Saltwater Surf Fishing Basics

People Saltwater Surf Fishing

There's something fine and natural about getting next to nature, and nowhere is that easier for coastal anglers than surf fishing. You're barefoot (weather permitting) with the surf booming close by, the wind blowing and not another soul in sight. Lots of passing seabirds and fish busting the surface, too, if you're lucky.

Shop offshore angler fishing tackleOr how about a calm sunrise and you're sipping hot coffee with friends who share the same goal of catching fresh fish in the outdoors — sand between toes — without blowing your retirement on a boat, motor(s), trailer and tow vehicle. (You will need a vehicle of course, but more on that in a moment).

Best Places to do Surf Fishing

Three surf anglers on the beach fishing
If you're still learning to "read the surf," one of the best things you can do is watch where the locals fish.

Picking your spot and timing it right is important, of course. If you can "read the surf," for instance — that certainly helps. If you can't, locate a locally favorite stretch of surf, and study the line of breakers off the beach then watch where the locals fish.

Often they're formed by first and second sandbars, where a line of waves are breaking. There might even be a third sandbar in deeper water. Watch for a break in the second and third bars, where the water flows back out to sea.

angler & redfish
Author with a slot-size redfish just

All of that water delivered to the beach has to return offshore, right? This excess water is where so-called "rip currents" may drag a swimmer offshore for a short distance. This same current pulls natural food out to the fish, and that's where your bait should often be.

Watching where the locals fish; if you see a cluster of six guys down the beach, clustered together with about 18 long rods sitting in sand spikes, then you can bet they know what they're doing and they've picked the right spot. Move closer and observe, but don't crowd them. Study the water and wave breaks in front of them.

Inquire when the local tide will be "right." They probably won't be there for a dead-low tide, unless they're socializing. Incoming tides are often best, especially early in the morning, when the light is low and gamefish prowl close to the sand. Early is also good because families with their joyful kids haven't arrived yet; that won't happen until at least 10 a.m. during weekends, and often later.

fishing rig & seatrout
Seatrout also feed in the surf, but you'll need the smaller 7-foot rod for throwing plugs and spoons to these fish

Tip: Set your surf rods in PVC sand pipes. The PVC pipes protect the reels from a rising tide and breaking surf.

Bring Surf Fishing Tackle to the Beach

Don't kid yourself and bring just any fishing tackle to the beach. Regular "surf rats" use a surf rod from 12 to 15 feet long, with big rod guides, designed to deliver a bait and weight up to 100 yards offshore. A big saltwater spinning reel packed with 20- or 25-pound line can take the abuse of a serious cast and still subdue sizeable fish, like the Offshore Angler Tightline Spinning Reel. Lighter line might snap in mid-cast, while heavier line takes up too much reel-spool capacity.

You can bring a smaller rod (say 7 feet in length) for casting at closer fish, especially during high tide. Several of the bigger rods are normally set out. A serious surf veteran might use four to six outfits.

Secure the Rods From Falling Into Sand or Saltwater

Offshore Angler Aluminum Sand Spike at
Offshore Angler Aluminum Sand Spike

The big surf rods are set into sand spikes like Offshore Angler Aluminum Sand Spike, which are metal spikes or PVC sand pipes some 3 to 4 feet long, sharpened at one end, and about 2-1/4 inches in diameter. These are driven into the sand and provide a stable platform for your rods. Refrain from using buckets or coolers for this purpose, because they won't stop a rod from being pulled down into sand or water. The last thing you want is one of those fine reels falling into gritty sand and saltwater. Both are very hard on reels. Watching a surf rod getting pulled out to sea by a big fish can be a bummer, as well.

Set the reel's drag light when using regular J hooks and stay close by, because you have to react quickly when a fish hits and set the hook. With Kahle fishing hooks or circle hooks, the fish hook themselves. That means with a strike, you can take your time and set your coffee down. Just be sure the drag is set with several pounds of pressure — you want a nice bend in that rod, so the fish hooks himself.

Choosing Your Saltwater Terminal Fishing Gear

Favorite leaders and hooks vary from one region to another, and the nearest small tackle shop or serious anglers on the beach can shed light on this. You basically want a leader somewhat tougher than your casting line, perhaps rigged with two baited hooks that at least partially set themselves — such as Kahle hooks — that certainly works best on pompano and a variety of other fish.

Surf Casting Fishing Weights

 Bass Pro Shops Pyramid Lead Sinkers
Bass Pro Shops Pyramid
Lead Sinkers

For lead weights, don't rely on just anything from your sinker box. Pyramid lead sinkers up to 6 ounces were designed for surf casting, because they dig into the sand. You don't want your baits rolling down the beach 50 yards in a current, crossing other angler's lines, right? In addition, carry several spider weights. These have copper legs that stick out, and really dig into the sand. A fast current makes them necessary.

How fast is a fast current? An example would be the stormy weather that Texas surf anglers fish, while hoping for a run of "bull" redfish when a tropical storm (or worse) is in the Gulf of Mexico. That makes for serious tides and current.

Using the Right Saltwater Fishing Baits

yeti 65 cooler

Baits are a local situation. If you're after big predators such as bull redfish and sharks, then a big chunk of mullet is hard to beat. (The serious shark guys fishing the surf, of course, use much bigger tackle: boat tackle, and they have to deliver their big, whole fish, like a small tuna or stingray, offshore by some ingenious means. Like a balloon, surfboard or jet ski. Some guys even swim the bait offshore, with a bonito under their arm like a football, which seems dangerous and definitely NOT recommended.)

If you're after a variety of smaller fish, then the usual frozen shrimp, squid or cut bait will work. If you specialize in pompano, be prepared to dig your own mole crabs (sand fleas) from wet beach sand, preferably using a rake designed for that task.

Pelicans landing and diving into water
If you see Pelicans diving into the water, chances are they've found schooling baitfish — and very likely, predator fish.

Keep your bait fresh and snug in an ice chest or cooler, something most fish will appreciate.

Artificial Fishing Baits - Carry a Small Selection

As for saltwater artificial baits, fishing spoons are always good, and fishing with topwater plugs  in fairly calm weather are great on feeding fish. Mullet-imitation lures are useful, especially during the fall mullet run, when all good finger mullet point their noses south, running in huge schools towards the southern latitudes. This draws attention from countless predators, and these feeding frenzies can be spotted from afar, either from whitewater action or diving pelicans and terns. The first good cold front of autumn usually triggers this action.

While you're at it, keep a pair of needle nose pliers on that belt and a small fillet knife handy. Ever try digging treble hooks out of a flopping, toothy bluefish or Spanish mackerel with your bare hands? It's not as fun as it sounds.

Offshore Angler Pro Fillet Knife at
Offshore Angler Pro Fillet Knife

Other Surf Fishing Considerations

Getting to the beach is a requirement, and that means either hiking in or driving on sand. The hiking is healthy, but you'll need a packframe, at least, to carry gear. Or some sort of cart with inflatable wheels that works on soft sand.

If you're going to drive on the beach, like they do on North Carolina's Outer Banks or Padre Island in Texas, a four-wheel drive vehicle is necessary. With or without four-wheel, you should drop your tire pressure down to 24 pounds or lower, so those tires can better grab the sand.

Back on the highway, keep your speed down until arriving at the nearest gas station, which will likely has an air pressure machine to re-fill those tires. A tire gauge in your glove box is mandatory, of course. Be sure to carry a spare tire, and a flat, sturdy board to support the tire jack. (That same board is handy for cutting bait).

Surf fisherman preparing his offshore fishing gear
Serious surf angler with long rods mounted in his vehicle.

Years ago in college days, we often managed 40 miles of beach driving on Padre Island, using my Volkswagon Thing. We did so without a spare tire, since space was tight. One morning after some hard driving, someone heard a sss---sss---sss outside the car, and yelled to turn down the radio. We stopped and glumly watched the tire going flat, with a catfish spine sticking out of the sidewall. Forty miles from pavement, but we had arrived at our spot, so we pulled out the tackle.

It was a good day to fish. Six hours later, a moving dot appeared on the hot and shimmering sand dune horizon. It was a Volkswagen bus, arriving to camp and fish. They cheerfully lent us their spare tire and we found a handy piece of driftwood to place under the jack, changing our flat. We soon sped away in a cloud of sand, to return next day with their tire—and to fish again

Bluefish caught on a jigl
Bluefish often feed in the surf when they hem in schools of smaller baitfish. They're not picky and will hit jigs, spoons and plugs

Our friends back home were amazed to hear the tale. Some called it living right, while others spoke of Karma. We'd had no negative vibes that day, the fishing was too good, and that must have counted for something. The surf and sun were perfect, and we'd caught a heavy stringer of pompano, flounder and whiting. It never occurred that we might not make it home that day.

Such is the optimism of youth. These days I pack a little more carefully, even carry a tow chain in case we get bogged down. Or we might see another vehicle stuck, spinning their tires and asking for assistance.

Surf fishermen have to stick together, because quite often, we're the only people out there — alone on a wide expanse of breaking waves on sand.