I had to learn the hard way what makes certain surf fishing gear essential. There were days of fishing spent freezing in cold, wet conditions or burning red in the hot summer sun. I also lost more fish than I'd like to admit, spending lots of time fumbling to unhook and handle the fish. I figured out quickly that you need more than a rod and reel to become a competent angler.
Focusing on fundamental fishing gear is just as important for beginners as it is for experienced anglers. You can always improve the quality of each item over time. But if you want to catch fish and deal with the elements, then you need to start with the essentials.
In this article, I'll cover the surf fishing gear you absolutely need, why you need it, and offer a few recommendations to help you get started.
Essential Surf Fishing Gear & Accessories
Rod And Reel
The surf fishing rod and reel combo are fundamental to any surf fishing angler's gear. Where you plan to fish, and your target species will be the biggest influences when deciding what setup is right for you.
Rods and reels for surf fishing come in two styles: Spinning and Baitcasting (conventional). There are also tons of options for rod and reel size. For beginners, I'd recommend a ten to twelve-foot, medium-heavy spinning rod with a 4500-5500 spinning reel. That combo will cover you for a wide range of species and water conditions.
For a more in-depth look at picking the right setup, you can check out our recommendations for the best surf rods and reels for surf fishing.
Surf Fishing Tackle
Having the right line can improve your hookup rate and make it easier to reel in fish. Conversely, picking the wrong line can negatively affect your bait/lure presentation and lead to lost fish.
To figure out what kind of line you need, first decide what type of fish you're going after. The key is to find a line strong enough to handle the weight of your target fish without being excessively heavy.
For beginners, I strongly recommend using a monofilament line. Braided line has some sensitivity advantages but gets tangled easier and is more difficult to tie than monofilament.
We measure line strength (test) in pounds, representing the size weight the line can hold before breaking. For example, you'd say the line is a "20-pound test" for a line strength of 20 pounds. You'll want to use a monofilament line between 10-20 pounds for most surf fishing species. However, surf fishing anglers targeting large game fish should consider going heavier.
The leader is a type of line attached to the end of the reel line, with the other end tied to your lure or bait rig. It's stronger and thicker than the rest of your line and prevents line breaks caused by teeth, fish body abrasion, and rocks or other structures. Without a leader, you'll likely lose many of the fish you hook up.
Leaders come in various strengths and materials, and your target species will determine which is right for you. Generally speaking, you should use heavier leaders for bigger fish, fish with sharp teeth, or if you're fishing around a structure. I prefer between 20-30 fluorocarbon leader for most of my saltwater fishing.
Swivels may be small, but they serve an important purpose. They connect two sections of line and allow each line to twist independently. This prevents tangles during casts and retrievals.
The most common place you'll find a swivel is connecting the reel line with the leader. When fishing with lures, I also love using a quick snap/swivel combo attached to the end of my leader for fast tackle changes.
Lures are artificial bait designed to mimic prey species and attract the attention of predator fish. You can find them in an endless variety of shapes, vibrant colors, sizes, and materials that work well for different species and conditions.
A good way to choose the best lures is to ask local surf anglers or talking to a nearby bait shop clerk about what's been working for their target species. You can also search for advice online. However, lure effectiveness can change between locations, conditions, and the time of year, so local knowledge is best.
As a beginner, you'll want to get around five to ten artificial lures of various styles depending on your budget. I'd recommend getting a few soft bait lures, bucktails, darters, and poppers in a variety of colors. Bright colors are always good because they're more visible than dark-colored bait.
See what works and what doesn't. Ask other experienced fishermen what they're having success with, and buy more lures as your budget allows. As you gain more experience, you'll develop an arsenal of lures, each serving a purpose for specific species and fishing conditions.
A bait rig is a way of tying lines, hooks, weights, floats, swivels, teasers, and other tackle to present dead, live, and artificial bait to provoke a fish bite. You can build your own rig or buy premade bait rigs.
The ideal bait rig varies based on species and location, so you should first determine where you'll be fishing and what types of fish are in the area. Bait rigs usually involve some form of sinker (weight) to keep the bait from drifting too quickly and hold the bottom.
These sinkers are available in two to eight ounces, and you can swap them out depending on the current strength. I recommend getting a handful of pyramid sinkers between one to three ounces so you can combine them to cover you in various conditions. You should also pick up different size hooks, especially a few circle hooks.
I always have fishing pliers handy, no matter where or how I fish. It's best to prepare for success, which means you better be ready to unhook a fish once you catch one.
Unhooking a fish can be difficult or dangerous, depending on the size and types of fish. Using pliers is much safer than attempting the task by hand. You won't have to put your finger near the fish's mouth (potentially with sharp teeth) or the hook. Also, pliers provide a firm grip making it easier for a quick hook removal.
Although any pliers are better than none, I'd recommend a set of spring loaded pliers. The spring forces the pliers to rebound to an open position, making it easier to use one-handed as you hold the fish down with your other hand.
Speaking of unhooking a fish, it helps to have gloves around. I'll admit that they're not exactly 'essential,' but they're cheap and make handling fish much easier.
Fish can have sharp teeth and spines that tear your hands up while unhooking them. Plus, they can be slippery and slimy, making them difficult to hold as they flop around.
I like using textured, puncture-resistant gloves to protect my hands and secure the fish while unhooking them. At the very least, I'll bring a rag to help hold the fish down and wipe slime from my hands.
I recommend getting two types of knives for surf fishing: a utility knife and a filet knife. My short-blade utility knife is great as a bait knife and for cutting lines, bleeding fish, and other general purposes. Utility knives come in all sizes and styles, but I love the carrying convenience of a flip knife with a belt clip. I also prefer "survival" style knives with a part straight, part serrated, corrosion-resistant blade.
You'll need a filet knife if you plan to eat your keeper fish. The long, thin, and flexible blade is the most efficient knife for clean cuts of fish meat.
A dull knife is more difficult and dangerous to work with. That's why it's worth picking up a sharpener to keep your blades sharp and effective.
It's nice to have a cutting board when chopping up bait and filleting fish. A small cutting board is better when trying to reduce pack weight, but if it's too small, it won't be the best for fileting.
I prefer a mid-sized (2ft x 1ft) plastic cutting board for all-around use because plastic is easier to clean than wood.
A simple plastic bucket can be surprisingly versatile. I like to fill up a bucket with water and use it to wash off tools and my hands as they get dirty with bait, sand, and fish juices.
They’re also perfect for a live bait bucket if you add an aeration system. You'll need a bucket to bleed fish and can use it to store what you catch if you don't have a cooler. They're also handy to use for carrying and storing gear.
To get to some of the best surf fishing spots, you'll often need to walk through water to cast beyond the shallow rocks and weeds. A good pair of waders keeps you dry while fishing submerged in water.
Waders are available in various styles and insulation levels suitable for different needs. For example, some waders cover up to your chest, while others only cover up to your hips. Thick neoprene waders keep you warm in the dead of winter, while lightweight nylon and polyester waders are more breathable.
I prefer nylon/polyester stockingfoot chest waders because I can use my wading boots, and they provide full-body coverage, and I can layer underneath based on the weather. For more detail on how to choose waders, check out our recommendation for the best waders for surf fishing.
Owning a rain jacket is crucial no matter where you live or plan to fish.
Whether you’re planning on a rainy day of fishing or just want to prepare for those unexpected showers, it's always a good idea to pack a jacket. Even if it doesn't rain, they're great protection against the wind. They're especially helpful in rough surf conditions, when the winds carry salt spray with every crashing wave. I love the feeling of being protected against the elements when I wear a rain jacket over my chest waders.
The most effective combination is owning one lightweight and one heavy-duty rain jacket. A lightweight jacket is great for those summer showers and packs down to a small size for easy transport. I don't like warm insulation in my heavy-duty rain jacket. Instead, I prefer one that's just a highly waterproof outer shell that I can layer underneath, depending on the temperature.
I spend a lot of time fishing during the summer months or in tropical climates during the winter. I also have fair skin, so sun protection is a major concern of mine. I don't want to be out in the sun without UV protection, so I wear sunblock on my face and neck.
However, it's too costly, time-consuming, and greasy to reapply sunscreen to my body all day. Lightweight, UV-protecting long-sleeve shirts are the best for long days fishing in the sun. They're more breathable than cotton and other standard shirt materials, wick sweat from the skin, and dry quickly.
When it comes to fishing, hats are for function, not fashion. They keep the sun off your face and out of your eyes.
I prefer a cheap ballcap that keeps the sun out of my eyes, that I don't care if it gets stained with salt and fish blood. They also make specific fishing hats that provide 360-degrees of coverage or with material flaps that hang over the back of your neck.
Tackle And Gear Bag
It's great to have all the essential surf fishing gear, but it won't do much good without an efficient way to carry everything to your fishing spot.
Backpacks for fishing are my favorite for everyday use, especially if I'm walking long distances between spots. They have built-in rod holders, space for tackle boxes, and a range of well-organized gear sections for easy access to all my tackle items.
Lightweight bags, such as sling packs, are useful for on-the-water lure changes and tool access. There are also high-capacity bags you can load up with all the fishing gear you own. I'd recommend checking out my post on the best surf fishing bags to get a better idea of the pack that'll suit your needs.
Sand spikes hold your rod upright while fishing off the beach. They're made of plastic or metal and insert firmly into soft sand, freeing up your hands and securing your rod when a fish hits the bait.
Even if I plan to cast continuously with lures, I still bring a spike to keep my rod and reel clean of sand and debris when I'm not fishing. I'd recommend a metal rod holder for the most secure hold.
Although this list of essential gear may seem like a lot, there are low-budget versions of every item available. If money is a concern, start with one of whatever you can afford and improve the quality of each item over time. You can consider this post your surf fishing gear checklist. Once you’ve checked all the items off the list, fishing will be easier and more efficient, which will ultimately help you catch more fish.
Essential Surf Fishing Gear Checklist
- Bait rig
- Cutting board
- Rain jacket
- Sun shirt
- Tackle and gear bag
- Sand spike
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.