Bait Fish and Forage Species Identification

mummichog minnows
Mummichogs

For saltwater anglers, a knowledge of bait fish and forage species is essential. From backwater estuaries to the offshore canyons, bait fish and other marine life influence the abundance, range, and behavior of Virginia’s most iconic sport fish.

Bait fish species include minnows, herrings, panfish, and others. Forage species also include shrimps, crabs, worms, and other organisms.

Locating and Identifying bait fish and other local food sources is often the key to productive fishing. A number of observations are useful, including visual clues, electronic detection, post mortem catch studies, and others.

Visual signs can be an important indicator of the presence of sport fish. Some observations, such as minor ripples or swirls on the water’s surface, are often subtle. Others, such as feeding birds, can be quite dramatic.

In some situations, bait fish or other prey can be detected with simple fish finders, side scan sonar units, or other devices. Identification of baits may be possible based on electronic signatures, angler experience, and other factors. Radar is also used to detect birds, which in turn indicate the presence of fish.

Another method for identifying bait fish is by examining the stomach contents of fish that have been caught. This is typically done while cleaning the days’ catch. In some cases, anglers or researchers may employ a specialized stomach pump to extract samples. Some fish regurgitate recently consumed prey when caught, offering anglers important clues about their feeding habits.

There are several reasons for anglers to identify forage species of targeted sport fish. The main reason is so that lures or baits can be selected that mimic natural food supplies.

Understanding local sport fish – forage species relationships can also provide anglers with clues about where fish will be located, best fishing times, movements over time, and other behaviors.

Atlantic Menhaden

One of the Mid Atlantic region’s most important forage fish, Atlantic menhaden are prey for several species of saltwater fish. Young individuals, known as “peanut bunker” are common in coastal bays and throughout the Chesapeake Bay.

Adult menhaden are found primarily in deep channels of the Chesapeake Bay and along coastal waters. Occasionally, the presence of a large school of adult menhaden is indicated by diving gannets. When gannets congregate in large numbers to feed on menhaden, the spectacle is known as “beehiving.”

Herrings and Shad

Numerous species of shad and herring are common in Virginia. Some, such as river herring, are preyed on by a variety of large sport fish. In rivers and creeks, young herrings and shad are food for panfish, catfish, and others.

Along nearshore ares of the Atlantic Coast, schools of juvenile herring are often shadowed by king mackerel, Spanish mackerel, false albacore, bluefish, and small sharks. In offshore areas, herring are often accompanied by tuna, mahi mahi, and other pelagic species.

Bay Anchovies

The bay anchovy is the most abundant baitfish in many of Virginia’s estuarine habitats, Resembling silversides in appearance, these small fish form dense schools.

In many areas, frenzied bay anchovies provide anglers with visual clues that sport fish are present. When striped bass, bluefish, weakfish, or Spanish mackerel drive bay anchovies to the surface, they often attract flocks of terns and gulls.

Being able to detect the presence of bay anchovies becomes especially important during the fall, when immense schools of these tiny bait fish move along the edges of deep channels along Chesapeake Bay.

Butterfish

Butterfish occur seasonally along Virginia’s coast from just off the beach to the offshore canyons and beyond. These round bodied fish are prey for nearly every ocean fish.

Sand Eels

Once abundant in coastal waters of the Mid Atlantic region, sand eels or sandlances are occasionally found in Virginia. These odd looking fish resemble small white eels. Sand eels travel in immense schools. Often their presence is indicated by the sudden appearance of bluefin tuna, which consume them in great quantities.

Silversides

Silversides are found in seaside creeks, bays, and inlets. They are often seen around docks, pilings, and other shoreline structures. Silversides attract flounder, striped bass, bluefish, and other species.

Gobies and Blennies

Several species of gobies an blennies are found among oyster beds and other natural reefs. Both types can be important food sources for reef dwelling fish such as black sea bass and flounder.

Killifish

Several species of killifish and their relatives are found in Virginia estuaries. These include the mummichog, striped killifish, sheapshead minnow, and others. Killifish are found among vegetation and along shallow shorelines. They are often seen within a few feet of land.

In areas such as the Virginia Barrier Islands, Mummichogs are a major food source for flounder, speckled trout, seatrout, striped bass, bluefish, and other sport fish.

Flatfish

Numerous small flatfish are consumed by larger fish species. The hog choker, a small round flounder is one of the most common flatfish that attract top level predators. Hog chokers are preyed on by striped bass, catfish, and others.

Mullet

Seaside estuaries of Virginia are home to several species of mullet. In many areas, juveniles, known as “finger mullet” are important forage species for fish and other marine life.

When alarmed, small mullet often jump considerable distances. An explosion of mullet in shallow water can signal the presence of red drum, striped bass, speckled trout, seatrout, bluefish, tarpon, sharks, or other predators.

Silver Perch

The silver perch is a small member of the croaker family that inhabits shallow bays, creeks, and other estuaries of Virginia. Silver perch usually appear in late summer, often in large schools.

Spot

The spot is one of Virginia’s most important saltwater fish. Spot are widely used for live bait fishing and for use as cut baits. Larger individuals are also harvested for food.

Young spot occupy shallow bays, coves, and creeks to the fall line. In late summer to fall, spot form large schools and move down the Chesapeake Bay and out into coastal waters. Although spot may not appear on the surface, their presence is sometimes indicated by slicks, especially when larger fish are actively feeding on them.

Croakers

The Atlantic croaker is one of Virginia’s most important saltwater fish. Adults are often prized by recreation fishermen. In addition to their value as a table fish, croakers are another fish that is preyed upon by top level species. Small croakers are consumed by striped bass, flounder, cobia, bluefish, sharks, and others.

Pinfish

The pinfish is another small panfish that is found in Virginia. Less common than spot, pinfish are often found around shellfish beds, pilings, and other structures. Pinfish are sometimes used for live bait fishing, especially for cobia, flounder, and striped bass.

Crabs

Crabs are important forage species in many areas. In Virginia, the blue crab is the most iconic species, occupying nearly all saltwater to brackish waterways of the Chesapeake Bay and coastal bays. Young crabs are a main food source for numerous species of fish. They are often found in the stomachs of striped bass, flounder, seatrout, black sea bass, black drum, and others.

Although less abundant, several species of small crabs are found among oyster beds, natural reefs, and other structures. Mud crabs and other small crabs can attract sport fish such as red drum, black sea bass, croakers, and sheepshead.

Shrimp

Several types of shrimp are important forage species. In Virginia, the most widespread species is the grass shrimp. Grass shrimp are approximately 1 to 1.5 inches in length with a clear body. These tiny crustaceans occur in brackish and saltwater marshes, often in immense numbers.

Along salt marshes, pods of grass shrimp are often seen jumping to escape from hungry fish. They are preyed upon by white perch, striped bass, speckled trout, seatrout, bluefish, and flounder.

A relative, the sand shrimp is found along sandy shallow areas and nearby drop offs. When sand shrimp are present in large numbers, they may attract flounder or other bottom feeders.

In some areas, white shrimp or brown shrimp may occur seasonally. Although uncommon, these events attract speckled trout, red drum, flounder, striped bass, and other sport fish.

Squid

Squid are one of the most common forage species in the Mid Atlantic. They are most often seen at night, although squid sometimes appear on the surface during the day.

Squid are often found in the stomach contents of tuna, sharks, mahi mahi, and other pelagic species. When squid are abundant in an area, offshore fishermen often deploy spreader bars, daisy chains, and other lures that resemble the species.

Marine Worms

One of the most unusual sights anglers may experience while exploring inshore estuaries of Virginia is the appearance of marine worms near the surface of the water. These summertime events attract a wide array of fish ranging from small spot to bluefish. When worms rise to the surface, they are often indicated by diving terns or other birds.

Related Information

How to Catch Live Bait