Best Surf Fishing Bait: Alternative to Sand Crabs
Ever shown up to fish your spot with the expectation of sand crabs being readily available, only to find… well, none? Yup, I have too. In fact, this past week (8/2 – 8/8/2020), sand crabs were running on the scarce side at a couple (not all) of local San Diego beaches. I was persistent enough to find them at both beaches, but not without sparing 30 minutes or so. But without further ado, here’s a list of some of the best surf fishing bait.
I’m a firm believer that come May, when sand crabs have already been seen at our local beaches, you can ALWAYS find them. It just might take a while sometimes. But, it’s always good to have a back up at the ready.
Gulp! Sandworms: Bait Alternate #1
I keep a bag of Gulp! Sandworms with me at all times. As an artificial soft plastic, this bait is the real deal. These guys work for everything sand crabs work for but I’d say just not as productively. It’s interesting to see how every once in a while, for whatever reason it may be, Gulp! Sand Worms out perform sand crabs. Not all the time, and not most of the time either, but to out perform a live, natural bait, even once, is impressive.
They aren’t my favorite bait to use as they absolutely wreak, but they don’t need to be refrigerated or frozen. I would however, recommend keeping the already sealed bag of these worms in a quart size freezer Zip Lock baggy. The scent can leak and stink up your entire tackle bag.
Fishbites: Bait Option #2
For this option, I actually put together an entire article on using Fishbites in the surf. When I first tried them, I was very skeptical as their appearance wasn’t very impressive. I read up on them some more and found some interesting aspects that went into the engineering process and it really intrigued me. My first time trying these resulted in success and ever since, I’ve been a strong believer in using Fishbites in the surf. They are engineered with chemicals that essentially induce feeding (if I understand the concept correctly). Read my complete article on which Fishbites baits and colors work best in the surf and purchase your own here.
Clam Meat: Bait Option #3
Clam meat, in my opinion, actually rivals sand crabs for best bait. Sand crabs tend to be more readily available and less of a process, but I’d be curious to compare these on a large scale. I’m a little biased towards sand crabs just because of their proven track record for me, but, I’d be open to either being “the best”.
I say this because with the few times that I’ve luckily come across a legal pismo clam, I’ve had luck with at least one of the chunks. The most common product of my limited experience using clam meat has been corbina and croaker (both spotfin and yellowfin). Clam meat is easily a best surf fishing bait.
Aside from my experience, I’ve come across some very successful fishermen at mission beach who used clam meat. They had buckets full of corbina and croaker ranging from small through medium and a couple that were decently sized. Not that keeping so many fish is a good idea, but there’s no denying the success there. At the very least, I’d say clam meat is worth a shot and that you can cast with confidence when using.
Mussel Meat: Bait Alternate #4
Both freshly shucked, as well as store-bought frozen, mussel meat is my go-to winter bait. Perch will devour mussel meat! If using freshly shucked meat, I like to hook it through and through (2 times) to ensure that it stays on well. For the frozen (store-bought) mussel meat, you can find these packs at local seafood markets and they’re priced by the pound. An important factor with the store-bought version, is that it’s vital to keep these baits as frozen as possible. As they thaw, they become too soggy and too loose to stay on your hook.
Mussel meat, as mentioned above, works well for perch. It can also catch corbina, croaker, and even halibut (if you’re lucky). It’s catch-range is again, similar to sand crabs, but still, less reliable.
Squid: Bait Alternative #5
Most surf fishermen in Southern California have tried this one, and for good reason. Squid can produce just as well as any other bait. I’ve even had limited success sight casting for big spotfin croaker with squid.
It’s cons include the following: it absolutely wreaks, it catches lots of rays and it catches lots of medium-sized sharks. It’s pros are as follows: it absolutely wreaks, it catches lots of rays and it catches lots of medium-sized sharks. For certain targets and for certain beaches, at certain times, squid can be the perfect bait. Other times, it won’t be incredibly productive for your desired target (if targeting corbina or croaker or even larger sharks).
Nonetheless, I can’t bag on any fisherman for using squid, as it’s generated success for me in the past. Just like the others, you can pretty much catch anything with squid.
Anchovy: Bait Alternative #6
If you haven’t caught on yet, I’m not necessarily ranking these in any order. More so, I’m explaining what each is best for. Anchovy (typically frozen as live bait-fish are tough to come by for surf anglers) are a surprisingly productive option to use when targeting halibut. The primary way of targeting halibut is by throwing a lure of sorts, but anchovy works well too.
Sometimes, you’ll run your lure through a spot 30 or 40 times, and afterwards, you’ll throw a frozen anchovy out for a couple minutes and wham! You’ve got your butt! Other times, the same is true of the inverse equation.
Lucky Craft: Bait Alternative #7
For this “bait-choice”, there’s so much to be said. I’ve written a completely separate article (linked here) on using Lucky Craft and other bait for Halibut. And, while it’s absolutely terrific for all things Halibut and other predatorial fish, I recently caught this 23.5″ corvina in the surf with the anchovy color. In the article, I’ve referenced my go-to’s for color, but anchovy and pearl white are the new hot-hand.
Look at the teeth on this thing! Corvina, commonly confused (by name) with the California corbina, are typically caught using top-water lures in bays and even lagoon mouths and such. A catch from the surf isn’t nearly as common.
Additionally, my fishing buddy, Kyle, caught this 24″ corbina (slightly foul-hooked but still incredible). They don’t get much larger than this tanker. Well done Kyle!
Gear and Tackle I Use:
Wondering what gear and tackle I use for fishing the surf here in So Cal, check below or click this link for detailed descriptions of my entire set ups (light tackle and sharking).
- Rod: Okuma Celilo (8’6″ MA)
- Reel: Penn Battle II or III 4000 series
- Mainline: 15-pound monofilament
- For Bait: Carolina Rig:
- Leader Line: 15-pound fluorocarbon
- Swivels: 15-19mm barrel swivels
- Hooks: size #2 or #4 owner mosquito hooks
- Weights: 1-oz egg weight
- Beads: 8mm fishing beads
- For Lures: Lucky Craft FM 110 and Shimano WM 115 SP
- Other best surf fishing rods and best surf fishing reels
- Rod: Fiblink Moonsniper (12 or 13 feet)
- Reel: Penn Battle 6000 or 8000 (II or III)
- Mainline: 50-pound braid
- Top shot: 100-pound nylon coated mono
- Shark Rig:
- Hooks: 7/0 Circles
- Swivel: 3-Way Barrel Swivel
- Crimps: AFW #6 Crimps
- Weight: 8-ounce pyramid or 6-ounce sputnik
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Thanks Nick, great, timely article as sand crabs were far and few between yesterday morning at South Torrey. As you noted, it tooks several digs in what looked like beds to find a couple nice crabs. I did luck out and got my first corbina on the top hook of my surf rig about 20 feet in front of me (after casting just infront of the shore pound — not exactly sight casting, patience and luck). Anyway, your articles are all the intel needed to get started, well done, thank you for that!
Thanks for showing your appreciation. Good luck out there and awesome job on the Corbina!
I dug for a sand crab at Mission Beach once, and the darned thing was nearly the size of a tennis ball. I was so shocked, I dropped it but picked it back up. Yikes. Doubt even a world-record corbina could swallow THAT bad boy!
Hahaha yah I don’t like using anything bigger than an index finger nail.
Interesting! How do you present the crabs? Just a hook or do you add a bucktail teaser or similar? Cast and retrieve, of just drop on the bottom with a bell sinker & 12″ leader?
I use a Carolina rig with 2-2.5 foot leader. Hook once through shell. This link illustrates literally every piece of gear and tackle I use: https://surffishingsocalsd.com/nick-heids-surf-fishing-set-ups/
What about shrimp?
You’re the second one to bring that bait up. Since this article, shrimp and fishbites have been brought to the table to possibly be added to this list. I’ll be giving both a shot in the coming month as fishbites trials are already under way. What size shrimp do you like to use?
My late brother and I used to get bay mussels at low tide, then fish incoming tides for corbina near the Hotel Del Coronado. When we opened the mussels, I would leave the byssal threads and run them through a #4 hook to hold the bait on better. That, plus slowly swing the cast. Just like fly-fishermen say: Cast with your arm, not your wrist. Snapping the wrist worked for Nolan Ryan; not so much for bay mussels.
It’s also worth trying a Kastmaster with an orange stripe in shallow water, casting out toward the waves and bringing it in slowly so it kicks up a bit of sand. To them, it looks like an egg-bound female sand crab, and by the time they realize their mistake, you’ve got a hookup.
Awesome input, Pete!
Have you ever tried the Berkley Gulp sand crab? I know they’re much larger than what you would normally use when using the real thing, but I’m wondering if the “scent” is as effective as the Gulp sand worms. The good-sized crabs have become more scarce in recent weeks, so I’m preparing to transition to late Fall/Winter baits.
I’ve seen those and been interested but never actually used them. I don’t have much faith that they’d work better than mussel meat as that’s what I’ve grown most confident in when I don’t have sand crabs. But, I have yet to try them so it’s all a guess.