Most of the time we can get away with our favorite surf fishing rig. But using an inappropriate rig for the conditions, bait, and target, often ends in disappointment – a mess on the end of your line, and no fish. It’s critical we have an arsenal of three or four surf fishing rigs and know when best to deploy each.
I use the most basic Carolina rig whenever it’s remotely possible – I love its simplicity and effectiveness. But I know when it’s time to rig a dropper, and I frequently rig for live baits. My default position with surf rigs is to always favor simplicity.
Let’s take a closer look at 7 common surf fishing rigs, and when they’re best deployed. As a bonus, I’ve included a classic Aussie surf rig, perfect for bluefish and mackerel.
A Note About Tackle Specs
Terminal tackle sizes and weights are determined by line class, conditions, and target species. So, as they vary significantly, they’ve not been specified here. The surf rigs below are suitable for mono line classes 6 to 30 pounds. They’re great for popular circle hooks and tie securely with clinch knots. For some rigs, you’ll also need a dropper knot.
The rigs are good for braid also, but there are further considerations with braids, best dealt with in a separate guide. For an awesome deep dive into selecting hooks for surf fishing, check out Mike’s surf hook article.
1. Carolina Rig
I use a Carolina over 90% of the time. I believe it’s the best general-purpose rig for surf fishing. Ideally suited for forage feeders, baits can move naturally while remaining slightly elevated from the bottom.
Depending on the sinker weight and current, the rig holds its ground reasonably well. With a Carolina rig, fish have time to take the hook before they’re spooked by resistance.
Tying A Carolina Rig
Step 1: Thread a ball or bean sinker, heavy enough for casting and current, onto your mainline.
Step 2: Tie a swivel onto the end of the mainline.
Step 3: Tie a fluoro leader to the free end of the swivel. Your leader should be no lighter than your mainline, and only heavy enough to combat fish teeth. More often than not, I use my mainline as leader if I’m using mono mainline. Leader lengths are usually between two and 3 feet. Casting distance and tangled leaders are likely issues the longer the leader.
Step 4: Tie a suitable hook to the end of the leader and you’re ready to bait up.
Option: Many anglers place a bead between the sinker and swivel as a buffer to avoid the sinker damaging the knot. I’ve never used one, and never had a sinker damage a knot.
When Should I Use A Carolina Rig
The Carolina rig is a year-round rig, ideal for all but the roughest wind and sea conditions, and heavier currents. It’s a go-to rig, ideal for presenting a wide range of baits for surf fishing, including cut baits (large and small), worms, clams, crabs, sand fleas, and shrimp.
Fish You Can Target
There isn’t a surf-dwelling species of fish that won’t take a Carolina rig, from whiting to sharks and mackerel. Its versatility makes it the first choice for so many anglers.
However, it’s best suited for fish that chase their dinner in the bottom 3 feet of water. It’s ideal for fluke, drum, tarpon, striper, porgy, croaker, ladyfish, pompano – and the list goes on.
- Very easy to tie
- Will take just about all species
- Outstanding rig for forage feeders
- Most versatile go-to surf rig
- Loses position-holding in heavy currents
- Casting distance can suffer significantly in stronger winds
- Prone to tangling in churning surf
2. Fish Finder Rig
The fish finder rig is a version of the Carolina rig that’s more suitable for heavy currents and rougher conditions. The only difference from the Carolina rig is the fish finder has a pyramid sinker connected to the mainline with a sinker slider.
The fish finder works on exactly the same principles as the Carolina. It’s a first-choice rig for many surf anglers, regardless of conditions.
Tying A Fish Finder Rig
Option: Add a bead as a buffer between the sinker slider and swivel.
When To Use A Fish Finder Rig
A fish finder rig can be used at any time or tide. However, I feel it’s most useful in heavy currents and churning surf, as the pyramid sinker is effective for holding a sandy sea bed.
I would also use a fish finder if I was using larger baits, especially big cut baits. A fish finder can be pretty useful for smaller live mullet baits, but I prefer simpler rigs for live baits.
Fish You Can Target
As per the Carolina rig. However, I like the fish finder for bigger baits and bigger fish. For example, I’d use it for big striper and drum in difficult conditions.
- Ideal for larger targets
- Very useful in heavy currents & churning surf
- Will take just about all surf-dwelling fish
- Can be too heavy, spooking fish
- Prone to tanglers
3. High Low Rig Surf Rig
The high low rig is commonly used from docks and piers and is a classic for drifting in a boat inshore and off. But it is also a very useful surf rig.
The idea is that two baited hooks present twice the chance of a hook-up, and even double hook-ups.
Tying A High Low Rig
Step 1: Tie a swivel to your mainline.
Step 2: Tie two hooks 6 inches from each other on an 18-inch leader. The top hook should be a least 6 inches from the swivel and the bottom hook 6 inches up from the sinker. Use dropper loops of an inch or so for connecting the hooks to the leader.
Step 3: Attach a snapper-style sinker to the bottom of the leader, heavy enough for casting and holding the target zone.
When To Use A High Low Rig
You can deploy a high low rig any time in the surf. I use it when schooling fish are actively feeding in a trough or hole. It’s these times when double hook-ups are likely and great fun. It’s a great rig for casting long distances and is ideal for when fish are hanging further out.
Fish You Can Target
Target everything that feeds around the bottom. Larger hooks and baits for striper and drum, smaller baits and hooks for whiting and pompano. It’s one of my favorite rigs when whiting are around in numbers, and feeding freely.
- Great for double hook-ups
- Excellent rig for casting distances
- Effective in a wide variety of conditions for great-tasting table fish
- A bit of a pain to rig
- Baits sit less naturally
- Fish feel resistance quickly. Timing the strike requires takes greater skill
4. Dropper Loop Rig
A dropper loop rig is the same as a high low rig, the difference being you use only one hook. It’s a popular rig for all types of fishing, especially bottom bouncing offshore. Those new to the surf often don’t realize it’s effective in the waves too.
Tying A Dropper Loop Rig
Is the same as a high low, but with only one hook on the trace, either centrally located or on the lower half of the trace. The lower the hook, the better the casting properties, but the more likely the weight of the sinker could spook fish.
When To Use A Dropper Loop
Some surf anglers love it, but I use it very sparingly. I use it when the surf is heavy and the wind and weather are rough. It’s a very good casting rig, and it also holds the bottom very well. It’s a good rig for when you’re fishing a heavy line class, targeting larger fish.
Fish You Can Catch
You’ll be fishing the bottom, so you’re likely to catch the foragers – the bottom feeders. However, there’s no reason you won’t get bites from anything that’s lurking in your target zone.
The species will depend on your bait type/size and hook size. You can get anything from whiting through to sharks, and everything in between. I like it for big striper in tough conditions using squid heads. Swap the squid for half a large crab for a PB black drum.
- Brilliant casting rig
- Cancatch anything & everything
- Inhibits natural bait presentation
- Fish can be spooked feeling resistance quickly
- Excellent strike timing is required.
5. Classic Surf Lure Rig. The Metal Slice (Spoon)
Depending on where you come from, a metal slice is known as a spoon, jig, or spinner. I think this is my favorite surf rig of all time for bluefish, mackerel, and top water feeders. It’s old school, deadly, and the fishing can be explosive.
Tying A Metal Slice Rig
There’s nothing easier than tying a metal slice rig. Tie a snap swivel to the end of your mainline, then clip on a solid metal of a size suitable for the target, casting distance, and conditions. Grip it and rip it.
Option: You can drop the snap swivel, but line twist can become an issue. You can use a trace, but I find it unnecessary. You can replace the metal with other artificial lures such as poppers and stick baits.
When To Use A Metal Lure Surf Rig
Use the metal lure surf rig at any time. It can be a good idea to cast a few speculators as soon as you arrive at a spot that produces surface hunters. When there’s bird action, schools of baitfish, or the water’s on the boil, you’ve simply gotta try this rig.
Fish You Can Target
The metal lure is a deadly rig for mackerel, bluefish, and other types of fish such as larger surface predators. But as the spoon mimics a darting bait fish, any fish that takes a baitfish will take a metal. Don’t be surprised if you hook a drum or striper on a slower retrieve, or on the pause as it sinks.
- Outstanding distance casting rig
- Simple to tie
- Deadly on big surface feeders
- Explosive hook-ups
- Can be hard work if cranking at speed
6. Classic Big Fish Live Bait Surf Rig
Live worms, shrimp, and sand fleas are exceptional live baits. But big fish like big fish meals, and they like their dinner stilll kicking. For big surf fish, I don’t think there’s a better rig than the simplest of live bait rigs.
Tying A Classic Live Bait Rig
Step one: Thread a sinker, no bigger than necessary, onto your mainline. The running sinker allows the fish to swim freely, yet keeps it located in the likely strike zone. A sinker directly above the hook also aids significantly when casting.
Step Two: Tie a large hook, 6/0 and upwards, to the end of your mainline. Hook your bait above the lateral line, or through the top and bottom lip, and cast.
Option: A trace of a few feet connected to a swivel with the sinker above the swivel is an option, and popular. If you expect teeth, use a heavy fluoro leader, or steel leader for sharks. You can drop the sinker all together - it isn’t critical, but it does make the fish struggle a little as if wounded. Predators love the easy pickings of wounded prey.
When To Use A Live Bait Surf Rig
It’s wise to set a live bait whenever you’re fishing the surf. But for me, it’s a must for nighttime surf fishing. You can bait up with anything from mullet to small whiting, sardines, mackerel, grunion, flounder, menhaden, and herring. Just about any smaller fish will do, even porgy. Be aware you should be conscious of local species size limits if using them as bait.
Fish You Can Catch
The reason we fish with live fish for bait is that we want trophy fish. Monsters. Targets include mature black drum, red drum, seabass, stripers, mackerel, snook, bluefish, tarpon, sharks, and more.
- One of the best ways to catch trophy fish
- Easy rig
- Catching & managing your baits
- Can be slow fishing
7. Ganged Hook Bluefish/Mackerel Rig
In Australia, connecting three or four hooks, ganged hooks, is a staple rig for bluefish and mackerel of all types. The rig is designed for holding whole pilchards . Every Aussie surf angler uses this rig, and it’s the best bluefish and mackerel rig.
Many in the US are unfamiliar with this rig, and the limited availability of appropriate hooks is a testament to its rarity. However, there are local hook options in the USA, and they’re worth exploring.
Tying A Ganged Hook Rig
Step 1: Firstly, you have to gang the hooks. To do it easily requires open-eye hooks. Mustad 34091DT, O’Shaughnessy open ring hooks, size 3/0 or 4/0 are ideal – depending on the pilchard size. Link three or four together, and close the eyes with pliers.
Step 2: Connect a swivel to the top hook – the hook that will connect to your mainline. Close the eye with pliers.
Step 3: Tie the gang to your mainline. If you need extra weight, which is likely, add a running sinker directly above the hooks, big enough for casting needs. Don’t be tempted to place a sinker above a leader. Casting will suffer signficantly.
When To Use Ganged Hooks
Ganged hooks are for targeting predatory fish working the surface. They’re used specifically for bluefish and mackerel. Use them any place you expect bluefish, but especially if there’s baitfish, bird activity, or the water’s on the boil.
- Brilliant rig for long casting
- No leader required
- The perfect rig for bluefish and mackerel of all sizes
- Great for fishing the topwater
- Hook availability in the US
Final Thoughts On Surf Fishing Rigs
If you’re proficient in three or four of these classic surf rigs, you’re set for surf fishing success in just about all conditions. No doubt you’ll find your favorite and use it whenever conditions and targets permit. My final advice is…keep it simple.
*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.