, you have a better knowledge of what might be hunting them. Then you can have better information on how deep to go with your bait, or what type of rig to set up. Your tactics should always adjust to the exact fish you find in your locale.

Dead Bait

Nothing drives a predator to strike hard in the water like the smell of blood and fresh meat. Using dead bait can really give you an advantage here. There are multiple species to try, from sardines to squid to sashimi strips from larger fish. Some bait you can get already rigged, saving you time getting back out in the water when the hits are coming fast.

One drawback of dead bait is the lack of movement. Simulating that with your reel technique is important. Often, dipping the dead bait into the water and testing how it moves and jerks can key you in on what you need to do with your line. You want to make the bait look like it is alive.

Tricks and Techniques

Compared to freshwater bait fishing, the saltwater version has many more methods you can try to add a little more challenge and fun to the event. Which one you use, and which species or type of bait you rig it with, depends on what species of fish you are trying to catch. Different techniques will have different results.

  • saltwater fishing with live bait in panamaSpreader bars use several live fish to create a simulated school. Most of the bait fish attached to the spreader bars will will not be hooked. Only one is hooked, and it is usually in the middle and slightly behind, right where a predator would likely strike first. This creates the action you want, the right kind of swimming movement, and the scent of a good meal. Teasers are very similar, though they use fewer fish in only a single row.


  • Bait depth is extremely key, especially if the fish you are trying to find have gone deep for the day. A downrigger is a device similar to a crane hung off the back of most centre consoles. A heavy, lead ball dangles down to significant depths, up to several dozen feet if necessary. Your bait rig is clipped to this drop line, which takes it down to whatever depth is necessary. Once you get a strike, the clip releases, and then you can fight your catch by reeling it back toward the surface.


  • Kite fishing works in very much the opposite fashion. A line is suspended downward from a flying kite. This helps to keep your bait in a specific position, especially when you want it dangling right at the surface. This works better than many other topwater techniques, as it keeps your live bait from swimming away from where you want it positioned.


  • Chunking is similar to chumming water, though more focused. This technique also really drives the scent effect. When fishing with bait using local baitfish, mackerel for example, you cut up pieces and toss them into the water. One choice piece gets your hook, and then you place it in among the chunks. Whatever shows to eat your chunks will eventually hit the piece with your hook.


  • Outriggers can get you multiple hooks in the water in different styles, increasing your chance of getting hits. You can also use unique baits on each hook, targeting different fish and creating a real mix of feeding scents. Outriggers put bait out to the side of your boat, leaving the stern free for plenty of lines.


  • You can also try both trolling and drifting. They both involve lines in the water, but with drifting, you follow the natural currents, allowing both boat and bait to move with the water. With trolling, the boat drags the bait through the ocean, pulling the bait and hook behind. You can cover more area with powered trolling, but drifting has a tendency to lead you to where the fish flow naturally as it is. On a full day Panama fishing tour, you will want to try both.

fish caught on live bait in panama saltwater fishing with baitWhich Approach to use for which fish?

  • Mahi mahi have a few approaches you will want to try. For one thing, they like hiding under and around floating objects, like drift wood. Dragging your bait near things like that will almost certainly give you a chance to pull one in. They will eat almost anything, but they do like flying fish best, so this is a species you will want to target by skimming bait across the top of the water.


  • Tuna are not that picky about what they eat either. The key with them is getting their attention. This is where chumming or chunking techniques can come in useful. Spreader bars also create the commotion that will bring tuna rushing to a target. Anything from squid to sardines can work, you just need to attract them.


  • Marlin love live bait, and will hit almost anything that swims like a bonito or blue runner. Other bill fish might require a different approach. Sailfish are often targeted with kite fishing, for example. No matter what fish you are trying to catch, one of the best things to do when fishing with bait is look for bird flocks. If they are working a baitfish ball from the sky, there will almost certainly be predator fish working it from the bottom. You will want to try to use the same bait that the fish and birds are hunting themselves.


Fishing with bait is not overly complex in technique, but if you know special tricks you can be very successful. Having the right equipment can give you an extra advantage as well. Our experts at El Rio Negro Panama sport fishing lodge know these secrets. They can take you to awesome spots like Cebaco island and Coiba island when you next fish Panama. You can have some of the most fun ever, and bring home a tasty catch or impressive trophy fish that you will remember for a lifetime.