In most surf fishing scenarios, live bait is preferable, but you can use artificial lures as well. If you want to expedite your fishing success and skip right to the best lures, what are your options?
The best bait for surf fishing is as follows:
- Sand fleas
- Fiddler crabs
- Bucktail jigs
- Soft bait jigs
- Topwater plugs
This guide to surfcasting bait will go over each type of bait above, live and artificial, and discuss how to use them and which fish you can catch with them. There’s lots of great info to come, so make sure you keep reading!
Recommended Live Bait for Surf Fishing
Since live bait is preferable among surfcasters, we’ll begin with this type. Keep in mind that although the following creatures start out alive, in some instances, you’ll want them dead for surf fishing purposes.
If there’s one type of live bait to bring surf fishing, it’s undoubtedly the sand flea.
Many anglers aren’t familiar with sand fleas, at least not initially. Then, after a few surf fishing trips, they realize how valuable these small creatures can be.
The sand flea is also known as the mole crab or the sand bug. It’s a small crustacean that looks nothing like a crab but doesn’t quite resemble a flea either. Instead, the sand flea is brownish-tan to blend exceptionally well into its environment. That environment is sand, of course.
In the sand, the sand flea will burrow deep. Its antennae allow the crustacean to filter feed. When the sand flea travels, it usually hops.
If you want to catch your own sand fleas, comb the beaches during dawn and then again at dusk. A sand flea rake could help you catch them, but you can also dig them up by hand when you seem them wriggling in the sand after a wave breaks.
We should note that sand fleas can bite you, so be careful!
Once you have live sand fleas for surfcasting, you may catch more speckled trout, grouper, snapper, snook, striped bass, black drum, and redfish.
Shrimp are a substantial bait to insert on your fishing hook.
Plenty of fish species will be attracted to the motion and aroma of live shrimp, including halibut, grouper, speckled trout, snapper, snook, bluefish, mackerel, striped bass, redfish, and black drum.
How do you catch live shrimp, you ask? You’ll need a flashlight, for starters. A headlamp is even better. This way, both your hands are free.
You can lay a shrimp trap into the ocean and see what comes up. Most anglers who do this will plant the shrimp trap during the night and then come back to it the next morning.
You must secure your trap so it doesn’t float away, especially when it’s full of shrimp! Plus, you may need a permit or some form of permission if you’re going to leave your possessions out on the beach overnight.
You can also use a shrimp-catching net. This will require you to hunt shrimp during the night. Stick to shallower areas such as bays, mudflats, or grass flats. Wade into the water and turn on your headlamp.
Since shrimp have reflective eyes, you’ll be able to detect any once your headlamp is on. Some shrimp might scurry off, but many more will not. Swoop them up with your net and the shrimps are yours.
A cast net can come in handy, as it’s bigger than regular shrimp-catching nets. If your cast net is eight feet, then it can cover 50 square feet of sea. That’s quite expansive!
You might take a boat out into the water with your cast net and then drape it into the sea. You won’t come up empty-handed, and in some cases, you can catch gallons of live shrimp.
Most species of crabs are a good selection for live surf fishing bait, but fiddler crabs are especially good if you can find them. With hundreds of unique fiddler crab species, surely, some propagate in your neck of the woods.
Fiddler crabs are common in mudflats. Once you spot them, you can toss a cast net on them during their feeding times.
The mesh of the net needs to be fine. A fiddler crab is only about two inches wide, so an opening that large or bigger will allow the crabs to easily escape.
You can also dig for fiddler crabs. Outside of mudflats, you can also find fiddler crabs at some beaches as well as coastal marshlands.
Watch the sand or mud very carefully. A sand crab will emerge from underneath, but it moves fast, so you have to be quicker. Dig up the crab before it rises to the surface and then store it in a bucket.
Crabs are quite an appealing lure choice for catching grouper, snook, redfish, black drum, and striped bass.
Moving away from the crustaceans now, mullet is a ray-finned species of fish that favors freshwaters (certain species), tropical waters, and coastal temperate waters. There exist about 80 species in all.
Yes, you are theoretically catching fish (mullet) to catch more fish in the surf, but hey, sometimes that’s what you have to do.
If you don’t mind spending money, you can always buy mullet at your favorite fishing supply store. Various species are usually well-stocked.
If you’d rather catch the mullet alive, the cast net option works yet again for this source of surfcasting bait. You can also use a traditional fishing rod setup with peeled shrimp or live ragworms on your hook.
Would you prefer not to use live or dead bait when fishing for mullet because you want to save it for surfcasting? You can take a piece of bread from the loaf at home and roll it into a ball. The dough ball will stick well on your hook.
When you sink your fishing line into the water, throw a few pieces of bread into the water as well. This might increase the chances of a mullet swimming your way.
Most fish species that you’ll find in the surf go gaga for squid, among them redfish, striped bass, snook, kahawai, bluefish, grouper, blacktip sharks, bonefish, pink snapper, speckled trout, and halibut.
Now, we know what you’re thinking. How in the world are you going to catch a squid? It’s doable if you’d really like to.
You’d need a medium-action fishing rod with a squid jig that includes a sinker (1/2 an ounce to an ounce in size).
What most surfcasters use is dead squid for bait. This is something you can purchase online or at a fishing supply store. Of course, if you want to catch a squid, cut it up, and keep it, you’ll have surf fishing bait for a long time to come!
The menhaden or bunker is a forage species of fish that is distinguishable for its forked tail.
Measuring about 15 inches long, the menhaden is a substantial fish that’s gladly eaten up by bluefish, striped bass, grouper, and redfish.
There’s nothing more satisfying than catching your own bait, and you can do that with menhaden as well. Check your nearby boat basins or marinas, especially where the water gets deep. Use a fish finder to ascertain the menhaden’s location.
In some instances, you might spot a menhaden flicking its tail near the surface of the water. That’s a dead giveaway that this fish is in your vicinity.
You don’t have to use a traditional fishing rod and hook to catch menhaden if you don’t want to. A net will allow you to bring in several of the fish at once.
However, you need a fast-sinking net to prevent the menhaden from swimming past the net straight to freedom.
For waters that are 10 to 12 feet deep, an eight-foot net will suffice. In deeper waters still, such as those with a depth exceeding 12 feet, then you need a net that’s at least 12 feet as well.
Then put the caught menhaden in a cooler and use them as surf fishing bait within the next day if you care about yours being alive.
Another type of forage fish for your consideration as surfcasting bait is the herring. Since they travel in substantially-sized schools, where you find one herring, more will usually follow.
If you choose to use herring as bait, they’re more successful when dead than alive. You should cut the fish into sizable chunks.
When on your fishing hook, you’re likelier to come across steelhead, lingcod, sharks, striped bass, halibut, coho salmon, and king salmon.
Those are some unique species that the other live surf fishing bait we’ve discussed will not attract. Thus, it’s always good to have some herring handy.
Baitfish traps such as nets, while they require patience before you pull them up, are one of the top methods that surfcasters rely on to catch herring, especially if you want large quantities.
You’d lay the trap near a pier where you know herring to linger. Usually, that will entail you parking your fishing boat near the pier and then dropping the net off your boat. Keep the boat there the whole night through.
We want to reiterate that overnight camping like this might require permission if not permitting or a license. Double-check what the rules are for your state before you proceed.
You can also use a fishing rod and a jig to catch herring one at a time. This is faster than waiting overnight for a net, but you won’t have as many herrings.
Head to the nearest dock where herrings are found. You’ll need a saltwater fishing rod, a pyramid weight (three to five ounces), and a herring rig, which is a specialized jig. Add a piece of corn or two as bait for the herring.
Attach the herring rig to your mainline. On the other side of your herring rig, add the pyramid weight. Don’t forget the corn!
Recommended Artificial Bait for Surf Fishing
Next, let’s switch gears and discuss the various types of artificial lures you can use to catch the creatures of the sea when surf fishing.
Related Reading: 13 Best Surf Fishing Lures you Need to Try
The bucktail jig is available in a variety of sizes and weights from one to three ounces.
They’re designed to move like a squid does. When the currents are strong and fast as well as when fishing in deep water, a bucktail jig is especially good to use.
That’s also the case if you’re trying to catch multiple fish species or if the surf has cover under the surface.
You can increase your chances of catching speckled trout, snook, mackerel, bonefish, redfish, and black drum with a bucktail jig.
Soft Bait Jig
Soft baits are designed to mimic wriggling creatures such as worms–or when surf fishing–minnows and other small fish.
The soft bait, when on a jig, moves as though it’s injured. This looks like a free and easy meal to any passing fish, which is how you captivate their interest.
What kind of fish species might a soft bait jig be most effective on? The list includes halibut, speckled trout, snook, kahawai, bonefish, mackerel, striped bass, redfish, and black drum.
The oblong, metallic spoon lure is long and features the curvature of a spoon. That’s why this lure is named after the common kitchen utensil.
A spoon will move especially randomly in the water. Plus, it catches light from the sun and reflects it in the water.
You can cast quite far with a spoon lure and still have it work on fish species like king salmon, striped bass, steelhead, coho salmon, lingcod, and speckled trout.
The topwater walker or plug lingers on the water’s surface. Resembling small fish with its colors and patterns, a topwater plug should inspire a fish in the water to jump to the surface to try and nab the lure.
Then it’s your chance to reel in that fish, adding it to your tacklebox. From tarpon to mackerel, snook, speckled trout, tuna, black drum, giant trevally, jacks, striped bass, steelhead, and redfish, you can catch many fish with a topwater plug.
Surfcasting benefits both live and artificial lures, not to mention dead fish as well. Now that you know which lures you can use when as well as what you’ll catch when you do, you’re ready to up your surf fishing game. Good luck!
Further Reading: How to choose a fishing line surf fishing on any beach