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Florida Surf Fishing Basics - Sand Fleas For Bait

Enerita analoga. Phylum: Arthropoda. Class: Crustacea. Order: Decopoda. Family: Hippidae. A.K.A. mole crabs. These are small crabs that burrow in the sand in the wash zone and use their antennae for filtering food from the outgoing waves. In Florida, mole crabs are commonly known as "sand fleas" and are prized as the best bait for surf fishing by some fishermen, especially those looking for Pompano. Notice the orange egg sack in the picture. That's why surf fishermen like orange beads on bottom rigs. Click here to read an article on bottom rigs.

Everyone likes free bait. And free bait is even better if the fish like it too, so don't overlook the little mole crabs on your surf fishing trips. But before we can use them for bait, we have to find them and catch a few. Some days catching sand fleas is a piece of cake; other days they can be very difficult to find. So let's get started.

Finding Sand Fleas: Colonies of sand fleas can be anywhere on the beach; in the wash or way up the beach away from the water. Usually you'll find them just in the wash, on an area of sand that is covered by incoming waves, but then exposed again when the wave goes back out.

On a low impact beach (flat), like we have in north east Florida, walk slowly along the edge of the water and watch for areas of sand that look rough as the wave washes back out over top of it, but then magically seems to smooth out a few seconds later. Look closer and see if you can spot a number of little "V's" in the sand that disappear when the wave is gone. The bottom of the "V" will be facing away from the water. The sand fleas are just below the surface of the sand, and the "V" is made by the two antennae that they extend to filter the outgoing wave for food.

Sand fleas might be little, but they are smart, and they seem to have a mechanism for sensing vibration on the beach near them. If you walk thru a colony they will burrow into the sand and disappear for a while, so you need to add some stealth to your sand flea catching skills. Sneak up on them. Now that you've found them, you need to catch a few.

Catching Sand Fleas: There are several methods of catching mole crabs, and which one works best at any give time depends on a few variables, like how large the colonies are, and how hard the sand they are burrowing down in is. My favorite methods include the "Hands On" method, using a "Sand Flea Rake", and the old reliable "Shovel and Bucket" method for days when they are really hard to find.

The Hands On Method: This is the method I use the most. Simple, no external equipment required. Walk along the edge of the water until you spot a colony, sneak up on them, and then bend over and dig in with both hands. You'll feel the little guys frantically digging to get away, so dig around until you find something that feels like a small moving marble, and grab it. I don't like to waste bait, even if it's free, so I dig up a dozen or so fleas, then return to fishing; when I'm down to one or two left, I go find them and dig in again for another dozen.

The Sand Flea Rake: Some tackle stores, and even Wal-Mart at times, have sand flea rakes for sale. Here's one in the picture, leaning up against the sand spike.

The rake looks like an up side down shovel with a basket on it, so your first inclination might be to run down to the wash and start digging. That method works on coquina beaches where the sand is soft, but, as I mentioned before, the sand here in north east Florida is hard packed and it's difficult to dig with the rake. Fleas are usually an inch or less under the sand, but when you rake the sand and can only get down less than an inch, what you'll find you are doing is cutting sand fleas in half with the rake instead of catching them. So the shuffle and scoop method works much better on our low impact beach.

Find your colony of fleas. Approach them from an angle where you are facing the ocean. As the wave recedes, and there is just a couple inches of water over the fleas, use your foot to shuffle and dig up the sand right in the middle of the colony. This causes the little guys to come flying up out of the sand into the outgoing wave and makes them scurry for deeper water. Lay the rake down flat on the beach a few feet closer to the ocean than the spot you are digging with your foot, and they'll pop out and swim right into your rake. Mission accomplished. No digging involved.

The Shovel And Bucket Method: This method requires two tools; a shovel and a bucket. Go figure. I use the regular garden variety shovel with the average sized long handle, and a bucket that I modified for the job. Everybody knows what a shovel looks like, so here's the bucket:

Some days the sand fleas are down deep. They are hard to spot and you'll just have to pick random places to dig for them. If you've been assigned the bait catching duty for a day when a bunch of people are going fishing so you need a load of fleas, this method will get you a bunch in a hurry if they are easy to spot.

Easy to make the bucket; take your average five gallon plastic bucket and your trusty cordless drill, and make a whole bunch of holes in the bottom and the lower sides of the bucket. You want the holes large enough so the sand and small shells can easily wash out, but small enough so the sand fleas can't. I used a ½" drill.

Once you have your bucket made, the rest is just manual labor. Pick a spot near the wash, and start digging. Put two or three large shovels full of sand into the bucket, and then pick it up by the handle, carry it out into a foot or so of water, set it down and agitate it (rotate it back and forth until the water washes out all of the sand). If your lucky, you'll be greeted by a herd of wiggling fleas in the bottom of the bucket when all the sand is gone. If not, pick another spot and keep on digging. This method also works well if you know of areas where sand fleas normally hide, but aren't normally visible, like the pilings of a pier or the rocks of a jetty.

Ok, we've got fleas. Now what? I guess we need to know how to keep them alive, and how to use them to catch fish.

Hooking Sand Fleas: I guess there are as many ways to hook a sand flea as there are people surf fishing with them for bait. The bad news is that they aren't going to stay alive very long no matter how you hook them. The good news is that the fish don't seem to care. I use the brute force method; insert the hook in the middle of the flea on the bottom side, and push it right through and out the middle of the top side of the shell. There are probably some more "delicate" methods, but the fleas are fragile in general and will easily fly off the hook with a hard cast so the more hook in them the better I think. Ok, now we are fishing with fleas. So how do we keep the spares alive so they are ready to go when needed?

Keeping Sand Fleas Alive: Once you have caught the little guys, you'll want to keep them alive and frisky for as long as you can. You can't just put them in a plastic cup and leave it sitting on the beach, for a couple of reasons. One, they will expire quickly from the heat. Two, they have a nasty habit. They urinate continually. Why, I don't know. Maybe they have a tiny bladder, or maybe it's just because they constantly intake water while filtering food. In any case, if you toss them in a plastic cup and put them in a spot that keeps them cool, you'll soon discover that you have a cup of dead fleas that are swimming in Sand Flea Pee. The urine is toxic (to the fleas anyway) so we need a method to keep them cool and also keep they dry. Enter the $2 sand flea holder.

Run down to your nearest Dollar General Store, and get two plastic Whatever Ware containers. Drill some holes in the lid of Container Number One, so the fleas can breathe. Drill some holes in the bottom of Container Number One, so the sand flea urine can drain. Put the lid for Container Number Two away for later, in case you lose the other lid. You'll also need something that's not going to rust and is about an inch high. I used a piece of PVC pipe. A rock would also work. This completes the $2 sand flea holder.

Now that we have that constructed, here's how it works.

Put all your sand fleas in Container Number One, and add the lid. Put your PVC pipe (or rock) into Container Number Two, and then put container Number One into Container Number two. Easy, huh?

Put the entire contraption in your cooler (right side up so it doesn't spill Sand Flea Pee on your beer). If you have a bunch of fleas in your holder, it won't be long until you notice the bottom compartment is starting to fill up. So every hour or so, here's all you need to do. Remove the lid; leave it with your cooler, and the PVC pipe (or rock) too. Walk down to the beach with one container in each hand. Dump out Container Number Two, and then fill it with clean salt water and pour it into Container Number Two. I do this a couple of times to insure that my sand fleas are Sand Flea Pee free. You will immediately notice how happy your fleas are when you give them a bath in clean ocean water. They go nuts. Reassemble the holder, and put it back in the cooler.

So there you have it. Everything you ever wanted to know about mole crabs, and probably a few things that you didn't want to know. Try them the next time you go surf fishing. You never know, you might catch The Incredible Edible Pompano. The holder should keep your fleas alive and frisky all day at the beach. I've left one in a cooler over night and they were still happy to get their first bath the next morning.

When you are done fishing for the day and have left over fleas, dump them back onto the beach, but release them in the wash where they can catch the next wave, don't release them up the beach on the dry sand. Like everything else that Mother Nature has created on our beaches, beach renourishment has taken a heavy toll on sand fleas. Use only what you need and leave the rest for another day.

I've heard rumors that you can freeze fleas and use them for bait at a later date. I haven't had much luck with frozen fleas. I've also heard they freeze better if you blanch them for a few seconds in boiling water before you freeze them. I haven't tried that because my wife won't let me play with the stove.

Now that you are ready to go surf fishing with sand fleas, here is final thought for you to ponder. We know some "facts". Pompano LOVE sand fleas. If you want to catch a Pompano, you have to be able to cast WAY out past the fourth bar, because that's where they are. Sand fleas LOVE the wash. If they stay alive in a Whatever Ware flea holder for two days (with no water) they obviously breathe air. I doubt that most sand fleas would swim out to the fourth bar, because they'd probably drown. So why do Pompano LOVE sand fleas? Is it because all of these long casting surf fisherman in Florida have been throwing sand fleas way out so the Pompanos could eat them, or is it possible that when nobody is looking, the Pompano swim in real close to the beach for a snack and that's how they got addicted. I don't know….

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