If you’re going to try your hand at surf fishing, or any other type of fishing for that matter, you will need a few things. One of the most important is bait. But what is the best surf fishing bait? There are so many options and opinions, so what makes a good surf fishing bait and how do you choose?
The best baits for surf fishing can be broken down into two categories: Natural baits or Artificial baits. Since we have discussed artificial lures for surf fishing previously, our focus here will be on the best natural baits for surf fishing. Now, the best baits for surf fishing will depend, to a large extent, on where you are fishing and what your target species is.
But no matter where in the world you are, if there is a beach, there are fish there. And, if you have the right bait, you can catch them. Just like the old fisherman’s saying: “you need to match the hatch”, meaning that whatever the fish are feeding on, is the best bait to use, or in the case of artificial lures, imitate. For natural baits, it means acquiring a supply of whatever the fish you are after are feeding on.
The best natural bait for surf fishing will depend mainly on where you are fishing, the time of year you will be fishing, and what your target game fish species will be. Where ever you surf fish, choices for natural baits will come down to 4 categories: 1. Shrimp – the go to bait for nearly everything that swims. 2. Bait fish – big fish eat small fish. 3. Shellfish – clams, mussels, crabs and barnacles. 4. Worms – marine worms like blood worms and sand worms. Live bait is always best, but if not available, fresh dead is a good second choice. When all else fails, frozen will do.
|Shrimp||Bait fish||Shell Fish||Worms|
|Everything Eats Shrimp||Big fish Eat Small Fish||Crabs Clams Mussels||Sand Worms|
|Live or Dead||Live or as Cut Bait||Fresh or Frozen||Live and Fresh|
|Best Allround Bait||Better for Bigger Fish||Bottom feeders||Great Bait in Season|
Fishing the Surf with Natural Baits
Natural baits are, just like the name implies, baits that occur naturally in the area you are fishing and that your target fish species “naturally” feeds on. As opposed to artificial baits and lures that are designed to mimic various naturally baits. There are a wide variety of natural baits that can be fished either live or dead, whole or cut up, fresh or frozen.
The natural baits that are available will vary by your location and time of year. But, for the most part, will fall into one of the following types or categories. NOTE: Always check the local fishing regulations to determine what is legal to use for bait.
Types of Natural Baits for Surf Fishing
Shrimp. The all round bait for saltwater. They are pretty near the bottom of the food chain and, at some point in their life cycle, find themselves food for nearly every fish that swims. There are many species of shrimp all over the world, even in freshwater.
Chances are the fish you’re after will eat shrimp, and even if it doesn’t, you can use shrimp to catch smaller fish to use as bait for our target species. Shrimp can be fished live, dead, fresh or frozen and is readily available at most bait and tackle shops.
Bait Fish.Mullet, menhaden, shad, pilchards, sardines, anchovies, pinfish, whiting, lady fish, and ballyhoo, just to name a few, are all commonly used to catch saltwater game fish in the surf. It’s the rule of the sea, big fish eat little fish.
Whatever beach you choose to fish there will be smaller baitfish present. And, if you find concentrations of baitfish, there will be predator species lurking somewhere nearby. Often you can catch baitfish yourself from the beach in a cast net or seine. If not, they are sold live, fresh or frozen at your local bait shop depending on the season
Shellfish.Lots of different species of fish eat shellfish like clams, mussels, and crabs. There are shellfish and crabs in every marine environment in the world. And there are fish there that feed on them. Shellfish can be gathered yourself or you can purchase them fresh or frozen from local bait shops. Crabs can be used live or dead as cut bait and there are a number of species that make excellent surf fishing bait.
Worms.Yes, there are worms in saltwater and on the beach. Sand worms and blood worms, for example, are just a couple of marine worms that make excellent surf fishing bait. You can dig your own worms if you know where to look, or grab a supply at the bait and tackle shop.
Surf Fishing with Shrimp
Shrimp is a universal bait that will catch fish seemingly when nothing else will. Surf fishing with shrimp is no different. It does have its downside as it attracts many non target species which can become a nuisance. But, if you want action and nothing else seems to be drawing strikes, toss a live or fresh dead shrimp out into the surf and something will eat it.
Shrimp are widespread and abundant. There are thousands of species adapted to a wide range of habitats. They can be found feeding near the seafloor on most coasts and estuaries, as well as in rivers and lakes.
To escape predators, some species flip off the seafloor and dive into the sediment. They usually live from one to seven years. Shrimp are often solitary, though they can form large schools during the spawning season.
For surf fishing, you can use live shrimp if you have an aerated live well or bait bucket to keep them alive. If not, fresh dead or even frozen will work. Depending on where you are in the world, you can catch anything from perch, black drum, red drum, pompano, speckled trout, croaker, whiting, corbina, sheepshead, snook and even tarpon, with shrimp.
Fresh dead shrimp is less expensive and easier to use and handle than live shrimp. It will stay good for a couple of days if kept on ice and it will stay on the hook better than frozen as frozen shrimp can become soft and mushy. If you have dead shrimp left over after your trip, you can freeze it for the next trip and or you can brine it to preserve it and toughen it up for later use.
There are some very good shrimp cures and brine available from companies like ProCure that will allow you to preserve your shrimp for several months or longer if you vacuum pack and then freeze after curing. Brined or cured shrimp will not become soft and mushy after freezing like your normal frozen shrimp.
If you choose to use shrimp for surf fishing, or any fishing for that matter, make sure you buy them from a local bait shop and not the local super market. Some of the shrimp sold in super markets are farm raised and can carry diseases that could be very disastrous if spread into the wild shrimp populations.
Surf Fishing with Ghost Shrimp
Another shrimp species that makes great surf fishing bait is what is commonly called a ghost shrimp. Actually the proper name is mantis shrimp, ghost shrimp are an entirely different species. But whether you call them ghost shrimp or mantis shrimp, they make great bait for surf fishing for sheepshead, black drum, pompano, red drum and nearly anything else that will eat regular shrimp.
Mantis shrimp, or stomatopods, are carnivorous marine crustaceans and typically grow to around 10 cm (3.9 in) in length, while a few can reach up to 38 cm (15 in). Varieties range in color from shades of brown to vivid colors, with more than 450 species of mantis shrimp known. However, despite being common, they are poorly understood, as many species spend most of their lives tucked away in burrows and holes.
The mantis shrimp is a crustacean with a flattened, segmented body and praying mantis-like claws. It burrows within muddy flats along the shoreline of the middle and lower Chesapeake Bay. Mantis shrimp eat live fish, crabs, worms and shrimp, including other mantis shrimp. They are aggressive, violent predator, using their sharp claws to spear or slice through prey with a quick, slashing motion.
While you can sometimes find mantis shrimp at your local bait shop, most often you will have to gather your own. And to do that, you will need a ghost shrimp pump to “suck’ them out of their holes. If mantis shrimp are present in your area, you will most likely be able to find a ghost shrimp pump at your favorite tackle shop. If not, there are YouTube videos on how to make your own.
Once you have secured a pump, you need to find the shrimp. You can locate colonies of mantis shrimp along the waters edge at low tide.
Their burrows will look like small humps with a hole in the middle about the diameter of your finger.
Once you find a burrow, place your pump over it and use the pumping action to suck the mantis shrimp out of its burrow.
Not every burrow will produce a shrimp, so if you don’t get one after several pumps, move on to the next hole and repeat the process.
As you catch them, store them in a bait bucket or plastic container with just enough water to keep them wet until you are ready to use them.
When you catch ghost shrimp, store them in a plastic container and keep them moist until you are ready to use them. Be sure not to cover them with water – just enough saltwater to keep them damp. Leftover mantis shrimp can be also be frozen for your next trip.
Surf Fishing with Mullet or other Baitfish
One of the first rules of the sea is “Big fish eat smaller fish”. Depending on your target species, baitfish may be your best choice for surf fishing bait. In my neck of the woods, mullet is the go to baitfish for surf fishing. Other examples are pinfish, croaker, glass minnows, shad, menhaden, sardines, cigar minnows, mud minnows, herring, anchovies and many others around the world.
Like shrimp, live baitfish are your best option when available. Not many game fish able to turn down a fresh live baitfish. If live are not available, fresh dead or even frozen will work. Depending on the time of year, you can find fresh and or frozen at most bait shops.
There are times when you can catch baitfish in the surf with a cast net or seine. Fresh live finger mullet are deadly for red drum, speckled trout, sharks, bluefish, and even tarpon. In your area it may be sardines, anchovies, or herring. Whatever the local forage species is a good supply of live bait is a good bet for surf fishing.
The most economical way to secure live bait is, of course, to catch your own. A good cast net will save you a ton of money over the long haul and may provide you with live bait when you local bait shop is out. There are other means of catching live bait, from perch traps and even rod and reel with a sabiki rig.
You will need some means of storing and keeping you live bait alive. A good aerated live box or bucket or one of the more advance oxygen systems. Again, more tackle and expense, but in the long run will save you money. A good aeration system can keep mullet alive for a week or more. Without aeration, they will be floating belly up in short order.
If live baitfish are unavailable, fresh dead is your next best option or, if neither is available, frozen will work. Frozen tends to get soft and mushy and won’t stay on the hook as well. If its been frozen for too long it can also develop freezer burn and then its better to toss it.
When fishing with fresh dead or frozen bait fish, using it as cut bait seems to work better. Once cut, the blood and oils are released into the water for added attraction. And, while frozen baits can get soft, adding a good bait brine or cure can help toughen up the bait and add some additional attractants and feeding stimulants.
Surf Fishing with Cut Baits
Cut bait has a strong aroma which is a key way to attract saltwater fish. Acquiring cut bait can as simple as cutting up bait fish or smaller fish you have caught throughout the day. Be sure that you check the laws and regulations in your area for limits and size restrictions for fish you can legally use for bait.
You should be able to catch something small from the surf that will make good cut bait for catching larger predators. Some examples of fish that make great cut bait are mullet, pinfish, menhaden, sardines, herring, lady fish(skip jack), small jacks, blue runners (hard tail), ballyhoo, whiting and croaker, just to name a few.
Along the gulf coast, cut mullet is the primary bait of choice for red drum, sharks, speckled trout, and jack crevalle. But where ever you are, there are fish that you can use for cut bait when surf fishing. Fresh is best, but frozen if not, put a chunk on a good circle hook and toss it into the surf and you shouldn’t have to wait long for some serious action.
Put a bite-sized piece of your freshly caught fish (cut bait) onto a 1/0 circle hook and toss it back out.
If you are after larger species such as bull reds, cobia or sharks, you’ll need to up-size your tackle to a 5/0 hook and a larger piece of cut bait like that on the left.
Keep your cut baits on ice and they should keep for several days, or until you can catch some fresh. If, at the end of your trip you have some left over, get you a good bait brine or cure to preserve you baits and then freeze them for next time. The cure will keep them from becoming soft and mushy when you thaw them for your next trip.
Surf Fishing with Sand Fleas and Crabs
Another great bait for surf fishing is crabs. Wherever there are crabs, there are fish that feed on them. Everything from blue crabs, hermit crabs, ghost crabs and sand fleas or mole crabs. Depending on what you are fishing for, crabs could be a good bait choice. Big bull red drum and black drum are suckers for blue crabs. Sheepshead go crazy for hermit crabs removed from their shells by cracking them with a hammer.
Mole crabs, commonly called sand fleas or sand crabs, are another great bait for surf fishing. Residents of the surf zone, they are forage for pompano, whiting, black and red drum, surf perch and croaker. And, you can gather your own with a surf rake device or simply use your hands and a bucket.
Emerita is a small genus of decapod crustaceans, known as sand crabs, sand bugs, sand fleas, or mole crabs. These small animals burrow in the sand in the swash zone and use their antennae for filter feeding. Emerita has a barrel-shaped body. It has a tough exoskeleton and can hold its appendages close to the body, allowing it to roll in the tidal currents and waves. It has feathery antennae, which are used to filter plankton and detritus from the swash.
The genus as a whole has a broad distribution in tropical and subtropical regions. Most individual species, however, are restricted to smaller areas, and their ranges rarely overlap. The genus is common on both coasts of the United States and along the Atlantic coast of Africa; the related genus Hippa is found across the Indo-Pacific, including Australia.
From spring through early fall, sand crabs (mole crabs) can be found in large numbers along the shoreline at both high and low tide. Sand fleas make great baits for pompano, surf perch, croakers, sheepshead, redfish, striped bass, and black drum among others. And the good news is that they’re easy to catch from the beach which makes them easy on the budget. 😉
You can keep your mole crabs alive for several days by keeping them either in a cooler or large bucket with wet sand. No other expensive gear needed. Some of the smaller fish species that take your sand fleas will also make good cut bait for larger fish. Sounds like a win-win to me, maybe not so much for the mole crabs.
Blue crabs and hermit crabs are easily gathered yourself as well. A dip net and a chicken neck on a string is all you need to catch a cooler full of blue crabs. Hermit crabs can be found in the shallows and simply picked up and put in a bucket. Again, check the local regulations on size and limit requirements.
Cut a big blue crab in half, put it on a good 5/0 circle hook and cast it into a good deep gut or trough in the surf and hold on. A big bull red fish or black drum will give you a work out.
Surf Fishing with Clams, Mussels or Worms
Shellfish are another good option for surf fishing baits. Various clams, mussels, and barnacles can all be used for bait. Bottom foraging species like red drum, black drum, whiting, croaker and pompano all feed on shellfish of some type. Clams and mussels can be gathered yourself or often purchased at bait shops.
Once removed from their shells place one or several on your hook, depending on their size, and you are good to go. Clams and mussels will release oil and scent into the water drawing fish from long distances. They are a soft bait and you will catch some non target species. Good thing is, some of those non target species make great surf fishing bait themselves. 😉
Mussels and clams will catch many species including flounder, speckled trout, croaker, striped bass, black drum, red drum, whiting, rock fish and surf perch. Clams will keep for several days on ice and your leftovers can be frozen for next time.
Fresh is always best when available, but frozen will work if that’s all you got. Another shellfish option that is easy to obtain and makes a good bait when other baits may be hard to come by is barnacles.
You know, they grow on piers, piling, docks, bottom of boats and most any stationary object in saltwater. You can simple scrape them off into a bucket and hook from the back (attachment point).
Barnacles are like sheepshead candy, but other species like pompano, whiting, croaker, perch and pinfish will readily take barnacles. Catch a few perch or pinfish with barnacles and then use them for live bait or cut bait in the surf. Or, catch a mess of sheepshead for some tasty fillets.
Surf Fishing with Worms and Eels
If you’re like me, you cut your teeth fishing with earthworms and a bobber for perch, bass and catfish in the local lakes, streams and ponds. Guess what, there are marine worms and they make great surf fishing bait. And, much like mussels, clams and barnacles you can be easily gather your own.
There are marine worms all over the world. Australia has its huge beach worms and here in North America there are two types of marine worms commonly used for surf fishing bait. The blood worm and the sand worm. On the Atlantic coast of the US, blood worms are the go to bait when fishing the surf for flounder, speckled trout (weakfish), bluefish, perch, croaker and striped bass.
Sand worms are thicker and darker than blood worms with many short “legs” down their sides. Think marine millipede, both can pinch you so be careful of the business end. Sand worms are found along the US West Coast from Alaska to Central California, and on the East Coast, south to Virginia. They live in mucus-lined burrows in the sand and sediment above the low tide marks in saltwater bays and inlets.
They typically grow to 6 to 8 inches in length and are excellent bait for striped bass, surf perch, croaker, speckled trout, and flounder. When in season, sand worms often make up more than 30% of bait sales. Of course if you know where to look, you can dig your own.
Sand eels are a number of small marine eels that can often be found in huge schools. And where there is a concentration of eels, or any bait for that matter, you will find predators lined up for an easy meal. Sand eels can be caught in a cast net of seine, purchased fresh or frozen from your local bait shop and make good surf fishing bait.
Sand eels are a favorite of speckled trout, flounder, red drum, halibut and striped bass. In fact, their are many artificial lures that imitate sand eels and can be very effective as well.
When it comes to the best surf fishing bait, you have many choices. Do some research, check with your local bait shops and talk with other fisherman, in person or on an online forum. Then get to fishing.
What is Your Best Surf Fishing Bait?
If you are trying surf fishing for the first time, headed to a new area, or are just unsure of what the best bait for surf fishing might be, there are some good sources of information to help you. Local bait and tackle shops are a great source of information. It is after all their business to know what the fish are biting on.
Online fishing forums where fisherman can exchange ideas, questions, and photos are also an excellent source of information on bait, tackle and good locations to fish. A simple google search for: “your area” fishing forum will usually bring up several options.
What is the best bait for surf fishing? That will depend entirely on where you are fishing, the time of year, and what your target species is. From sand worms, sand fleas and crabs, to live shrimp and baitfish, match the hatch and you can have a great day surf fishing wherever you are in the world.
As a back up plan, keep a few packs of fishbites in your tackle box. They come in several flavors from shrimp and crab to clam and sand flea, and are easily stored.
Get you some bait and head to the beach. There is no teacher like experience. Try something, and if it doesn’t work, try something else. It is called fishing, and not catching, for a reason. 😉 And, most importantly, have fun. A day at the beach is better than a month in the city.
As always, stay safe, enjoy the journey and please try to leave it cleaner than you found it. If you have any comments, questions, ideas or suggestions please leave them in the comment section below and I’ll get back to you asap. You can follow us on Facebook: Rex The Beach Angler, Instagram: thebeachangler7, Twitter: @AnglerBeach, and YouTube: Man Art Creations.
A life long surf fisherman with 50+ years of experience, I am also an avid hunter and outdoorsman. I will be sharing my passion for the outdoors with you so be prepared for hunting, fishing, camping, hiking and more. Along with gear reviews and the latest trends and innovations in the outdoor industry.