Okay your equipment is ready to go and so are you. The only thing left to do is hit the beach…right? Not quite yet. Let’s talk a little about bait. Other than your equipment, this is THE most important aspect of your venture into surf fishing. There are many forms and varieties of bait. Whether is live, fresh dead, frozen, whole, cut or artificial, BAIT IS EVERYTHING! Think of it this way, would you rather have a hamburger that’s been sitting under warming lights all day or one fresh off the grill? The same holds true for fish eating bait. A fish does not want to eat something that has been sitting around for days and not kept fresh nor do they want to eat something that has been sitting in a cooler full of water that has leeched all the juices from it. Learn to keep your bait as fresh as you can.
Point of Interest: contaminates from things on your hands also contribute to baits effectiveness. Do not use sunscreens, lotions, bug spray, soap etc. and then handle bait. Washing your hands with soap and water or using wet wipes is a good idea or use latex gloves to either handle the bait or vice versa. These gloves are fairly inexpensive and can be disposed of in a trash bag in your camp. Let’s break down these baits into categories.
Live bait for surf fishing consists of shrimp, mullet, pogies, mud minnows, shad and crab etc. Many people have different ways of keeping bait alive. These include minnow buckets and store bought aerated buckets to specially made coolers with aerators and even oxygen. Learning to properly rig live bait is essential. Learn how to hook a live shrimp through the horn on its head. Finger mullet and mud minnows are rigged the same as you would fresh water minnows by hooking them just under the top fin, tail or lip. Caution must be followed when casting with live bait. Live bait is easy to throw off a hook if the angler attempts to throw out too far. Slide lining is a great way to get live bait to a target area. Using popping corks is another great way to present live bait. Not only does it keep bait off the bottom but the popping action of the cork signals a fish to a meal. There are various leaders and rigs for fishing live bait all of which will be discussed later. Speckled trout find live shrimp irresistible.
Crab is an excellent choice of bait when targeting red or black drum. This is especially true in the spring when red and black drum are very active. Red and black drum find it hard to resist a meal of cracked crab. Using crab is fairly straight forward. Remove the claws, feet and back shell from a crab. Use the crab whole or split the crab in half and rig your hook using the sockets from the legs you have taken off and your ready. You can also use the legs and claws my crushing them and placing them in a piece of stocking. There are several videos on this site that explain proper rigging of crabs. Keeping crab alive is fairly simple. A cooler half full of ice and a burlap sack to keep a barrier between the ice and the crabs is an ideal way to keep crab alive and ready to go. Do not allow live crabs to come in contact with the melting water in the cooler as this will not only kill the crabs but allow vital fish attracting juices to leech into the cooler water therefore making your bait less effective. Allow the water to drain off. Learning to use live bait effectively will increase your chances of success.
The next four pages contain information from TSF member Jim Foster (BigFost). He has over forty years experience surf fishing the Texas coast. This handbook would not be complete without incorporating his knowledge in this section
SURF BAIT 101
This is going to be a basic discussion on baits for surf fishing, but first a couple of disclaimers.
This discussion is going to be for surf fishing as defined as fishing from the beach. While some aspects of it may apply to piers, bridges, jetties, and other areas, I’m specifically addressing the beachfront.
This discussion is going to apply to the middle to upper Texas coast. There are undoubtedly additional baits to what I’ll be discussing that are used along other parts of the Gulf and the East Coast. Two that come to mind are ladyfish (skipjack) and hard tails (blue runners). If you have access to either of these, they are excellent baits.
We will not be discussing baits specifically for sharks. Those are covered elsewhere.
So, let’s proceed.
The number one rule with all baits is that they can be obtained and used in three ways. From best to absolute worst those are: live, fresh dead, and frozen. The importance of using the freshest bait you can get your hands on can’t be emphasized enough. While I do recommend carrying frozen backup bait just in case, 99% of the time the fresher bait will outperform older bait.
While the selection of bait to some extent depends on your target species, many types of bait are used for multiple species. I’m going to organize this discussion by what baits are generally preferred by which species or class of fish, and then how to obtain those baits. Understand that on any given day, there will be exceptions and additions to the following.
We’ll start with the smaller fish first.
PANFISH – (to be used for the frying pan, or as bait themselves) – croakers, whiting, drum, sand trout, pompano, gaff tops, etc.
a. Shrimp is probably the number one pan fish bait along the Texas coast. Again, in order of best to worst is live shrimp, fresh dead, and frozen. The downside to shrimp is that they are easily stolen off the hook, and they are candy to every less desirable fish that swims, like hardheads.
b. Squid – a general purpose bait that stays on the hook longer, but isn’t preferred by some species. Again, just about any member of the catfish family loves them.
c. Cut bait – some species actually prefer cut bait, either from their own species, or from the ever popular mullet. Sand trout is one species that comes to mind. Use the first trout you catch for cut bait and you’ll probably catch many more.
d. Fish Bites – a very effective artificial bait for pan fish. The only two flavors I’ve tried are shrimp and crab, with shrimp being much more effective than the crab. I seldom ever bother with fresh dead shrimp anymore because Fish Bites are usually just as effective, and much easier to use.
e. Artificials – small arties such as 1/4 oz spoons and soft plastics are sometimes effective for pan fish, but you’d better have a lot of patience. I’ve done especially well on whiting and gaff tops with small silver spoons and soft plastics, but have caught most of the other species at one time or another. If the croaker is schooled up and in heavy competition with each other, I’ve done quite well with soft plastics.
The easiest way to obtain most pan fish bait is to buy it. Find a dependable local fish market, or bait stand than handles live and/or fresh bait, and make friends with the owner. A phone call will let you know if they have what you’re looking for, or if they’re running low, they might even save some for you. Of course, Fish Bites may be found at your favorite sporting goods store, or can be ordered direct.
A cast net will allow you to gather some bait onsite, or on the way to the surf. Shrimp and squid, as well as small fish can be caught in marsh ditches. Shrimp can sometimes be caught in the surf, as well as mullet and other fish for cut bait.
One example of bait gathering and bait utilization that I love occurred a couple of years ago. A friend of mine caught a couple of shrimp in his cast net in the surf. He used the shrimp to catch a couple of croakers, and then used the croakers to catch a bull red and a shark.
SPECKS, SLOT REDS, SLOT BLACK DRUM AND SPANISH MACKERAL. These aggressive feeders can be caught on the same baits as the pan fish, plus will eagerly hit artificials of various types. One almost guaranteed bait, if any of these predators are around (with the exception of the black drum), is any kind of live bait. From live shrimp to pony mullet, chunk out a live bait and hang on. While the slot black drum will eat live shrimp, they probably will pass on any other live bait. All the fish listed are also opportunistic feeders and will suck down dead or cut bait when it suits them.
Now, let’s move on to some of the larger surf caught fish.
BULL REDS – most everyone’s favorite, bull reds will literally eat most anything they can get in their mouths. I have tried to remember everything I’ve caught bull reds on and there are over a dozen I can think of off the top of my head. In addition to just about every fish that can be found in the surf zone, I’ve caught reds on blue crabs, hardhead catfish and cow nose ray. I’ve also caught them on thumb sized pieces of shrimp and on Fish Bites on the bait rod. However, that said, here are the baits I’ve caught the most reds on over the years.
a. Mullet – there have probably been more bull reds caught in Texas on mullet than on all other baits put together. Part of that is the availability of mullet, and part is the redfish’s fondness for them.
b. Whiting – is the other white meat to reds. Especially during the cooler weather months, when the mullet disappear, whiting take up the slack. Whiting are normally easy to catch in the winter surf on shrimp or shrimp flavored Fish Bites, and in addition to providing baits, can provide some steady action in between larger fish. Some of the winter whiting will fall into the “grander” category that many people love to eat.
c. Blue crabs – during the winter and spring months, crabs become one of the primary food sources for reds. Fish the medium ones whole, with the points broken off for smell. Cut the large ones in half. With both sizes, cut or break off the claws, legs and swimmers. Save the claws. If you run low on crab bodies, you can hook a couple of crab claws on the hook, or crush up a few and tie them in a woman’s stocking tied onto the hook.
d. Croakers, sand trout, etc. – just about any of the finfish make great redfish bait.
e. Pogies (Menhaden, shad) – these wide bodied bait fish make excellent surf baits, when you can find them. I prefer the larger sizes between 6 to 8 inches, and up. Unfortunately, they have a few drawbacks. The larger ones typically only appear in the surf zone for very brief times each year. Large schools are normally found just offshore all summer long, but only occasionally venture into the surf zone. When they’re present, they can usually be caught by cast net by the dozens quite easily. The other drawback is that they are a very soft fleshed bait, and are stripped from the hook very quickly. When fishing them, I usually have to rebait about every 15 minutes.
f. Artificials – I’m going to include these here because, although I’ve never actually caught a bull red in the surf on an artificial, I have caught dozens of them offshore and around jetties on large spoons and soft plastics (there’s nothing quite like jigging a tout tail at the jetties for fall croaker and having a bull red suck down the lure and peel off 50 yards of line). So I know that under the right circumstances, they will readily take artificials. If anyone wants to put in the time, I feel certain they can be caught on arties in the surf.
g. Let me briefly touch on using hardhead catfish for bull red baits. While I don’t routinely use these for bait, I have on many occasions, especially when other bait was hard to find. I have had fair success with them fished both dead and alive. My recommendation would be to not hesitate to use them if other fresh bait is not available. Notice I said other fresh bait. I’ve actually had fresh dead, or live hardheads out fish frozen mullet. Again, fresh is always better.
Depending on your ability to keep them alive, as well as on their size, any of the finfish can be fished live or dead, whole or cut up. Small fish, up to seven or eight inches long, can be fished live and still cast relatively easily. I normally run my hook through the eye sockets, missing the eyes themselves. I’ve found that hooked this way the bait will stay alive for a pretty good while. With the larger fish baits that are to be casted, I cut the body into chunks three to four inches long. My preferred bait is the head, but the center and tail cuts will certainly catch fish also. When kayaking out baits, I’ll usually yak whole fish up to twelve inches or so.
As before, with all baits think fresher is better. Almost all the baits listed can be caught onsite with a cast net. But some can also be bought from your local bait dealer or fish market. The only bait I routinely buy is the crabs. It’s just too easy to buy live crabs to devote the time to catching them.
Except for mullet, any of the finfish can also be caught onsite with your bait rod. I usually keep a bait rod in use the entire I’m fishing. In addition to catching your bait, you never know what else might decide to jump on that rod. I’ve caught bull reds, large black drum, and other fish on my bait rods as a bonus.
BULL BLACK DRUM (BU) – the number one, two and three baits for bull drum are blue crabs. While occasionally you will hear about a big drum being caught on a shrimp or fish bait, almost 100% of these big boys are caught on cracked crabs.
JACK CREVALLE – again, primarily a fish eater, they will also take some artificials readily. Large spoons, poppers, Rattletraps, and the like come to mind.
STINGRAYS – pretty much eat all the same things that bull reds do. If they come across a chunk of fish lying on the bottom, they’ll rarely turn it down.
TARPON, KINGS, and other exotics – a large dose of prayer gives you the best chance of catching these out of the surf.
Okay, that’s about it for the basics of Texas surf bait. Now put some of this to use and get out there and catch some fish.
Typical Baits found in Gulf waters
Pogy’s, Shad or Menhaden
Fresh Dead/Cut Bait
This bait consists of fresh dead shrimp, mullet, whiting, croaker and squid etc. Basically, whatever is in the surf is what game fish will eat. Big bull red and black drum as with any game fish love an easy meal. A good sized mullet will easily make three baits. Cutting the tail off of a finger mullet allows blood and juices to attract fish to your bait. Same holds true for any other bait fish. Squid is excellent bait when the crabs and hardhead catfish are active as squid is tough bait but, when crabs and hardhead catfish are active, no bait will last for long. Fresh dead bait should be handled the same way as any other bait. It should be kept cold until ready for use and not allowed to sit in cooler water. Zipper bags are a handy way to store bait in a cooler without the water contaminating the bait. Place the bait in the zip bag, seal it shut and place it on ice. There are numerous bait shops along the coast to buy fresh dead bait and are occasionally good sources for knowing what the fish are biting but always remember, NOTHING is better than bait you’ve caught in the surf.
BAIT IS EVERYTHING!