The lowdown on finding, catching and preserving the caviar of the beach.
The mole crab, a.k.a. sandflea, is caviar to fish in the surf. Pompano, whiting, black drum, croakers, permit, sheephead, just about any fish will eat one. They are typically fished live or blanched on dropper rigs, or used to tip a jig.
BUY OR CATCH?
Sand fleas sold by coastal bait shops are normally blanched and frozen. Live fleas hold the hook better. Fleas that are blanched improperly can be brittle and even rancid (they will have black edges).
You can catch your own fleas year-round in the surf zone, but where I rake them (the Southeast Florida coast) September through November are the best months. A wind or moderate ground swell creates ideal surf wash, and that prompts the fleas to surface, where they gather in colonies (thought to be mating-related) and feed on tiny copepods in the water.
The smaller the marks (individual V-shapes or rough, rippled patches) the smaller the fleas. Small fleas tend to burrow higher on the beach. The jumbos prefer the more active wash, sometimes right where sand gives way to broken shell. I can tell from 50 feet away whether a colony is made up of juveniles too small for bait, or big ones. The females grow to as much as 1 ½ to 2 inches long; males rarely exceed ¾ of an inch. I call the biggest fleas “ones” because you can fish one to a hook. Smaller fleas are twos and threes. When you spot either individual “Vs” caused by the flea’s extended feeding antenna, or a colony, walk well above them on the beach and approach the spot quietly. Don’t tromp up to them—unless I’m imagining it, I find this puts them down a bit. I get into position with my rake about knee high, ready to place just seaward of the spot as the next wave washes over them and starts to recede. Then I place my rake flat on the sand and don’t really dig at all. As the water recedes, the fleas jet out of the sand and re-bury themselves 2 to 4 feet seaward of the original burrows. Let the water carry them into your rake, then dump them into a 5-gallon bucket. Don’t keep water in the bucket. Fleas live for a long time if they remain wet. A mesh bag keeps them frisky, and prevents them from soaking in their own urine, which they excrete freely. Drag the mesh bag in the water periodically, and keep it in the shade of your fish cooler, or in the cooler.
I find that the best tide is high and falling, but that depends on the beach. It seems if that ideal tide coincides with either dawn or dusk, all the better. By November, after the water temps have fallen, a sunny afternoon can be best. One thing is certain, cold weather puts them down— they burrow deeper in the sand, if they are there at all.
SQUIRREL THEM AWAY
If you hit the jackpot, you might consider freezing some bait for future trips. Some days I can catch ½ to ¾ of a 5-gallon bucket full, and that goes a long way. I carry a 5-gallon bucket as I walk the beach, usually arriving at high tide to rake through the ebb phase. If I don’t see fleas right away, I move to another beach access. When I am finished I take the fleas, dump them into a small-mesh chum bag, hang them on a tree branch or over the hose bib and rinse them vigorously with a hose. I do this a half dozen times over the next hour or two to allow them to secrete as much urine as possible. The fresh water does not kill them. If you bag them too soon, they keep secreting urine, which ruins them. Meanwhile, I boil 2 to 3 gallons of water in a kettle. I take it outside and place the mesh bag into the water and count to 15. It kills them instantly, and they turn some degree of orange. Pull them out and immediately run hose water over them for at least 3 minutes to cool them off. Let the water drain completely and they are ready to freeze in quart-sized plastic freezer bags. I discard the tiniest ones. I go the extra step and use a vacuum sealer, freezing perhaps 100 fleas per bag and my baits can be used for months.
At the beach, I return them to a mesh bag and swish them in the water to speed the thawing process. Don’t insert the hook into a frozen flea—it’s best to thaw first. FS
Florida Sportsman Magazine November 2019