Shorebound: Surf fishing


Kids rushing back to school, leaves falling from trees, and footballs crashing on playing fields all signal the beginning of fall.  This has always been my favorite time to fish the beach when crowds are thin, the water is warm and fish are numerous. 

As with the change of seasons, bait changes from season to season too.  Summer brings us loads of sand crabs and the rush of corbina to rake the sandy shores for food.   When summer ends sand crabs sink out as they prepare for their winter hibernation and fish begin searching for new food to take the place of crabs.   

Fall baits such as blood worms, ghost shrimp, and lug worms work well for fishing the beach from autumn through spring.  As the billion or more sand crabs leave the beaches surf fish such as barred perch, spotfin croaker, leopard sharks, yellowfin croaker, and the occasional corbina look for a new source of food to comfort their veracious appetites.     

One of the best surf baits has always been ghost shrimp.  Credited with catching some of the biggest surf fish on record (the current world record corbina being one), the ghost shrimp is one of my favorite surf baits.  

Some hardcore anglers work hard to catch their own shrimp in the mud of local saltwater estuaries.  Unfortunately, with development taking center stage, very few areas south of San Francisco are available for their capture.   

Australians invented much of the equipment and many of the techniques we use in surf fishing today.  Catching ghost shrimp or yabbies, as the Aussies call them, is no exception.   Alvey’s® Bait Pump, made from durable stainless steel, is used to dislodge shrimp from the sand.  Sand or mud is then placed in a bucket and the yabbies are removed and rinsed for use.  Here in the States catching ghost shrimp is much more difficult so most of our shrimp comes from overseas and can be purchased at your local tackle shop. 

Collecting bait

As with most surf baits fished on light line, I always use the Carolina Rig for ghost shrimp.  Use a long shank worm hook for shrimp.  Insert the hook near the shrimp’s tail and “feed” the hook upwards through the center of its body. Exit the business end of the hook to just above the barb, just below the shrimp’s head.  This hooking style will help to hide the hook and give the bait a natural presentation– But, because the shrimp is fragile, care must be taken when casting them into the sea. 

Remember to check your bait to make sure it’s straight on the hook and not spinning during the retrieve.  Change your bait periodically, especially if you are not having success. 

Storing shrimp correctly is important because of their fragility.   Unlike sand crabs, ghost shrimp must be stored in a refrigerated area.  Keep a water bottle filled with salt water handy to rinse the bait occasionally.  If you have bait left over after a day of fishing, rinse it out with salt water just before leaving the beach.  Shrimp excrete urine which will eventually kill them if not rinsed at least once per day. 

Another bait you can find at your local tackle shop is lug and blood worms.  Blood worms have a storied past that’s both good and bad.  On the good side, they are one of the best all-around surf baits known to fishermen.  On the bad side, their harvest is credited with devastating East Coast saltwater estuaries and horrendous labor practices.  Because worm “farmers” were paid by the weight of the catch they were forced to work on their hands and knees nonstop for days.  The grueling work meant that they collected every single worm they found and devastated the resource. 

Local tackle shops have found it hard to keep blood worms in stock both because of availability and price.  Worms that cost six dollars per dozen five years ago are now as much as thirty dollars per dozen.  Cost aside and if you can find them, fishermen agree that they are no less than irresistible to all surf fish.  Another great advantage of the blood worm is its durability.  Feel free to catch one, two, or five fish on the same bait—it’s that strong. 

The lug worm came on the scene in just the last few years and has become a great substitute for blood worms.  These worms are farmed in controlled conditions and can be grown in huge quantities.   This helps to make them more widely available and less expensive.  Worms can be kept for up to a week in your refrigerator.  When worms are dead throw them out as their odor does not attract fish. 

Because you will use the entire worm for bait it takes a bit of practice to get the “monster” on your hook.  The first step is to expel the creature from its tube lining.  Inside the worm, you’ll find a set of two to four pinchers.  They appear as if they are tiny fingernails.  The worm uses these to catch its prey and to dig holes in the sand.  On larger worms, these claws will get your attention as they clamp onto your skin with a sharp pinch! 

It is essential to have the worm expose itself outside of the casing to hook it correctly.  Rub the worm against your coat or pinch it with your pliers to bring out the monster.  The fresher the worm the faster and more pronounced the pinchers and mouth will be. 

To get the worm in a position to place on the hook pinch the “neck” (just below the pinchers) between your thumb and forefinger.  Holding the worm firmly, insert the sharp hook end into the mouth (center of the pinchers).  Slowly and carefully, trying not to puncture the worm casing, feed the worm up the hook (and the hook down the center of the worm). 

Pull the worm onto the hook until you reach the hook eye and mono knot.  Firmly grasp the mouth and pull it over the hook’s eye.  At this point, the worm can also be slipped up the line.  Puncture the casing of the worm with the hook and leave a one and one-half-inch piece of worm dangling, just below the hook.  Be sure to pull the hook past the barb so it sets well and will hold the worm in place as you cast. 

Check your worm every cast to make sure it has not slid down the line and bunched up. Also, make sure the worm is flat on your hook so it looks like a worm moving along the bottom as you retrieve.  After each fish just pull another one and one-half inch piece down and off you go. 

Now is a good time to begin collecting bait to be used this winter.  Being prepared by freezing bait a day, week or month before a fishing trip can make the difference between catching fish or not.  Every few months I’ll spend some time working on collecting, processing, and freezing bait. 

A good first step is to collect some rock mussels and sand crabs.  Make sure the crabs are of the hard shell variety (harder the better).  I place them in snack-size zip bags with about enough crabs for one day of fishing.  Make several varieties:  One with crabs alone, one with crabs and taco sauce (pick your favorite) and one with crabs and a piece of juicy mussel.  Once frozen and thawed the crabs will have a softer shell and will be naturally scented.  I guarantee that during winter this will drive the fish crazy! 

Mussel makes excellent frozen bait.  After collecting a handful of mussel let it sit overnight and it will be easier to shuck the next day.  Clean the mussel and place it in small zip-top bags with enough for one day of fishing.  A great variation on this is to cut squid into strips (about the size of a pencil) and add this to the mussel bag.  The squid will absorb both the color and smell of the mussel and will be both easy to keep on the hook and deadly effective. 

Worms can not be frozen but ghost shrimp keep well in the freezer and are effective as bait even after being thawed.    Because shrimp can get mushy be sure to freeze them as soon as you get home from the beach.  

Put bait packages in labeled brown paper bags in the freezer.  Once per year throw out old bait and start over.  That’s sage advice for those who want to stay married!  

Take advantage of the great live baits available on our beaches and at your local tackle store.  Please always remember to catch and release whenever possible.  

Bill Varney is a fourth-generation Californian whose passion for surf fishing is detailed in his how-to book:  Surf Fishing, The Light-Line Revolution available at most tackle shops and online at