I’ve fished the surf now for 42 years. And whilst I will cast a line into any puddle of water, I’d call myself a surf angler above all.
I won’t go into detail as to why I choose to fish the surf above any other place, there’s easily a book in that.
But from the massive Western Australian coastline to the Anderman sea off the west coast of Thailand. I love fishing the surf.
Today’s article is about getting started with surf fishing. I’ll go through all the basics you need to start your first surf fishing adventure.
This includes surf fishing rigs, kit, and species, as well as a few surf fishing techniques and pointers for reading the surf.
Thinking back, I can recall starting with a handline. Yep, a line on a cork spool tossed willy-nilly into the shallows. Dad showed me how, and I caught whiting.
Surf fishing tips don’t need to be complicated. My goal here is to get you on the beach, cheaply, with limited fuss, and taking home a bag full of whatever or releasing a PB.
By the way, I’m making an assumption that you already have a little fishing knowledge. I.e. you’ve handled a fishing rod and reel, you can cast effectively, can tie knots and identify essential equipment…you’ve caught a few fish in your time, but never in the surf.
Let’s learn some surf fishing tips
What Can You Catch When Surf Fishing The Beach?
This is one of the great drawcards of surf fishing. You can catch everything from whiting to white pointers and everything in between.
The surf holds a huge diversity of fish species, and we’ll look at a few of them.
You can surf fish as a sport or you can fish for a feed. You can even do both at the same time. The diversity is also one of the challenges.
What do I target?
We’ll be focusing on species of the USA; however, this article is for everybody. The core surf fishing techniques can be deployed all around the world.
In fact, many countries share species – whiting and white pointers being prime examples.
Importantly, you can refine baits to target a specific species or you can generalize (potluck). Targeting a particular fish, or casting a broad net (metaphorically speaking) are both highly effective methods for cleaning up at the beach.
Here are a few of the species you can expect to encounter around the USA.
|tarpon||stingrays and sharks (various)|
Surf Fishing Tips – Gear and Equipment
Here’s a huge disclaimer. There are so many fishing rod and reel options that I could spend numerous chapters of an epic explaining each outfit and why.
Remember, we’re talking about getting started.
I’m keen to get you a modest kit that will get you everything from whiting, a massive striped bass or a shark. So, for this reason, I’ll give you three fishing rod and reel options.
You can get just one, or all three. It depends on your budget and your surf fishing ambition.
Purchase the best kit you can afford. For what it’s worth, I have never really been brand loyal. Good gear is good gear – and that’s what I recommend for the surf.
Surf and sand can be punishing on fishing gear, reels in particular. Look for gear that is robust, and be disciplined with your reel cleaning and maintenance.
General Purpose Surf Rod and Reel
Choose a 2 piece 12-foot composite fishing rod rated 6 to 12 kg. A medium/heavy action is preferred, mostly to deal with the fact that you will often be casting heavy weights dealing with wind and waves.
A 6000 to 8000 spin reel with at least one spare spool is fantastic. Look for reels that hold lots of line with long cast features on the spool.
I’m spooled with 15lb mono but have another spool with 25lb mono that I use for live baits.
Further Reading: Best Surf Fishing Rod and Reel Combos
This will be your go-to outfit. It will be deployed against just about everything and you will catch most things with this outfit.
I take this outfit with me every time I go to the surf. I’ll catch whiting on this guy, I’ve also caught hammerhead sharks.
With this rod and reel you have a huge amount of scope to vary your line class, rig, and bait. You also have the option of sticking to a 15lb line to keep things simple.
I love simple. I do this often.
This might seem like overkill for something like whiting or a small Pompano. But remember, this general purpose outfit is a compromise.
This same outfit needs to battle the likes of a 20lb striped bass or redfish.
Lightweight Outfit for Surf Sport Fishing
Look for a 7 foot, 2 piece composite fishing rod rated 3 to 6 kg. Medium action is good, but go a little stiffer if that’s what you prefer.
Just remember, you’re trying to keep things light. Strap on a 2500 to 3000 reel. I’d go for the 3000 reel given it can hold a little more mono. I have mine spooled with 8-pound line.
Believe me, where the beach is concerned, this can make for very exciting fishing. You often don’t need the length and power that’s outlined in the first outfit.
Frequently, the fish are literally just at your feet or within a very short cast from where you are standing.
Even sharks to 3 meters and more can be here in this zone, but that’s not what you’re hunting with such a light kit.
A bluefish over 5 lbs will give you an intense fight on such a light outfit, so too will a stripy at 2 pound and above. This is the sport. This is why you’re fishing light – for the challenge.
I’ll use this outfit whenever conditions allow. My only exception is if there are plenty of anglers with me fishing the same gutter.
Remember, that the few ounces of whiting your chasing for dinner may turn into 10 pounds of red drum.
Hooking up big can take a while on light gear. Fish tend to run up and down the beach paying no mind to the personal space of other anglers.
Be thoughtful. It’s fun to fish super light but it can take up a little space. If it’s crowded, fish a little heavier.
Game Outfits for Surf Fishing
Any game outfit that would be used to troll the blue water will be perfect. The biggest overhead or game reel you can afford and a super powerful game rod.
Your budget will determine a great deal here. Below is an example of a worthy contender:
A game rod rated 24kg (or more) with a little more length, around 6 foot, is great. Strap on an overhead with a capacity of at least 400 meters of 40 lb braid. (at least).
Fishing for big sharks is increasingly popular in the US. These days, a trip to the beach will turn up 4X4 pickups with game chairs mounted on the back.
I’m not going to go there, or harp on the game aspect of surf fishing. It requires its own article to do any sort of justice.
Many of us don’t have access to boats or access to game species. Be there’s certainly access on the beach.
So, even though this is an introduction to beach fishing…gotta mention game fishing in the surf!
Catching sharks, big ones, can be a phenomenal challenge, and especially rewarding on the beach. Targeting game on the beach can be a little equipment intensive, however.
To be honest, I’ve caught most of my sharks on my general purpose rig (lost more than caught). I don’t target them. However, if there’s any fish that responds to targeting, it’s sharks.
It’s important to note that setting your baits can be tricky. When targeting sharks we want to get some distance from the shoreline.
While sharks do come in close, like really close, they tend to prowl beyond the breakers.
These days, we take the huge baits out the back via an IRB (inflatable rubber boat) or surf ski.
The rig you are using is not designed for casting AT ALL…let alone the prodigious distance you need to get it out to the shark zone.
What Are The Best Conditions For Surf Fishing?
Before you hit the surf at any location, do your research. There are surf fishing tips that are peculiar to local areas. For the best results, find out what they are.
For example, many species will be seasonal, tidal influenced, weather influenced and wave-influenced, just to name a few things.
And these influences might be peculiar to the area. For example, heavy wave action turns off the blue fish in one area, but have little impact in another.
Research online – try chat groups. Then, stop at the nearest fishing tackle store relative to the beach you’re about to fish.
Local knowledge can make a big difference. Seek it out. If you can’t get local insights, or if your fishing an isolated stretch of sand in the middle of nowhere, never mind, good basics will be enough to keep you squarely in the hunt.
Surf Fishing Rigs. Keep it Simple!
1. Run a ball sinker directly down to your hook
Doesn’t get easier than that. This is a great rig for every fish. Like really. If you’re requiring more wait to keep your bait where you want it, then it’s probably time to change surf fishing rigs.
Too big a sinker on top of a hook causes all sorts of trouble, for one, fish don’t like it. Avoid it.
Use gang hooks for fish like blue fish. A set of 4 x 4/0 is perfect, and it negates the need for a heavy trace.
You also have a fighting chance should toothy critters such as mackerel or sharks take your bait.
2. Tie a hook to a two-foot leader
Tie the leader to a swivel and weight according to conditions and casting requirements. Again, so very, very simple. Again, this rig is ideal for just about any species.
Keep in mind any species with teeth will require a robust leader. I frequently use a long shank hook to provide a little more protection from teeth.
If you need to weight up a little more, then OK. But make sure you use a sinker that has more surface area such as a bean sinker. It holds the bottom better.
3. A paternoster rig is a brilliant choice
This really is a great choice when you need some serious weight to cast or hold ground.
Often, lateral wave movement can be a huge problem dragging your bait along the beach and back to the water’s edge.
In this case, a star or pyramid-shaped sinker can be effective holding the bottom. Snapper led is also great. There are such things as grappling sinkers.
They work on the same principle as a grappling hook. I’m not a fan. If the current is moving this much, I find I don’t get fish anyway.
4. Tie a lure to the end of your leader.
I use snap swivels to connect when I’m fishing larger, heavier lures in the surf. I like them for their strength.
When your casting long, you can put significant pressure on business at the end of your line. Don’t tie a lure directly to your line or leader.
Without a swivel, the line twist can be horrible, and if nothing else, destroys your casting length.
NOTE: With the exception of the gang hooks and extra-heavy sinkers which I addressed earlier, much of the fishing tackle you already have will suffice for the beach.
To make sure, research the species you are targeting or generally expect to encounter. Think of the baits you will use. This will determine your hook sizes.
It’s tricky to provide sinker sizes. Firstly, there’s no real standard, weights vary between manufacturers.
Conditions on the day will determine the weights you need. To be honest, I don’t even know the numbers anymore.
I look at a sinker and think, that ought to do. Often I’ll be wrong, and need to change up or down. Conditions play a huge part and often you can’t tell until you put your rig in the water.
Keep in mind, only use as much led as you need, and, although they weigh a lot, carry a reasonable assortment of sizes and shapes.
Best Lures for Surf Fishing
Big metal slices.
As they say in golf – grip it and rip it. Get a big metal slice and cast it long and hard, then retrieve it as fast as you can.
For me, and a good many other surf anglers, the humble old-school metal slice has been the most successful lure in the waves for many species.
Big poppers can be a little difficult to work, depending on the surf. But they can be devastating. I had a ball on poppers on the Queensland Fraser coast on a recent trip to Australia.
I caught a Spanish Mackerel…Yes, a Spaniard, off a beach. ( I didn’t land it. Dropped it in the shallows). I also caught Golden Trevally, amongst other fish.
Spool up with braid if you’re using poppers, it makes it far easier to achieve peak action.
Big bibless and diving minnows
These are another special choice. I love these when the water’s full and there’s significant wave action. Want a big redfish? record Stripy?
These lures worked slowly well beneath the surface and can be deadly on a host of species.
NOTE: Everything from cranks to soft plastics are brilliant in the surf. Like really. Experiment. The three I have listed above are the lures I never leave home without.
I’m not giving you an emphatic set of lure rules here, I’m telling you what I have found works over many years, well before the explosion of soft plastics for example.
I have a sneaking suspicion that if you cast any decent, geographically appropriate lure enough times, something will take it.
When a school of feeding bluefish fish turns up, I challenge you to cast unbaited ganged hooks into the surf and retrieve fast.
Regardless of their supposedly fantastic eyesight, they take your naked hooks.
Essential Surf Fishing Accessories
Headlamp. Better than a torch, as you have a hands free light.
Backpack. Sometimes you have to walk a long way on the beach. It’s easier carrying the load on your back.
Rod holder(s) – AKA Sand Spikes. Use good quality sand spikes or a piece of PVC pipe
Tackle Belt. Usually, you will be saltwater fishing some distance away from your kit. It’s handy to have your knife, pliers, bait and a change of fishing tackle or new rig in your belt kit. Saves you traipsing back up the beach.
Water bottle. Sunscreen and insect repellent
First aid kit
Lures. A Selection of essential lures as listed above
Resealable plastic bags. Large.
How Do You Catch More Fish In Surf Fishing?
Seeing the water on the boils or seeing birds diving left right and center for baitfish are good signs of fish anywhere – the beach is the same.
But there is a structure to a beach that should be understood in order to catch more fish.
1. Gutters and holes
Look for places in the surf where the water is darker, this indicates it is deeper to some degree.
Polaroid sunglasses will allow you to see the contours of the seabed very easily. It could be a small area or it could be a gutter or trough that runs for some distance along the beach.
It doesn’t matter how deep, it may only be inches, but this is where fish congregate to feed.
If the high tide is running in, fish toward the back of the gutter, If it is receding, fish toward the front. Fish are waiting for the tide to bring food directly to them via the current.
It’s great if you can assess a beach from a place of elevation, such as a headland or a sand dune. A set of field glasses can be handy for this.
2. Wave action
A flat surf is not a great sign. There are many species of fish that prefer wave action to stir up food and provide protection or cover.
On the contrary, a huge raging surf usually means it’s time to turn around and go to fish the river.
A flat surf is no reason to head back to the car. Nor is a featureless beach without a hole or gutter.
Fish will still feed there, it’s just very difficult to find the spot that they may be feeding. Where do you start?
Use your polaroid sunglasses to scour the water for the slightest collection of shells, depression in the sand, signs of crab activity.
Also, look for signs of human activity. Places where others may have fished, scales from a cleaned catch, fish head and the like.
Avoid seaweed. If there is a lot of seaweed in the water, it can make saltwater fishing nigh on impossible. Go elsewhere.
Sometimes you just can’t fight the power of the ocean. A lateral sweep along the beach can be very difficult to combat, regardless of how much led you use.
Try further along the beach and look for a more gradual slope up the beach which can significantly lessen this effect.
3. Would You be Happy to Go for a Swim?
OK, there’s no science to this at all, just my experience. I have often found that on good surf fishing days, the water always looked inviting…I.e., good for a swim or a surf.
I might be crazy, or I might have turned part fish, but I’m not the only one to make this observation.
4. The Wind
A few knots of breeze from any direction is never a problem. However, once a breeze becomes an onshore wind, it makes saltwater fishing difficult.
If the surf is kind and you have enough led, again, no problem.
Once the wind heads over 10 knots, however, it gets very difficult, not to mention unpleasant.
The only exception here is if the wind is blowing offshore, i.e. blowing from behind while you fish.
5. What Is The Best Time To Surf Fish
Any time of the day or night is a great time to fish the surf. Dawn and dusk is a great idea, and indeed logical.
However, I have caught so many fish in the middle of the day and the middle of the night I don’t even worry anymore. I fish whenever I can.
Tides are a thing where local knowledge can be invaluable. Species, seasons, and tide can have a very local flavor, with two stretches of beach, not even that far apart, having significant differences.
If I’m going to a new place, unresearched, I fish 2 hours to the top of the high tide and then 2 hours of the run-out.
If I can match it up with dawn and dusk, all the better. I do this until I get some local knowledge or make some discoveries of my own.
NOTE: If you’re chasing sharks, big sharks, the evening is the best by far in my experience.
6. Best Baits For Surf Fishing
Check out the list of baits below. Just about all of them are brilliant for a whole range of fish, within reason.
For example, big sharks won’t take sand worms, usually. And whiting won’t take live mullet. You know, be sensible. Wherever possible go live bait.
Always go fresh. Collect your own when and where you can. It’s heaps of fun.
- Bloodworms. Outstanding live
- Sandworms. Outstanding live
- Mullet. Live and whole dead. Strips and gut.
- Crabs. Live and dead. Whole or in pieces
- Shrimp. Outstanding live
- Squid. Live and dead. Whole or in pieces
- Flesh baits. Oily fish like Mackerel are great
- Mole crabs/Sand crabs. Brilliant live – the best
Surf Fishing Tips Wrap Up
I’ve been banging on now for nearly 10 pages and I’ve barely scratched the surface relative to all we could discuss about surf fishing.
However, this is enough surf fishing tips to get you fishing the surf and catching fish confidently.
Many of you will want to know about particular species. I accept that, but in all honesty, the same amount again could be written about the nuances of chasing each species in the surf.
The aim today was to get you out on the beach and targeting anything that’s there, quickly, cheaply and without fuss.
Take the information you’ve gleaned here, do some local investigation about the beaches you have in mind, and go saltwater fishing. There’s no better teacher than doing it.