When people think of saltwater fishing they often think of deep-sea fishing but there is more than one way to go about it. You don’t need a boat and the full day offshore to enjoy some of the options that saltwater fishing locations have to offer. For example, some people find a nice pier overlooking a saltwater fishing spot and cast from there. These people often catch great fish and leave with a cooler full. But what do you do if there isn’t even a pier to fish from?
Well, this is where surf fishing comes in. Surf fishing is just fishing from the shoreline or wading into the surf a little bit to cast your line. From sandy and rocky beaches to rock jetties, if you are fishing from the shore or near it then you are surf fishing. The surprising part is that despite the proximity to shore and the shallowness of the water there you can still catch great fish. Striped bass, bluefish, flounder, spotted sea trout and more are all caught from shore. This is because these fish follow their prey into these shallow depths. When they do so you just have to be ready with the right rigging to attract and catch them.
Making the best surf fishing rigs
For the most part, surf fishing rigs are fairly simple and straightforward. There are a few classes of rig setup that you have to master but once you understand them you will be well on your way to catching all sorts of fish from shore. The main rigs are the flapper rig, the clipped rig, the loop rig, and the pulley rig. Each of these has its own modifications that you can introduce but overall each one is best suited for a particular situation.
In addition to these core rigs, there is also a very useful fish finder rig that we will cover as well. Before getting started with how to tie these rigs you should have a full saltwater rigging kit with all the hooks, lines, beads, swivels, etc. that you will need. As with any new fishing rig assembly, it is best to start practicing right away.
The flapper rig
The flapper rig will probably become your go-to rig for short and medium-range surf fishing. It is very simple and very effective. At its simplest, the flapper rig is just a hook snood (dropper) coming off the main body line at a right angle. Of course, to be most effective there is a little more to it than that. To prevent the line with your hook from wrapping around the mainline and becoming tangled you need to introduce swivels.
The best setup has the dropper attached to a swivel on the main body line. Situate this swivel between two beads and locking crimps to help secure it and there you have it. When putting it all together you should use the Uni-Knot unless the hook has a turned up or turned down eye, then use the Snell knot. When all is said and done you will have a basic one-hook flapper rig ready to go.
There are variations on this theme though. You can use two-hook and three-hook flapper rigs as well. These are all constructed the same; you just have to evenly place the hooks to minimize entanglement. With the two-hook and three-hook flapper rigs, you might also want to make the lower snood longer so the bait separates better on the seabed. To differentiate the different placements of the dropper along the line as well as the number in use the rigs are typically addressed as follows.
A one hook flapper rig can be considered ‘one-up’ if the hook is shorter off the mainline or ‘one-down’ if you position it on a long line so the bait falls further down. With a two hook flapper rig, the setup is usually ‘two-up’ with two shorter droppers in place or ‘one-up, one-down’ with a short and a long line in place. Finally, for a three hook flapper rig, you will often see ‘three-up’ or ‘two-up, one down’.
When deciding which version of the flapper rig to use you first need to decide what size fish you are trying to catch. A larger fish, using larger bait, requires the one-hook flapper rig. Conversely, the three-hook flapper rig is best for catching small fish closer to the shoreline. The two-hook flapper rig is your real workhorse though covering the best of both worlds. It is one of the rigs you might end up using most often while surf fishing in the short to medium range.
The clipped rig
While the flapper rig is for short and medium-range surf fishing the clipped rig is all about longer-range surfcasting. It is designed to be cast further. To accomplish this task there is some specific tackle that you will have to use which we will cover first before getting into how to set up the rig. The essential tackle, which differs from the flapper rig is a bait clip, impact leads, an impact shield, cascade swivels, and bait stops.
The bait clip is a specialized clip with a small bend where you can attach your hook and bait during casting. This holds the weight closer to the center of the assembly and allows you to get a farther cast. If the design works as intended the hook and bait will fall loose when the rig hits the water. The impact leads have the bait clip built-in and can be used with a regular link clip instead. These are an alternative to simply using bait clips in this assembly.
Similarly, the impact shield also allows you to use link clips instead. These provide a place to clip the lower hook while also providing some protection for the bait as it hits the water. Cascade swivels are another new component in this rig. These come into play with two and three-hook clipped rigs. The top hook is clipped to the cascade swivel of the second hook and so on. Keep in mind, the whole idea with this rig is to control the weight of the bait and rig so that you can secure a longer cast.
The final piece of new kit in this rig is the bait stop. Clipped rigs have a bait stop just above the hook because of the way they fly through the air when cast. When each of the hooks is clipped into place and then cast they all fly bend first. The air pressure of the rig moving is enough to push the bait off of the hook and up the snood. The bait stops prevent this and hold the bait in place.
To build this rig you need to set up your mainline with a bait clip or a link clip with impact shield on one end and a large swivel on the other. Then add your first snood with a small swivel like in the flapper rig. Don’t forget to place the bait stop above the hook this time though. In a one-hook clipped rig assembly, this hook will clip to the bait clip or impact shield. In two and three-hook assemblies the second and third snood must be attached with bait clips so each hook has a place to be clipped when casting.
Just like with the flapper rig the three hook version of the clipped rig is ideal for catching small fish while the one hook is better for bigger fish. You can also make your snoods short (up) or long (down) depending on how shallow the seabed is. This does present one problem though. If you try to make the final snood long in a two or three hook clipped rig things start to get messy. This is where the loop rig comes into the picture.
The loop rig
The loop rig is basically a modified version of the clipped rig. It was designed so you could cast long hook snoods on the clipped rig without everything becoming terribly entangled. This rig only works with a two hook or three hook clipped rig assembly where the last snood is longer. If you have a ‘1-up, 1-down’ assembly or a ‘2-up, 1 down’ assembly with a clipped rig then you should modify it to a loop rig.
To do this you start by attaching the longest snood to the mainline with a regular rolling swivel. Then further towards the hook attach a cascade swivel. This allows the lower bait to be clipped in tightly forming a loop between the rolling swivel and the cascade swivel. If you really feel the need to cast a multi hooked surf fishing rig at a long-range with an up-down assembly then this is definitely the best way to do it. Generally, it is better to stick to the simpler flapper rigs though. The more moving parts and connections you introduce to your rigs the more opportunity there is for complications.
The pulley rig
The pulley rig is your go-to when you are fishing over rough ground. When the chances of getting snagged on rocks and debris are high then the flapper, clipped, and loop rigs start to become too risky with the hanging snoods. All too often the lead weight becomes the source of the problem too and gets snagged as it trails behind the hooked fish. To remedy this the pulley rig has been designed so that the weight of the hooked fish pulls the lead weight ahead of it. This makes it less likely to get snagged on something.
There are a few different ways to set this rig up. The easiest is the single hook pulley rig. To set this up you basically need a large swivel with a line running through it. On both sides of the large swivel you should have a free bead. On one side attach a small swivel just past the bead and then run your hook off of that. On the other side, you can attach a breakaway weight with a hook clip.
This rig works beautifully when done right. First, when you cast it the breakaway weight will pop the hook free upon hitting the water. Then the weight will sink as the hook is pulled closer to the surface. Once a fish snags the bait and gets hooked the weight of the fish swimming forward then pulls the weight back up off the ground as the hook and the attached line is pulled outwards.
The two major modifications to this are the pulley pennel rig and the pulley wishbone rig. For the pulley pennel rig, you set everything up the same way you do for the single hook pulley rig. Then you add a second hook above the first hook at the end of the snood line. The overall effect is the same but in this case, the second hook allows for larger baits and catching larger fish.
The final version of the pulley rig is the pulley wishbone rig. This assembly is also similar to the others but in this one, the snood is made to look like a wishbone with two hooks on it. Basically you take a small swivel, attach it at the end of your main snood line, then run a line through that swivel and attach bait beads and hooks on either end. The result is an easily castable and very effective rig for surf fishing.
The fish finder rig
All of the previously mentioned rigs are great when you know roughly where you should be casting. Oftentimes though this isn’t the case at first. When you are fishing from the shore choppy surf and murky waters make it difficult to identify schools of fish. This is where the fish finder rig comes into play. You can cover more water with this rig while also attracting schools of fish to your bait.
To make this rig you just need a good steel weight, like a pyramid sinker, a plastic bead, a leader line, a swivel, and a hook. These few components make up this versatile and useful rig. Start the assembly by cutting a roughly 18-inch segment of the leader line and tie one end to the hook using a Palomar knot. Then tie the swivel on the other end using another Palomar knot. Next, run your mainline through the pyramid sinker and add the bead after that. Finally, you can attach this to your swivel using another Palomar knot.
This final knot can be tricky with everything else attached so take your time with it. Once that is done your fish finder rig will be good to go. Now, keep in mind that you should avoid using this rig on rough bottoms because the multiple knots make it easy to break when snagged. Soft sandy bottoms and similar seabeds are just fine though and this rig can really excel in those cases.
Surf fishing safety
Just like anything else in the great outdoors, surfing has its risks. Things are relatively safe when you are fishing from the shore but once you wade out into the water that’s a different story. Instead of wading out in the surf it is better to use the further casting clipped rig and loop rig when you can. This is because there are strong currents and undertows that can easily sweep you out to sea and sometimes even drown you.
You need to have an understanding of the conditions you are fishing in and near. If you know you are in an area with strong waves and dangerous rip currents then you need to wear a life vest when in the water. This is something you should do anyway if you are wading out with all of your gear on you. It can sometimes be harder to swim and stay afloat in a full surf fisher’s outfit.
Other than strong and dangerous waters you have to keep an eye on the weather as well as other hazards. Lightning storms are especially dangerous. Other hazards can include sharks or other aggressive aquatic life. There is also always the risk of underwater entanglements like rope, trash, and other debris. The list could go on and on but it is always important to consider these risks.
Surf fishing is one of the most accessible ways to start saltwater fishing. Once you learn the essential rigs you can get started right away. You can use the flapper rig for short to medium range casts, the clipped rig for long-range casts, and the loop rig for long-range casts with a long hook snoods. If the ground under the water is rough you’ll want to use one of the pulley rig assemblies instead and if the ground is relatively smooth you might want to try the fish finder rig to improve the accuracy of subsequent casts.
With these essential rigs, you are well on your way to catching a variety of fish that come close to shore. Always remember to keep safety in mind though. Surf fishing can be deceptively dangerous especially when you start wading out into the surf. Keeping your wits about you is important as is having an understanding of the environment you are fishing in. As long as you do that you should be ok. You’ll be able to try out the rigs discussed here and land a few beautiful fish.
Bonus tip: Check out these top ten surf fishing tips that can take your surf fishing to another level!