Pensacola Surf Fishing Bringing you the latest information on Florida Surf and Inshore fishing with a focus on the Pensacola Beach area
Live Mole Crabs, or "Sand Fleas" are an excellent bait for bottom feeding fish such as Pompano.
 Two Live Sandfleas Rigged With Fishbites For Surf Fishing

When it comes to choosing bait for surf fishing, obviously the first thing we have to think of is what species are currently in the area, and whether we want to target a single type of fish or if we're open for a mixed bag.  Even with that being said, certain baits will produce more numbers while others will generally produce larger fish, even within the same species.

When surf fishing, we're generally targeting fish with three different types of diets, with some exceptions. As an example, one of the most sought after coastal species on the Florida coast is the Florida Pompano. Their diet consists of almost entirely shellfish and small crustaceans such as Mole Crabs, and shrimp.  Tossing out a big piece of cut mullet simply will not catch you a Pompano.  It will, on the other hand, quite possibly help you hook a large Redfish (Red Drum), a species that is just as happy eating Mole Crabs as it is shrimp, as well as other fish - whole or cut.  Finally we have our carnivorous fish-eating-fish, those that will pass on the Sand Fleas entirely, but gladly gorge themselves on small baitfish such as Scaled Sardines (a.k.a. Pilchards, or "white bait"), Spanish Mackerel would be a prime example here.

Simply put - there are many popular surf fishing baits, and all of them are the "best" for one reason or another.  Read on as we discuss several of the most common baits in detail below.


Shrimp are quite possibly the most often used bait by surf anglers on the Florida, Alabama, and Texas coasts, and for good reason. Almost everything eats shrimp.  Shrimp are excellent bait for Pompano, Redfish, Blue Runners (a.k.a. "hard-tails"), Whiting, Ladyfish, Black Drum, and the list goes on.  If you're looking for shear numbers of fish, big or small, Shrimp is probably the "best" bait in this instance.

When surf fishing, shrimp are generally peeled, then threaded onto a circle hook.
 Peeled shrimp rigged on a circle hook below an unpeeled shrimp.

Typically, surf anglers do not use live shrimp. When fishing the surf, shrimp are generally "peeled", then threaded onto a circle hook sized for the intended species, but generally not over about 2/0 in size.  Peeling the shrimp involves removing the head, outer shell, and tail.  The legs of the shrimp are sometimes removed, other times not.  This is done to increase the amount of scent that that the shrimp puts out, and to make it easier for fish to hook themselves.  Unlike most other styles of fishing, surf anglers typically do not have their rods in their hands, but rather set in a sand spike. This makes them much more reliant on the ability of a circle hook to set itself, hence, the peeling of the shrimp.

"Freshly Dead" shrimp are generally preferred by anglers since the flesh is more firm, and stays on the hook better than frozen shrimp, which can have a tendency to fly off during the cast.  Properly rigged baits usually stay on the hook, but it can and does happen.  Previously frozen shrimp is also picked off the hook a little easier by smaller fish, but that being said, both fresh and frozen shrimp catch fish - period.  Cooked shrimp will not have the same effectiveness as many of the oils will be removed during the process, resulting in less scent being dispersed into the water.

Using shrimp will undeniably remain popular among surf anglers until the end of time since they are such an effective bait.  This effectiveness is their only major drawback, at the same time.  If you are dead set on avoiding small fish such as whiting, croakers, or other "bait stealers", switching to a more species specific bait is probably in your better interest.

Regarding where to find shrimp - if the bait shops are out of fresh shrimp, and there's a grocery store or fish market nearby, it's worth looking there as well. There is virtually no difference between shrimp sold at the supermarkets when it comes to bait.  It's not advised to go eating the shrimp from the bait shop, however...

Sand Fleas

Mole Crabs, commonly called Sand Fleas, are another extremely popular and effective surf fishing bait. Using sand fleas will drastically reduce the number of species willing to strike your bait, but they are a natural food source for many game fish, such as Pompano, Red and Black Drum, and Sheepshead.  If you're interested in catching these fish, but also interested in avoiding other species such as Ladyfish, Hardtails, and Catfish, then Sand Fleas might be your "best" bait in this instance.

Sand Fleas, are terrific baits for targeting Pompano, Drum, and Sheepshead.
 Two Live Sandfleas Rigged With Fishbites For Surf Fishing

Many surf anglers believe live, or at least freshly caught sand fleas are simply the best bait for Pompano, and use them exclusively during the spring and fall Pompano Runs, which occur around Mid-April and Early October, respectively, here on the Gulf Coast. Once again, the preference of live, or fresh sand fleas over their previously frozen counterparts is due to their ability to stay on the hook.  It can be painstakingly difficult to get frozen sand fleas to stay on the hook at times.  We have found using the thinnest hooks possible, and hooking the sand-flea through the "digger", the large shovel-like appendage on the back of the sand flea, helps to keep previously frozen sand fleas on the hook, but it can still be difficult.

Frozen sand fleas can be purchased at most bait shops, but oftentimes the only way to acquire live, or never-frozen sand fleas is by catching your own.  You can catch a few at a time with your bare hands (they have no claws, and cannot hurt you) or a small shovel, but the best way to gather larger numbers of sand fleas is by using a sand-flea rake.  Locating sand fleas is best done early in the morning before the beaches receive a lot of foot traffic, as this will make them more wary and hard to locate.  Sand fleas gather in colonies just at the edge of the surf, and can be found by spotting the tell-tale "V" ripples made by their antennae when the waves rescind.  Once spotted, you can time a "scoop" into the sand with whatever tool available (hands, shovel, rake, etc.) right when the next wave retreats.  Dump the scooped sand into a container or onto a hard surface to prevent whatever sand fleas were caught from immediately digging back into the sand, which they can do at an extreme speed.

Cut Bait

Cut bait comes in many flavors, with some of the most popular being mullet, ladyfish, hard-tails, mackerel, and bonito.  Cut bait is very popular surf bait for Redfish and Black Drum, and generally the best bait used for shark fishing, although sometimes it isn't actually cut, but rigged whole for bigger sharks. For the most part, the fresher the bait, the more scent that will be released into the water, which can attract fish from surprising distances.

Freshly caught cut-bait will release plenty of fish-attracting scent.  A large piece of cut Ladyfish is pictured.
 A large piece of cut Ladyfish about to be used as bait.

Mullet is a very common cut bait as it is routinely available for purchase in many tackle shops, and even if it has been frozen it will still be firm enough to use as bait.  Ladyfish makes an excellent cut bait, and can easily be caught throughout the day while fishing, leading to a rather dependable supply of fresh bait. Ladyfish does not freeze well, however, and will be difficult to use once frozen.  Blue Runners (a.k.a. hard-tails) also make great bait since their flesh is firm, oily, and they bleed a lot for their size, producing a lot of scent. Frozen Bonito can be purchased whole or already cut on occasion, and makes a good bait for sharks and other coastal species.

One problem with cut-bait is that it can attract a large number of catfish.  Hardhead catfish are common on the Gulf Coast, and they can be a nuisance if your bait is cut to a size of their liking.  Using larger chunks will help to reduce the number of hooked catfish significantly.  A piece of cut bait about half the size of your palm or slightly smaller should avoid the catfish, and still be small enough for large-mouthed fish like Drum and Sharks to be able to freely take the bait.

There are multiple ways to rig cut bait, but we have found using a fish finder rig with a stout leader (60 Pound test or more) to be best since it is common to hook small sharks even close to the shore.  If you are getting bit off, upsizing your leader or using a wire leader will help you land fish.  Wire leaders will spook some fish, however.  Running a circle hook in through the flesh and then out through the skin is a good way to keep your bait on the hook, and still keeps the point exposed for a solid hookset.


Like shrimp, Squid is a highly versatile bait.  Small strips of squid hooked onto a Pompano Rig make a fine setup for Pompano, Whiting, Redfish, Ladyfish, and the list goes on and on.  Even Spanish Mackerel will hit a piece of squid. Squid can be rigged in many ways, and it is readily available in bait shops and food markets alike.

Small strips of squid make a fine bait for Pompano, Whiting, and many others.
 A small strip of squid rigged on an orange circle hook with a float

Larger cuts of squid can be rigged on fish finder rigs for species such Redfish, and you can just as likely reel in stingrays and small sharks as well.  Many species of sharks are known to eat squid, and Blacktip sharks can make some fine eating if that is the goal.  One of the best properties of squid is that it's natural leather-like texture lends itself to staying on the hook very well.  Squid can be one of your best bets when there are a large number of bait stealers in the area, so you can be a little more confident extending the time between checking your baits, if necessary.

Another advantage of squid is that it does not get mushy when frozen.  Frozen squid is just as good as fresh squid, and it can save you time as well.  Cutting strips of squid for bait is a lot easier on the cutting board in the kitchen than it is in the sand, so you can actually do some bait prep work the night before heading to the surf, and either re-freeze or just refrigerate the strips for the next days trip.


In addition to the Mole Crabs mentioned above (which, technically, are not crabs at all), various species of actual crabs make great bait for pretty much the same species as sand fleas. Depending on the species and size of crabs used, surf anglers can use whole, half, or "cracked" crabs chunks for Pompano, Red and Black Drum as well as sheepshead.

Blue crabs and fiddler crabs are probably the most common types of crabs used.  Fiddler crabs are generally smaller, and used whole with a good sized circle hook rigged through their body. Blue crabs sometimes are used with their legs and claws removed, and then with their carapace cracked, again with a circle hook through the remaining shell. If Redfish or Sheepshead are around, a properly rigged crab is hard for them to pass up - so hold on.

Most bait shops do not carry crabs, so you will likely have to catch your own. Blue and fiddler crabs frequent tidal marshes and sandy shores, and are usually easiest to catch at low tide when it is easier to walk the shoreline in these areas.  Both of these crabs do have claws, so be careful when catching and handling them.  Blue crabs will mostly be caught with the aid of a net, whereas fiddler crabs are relatively easily caught by burying a small pale or bucket flush with the top of the sand, then dropping in some squid or shrimp to lure the crabs in.  The crabs will fall into the bucket and not be able to climb out.  Just be sure to check your trap after an hour or so, and to retrieve it entirely before the tide returns.

Live Baits

Some of the few surf fishing baits that are used live are small fish such as Scaled Sardines or Pilchards, sometimes called "whitebaits" here on the gulf coast. These baits are more often used on the fishing piers than when fishing from the actual surf, but they are an awesome bait that do frequently make their way to the beach, so it would be wrong to skip over them. Live baits can be an absolute game changer when fish are hesitant, and they can bring an inactive school of fish into a feeding frenzy as if a switch was flipped.

Small "whitebaits" such as this Scaled Sardine make excellent bait for Spanish Mackerel.
 A Scaled Sardine or

Small live baits like these are absolutely the best Flounder bait.  A good way to rig these for Flounder is to tie a dropper loop into 30 pound Fluorocarbon leader, then tie on a medium weight (1/2 ounce or so) jighead about 18" below the loop.  Rig a 2/0 baitholder or circle hook to the dropper loop, then add about a 3" lip or nose hooked bait to each hook.  Cast this rig out and slowly bounce it back to shore.  Flounder will absolutely hammer this rig, but many other species such as Spanish Mackerel will take the bait as well. 

Baits like these are not always stocked by bait shops, so the best way to acquire them is on your own. Occasionally they can be caught with very small hooks on sabiki rigs, but more often than not you will have your best bet catching them with a cast net near piers or other structure.  Other similar baits, such as bull-minnows or "LY's" (alewives) can be employed an exactly the same manner.


When it comes down to it, there is no single best surf fishing bait.  There are so many variables and so many different species of fish to target that using one single bait could literally cost you thousands of fish in a single season. Knowing what species are around your particular area when you plan on going fishing is the first major step in the right direction.  After figuring that out, pick one of the well-known baits above and go to it.  If the fish are there, you should be hooked up quickly!

To get you started, you can read our seasonal and monthly breakdown of surf fishing in the Pensacola Beach area here:  Pensacola Beach Surf Fishing Calendar