It's no secret that visitors from around the country flock to beaches of Florida to relax and have fun in the sun. While the warm water and gentle lapping waves offer an idyllic setting, the water's edge is a hostile environment. Subject to turbulent wave action, extreme temperature changes, tidal fluctuations and a constant barrage from predatory game fish and pesky birds, the organisms that live in this zone have uniquely adapted to the harsh extremes.
Mole crabs, commonly referred to as sand fleas, are one of the most effective surf fishing baits and some of the only inhabitants that can survive in this turbid habitat. To the uneducated beachgoer sand fleas may conjure up the image of tiny biting insects. In reality these small, oval-shaped burrowing crustaceans pose no threat to humans. Found along the entire Eastern Seaboard, sand fleas dig within the wet sand of the intertidal zone to avoid predatory pursuits. While most anglers utilize these crunchy offerings to target pompano they are hunted by a wide range of predators including red and black drum, sheepshead, whiting, permit, croaker and snook.
When it comes to procuring a solid supply for a day at the beach, there are two schools of thought. Purchase them at your local bait shop, or get sandy and catch them yourself. Most bait shops sell frozen sand fleas, but finding live ones shouldn't be too difficult. With most anglers opting for the hands on approach there are a few tools that can aid in your beach bound success. Sand fleas can be found at the water's edge as waves recede into the ocean and since their location ranges from the lowest to the highest reaches of the waves at any given tide, a tide chart will greatly play in your favor. While you can certainly catch them during the entire day, I've found they tend to concentrate more towards low tide. While those with a keen eye and quick first step can load up with their bare hands, you'll probably be better off with a sand flea rake.
Because these scurrying crustaceans move up and down the beach with the changing of tides, they are very susceptible to predation. Although the environment is indeed hostile, sand fleas are filter feeders and rely on this ever-changing environment to bring them planktonic life forms that wash in and out with the tide. Take a stroll along the intertidal zone, the area between the high tide and low tide marks, and look for distinct V formations in the sand pointing towards the beach. You can also look for tiny bubbles that appear when they try to rebury themselves as a wave recedes. Sand fleas are often found in groups ranging in size from a couple pairs to a few dozen, so when you've found one you've likely hit the motherlode.
Watch and wait for the waves to cycle up and down the beach. Let a couple of sets roll through and thoroughly investigate the area. Once you've spotted likely targets all that's left to do is dig them up. When a wave washes over the area be ready to run in and make a deep scoop into the sand as the wave washes out to sea. If you're using a rake you can use the next wave to sift through the sand and expose your catch. If using your hands, take a deep scoop and throw it on dry sand a few feet above the waterline. Sand fleas aren't great at digging in dry sand so you should easily be able to separate your quarry. Sand fleas are extremely pressure sensitive and as a result they can detect your footsteps from a great distance. Tread lightly and try to stay a good distance away while searching for signs of life. While on your quest for success, don't take these small crustaceans lightly—they burrow vigorously and can disappear in a split second.
While the presence of sand fleas may indicate game fish are nearby, you may want to save your catch for a future date. You can easily keep these great baits alive for a couple of days by placing them in a container with some moist sand. They must also be kept cool and out of the sun. Any longer and they should be frozen.
As with most offerings, there are numerous ways to rig a sand flea. It's pretty difficult to keep them alive once hooked, but this isn't much of an issue, as they'd likely dig into the sand and try to bury themselves anyway. The benefit of catching your own is that the fresh scent will attract nearby predators. In this endeavor, scent is much more important than action. When it comes to hook selection a 1/0 or 2/0 kahle hook is standard for fishing sand fleas. Take your crab and insert the hook from the bottom and out the topside of the shell, about a third of the way towards the head.
While it may take a short learning curve to understand what you're looking for, you'll eventually develop a keen eye for these odd-looking critters. Put them to good use and you'll be hooked.
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