Catching and handling live bait
  |  First Published: October 2008

A lot is written about how to catch major target fish species, and for good reason. We all want to catch more and better fish. Catching these larger fish often requires the use of live bait. While rigging these baits is often described, catching, keeping and transporting of the bait is an art that is often ignored. Let’s have a look at three popular live baits – mullet, salmon and gudgeon – and some techniques for gathering them and maintaining them in tip top condition.

Mullet are probably the number one live fish bait for mulloway. Small (but legal-sized) salmon are OK, but tend to be a little bit too active and frisky. These small salmon however are prime live bait for kingfish, because of their ability to keep swimming strongly for long periods of time. On the freshwater scene, particularly in the southwest of the state, big trout really love a live gudgeon.

Catching mullet

Schools of small bait-sized mullet often reside in the shallow sandy areas towards the mouth of estuary systems. The best method of securing these mullet is to use a paternoster rig with two tiny hooks (size 10-14). The best bait to put on these hooks is a small section of any marine worm. As well as being the best bait, if you procure these worms by use of a bait pump, you will probably berley a school of mullet in close in the process.

Cast your offering beyond the school and retrieve it slowly, but with enough pace to hook any mullet attacking the soft bait. This steady retrieve seems to hook the fish better than trying to strike at bites.

Further up an estuary system, in deeper water, another technique works well. Often schools of mullet can be seen milling round on the surface. Looking for this ‘nervous water’ is far easier in calm conditions. A simple floating berley of bread can be thrown towards the fish to get them feeding actively. Once again, bait up small hooks as the fish are feeding on the surface – so that’s where you want the bait to be.

Getting any casting distance with such a small hook and bait can be difficult. Using a simple cork float can help you get the casting weight required. When the fish bite, the cork acts more as a strike indictor and the sound of the cork float landing of the water also seems to attract the school. Marine worms are still the gun bait, but very small pieces of other baits seem to also work using this technique.

If you haven’t got all your bait gathering tackle, casting a small unweighted section of Gulp Sandworm into the schools of mullet milling about on the surface can at times be effective.

Small poddy mullet can also be caught using a bait trap, as described for gudgeon.

Catching salmon

Small salmon can be an annoying by-catch for anglers targeting more prestigious estuarine species: that is unless you happen to be going yellowtail fishing in the near future. I’m sure onlookers have wondered what in the world we are doing when a small salmon gets carefully netted and placed in the live well, whereas a nice bream gets lifted quickly on board and returned to the water.

It’s nice when in a single session you can get your bream and perch sport, while at the same time stocking up the live bait supply. Usually though you’ll need to specifically target small salmon. There are a couple of ways to do this.

Salmon love speed. A small metal slice lure, or even a small metal bream style vibe, cranked quickly through an area where you think they are will usually draw a response. If using a plastic, use a heavier jighead than normal so as accentuate the action of the lure as it rises and falls. If they are a little lure shy, bait works well even if it does reduce your mobility. Bring the fish to you with a berley trail of finely chopped up fish such as pilchards, whitebait or glassies. Then feed out an unweighted bait of the same fish into the trail – just like tuna cubing but on a small scale.

Catching gudgeon

The most effective way to obtain gudgeon is by use of a bait trap. Bread is OK for attracting minnows, but often a little bit extra is needed to help lure in gudgeon. Chopped up pieces of baitfish such as pilchard, a dash of cat food or, for the lure angler, a spray of scent on the bread in the trap, all help lure in gudgeon. Leaving in a trap in the water for longer than you would leave it in for minnows is important, too. Gudgeon also appear to be more willing to enter the trap in low light periods.


Life is easy when you can catch a live bait and put it straight back over the side in the hope of then catching a big fish. In reality, this is rarely the case. Live baits can often be very scarce if big fish are around. One season a local reef area had a wonderful population of bait-sized pike in residence before the kings decided to show up. After that the livies were conspicuous by their absence whenever the kings were present.

Similarly, live mullet can be particularly hard to find when mulloway are around. The Glenelg River is a prime example of this, as livies there can be sometimes harder to catch than the mulloway. Fortunately most of the smaller systems on the way to the Glenelg hold good populations of readily accessible livies.

The end result is that, usually, livies need to be sourced from another location. This brings transportation and storage issues into play.

In-built live bait tanks in boats are a great assistance when collecting and storing live bait. They eliminate the need for taking extra buckets, aerators and all your livie storing paraphernalia with you because it’s all built into the boat. It also reduces clutter round the boat – an important factor if you happen to be battling a big fish. You can simply catch your live bait at one location, block up the outflow pipes, add a cheap battery powered aerator and drive to your big fish location. With constant monitoring and pumping in some new water whenever the boat is on the water, livies can remain healthy for at least a day or two.

Even if you are storing bait at home in tanks, it is simply a matter of filling the boat’s wells with water and then draining or siphoning that water into the tank. No more back-breaking lifting of buckets and tubs that have probably lost half their water in the journey home.

Of course, not everyone has a boat with a fully functioning and plumbed live well though. The insulating properties of Eskis make them a good option, but large eskies can be expensive and take up a lot of room in a boat.

Plastic tubs offer a greater variety of sizes for a smaller outlay and can be as effective as long as the water is regularly changed, particularly in warm weather. Placing a wet towel over the tub in hot weather, or even adding frozen blocks of water to the tub can keep the water temperature cooler on hot days. Obviously the frozen water needs to be saltwater for saltwater fish.

There are some collapsible bag set-ups available, but the word collapsible doesn’t apply to many of these once they are full of water. Fully test out any such device before placing your hard-earned livies into them.


Aeration is vital if you intend to store your live baits for any extended period of time. There are a host of different battery powered aerators available that can easily fit all your air supply needs. They usually have clips that can allow them to be attached to either a live well or the side of your portable containers. Given the nature of their harsh life, constantly being splashed by salt water the mortality rate is high no matter how well you look after them. I tend to go for the cheaper end of the range and am happy if it gets me through a season.

The live well/tub aerator method works fine for short periods, say on holidays or if you’re a long way from home. However, having permanent storage facilities for live baits at home can be a tremendous benefit. It allows you to have readily accessible live baits whenever the need arises. If the weather comes good or the fish are suddenly on, no time is wasted in procuring your livies.

Large old fish tanks make for great live bait storage. Four foot tanks would be a minimum size for keeping salmon and mullet. A small amount of gudgeon could be kept in smaller tanks. Good filtration is essential in keeping the baits healthy.

Mullet can be kept for some time. A 4ft tank will easily support 12-16 mullet of 10-20cm. They will respond to feeding but do lose a little condition after around two weeks. After that they don’t swim as well as fresher ones do.

Salmon, on the other hand, last only a week at most. They usually won’t feed, occasionally taking a live offering. When storing salmon don’t get greedy: too many in tank will result in mortalities. Around 6-8 salmon of 21-28cm in a 4ft tank is enough for one session.

Gudgeon will feed, no problems. Cut earthworms are best, and can be kept for long periods of time. However, good water quality is essential and they are harder to keep than galaxias minnows. Also, being a demersal species, provide plenty of cover in the form of rocks and sticks to keep them happy.



Always check the local regulations that govern the gathering of bait (www.dpi.vic.gov.au). Key regulations include:

A total scale fish bag/possession limit of 40 fish applies to gudgeon and mullet. A bag/possession limit of 20 salmon/tommy rough applies.

There no minimum size for mullet or gudgeon, but salmon must be 21cm

Plastic or mesh bait traps must not have a funnel or entrance diameter exceeding 5cm. The trap must be within the confines of 23cm wide and 50cm long. A maximum of two bait traps per person can be used and they must be labelled.

Using livebaits can put you in contact with a better class of fish than traditional deadbaits.

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