Can You Use Worms For Saltwater Fishing? A Beginner’s Guide

Although there is some crossover between fresh and saltwater, the baits used in saltwater tend to be different. Earthworms, also called “NightCrawlers”, are great bait in freshwater, but can you use worms for saltwater?

Freshwater worms are not a good bait for saltwater. There are a few types of worms present in saltwater, but they differ significantly from those used in freshwater. When fishing salt, it is best to use a bait that is present in that area. 

earthworm in soil

What are the best baits to use in saltwater? Below, we will discuss the more popular baits and whether or not it makes sense to ever throw a worm in saltwater. Having an awareness of what baits are effective in a particular area will help you catch more fish. 

Types of saltwater worms

There are some worms present in saltwater environments. Saltwater worms are not the typical worms that you see day-to-day flopping around your yard. Saltwater worms tend to hatch from reef structures or live in the mud of saltwater marshes. 

If you are lucky enough to encounter a worm hatch or spawn, it can make for some great fishing! The key is being at the right place at the right time. 

cinder worms

Cinder worms

Deep in the saltwater estuaries of Northeast Florida, all the way up the eastern seaboard is a worm that you may not know even exists. The cinder worm is a small, mud-dwelling worm that is rarely visible to anglers. 

Cinder worms range between ½” to 1 ½” in length and are red in color with olive heads. They are a delicacy for species such as redfish and striped bass. If you happen to filet a redfish in early spring, you will likely find that its belly is full of these worms as they swim the flats trying to suck them out of the mud.

A few times a year, typically around a full moon and when wind conditions are right, cinder worms will release from the mud and grow a tail. This allows them to be seen on the surface darting frantically around in circles. This is their way of spawning. As they swim erratically on the surface they are releasing sperm and eggs in an attempt to reproduce. 

During this spawn, predator fish will gorge themselves on these worms as they are rich in nutrients and an easy meal. In the Northeastern States, large striped bass will be seen bashing them on the surface in a frenzy. As you can imagine this will make for some incredible fishing opportunities if you happen to catch it at the right time. 

The cinder worm spawn, also referred to as a hatch, usually lasts about a week and can occur a few times a year. 

tropical region

Palolo worms

Another popular saltwater worm is the palolo worm. Similar to the cinder worm, these hatches occur around full moons typically in the summer months. Palolo worms are located in tropical regions where coral is present.

The palolo worm is also red in color and ranges between 1” to 2” in length. These worms tend to have more of a tan head than olive when comparing them to cinder worms. 

A palolo hatch triggers an incredible bite for tarpon. These 70-150lb fish will go absolutely bonkers gorging themselves on the worms as they rush to offshore reefs. It is as if the tarpon must have them and will lose all sense of reality while feeding on them. Obviously, this creates an incredible fishing opportunity and is one of the best ways to target tarpon in the Florida Keys. 

The typical hatch lasts about 3-5 days and occurs roughly 3 times a year within the summer months. Being in the right spot at the right time will allow you to experience a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle of hundreds of tarpon feeding vigorously. 

How can I fish these worm hatches?

Due to the size of the worms, fly-fishermen have the upper hand. Using a fly rod allows you to throw smaller baits that can resemble the worms much easier. 

Trying to cast a conventional rod with a tiny worm will be almost impossible to throw with any distance. You would be forced to use weight on the line, and since the worms are swimming at the surface, your presentation will not appear natural. 

When you are in the midst of a worm hatch, it is best to observe the swimming patterns of the worms. How fast do they move? Are they swimming in a certain direction? Studying the worm’s movement will allow you to better imitate a worm more naturally, which will increase your success.

If you happen to be in a worm hatch with conventional gear, it is best to throw something larger that stands out. Although these fish will most likely be feeding exclusively on the worms, a fish may not be able to resist an easy target that is presented to them.

Overall, your best opportunity for success while fishing worm hatches is to put away the conventional gear and bring out the fly rod. If you know a worm hatch is possible in your area, always carry some flies that resemble worms. You never know when the hatch may start!

shrimp up close; use instead of worm for saltwater

Best baits for saltwater fishing

More commonly, saltwater fish are going to be feeding on prey that is ever-present in that region. Saltwater baits include various small baitfish and crustaceans. Depending on what you are targeting will determine which bait will work best. 

Bait fish

There is a multitude of different baitfish within saltwater. Doing some research before you go to an area or speaking with a local bait shop, will help you be prepared for what bait is needed.

The majority of predator fish will eat small baitfish. This can include tarpon, snook,  redfish, jacks, sea trout, and flounder. Some of the most widely used baitfish that expand across regions are the mullet, menhaden, and pinfish. These species of baitfish can be found from the Texas coast all the way up the eastern seaboard. 

Due to the inability of bait shops to keep these baits alive, it is unlikely that you will be able to purchase them. Therefore it is best to carry a cast net with you when heading out on the water. 

During certain times of the year, these baitfish will make migratory runs which will have predator fish keyed in on a particular bait. Doing some research for that local area will help you be prepared for these runs and increase your chances of catching. 


The anatomy of certain fish is designed to eat crustaceans such as crabs and shrimp. Species such as bonefish, permit, pompano, and black drum will feed almost exclusively on these baits. Even redfish will typically prefer a crustacean over a baitfish, although they eat both. There are not many saltwater fish that can refuse a shrimp. Almost everything eats a shrimp!


If I could only have one bait while saltwater fishing, it would be the shrimp. They are prevalent all over the country and can be fished in multiple ways. They are also easily purchased at most bait shops. Your chances of catching fish will increase since most fish will eat shrimp. Being a shrimp would be a tough life!


Crabs are also another bait of choice. There are multiple species of crabs and they can range in sizes. Knowing what type of crab to use will depend greatly on where you are fishing. 

The most common saltwater crab is the blue crab. The top of their shell and legs are blue in color and have a white underbelly. Blue crabs can range from 1 ½” in diameter up to 6” in diameter. The smaller crabs will be best for species such as permit, redfish, black drum, and even tarpon. Larger crabs can be halved or quartered to target large redfish and black drum. 

Other species of crabs include the fiddler crab, sand fleas, and pass crabs.

fiddler crab

 Fiddler crabs are considered candy for species who dwell in salt marshes. These species include sheepshead, redfish, and black drum. 

The sand flea, which resembles a hard-shelled tan flea, is a common crab found along the beaches. The crabs work fantastic when targeting pompano.

The majority of crabs are fished along the bottom as that is where they tend to dwell. One exception to this is the pass crab. Pass crabs resemble medium size blue crabs and will be found floating aimlessly out of inlets and other ocean cuts. This is why they are termed the pass crab. Tarpon will key in on these crabs, especially on the west coast of Florida. Since these crabs are floating on the surface, they should also be fished on the surface. 

Matching the hatch

Whether you are fishing salt or freshwater, the experience will be most productive when you use bait or lure that resembles what is present in the area. This is called matching the hatch. Although this is a simple concept, I often see people using baits that just do not make sense. 

Getting local advice from fishermen or bait shops will help you determine what bait is best for a certain area. Your bait is the most important part of fishing. You should never skimp on the bait. For example, if you are given the option of using dead, frozen, or live shrimp, also choose the live shrimp. Having lively, fresh bait that looks as natural as possible is always the best option. 


Worms are present in saltwater and can make a good bait at times, but they are not the typical worm found in your yard. During a worm hatch, fishing worms will make the most sense, but since this is not normal conditions, other baits tend to work better. The most common baits in saltwater are small baitfish, crabs, and shrimp. Using a bait that is found in the local area will greatly increase your chances of a hookup.