Surf Fishing Baits – the Ultimate Guide!
This article will thoroughly cover surf fishing baits. There are a wide variety of baits, both natural and artificial, that anglers can use in order to be successful.
My name is Capt. Jim Klopfer and I am a fishing guide in Sarasota, Florida. I grew up in Maryland and made annual trips to Assateague Island in the fall to surf fish for a variety of species. I currently try to hit the Outer Banks in North Carolina every other year or so. I occasionally do a little surf fishing in Florida as well. In this article I will share the information I have learned in my almost 60 years of surf fishing.
There are four basic types of surf fishing baits. These are live baits, cut baits, commercial baits, and artificial baits. The majority of anglers use natural baits, whether live or cut. Commercially prepared baits are growing in popularity, mostly due to the convenience. Artificial baits or lures catch plenty of fish for angler surf fishing when conditions are right.
Surf fishing baits
The following few sections the four types of surf fishing baits will be outlined. Below that section each type of surf fishing bait will be covered in great detail.
Live baits for surf fishing
Live baits are most certainly extremely effective surf fishing baits. There are quite a variety of live baits that can be used by anglers. For the most part, these baits vary by region and by the species being pursued. They generally consist of crustaceans such as shrimp and crabs, live bait fish, and sea worms.
Check out these surf fishing tips
The primary challenge faced by anglers surf fishing with live bait is keeping it on the hook during the cast. In most surf fishing situations, a long cast is required to get out to deeper water and to get over the breakers. Long rods and heavyweights are used to accomplish this. Softer live baits will simply not stay on the hook during the cast.
Surf fishing with cut bait
I think it is safe to say that the majority of anglers surf fishing do so using cut bait of some sort. Along with artificial lures, it is what I use for the vast majority of my surf fishing adventures. There are couple of reasons for this. First and foremost, cut bait stays on the hook better than live bait in most circumstances. It is also more convenient as there is no need for buckets and aerators and other devices used to keep the bait alive.
One downside to using cut bait is that it catches just about every species that swims. This may seem like a good thing at first, but cut bait can attract undesirable species such as rays, catfish, and pesky sharks. However, at least for me, the good outweighs the bad and cut bait is a productive and reliable bait that will catch fish in every surf fishing application.
Surf fishing with artificial baits
Artificial baits, also known as artificial lures, or just lures, are extremely effective surf fishing baits. There are a couple advantages that anglers have when casting lures over those using live or cut baits. The primary advantage is the fact that anglers can cover so much more water with lures in search of fish than they can with baits. A constantly moving spoon or plug will be seen by more fish than a cut bait anchored on the bottom.
Read about my 7 essential surf fishing lures
Artificial baits are also convenient. Anglers can be rigged up and ready to go at all times without the hassle and mess of dealing with slimy cut baits or trying to keep live baits. One downside to artificial baits is that some are fairly expensive. I use artificial baits a lot when surf fishing whether it is in Florida or in the Atlantic Ocean on the East Coast.
Surf fishing with commercially prepared baits
One recent addition to the surf fishing world are commercially prepared baits. Fishbites and Gulp baits are prime examples. These kind of combine the convenience of artificial baits with the effectiveness of cut baits. Anglers can keep them in their tackle box ready to go at all times. Some surf fishing anglers have completely switched over and only use these effective and versatile baits.
Best surf fishing tackle
I will include a brief discussion of tackle at this point. I have written a detailed article on surf fishing tackle, anglers can click the link below. For most surf fishing situations, the traditional longer surf rod between 10 and 14 feet is the best choice. Anglers will often have to make long casts, sometimes into the wind. Lighter rods can be used when fish are close to the beach and during calm conditions.
Read my detailed article on surf fishing tackle!
Best live baits for surf fishing
Many surf anglers consider live bait to be the best choice to use. There is some validity to this as a live bait struggling on a hook is extremely effective. Live baits fall into a few categories; crustaceans, bait fish, and worms. As mentioned earlier, baits are often regional and will vary depending on the part of the country that the angler is fishing.
Live bait fish
Ever since anglers have been fishing, they have been putting a small fish on the hook in hopes of catching a larger one. This continues to be an effective technique to this day. A small bait fish will struggle when hooked. The vibrations and panic signals that it emits will draw in larger game fish.
The type of bait fish that can be used by anglers surf fishing is very long. All along the Gulf Coast, pin fish, grunts, mud minnows, and finger mullet are all used effectively. On the East Coast, mud minnows and other hardy minnow species are used. Serious anglers seeking a trophy striped bass may choose a hand sized spot or other small bottom fish.
The two main challenges anglers face when using live bait fish while surf fishing is procuring the bait and keeping them alive as well as keeping them on the hook during the cast. Some bait shops sell live minnows and anglers can keep them alive in a bucket with a battery-powered aerator. Many serious surf fishing anglers catch their own using small baited hooks or by throwing a cast net, where legal. The bait fish is almost always hooked through the lips up from the bottom.
Crustaceans make fantastic live baits for surf fishing! Here in Florida where I live, shrimp are king. A live shrimp will catch just about every species from Texas to the mid Atlantic. Shrimp are widely available at just about every bait shop and are fairly easy to keep alive, especially in cooler weather. In many cases, a fresh dead shrimp works just as well is a live one. The shrimp can be hooked under the horn in the front or threaded on as is done when using a worm.
Anglers can purchase Capt Jim’s E-book, “Inshore Saltwater Fishing” for $5 by clicking on the title link. It is 23,000 words long and covers tackle, tactics, and species.
There are many species of crabs there are found in waters throughout the world, and a lot of them make excellent surf fishing baits. Small blue crabs are effective on a variety of species, especially redfish and black drum, where legal. Fiddler crabs are sold at bait shops that cater especially to sheepshead anglers. Oyster crabs can be caught around the rocks at low tide.
For the most part, crabs are fairly easy to keep alive. They can be hooked in a variety of ways depending on the size of the crab and the species being sought. Larger blue crabs are hooked through the shell they are one of the points. Smaller crabs are usually threaded on the hook.
Once specialty surf fishing bait that falls in the crustacean family is the sand flea or mole crabs. These are often associated with pompano, and for good reason. Pompano love sand fleas! They can be caught in the surf using special rakes as well as purchased at some shops. Sand fleas catch a wide variety of species as well.
Anglers can also use worms when surf fishing. No, not the nightcrawlers used in freshwater fishing but instead species that thrive in the saltwater and are devoured by striped bass and other game fish. These are primarily blood worms and sandworms. Blood worms are quite expensive but can go a long way if anglers cut them in small pieces. Pin fish such as perch, croaker, and spot love them as do flounder and other species. Sandworms are also effective, but perhaps not quite as much so as blood worms.
Cut bait for surf fishing
I think it is safe to say that the majority of anglers, myself included, use cut bait more than the other types of baits combined. The reasons are easy to understand. Cut bait is effective, readily available, relatively convenient, and cost-effective. What more could a surf fishing angler ask for?
Surf anglers can use both fresh caught and frozen cut bait effectively. In most cases, a freshly caught fish that is cut into strips or chunks is going to be more effective as it will put out more blood and scent and other natural juices. However, this is not always practical and frozen cut bait catches plenty of fish.
The type of cut bait used by anglers will vary by region. Squid is a universal saltwater bait that will catch just about everything that swims. Anglers chasing flounder and larger game fish will cut squid into long strips. Smaller pieces can be used to catch whiting and other saltwater panfish.
Coastal bait shops that cater to surf anglers will usually have a selection of frozen fish that can be used for cut bait. This varies by region but includes mullet, mackerel, bonito, jacks, bluefish, menhaden or bunker, and other species. In reality, any local fish that is legal to be kept can be cut up and used for bait. Anglers often designate a lighter rod with smaller hooks that is strictly used to catch smaller fish for bait. Anglers should check local regulations to remain in compliance.
Frozen minnows are a top bait in areas were flounder are. Again, the minnow species will vary by region. However, they all generally work the same. Many anglers will tip a buck tail jig with a live minnow and bounce it on the bottom in search of a tasty flounder. They can also be used on standard bottom rigs.
Finally, crustaceans of all sorts can be used as cut bait. A blue crab cut in half is a top cut bait for redfish, black drum, striped bass, and other larger game fish. Frozen shrimp are convenient, affordable, and catch just about every saltwater species. Frozen sand fleas and fiddler crabs are effective baits in areas where pompano, sheepshead, and whiting are present.
Artificial baits for surf fishing
While I catch many fish using cut bait and live bait while surf fishing, from an enjoyment standpoint I prefer to use artificial baits or lures. For one thing, lures keep the angler busy as they are always casting and retrieving. Also, I can always be moving in fishing different areas from the beach easily with one rod and a handful of productive lures.
My favorite surf fishing lures are jigs, plugs, and spoons. Like everything else, each has its advantages and disadvantages. Jigs are relatively inexpensive and effective and are excellent when fish are holding close to the bottom. Spoons can be heavy and cast well and are great choice when fish are seen feeding on the surface or are higher in the water column. Plugs will draw some explosive strikes but are expensive to buy and usually come with multiple treble hooks.
My favorite surf fishing lure is a jig head with a Gulp bait attached. I use the 3 inch shrimp often, along with the 5 inch Jerk Shad. Gulp baits have a very effective sent so in reality it is a bit like using and artificial lore and a live bait in one. My second choice would be a 1 ounce silver Kastmaster spoon. These lures cast a long way even in a stiff when and are excellent surf fishing lures.
Plugs, especially poppers and other top water plugs, are great fun to fish and will elicit some incredible strikes. However, as mentioned they do have their drawbacks. Plugs are getting pricey, some pushing $20, and anglers will have to be careful handling fish with the treble hooks.
Commercial baits are effective and convenient
Last on the list of types of surf fishing baits are commercially available prepared baits. As mentioned above, a decent number of experienced surf fishing aficionados have completely switched over to using these baits exclusively. Besides being effective, they are cost-effective and more importantly, extremely convenient. These baits will remain effective in an angler’s tackle box for many months.
For the most part, these baits are used by anglers bottom fishing for panfish such as whiting, pompano, smaller bluefish, flounder, and smaller striped bass. The come in a variety of shapes and colors. Anglers can even cut the baits into the shape that they desire. The most popular brands right now are Gulp and Fishbites.
Surf fishing rigs
I have written a fairly detailed article on surf fishing rigs, anglers can click the link below to read more. I will briefly cover them here. The two most popular surf fishing rigs used by anglers are the fish finder rig and the high low or drop her rig. Both are effective and have their uses, depending on the species being pursued.
The dropper rig, also known as a high low rig or chicken rig, is generally the choice of anglers fishing for smaller species such as pompano, whiting, croaker, spot, sheepshead, and other fish. The hooks are generally smaller and are baited with smaller pieces of cut bait or prepared bait.
The fish finder rig is usually used by anglers targeting larger game fish such as striped bass, larger bluefish, flounder, black drum, and other species. Anglers using a live bait fish are much more likely to use a fish finder rig. It also works well with larger strips or chunks of cut bait.
In conclusion, this article on surf fishing baits will help anglers understand the choices they have and will hopefully help them become more productive when fishing from the beach!