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Top Baits for the Outer Banks Surf
“What are they biting?” The question is asked time and again by surfcasters, but there’s more to a successful day on the beach than just having the right bait. It’s equally important to know what to do with each bait and present it in a way that the fish will want to eat it. There’s no right or wrong way, but a few minutes spent preparing your baits will go a long way to putting some fish in the cooler.
Top natural baits for the surf include squid, bloodworms, shrimp, mole crabs and mullet. Not all baits work all of the time, and the best advice a hopeful fisherman can take is to buy what’s recommend by the folks behind the counter at their favorite local tackle shop.
The universally popular baitfish along the Outer Banks is mullet. Depending on the time of year, you will be able to find fresh mullet in every Outer Banks tackle shop and they may range in size from finger mullet only a few inches long, to jumbos that might weigh several pounds. Mullet is oily; the scent attracts predators the tough skin keeps a mullet bait on the hook.
I prefer fresh mullet and will use frozen only if nothing else is available. Big mullets have armor-like scales and that’s why I always remove the scales. It won’t make any difference to another fish looking to have a piece of mullet for dinner, but a scaled mullet is much easier to place on your hook.
Finger mullet, which surfcasters can sometimes catch from the beach in a cast net, are a top bait in the fall when huge schools of them are migrating down the coast. They have softer scales and I don’t bother removing them. Other cut baits include menhaden or smaller fish such as spot or croaker. Don’t remove the scales of menhaden, the meat is soft and the scales will help to hold it together.
Even though they do not naturally live in the surf zone, squid can be prepared to resemble the small baitfish frequently found in the breakers. Squid are usually sold frozen. Freezing does not affect their quality, and they may be quickly thawed in a bucket of salt water. Thaw what you need as you use it and squid may be refrozen after a day’s fishing.
Spot, croakers, and sea mullet love bloodworms, a top choice for summer-time surf fishing. Bloodworms are sold alive in resealable plastic bags. They are hardy, and will live for several days in a cooler or refrigerator, but be sure to keep them out of the water, because fresh water will kill them immediately. Cut them into small pieces about an inch long.
Shrimp and mole crabs, usually called sand fleas, are great baits for pompano and sea mullet, but I have caught just about everything on them. The best shrimp are fresh and of edible quality, and more than once I’ve had my leftover bait for dinner! Shrimp may be purchased with the heads on or off, but the heads will be removed when used as bait. Cut them into small pieces the fit your hook size. The shells may be left on or removed, but my experience tells me that leaving the shells on helps to keep shrimp on the hook.
Sand fleas may be scooped or dug from the wet sand at the edge of the breaking surf, and low tide is frequently the best time to find them. Fleas will stay alive in a cooler for a couple days in a small container of damp sand.