Baits for Surf Fishing
By JOE MALAT
"What’s biting and how do I catch ‘em?"
Those are two basic questions that are asked hundreds of times each week in tackle shops on Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands.
Some species of fish, commonly caught from the surf, piers, or small
boats along the Outer Banks will frequently prefer artificial lures,
but most cannot resist the offer of a fresh, natural or live
bait. Why settle for an imitation when you can have the real
There are many types of locally popular natural baits, but I would like
to highlight a few of the most popular that are used during the summer
and early fall.
Squid is versatile, because it can be prepared in a variety of
different ways for several different species of fish. Local bait
shops sell squid that has been frozen in half- pound packs or one-pound
boxes. Squid takes a bit of time to properly prepare.
First, that the squid, then lay it flat on your bait board. Next,
cut off the head and tentacles, then cut the squid lengthwise down its
body and scrape out the insides. Turn the squid over, and scrape
or peel off the outside skin.
Finally, cut the white, firm piece of squid meat into strips or chunks
to fit the size of fish you are seeking, or size hook you are
using. The head, with tentacles attached, can be used whole for
cobia or drum, or the tentacles can be cut up and laced on a hook for
spot, croakers, or sea mullet.
Squid strips are excellent for flounder and gray trout, but just about
anything that swims will eat squid. Leftover squid will re-freeze
well, if it has been kept cool and out of the sun.
Bloodworms are the old standby, bottom fishing bait for pier and surf
anglers. Bloodworms are sold alive, usually in packs of a ten,
and will stay alive for several days if kept cold in a cooler or
refrigerator. Be careful not to let them fall down in the fresh
water at the bottom of the cooler, it will kill them in short order.
Oddly enough, the bloodworms we use for bait do not come from North
Carolina. They harvested from salt water marshes along the coasts of
New England and Canada, then shipped to the regional bait distributors,
who in turn package them and distribute them to the bait and tackle
shops. A tiny bloodworm covers a lot of territory before it ends
up on your hook!
Bloodworms are excellent for bottom feeders such as spot, croakers, and
sea mullet. Fish with them on small hooks, and cut them into
pieces of about an inch long. Simply thread the worm on the hook,
past the barb. It's not necessary to hide your hook point.
Locally, any kind of cut fish used for bait is called "cut
bait.” The most popular cut bait along the coast is mullet,
an oily fish with very tough skin. These are also known as
"jumping mullet," and shouldn't be confused with sea mullet, a
completely different species that is an excellent table fish, and not a
Mullet range in size from finger mullet of only a few inches long to
giants that may weigh two or three pounds. They are caught in
gill nets or cast nets in the sound and ocean. Most tackle shops
will sell them fresh when they are available, but fresh mullet may not
always be available, depending on the weather and the season of the
year. For me, frozen mullet is a poor second choice and
I’ll only buy it when nothing else is available.
Mullets can be filleted, and then cut in to strips to fit your
hook. The small mullets can be filleted, steaked, or used half or
whole. I prefer the first two options. If I am going to cut the
bait in chunks or strips I scale it first. This doesn't make any
difference to the fish that might eat the bait, but it is so much
easier to put a hook through the bait if it has been scaled. Mullet
scales are like armor plating.
Some Hatteras and Ocracoke shops also sell menhaden, especially during
the fall when big stripers and drum are around. Menhaden is great
bait, but the oily flesh and skin are very soft, and it doesn’t
stay on the hook as well as mullet.
Shrimp is excellent bait for surfcasters, boaters, and pier fishermen,
especially during the warm water months of June through
September. I use shrimp in the surf only when I'm targeting
pompano or sea mullet. Many shops sell frozen shrimp, but fresh
is by far the best bait, because it will stay on the hook much longer
I use shrimp often when fishing on the soundside of Hatteras and
Ocracoke, because shrimp is a natural food for the fish that live in
these waters. Shrimp works well on bottom rigs for croakers and
spot, and a bucktail or lead head jig “tipped” with a bit
of fresh shrimp is a good teaser for speckled trout.
Mole crabs, commonly called “sand fleas,” are at the low
budget end of the bait menu. These small bug-like crustaceans live in
the damp sand along the ocean beach between the low and high tide
marks. Tackle shops don't usually sell them, because they are
relatively easy for anyone to obtain for free. They can be dug by
hand, or captured with specially made wire mesh scoops.
Sand fleas are prime bait for pompano, but I have caught sea mullet,
flounder, puppy drum, croakers, and speckled trout on them.
Sand fleas will stay alive for several hours after being caught, if
they are kept in a bucket of cool, damp beach sand. Don’t
put them in a bucket of water. They will die quickly.
They may be hooked from either the top or underside of their shell, but
will live only a few minutes and small fish will easily nibble them off
Fish can be fooled into eating just about anything, but there is no
substitute for fresh or live baits. The major appeal of natural
bait is the smell and the appearance of the offering. Fresh bait
will stay fresh if it is kept cold, and out of the sun.
Experienced anglers take good care of their bait and they will change
their baits when they become old, washed out and lose their
Malat lives in Nags Head and is a professional outdoor writer, book
author, and director of the Outer Banks Surf Fishing Schools. He writes
about saltwater fishing along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and is
published regularly in national and regional magazines. To order
his books, or request information about the Outer Banks Surf Fishing
Schools, visit Joe's Web site at: www.joemalat.com.)