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Tuna Fishing Guide: The Best Bait to Use

Fishing for tuna fish recreationally is a remarkable and rewarding experience. While you need to check fishing regulations for tuna, it is not illegal to fish bluefin tuna recreationally. 

tuna swimming in the ocean

Tuna grow between 2 and 7 feet long, depending on the species. They are saltwater fish and can be found in the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. Commercially, tuna is one of the most important fish species in our economy.

Finding the correct bait can be just as important as the rest of your fishing rig. The general rule of thumb to follow is to “match the hatch.”

During different seasons tuna tend to eat different fish available to them. By matching your bait to the season, you can increase the effectiveness of your bait.

Best Bait for Tuna

  1. Sardines
  2. Buterfish
  3. Squid
  4. Pilchards
  5. Threadfins
  6. Menhaden
  7. Mackerel
  8. Ballyhoo


Sardines are a common name for a small, oily fish in the Herring family. They get to be 6-9 inches in length. Sardines are not just used for bait, but humans eat them as well. As bait, they can be used alive or dead. 

pile of sardines

Live Sardines are considerably active bait and may be troublesome for more inexperienced anglers.

Sardines generally attract smaller tuna, though they occasionally attract larger fish. You can find dead Sardines at your local fishing shop, but live Sardines may be harder to find.


Gulf Butterfish are found in the Gulf of Mexico and used as both bait and food. Butterfish only live to be about two years old and grow to about 6-9 inches. 

a whole butterfish

The best way to use Butterfish as bait is to kill and chunk them. Chunking one flat of Butterfish can attract tuna for up to four hours. You can find Butterfish at your local fishing store.


Squid as bait can be delicate and difficult to handle, so you’ll need the right size hook. While anglers are very successful with squid bait, it is often challenging to keep squid intact under the harsh waves of the ocean. 

squid for fishing bait

Using a sinker can help the squid survive the brutal waves. Squid from the mid-Atlantic tends to be meatier and attract more fish.

You can find squid at your local department store. A Walmart near you may have it in stock.


Pilchards are also small fish within the Herring family. They are actually of the same species as Sardines. Generally, people refer to older and larger Sardines as Pilchards. 

whole pilchards

Pilchards range from 8 to nearly 10 inches in length and weigh around 17 ounces. Since Pilchards are bigger than the Sardines, they will likely attract larger tuna. You can find them at your local fishing shop.


Threadfins are found in tropical waters and grow 4-5 inches. Threadfins need to be caught alive, usually using a weightless rig, but you can also use a bottom rig.

threadfin shad

You will want to hook the fish through the lip or the back for tuna fishing. You can get dead Threadfins from your local fishing department store.


Menhaden can be found on the East Coast in the Atlantic and the Chesapeake Bay at all salinities.

live menhaden fish

They are not usually food for humans, but ground Menhaden chum often attracts tuna and the whole fish as bait. You can find Menhaden in a Menhaden specialty store or angler fishing depot.


Many anglers know Mackerel to be a very effective bait for tuna. Tuna love Mackerel and will attack with ferocity. Be sure to have strong hooks and knots.

3 mackerel for bait

Mackerel tend to be 7-10 inches and 1-8 pounds. Mackerel are often used in combination with worms in cocktail bait, to great success. You can find mackerel at your local fishing department store.


The size of the Ballyhoo you’ll want to use as bait depends on the size of the fish you’d like to catch. Larger Ballyhoo will attract giant tuna. 

ballyhoo for bait

Ballyhoo tends to skim across the surface of the water to avoid predators.  Many anglers will weigh the Ballyhoo bait to attract tuna with downriggers.

You can find Ballyhoo bait in your local fishing department store.

Final Thoughts

Tuna fishing is a challenge, and matching your bait to the size and type of tuna you want to catch can help you. The kinds of bait listed here range from small to large. 

Different baits require different fishing rigs. Sometimes your bait will benefit from a chin weight, others will require bottom rigs or weightless rigs, and others need to be chunked.

Of course, if you don’t want to use bait, you can always count on these lures to bring in a big tuna!

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