Using Shrimp For Bait

Ken Jones

Staff member
Using Shrimp For Bait

Market Shrimp. Most bait and tackle shops carry frozen shrimp. This is generally simply market shrimp, the same as you find in markets. The wise angler will go to a market, buy a pound of small or medium-size shrimp (shell on), take it home, and then refreeze it in one-quarter pound packages using zip-lock bags. It keeps well in the freezer, is less expensive, and often is a better quality than shrimp found in bait shops.

Small pieces of shrimp make very good perch bait and will catch a wide variety of bottom species including rockfish, greenlings and monkeyface eels in the north. In the southland, shrimp is very good bait for sheephead, sculpin (California scorpionfish), rock wrasse, senorita and, at times, halfmoon. In top-water areas, small pieces of shrimp make good bait for the multi-hook jacksmelt riggings.

The key is to match the size of the bait you are using to the type of fish you are seeking; do not simply put a whole shrimp on a big hook and think that’s going to get you a fish. Perch and most of the other smallish species I mentioned will hit best on a size 6 or 4 hook baited with a small piece of shrimp using just enough of the shrimp to cover the hook. Larger pieces (or whole small shrimp) can be used for fish like bass, rockfish and scorpionfish. Only use a whole large shrimp if you are seeking out larger fish like a big sheephead. A whole shrimp can be used for large fish like rays and sharks but they much prefer baits such as squid or a bloody piece of mackerel.

Years ago, many southern California bait shops also carried live shrimp, the locally caught red rock shrimp, Hippolysmata Californica. It was premier bait. I have not seen these shrimp in bait shops for many, many years. However, anglers should still be able to find them themselves if they are willing to trap them at night around breakwaters and other rocky areas. Live red rock shrimp make good bait for bass, several types of croaker, some perch and flatfish.

Ghost Shrimp. Although there may be nothing like true juju bait, one infused with magical power, ghost shrimp will sometimes yield fish when nothing else will work. Several times I have been the only fisherman catching fish simply because I was the only one using ghost shrimp, and it happened in as diverse locations as San Diego, Ventura, Pismo Beach, Bodega Bay and Point Arena. I also was on the opposite end of the spectrum once when I went nearly fishless on the Shelter Island Pier in San Diego Bay while a nearby angler (the only angler with ghost shrimp) pulled in what seemed like an unending string of sand bass and yellowfin croakers, one right after another.

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They are, in my opinion, one of the three best inshore baits in California, along with fresh mussels and saltwater worms.

There are three species of ghost shrimp are found in California. The most common species is the bay ghost shrimp, Neotrypaea californiensis (formerly Callianassa californiensis). Other names include the red ghost shrimp, pink mud shrimp, and simply ghost shrimp. It is soft-bodied with a translucent white coloring in which its internal organs (pink, orange, or yellow in color) are visible and give the shrimp an overall pink-and-white coloring. The claws are unequal with one greatly enlarged. It reaches 4.8 inches in size and its range is from Bahía de San Quintin, Baja California, Mexico to Mutiny Bay, Alaska. It is found in the sand and sandy mud of marine sloughs and bays throughout the state. Burrows can extend down 18 inches.

A second species is the giant ghost shrimp, Neotrypaea gigas (formerly Callianassa gigas). Other names include long-handed ghost shrimp. It is white, cream-colored or almost yellowish in some specimens. Large males are easily distinguished from the bay ghost shrimp by its very long, larger claw, a claw that can be longer than its body. Females and juveniles lack the long claw and can be difficult to distinguish from the bay ghost shrimp. It reaches 5.9 inches in length and its range is from Bahía de San Quintin, Baja California, Mexico to Digby Island, British Columbia. It’s found in the low intertidal zone, typically lower than the bay ghost shrimp but the species may overlap. Burrows usually only extend down about 10 inches.

Southern California is the main residence of the third species, the smaller, tidepool ghost shrimp, Neotrypaea biffari (formerly Callianassa affinis). It has a somewhat crayfish-like appearance with a similar translucent white coloring. It is distinguished by its eyestalks, which have round tips. It reaches 2.6 inches in length and its range is from Bahía Tortugas, Baja California, Mexico to Cayucos, California. It is found only in the intertidal zone of protected beaches that have a boulder-covered shore; it builds permanent burrows in sandy gravel between and beneath the boulders. Most burrows are also inhabited by blind gobies, Typhlogobius californiensis.

The main predator on ghost shrimp seems to be staghorn sculpin (aka bullheads) although leopard sharks and smoothhound sharks also appear to be major predators. In the north, sea-run cutthroat trout commonly eat them (as would, I assume, other salmonoid species).

All three species are simply called ghost shrimp in bait shops and all three make excellent bait. In fact, when used live, they are often the best bait, especially in bays.

In southern California’s bays, ghost shrimp will mainly entice croaker (spotfin, yellowfin and black), bass (spotted bay bass, sand bass and kelp bass), an occasional flatfish (including halibut), sharks and rays. Larger perch, mainly rubberlip, blackperch and white seaperch will also hit the shrimp.

In San Francisco Bay they will entice the larger perch, are good for starry flounder (if you can find them), are excellent for sturgeon and will also entice an occasional striped bass to hit. Although not the best bait, it will also tempt sharks and bat rays.

On southern California beaches, ghosties yield barred surfperch, California corbina, yellowfin croaker, spotfin croaker, sharks and rays. On central California beaches they typically entice barred surfperch and calico surfperch, although striped bass are also known to grab a ghostie or two. In northern California redtail surfperch, cabezon, and rockfish gobble ghost shrimp up.

At Catalina, while fishing from Avalon’s two piers, large ghost shrimp have proven to be one of the best baits for sheephead while small to medium-size ghost shrimp are excellent opaleye bait.

Unfortunately, ghost shrimp can sometimes be difficult to find today, at least as far as in bait shops. They are available in a few bait shops around San Diego Bay, a few shops in beach areas of L.A. (where they are sometimes called saltwater crawfish), and in most shops in the San Francisco Bay Area and Delta. I have never seen them in shops north of the Bay Area. Most of the ghost shrimp sold in Bay Area stores are imported from Washington.

However, they are readily available in most bays and along some beaches. All you need is a ghost shrimp pump, a device that looks like a long tube with a handle. These are basically hand suction pumps and are sold at many bait and tackle stores. You can also make your own pumper. See the instructions on making a pumper. The Internet and YouTube also show how to make a pumper. The pump is used in the sand/mud near the water’s edge in ghost shrimp areas (the wet zones of sand and mud flats that are exposed at low tide) and, hopefully, ghost shrimp are soon being sucked/pumped out of their burrows.

Low tide or a still low, incoming tide, seem to be the best times. Look for holes in the mud that look like miniature volcanoes, especially ones that seem to have wet sand around the openings. These are the openings to ghost shrimp burrows. The pump is placed over the hole and the handle is simply pulled up. Sand/mud and hopefully some ghost shrimp are sucked up into the pump. When the handle is pushed back down the sand/mud/shrimp is expelled. Be ready to grab the shrimp for your bucket.

California limit on ghost shrimp: Ghost Shrimp and Blue Mud Shrimp—50 in combination of species.

Once you learn the best areas and proper technique it is not uncommon to pump 50 shrimp in less than half an hour. They will live throughout the day if kept cool and can live in a cool bucket or the refrigerator overnight for a couple of days. When I am on my fishing trips I keep ice in my small bait cooler at all times and have had ghost shrimp live for about 3-4 days (but do not let the shrimp sit directly on the ice).

Although I have tried various ways to keep them frozen, I haven’t had success; upon thawing out they are simply too soft to cast (although the pieces make an effective chum). As for as the “prepared” ghost shrimp you see in stores, I have had absolutely no success with the bait, I consider it a waste of money. However, given that the bait remains in the bait shops, someone must be able to use it.

Years ago, before pumps were so common, a popular method was to watch for the telltale signs of their burrow and then “stomp” the burrow closed. This would force the ghost shrimp to the surface where they could easily be captured by hand or shovel. Advocates of this approach say that there was less damage to the shrimp than in using pumps, and that the bait would stay alive much longer. They could be right although today if you saw a bunch of guys out “stomping around” on a mud flat you just might be inclined to call the guys in the white coats. Of course it could be some over-aged, Berkeley-Mendocino, ex-Hippies, now-mainstream businessmen, doing their male bonding ritual. And, after all, that's still more appealing than a bunch of hairy guys standing in a circle under old-growth redwoods, adorned only with chaplets on their heads (naked as jaybirds). But that's another story.

Ghost shrimp, by the way, can also be found near the mouths and estuary areas of many North Country streams. I used to pump them up in the tidal water areas of the Albion River and Little River in Mendocino County. I used them when fishing the coastal areas between Mendocino and Point Arena. They are also considered premier bait for steelhead. I’ve seen them used by a couple of anglers in Mendocino County and further north, in Oregon and Washington, they are wildly used. In those areas they are commonly called “sand shrimp.”

Hooking the shrimp is easy but done incorrectly the fragile shrimp can fly off on the cast. In most cases you should simply string an entire ghost shrimp onto your hook. Turn the ghost shrimp on its back, insert the hook into the underside of the tail, push the hook through the body, and exit the hook below the head. Some anglers will wrap them with thread to keep them on the hook but I’ve never found that necessary.

I like to use the long-shanked Kahle hooks but most long-shanked hooks (including several styles of worm hooks) will work. The size of the hook depends to a degree on the size of the shrimp you’ve pumped; I’ve used everything from a size 8 Kahle hook for very small shrimp to 2/0 for large ghost shrimp. For smaller fish, a small piece of ghost shrimp will also work.

The hooks can be used on either high/low riggings or on Carolina-type leaders (sliding sinker, bead, swivel, about two-three feet of leader (fluorocarbon preferred), and the hook. Do check to make sure the Kahle hook is sharp, for some reason they often do not seem to arrive as sharp as other hooks.

Grass Shrimp. These small shrimp are important bait in the San Francisco Bay Area. However, the name is somewhat of a misnomer since they are actually bay shrimp, and there are three different types of shrimp. The most common are the California bay shrimp, Cragon franciscorum. This is the shrimp that supported the commercial shrimp fleets, in places like China Camp, from the 1870s to the 1930s. In its peak year, 1935, the fishery saw over three million pounds of shrimp landed, most of which was dried and then used as food. Following the mid ‘30s a decrease began in the catch, which continues somewhat to this day (see reasons below).


Most years now see less than 100,000 pounds a year landed, all of which is sold to bait shops. Common throughout both San Pablo and Suisun Bay, the shrimp are typically found off of Pittsburg from June to August, and then off the Martinez-Port Chicago area from September to November.

In addition to the true California bay shrimp, the smaller blacktail bay shrimp, Cragon nigricauda, and the increasingly common oriental shrimp, sometimes called the Korean or pile shrimp, Palaemon macrodactylus, are also found in these waters and frequently are mixed in with the other shrimp as bait. The oriental shrimp was apparently introduced accidentally from the ballast of ships returning from Asia during the Korean War and today is reported by some sources as more common than Cragon franciscorum.

Grass shrimp are sold live at most Bay Area bait shops. Although sold by the pound, generally a quarter of a pound per person will last all day and they will stay alive if kept cool. They are excellent bait in the bay for many species including pileperch, white seaperch, blackperch, and rubberlip seaperch as well as flatfish like diamond turbot and starry flounder. They are also one of the better baits for both striped bass and sturgeon.

However, I’ve never had much luck when using them in oceanfront waters.

Usually they are hooked from the head down to the tail with the barb of the hook exposed near the tail (although many hook them in an opposite tail to head manner). You may also put several on your hook (if they are small). By just barely hooking them in the side, they will stay alive on the hook for a considerable length of time.

You can of course try to catch your own shrimp. The most common method is to use one of the commercially available shrimp traps that are baited and then lowered down into likely looking neighborhoods for the shrimp. Although California bay shrimp tend to be in somewhat deeper waters, the other two species are frequently caught in traps. Blacktail bay shrimp, with their salt-and-pepper markings, are most commonly found in sand flat areas, often in pools in the sand or buried in the sand, and are also netted by shrimp boats down to a depth of several fathoms. Oriental shrimp are a brackish-water species most common to the streams of Marin County but also moving considerably upstream as far as Antioch. The Oriental shrimp is somewhat larger than the native species (reaching about two inches in length) and has more numerous antennae and a long, toothed rostrum.

They can be kept in good condition throughout the day with the use of a chilled bait cooler (which I recommend). However, the bait shops typically put them in a plastic bag, which is then put inside a second bag containing ice. Whatever the method, try to keep them cool.

If at the end of the day you have some left over you can freeze them in a Ziploc (or similar) bag in your freezer. An idea courtesy of Songslinger on PFIC, “freeze them in baggies with a 3:1 ratio of salt to borax. It keeps them white and fresh-like.”

As to why the number of shrimp have decreased? The main factor has been the loss of tidal marsh around San Francisco Bay, marshlands where the shrimp thrive. In 1930 the Bay Area population was about 1.57 million people. In 2020 the population was about 7.75 million people. To accommodate the need for additional homes and business, shoreline areas were dredged and reshaped into usable land for humans while making it unusable for native species like shrimp (and many, many other creatures). Luckily today, many groups are working on restoring marshlands to the bay (but it’s a long term project).

In addition, there are the changes to the bay waters themselves, waters that are the home environment to the shrimp. These shrimp prefer brackish water with a salinity level of 14 parts per thousand (ppt) when young to 24 ppt when ready to spawn. (Ocean waters in contrast are around 35 ppt.) They also prefer water temperatures around 65 degrees.

To meet these two criteria, the shrimp move around the bay as dictated by changes in the bay water’s salinity and temperature levels. Winter and spring months see increased freshwater entering San Pablo Bay from the Carquinez Strait. It is runoff from winter storms and, as snow melts in the mountains, it is cold-water runoff from inland areas (snow > water > mountain streams > rivers > Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta > Suisun Bay > Carquinez Straits > San Pablo Bay > San Francisco Bay).

As the winter and spring runoff continues, the bottom water levels in San Pablo Bay continue to see their heavier, more dense saltwater, while the less dense freshwater stream on the top can become thicker; the overall mix is less salty water, water too fresh for the shrimp. During those months the shrimp may move into South San Francisco Bay or even into the ocean.

As the inland water flows decrease in late spring, the shrimp move back into San Pablo Bay and, as water becomes saltier and warmer, move up into Suisun Bay. The change in seasons and saltiness of the bay has always existed but state and federal water projects have complicated the situation. By the 1980s, the amount of water entering the bay had decreased by about 60% from historic levels and though the result to the shrimp population is complex to answer, the decrease probably had a somewhat negative affect. In addition, water is controlled and released by the “pumps” in relation to water and temperature levels affecting the Delta smelt; the downriver impact to other creatures such as these shrimp hasn’t, as far as I know, been studied.

There is not doubt that the population fluctuates in dramatic style, decreasing during dry rain years and increasing during wet rain years. It was reported by Bay Nature Magazine that “in 1996, after two wet years, the shrimp population was 20 times larger than it was in 1980, following the severe drought of the late 1970s.” Since then there have been several periods of drought. Given the recent drought years it’s hard to predict the overall affect to the grass shrimp population.

A final interesting fact about Cragon franciscorum, is their lifespan. Apparently the males live to an age of about 18 months while the females live to about 30 months. However, some evidence indicates the species may be protandrous hermaphrodites and that surviving males are transformed into females after one year of life. This may account for the longer lifespan of females.

Mud Shrimp. This shrimp, Upogebia pugettensis, is also commonly known as the blue mud shrimp and is a bigger cousin of ghost shrimp. Less common names include Marine crayfish and Puget Sound ghost shrimp.


It has long been considered one of the best baits for sturgeon. Although as a rule mud shrimp are too large for most pier fish, it’s still considered excellent bait on Bay and Delta piers that see sturgeon, i.e., McNears Pier in San Rafael. And, it’s not too big for larger stripers, a number who will be caught on it each year. You do need to use a decent sized hook, generally 4/0-6/0, and can hook the shrimp through the tail down to the head with the barb of the hook exposed.

The shrimp range from Morro Bay, California to Sawmill Bay (near Valdez), Prince William Sound, Alaska and reaches nearly 6 inches in length. It’s typically found in the lower intertidal zone in bays and estuaries, sometimes under rocks. It builds and lives in a permanent U-or Y-shaped mud-sand or mud-gravel burrow and if an adult mud shrimp is removed from its burrow it is unable to build a new one.

Although once very common at San Francisco Bay Area bait shops, today they are increasingly hard to find The shrimp can be very large and are expensive, i.e., $12 a dozen—due to a number of factors. At one time most were imported from Tillamook, Oregon but that seems to have changed (and the story why is complex as well as incomplete).

Some shops in the Carquinez Strait-West Delta area still carry them (when available), as does Keith Frasier at the Loch Lomond Live Bait House in San Rafael, and Laine’s Bait Shop in Alviso. Keith says he mainly carries them in the winter when there’s rain and says that he is still able to get them from Bodega Bay and Oregon. Laine’s says its mud shrimp are also primarily seasonal, wintertime bait, and most are by-product caught by his grass shrimp supplier (although apparently some are still shipped in from Oregon and Washington).

The shrimp at Loch Lomond and Laine’s may still be Upogebia pugettensis, but it isn’t clear. Some scientist’s say the species is now extinct in Bay Area waters and has largely been replaced but the similar looking Asian mud shrimp Upogebia major. Shrimp at the Carquinez Strait-West Delta shops are, for the most part, shipped in from East Coast and thus are apparently East Coast cousins of our native shrimp.

Unfortunately, some feel the use of the blue mud shrimp may soon come to an end (since they may become extinct). According to John Chapman at the Oregon State University, “Extinction of the native blue mud shrimp in Washington, Oregon, and California estuaries, is due to the blood-sucking parasite Griffen's isopod that was introduced to North America in the 1980s... Declines of the critically important blue mud shrimp continue. No recovery plan is in place... Effective female castration by an introduced Asian isopod crustacean parasite is driving all blue mud shrimp populations to ecological or absolute extinction. The parasite, Orthione griffenis, is the first known introduced bopyrid isopod and the mud shrimp extinctions underway are the first marine extinction linked directly to an introduced species.” (

Many scientists now echo his words and the Internet contains many articles on how Upogebia pugettensis may be extinct (or soon extinct) from California to Washington and how the same may be happening in Alaska. Apparently there has still not been a plan developed to save the species although the problem has been noted for more than a decade.