This article is all about how to make the most of arguably the best surf fishing bait out there - Sand Crabs (sand fleas) - including awesome ways to find and use sand crabs (sand fleas, mole crabs) to target all sorts of species including surf perch, croaker, corbina, drum, whiting, pompano, striped bass, small sharks and bass.
Best Surf Fishing Baits: How to Catch and make the most of Sand Crabs / Sand Fleas for Surf Fishing guide index:
The diminutive sand crab is a cornerstone of the marine ecosystem on the West and East Coast with almost everything eating these little crustaceans, or preying on something that eats them.
They’re one of the best baits for catching anything that swims in the surf, but hunting sand crabs is in itself a bit of an art.
Here’s what you need to know to access near-unlimited free surf fishing bait this season!
1) Best Surf Fishing Baits: Sand Crab (sand flea) and Surf Fishing Basics - lots of Tips
Sand crabs – also known as sand fleas, mole crabs or sand bugs – are small clawless crustaceans that bury themselves in sand with just their hairy little antennae protruding above the sand to filter-feed on plankton washing over their heads as the waves pull back and forth.
They live in the swash (surf) zone, for the most part, and usually form small colonies visible as areas of disrupted sand as the water pulls back.
Anyone fishing sandy beaches on either West or East coast will have seen these critters in the sand as the water pulls in and out.
See the darker, blackish lines in the sand in the middle of the image below? Those are sand crab feelers sticking out from the sand, creating areas of disrupted water as the wave retreats. Looking for signs like the ones in this photo is how you can easily find a bed of sand crabs (and lots of free bait...)
On the West Coast, the Pacific sand crab (Emerita analoga) is found most of the year round but becomes a lot harder to locate when the water temperature falls below the 60s.
This means that the winter months are less productive for sand crab hunting, but some can still be found, usually, around solid structures (jetties, breakwaters, and piers)
It’s also worth trawling the shore break area with a large sand crab rake for winter overstayers if it’s cold. There are usually a few hardy ones left amongst the clams, even in the depths of winter.
As I mentioned, throughout spring, summer and fall, the best way to find sand crabs is to look for the visual clues they give off as they work their way up and down in the sand; first poking their antennae and top half of their body out to collect food, before burrowing down as the water retreats.
Imagine an upside-down egg box buried in the sand with the domes just poking out, and how water flowing over the top of the little bumps would be disrupted and the sand around the bumps would move differently, creating little V shapes and ripples.
The video below shows how to find sand crabs in the shore break. As the water retreats, you can see the small dark lines and disruptions in the sand at the top of the frame.
These dark dots and lines are sand crabs moving up and down, and filtering the water with their antennae for food, creating small V shapes as the water drains out after the wave has come up the beach.
This is how a small colony of medium to large-size crabs looks as the water retreats...
Smaller sand crabs, from grain-of-rice to pea-size, often form large colonies in the same way but are less visible due to their size.
They’ll often appear as a patch of dark dots in the sand, as you can see below. They're more subtle than the adults.
Seek these nursery beds out by closely inspecting any dispruptions in the sand like this - the fish will be having a banquet.
Other things to look out for are egg-carrying crabs, identifiable via the orange blob of eggs lodged in their rear end, and soft-shell crabs which are in the process of molting their shell, like the one in the photo below. Both are considered to be exceptional surf fishing baits.
In-fact, I'd go so far as to say that a soft shell sand crab is the BEST bait out there for summer surf species. Everything wants to eat them.
Note the light color of the large soft shell crab below and how it's pinned on the hook by a small hard-shell crab for security on the cast.
The soft-shell crabs will also feel rubbery to the touch. It's worth seeking these out, trust me...
2) Best Surf Fishing Baits: Best Tides and Conditions for Finding Sand Crabs (Sand Fleas) for Surf Casting
With the sand crabs mainly inhabiting the shore break area, tides become really important and I’ve found specific tidal states to be more productive than others.
Generally, the state of tide that's best for finding sand crabs is: During the middle third of an outgoing or incoming tide, right between the high and low marks, ebbing or flooding.
Generally, I’ve found a very low or high tide to not be as productive for crab hunting as I suspect the areas they like to inhabit are, at this stage, covered by water and not visible to us, or they're too exposed on a low tide.
This may be because often at the high tide mark you get a collection of rocky, coarse sand propelled up the beach to the top of the surf line by the incoming tide, and sand crabs show a clear preference for clean, soft sand, found below the tide line, that they can dig into easily.
The exception to this rule is often found alongside a jetty or pier, where they seem to be happy whatever the state of tide or temperature, often tucked right alongside rocks or pilings in soft, waterlogged sand.
3) Best Surf Fishing Baits: Best Methods and Tools for Catching Sand Crabs
The three main methods I use to catch sand crabs are: by hand, with a kitchen strainer (the type you’d use to drain boiled pasta, see image below) and with a large metal sand crab rake.
The universal rule for all three is this: timing is key.
With the crabs poking their heads out most just when the waves retreat, timing your scoop or grab to coincide with the moment when only an inch or two of water remains whilst rapidly draining out offers the best chance of a scoop-load.
If you wait until the water has all gone, the crabs will likely have buried themselves surprisingly far down in a second or two. They're faster than you!
Catching by hand is great if you just want one or two for hook bait.
The rake is a great option for when you need a day’s worth of bait – one scoop in the right place and you won’t have to do any bait collecting for the rest of the day.
But the pasta strainer (or bait tank net at a push) is probably the easiest method to use and takes up little room in a bag. Bring one whenever you hit the beach.
Procedure-wise, once I’ve spotted the bed of crabs via the disrupted sand in the shore break area, I’ll first make sure to keep several meters away from the bed.
This is because sand crabs are easily spooked (as you would be if everything wants to eat you) and any sort of shadow or figure looming over them will cause them to leave their sandy hole and swim for safety.
The golden rule is: Don't go near the bed until you're ready to scoop the crabs.
They're flighty critters.
Once I’m sure there’s a good bed of sand crabs (and they’re not sand clams or discarded shells etc) I’ll point at the area of the maximum concentration of crabs with my spare hand so I don’t lose track of where they’re sat – something that’s easily done when a wave comes in and covers the area.
With their home patch marked with my pointing hand, I’ll wait until the wave starts to retreat before making a swift incursion into the water at a jog, positioning my scoop just downstream of where the most crabs are.
Using a scooping motion, and taking a couple of inches-deep divot out of the sand like you’re serving ice cream, execute a swift movement down into where you’ve marked the crab bed so you take the top couple of inches of sand that contains the feeding crabs, filling the scoop entirely.
Now carefully wash the sand out with more water provided by the next wave like you’re panning for gold, taking care not to let them escape out of the top as they sense water moving and make a swim for it.
With some careful washing, you should reveal a collection of sand crabs in the bottom of the scoop.
The only difference between using the smaller scoop and the large rake, as featured below, is this: instead of scooping out a divot of sand right where the crabs are sat as I enter the water, I position the rake a foot or two downstream of the crab bed.
Whilst holding the rake in position I disrupt the bed of crabs with my feet as the water retreats, causing them to pop out of the sand and wash straight into the waiting rake, which I withdraw when I can see a good amount of bait I the bottom so it can't escape when the water movement turns.
You can easily catch a few dozen this way, so be careful of breaking the 50-crab bag limit rule (I put the ones below back after taking this video of an exceptional number of large sand crabs...)
4) Best Surf Fishing Baits: Best ways to Keep and Store Sand Crabs (Sand Fleas) for Surf Casting
The best way to store sand crabs is in a small, well-aerated bait box with a little damp kelp for cover, or in a ziplock bag containing the same.
They’ll stay fresh for hours if you keep them cool and damp, and I’ve had some success with keeping them in a fridge in a shallow tray with damp kelp for a day or two.
But, generally, I only want to store them for a few hours before throwing the rest back into the surf when the day is done.
During summer when they’re really easy to find, and on solo sessions, I’ll simply store a handful in my top pocket or in a small ziplock bag and replenish this with a couple more when I see them in the sand.
No need to collect more than you need, when they’re present on the beach they’re plentiful. If it's summer and there are few crabs to be found, the fish might also be scarce, or you dialed into another bait.
Top tip: When I find a soft-shell crab, I store this separately in a top pocket. When I next miss a bite or hit a new super fishy spot, or maybe I see a client miss a fish, I'll use the deadly soft shell sand crab next. This often gets a fast bite and a nice fish on the sand.
5) Best Surf Fishing Baits: Sand Crab Bed Fishing and Collecting Tips
When crabs are present, there’s no better place to start fishing than in the nearest piece of shore structure adjacent to the bed.
Species like surf perch, corbina, shovelnose guitarfish (like the fun-size one below), croaker, bass, sharks and rays will work this area very precisely, with the surprisingly-mobile sand crabs frequently moving in and out of the swash area and right into the waiting mouths of those eager predators.
So, as well as collecting bait when you see the crab beds, make sure you fish the same areas and I promise you’ll find a stack of fish waiting for an easy meal.
We recommend using this guide to picking the best times to fish so you can fish peak periods when the crabs are most active.
One thing to consider is that sand crabs are highly mobile and will easily swim off if spooked, only to take up position a few meters down the beach.
Keeping mobile often helps to stay in touch with the fish and bait.
By the way, I much prefer either one medium-size or two or three small crabs on a size 4, 6 or 8 hook versus a larger offering for targeting general surf species.
Those big, walnut-size crabs are interesting to look at, but don’t cast well and have a tendency to be short-bitten so you reel in just a head or empty shell.
Think snack-size, not main meal. Feed them the French fry, not the burger.
6) Best Surf Fishing Baits: Best Rigs and Tackle for Sand Crab fishing
A simple Carolina Rig, Croaker Rig or Dropper Loop rig works great for sand crab fishing with the C-Rig more suited to light line fishing for species like California corbina and surf perch, whilst a static bait and wait rig with circle hooks works better for croaker, whiting, and pompano.
This kit below will make dozens of highly effective Carolina Rigs like the one above - a deadly way to fish the surf on the West Coast!
Add a light rod and reel and you're ready to go.
And this easy-to-use bait fishing rig simply slays the corbina, surf perch and croaker when it comes to bait and wait fishing with sand crabs, worms, mussel or similar fresh bait.
A 3oz or 3.5oz surf sinker is an essential tackle item for bait-and-wait fishing in any conditions, especially if you struggle with any sort of current or heavy surf. We love these models below for ease of use and great value.
This Croaker Rig is also lethal for yellowfin croaker with sand crabs as bait, and we love combining this rig with a little strip of E-Z Flea Fishbites for extra attraction.
Croaker can't help themselves...
In conclusion, there is no better fresh surf fishing bait than sand crabs during the warmer months and they’re free, so ensure you make the most of this bountiful bait supply to catch some great fish like this huge corbina below.
Thank you for reading this guide to using one of the best surf fishing baits you can get your hands on.
If you'd like to learn more about surf fishing, using sand crabs, catching sand crabs or surf fishing baits, my guiding service offers in-depth private tuitions on beaches in Southern California covering every aspect of catching lots of fish from the surf for any level or age angler.
Email me on firstname.lastname@example.org or click here for details on guided trips in SoCal, or if you have any questions relating to this article - I'm happy to help with any queries, big or small!