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Bill Varney – SURF LINES

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Thursday, February 25, 2016
Surf Fishing Stalemate
Wednesday, June 29, 2016
Surf fishing etiquette and safety

Sand crabs and summer surf fishing
When June rolls around I know it’s time to get down to the sand to surf fish. Over the last few weeks we have had some encouraging signs that the water has cooled a bit as squid have begun to group up at all the stock spots. We also have learned that sand crabs, which had been missing for the last two summers, are back, too.

Over the last few weeks in my fishing travels I have seen a huge number of sand crabs from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border. What’s unusual this year are the many different sizes of crabs. Normally, we would find “micro” crabs in May that grow to quarter size as the summer progressed. This year we find crabs of all sizes, right at the beginning of the season.

MIKEY GOT THIS striped bass up near Goleta this past week

Many surf fish hang back in the local estuaries and harbors during winter feeding, spawning and finding protection from winter storms. As the water warms they know instinctively to move out of these habitats and spread out along the beach. There is no doubt they are encouraged to move from the bays as the water warms but they also know that billions of sand crabs have come to the surface of the sand all along the beach.

In spring, when the ocean warms to above sixty-degrees, sand crabs emerge from hibernation and begin the process of shedding their old shell. Much like a snake sheds its skin as it grows so does the sand crab. The sand crab’s shell takes several days to harden after the molt.

Because sand crabs make such perfect surf fishing bait most anglers key in on them during the summer season.

To find crabs, start by looking near the waterline for groups of birds on the beach. Many seabirds use their beak to probe the sand for crabs. Sand crabs like soft sand, they don’t enjoy rock or pebbly areas.

When you first arrive at the beach begin your search between the high tide mark and the ocean for signs of sand crabs. Look for moving water, receding from each wave. As a wave recedes look on the wet sand for little “V’s”. This is the characteristic ripple formed by a bed of crabs. With practice you will find they are easy to see grouped in bunches and become exposed as the water recedes between waves. The warmer the water, the closer they will be to the surface.

Sand crabs always swim, crawl and dig backwards. When a wave washes over them they can quickly relocate and dig back in leaving only their eyes and breathing antennules exposed. These are the “V” shaped appendages that reveal their location as the waves recede. You should approach them from above, rather than the side, to improve your chances of catching them in numbers.

Beginning in May crabs congregate near the high tide mark to begin their spawn. As summer progresses crab beds will appear at both the high tide mark and on sand bars only accessible at low tide. So look for them near the high tide mark in spring and as summer progresses, they will also be found on the outside sand bar easily accessible during low (and especially at minus) tides.

Another great area to find crabs is under piers. Crabs tend to congregate just behind where pilings meet sand at high tide.


The best way to catch crabs is with a galvanized crab net. Promar makes an excellent galvanized crab rake which can be purchased at your local tackle store. Make sure all parts are well galvanized and rinse thoroughly with fresh water after each use.

Crab rakes works by trapping crabs against the galvanized netting as a wave recedes. Look for white or light gray crabs. Touch each suspect crab to see if it is soft and pliable. For me, medium-soft crabs (those with a shell softness equal to pressing in a pop can) seem to work the best. But always test the waters by trying different hardness and sizes of crabs to see what fish in your area are foraging on.

Grab your rake and find a patch of “V’s”. Approach slowly and wait for the water to rush in and over the area before standing on it. Once covered by water, step forward and place the net in the water and allow it to settle to the bottom. A surprise approach means crabs will be less likely to dig deeper into the sand. Continue as you “crab” to look up and down the beach to find more V-shaped clusters.

The most effective method of using the crab rake involves digging sand into the net with one foot, or both feet alternating, as the water recedes. This breaks the crabs loose from the sand and yields larger catches. Incoming and outgoing waves can both be used for catching crabs, the latter being preferred. Always remember, water must be running out through the back of the net or your crabs will wash right out.

Other effective ways to catch sand crabs are by hand digging and by using a colander or a clothes washing bag. One of our seminar participants came equipped with a clothes washing bag. That’s something your mom may be aquatinted with: a bag the size of a pillowcase that is made of netting and is used for cleaning fine washables. He unstuffed it from his pocket, unzipped the top, scooped sand into the bag and then pulled it to the water’s edge where the sand washed away and left a net full of crabs. Brilliant!

Two good times to catch crabs are on a large incoming high tide and at peak low tide. Peak high tide is going to be your most productive time. Time of day is not usually important unless there is excessive beach traffic that may drive crabs down. When you first walk on the beach near the water, feel the sand with your bare feet. As you walk you’ll notice that the sand varies from soft to firm as well as coarse to fine grain in different areas. Crabs prefer soft fine-grained sand that is easy to burrow into and rely upon it until their hard shell develops.

Here are a few tips on how to keep your sand crabs fresh and lively. Keep and transport your crabs in a waist bait bucket. A small piece of wet kelp helps to keep the temperature down and the bait fresh. If you plan to keep the crabs overnight place them in a dry plastic container (no lid) and drape damp newspaper or a moistened cloth over them.

Place the bucket in a cool dry place (inside a large ice chest). If you feel they may become too warm (as they like the air temperature to be between fifty-five and seventy degrees) you may place a frozen bottle of water adjacent to their container. By all means don’t place them in salt water or the refrigerator, as they will expire in minutes. Lastly, be sure not to disturb them. Otherwise, they will be cranky (and dead!) in the morning.

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Get out there and learn to surf fish in one of Bill’s upcoming on-the-beach clinics. You will find more information about his seminars and tons of tips on his website

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