Selecting The Best Bait For Surf Fishing | Great Days Outdoors

Selecting The Best Bait For Surf Fishing

The highly sought after Florida pompano is the premier fish for surf fishers year round. Prized not only for the tasty meals they provide but for their scrappy fight as well. After all, they are members of the jack family of fishes; and though small (usually weighing a pound or two) they can be fairly numerous at times. Even more plentiful are the drum-like kingfish species (gulf, northern and southern). Commonly called “whiting” and “ground mullet”, they average just less than a pound but may grow to almost three pounds. Still, they are good sport fish on light tackle and also great table fare. With the right bait for surf fishing, you could bring home dinner tonight.

Additionally, the larger drum fish species (red and black) may be present in the surf zone. Drum of any size (from one to twenty or more pounds) may prowl about under the waves in search of food in the various forms of invertebrates (clams, crabs, shrimp, etc.) and even small fish (including their cousins), which are also some of the best bait for surf fishing. These are also good eating fish when young, and once they reach adult age may continue to grow (and reproduce) for decades.

Though not often visible to the casual beachgoer, these small sea worms, crustaceans and mollusks live beneath the water and in the sandy bottom.”

Our unique stretch of shoreline from Cape San Blas in Florida to Dauphin Island, Alabama is commonly referred to as “The Emerald Coast.” That is a good descriptor of the nearshore region renowned for its predominantly clear, light green colored water which covers white quartzite sandbars and beaches. This is good habitat for a huge variety of invertebrate species as well as numerous fish which feed on them. Though not often visible to the casual beachgoer, these small sea worms, crustaceans and mollusks live beneath the water and in the sandy bottom. They also serve as great bait for surf fishing. But they make up the bulk of what these native fish live and thrive on in these shallow waters just off the shore.


This is a trying and even hostile environment in many ways. Hot in summer, the shallow clear water may exceed 90 degrees. And cold in winter when occasional freezes may drop the gulf water temperature even into the 40s for a time. Plus the surf zone is periodically ravaged by large waves and strong currents from huge storms. In addition, predatory fish, mammals, and birds routinely patrol here. Looking to make a meal of these smaller, more defenseless fish. So the fish that make a full time living here grow up fast and strong, and can even be quite wary occasionally. And like anywhere people fish, to be successful it is important to use any natural elements of location.  You should also use natural foods as bait for surf fishing to your advantage.


The very idea of using a specific natural bait for surf fishing is to “match the hatch” so to speak. We should try to give the fish that live and feed in this turbulent region between the beach out a hundred yards or so to the longshore sandbar (and perhaps a bit beyond) what they are used to eating. Or at least bait up with something close enough to that which they seek so they will not hesitate to eat the offering, much to our delight.

best bait for surf fishing

The author with an above average sized pompano landed on a Fishfinder rig. Photo by David Thornton.


Make It Look “Real” Good


Though fresh dead and frozen shrimp (penaeid shrimp) are likely the most widely used natural bait for surf fishing along the gulf coast region, they are actually not very common in the surf zone. These shrimp grow up in the inshore bays and estuaries and then migrate offshore into the gulf to spawn. But they are relatively cheap and easy to store and obtain, so they are most often used. And they can be quite effective at times, even after being frozen. Especially when they are ‘doctored’ up to resemble the more common naturally occurring prey items such as beach ghost shrimp or mole crabs (called “sand fleas”).


This can be accomplished several ways. The easiest is to partially peel and break the shrimp into bite-sized pieces for the fish you are targeting. Pompano and “whiting” have no biting teeth and relatively small mouths built for sucking in prey items not much more than 2 inches long and a ½ inch wide. Most whole shrimp (in the shell) are larger than that and have sharp ends. A typical 3-inch long bait shrimp can easily be rendered more palatable to these fish by removing the carapace (head cover) and the tail section while leaving the legs intact. Shrimp larger than 2 ½ inches should be cut in half and each part hooked separately. This method not only releases more scent into the water, it increases the bite ratio. And it makes your bait supply last longer too. Simply thread the abdominal segment (or segments) onto a #6 or #4 Kahle hook or circle hook and cast to a likely area.

A variety of commercially pre-made double hook “pompano rigs” are made specifically for this presentation. The small hooks are tied by dropper loop onto a length of 15# to 20# clear monofilament or fluorocarbon line with a swivel on one end and a snap or loop (for the weight) on the other end. This is so the pyramid weight can easily be changed out as conditions warrant, or removed at the end of the day for transport and storage. You don’t want a sinker knocking or rubbing against your fishing rod and causing damage to it. Plus the best surf rods should be 9 feet or longer, have a sensitive tip to detect light bites and break down into two sections.

The rigs are available in several styles applicable to specific fishing conditions. The ones with a small red or orange bead just above the hook (to attract the fish’s attention) are usually best in near calm and fairly clear water. And the rigs with a brightly colored float just above the hook seem to work best in rougher conditions or when there is less visibility under water. But in perfectly calm water with high visibility, a simple fish finder rig (locally called “Carolina rig”) may be the ticket for getting wary fish to bite on a single bait.   

It is usually best to cast the rig into a break in the beach sandbar, or edge of a drop-off and place the rod in a rod holder and wait for a bite. The bite is often preceded by a single ‘tap’ on the bait as the fish tries to stun its prey. That is soon followed by a series of taps as it gets the bait into its mouth and darts away to help swallow it. The Kahle or circle hooks usually work best like this, by allowing the fish to practically hook itself in the corner of the mouth from the increasing pressure from the line to the reel. The drag should be pre-set with just enough tension to set the hook in the fish’s mouth while allowing the running fish to take some line so as not to uproot the sand spike. All the angler need do is give an added ‘jab’ to be sure the hook is firmly set as the rod is lifted from the rod holder.

The same methods can be used with other baits for surf fishing. Which may be available like “live” or “fresh-dead” shrimp, sand fleas and beach ghost shrimp. Even pieces of large clams, crabs and hermit crabs seem to work fine as natural baits. And chunks of fresh cut fish such as mullet, menhaden, croaker, etc. work well for some species like “bull” redfish, drum, bluefish and even ground mullet (but not so much for pompano and whiting).  As always fresher baits are often the best bait for surf fishing, even live if you can get it. And if you have to use frozen bait, at least use fresh seawater to freeze it in. That seems to help it retain firmness and perhaps flavor for the intended fish. Probably the least favorable bait near shore is squid, which usually best attracts only catfish and rays.


Get It Yourself

Gathering your the best bait for beach fishing yourself should be a worthwhile effort that balances your time and effort with a return of more fish caught. The best known of these is raking sand fleas along the wash zone of the beach where the waves lap up on shore. When the waves pound and push up on the sand, the material is dislodged from the turbulence. And as the water recedes, it drags this material back toward the water. Mole crabs (called “sand fleas”) make a living there by straining this water for fine organic particles with their feather-like antennae. Occasionally these can be seen as small ‘V’s in the sand as the wave recedes. A close grouping of these tell-tale marks in the sand are indicative of a “colony” of sand fleas. And that is the best place to drag the rake. Timing is essential to maximize your catch by using the power of the water moving down the beach to pull more fleas into your rake.

“The easiest way to locate a ‘colony’ of ghost shrimp is to search at low tide with near calm conditions.”

Sand fleas an inch or so long are ideal bait sized, and they are the ideal bait for surf fishing. They easily fit onto the hooks as previously described on the bottom fishing rigs. Simply drive the hook up through the round shell from underneath the tail which is tucked between the legs. They can also be used to tip jigs, which is a very effective method for searching out pompano in the spring and early summer along the beach. Sand fleas are often available for sale (frozen) at local bait shops and they usually sell rakes for $30 to $50.

If sand fleas are not available for the angler (as in winter), a small piece of fresh shrimp about the same size could also serve as great bait for surf fishing. Especially helpful in the spring and early summer is the added attractant of a ½ inch piece of orange colored Fishbites. This synthetic strip is formulated in several flavors and colors to dissolve slowly in seawater, releasing a scent trail. Though the jury is still out on how well these fish can “see” colors, the bright orange coincidentally resembles the eggs of a sand flea. It sure works. So well, in fact, these fish may at times bite on hooks baited ONLY with Fishbites! The blue packs are for use in water above 65 degrees and Fishbites in red packs are formulated for water below 65 degrees.  

Much more numerous than sand fleas, beach ghost shrimp populate much of the benthic surf zone and frequently make up the majority of the diet of fish living in that area. Pompano and kingfish seem to relish them, and even the larger drums rarely pass up such a morsel. They are a sort of saltwater soft-shelled crayfish, even resembling crayfish or lobsters more than what we typically think of as shrimp. Beach ghost shrimp would also make the ideal bait for surf fishing and are the best bait for pompano, however, they are rarely sold in bait shops because they don’t seem to live more than a day or two after being extracted from their burrow. And procuring them is a bit more labor-intensive, requiring a ghost shrimp pump.

This suction device can be bought from most coastal bait shops (for about $30), or made from parts available at most hardware stores (for about $15). It is constructed from a 3-foot long piece of 2-inch diameter PVC pipe. A handle is attached to a test plug which creates a vacuum seal as the handle is drawn upward. The suction slurries the sand with water as it is pulled up into the tube (hopefully along with the ghost shrimp). The contents are then discharged off to the side and examined for the 2 to 4 inch long shrimp. Several ‘slurps’ may be needed to extract a shrimp as their burrows may extend down 2 to 3 feet beneath the opening, and perhaps even off to the side. This can be quite a bit of exercise at times, and practically impossible if the water is too high or too rough.

The easiest way to locate a ‘colony’ of ghost shrimp is to search at low tide with near calm conditions. Look along the edge of a beach point or sandbar for lines of their tiny gray ‘poop pellets’ that wash ashore. Underwater nearby should be a series of inch-high sand mounds along the bottom. These look like tiny volcanoes and may even have a small hole actively discharging puffs of sand as the shrimp digs. With favorable conditions (low tide and calm surf), two to three dozen of these can be obtained in about 30 minutes. And that represents plenty of opportunities to catch fish for the rest of the day. This situation of morning low tides best for gathering ghost shrimp, and a high tide in the evening is most prevalent along the beaches from October through March.  Coinciding with the passage of cold fronts, north winds, and calming surf.

Ghost shrimp can be rigged as bait in much the same way as other shrimp, and larger specimens should be cut in half. Take care when hooking them though, as they are quite soft. The best places to start the hook is through the anal opening at the end of the tail, or through the leg mass under the head. And watch the bait as you cast to be sure it doesn’t come off the hook. If you are having difficulty keeping it on a hook, you can build a “bait cradle” out of a small rectangle cut from nylon hosiery or other light mesh. Simply hook the mesh and wrap the bait with it and secure the loose end by hooking it again. A piece of mesh often lasts for several casts (or fish) before becoming too shredded to use.  But the fish don’t seem to mind it being on the hook.


bait for surf fishing

A piece of orange Fishbites can be added to a piece of shrimp to resemble a sand flea carrying eggs. Photo by David Thornton.


When To Go “Artie”

Warm water in summer and fall brings a flood of small and juvenile fish into the surf zone. These often outnumber the more desirable species and sizes, and for a time render that area practically unusable for natural bait which is quickly eaten off the hook. Besides, tides from April through September are usually high in the morning and low in the evening (or at night). Gamefish native to the surf zone usually feed closer to shore on a rising tide and move away from shallower water as the tide falls. So they are never stationary and seldom solitary. These fish seem to always be on the move looking for food or shelter, or perhaps even a mate.

For these reasons, it is always a good idea for an unproductive angler to roam along the shore as well in search of schooling fish. But it’s not practical nor time efficient to put bottom rigs out every 30 feet as you move down the beach. A much quicker way to locate a school of pompano or whiting or slot-sized redfish is to “prospect” with a jig. Jigs are ideal for beach use because they are fairly light and small, but cast far (even into the wind) and sink to the bottom quickly.

In addition to live baits, another great bait for surf fishing is a pompano jig or a Silly Willy Rig. Fishing with this jig is an art form of itself, but it can be a very useful tool for the shore bound fisherman to locate fish. Using a light spinning reel on a 7 to 9-foot medium light action rod with 4 to 8-pound monofilament line, an angler can try several casts in a likely looking spot before moving on. Fan-casting from a single spot can effectively cover hundreds of yards of the bottom in just a few minutes. And if the fish don’t bite a bare jig, it can always be “sweetened” with a piece of bait or Fishbites to enhance it.

Most jig fishers tie directly onto the line with no leader. The action is simply a wrist snap to jerk the jig upward a foot or two and let it fall back to the bottom. Most strikes come on the fall or just as the line is gained to start another “hop”. Slow the action a bit with a piece of bait on the hook, or even “crawl” it along the bottom. The bite is usually a bump or peck as the fish tries to “stun” its prey. Then a jolting strike as it grabs it and heads away.

Another variation of jig fishing occurs in the late summer and fall as flounder begin to move out of the bays and out into the gulf to spawn. Flounder are opportunists, but seem to not be able to resist a bouncing jig. Especially one resembling a ghost shrimp like a 3-inch Gulp shrimp in the New Penny or Molting colors. For this setup, one can simply tie on a ½ to ¾ ounce stand-up lead head jig and thread the Gulp onto it. The action can be either the “hopping” or dragging motion or a combination of the two. Bycatch from this method often includes the hard-pulling redfish and acrobatic ladyfish or even other species including pompano.

So by adjusting tactics to match conditions, and armed with these tips and bait for surf fishing, there is no reason a properly equipped beach angler can’t be at least modestly successful catching fish in the surf year round.


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