Who knew sand fleas, those little gray, brown, and pink crustaceans your mother found stuffed in your pockets after a day at the beach, made such good striper bait?
A lot of people, that’s who! Their effectiveness is well known among seasoned striper anglers; however, with more traditional baits like clams, bunker chunks, plugs, and shads getting all the attention, these little crabs are largely ignored.
When spring gives way to summer at the Jersey Shore, catching a striper in the surf becomes a bit more challenging. The water warms, the clam and worm bites cool off, and it’s time to become a little more creative.
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I’d heard of people catching bass on bugs, also known as sand crabs, sand fleas, or mole crabs, but had no clue how to fish with them. Then, while wandering along the beach in Monmouth County a couple of summers ago, I came upon an angler who enlightened me.
His singular appearance, with a rod in one hand and another sticking up marked him as dedicated. The rod he was fishing had several sand crabs stuck on the hook, so he was definitely the man to ask. And, he was more than happy to share what he knew, especially that during the dog days of summer, sand crabs catch more stripers from the beach than anything else. It’s easy, inexpensive, and a blast on light tackle.
“During the summer, the bugs seem to work when nothing else does,” said the angler, Mike Compoly of Neptune, New Jersey. Known as Two-Pole Mike to the many people he meets along the sand every morning, he has been fishing Monmouth County beaches for decades. A devoted striper angler, Compoly fishes for little else.
One August about nine years ago, when bass had become scarce in the surf, he got tipped off to sand crabs by another angler named Frank Conover. Frank had picked up the technique from another fisherman who was catching late-summer bass when everyone else was coming up empty.
Conover told Mike to fish the crabs as if he was fishing for trout in a stream by looking for cuts, rips, and eddies, then letting the bait float to the fish. Mike went home and got a Fish-N-Mate 167 sand flea rake for the crabs and, shortly thereafter, he started catching bass.
“Stripers aren’t lazy,” he told me, “but are opportunistic feeders. They’ll wait for the food to come to them, so the secret is to find moving water, either in or out. The ideal situation is a rip that starts right in the trough and curls out. The fish are usually sitting right at the end of the curl.”
Mike’s rig consists of 30-pound-test Seaguar Inshore fluorocarbon leader attached to the main line (which is 20-pound braid) with a barrel swivel. To the leader, he ties a 5/0 Mustad inline circle hook with a double clinch knot. The rod is 7½-feet long and he uses a KastKing 3000 Bait Feeder reel. “It’s a great reel for the price, it doesn’t rust, and you can’t kill it,” he said.
Depending on conditions, he may attach a single split shot about two feet above the hook. In calmer water, he forgoes the weight altogether. On the hook he puts three sand crabs with the point going just inside the shell. “Why three?” I asked, “and not two or four?”
“Because that’s what I started with,” he said, and it worked. As for the size of the crabs, Compoly’s “rule of thumb” is that they should be about the size of your thumb.
Sand Flea Rake
Rather than dig and sift through sand on your hands and knees, invest in a tool like the Offshore Angler Sand Flea Rake or the Fish-N-Mate 167 Large Sand Flea Rake that allows you to scoop, sift and dump sand in search of sand fleas without breaking your back (or the bank).
Per ASMFC regulations, all anglers fishing for striped bass with bait— live or cut—must use non-offset (inline) circle hooks. The in-line circle hooks decrease the likelihood of gut hooking a bass and help reduce release mortality among under- and over-slot stripers.
Using sand fleas as bait for striped bass requires some finesse, and a strong, nearly-invisible leader is crucial to this finesse approach. While abrasion resistance may not be of utmost importance in the sandy New Jersey surf, a strong leader like Seaguar Inshore Fluorocarbon with a thinner diameter checks both boxes, giving anglers enough stopping power to out-muscle any slot or over-slot stripers.
A baitfeeder-style spinning reel like the Shimano Baitrunner or Daiwa Free Swimmer features a secondary drag system that will allow anglers to fish live or cut baits without any immediate drag tension. Stripers nosing around for sand bugs can pick up a baited hook and swim off with it until the primary drag is engaged by the angler with the flip of a switch or a crank of the reel handle.
The bass hang right in the wash and most of the action takes place within yards of the beach. And what excellent action it is.
While the fish aren’t big, they seem to hit the bugs on the run and just keep on going. Most of the bass are 24- to 26-inchers, but there are keepers to be had. Compoly believes they are all resident fish.
Compoly started freshwater fishing with his father at an early age. The highlight of each year was when the Herter’s Catalog arrived and they ordered all they needed for the year. Running hundreds of pages, the mail-order business based in Minnesota offered everything a hunter or angler could possibly want.
When the family moved from Marlboro to Wall, Compoly found his new home held every young angler’s dream, a pond on the property. A former gravel and sand pit, it offered a variety of freshwater species. Compoly and his father would get their limit of trout at local streams and add them to the pond.
“The pond was deep and cool enough that the trout would carry over until the next year.”
It was when he arrived in Wall, Compoly turned his attention to salt water, catching blues and bass. It was his father’s rule that beach fishing would not begin until Father’s Day. He and his dad even transported a few live stripers back to the pond, where they took to the fresh water quite easily.
It was in that pond that Compoly caught a 6½-pound largemouth on 4-pound test that won a Field & Stream contest. Along with the gold medal he received from the magazine, Compoly ordered a taxidermy kit from Herter’s. He still has the medal and the mount; luckily, the horrible stink from the kit has long since dissipated.
My first summer fishing with bugs was a revelation. Like a lot of anglers, I gave up on beach bass once spring was done, content to wait until fall brought them back. But after running into Compoly, why not try it?
First of all, it costs nothing — the bait is right at your feet. For the last couple of years, the beaches of Monmouth County have been alive with sand crabs. Standing in shallow water, they come out of the sand like a gray cloud in the receding waves.
This is probably why they’ve become a popular forage food for striped bass. Since beach replenishment has covered up just about everything else, calico crabs have all but disappeared and Compoly said that filling a five-gallon bucket with clams after a nor’easter was once a given. Not anymore.
“Replenishment is a waste of money and it really destroyed most of the undersea life,” he said, “It covered everything up – everything that was living in the rocks.”
Second, it’s easy. While the stripers may not be lazy, I am. However, since all that is required is a rod, a reel, a split shot and a hook, I gave the bugs a go.
Success came pretty quickly, and no one was more surprised than me.
Floating the crabs in the trough in Ocean Grove, with a steady south-to-north current, there were plenty of takers. Tide or time of day didn’t seem to matter as long as the water was moving. Bass grabbed the crabs a few feet off the beach, sometimes in just inches of water, then took off like getaway car drivers.
But, I also missed a lot of fish. A moment’s lapse meant a swing and a miss on many a strike. Still, it was the most fun I had fishing in a long time. And isn’t that what it’s all about?
What Compoly really enjoys, he said, is watching others, especially kids and teenagers catching bass on the bugs. He readily shares what he knows, gives away his handmade lures, and devotes time to fishing with young people.
“I’ve had other people teach me stuff out there, especially when I was younger,” he said.
In keeping with Compoly’s belief that what is freely received should be freely given, I thought I’d do my part to spread the word about bugs for bass. So, this past spring, it seemed like a good idea to spend some time with the master. Compoly agreed to let me tag along and discover the tricks of catching summer stripers on sand bugs.
While the bugs could be found in the sand in early May, the bass were still hitting soft plastics and small plugs. Compoly said they wouldn’t start biting on bugs until the first or second week of June.
Like clockwork, that’s when it started. Compoly said he used to wait until July to start fishing crabs, but learned with experience that the bite starts earlier.
One the first things I learned is that Mike is a tinkerer. Around his waist, he had fashioned a belt that held his second rod, a container for his sand crabs, a tackle pouch, a hook remover, and his special wire scoop for gathering bugs. (He’d made the scoop himself.) One rod is for bug fishing, and the other for casting plugs and plastics.
With everything on his belt, the man is mobile. Compoly estimates he covers well over a mile per outing, and he fishes every day he can. The bass move around, so he does too.
He’s on the beach before the sun rises and puts in a couple of hours fishing in one of his many favorite spots along the Monmouth County coast.
He also modified his reel by eliminating the trip mechanism for the bait-runner function so that he can manually strip line and be able to reel so the bugs can float freely in the rips and currents. Bait that is not moving won’t work.
It was still wader water for our initial outing in Ocean Grove on June 10. The surf was relatively calm, but Mike identified spots he suspected were holding bass.
When he’s stalking stripers, Compoly is a study in concentration. His casts put the crabs into outgoing rips, close to the ends of jetties and currents moving along the beach. Holding the rod in his right hand and feeding line with his left, he tracks the bait’s progress in the water, paying out line as it’s pulled by the current or reeling it in to take in the slack. It’s almost as if he’s watching what it’s doing underwater, and he does admit that he sometimes envisions the bugs’ movement in the surf.
When the bait stops moving, he starts all over again.
The fishing was a little slow that morning, but Compoly picked up two bass up to 26 inches. Not all the strikes mimic a runaway train – the stripers sometimes pick up and drop the crabs before committing.
Unlike Mike, I’m not a tinkerer and showed up that day with a store-bought crab rake that had been given to me. It worked well, gathering dozens of crabs with a single pull, but it was cumbersome and had to be fetched with every move, slowing our progress along the sand. (Mike suggested a long-handled sieve from a kitchen utensil store would work just as well.) Since Mike was always looking for the for the next promising spot, I often found myself hustling down the beach just to keep up.
We met again on June 24 in Ocean Grove, where Mike picked up several more fish. I finally got into the act with a 30-inch bass that grabbed my crabs less than a yard from the sand. The fish had such a severe hump in its back that it looked like a male salmon at breeding time.
The following day we were in Deal in Mike’s favorite conditions: a stiff northeast breeze and churning surf. With the weight of the bait and split shot, it was just possible to cast into the white water, but that was all that was needed. The bass were right there in the turbulence, and when the morning was done, Mike had caught eight. He worked the cuts along the beach and the moving water next to the jetties. He also mentioned that he’d caught 10 in the same vicinity just a week earlier.
Mike caught bass all summer long. We fished together only occasionally, but he kept me abreast of conditions, where he was fishing, and the results. Daily catches ranged from two to 11 fish, with many days in the 6- to 8-fish range. By the end of August, he’d tallied a total of 160 stripers, all on bugs. By mid-September, the count was 22 for the month and climbing. There were a number of keepers in there, but Mike releases all of his fish.
Although not up to his level, I didn’t do too badly either, averaging two to three fish per outing. All the ones caught and even those that got away were memorable.
Bug fishing is such a fun time that I thought it would be nice of me to introduce it personally to family members. My brother-in-law, Ed Lenorth, was an early target. He’d been a fisherman all his life, but hadn’t spent much time at it lately. In fact, it was possible he hadn’t caught a fish since Nixon was president.
We met on a sunny and hot 4th of July in Ocean Grove. In the middle of the day on a crowded beach, Ed hooked and landed a 26-inch bass not too far away from holiday swimmers.
Then there was my wife, Maureen. Now she would see where I go when I disappear for hours at a time. On a beautiful July afternoon, she brought a near-keeper to the beach in heavy surf and received a standing ovation from Ocean Grove beachgoers who witnessed the battle.
Compoly fishes bugs until the mullet run is underway. By then, there are enough other food sources around that the stripers start to switch up their menu.
He estimates that he catches bass about 80 percent of the time. Having observed him in action, I’d say it was much higher, but who am I to argue with a former New Jersey state debate champion?
Often, when I met him in the mornings, he’d already be deep in concentration, up to his waist fishing by the time I arrived. Unless I spoke, he wouldn’t know I was there, lost in his reverie. Those were his moments of Zen, he told me.
After all the bass he’s caught and all the hours spent on the sand, I asked him if he ever got tired of it.
“Never,” he said.