A Beginner’s Guide to Surf Fishing

Surf-fishing beginners are often surprised by the wide variety of fish that can be caught in the waters right off the shoreline. In fact, other than deep-sea game, such as tuna and marlin, you can catch most saltwater fish from the convenience of dry land.

Surf fishing is easy to learn, with tactics and strategies dependent on location, season, weather, tides, and the type of fish you’re going after. But all you need to get started is the right tackle and some basic knowledge!

Surf fishing gear
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Surf fishing tackle

Although you can head off to the water with a six-foot rod-and-reel, fish hook, leaded weight and some bait, your success will likely be limited and your time fishing cut short due to bait loss or a broken line.

Most surf fishermen arrive at the beach with at least two rods, a variety of tackle, plenty of bait and an assortment of tools. The really experienced fishermen use up to six rods and carry enough gear to fill the bed of a small pickup truck.

As a beginner, however, just start out with one or two rods. An ideal surf-fishing rod is 12 to 15 feet long with large line guides. Pair it with a large saltwater spinning reel and 20 to 25-pound test line.

With that equipment, you’ll be able to cast a weighted bait up to 100 yards. Experienced surf fisherman can make casts of up to 200 yards or more.

You can use a second smaller rod to cast closer to shore while you’re waiting for a strike on the bigger rod.

There are a wide variety of rigs surf fisherman can choose from depending on the fish sought, season, conditions and other factors. In fact, there is probably a distinct rig for every species of game fish. But beginners should probably start off with a basic two-hook leader with three- to four-ounce pyramid sinker and Khale hooks, which partially set themselves when fish bite. This standard surf-fishing rig allows for a variety of bait options and is capable of hooking most species.

Along with carrying extra rigs, hooks and sinkers, you should bring a sand spike for each rod. Most sand spikes are made out of sharpened PVC pipes that are driven into the sand to serve as convenient rod holders. Not only do they keep expensive reels out of the sand and saltwater, they serve as an extra pair of hands while you take a fish off your line.

Other necessary gear includes a knife, bucket, needle-nose pliers or hook remover, and a small cooler or container for your bait. If you think you are going to get serious about surf fishing, then you may also want to consider a tackle box, and perhaps a pack frame or specialized cart to carry your gear on the beach.

Live sea shrimp
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Bait and lures

A surf fishing beginner should keep it simple by relying on shrimp, mullet or squid for bait. Shrimp is all-purpose and capable of attracting most species, but it is also easily pulled off the hook. Mullet and squid last longer on the hook, but may be ignored by some fish species.

Keep it simple with lures as well. Start with a simple silver or gold spoon variety and top water plugs. Some lures catch fish just about anywhere, but ask your local tackle shop which ones work best in your area.

Seasons and conditions

Two rules of thumb with fishing are that fish are always on the move and that you never know what you might catch. That said, fish are affected by seasons, weather, tides, temperature and a variety of other factors. And these factors generally determine what fish may be swimming within a hundred yards of your surf fishing spot.

Some species are migratory, and move north as it warms and south as it cools. Some fish come closer to shore with an incoming tide, while others wait until dark. And many fish base their movement and location, at least in part, on the water temperature, with various species having ideal temperature ranges that guide specific actions.

A rising tide generally brings in more fish than a falling tide, and dawn and dusk are usually more productive than midday. Likewise, late spring, early summer, and fall provide the most opportunities to catch a wide variety of fish. There are times during these seasons when migratory patterns, weather, tides and other factors can bring most of the primary game fish in close to shore at the same time. Such days are never forgotten!

The art of reading seabed and surf conditions to determine productive fishing areas on any given shore takes time. As a beginner, you should start taking note of the surf. Consider casting between wave breaks, on either side of sandbars, along rip currents, or on the edge of drop offs.

Another sign to note is bird and fish activity. If fish are schooling or feeding you will likely see them breaking water in the surf. Diving seagulls, pelicans, and other shore birds provide a good indication that fish are present in large numbers. And if surf fishermen seem to be clustered in one particular spot, don’t feel too shy about sidling up near them to get in on the apparent action.

Casting, hooking and reeling in         

If you already know how to cast, then you will have no problem surf casting. As a beginner surf caster you should just work on distance and accuracy, and not be concerned with learning new casting methods.

If you are fishing with bait, after you cast let the sinker hit bottom before flipping your bail. Once you’ve brought your line in taut, wait a minute or two to make sure that the sinker is set into the sand and mud.

As a beginner, you should probably hold the rod to get the feel for how the fish bite will feel. This will also provide you with a faster reaction time for setting the hook. However, remember that many fish often take a couple of nibbles before actually taking the bait.

Once you’ve got the feel for your rod and its reaction to fish strikes, you can start setting it into the rod holder.  Of course, keep an eye on rod tip movement that signals a potential strike.

When you hook a fish, let him fight a bit before reeling it in. Get a sense for how big he is and determine if you need to adjust the drag to ensure that it does not break your line.

If you hook into a big one and successfully bring it in, little doubt that you will be hooked on surf fishing and eager to learn more.

Last words

Talk to people knowledgeable about surf fishing in the area you plan to fish. Local tackle shop owners and employees can provide a wealth of information pertinent to local surf fishing conditions and tactics. And many surf fishermen are willing to share their expertise with new surf fishermen. After all, they had to ask the same questions when they first started the exciting sport of surf fishing!