Last updated on September 24th, 2020
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Surf Fishing Basics and Tips for Beginners and Anyone Who Wants to Catch More Fish from the Surf
Surf fishing might be the most exciting form of land-based sportfishing. Why do I say this?
Because of the challenge, versatility, and excitement it provides. Pure and simple, it’s just a lot of fun! Technically speaking, surf fishing can include many types of shore fishing, from jetty and rock fishing to pier fishing. But when we refer to surf fishing, we are generally talking about fishing from a saltwater beach and casting into the surf.
While it may look easy and carefree to the casual observer, surf fishing, like any other type of fishing, requires a little know-how and planning for a rewarding experience.
There are some important considerations that beginners and anyone else have to be taken into account in order to have a successful day at the beach – like tackle, wind, current, surf height, floating kelp, rocks, sandbars, and a few other things.
All of these things have to be taken into calculation before you start casting away. While this article won’t go into every aspect of surf fishing (i.e., casting techniques, the various rigs and terminal tackle, surf knots, etc.), it will give you a few, but essential, surf fishing tips to help you catch more fish on any beach.
Surf Fishing Equipment Basics
Spinning Surf Tackle — Both spinning and casting tackle are used for surf fishing, each having its advantages and disadvantages. With spinning tackle, typically rods anywhere from 8 to 16 feet in length are used along with surf spinning reels that are corrosion resistant, offering a smooth drag and a large spool for lots of line and long casts.
Spinning tackle is preferred by most surf fishermen for its versatility, reel speed, and generally trouble-free casting. It is the best setup when going for small to medium size fish or speedsters in the surf like Little Tunny (False Albacore) and Barracuda.
Casting Surf Tackle — Casting rods are a little shorter, in the 8 to 12 feet range, with a more stout backbone. Casting reels can be prone to backlashes and the dreaded line tangle known as a “bird’s nest”; therefore, a model specifically designed for surf fishing is a must. This means they should be lightweight and have wide spools and a magnetic casting system.
Casting tackle is better suited for heavy bait/sinker and surf fishing for big game such as shark, drum, and big striped bass, snook, and shark.
Surf Rod Material — Today, most manufactured surf fishing rods are made of graphite (carbon fiber), fiberglass, and more frequently, graphite composite (a blend of graphite and fiberglass).
Graphite rods are lightweight and offer improved sensitivity and casting distance while fiberglass offers greater durability and better parabolic action upon loading for the cast as well as fighting the fish. It is also more forgiving than graphite to extreme stress and accidents, in a nutshell.
Composite rods offer a great compromise and the best of both worlds in terms of being fairly lightweight while still durable.
Fishing Line for the Surf — Fishing line for spinning and casting reels are pretty much the same. Monofilament line is still the tried and true standard for surf fishing, especially where knot strength is important or abrasive rocks are present.
However, more and more surf anglers are choosing a braided line for its superior diameter-to-strength ratio, long casting distance, and sensitivity (for quicker hooksets).
Ultimately the choice between mono and braid will come down to preference and the type of fishing you plan on doing. Regardless of line choice, a 20-pound test line tied to a 40 – 60 lb test fluorocarbon shock leader should cover most situations you are likely to encounter.
See these posts for more in-depth info on essential surf fishing tackle:
Other Important Surf Fishing Tools/Accessories
In addition to having the right tackle, bait, sunglasses, clothing, footwear, and so on, do yourself a favor and get some sand spikes/pole holders if you don’t already have any. You can buy them at your local bait and tackle shop or make your own out of PVC pipe – it’s not that hard.
There will come a time when you will want to put your rod down to get a drink, eat or just relax while surf fishing, believe me. You don’t want to lay your expensive reel, or any reel for that matter, down in the sand – you will have a nightmare on your hands trying to get all that sand off, and of course, there’s a good chance you’ll ruin your reel if the sand gets into your of your drag, gears, lubricant and so on.
They are also handy if you are fishing with circle hooks – you can just leave your rod in the holder since you don’t have to set the hook with this type of fishing hook.
Other accessories and equipment worth considering include a surf fishing cart to make your trek on the sand easier, a heavy-duty cooler for your food and catch, a portable surf chair, and a surf fishing bag for your plugs and other lures. Though none of these is mandatory, they can certainly make for a better experience.
Surf Baits and Lures Explained
The best baits for surf fishing are the live ones found along the shoreline – minnows, mullet, sardines or any small baitfish available; also sea worms, crabs, shrimp, etc.
If you can find them, sand crabs (also called sand fleas) will be one of your best baits for surf fishing – the pompano fish love them! If you are surf fishing in the summer, you can find the deep holes that they have dug into the sand and dig them out by hand or, better yet, using a sand flea rake.
Many times, you can find them washed up on the beach, and this is fine because the fish will swim to the surface to catch anything dead or alive. If you are all out of live bait, you can use freshly cut bait, frozen anchovies, shrimp, mussels, squid, or some clams.
Make sure that your bait is somewhat firm, otherwise it may slide right off of your hook. Also, remove any scales on cut baitfish so your hook can easily pierce it.
For a basic rig, you will need something that is capable of sinking the line without putting undue pressure on it. The fish can be scared off if they can feel the weight on the line. Many people will use a sliding sinker rig, or fish-finder rig when they surf fish.
Surf fishing with lures allows you to skip bottom rigs, sinkers, and baits. Tired of crabs stealing your bait on the bottom? Beach fishing lures will let you easily avoid them and also expand your range in the surf, letting you cover more shoreline and quickly move to throw your lure where you may see birds diving on a school of breaking fish.
Lures for surf fishing come in many varieties. You’ll find top-water plugs and poppers, bucktail jigs, grubs, soft plastic swimmers and jerkbaits, and one of my favorites for Spanish mackerel and jack crevalle in the South Florida surf – a 2-ounce metal spoon with a treble hook!
Reading the Surf for Fishing
Now that you have your tackle and bait/lure, it’s time to go fishing. But wait a minute, our work is not done yet. We have to know what surf conditions we are dealing with. You could, of course, check your local surf fishing conditions online, but there’s nothing that beats first-hand knowledge. Knowing where your fish is likely to be located in the surf is key to having a successful and fun outing.
Reading the surf conditions will go a long way toward helping you find fish consistently, whether you plan on fishing the beaches along Cape Cod, Florida’s Atlantic coast, or Southern California. So we are looking for the presence of things such as sandbars troughs, pockets, tides, rocks, and any other structures, wind, etc.
Sandbars — Sandbars are slopes of sand on the bottom of the ocean close to the beach. Their tops, or crests, can be above or just below the water surface. Those with their crests below the surface are good places to fish.
Troughs, or sloughs, are the depressions between the sandbar and the beach. You will notice them as the quiet, deep waters between the cresting waves of the sandbar and the cresting on the beach. This quiet area in the surf is where you’ll want to fish.
Openings in the Bar — Also look for openings in a sandbar between the slough and the open ocean. You will notice these openings by studying the surface of the water, as the water will not crest over them as it will over the rest of the bar, but will continue undisturbed until finally breaking onto the shore.
Game fish will line up along the edges of the openings and ambush bait and other injured fish twice a day. Fish the outside of the opening on the outgoing tide and the inside of the opening on incoming tides for best results.
Pockets — Pockets are basically smaller, deeper holes along the bottom, either in the trough, at the bar or simply along the beach. They are not easy to spot but if you look for water surface discoloration or change in texture compared to the surrounding water, particularly during low tides. They are another great spot for bottom fish like flounder.
Tides — Tides have an effect on fishing as most of us know already know. At dead high or low tide, there is no water movement and hence the little movement of baitfish or game fish. These are the least productive times to fish.
You are better off fishing the last 2 hours of an incoming tide and the first 2 hours of an outgoing tide. Tides and fish activity are affected by the positioning of the sun and the moon with the earth. It’s no wonder then that fish are more active and feed at sunrise, sunset, and full moons.
Rocks — The presence of rocks in the surf are more a thing of the U.S. West and Northeast coasts. As we head deeper south along the East coast, rocks are displaced by coral. Rocks are structures to fish that provide protection and food. Breaking waters around them also injure small fish, making them ideal spots in the surf to fish with lures.
Wind — Winds can have a profound effect on fishing conditions as they move water and influence tides, making high and low tides higher or lower than normal depending on whether it is blowing onshore (from the ocean onto the beach) or offshore(from the beach into the ocean).
They also have an effect on other conditions that influence fishing, such as the height of the sandbars and breakers as well as the depth of the troughs. Lastly, winds can affect casting distance and accuracy as well as currents, which can, in turn, require you to use heavier sinkers/ lures and make more frequent casts to get your bait or lure to the desired spot and keep it there.
Spend a Day at the Beach Fishing
A day at the beach surf fishing takes a little planning. Having said that, there are many good reasons to consider doing it. You can catch many exciting surf fish species from striped bass, snook and corbina to bluefish, Spanish mackerel, redfish, flounder, tarpon, snapper, sea trout, halibut and sometimes even sharks, depending on your location.
It is also a good way to spend a day at the beach. However, if you decide to fish when there are many beachgoers, try to find a spot where there are not many people in the water or, better yet, where there are none.
There are excellent surf fishing spots all along the East Coast from Maine to Florida, through the Gulf states to California’s Pacific coast. There are some fabled surf fishing locations in the U.S. worth a special trip for the angler looking for the holy grail of surf fishing.
Some of the more famous ones include Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, Montauk (considered by many the best surf fishing spot in the United States) on Long Island, New York, Cape Hatteras in the Outer Banks, North Carolina, and Newport Beach, California.
But there are many other great locations. Chances are if you live close to the coast, you already have some excellent beach fishing spots just waiting for you.
If you do not have the money or the time to invest in a boat (and they do require some upkeep), surf fishing is a fun and hassle-free way to go. As we have already discussed, there is a little planning involved but you would have many more expenses, prep, and clean-up with any type of boat.
Surf fishing is a simple, enjoyable hobby that will get you out of the house and maybe even offer up the chance to come home with fresh dinner.
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Very informative for a rookie surf fisher guy from wis.. Thanks will give it a try in Beverly beach florida
Hey Bob, thank you. Glad to hear you found the article helpful. The tips should help you locate and catch more fish from just about any beach. Once you learn to read the surf the battle is at least half-won. Happy surf fishing!
For a complete beginner to surf fishing what kind of surf rod material would you recommend? Would you say I should go with a composite rod because it’s a good compromise or should I opt for fiberglass instead?
As for the fishing line I think I will get both types you talked about: braid line and mono line. I will start testing the braid line on my first trip and maybe go with the mono line on my second. I want to see which one acts better.
Hey Dan, as a beginner I would suggest starting off inexpensively as you learn to read the surf, work on your technique and so. My first surf rod was a 10′ generic that was fiberglass (it was heavy!). Most of my surf rods today are graphite composite, as they are fairly light yet strong enough to handle almost anything in the surf. They are also a lot cheaper than graphite and you’ll have just as much fun. The Penn Prevail and Tsunami Trophy rods are 2 relatively inexpensive composite surf rods under $100 I would recommend for the beginner; but there are many other good brands that won’t break the bank.
As you say, you can experiment to braid and mono and see which works best for you. Just be careful with braid, especially the lighter lines, as they can cut your hand/fingers if not handled with care.