Bill Varney – SURF LINES

Click here for Bill Varney – SURF LINES

Thursday, July 05, 2018
Learning to surf fish on the beach

Finding, catching and keeping California sand crabs
Just three summers ago, we were coming off the latest El Niño event in which winter ocean waters were the warmest I could remember. Tuna fishing lasted all winter as the warm water drove finbait north and took the tuna with it. But one of the side effects of warm water was that it drove the sand crabs away too.

Many surf fish, including barred perch, calico perch, corbina and spotfin, moved north too. With a lack of sand crabs, surf fishing in southern California slowed dramatically. But as with just about every cycle in nature, cooler, enriched water returned in the following years and has set up perfectly for a great surf fishing summer.

CRAB BED PRESENTATION — Look for sand crabs to congregate in "beds" beneath rippled water.

I’ve been finding sand crabs all winter this year and their reemergence is a great sign that they are back, along with the fish that feed upon them. During the early months of summer, every surf fish feeds upon crabs. Fish spread out along the beach and look for beds of crabs to forage. This summer will be no exception, so let’s take a look at finding, catching and keeping sand crabs for surf fishing bait.

Female sand crabs are generally larger than males, with females producing as many as 45,000 eggs. Their distinct orange underside is a dead give away for both fisherman and surf fish. Sand crabs reproduce in their first year and have a lifespan of up to three years.

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. Using their extended feather-like antennae, sand crabs feed on plankton that rides the crest of each wave. With practice you will find that 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 appendages that reveal their location as the waves recede. They always settle in looking out to sea. You should approach them from above, on higher ground, to improve your chances of catching them in numbers.

SAND CRAB EGGS — Sand crabs bright orange eggs attract surf fish because of their color and odor.

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, making them easily accessible during low (and especially at minus) tides.

Watch carefully as the waves roll out for anomalies on the beach that appear as ripples on the surface of wet sand. Dig here. This is where you will find the crabs.

The best way to catch crabs is with a galvanized crab net. Promar makes an excellent galvanized crab rake that 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 trap 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. I’ve found that medium-soft crabs (those with a shell softness equal to pressing in a pop can) are the best bait but there are exceptions. Over the last two years (and in previous El Nino years), the best crabs to use have been those that are the size of your big toe nail and as soft as possible. Test the waters by trying different hardness and sizes of crabs to see what fish in your area are foraging on.

After finding 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 and they will be easier to catch. Continue as you “crab” to look up and down the beach to find more V-shaped clusters.

KEEP THE SAND CRABS in a plastic container and cover them with kelp to keep them cool and moist.

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 at all times or your contents will swim, crawl, dig and disappear back into the sea in the blink of an eye.

Other effective ways to catch sand crabs are by hand digging and by using a colander or a clothes washing bag. A clothes’ washing bag is 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. Simply, unzip the top, scoop sand into the bag and then pull it to the water’s edge where the sand washes away and leaves a net full of crabs.

Another excellent tool for catching crabs is the Ikea galvanized utensil holder. This is nothing more than a galvanized cup cut with dozens of holes in its sides and bottom. Add a handle to the holder and it becomes an easy colander to use when scooping crabs.

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. Peak low tide is when you will find congregations of crabs on exposed sand bars.

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 crabsfresh 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 cover them with damp newspaper or a moistened cloth.

Be sure not to crush them. I 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 55 and 70 degrees), you may place a frozen bottle of water adjacent to their container. By all means, don’t place them in saltwater or the refrigerator, as they will expire in just minutes. Lastly, be sure not to disturb them. Otherwise, they will be cranky (and dead!) in the morning.

Summer’s almost here and so are the crabs. So take a few extra minutes to search and find sand crabs and you’re sure to find the fish that are looking for them too!

* * *

Learn about equipment, bait and how to find fish at the beach by joining Bill Varney and the Coastal Conservation Association this summer for a series of on-the-beach surf fishing clinics. Visit and look under “Topics/Seminars” for all the details.

IKEA CRAB CATCHER — Without even knowing it, Ikea invented the perfect crab scoop — just add a handle and go.

* * *

We hope you enjoyed this article on our no-charge website Of course, this site contains only a small fraction of the stories that Western Outdoor Publications produces each week in its two northern and southern editions and its special weekly supplements. You can subscribe to the print issue that is mailed weekly and includes the easy flip-page full-color digital issues, or you can purchase a digital only subscription. Click here to see the choice.

Reader Comments
Thanks for the article. I just started surf fishing in Southern California (mostly Huntington Beach) and found out sand crabs are the way to go for most local fish. Needless to say, I found your article informative and just wanted to say thanks.
I also live in southern CA (Long Beach) and I'm looking to get into surf fishing ard HB and Camp Pendleton. I have grown tired of bass fishing at lakes where the fishing is not as good after the Spring. I appreciate your info on the sand crabs as I plan to use them for bait.
Leave a Comment
* Name:
* Email:
Website (optional):
* Comment:

Advertise with Western Outdoor News