Using Sand Crabs as Bait — Revised

Ken Jones

Staff member
Sand Crabs. Three species of mole crabs are found in California and one, the Pacific mole crab aka gray sand crab, Emerita analoga, is a common resident of sandy beaches and lives along the Pacific coast from Baja California to Alaska. It lies buried in the sand and has to deal with crashing waves, changing tides, a beach that can see drastic seasonal changes, and assorted predators including fish and humans.

It serves as one of the best shoreline baits for surf fishermen and pier anglers trying out the surf area. Corbina dine almost exclusively on sand crabs while they represent 90% of the diet of a barred surfperch. Naturally the small crabs are the best bait for those species but also are the premier bait for the two other large surfperch found along California’s beaches—calico surfperch and redtail surfperch.

At one time virtually every bait shop along the coast, as least those close to surf areas, would carry live sand crabs. They were a mainstay of the live bait trade and even though live were generally inexpensive bait. Ginny, at Wylie’s Bait and Tackle in Malibu, said she once sold them for 25 cents a dozen or five-dozen for $1.00.

Unfortunately, those days are over. Today you’ll need to find your own sand crabs. Some may gripe but gathering your own bait can be fun. Veteran angler “Mola Joe” once commented, “It’s nice to be on the beach at first light and not have to wait for a bait store to open, you have the worlds biggest bait store right under you feet.” I think he’s right.

The good news is that they are easily caught, especially if the angler has one of the small sand crab screens aka rakes. Unfortunately, the screens, once also common at bait shops, are also harder to find. Luckily, today you can order them on the Internet. Prices range from about $40 up depending upon the size you need (look for sand crab rake or sand flea rake). With a rake you can often catch a full day’s limit of 50 crabs in less than half an hour.

The crabs live in the swash zone of the beach’s intertidal zone (the range from highest to lowest reaches of the waves at any given time) and spend most of the time buried in the sand. But, they move around with their five pairs of legs allowing them to swim, crawl, and burrow, all done backwards. Meanwhile their eyestalks and antennae reach above the sand. The crabs move up and down the sand with the tides and generally move when water rushes over the sand. However, as waves wash back down to the sea they often take sand and sand crabs with them to the delight of fish, their greatest predator (although both shore birds and water birds find them delicious).

Finding and catching the crabs. Where to look for them? Initially look for bird activity along the water’s edge. If you see birds in the surf area they are generally looking for food and often that food is sand crabs. Next, walk along the water’s edge and watch as the water washes up and back down the sand. A telltale sign will be small V’s in the sand as the water recedes. These are tiny little sand crab antennae sticking out from the sand. These are typically seen when the crabs are near the top of the sand. Bubbles or dimples in the wet sand near the water’s edge can also indicate where crabs are burrowing. In addition, if there is a bed of them, the surface of the sand will look a little rougher compared to the other sand. Lastly, the down current sand, right next to a pier, is often a good place to find sand crabs.

When using the sand crab screen let the ocean do most of the work. Face the sea and while holding the screen above the water let it rush in. As soon as the water crests, kick up a little of the sand and drop the screen onto the sand and let water and sand flow through the screen toward the sea. Hopefully the water will contain some sand crabs.

Some do not have these screens but devise their own gadgets. One angler, “madwing,” said he used a colander with a handle: “I have an old, cheap, plastic colander with a handle. When a wave is in retreat down the beach, I look for the ruffling of the laminar layer of swash from the sand crab antennae, to see where they are in concentration. Then I go there next time a wave is swashing, and dig double-triple handfuls of sand crabs into the colander. Then I rinse it from below so the sand drains out with the water and the sand crabs are left. In one grab I can usually get 20 or so crabs.” Another angler, “baitfish,” said to take a large plastic bottle, like a bleach bottle, cut away part of the bottle and drill holes in it. Simply scoop us some wet sand as the wave recedes. Another angler said he used half of a minnow trap. Some people simply use their hands or a small hand shovel. It’s a little harder and more time consuming but simply dig through the wet sand after the wave has retreated back into the water.

The good news is that sand crabs are usually found on beach in good numbers from spring to fall. The bad news is that winter storms sometimes disrupt the beach and sometimes carry the crabs offshore onto sandbars. Generally this is true at beaches that already commonly see bigger waves. They will see even larger, more punishing waves during the winter storms and high tides. In the spring, when the sand is transported back onshore, the crabs are included and numbers increase. Generally however, some sand crabs remain on the beach during the winter months, they’re just a little deeper in the sand and harder to find.

When catching the crabs, you will sometimes find both the soft-shell crabs (that are molting or recently molted) and hard-shell specimens. Longtime surf fishermen argue, sometimes vehemently, about which are best to use. Many anglers swear by the soft-shell variety (and feel they are essential for catching corbina). Some anglers even go to the extreme, breaking the shells of hard shell crabs to basically turn them into soft-shell crabs. I think soft-shells probably do catch more fish as long as they aren’t too soft and soggy.

Some swear by the hard-shell specimens, feel that soft-shelled crabs fall off the hook too easily, feel the hard shell variety is just as good for catching fish (excepting corbina), feel they catch bigger fish, and feel they “are often more difficult to find than their chitin-rich brothers and sisters.”

Then there are those who prefer a medium-hard shelled crab, one whose shell has the hardness of a soft drink can. Ok. Some say small, dime-sized crabs are the primo baits. A majority do seem to feel females containing orange-colored eggs are the best. It’s an endless debate! Catch some crabs, fish them, and decide what you like the best. Basically all sizes and types will catch fish and the question sometimes becomes one of time; how long do you want to spend collecting the bait? If you only want the soft-shell or hard-shell variety it can multiply the amount of time you are looking for the crabs.

Using the crabs as bait. Although the crabs reach about 1.4 inches long and just under an inch wide, most anglers agree that somewhat smaller size crabs are better with most preferring sand crabs about one inch long give or take a quarter of an inch. Often the larger sand crabs seem to dominate in the spring while later in the summer little soft shells may be more numerous. If they are really small, don’t be afraid to put multiple crabs on a hook. Mola Joe, an esteemed surf angler, said he would sometimes cluster as many as 4-6 peewee-sized crabs on a hook.

Recommendations on hooks vary. I’ve usually just used baitholder hooks but some experienced anglers (like Mola Joe) feel those hooks are too heavy and thick preferring a lighter/thinner hook like a Gamakatsu octopus–style hook or an Owner Mosquito hook.

Hook size varies with the crab size (to some extent) as well as the fish being sought. Although some surf fish are opportunistic feeders quickly grabbing and swallowing sand crabs as soon as they see them, not all fish are the same.

Corbina, especially the older, larger fish, are finicky, extremely wary, and hook shy. It’s why you often see far more corbina in the shallows looking down from a pier than you hook. Line size, colored hardware (snaps and swivels), and hook size are important and small hooks, generally size 6 hooks, seem best.

Barred surfperch and croakers are far more aggressive and can handle a little larger size hooks. A size 4 hook is good for perch and size 4 or 2 hooks for croakers. Of course leopard sharks also like the sand crabs and even larger hooks can be used for them. On CenCal beaches where you may encounter striped bass, they too like sand crabs and hook sizes 2 to 2/0 will work.

Whichever size sand crab you have, the general way to hook them is to push your hook through the bottom of the crab next to either side of the pointed tail and up through the back while leaving the point exposed. Dompfa ben (dominating positive fishing attitude Ben) cautioned: “try to pierce the shell but not the meat part of the crab. Crabs will live a long time if hooked in this manner but only a couple of minutes if hooked through the head or body. If the crabs contain their orange eggs push your hook up through the egg case and out the top of the shell.” Others feel it doesn’t even matter if the crabs are kept alive as long as the bait is fresh.

Some suggest hooking them about ¼ of the length up from the rear edge of the crab and ¼ from the edge but again try to work your hook along the shell. You can look for the two spots on their back and hook up through one of those spots.

As for the rigging, a high/low was once the common rig and still works. However, today more and more anglers use a Carolina rigging with a 2-4 foot long fluorocarbon leader. To some degree it depends upon where you are fishing. From a pier you’re concerned with keeping the line away from the pilings and the waves and current can push a Caronia rigging into the pilings (so keep your rod in your hand and carefully watch your line). A high/low with a 2-4 ounce pyramid sinker keeps the line and bait in one spot. Either rig can be used in one of the favorite spots for the fish, the depressions found between the pilings; just keep them out of those pilings.

Also be aware that the living crabs will often try to dig into the sandy bottom so check your bait frequently.

Preservation. You can keep the crabs in your bait cooler during the day. If some are left at the end of the day keep them in a dry plastic container overnight. Keep a damp newspaper or piece of kelp over them but do not have water or sand in the container.

If some die they can be frozen. A trick I learned from Bill Varney was to squeeze some taco sauce over the frozen crabs. It seems to enhance their fish catching ability when the crabs are thawed. They can also be frozen with some meat and juice from mussels. This too seems to enhance their ability to attract fish.

Other Sand Crabs.
The white sand crab, Lepidopa myops, and the spiny mole crab, Blepharipoda occidentalis, are both occasionally seen but are infrequently used as bait. The white sand crab is found in sheltered sand beaches at Newport Bay and points south while the larger spiny mole crab is found on sandy beaches as far north as Drakes Beach but usually are deeper in the sub-tidal zone. One time I ran across one of these large spiny mole crabs while fishing on Crystal Pier in San Diego. An angler gave me the crab along with a cup of smaller sand crabs when he was leaving the pier. He had caught the crabs but I’m not sure what he thought he would catch with the larger crab since it was over 3-inches in length. I guess it might have worked for a large leopard