Long warm days signal that summer is on its way and the biggest fish in the surf are spreading out along the beach. As summer approaches, surf fish will begin foraging on sand crabs and other food they find at the beach. With that in mind, here are three of my favorite summer baits for fishing the surf:
Sand crabs (Emerita analoga) tops the list as one of the favorite baits for surf fishing. Because crabs can’t be purchased in your local tackle shop, you’ll have to go to the beach yourself and do a bit of work to catch them.
Start by finding a high spot once you reach the beach where you can get a good look at the wet sand. Look both ways keeping a keen eye open for birds working the water’s edge. This will be your first clue as to where there may be crab beds.
When approaching these areas watch closely as the water rushes up and back across the sand. Try to find the “V” shapes made by the sand crab’s feeding antennae. In some areas, these will appear on top of the sand as the water rushes over them. Here you will find sand crabs, just below the surface of the sand, feeding.
There are two ways to catch sand crabs: With your hands and with a crab rake. Most often, the best time to catch crabs is one hour before to one hour after high tide.
Digging by hand is a time-tested and backbreaking method for collecting crabs. In mid-summer months crabs will be near the surface. During the winter be prepared to dig deeper to find crabs. A small hand shovel works well for digging in the soft sand. Collect crabs in a small bucket, colander, or a lightweight mesh clothes washing bag. Be sure to rinse the sand from them before use.
Another method for catching crabs is by using a crab rake. This tool allows you to sift through a large area of sand to find crabs. Because the rake is made from galvanized steel it’s strong and quite durable even in salt water. You’ll find crab rakes in the $50.00 -$60.00 price range at your local tackle store.
Crab rakes are easy to use but require some strength and balance. With a little practice it should come easy. When using the rake, face out to sea. While holding the tool above the sand wait for a wave to rush up the beach. As the wave begins to draw back, drop the net onto the sand and let the water rush through it. Run your foot back and forth to dig up the sand and break the crabs loose. Once the water stops, pull the net up and examine its contents.
Another similar item to a crab rake is a simple sand strainer which are used by treasure hunters on the beach. These are nice as they are easily transported and less cumbersome to carry. A simple search online will come with a myriad of options.
You’re looking for crabs whose shell is about the consistency of a pop can. That’s right, push on a pop can’s side with your finger, that’s about what the shell should feel like. Shells that are too hard won’t get bites those that are too soft will be mush on the hook—so look for medium hard shells.
Pay special attention to the crab size you find most often in the area where you are fishing. Fish with that size of crab. Most often they will be between the size of a dime and a quarter.
Sand crabs can be kept for a couple of days at home. Put them in a dry (no water or sand) plastic container with a small moist cloth draped over them. Don’t refrigerate, keep them in salt water. If you have crabs leftover and won’t be using them right away, freeze the hardest crabs and save them for a later date.
Just like sand crabs, mussel (Mytilus carifornianus) also makes a great surf bait. There’s no question that fresh mussel often works better to catch fish than any other bait. Some of the largest perch and corbina I’ve seen have been caught on mussel.
Mussels are found on our local shores anywhere you have substantial tidal movement adjacent to rock, piling, or jetty structure.
The best time to collect mussels is at low tide. Take only as many as you’ll need. Let them sit in a cool dry bucket overnight. The next day they will be slightly open and easier to shuck.
When shucking mussel use a small knife to cut the tendons near the rear of the shell. On one side, near the back, there is a small indentation or hole. Insert your knife into this hole and slowly pull the knife forward cutting the tendon as you go. Once the shell is partly open you can pry it apart with your fingers.
Inside the shell you’ll find two different bait textures: One very soft and pliable another very rubbery and strong. The bright orange inside is soft and pliable. The lip that runs along the edge of the shell is black, brown and orange and is strong and rubbery. Both make good bait.
Mussel is very hardy and will last in a cool moist plastic tray for several days. They can be cleaned immediately or are a bit easier to shuck after being stored for a day or two. I clean extra mussel and place three or four in a small zip bag and freeze them for later use.
Another great bait for the surf are ghost shrimp (Neotrypaea californiensis). I’m often asked what type of fish prefers these shrimp and my answer is always the same—the first fish to get to them! Ghost shrimp are the “candy bait” of the surf and almost every fish loves them.
Ghost shrimp can be hand collected by using a suction pump (aka Slurp gun) or purchased at local tackle stores. The best bait size would be shrimp about the length of your middle finger or smaller. Shrimp will last for several days if you place them in a three-gallon or larger container with several inches of salt water and keep them cool by either frozen water bottles or inside a small “dorm” refrigerator.
Take them to the beach in either your waist bait bucket, plastic container or inside a small ice chest filled with cool salt water. Slide one up your hook, pitch it out and hang on!
Mussels, sand crabs and ghost shrimp are but a few of the great baits available for summer. As ocean temps rise and surf fish flood the shore in search of food there’s no better time than now to get on down to the beach. Take advantage of the great live bait that is available at both the beach and at your local tackle shops. Enjoy the beach everyone and try to catch and release whenever possible.