South African Fishing Flies – The Sand Flea

(This is the fourth and final post on Peter Brigg and Ed Herbst’s new book, South African Fishing Flies – available on Amazon.com)

The Sand Flea

Talorchestia capensis; it is a Western Cape beach goer’s worst nightmare feeling one of these creatures crawl up a leg while sunbathing. Most of us (salt water fly fisherman and holiday-makers alike) have ‘bumped’ into these intrusive little crustaceans, more commonly referred to as sand fleas or beach hoppers.  They belong to the subphylum Crustacea, order Amphipoda, and inhabit sandy beaches along our coastline.  Mostly nocturnal feeders, they feast on kelp and other seaweeds that wash up in their habitat where they fulfil a very unique niche – an important step in the biological breakdown of marine macro algae.

Although disgusting in appearance and rather intimidating, sand fleas form part of many animal diets, including bird species (such as sand plovers), and also fish, especially mullet on the southwestern Cape coastline.  I grew up along that coast and I was taught by salted mullet bait fisherman that small pieces of red bait and sand fleas worked a treat for catching these fish schooling close to shore. Red bait was the best as it didn’t come off the hook as easily as a sand flea did, unless of course the sand flea was tied onto the hook.

This obviously got the attention of a few fly fisherman in the area, whom, including me, all tied sunken sand flea imitations. The flies caught the odd mullet, but they simply did not meet the criteria of a ‘killer’ pattern in my opinion (if fish are abundant and feeding hard, as in the case of schooling mullet devouring water-trapped sand fleas, a good fly should then also catch them in good numbers). However, mullet are extremely picky and difficult to successfully target on artificial ‘bait’ as most people that have tried to catch these fish may know.

So after a few more unsuccessful and disappointing trips, on which only a handful of fish were caught, I studied a live sand flea’s action in the water. It was bobbing with its back out high on the surface, giving the odd micro-twitch. I also noticed that just like trout would rise to drifting insects in a river, the mullet were sipping the majority of sand fleas off the surface. I went home and according to my knowledge tied the first sand flea dry fly for southern mullet.

Two floating Sand Fleas (top) and a scud pattern (bottom) that work well for southern mullet feeding on sand fleas.

I went back and the floating pattern notably (and significantly) increased the number of fish I caught. On one particular outing I was able to land approx. 60 mullet in the two hours of pushing tide that brought these fish in large numbers close to the beach (and sometimes right on the beach in the inches of water splashing across the sand). It was unlike the action I had ever experienced on the sinking flies and although I did sometimes fish the floating pattern with New-Zealand rigged sinking scuds, catching big, skittish fish on a single dry was my favourite kind of mullet fishing.

Mark Krige fishing for mullet on a southwestern Cape beach.

The fly is a simple tie and although it is based mainly on the tying steps of foam back beetle-type patterns commonly used in freshwater, it’s still a novel experience catching many saltwater fish on a floating, foam back sand flea imitation. Besides the mullet we’ve caught a few big blennies that joined in the mullet frenzies. Interestingly, a friend of mine, Martin Muller, has caught galjoen on bait from the same beaches where we catch mullet and to his surprise their bellies were filled with sand fleas. So there’s another possible species waiting to be caught on a sand flea imitation…

Blennies sometimes join the mullet feasting on bobbing sand fleas.

Tying the floating Sand Flea:

Hook:  #14 Grip 11011BL (this light wire hook ensures that the fly floats well and it hooks fish well and is strong enough for southern mullet)

Thread: 14/0 Gordon Griffiths Sheer, black

Back: White, high-density foam

Underbody: White or chartreuse dubbing (any synthetic for shine)

Hackle: Grizzly, Whiting genetic dry fly hackle

Rib: 7X tippet material (optional)

Hind legs and front ‘feelers’: Thin crystal flash

Mullet pull surprisingly hard, even on a 6 wt, which I prefer in a howling South Easter.
Mark Krige and Ryan Weaver taking turns, hauling out mullet on the floating Sand Flea.

Tying procedure:

Step one: Wrap thread from center to bend, whilst tying in the 7X tippet rib (rib is optional).

Step two: Tie in two crystal flash hind legs and trim to about 5 mm.

Step three: Tie in a single grizzly hackle (stripped on one side), at its tip, with hackle pointing

towards the hook eye, shiny side facing the tier.

Step four: Precut the foam in a rounded diamond shape, approximately 2 mm thick, and tie in at one end.

Step five: Wrap white or chartreuse dubbing towards the hook eye to form a thin uniform body.

Step six: Wrap the hackle 3-4 times, equally spaced wraps, towards the eye and tie off. Trim unnecessary hackles on the back to form a smooth platform the foam can rest on.

Step seven: Secure the hackle by ribbing the body with 7X tippet rib (optional).

Step eight: Tie in two crystal flash strands as ‘feelers’ and trim to about 5 mm in length.

Step nine: Cover the back body with the foam and tie off behind the ‘feelers’.  Whip finish.

Fishing the Sand Flea

I usually fish this pattern on 3X – 6X tippet material with a fairly long leader, 9 ft or longer, on pushing tide, just behind the shore break where mullet visibly shoal.  A dead drift works well, but the fly can also be twitched with a small figure of eight retrieve, combined with short pauses.  I have also used this fly with great success, dead drifting over shoals of blue kurper, Oreochromis mossambicus, in combination with small blood worm or shrimp imitations in sizes 16 – 18; and on one outing I caught a bunch of ravenous stream trout on it too.  Several species of Amphipoda are abundant around our freshwater streams, they are usually darker, grey to brown in colour, and smaller than their marine relatives, but still readily form part of many fish diets.  So this pattern may also be used to imitate the beach hopper’s freshwater cousins.

The only setback I have found with this fly is corrosion after its use in saltwater, for I have not come across stainless hooks in size 14 as yet.  To make your Sand Fleas last longer, I recommend freshwater rinsing after use in the salt.

Gerald Penkler and Billy De Jong enjoying the pull of mullet on the pushing tide at last light.

For the original Sand Flea story published in South African Fishing Flies, and for further reading on some fantastic flies included in this publication, please support the authors and buy the book.

Related posts:

Book review – South African Fishing Flies by Peter Brigg and Ed Herbst

South African Fishing Flies – The DDD and RAB

South African Fishing Flies – The Red-Eyed Damsel

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