Sturgeon fishing is seeing a spike in popularity. New management techniques and an awareness of sturgeon conservation have helped their numbers rise.
The St. Croix River in Minnesota is the home water where I’m learning to catch sturgeon. There’s a ton of information online. But I thought there had to be some expert tips and tricks that only the folks spending weeks on the water would know.
So for this article, I interviewed an expert sturgeon fishing guide, Marc Laynes, owner of Cascade Fishing Adventures INC. Marc has spent most of his life fishing for sturgeon, and he shared his thoughts with me on the best bait for sturgeon fishing. I also did a deep dive into sturgeon biology and behavior to decide on the best bait for sturgeon.
Is there a secret sturgeon bait? We’re going to dive into the best bait for sturgeon, why it’s the best, how to rig it, and then we’ll explore what sturgeon eat in the wild.
To get an idea of these best sturgeon baits, read on as we learn how to catch a living dinosaur: the sturgeon!
The Best Bait for Fishing Sturgeon
The best bait for sturgeon will depend on their habitat. Sea run sturgeon are used to eating sea run food like squids and sand fleas. Freshwater sturgeon eat shad, nightcrawlers, and cut suckers. Switching between the top baits in the area is your best bet to catch a sturgeon.
That said, during certain times of the year, the sturgeon may only want one food item, whether it’s a smelt spawn or a herring run.
Here are five of the best baits for sturgeon fishing in North America.
1. Nightcrawlers for sturgeon bait
Nightcrawlers as sturgeon bait are one of the best. They have a strong scent in the water, worms are present in nearly every water system, and they can be bought everywhere.
They have two drawbacks. First, you might have trouble keeping small fish off your bait since everything eats nightcrawlers. Second, nightcrawlers are fragile and it only takes one fish to strip your hook.
2. Shad, Herring, Smelt, and Anchovies for sturgeon bait
Shad, herring, smelt, and anchovies are extremely popular as sturgeon bait.
Use them whole, in crosscut chunks, strips, or halves, these baits are very versatile. The general size of these baitfish prevents small fish from stripping the hook. They are also oily and stinky, making them a go-to option as sturgeon bait.
When using baitfish as sturgeon bait, find out the primary forage in your water. If shad swim in the river, start with shad.
That said, there might be days where smelt works better or a week straight of great fishing with herring. Keep changing baits until you find out what works.
3. White sucker for sturgeon bait
White suckers can be great sturgeon bait but these fish are usually too big to use whole. Fillet the fish and cut the fillet into strips to spread the oily scent. White suckers are found all around the US and are eaten by most predatory fish species.
4. Shrimp for sturgeon bait
Some people swear by raw shrimp when fishing for sturgeon. Like worms, many fish species will eat shrimp but the strong scent and enticing meatiness is a popular bait for sturgeon.
5. Squid for sturgeon bait
Squid is a popular sturgeon fishing bait, especially for sea-run sturgeon who are more familiar with it in their food system.
Proponents of squid claim that it’s the most durable sturgeon fishing bait. They say you can catch multiple sturgeon using the same chunk of squid, and smaller fish won’t pull it off the hook.
A Sturgeon Guide’s Notes on the Best Bait
Pro sturgeon fishing guide Marc says, “I have fished for sturgeon since the early 1980s while in high school. I enjoy sturgeon fishing and thought others would as well. I decided to start a guiding business in 1990 for sturgeon, salmon, and steelhead. With my post-secondary education in Fish and Wildlife, I was not only able to guide anglers but also provide my service to sturgeon and other fish-related work for the government and other consultants in our area.”
“My favorite bait is whatever is currently in season, in the river, that the sturgeon would be feeding on. Coarse fish such as pikeminnows and pea-mouth chub are available during the entire sturgeon season and work well throughout the season.
However, during certain times of the year, we experience migrations of specific fish species in large numbers that attract the attention of the sturgeon.
When this happens, the sturgeon will key in on these fish. This places other baits further down the priority list – these other baits will work, but not as effectively. For example, the Lower Fraser River sees a large migration of smelts, called eulachons, from late March to early May.
When these eulachons move into the Fraser to spawn, they do so in large numbers. This mass of fish is the main focus of the sturgeon’s diet during that time and will be the bait to use.
Other baits such as lamprey eel (early summer migration up the Fraser), sockeye salmon (summer), and chum roe (fall) are excellent baits throughout the season, but particularly during the timing of their presence in the river.”
Sturgeon Rigging Tips for Live Bait
Whichever bait you choose, bait fishing rigs for sturgeon are very similar.
Sturgeons have protrusible mouths meaning their lips extend to suck up food from the bottom of the water. In fact, it functions very much like the extension on a vacuum cleaner handle.
Since sturgeon are bottom feeders, we must ensure that baits stay near the bottom. Also, our hooks need to increase our chance of a solid connection with the fish.
Are you using herring for sturgeon bait? Do you have a secret sturgeon bait? Regardless, the best fishing rig when using live bait for sturgeon is a slip-sinker bottom rig.
You will need a combination of the following:
- Weights heavy enough to stay on the bottom
- Popular weights include no-roll, pyramid, and egg sinkers
- Octopus hooks in sizes 3/0 to 5/0
- Barrel Swivels
- Fluorocarbon leaders
- Sinker slides (if using pyramid sinkers)
Sturgeon bites are subtle. A bite is usually seen by a slight bend in the rod tip, a throbbing cadence different from the river, or the line moving across or against the direction of the current.
Since bites are light, the slip-sinker bottom rig telegraphs a gentle strike to the rod tip faster than a fixed-weight rig. This leads to more detected strikes and more fish in the boat.
Using octopus hooks instead of traditional J-hooks ensures that a hook sits firmly in the fish’s mouth. Sturgeons are known to jump out of the water and thrash. An octopus hook is designed to stay attached even in these aggressive attempts to escape.
A Sturgeon Guide’s Notes on Rigging Live Bait
Marc says, “When fishing with lamprey, eulachons, or coarse fish, I will tie the bait onto a J-hook using cotton or elasticated thread in a manner that the hook is fastened to the bait at the “downstream” end of the bait.
This keeps the bait straight so it will not spin against the current and twist the leader and keeps the hook well-positioned. (Not laying flat against the bait, but protruding away from the bait.)
When I am fishing salmon roe, I mostly fish the bait in a bait bag using nylons or fine mesh to avoid coarse fish eating the bait off the hook. I simply poke the hook through the roe bag.
When using fish strips, I will cut long narrow strips and simply hook the strip at the end of the fish strip onto a circle hook.
Virtually all sturgeon rigs utilize a sliding weight style rig above a quality swivel, with a leader of your choice (mono or braid/dacron) attached to the hook of your choice.”
What are sturgeon attracted to?
Similar to a catfish, sturgeon have barbels on the underside of their snout that they use to “taste” the water. These barbels detect certain chemicals in the water released by items they can eat.
This is why sturgeon anglers say that your bait has to be smelly.
However, sturgeon anglers also talk about the importance of having fresh bait. While a catfish loves to eat rotting, decomposing food items that are bloody and thick, sturgeon prefer live foods like crustaceans, worms, and fish.
What do sturgeon like to eat?
Sturgeon prefer to eat living crustaceans (like crayfish), mollusks (clams), and many kinds of bait fish.
The baits in this article are best when they are fresh. They are fatty and oily, meaning more scent dispersal in the water.
Overall, a sturgeon feeds by roaming just above the river bottom and drags its barbells over the surface. When they sense food, their mouths protrude and suck it up.
Sturgeons don’t have teeth. Instead, their powerful stomach muscles crush up any food that gets consumed.
Artificial Baits and Lures vs. Stink Baits and Live Baits
When deciding between lures or live bait for sturgeon, the clear winner is live bait. This is because it matches a sturgeon’s feeding habits, including where they feed, how they feed, and what they feed on.
A Sturgeon Guide’s Notes on Artificial vs. Live Baits
Marc says, “While sturgeon are known to take lures on occasion, the vast majority of sturgeon are caught using natural bait.
Sturgeons have an extremely keen sense of smell; therefore, natural bait attracts a fish far sooner than lures.
Sturgeons are generally found holding near or at the river bottom. Therefore, a static, natural bait laying on the bottom will provide the most effective presentation to hook a sturgeon.”
Where to Get Sturgeon Fishing Bait
Now that we know what bait to use when fishing for sturgeon, it’s time to get some!
There are several ways to source sturgeon bait.
The simple option: Local bait vendors
Many local bait stores carry most of the sturgeon bait in this article. If you can’t find these options alive, see if you can find the dates that the baits were frozen. Never use preserved baits as these scents are unnatural and mask or destroy the natural fats and oil that we want.
If they don’t sell this item, some vendors can special order baits. Ask them about special ordering sturgeon baits for your local sturgeon community. Chances are, they didn’t know there was a market for it and the shop may end up becoming your go-to for sturgeon bait.
The best option: Harvest sturgeon bait yourself
The best way to source fresh, live, healthy, and local sturgeon baits that will take your next trip to another level is to harvest it yourself. Check your local regulations when attempting to harvest your bait as some states have strict rules around this.
There are four primary ways:
1. Cast Netting
Cast netting involves throwing a large net over a school of baitfish and trapping them. You drag the cast net over to a bait bucket and shake it out.
2. Dip netting
Dip netting involves using a long-handled mesh net to scoop schools of baitfish out of the water. This is an excellent method for tightly schooling fish like shad and smelt.
Trapping baitfish or other live bait involves using specialty fish traps that you can bait with dog food or bread. Some of these traps can be left overnight.
4. Hook and line
Finally, many baitfish, including shad and smelt can be caught using a traditional hook and line. Using small hooks, small pieces of worm, and a light rod, bait harvesting can feel like a micro-fishing trip before the main event!
The best bait for sturgeon is going to depend on many factors. The main things to consider are to match the bait to the local forage, make sure the bait is fresh, and keep it very close to or on the bottom of the lake or river.
Following these general rules will make sure your next sturgeon fishing adventure is full of lights-out action that ends in holding living dinosaurs in your hands!
Check our guide on Where to Catch Sturgeon.