Sand fleas - actually mole crabs - rate as a favorite of many fish, particularly pompano on the beach. Snook eat them too. Sand-flea rakes are available at tackle shops in most beach communities; sieve the sand at the surf line where you spot the diminutive crabs.
Throughout the tropics, hermit crabs are a favorite permit bait. The crabs are slow and easy to catch along any beach or coral edge. When you need fresh bait, pull them out of their shell and bait up - it's a rare permit that can pass one up.
Black mangrove crabs swarm the roots of mangrove trees all over peninsular Florida. About the size of a 50-cent piece, they are the right size for reds, sheepshead and pompano. Put a piece of cut bait on the mud next to mangrove roots or seawalls at low tide, and set a cardboard box soaked in salt water atop it. The crabs will soon find the bait. They'll stay put under the box long enough for you to scoop them up - without the box, they'll run off before you can get close enough to capture them.
Keeping Crabs Lively
Most species of swimming crabs do fine in a flow-through livewell; remove the pincers so they don't kill each other or get your fingers when you scoop them up. Keep semi-aquatic crabs like fiddlers and hermits for several days by simply placing them in wet seaweed in a 5-gallon bucket.
Fish live crabs on a short-shank 3x-strong hook matched to the quarry. For tarpon and cobia, a 5/0 or 6/0; for permit and slot reds, a 2/0 to 3/0. For small crabs, such as fiddlers when you're after pompano and sheepshead, use a size 1 or 1/0. For the tiny mole crab, a light wire hook in size 1 or 2 is the ticket for pompano. Hook all these crabs through one of the points in the shell, coming up from below. Twist the hook so the point drills through the carapace without cracking it. Check the hook point after the bait is in place; on large baits like blues, the shell can sometimes slightly turn the point.
Among artificials, the CW Crab - a hard bait that looks so much like the real thing that you expect it to attack with waving claws - is a great alternative to live crabs in moving water. In soft plastics, D.O.A. Softshell, Berkley Gulp! Peeler Crabs and Exude Cajun Crab are good, among others. The big thing in fishing an artificial is to resist the temptation to fish crab lures like a jig; that's about five times too fast. Use scented baits for sight-fishing. Toss them slightly ahead of tailing reds or drum, twitch a few times to get the fish's attention, and then let the built-in scent do the rest. Ditto for tarpon: Land the bait well in front of them, let it drift down on their nose, and hang on tight.
About the Author: Former fishing guide Frank Sargeant is the author of 10 books on fishing and boating, and founder of the Frank Sargeant Outdoors Expo in Tampa, Florida, the Sunshine State's largest outdoors show. He has been the outdoors columnist at The Tampa Tribune for 25 years and has written thousands of magazine articles. His work has won some 60 national awards.