What Do Bass Eat? 5 Best Live Baits

Dale Shetler
By Dale Shetler
Updated February 21, 2020

Many anglers have asked themselves this question: What do largemouth bass eat?

It makes sense that knowing their diet might improve our chances of catching them, and that's something we all want!

This article will answer the question, providing an overview of how largemouth bass get their nourishment.

Let's go!

The Predatory Behavior of Largemouth Bass

To understand what bass eat, we first must understand their predatory behavior. It will typically take one of three forms:

  • Ambush — In many cases, bass will ambush their prey, holding up in dense cover like vegetation, submerged laydowns, and brush piles. When unsuspecting baitfish or other forage swims by, the bass emerges from its hiding place to attack. The fact that dense cover also happens to attract forage is part of the equation.

  • Hunt — Lone bass, often larger specimens, will roam shallow water where cover is present, and they will patrol underwater structure in search of food. In this mode, they may temporarily suspend in the water column, seemingly shut down, but even in that state, they're aware of present forage and will eat when given the opportunity.

  • Chase — Almost always associated with schooling behavior, multiple bass will locate a group of baitfish and attack them all at once, gorging themselves as they go. They will often hit the prey with a vicious flurry of strikes, then, and after the baitfish have dispersed, the bass will swim back through the area eating the dying or stunned baitfish.

The Diet of Largemouth Bass

A largemouth bass caught in a pond in Maine

The eating behavior of largemouth is based on instinct. Eating and spawning are their two primary goals, and they can't afford to pass up food of any kind. Acting on natural impulse, they will eat anything that looks like food—if it's still moving and it will fit in their mouth, it gets consumed. 

Bass eat smaller aquatic forage when they're young, and their target forage grows as they do. Fascinating studies by Schindler et al (1997) and Hickley and colleagues (1994) revealed valuable details about bass diet, confirming what fishermen have known for years.

Bass Diet Changes with Age

The idea that a bass will eat whatever fits in its mouth ties into how their diet changes as they grow. Young bass have a small mouth opening that can only fit small food. As soon as that changes, and at every stage of growth, a bass will chow down on whatever it can manage to swallow!

What Do Young Bass Eat?

silver juvenile sea bass, portrait of a young small fish

In the fingerling stage, largemouth bass eat the small things in the water near the spawning area where they hatched. The menu consists of tiny insects, minnows, zooplankton, and tadpoles. They will move up to larger creatures like worms, leeches, and terrestrial insects as they grow.

By the time a bass reaches about 6" in length, it will be feeding on larger minnows, passing up underwater insects and other tiny food.

Also read - How to hook a minnow.

What Do Older Bass Eat?

When a bass grows to about 12", it will begin to consume small bluegill and other fish like shad, shiners, suckers, perch, etc. Crayfish, if present in the fishery, enter the bass's diet at this point as well.

As bass approach the 3- to 4-pound range, they begin eating larger fish like adult shad, bluegill, young bass (yes, they're cannibals!), and they begin getting a taste for frogs, snakes, and any terrestrial critter that falls in the water.

Seasonal Variations in Bass Diet

The time of year has a big impact on how much bass eat, but it also factors into what they eat. As the season changes, a bass's mating habits, and then later, dropping water temperatures, both come into play when it comes to feeding.

What Do Bass Eat in Spring & Summer?

Depending on the location of the lake, pond, or river, largemouth bass spawning can begin in the early spring, with northern waters seeing a later start.

Bass go through a prespawn phase as they move from the main lake into their bedding areas. During this time, they will feed heavily on shad and crayfish to gain nutrients in preparation for the period of fasting that occurs while they are guarding their nests.

While the female is on the nest and the males patrol the nearby area, their thoughts are not on food. Nevertheless, they are so aggressive in their territorial behavior around the nest that they'll strike almost anything you show them. A plastic worm or jig placed on the edge of the bed will almost always get a reaction from either the hyper-protective female or the aggressive supporting males in the area.

In the summer, after the spawn, bass regain their healthy appetites and start to feed heavily again. Everything is on the menu in spring and throughout the summer—shad, bluegills, frogs—it's a buffet of bass' favorite foods!

What Do Bass Eat in Fall & Winter?

Bass keep eating after the temperature drops. In fact, early fall brings a surge in hunting activity as they try to fatten up for winter.  It's still a good time to fish for bass in shallow water where they continue to hunt for bluegills, crawfish, and frogs before it gets too cold and the forage becomes less active.

When winter arrives, bass will typically move into deeper water and begin concentrating on shad. They become lethargic and often suspend in open water near a drop-off or other structure, opportunistically eating what comes within range.

In the cold portion of the year, the best time of day to fish is the warmest part. Even a slight change in water temperature can have an impact on bass behavior, with warmer water triggering them to become more active.

What are the Best Bass Baits?

Out of all the things bass eat, some make better bait than others. In this section, we'll take a look at which bass food items also make good, practical bait for anglers to use.

We're not talking about artificial baits. Obviously, there are thousands of variations of lures that are made to mimic shad, bluegill, crawfish and everything else bass eat. Here, we want to drill down on which of the natural foods that bass eat are also good to use as bait.

When it's time to rig up and try out some of these natural baits, check out our suggestions about the best bass fishing rods. Many are well suited to live bait presentations.

Baitfish as Bass Bait

Baitfish are great at attracting bass. It's right there in the name—for most species of baitfish, it seems like their primary reason to exist is to be eaten by bass!

One of the most common types of baitfish found in lakes and rivers is shad. When you see a school surface, you can throw a cast net and gather them up, but that's not the hard part. Keeping shad alive requires an aerated livewell, some chemicals added to the water, and a careful eye on the temperature of the water.

If you can manage all that, hooking a lively shad through the back and casting it into shallow- to moderate-depth water can yield incredible results.

If the bait dies and you don't mind fishing for something besides largemouth bass, you can't go wrong using cut-up shad when you're after catfish and striper.

Crawfish as Bass Bait

Like smallmouth bass, largemouth love crawfish. If you can catch them, they're easy to keep alive, before and after you hook them.

If you insert the hook through the underside of the tail or through the rear part of the back shell, the small crustacean will live long enough to flap its tail, swim and crawl around, and make all the sounds, vibrations, and movements that drive predators crazy.

Bluegills as Bass Bait

This is one of the easiest baits you get your hands on, and bluegills are extremely attractive to hungry bass.

With a cast net, you can collect all the bluegill you need, but it's easier to simply fish for them. Using light gear and tiny baits, you'll be able to nab a half-dozen bluegill for use as bait. Try to choose only the small to medium-sized bluegill.

Bluegill are robust little fish. Unlike shad, they will live in your boat or pond-side livewell just fine without you needing to take extra steps.

Frogs & Mice as Bass Bait

Bass eat mice. They also eat frogs, snakes, bumblebees—anything that makes a commotion on the surface. But, let's face it, who wants to push a fish hook into a snake, a mouse, or a bee? There are so many artificial lures that do a great job of imitating those topwater targets!

Topwater fishing is effective and incredibly popular, so there are new and old lures that perfectly mimic the most common prey that bass strike on the surface. The two biggest categories are frog baits and those designed to look like a struggling baitfish. Tackle stores are overflowing with those kinds of baits.

They make baits that look like mice, baby ducks, and full-sized snakes. In the right situation, why not give a lunker bass the impression that it's about to eat the meal of a lifetime. It could result in a record catch!

And as for that bumblebee, if you have a fly rod, there are numerous patters designed to look like a bee. For that matter, mouse-shaped flies have been around for years as well.

What Eats Bass?

With all this discussion of what bass eat, let's close with a note about what eats largemouth bass?

The number one bass predator is other largemouth bass. Adult specimens of predatory species like striped bass and catfish also consume their fair share of young bass.

Herons, osprey, and other fish-eating birds eat bass, and big snapping turtles will munch down on any bass that gets close enough.

Then there's us. People like to eat bass, and if you've never rolled one in breadcrumbs and fried it, you're missing out on some good eating!

References

Hickley, P. (1994). The diet of largemouth bass, Micropterus salmoides, in Lake Naivasha, Kenya. Journal of Fish Biology, 44(4), 607-619. doi:10.1006/jfbi.1994.1058 (via: Wiley)

Schindler, D. E., Hodgson, J. R., & Kitchell, J. F. (1997). Density-dependent changes in individual foraging specialization of largemouth bass. Oecologia, 110(4), 592-600. doi:10.1007/s004420050200 (via: Springer Link)