Think Twice Before Using That Big Sand Crab

It’s May, the waters are warming, and the near-term forecasts are signaling that the surf and wind might finally be mellowing out. What’s all that mean? It means peak season is approaching and we should be seeing big spotfin croaker and California Corbina cruising around, scouring the ultra-shallow waters as they hunt for their prey… sand crabs.

Sand crabs are already back, and the yellowfin croaker bite is heating up dramatically, but we’re still waiting for corbina and spotfin to show up in large numbers. So, while we wait, here are a couple of underrated tips that will increase the quality of your catches along with your catch quantity.


One of the most frequently misconceived concepts among Southern California surf anglers is the idea that bigger baits are necessary to catch bigger fish. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve experienced a scenario like the following:

I’m at the beach having a good day and I’ve caught close to ten fish only a couple hours in. It’s been a mixed bag as my catches have ranged from a couple 12-inch croakers to an 18-inch spotfin and even a trophy 22-inch corbina. As I make my way down the beach, I run into a fellow angler and come to find they’re using the same bait as I am, sand crabs!

I ask, “have you had any luck today?”

Fellow angler replies, “no luck yet, but I found a bed of nice-sized sand crabs over that way… gunna get a big one here soon.”

I look down at his crab one more time and see that it’s a hard-shell sand crab that’s twice the size of the crabs I’ve been using.


The thought this angler had was logical and one that many fishermen fall victim to. With some species, bigger baits equate to bigger fish. In my experience though, when it comes to surf fishing for California corbina and spotfin croaker, smaller baits will catch more fish.

Now, you might think, “maybe I’ll catch more fish, but I want to catch big fish”. Well, using small-to-medium-sized sand crabs will catch bigger fish more often too.

When using sand crabs for surf fishing, you should take note of two things: size and texture.


When using san crabs for bait, the best size is no bigger than your index fingernail. I often use the ones that are smaller than my pinky fingernail and pile 2 or 3 of them together on a #2 or #4 mosquito hook.

Now, obviously, an angler’s fingernail size varies since we don’t all have the same size hands, etc., but in the image pictured above, you’ll see I diagramed and defined the ideal size and also a crab that is too big.

There’s no secret to finding these, but you can tell a freshly molted crab apart from the hard-shelled ones by either looking at it or feeling it.

By feel, it’s simple, it will feel softer than the other ones. But, they’ll also look opaque, and somewhat translucent in color. The same image that shows the best size, also indicates which crab in the image has a softshell. See the difference in color? The three upside-down crabs above the soft-shelled crab are clearly different in color than this one. Look for crabs that look like the bottom one in.


In the image above, you’ll see that I hooked this sand crab through the hard shell and out the belly, and that I started just toward the center of the crab’s shell moving from the “digger”. The digger is that long part of the crab angled opposite from the point of my hook.

The reason for my hook placement is that more often than not if a fish bites your bait and doesn’t take the whole thing, they usually bite the part of the crab that holds the eggs, which is right under the “digger”. This is the case even on crabs that don’t have eggs. It seems to be instinct for fish to hone in on that portion of the sand crab. So, I like to present my hook within the eggs and often peeking out just a tad.

Again, I can’t say this is the only right way, but I do feel that I’ve increased my hook-up ratio by using this method.

One exception is when I pile more than one smaller crab on the hook. Since the point of the hook won’t be presented in the “sweet spot”, there’s no real benefit to hooking them with any specific technique. When this is the case, through the belly and out the shell is just fine.

It’s subtleties like these that you’ll notice and address as you grow in your surf fishing journey and I encourage you to tweak your methods to what works for you as you create your own unique signature.

Nick has been an avid angler in the surf of Southern California since 2014. A hobby that quickly became a passion. In 2019, he created the website: centered around surf fishing in Southern California, and he began blogging every week. Since that time his expertise has grown s...