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Surf Fishing Secrets: How to Catch Ghost Shrimp for Bait

A surf fishing bait so abundant and so productive it's almost … spooky.

Surf Fishing Secrets: How to Catch Ghost Shrimp for Bait

Ghost shrimp are surprisingly abundant and excellent surf bait—if you take the time to catch them. 

Have you ever heard of a ghost shrimp? Yeah, me neither. How about their scientific name Callianassa subterranean? Oh heck no. I will, however, bet that you have seen the thousands of little holes in the sand being washed over by every wave that comes in at the beach. I’ll also be willing to bet you that you have dug out those holes, probably looking for a sand flea. Yeah, I’ve tried it too, and found nothing. Give it up. Those holes ain’t from sand fleas, and they may be the mouth of a tunnel system a whole lot longer than your shovel.

Where else but YouTube could you find a video of somebody shoving a 2-foot long 2-inch PVC pipe into the sand and pulling a rubber ball up the shaft creating a suction pump that would deliver a soft-shelled crustacean no one has ever seen, that literally inhabits almost every square foot of the beaches in Florida?

ghost shrimp pump in ground
Brogden’s homemade PVC suction device accesses a treasure trove of bait on Jacksonville Beach.

I met Spencer Brogden at Jacksonville Beach on a crowded late spring afternoon. Tourists and surfers were everywhere, making fishing impossible, but in less than five minutes Spencer had solved a lifelong mystery to me. “I knew they had to be somewhere around here,” Spencer said. “I’ve been taking them out of the stomachs of whiting, drum, reds, and trout for most of my life, but I sure never knew they were in all the thousands of holes that exist in the wash of every wave crashing on the beach. Since I started pumping them out for bait, I’ve found it’s easiest in tidal pools where the water doesn’t move as much. It seems they stay closer to the surface, and are easier to pluck from the sand in still water.”

Spencer Brogden with redfish
Spencer Brogden with redfish.

Stash the shovel. What looks like the hole of an animal just below the surface could well be much deeper. Spencer drives his pump at least 2 feet down, and the ghost shrimp will invariably be in the last little bit of sand Spencer flushes out with the pump. Invariably some of the “ghosts” he recovers will be cut in half by the pipe itself. Not to worry. Spencer says the fish will bite one cut in half just as well as a whole one.

Wikipedia describes Callianassa subterranean as a burrowing crustacean with an elongated body, a short, small carapace, and a short rostrum. The problem for fishermen is what is called a “translucent exoskeleton” that are not heavily calcified, and remains soft and flexible throughout it’s life. For fishermen, that means not only does it take a little effort to catch them, you actually have to thread them on the hook, and then wrap them with Magic Thread to keep them on the hook until the bite comes (Magic Thread is an Atlas-Mike’s product available online or at many tackle shops).

tiny holes in the beach sand that hold ghost shrimp
What’s living under those tiny holes?

Ghost shrimp are listed as omnivores meaning they eat both plant and animal matter. They actually have claws that look like a lobster in the fact they seem oversized for their bodies. I guess the best way to describe them to people as uneducated as me: They look like a real soft mantis shrimp with lobster claws. In case you’re in a rush to get down to your local beach to see if they’re there, they are. Wikipedia says they are in the North Sea and just about everywhere else. The species has an absolutely incredible burrowing habit. They build a complex tunnel system that can cover up to 25 feet in length. They actually quite often intersect tunnels with sand fleas and other burrowing crustaceans.

inside of homemade pvc pump for catching ghost shrimp
Brogden’s homemade PVC suction device accesses a treasure trove of bait on Jacksonville Beach.

“They’ve fascinated me since I started finding them in the stomachs of everything I was catching,” said Spencer. “It was a buddy in Melbourne that solved the mystery for me. A simple suction pump will help you catch your bait right beneath your feet 12 months a year. It is, however, easier to find them at the lower tide stages. They don’t move up and down the waterline like sand fleas, so the lower the tide stages, the easier it is to find the holes.

“I almost never hit the beach without my pump,” Spencer continued. “I have tried freezing them, brining them, and just about every other way you can think of to keep them. Keeping them in a bucket of surf water, with a good sand layer on the bottom will keep them overnight, but I’m not sure it’s worth the hassle. I’ve never seen a day I couldn’t find plenty of holes in the sand. I’m always going to have my supply of clams, sand fleas, and shrimp, but I’m telling you, I’ve seen plenty of times a ghost shrimp would out-fish anything.” FS

Florida Sportsman Magazine October 2022

Happy Halloween, read more of our spooky stories here:

Scary Fishing Stories That Will Send Shivers Down Your Spine

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