An Expert’s Guide to Surf Fishing

There is something beautiful about the purity of surf fishing. At its core, it is angler and fishing rod versus the sea. There are no boats, no lakeside brush to cast near, and relatively little in the way of overly complicated technique. Now, for avid freshwater fishermen, this might seem like a crazy thing to say. It may even sound crazy to some avid surf fishermen. But, when everything is broken down to its simplest you can successfully surf fish with some fairly sparse gear and a good shoreline. 

Surf fishing is pretty broadly defined as fishing from the shoreline and into the surf. At first glance, this can seem a little daunting. How far should you cast? Where do you look for the fish? Is there anything this close to land? This guide answers all of these questions and more. Surf fishing is a deeply addicting sport and you’ll be surprised at the diversity of fish you’ll find in knee-deep water just under the surf.   

What Can You Catch?

You can catch some pretty remarkable fish from the shoreline without even having to cast too far. What you can catch is largely dependent upon where you are but most parts of the coastal United States, areas along the Great Lakes, and regions around other large enough bodies of water offer great fish. Along the west coast of the United States, you might catch California corbina, California halibut, barred and walleye surfperch, and yellowfin or spot fin croaker to name a few. There are even some very limited opportunities for catching a shark. 

Along the eastern coast of the United States species like striped bass and redfish are commonly sought after and caught. Other species include bluefish, black drum, tautog, flounder, sea trout, bonito and albacore tuna, pompano, Spanish mackerel, snook, tarpon, and various species of shark. Don’t expect only smaller or young fish either. It is very common to haul in 30-40 pound fish from the shoreline. 

Shores along the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico offer up a variety of large fish as well. From coast to coast surf fishing offers some of the excitement of deep-sea fishing without the need to go several miles offshore. To land these incredible fish you just need a good spot and the right gear. 

Picking a Place for Surf Fishing   

To the untrained eye, it might look like surf fishermen just pick an open spot on the beach at any time they like and cast a line. While this might be true for some casual anglers, more experienced surf fishermen know how to read the surf and study the beach to help them pick the best spot. To learn this yourself you can start by watching others. When you see fishermen congregating on the beach with rods stuck in PVC pipes and taught lines stretching to the surf you are in the right spot. 

Look at where they are casting, note the time of day, and think about whether the tide is out or in. A skilled surf fisherman is observant and slowly learns to read the behavior of the sea. To pick a good spot on your first outings there are some key things you can look for. Start by going out to your nearest beach. For this initial outing, you don’t even need to bring fishing gear, this is all about scouting the location. 

When you get there the first thing you need to do is determine if it is closer to low tide or high tide. At low tide, you can see the territory that you’ll be fishing in when the water comes back in and this allows you to get a lay of the land. Look for gullies, weedy areas, large rocks, or any other indications that fish might want to hide or take up residence there when the tide comes in. Some fishermen sketch this out sometimes so they have it for reference later. 

When the tide is high you then have to read the sea. The untrained eye might just see a chaotic mass of shifting waters but if you look closely at the waves and the way the water moves you’ll notice something interesting. You’ll see that the waves break at certain points as they approach the shore. Those breakpoints are a sign that there might be a sandbar or some other structure below the water. Larger fish are often near these structures chasing baitfish. 

You should also keep an eye out for rip currents. These can be formed by breaks in the sand bar that rapidly funnel water back to the sea. These outflows also serve to funnel food to big fish and make a perfect spot to cast a line. You can actually combine reading the sea with studying the surface below at low tide to develop a rough idea of where the fish will show up. Although the sea constantly changes surface features it can still help to see what’s below before the tide comes in. 

Another pro tip to keep in mind is that sections of the beach with lots of shells and coarser sand are often near deeper sections of water. These deep points can harbor big fish. Put all of this together and you can find a good surf fishing spot. You want low tide surface features that offer places for fish to hide, sand bars and outflows, and coarse sand with shells. All or some of these traits in one area can indicate a good surf fishing spot. 

Dawn and dusk are usually the best times to go surf fishing, low light and shifting tides are what you want. 

When to Go Surf Fishing 

Successful surf fishing is very dependent upon when you decide to go. You might scope out an excellent spot that yields an amazing catch at one point in the day and absolutely nothing during another point in the day. Timing your surf fishing correctly is just another part of reading the sea and understanding the behavior of the fish you are after. To simplify things however there are some tried and true surf fishing rules you can stick to increase your chances of success. 

One of the easiest rules to follow is to time your surf fishing so that you are casting on the beach during sunup and sundown as the tides are changing. Dawn and dusk are often when the fish are most active. These earlier and later hours are also great because they make it easier to avoid crowds on the beach. That makes it easier to cast and wrestle with those large game fish that like to prowl shallow waters in low light.

Low light conditions also make it easier to reduce the visibility of your fishing line which makes your bait more enticing for skittish fish. Rainy and overcast days are great for surf fishing for exactly this reason. Again, these days also clear out the beach and give you plenty of room to fish. You do have to be extra cautious though when fishing by the sea in rainy weather. Look out for lightning storms and high winds which might pose a threat to you.

As you begin surf fishing you’ll find that following these simple rules will bring the most luck. Over time you will learn other tricks, especially the ones that apply to where you are. Every coastline is a little different and seasonal changes in weather and fish behavior constantly create new conditions to fish in. Just like each tide coming in and going out changes the surface features below the water each season subtly changes the dynamics of the fish. These basic rules can get you started but it pays to pay close attention to the environment you are in. 

Surf Fishing Gear 

When you are surf fishing your gear can make the experience a lot easier or a lot harder. You need equipment that allows you to cast far enough beyond the waves to land your bait where the fish are. Your equipment also needs to be strong enough to hold up against the large fish you are likely to end up with at the end of your hook. If you plan your gear accordingly then you’ll be more likely to have a successful surf fishing experience.

Your surf fishing gear should start with a strong 9 to 15-foot surf rod. These rods are longer with larger line guides to help you cast heavy tackle 100 to 200 yards offshore. If you are just starting out you can easily use a shorter rod and cast at high tide but more experienced surf fishermen might use multiple rods at once to fish closer and further from shore. 

Usually, the best surf rods are medium-heavy power with a medium action. This gives them the necessary strength and versatility you need. As a reminder, the action of the rod is how quickly it bends under pressure while the power of the rod is how much pressure it takes to bend it. Some surf anglers prefer a fast action rod because it offers extra casting distance and a little more hook setting power. As with everything in fishing you need to try out your options and find what works for you. The main considerations for your surf rod ultimately need to be how well you can handle it, whether or not it casts far enough, and if it holds up under the pressure of the fish you want. 

Your Surf Reel, Line, and Leader 

Your surf fishing equipment doesn’t need to break the bank if you’re just getting started but it does need to meet your needs. If you are newer to surf fishing you should get a high capacity saltwater spinning reel. This will hold enough line for what you need, it will be easy enough to handle, and it will stand up against the harsh salty and sandy conditions of the beach. 

With experience, you can eventually transition into a baitcasting reel. These are a little harder to handle but offer greater distance and precision with casting. They also offer gear ratios that usually hold up to bigger fish better. Regardless of the reel, you start with, you should load it up with quality fishing line. Surf fishers often use monofilament but fluorocarbon is better. Start with a 20-25 pound test line. That will handle most of the fish you encounter. 

The final piece of the whole system is arguably the most important. The leader, which runs from your fishing line to your terminal tackle, is the last line of defense between the thrashing and pulling off a big fish and the integrity of your line. For surf fishing, you need a fluorocarbon or monofilament shock leader to take some of the stress out of your line. Depending on how you set up your rig you might need additional leaders but when you are starting off simplicity is often the best.  

Bait & Tackle 

Some anglers feel that everything about surf fishing can be simplified until you get to the numerous rigs that are used. You have the flapper rig, the clipped rig, the loop rig, and the pulley rig to name a few. The reality is you don’t have to learn them all at once and starting simply gives you the experience you need to slowly learn each one as you want. Each rig is used for a different purpose but, at its core, surf fishing simply requires some bait on the end of a hook with a sinker. 

You can get started with a very simple surf fishing sinker rig. Start by tying your shock leader to your line with an Albright knot then thread a 4 to 8-ounce pyramid sinker on to that line. Next, tie the remaining end of the shock leader to a barrel swivel using a uni knot. On the other end of the barrel swivel, attach more fluorocarbon leader with another uni knot and attach your hook to that with an improved clinch knot. If that sounds like a lot, don’t worry, take it one step at a time and learn each knot as you go. By the second or third attempt, it will feel much easier. 

The hook you attach can be a circle hook, which works very well for all kinds of fish, but a treble hook is also good. If you are able to start fishing with bait then you have some options to choose from. The bait you use mostly depends on where you are and you can always ask someone at a local bait and tackle shop for their recommendations. Squid and mullet are always a good choice though and will almost always guarantee you a bite eventually. Ragworms, shrimp, and squid are also very good choices.  

While bait is usually the best thing to surf fish with you might also want to try lures. They aren’t as easy to use but once you learn them well they can actually be very effective against some species of gamefish. The most common choices are metal spoons and plastic jigs. These can be quite handy if you run out of bait and a simple slow retrieve usually does the trick.

Sometimes surf fishing is just you and your rod but usually it helps to bring along a few more tools. 

Putting It All Together 

Once you learn to read the surf and pick a good spot the rest is simple. You set up there at dawn or dusk, get your gear ready, set up the rig you want to start with, and cast out beyond the surf. You can start surf fishing just like that. You will eventually want to improve your set up so there are some other essentials you’ll need. 

First, you will need a sand spike to hold your rod. This is often something as simple as PVC pipe stuck deep in the sand and angled towards the surf. You will also need many of the essentials of fishing such as good needle-nosed pliers, a cooler for bait and your catch, and a good knife for cutting lines, cleaning fish, and dicing up the bait.   

Getting Your Gear Out There 

The one thing that many surf fishing guides fail to mention is the importance of figuring out how you are going to get all of your gear to the location you want to fish from. Unlike most lakes and rivers you can’t always drive up to the shoreline and unpack your gear. This is why many surf fishermen have built specialized carts and even 4 wheel drive beach buggies to bring their gear out with them. Usually, all you need is a good cart with some large all-terrain wheels on it. This will save you the massive headache of trying to carry all of your fishing gear to and from the beach.       

Final Verdict:

Surf fishing is a great sport that allows any angler the experience of fishing for saltwater gamefish without having to take a boat offshore. With a little preparation and know-how, any fishermen can start surf fishing. All it takes is a good location and the right gear. This guide should get you started with the basics but as you continue you will learn new tricks and skills that only add to the fun. Good luck and good fishing. 

Bonus tip: Sometimes all it takes is having an experienced surf fisherman show you the ropes. Watch here as this experienced angler shows you the basics of surf fishing.    

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