Using Tilapia as Bait? Tips & What You Should Know!

Tilapia are non-native fish to the United States but have become abundant, and even problematic in some areas.

So, why not put them to good use by using them as bait!

In this article, I’ll discuss using Tilapia as bait and tell you what you need to know…and a few precautions to keep in mind.

Can you Fish with Tilapia as Bait?

Yes, you can use tilapia as bait, but you should follow your state regulations. Tilapia are a destructive invasive species, so there are a number of rules pertaining to their transportation and use as live bait in North America. 

Tilapia are an invasive species in North America, so you should not transport them alive to different bodies of water. This could lead to an introduction of an invasive species into a new body of water.

Using Tilapia as Bait? Tips & What You Should Know
Spotted Tilapia (Tilapia mariae)

Unless you have a special permit, transporting invasive species of fish alive is illegal in many states, including Florida.

If you plan on taking your tilapia to a different location, you should kill the tilapia first. 

Using Tilapia As Live Bait

You can use tilapia as live bait, as long as they are used in the same body of water they were caught in. You should not transport them alive to different watersheds.

Tilapia are great live bait because they are hardier than other bait fish. They can survive in a bait bucket longer than most other baitfish, and they will remain lively on a hook too!

Tilapia are a good live bait for many different species including largemouth bass, peacock bass, bowfin, gar, and catfish. Tilapia frequently grow up to 25 inches long, but the best size for live bait are the juveniles which are 3 to 10 inches. 

Tilapia are so hardy that they can even survive in some saltwater habitats. I have caught tilapia in brackish water lagoons and canals. They worked great as live bait for snook and tarpon. 

In some Mexican lakes, there are giant non-native largemouth bass that feed on tilapia. On occasion, you may see a big bass struggling on the surface with a tilapia in its mouth.

Tilapia are very spiny fish, and many fish struggle to eat the large ones whole. 

See Also: Fishing For Invasive Fish In Florida: Species Guide & Tips!

How do you hook live Tilapia?

There are a number of ways to hook a live tilapia, but you should be careful when hooking them.

Avoid hooking through areas that will impede the fish’s ability to swim, like the brain, eyes, or vertebrae. Hooking the fish through these areas will quickly kill your live bait.

You can hook a live tilapia just like you would live bluegill. Hook the tilapia through the flesh below the soft dorsal fin or above the soft anal fin. This method helps them swim naturally through the water.

Related: Using Bluegill For Bass Bait? Don’t Miss These Tips!

If you are frequently casting and retrieving your live tilapia or trolling, you can hook it through the lips. That way it swims straight and looks natural while you pull it.

Largemouth Bass caught on Live Tilapia

When hooking tilapia, check the hook and remove any scales which may be left on the hook point. Tilapia have big and thick scales, so this happens fairly often. If not removed, the scales will impede your hookset.

Also, be careful not to hook yourself when hooking the live bait. Tilapia are strong and muscular and may flop out of your hand and make a mistake.

What Hook Should I Use for Live Tilapia?

Any of the standard bait hooks will work for tilapia. I recommend in-line circle hooks because they reduce the chance of gut hooking the fish. Octopus and J-hooks also work well.

Selecting the correct hook size is really important, but it depends on the size of your bait and targeted fish.

If I’m using a 3-inch live tilapia for bait, I’d use a size 2 or 4 circle hook.

For a larger bait, you could use anything from 3/0 to 8/0 depending on the size of your bait. 

Can you use Tilapia As Catfish Bait?

Yes, tilapia works great as bait for catfish. Because tilapia get quite large, they are a good live bait for some giant catfish. In some parts of Texas, invasive tilapia are used as bait for big channel catfish and flatheads.

Tilapia are a thick meaty fish, and offer plenty of vibration and scent. Big catfish will definitely take live or cut tilapia. 

Fishing with Tilapia as cut bait (or whole)

You can use tilapia live, cut, or dead whole. Which one you use, just depends on the species you are targeting and the size of tilapia you have available.

If you catch a big 20+ inch tilapia, you could save it in the freezer and use it later for cut bait. This would save you time catching bait later, and you’d have plenty of meat to use as bait.

If you catch the little 3 to 4-inch juveniles, they work perfectly as live bait.

How to Catch Tilapia for Bait

Tilapia are an unregulated invasive species, meaning you can catch as many as you like using several different methods.

Cast netting is the most effective way to catch tilapia for bait. However, you should check your local regulations before cast netting.

You can also catch tilapia on hook and line using a number of baits and even lures.

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