A Beginner's Guide to Surf Fishing

Mar 21, 2022 | 10 minute read
Reading Time: 10 minutes

Some people go to the beach to get a tan, others to let the crashing waves wash away their worries. But there’s another group of people, the ones you’ll see arrive first to the beach, hauling their tools and tackle, ready to start the day before anyone else – surf fishermen. Just around sunrise, they come out to get ready for another surf fishing adventure.

A fisherman wading in the surf, in the middle of surf casting

The advantages of surf fishing or surf casting are apparent. Beaches are usually easily accessible, you don’t need a lot of equipment or experience, and the rewards can be great. If you’re just starting out, we’ll help you figure out the basics like tackle, rigging, how to find the best surf fishing spots, and everything in between. Let’s get started!

All about Surf Casting

The first thing we want to talk about is what makes surf casting different from regular casting. The basics are the same, but the main difference is the length of your cast. Longer overhead casts are necessary to get to the fish which hide between troughs and around sandbars.

A surf fisherman on a beach, caught mid-cast

The movement itself isn’t difficult, but it takes time to nail down the precision and speed of the cast. The best practice is to step into the surf, pinpoint where you want your bait to land, and hold your rod perpendicular to the ground. Cast your line back in one fluid motion, and release it as the rod gets into your line of sight. You’ll see where your rig has landed and from there on, you can tweak to improve your accuracy as needed.

Choosing the right gear will help you immensely in honing your surf casting skills – and so will practice! Bear in mind that you don’t always have to cast super far to be productive, sometimes fish are much closer to land than you might think. This is why testing out the waters and constant tweaking are invaluable to good surf casters. 

What is the best time for surf fishing?

There’s no one easy answer to this question, but there are some pointers that you can use. The incoming tides during low-light conditions (sunrise and sunset) are usually the best time for surf fishing, but there are no strict rules.

A shore fisherman standing at the edge of the surf, holding a fishing rod

If you’re not sure about the exact times of high and low tides, consult tidal charts for your area. Then, plan to be at the beach at least a couple of hours before high tide, that’s usually when the bite is at its best. This means you should head out very early in the morning or a few hours before sunset. 

Around this time, fish will be feeding on the bait fish that the current brings in, so there are bigger chances that they’ll take your offering too. Overcast days can also be productive, just be mindful of dangerous rip currents and sudden weather changes like rain showers and storms. If you see lightning in the sky, it’s time to pack up and leave the fishing for a better day.

Finding the Best Surf Fishing Spots (aka Reading the Beach)

Before you do your first cast, you’ll need to do a scouting mission. This is called “reading the beach” and it means looking for the best spots close to shore where the fish are likely to hide. 

A surf angler walking on the beach

The best time for “reading” is during low tide, when you can clearly see sandbars, rock jetties, and deep holes that are exposed when the water pulls back. You’ll hear the word “trough” used a lot, which is a channel that forms between land and the sandbars. This is where fish are most likely to hang out and feed during high tide. When you spot the sandbars, you can estimate where the troughs will be and where you should focus your casts.

Fish like to converge around rocky jetties and submerged rocks. The downside to fishing around them is that you can easily lose your terminal tackle. Try your luck around rip tides, which will be more visible when the water comes back in. Deep holes can hold a good number of fish, so be sure to remember their location and cast your bait in that general direction.

What fish can you catch in the surf?

One of the best things about surf fishing is the variety of species you can find at the end of your line. Every part of the country has its own staples, so what you’ll catch depends on where you are, and the time of year.

A man with his back turned to the camera, carrying two fish over one shoulder, and a surf fishing rod over another

Some of the most common catches along the East Coast are Striped Bass, Croaker, Bluefish, Flounder, Smelt, and Tautog. Along the Gulf Coast, you’ll find plenty of Redfish, Snook, Spotted Seatrout, Pompano, and Mackerel. In some parts, you can even hook into a Tarpon or two. Then you’ve got your Sheepshead, Barracuda, Ladyfish, Cobia, and Jack Crevalle.

On the West Coast, you’ll have access to California Corbina, Halibut, Rockfish, Mackerel, Surfperch, and many more. Sharks are another go-to target, and you can find different species wherever you cast your line. As you can see, there’s a lot to do when you’re fishing from shore. You might not be able to go after game fish, but there’s more than enough to keep you busy.

What do you need for surf fishing?

Before we get to the advice about the best tackle and rigs to use, let’s go through a quick checklist of things you’ll need for your surf fishing adventure.

✓ Sand spikes (rod holders) and a rubber mallet (to get them into the sand easier)

✓ Fishing rods and reels (good to have at least two with different setups)

✓ Live bait, cut bait, frozen bait, and/or a selection of lures

✓ Spare line, hooks, leaders, and terminal tackle

✓ A bait bucket with an aerator

✓ Surf fishing rigs (pre-made or bought)

✓ A sharp knife for cutting bait and filleting your catch

✓ A good set of pliers

✓ A wet towel (to wipe the slime away and avoid getting your gear dirty)

✓ First aid kit

✓ Sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses

✓ A wind/rain jacket and rain gear (just in case)

✓ Waders, neoprene socks, and a warm waterproof jacket (on cold days)

✓ A valid saltwater fishing license (if required)

Gear & Tackle

The best thing about surf casting is that it can be hassle-free. You don’t need fancy equipment or lots of preparation, which is what many anglers find so attractive about it. Let’s talk about rods, reels, tackle, and bait that you should have with you before you hit the beach.

Surf Fishing Rods

One of the first things you’ll notice about surf fishing rods is that they’re longer than regular saltwater ones. This is because you need to reach further into the troughs, beyond the crashing surf, to get to the fish.

Several fishing rods buried in the send of a beach, with fishing lines in the water

The length of the rods will vary significantly, from 7–15 feet. Unless you’re fishing in an area where the surf is very big, a medium-heavy 8–12′ rod with moderate action will serve you well. Shorter rods are meant for shorter casts and smaller fish.

We already mentioned that it’s good to have at least two different setups when you’re surf fishing. A shorter rod (10 feet) can hold smaller weights and bait for smaller fish, and a longer one (12–13 feet) can reach further, hold more weight, and entice bigger fish.

Surf Fishing Reels

Onto the reels. Most people opt for spinning reels, because they’re easier to handle, and you can pair them with shorter rods. However, conventional reels work well too, especially if you’re going after larger fish and need more strength and power. 

A close-up of a surf fishing rod, with a surf fisherman in the background

The size of the reels should match the size of your rods. If you’re using two or more poles, you can pick different sizes of rods and reels to target a bigger variety of fish. Shorter rods match well with the 1000–3000 reel size, and these are usually meant for smaller species. For bigger prey and longer casts, you’ll need a bigger reel (up to 6000), because it can hold more line. 

In general, the most commonly used reels are in the 6000–8000 range. With these, you can tackle bigger species like Bull Redfish, Snook, Sharks, and Bluefish. When hooked, these predators make a run for it and you’ll need a lot of line to keep up with them. You should have at least 500 yards of line on your reel to land big species, and that’s exactly what big reels are made for.

Fishing Lines 

There’s an ongoing debate on whether a monofilament or braided fishing line is better for surf fishing. There’s no clear answer, but you can use both and decide what works best for you, depending on the fishing conditions and species you’re going after.

Surf fishing rods upright on a beach, with surf fishermen in the background

The monofilament line is durable and won’t snap easily, which is necessary when you’re battling toothy fish. It’s also more flexible and stretchy compared to the braid. You can use a 5–10 lb mono for smaller setups, up to 15 lb lines for medium reels, and 15–30 lb lines for massive reels and long rods.

Braided lines are much thinner than mono, which makes it harder for the fish to spot it in the water. This also helps with longer casts, because the braid is lighter. You can also use a stronger braided line for different types of reels – up to a 30 lb braid for small and medium reels, and up to 50 pounds for bigger setups. 

Terminal Tackle

Surf casting requires the use of a leader, especially when you’re going after fish with big teeth and fishing around structures and rocks. A steel leader with its strength in the 30–100 lb range (depending on what you’re targeting) will keep the fish on. It’s also recommended to use a shock leader when surf casting. You’ll minimize the chances of your line breaking and losing your tackle, plus the line will be easier to handle.

A close-up of terminal tackle setup of a surf fishing rod

Sinkers – also known as weights – are another important component of your ensemble. There’s a variety of sinkers you can use like egg, bullet, slip, teardrop, pyramid, or sputnik sinkers. The type you use will depend on the water movement and the type of bottom. Pyramid sinkers (3 ounces) are the most popular choice for sandy bottoms. The weight of your sinkers can vary from 1–8 ounces – you’ll need heavier weights for bigger fish and stronger currents.

Hooks are the last piece of the puzzle. It’s a good idea to have a good number of spare hooks in your tackle box, ranging from 1/0 to 8/0 sizes. Match the size of your hook to the size of your bait, and consequently, to the size of the catch you want. Circle hooks, J-hooks, and wide-gap hooks all work well.

What’s the best bait for surf fishing?

Live bait is definitely the best option for your surf casting endeavors. What you’ll use hinges on where you’ll be fishing. As a rule of thumb, live shrimp pretty much always works, as well as squid. You can also use finger mullet, minnows, and herring with great success.

A bait bucket full of water with live minnows in it

Cut bait (squid strips, mullet strips, shrimp) can work very well, especially if you’re going after Sharks and Flounder. Sand crab, clam, greenbacks, and sandworms are other good options. 

Artificial lures can help in a pinch, but most surf fishermen swear by live bait since it’s more productive. If you don’t want to deal with keeping your bait alive in a bucket, you can go for jigs, soft plastic baits, spoons, and topwater poppers. Soft plastics are most handy because they have a strong smell that attracts predators. If you’re more into hands-on precision fishing, then jigging around structures will keep you busy.

Surf Fishing Rigs

There’s a good variety of surf fishing rigs you can try, and some are more effective than others. 

A small Shark caught while surf fishing, on a fish-finder rig

The fish-finder rig (sliding rig) is by far the most popular choice of surf casters. You can use it in most conditions and for whatever species you’d like to target. All you need is a pyramid sinker with a swivel on the line, followed by a 2′ leader line and a circle hook with cut or frozen bait. This is the simplest, yet most productive surf fishing rig.

The high-low rig is another classic. This is the go-to rig for live bait fishermen and it’s useful because you can get two pieces of live bait into the water at the same time. You’ll need a three-way swivel to attach one hook with bait right after the mainline. To that, you’ll add one foot of leader line between the first and second hook. You’ll use another three-way swivel to attach another hook and the sinker which will be at the very bottom of the setup.

Other popular surf fishing rigs are pompano rigs (good for smaller fish), fireball rigs (great with live bait), and ready rigs (excellent for novices and children).

Surf Fishing – Your One-Way Ticket to Good Fishing Times

As you can see, surf casting can be quite straightforward. It’s affordable and you don’t need a lot of gear or experience to enjoy it – all that’s required is free time and dedication. Of course, this is its main appeal, especially to beginners. 

A surf angler with his rod bent standing in the surf, with sunset behind him

Even if you’re a seasoned surf caster, there’s always another beach to explore, another new species to target. Therein lies the beauty of surf fishing – things are constantly changing. Even if you spend most of your time fishing the same beach, the sense of discovery never goes away. What can be more exciting than that?

Do you like surf fishing? Is it something you’re interested in exploring more? Do you have some tips for beginner anglers? Share them with your fellow anglers, and in case you prefer fishing with a professional guide, we’ve got you covered.

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