Just a few summers ago we were coming off the latest El Nino event where winter ocean waters were the warmest I can remember.  Tuna fishing lasted all winter as the warm water drove fin bait north and the tuna with it.  But one of the side effects of warm water was that it drove the sand crabs away too. 

Many surf fish including barred perch, calico perch, corbina and spotfin moved north too.  With a lack of sand crabs surf fishing in southern California slowed dramatically.  But as with just about every cycle in nature cooler enriched water returned in the following years and has set up perfectly for a great surf fishing summer. 

During the early months of summer every surf fish feeds upon crabs.  Fish spread out along the beach and look for beds of crabs to forage.  This summer will be no exception so let’s take a look at finding, catching and keeping sand crabs for bait. 

Female sand crabs are generally larger than males with females producing as many as 45,000 eggs.  Their distinct orange underside is a dead giveaway for both fisherman and surf fish.  Sand crabs reproduce in their first year and have a lifespan of up to three years. 

To find crabs, start by looking near the waterline for groups of birds on the beach.   Many seabirds use their beak to probe the sand for crabs.  Sand crabs like soft sand, they don’t enjoy rock or pebbly areas.   

When you first arrive at the beach begin your search between the high tide mark and the ocean for signs of sand crabs.  Look for moving water, receding from each wave.  As a wave recedes, look on the wet sand for little “V’s”.  This is the characteristic ripple formed by a bed of crabs. Using their extended feather-like antennae sand crabs feed on plankton that rides the crest of each wave. With practice, you will find they are easy to see grouped in bunches and become exposed as the water recedes between waves.  The warmer the water, the closer they will be to the surface.   

Sand crabs always swim, crawl and dig backward. When a wave washes over them they can quickly relocate and dig back in leaving only their eyes and breathing antennules exposed. These are the appendages that reveal their location as the waves recede. They always settle in looking out to sea. You should approach them from above, on higher ground, to improve your chances of catching them in numbers.   

Beginning in May crabs congregate near the high tide mark to begin their spawn.  As summer progresses crab beds will appear at both the high tide mark and on sand bars only accessible at low tide.  So look for them near the high tide mark in spring and as summer progresses, they will also be found on the outside sand bar easily accessible during low (and especially at minus) tides.   

Watch carefully as the waves roll out for anomalies on the beach that appear as ripples on the surface of wet sand.  Dig here this is where you will find the crabs. 

The best way to catch crabs is with a galvanized crab net.  Promar makes an excellent galvanized crab rake which can be purchased at your local tackle store.  Make sure all parts are well galvanized and rinse thoroughly with fresh water after each use.   

Crab rakes trap crabs against the galvanized netting as a wave recedes.  Look for white or light gray crabs.  Touch each suspect crab to see if it is soft and pliable.  I’ve found that medium-soft crabs (those with a shell softness equal to pressing in a pop can) are the best bait but there are exceptions.  Over the last two years (and in previous El Nino years) the best crabs to use have been those that are the size of your big toenail and as soft as possible.  Test the waters by trying different hardness and sizes of crabs to see what fish in your area are foraging on. 

After finding a patch of “V’s” approach slowly and wait for the water to rush in and over the area before standing on it.  Once covered by water, step forward and place the net in the water and allow it to settle to the bottom.  A surprise approach means crabs will be less likely to dig deeper into the sand and will be easier to catch.  Continue as you “crab” to look up and down the beach to find more V-shaped clusters. 

The most effective method of using the crab rake involves digging sand into the net with one foot, or both feet alternating, as the water recedes.  This breaks the crabs loose from the sand and yields larger catches.  Incoming and outgoing waves can both be used for catching crabs, the latter being preferred.  Always remember, water must be running out through the back of the net at all times or your content will swim, crawl, dig and disappear back into the sea in the blink of an eye. 

Other effective ways to catch sand crabs are by hand digging and by using a colander or clothes washing bag, a bag the size of a pillowcase that is made of netting and is used for cleaning fine washables.  Simply, unzipped the top, scoop sand into the bag and then pull it to the water’s edge where the sand washes away and leaves a net full of crabs.   

Another excellent tool for catching crabs is the Ikea galvanized utensil holder.  This is nothing more than a galvanized cup cut with dozens of holes in its sides and bottom.  Add a handle to the holder and it becomes an easy colander to use when scooping crabs. 

Two good times to catch crabs are on a large incoming high tide and at peak low tide.  Peak high tide is going to be your most productive time.  Time of day is not usually important unless there is excessive beach traffic that may drive crabs down.  Peak low tide is when you will find congregations of crabs on exposed sand bars. 

When you first walk on the beach near the water, feel the sand with your bare feet.  As you walk you’ll notice that the sand varies from soft to firm as well as coarse to fine grain in different areas.  Crabs prefer soft fine-grained sand that is easy to burrow into and rely upon it until their hard shell develops.   

Here are a few tips on how to keep your sand crabs fresh and lively.  Keep and transport your crabs in a waist bait bucket.  A small piece of wet kelp helps to keep the temperature down and the bait fresh.  If you plan to keep the crabs overnight place them in a dry plastic container (no lid) and cover them with damp newspaper or a moistened cloth.   

Be sure not to crush them.  I place the bucket in a cool dry place inside a large ice chest.  If you feel they may become too warm (as they like the air temperature to be between fifty-five and seventy degrees) you may place a frozen bottle of water adjacent to their container.  By all means don’t place them in salt water or the refrigerator, as they will expire in just minutes.  Lastly, be sure not to disturb them.  Otherwise, they will be cranky (and dead!) in the morning. 

Summer’s here and so are the crabs.  So take a few extra minutes to search and find sand crabs and you’re sure to find the fish that are looking for them too! 

Ira was born and raised in Portland, Oregon where he first found his love of fishing with trout, salmon, and steelhead. Over the years he grew to target any species he could find in the Pacific Northwest including albacore, musky, and sturgeon. After graduating high school, Ira moved to San Diego to...