Sanddabs Make A Fine Winter Meal


Mar 11, 2001
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California DFG

January 23, 2002

Sanddabs Make A Fine Winter Meal

Contact: Conservation Education, (916) 653-6420

It was a great quote-"You just watch for a wiggle on your rod tip. Then wait for a second wiggle, and then reel up two of the tastiest little critters you ever met. Take them home, fry them quick-like in peanut oil, and there's nothing like it!"

That's the way one overheard, but unnamed angler, recently summed up sanddab fishing to his buddies. He had talked them into going after sanddabs, and had some serious convincing to do because some of the people wanted to go after something a bit more substantial. After promising everyone a dinner of sanddabs at his place, they went along. Chances are, they all had fun and caught as many fish as they needed to take home. There is no limit on sanddabs. And that is good, because it takes a few of them to make a big meal for a hungry person.

Finding sanddabs can be tricky, but once one is found, many more will probably appear, since they seem to congregate in great numbers. The best place to look is on a mixed mud and sand bottom at 100 to 300 feet, although it is amazing the various depths and bottom composition where they may be foraging at any given time. Their tendency to feed voraciously and competitively helps in finding them. One way is to use a fish finder to make sure the right type of bottom is under the boat, and then drop down a baited line. If bites don't come almost instantly, it is time to move on and test another area. Sanddabs can be found both along our mainland coast and around our islands, so there are plenty of places to search for them.

There are few rules pertaining to sanddab fishing. It is permissible to use as many hooks as an angler wants. It is fairly common to catch an occasional rockfish, along with sanddabs, when the boat drifts over isolated structure spots on a generally mud/sand bottom. During a rockfish/lingcod closure, however, incidental rockfish may not be kept. During the rockfish/lingcod season, only two hooks per rod can be used for sanddabs, once a rockfish comes aboard and is kept.

Rigging up for catching sanddabs is pretty simple. One common rig is a double dropper loop. To set this up, run the line through two hook eyes, and then tie onto a weight. Slide the hooks up the line and tie each one into it's own four-inch dropper loop about a foot or two apart. Squid is the bait of choice for these voracious critters, and they compete fiercely for the tasty baits. Cut squid into strips about four inches long and a half-inch wide. Run a hook twice through the end of a squid strip so there are a couple of inches of the strip left to undulate in the current. That's what attracts the sanddabs.

Drop the rig all the way to the bottom and take up the slack. It is important to fish right on the bottom because these fish lie on the bottom just like their big cousins, the California halibut. Wait for a couple of wiggles, like the angler said, and reel up the catch. Unhook them, check the bait and drop back down to do it all over again. It is frequently possible to load up on sanddabs in short order and then go prospecting for other fish.

These fish don't get very big. A 10-inch sanddab is a big fish, while seven or eight inches is more the norm. When really small ones come up - say four or five inches - they are quite easy to release, providing the hook doesn't tear flesh while being removed. Sanddabs do not have air bladders so the pressure decrease doesn't bother them on the ascent. The hook can be carefully removed and the fish put back in the water, with a minimum of handling. They usually swim away unhurt, and that is gratifying. Putting the keepers in cool water in a fish box, or on ice, will help keep this delicate-tasting fish at it's freshest.

It is important to be able to distinguish between a sanddab and a baby halibut. One way is to look at the lateral line on the underside of the fish. The lateral line on sanddabs is straight, whereas the line makes a substantial curve up and over the pectoral fin of a California halibut. That's one way a game warden will tell them apart. Many people also use the guideline that habibut have teeth and sanddabs don't. To allow for the inspection, cleaning them is best done in a simple manner. It is unlawful to fillet a flatfish other than a California halibut at sea, and a game warden needs to be able to see the entire lateral line, so it is easiest to just cut out the body cavity. It's simple. Once home, anglers can scale and pan fry them just as they are, or remove the head and tail first.

Bothidae (Left-eyed flounders)

Genus and Species:

Citharichthys sordidus


The body of the Pacific sanddab is oblong and compressed. The head is deep; the eyes are on the left-side and are large. The color is light brown mottled with yellow and orange on the eyed side and white on the blind side. Although three kinds of sanddabs live in the waters off California, only two are commonly used for food ­ the Pacific and longfin sanddabs. The third, the speckled sanddab, is so small (only about 5 inches) that it is only important to the diet of other fishes. The Pacific sanddab can best be distinguished from the longfin sanddab by the length of the pectoral fin on the eyed side. It is always shorter than the head of the Pacific sanddab and longer than the head of the longfin. Sanddabs are always left "handed" (eyes on the left) and can be distinguished from all other left "handed" flatfish by having a midline that is nearly straight for its entire length.


Pacific sanddabs occur from Cape San Lucas, Baja California, to the Bering Sea. They seldom inhabit water that is shallower than 30 feet or deeper than 1,800 feet. They are most abundant at depths of 120 to 300 feet.

Natural History:

Pacific sanddabs eat a wide variety of food. In addition to such items as small fishes, squid, octopus, they eat an assortment of eggs, luminescent sea squirts, shrimp, crabs, and marine worms. During the peak of the spawning season, which is July, August and September, the females spawn numerous eggs. These fish probably spawn more than once during a season.

Fishing Information:

If the depth is correct and the bottom suitable, it is extremely difficult to keep sanddabs off the hook. Sportfishing entails the use of small hooks, usually more than one on each line. A variation from the typical rig involves use of an iron ring or hoop around which are dangled several dozen baited hooks of small size. This contraption is lowered on a stout line to a position just off the bottom and allowed to remain a sufficient period to fill all the hooks. Normally this does not require as much time as is needed to rebait the rig after removing the catch. Small pieces of squid or octopus are good baits  because they are tough and stay on the hook, but pieces of fish work equally well.

Other Common Names:

sand dab, soft flounder, sole, mottled sanddab, megrim.

Largest Recorded:

16 inches; no weight recorded; however, an 11.5 inch female weighed just over 0.5 pound.


Deep Sandy Environment

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