Sand Crabs: Everything You Need to Know

When it comes to surf fishing the best bait ever invented is the sand crab.  I have found three varieties of sand crabs.  One that occurs above Santa Barbara.  It’s a bit darker in color and can be found all year in all water temperatures.  South of Santa Barbara, to just about Cedros Island you will find a lighter sand crab that comes to the surface when water temps reach about sixty degrees.  The last sand crab is one I find in southern Baja, which is almost white in color and occurs in small numbers near rock outcroppings.  All three work great for bait. 

Throughout the summer soft shell crabs spawn and the odor emitted by the crab’s bright orange eggs becomes irresistible to their hungry neighbors.  Crab shells become soft because as with snakes crabs shed their shell (or skin) as they grow. 

Sand crabs in the sand

To be successful at using sand crabs here are a few tips about how to find, catch and fish the best bait in the surf. 

Sand crabs can be found from British Columbia to the tip of Baja California.  On beaches south of Santa Barbara we usually find them most abundant in the spring, summer, and fall.  When winter storm waves pound the beach and tons of sand are eroded and deposited in bars offshore, the sand crabs go with it to ride out the storms. They return to the beach when the waves again re-deposit sand there. 

Finding Sand Crabs

To find crabs, start by looking near the waterline for groups of birds on the beach.   Many local seabirds use their beak to probe the sand for crabs.  Sand crabs prefer soft sand, they don’t like 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 for little “Vs” in the sand.  This is the characteristic ripple formed by a bed of crabs. Crabs feed for plankton on the incoming waves with extended feather-like antennae. With practice, you will find that they are easy to see grouped in bunches and exposed as the water recedes between waves.  The warmer the water, the closer they will be to the surface.   

Surf fishing with sand crab v's

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 capturing them in numbers.  I find a sand crab rake works most effectively in catching them. 

Look for patches of “Vs.” Approach a patch and wait for the water to rush in 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. 

Catching Sand Crabs

The best way to catch crabs is with a galvanized crab rake/net.  These nets can be purchased at your local tackle store.  Make sure all parts are well galvanized and rinse thoroughly with fresh water after each use.  These nets 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.  Some may be as soft as warm butter.  Others will be more like bending a pop can.  Because they tend to slide, the softer the crab the harder it is to keep on the hook.  While crabs that are too hard will not be eaten.  I’ve found that medium-soft crabs (those with a shell softness equal to pressing in a pop can) are the best bait. 

Crab rake

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 contents will swim, crawl, dig, and disappear back into the sea in the blink of an eye. 

Alternative devices to catch crabs are many.  Colanders, nets, scoops, and your hands all work.  One of the best ideas I’ve seen was from an angler during one of our beach seminars who used a mesh laundry bag.  It was shaped like a pillowcase and he unzipped the top, folded it down, filled it with four handfuls of sand then rinsed it in the ocean leaving a perfect handful of crabs behind.  A brilliant idea that is inexpensive, lightweight, and easy to stuff in your pocket. 

Read Next: Surf Fishing Q&A with Bill Varney

Over the years I’ve seen all kinds of contraptions to catch crabs.  One guy even told me that a net was cheating because it made crabbing too easy.  No matter what you use, even your hands, crabs are the best surf bait around. Your local tackle shop will carry galvanized crab nets for around $50.00 

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 cover them with some damp newspaper, wet rag, or kelp.  Be sure not to crush them.  I place the bucket in a cool dry place like the garage.  By all means, don’t place them in salt water or refrigerate them.  Be sure to disturb them as little as possible or they will be cranky (and dead!) in the morning. 

Sand 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.  The time of day is not usually important unless there is excessive beach traffic that drives crabs down.  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.   

In most cases, crabs live in the soft sand just below the high tide mark.  As the water passes over them they climb to the surface to feed.  Softer crabs break loose and can be caught.  Being soft, they find it more difficult to dig back in as the water recedes and are thus more vulnerable to predators and your crab net. 

sand crab digging into the sand

At peak low tide look for crabs to congregate in groups and become visible as the water recedes after each wave.   Minus tide is a good time to look for these pockets of crabs that live on the outside sand bar. 

Rigging Sand Crabs

Each type of bait has its own special way to be hooked.  No matter what bait you are using the most important word to remember is “presentation.”  Most of all you want to make the fish believe that the bait is occurring naturally.  It doesn’t matter how good your bait is, if it’s floating upside down or spinning wildly, it usually won’t get a bite. 

It’s always good to practice before or even after a trip on hooking baits properly.  Don’t wait until you are in the middle of a great bite to try to figure out how to hook your bait. 

rigged sand crab

Sand crabs can be hooked in two ways:  from front to back or from back to front.  They can also have the hook protrude from the top of their shell or from the bottom of their shell. 

Choose a sharp hook that best matches the size of the bait.  I prefer to use a split shot/drop shot hook, mosquito, or an octopus hook with a snell eye.  I’ve found that using a snell knot creates a stronger knot, a good hook set, and some elasticity.  Octopus, mosquito, and split shot hooks come in silver, black and red.  Red seems to work well in the peak of summer when crabs are laden with bright red and orange eggs.  Black hides well in bait and will quickly rust out of a fish that has been gut hooked. 

When hooking crabs place the hook through the top right behind the eyes of the crab and push it down and through.  Pull the tip and barb through the crab leaving the eye of your hook exposed on the crab’s back.  Rotate the hook 180 degrees and bring it up through the “tallus” (which covers the eggs), on the underside.  Be sure the hook point is sharp and protrudes just outside of the crab’s shell.  

Zebra Perch caught on a sand crab

Test how your bait rides in the water before you cast it out.  Pull your bait across the water in front of you to see if it looks natural or spins and needs to be corrected.  It is better to see if it looks natural before presenting it to fish. If it spins it will foul your line and will not catch fish.  

Sometimes when the bite slows I’ll flip the crab over and hook it with the opposite side up.  This changes the “presentation” and might elicit a bite.  Replace your sand crab when it has been partially eaten or after several casts with no bites.        

Employing a few tricks for catching and using sand crabs is the best way to find fish at the beach.  With a bit of practice and patience you’ll be surprised at the size of fish that come from the surf and your friends will be sure to ask for your secret! 

Fish The Surf