There's a feeling of pure exhilaration that comes from landing a keeper. It's easy to get hooked on this feeling and, unfortunately, even easier to become deflated when you're having trouble catching fish. Internalizing the surf fishing basics is critical to improving your catch consistency. If you don’t take the time to learn when, where, and how to fish, you’ll end up wasting time and leaving most days empty-handed.
Over time and with the help of friends, I've learned the importance of thinking like a fish. Once you adopt this mentality, it becomes easier to catch fish in diverse settings. So whether you're familiar with that exhilarating feeling of landing a fish or eager to taste it for the first time, I'm going to share the surf fishing fundamentals that will help you catch more fish.
When To Go Surf Fishing
The most productive fishing times will vary between locations, species, time of month/year, and your fishing style. That said, there are some fundamentals you should learn to help you determine when is your best chance of catching a fish. Keep in mind, theres no substitute for spending time on the water. Every spot is unique, and the more time you spend learning it’s dynamics, the better you’ll understand when you should be out fishing.
Understanding Fishing Tides
Fish feed in moving water that pushes around bait fish. Your best chance to catch a fish is when they're feeding during the changing tide, and the water is moving the fastest.
You'll need to find a reliable local tide chart to help decide the most productive fishing times. As a rule of thumb, the best time to fish is 1-2 hours before and 1-2 hours after mid-tide, when the water is moving the fastest.
It's also important to understand that the LEAST movement happens during the "slack tide." The slack tide happens at both high and low tide and lasts roughly one hour each time. It happens 30 minutes before and after every high tide and 30 minutes before and after every low tide.
Check out my article on surf fishing tides and cycles for more about this.
Sunrise & Sunset
Fish are most active during the beginning and end of the day. That makes just before and after sunrise a great time to catch fish as they come to life for the day and look for that morning meal.
Fish also get a last burst of energy for the day around sunset as the temperature cools. Also, the sun shines from the side during sunrise and sunset so there are more shadows to provide cover for predator fish.
The Best Weather For Surf Fishing
Dark, cloudy skies, a cool temperature, and light to moderate wind are ideal weather conditions for surf fishing. Shadows and decreased visibility help fish hide and also make it more difficult for them to see your fishing line. Even some light rain can liven up the bite, as long as it's not a torrential downpour.
Where To Go Surf Fishing
Fish feed in moving water that pushes bait fish around. Sound familiar? The same principle that helps you determine the best time during the tide to fish also helps identify the best saltwater fishing spots. Predator fish take advantage of bait fish's vulnerability as they're swept up in a strong current or tossed around in tumultuous water. They also love hunting around natural and man-made structures.
Our job as surf anglers is to scan the shoreline in search of spots in these surf conditions. Finding the best fishing spot changes based on the type of shoreline you're fishing, so let's look at four of the most common surf fishing spots.
1. Sandy Beaches
Most anglers fish from sandy beaches when they're first getting started. There are fewer rocks and structures to snap your line on. There’s also plenty of room to provide a buffer between other surf fishermen. However, with miles of beach and no rocks, piers, or jetties, it can be difficult to decide where the best spot to fish is.
I recommend taking a few minutes to observe the water when you first get to the beach. Are there any birds working (hovering/diving over an area of water)? Any large, dark patches of water with sporadic whitecaps, potentially marking a school of bait fish near the surface? Are there any sand bars near the shore? Most importantly, are there any rip currents or troughs (gutters)?
As I've mentioned, predator fish love to hunt near moving water. Rip currents are light-colored, jet-like streams of water running from the beach out to sea. They're the most likely spot to find our target saltwater species as they attack bait fish caught up in the outflowing current. Troughs are deeper stretches of water that run parallel between the shore and a sandbar. They’re another great feature to target because stronger currents run through them carrying bait fish. So, unless I see schools of bait fish or diving birds, I'll cast into the rip currents or ahead of the current running through a trough.
2. Rocky Shores
Many predator fish feed along the rocky coastal waters, making these great areas to surf fish. There's no shortage of places for our target saltwater species to hide and ambush bait fish along the rocky shoals. The water becomes faster and more turbulent as currents and breaking surf flow around the uneven rocky bottom. This hectic environment disorientates bait fish and creates an ideal hunting environment.
You'll likely need a pair of waders to cast out past the shallow water, where your bait or lure will get snagged on rocks and weeds. Like at the beach, take a few minutes to observe the shoreline when you first arrive. Are there any large rocks in deep water? Can you see spots with swirling, tumultuous water you think has enough water to cast into? Are there any points, headlands, or other groupings of shallow rocks surrounded by deeper water? These spots are all prime targets for the variety of fish you're likely going after.
3. Jetties & Piers
Since we know fish love structure and fast-moving water, it should be no surprise that rock jetties and piers make great fishing spots. Bigger fish prowl along these structures and pick off bait fish caught up in currents and whitewater. So, whether you stand on the structure or cast alongside them from shore, piers and jetties can be very productive fishing spots.
The spot where sheltered bays, lakes, and rivers meet the open ocean are perfect fishing spots. My favorite time to fish inlets is when the tide runs out from high to low. During this outgoing tide, water runs out to sea, picking up speed as it flows out through the narrow opening. I'd recommend casting inside the inlet and around the mouth, where predators pick off bait fish as the strong outward flow pushes them out.
The Surf Fishing Gear You Need
You'll need to get some gear before you hit the water. A surf fishing rod and reel should be your first purchase, along with fishing tackle like line, leader, and swivels. You'll also need to pick up a few lures and bait rigs with circle hooks to cover yourself for different fish species and locations.
Basic tools such as pliers, tape measure, a bait knife, a fillet knife, and a cutting board also come in handy. It's also important to remember that you'll be out in the elements. So you need to prepare for hot sunny days with a hat and sun shirt and rainy days with a waterproof jacket.
There are inexpensive options available for every piece of gear so that you can start surf fishing on even the smallest budget. Check out my essential surf fishing gear guide for a rundown on everything you'll need to get started.
A Good Beginner Surf Fishing Set Up
The best surf fishing setup will depend on where you plan to fish, the species you're targeting, and your style of fishing. That said, I can recommend a standard setup that'll cover the needs of most beginner anglers.
I'd go for a ten to twelve-foot spinning rod with medium-heavy power and fast action. A spinning reel between 4500 to 5500 will handle larger fish and pair well with a surf rod that size.
I'd recommend getting 10-20 pound monofilament line and 20-30 pound fluorocarbon leader. The low-weight end of the spectrum for both will be good for most saltwater anglers. However, you might want to go heavier if you specifically target larger species such as striped bass, black drum, and red snapper.
Then you'll need the rest of your tackle, like swivels, lures, and bait rigs. A few swivels between #1- 2/0 will cover you for just about all fish. I'd also get a swivel with a snap for easy lure changes.
Next, you'll want a few artificial lures with whatever your budget allows. I like mixing topwater poppers, spoons, darters, soft plastics, and bucktails in a wide variety of (bright) colors and sizes. I'd also recommend getting a premade bait rig designed for your target species and a couple of pyramid sinkers between one to three ounces.
The Best Bait For Surf Fishing
The best surf fishing bait can be live, frozen, or artificial bait. Each one has its advantages and drawbacks. The most important thing to remember is that we’re trying to create a natural presentation. This means showing the fish bait that looks, moves, and smells like the food they’re used to eating.
Live bait is the closest to what a fish is familiar with eating and, therefore, the most effective. Even when the conditions aren’t ideal, live bait can produce a bite. However, they can be expensive, more difficult to find, and require a bait bucket to keep the bait alive, so they're more difficult to transport. Learning how to catch live bait is a worthwhile skill. Not only will it save you money, if you’re collecting bait near the spot you’re fishing, you know it's exactly what you’re target fish are used to eating. Some of the most common live bait are fresh shrimp, worms, small bait fish like finger mullet, and sand fleas.
Frozen bait is a good option because it's cheaper and easier to find than live bait. In addition, they're sold in a sealed package or container and can be easily transported in a small cooler. The downside of frozen bait is that, because they're dead, they don't move or smell the way fish are familiar with, which could spook them. Squid, clam, and chunks of mullet are some of my favorite types of frozen natural bait.
Artificial bait is the easiest to store and transport. I'll buy a few packs to throw into my tackle because they'll last a while, take up no room, and it's nice to know I always have bait ready. Artificial baits look and swim like live bait and even have a "live bait smell." They work about as well as frozen bait, but fresh bait will almost always be more effective.
My Favorite Surf Fishing Strategy
My favorite surf fishing strategy involves using two rods off the beach. You'll need two sand spike rod holders and two rods--one with a two-hook bait rig setup and the other with a lure.
Hook the bait rig up with two different types of bait and cast it out beside a structure or into a rip current. Put the rod into the sand spike holder and ensure it's secure.
Then, attach a lure to the other rod. I like using a swivel snap at the end of my leader so I can switch out lures quickly when I can tell whatever I'm using isn't working. Make sure you can keep an eye on your bait rig rod as you walk along the shore casting the lure in different directions and distances.
Switch out the lure after 10-15 minutes without a bite, and check the bait on your other rod periodically. When rebaiting without a bite, switch up the hook position on each bait from top to bottom. You can also try different combinations if you have more than two types of bait.
I hope you understand the importance of thinking like a fish. Remember that fish feed in fast-moving and tumultuous water. They love structures, sandbars, rocks, and rip currents.
Also, sunset, sunrise, and cool, cloudy days are always a good bet. You’ll be surprised how much you learn and improve once you get out there and apply these surf fishing basics!
*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.