Surf Fishing Beginners Guide
I posted this on another website long ago... Decided to post it here too.
I remember all the questions that I had when I began to surf fish, (and quite a few that I still have). So I decided to compile a lot of the information that I have learned so far into a guide for the beginner. This is written for the newly bitten by the surf bug. Hope it helps.
Disclaimer: Opinions are like errr… hindsides. Everybody has one and quite a few stink. So there will be lots of differences of opinion to the content of this guide, but that is the way it goes. Consider all opinions, and decide what works for you. Also, a good search of the message board will give you lots more info on anything discussed herein. This is just an introductory overview. I do welcome further suggestions for newbies to be posted as replies to this.
Where it all of that water do I fish?
The beach doesn’t steadily and smoothly get deeper the further you go out. There are bars (shallow spots) and guts (deeper spots) in the water. These bars normally parallel the beach. Typically, you wade out from the beach and in about 8 or 10 steps, you are up over your knees. Suddenly, you come to a bar and you are back up to your ankles. Keep wading and you get over your waist. A bit further and you are back up to knee deep water. (Most people stop here.) But keep going and you get over your head, quite a ways further and you get back to water you can stand in. The first (knee deep) spot, closest to the beach is called the first gut or the wade gut. Fish can be caught in this gut. Usually bait fish, but sometimes bigger fish can be found here too. The first shallow part, where you get back to ankle deep is called the first bar. Then the second gut, second bar, third gut and third bar. Beyond the third bar, the water is deep and only gets deeper. Places with deeper guts usually yield more fish than places with less depth change. Fish seem to relate to (hang out around) the more radical changes.
You will learn upon your first wade to read the waves and tell where the bars are by looking at the waves. (I’m sure most of you are adept at finding bars, but I’m not talking about that kind of bar.) In deeper water, waves do not crest and roll over on themselves. In shallower water, the waves grow higher, crest and roll. So you can usually look at the waves and identify the location of the bars and guts. You want to fish spots which have less rolling water, denoting deeper spots. Never fish on the bar, fish in the gut. In the deeper guts, next to the bar will often yield fish that are swimming along beside the bar.
What kind of rod / reel do I need.
As a general rule, violated often, bigger fish hang out in deeper water. (Not all fish know this rule.) To catch bigger fish you want your bait out further. Many surf fishermen wade out to the first or second bar, cast as far as they can into the third gut, and wade back to the beach to place their rods into a holder so they can sit on the beach and fish. (Note: Place your bait close to a bar, fish are more likely to swim near structure than out in the middle of featureless nothing.) The more serious surf fisherman will use a kayak to “yak” his bait out, often beyond the third bar. Then turn around and go back to the beach and fish from the beach. This takes a bigger reel. If you yak your bait out 300 yards, and expect to catch a shark that may run another 300 yards during the fight, you need a reel that will hold over 600 yards of line. Due to sheer inertia, you can’t cast such a big reel too well. The force required to get that large of a spool spinning and then stop it once the bait hits the water, without it back lashing…. Well, lets just say that a lot of surf fishermen that try to cast big reels end up with burned thumbs. You just can’t easily stop a big spool without a wee bit of friction. If you are going to cast from the surf, I recommend a smaller reel, but not too small. You want enough line capacity to get most fish in without being “spooled” ( all your line taken by a fish). Yet you want a spool small enough to control during casting. The Penn 525mag, or a Daiwa Sealine X are highly recommended by a lot of surf fishermen. The Diawa comes in three (or four) different sizes. As I stated before, there is a trade off between line capacity and casting ability. Choose one you can cast, but that still holds quite a lot of line.
In order to increase the amount of line on your reel, and decrease the chances of getting spooled, you may want to consider spooling your reel with braided line which has smaller diameter for its strength rating than monofilament. The problem with braided line is that it can’t withstand abrasion as well as monofilament. This is a problem in that your line rubs the bars while fighting fish. So most people that use braided line put a “top shot” of mono (about 200 yards) on the reel so that most of the business happens with the mono. The braided line is just there in case you get a fish that takes out a lot of line.
Most agree that Trilene Big Game line is really good for the price. For the surf, use as big of line size (pound test) as you can cast, and not break a fish off. There is a trade-off between line size and reel capacity. Bigger line holds better and withstands more abrasion, but your reel won’t hold as much.
Magging a Reel
If you buy a bigger reel and want to cast it, you might need to add magnets to it. This is done in order to slow down the spool when it is spinning during a cast. The underlying science is that, although aluminum is not a magnetic material, an aluminum spool, when spinning creates magnetic eddy currents around itself. A magnet placed next to the spool will counteract these currents and slow the spool down. The beauty is that a spool that is not spinning feels no forces from the magnet, so is not affected. Only when spinning does the magnet fight its action and slow it down, preventing backlashes (ok, helping to prevent backlashes.) For a short description of how to mag a reel, you remove the cap on the side opposite the handle and glue super magnets on spacers so that they will be close to the spool when the reel is reassembled. If you think you might want to do this, a search of the Internet will give you lots of good instruction on how.
A longer rod give you more leverage for casting a long distance, and also holds your line higher when you are fishing, so that the line doesn’t rub on sand bars, or collect as much seaweed. Common recommendations for a good price are the American Rodsmith and the Tsunami sold at Academy. Like anything else, the more you pay, the better rod you get. (usually). But for the beginner, an American Rodsmith should do fine. Get one at least ten feet long.
There is a trade off here too, longer rods give the fish more leverage when you are fighting him and make the fight harder on you. If you plan to fish from a boat, you don’t want a long rod. But hey, this article is about surf fishing, so get a long rod.
Hooks, swivels and weights
Swivels need to be large enough to hold whatever pulls on them. I buy size 1/0 or larger. Suffice it to say that when you catch a large fish, you want no weak points in the connection between you and him. Be sure all knots and terminal tackle between the two of you is of adequate size not to fail.
Hooks: well that takes a bit more discussing. Most surf-fishermen use circle hooks. Since you often put a bait way out in the water, and then place the rod into a holder, a normal J hook will often be swallowed and end up gut-hooking and killing a fish. A circle hook greatly reduces this danger. You can use size 5/0 or size 20/0. Many suggest that you use bigger hooks and bigger baits to reduce the occurrence of catching smaller trash fish such as hardheads. I like to use large hooks (I use 16/0 primarily) on my big rods, and smaller hooks on a couple of smaller rods to keep myself entertained with some smaller fish. (Some of which I keep for bait for the big rods.)
Don’t set the hook if using circle hooks. They work by snagging in the fishes jaw when he turns and swims away. Just tighten up the drag and pull steadily. This will move the hook to the corner of his jaw and dig it in.
In most surf fishing conditions, you are putting up with some current, not to mention rolling water. So you will usually use a spider weight, (the one that has the metal legs poking out of it.) These hold in the sand better than any other weight. You normally cast, or yak your bait out and then give the rod a good tug to set the weight into the sand so that the current won’t carry your bait around and into shallow water. The legs on spider weights should be bent into a V shape. They should aim down out of the weight (away from your rod tip) and then bend back so that the end of the leg is pointed back at your rod tip. They hold better when bent this way.
With a lot of line out, there is a lot of force from the current pulling on your weight. Not so much from the bait, but from all the line that is in the water. So you should deploy your baits by casting into the current so that your line is pointing into the current and not at angles to it. This helps to keep your bait in place and also minimizes the seaweed that washes into your line and tangles with it. As an example, if you are standing on the beach and the current is flowing from right to left, cast toward your right so that your line is pointing into the oncoming current. (Rather than casting toward your left and having the current pushing your line sideways.) This has the added benefit of the current pushing any seaweed that collects on your line toward you. The seaweed will eventually wash up your line toward your reel far enough that you can take it off.
If you plan to cast hard, and far, you will find that your line may break during the cast. Many surf fishermen use a shock leader. This is simply tying bigger line on your reel for the last 20 feet or so. It needs to be long enough to go from your bait to your reel and wrap around your spool for at least 4 or 5 turns. A general rule of thumb is to use ten pounds of test for every ounce you will cast. So if you are casting 8 ounces, use at least 80 pound test. Research the uni to uni knot or the Albright knot to learn how to tie your shock leader to your line. One note, when you reel in, insure that your shock leader knot ends up on one side or the other of your spool, not in the middle. On the next cast, it can cut quite a gash in your thumb if it is in the middle.
Most surf fishermen use a really high pound test leader to connect to their bait. Many even use stainless steel for the last foot or two in case they hook a shark, so that his teeth won’t cut the line. Sharks also have a bad habit of swimming away and whipping the line with their tail, cutting it that way. So many surf leaders are 6 feet long or longer. Also research this. It is quite entertaining to make your own leaders. I make most of mine out of stainless steel cable 480 pound test, and weed-eater line. The last 18 inches are cable, then the next 4 or 5 feet are weed-eater line. This works well for just about anything a beginning surf fisherman will catch. Again, do a search of this board to learn how to make your own leaders. When you get the itch to go fishing and can’t, sitting in the garage (or the living room, if your wife will let you) and making a few leaders helps to scratch the itch. It doesn’t cure the itch, but relieves it a little bit.
When a big weight and big bait are cast, they tend to helicopter around one another, catching a lot of air and not flying too far. The hook can be hung on a leg of the weight so that they fly together and disconnect on impact with the water. This helps your cast to go further. A fish-finder rig can have the bait attached to a leg of the weight for casting also. It is fished with the weight between the bait and the rod tip. Allowing a foot or two of free, loose line to be attached to the bait so that fish can pick it up without feeling the weight or rod.
Buy a cast net and learn to use it. You will often see small fish swimming in the shallows if the surf. Cast net them and use them for bait. Crabs make good bait too. A good crab catching trick is to stick a rod holder (with a crab net) in the sand in 2 or 3 feet of water and tie a bit of bait to it with a string long enough to sit on the bottom. Occasionally wade out to the rod holder, and get the net. Slowly pull in the bait and dip up the crab that will almost inevitably be clinging to it.
Another way to catch bait (so that you can use it to catch a BIG fish) is to use a bait rod. A 2/0 circle hook baited and tossed out into the first gut will usually catch a baitfish pretty quickly. Another trick is to buy a sabiki rig. This is a small rig consisting of 5 or so very small jigs attached to a line. You attach a weight to the bottom, toss it into the first gut and put it into a rod holder. Go by and check it occasionally because many times you can’t tell a small fish is on it. This rig is designed for and works better when it can be fished vertically (from a boat or pier) but works in the surf too.
Go to the nearest lumber and building supply and buy a piece of 1.5 inch PVC. Cut it in half at an angle. The angled end will stick into the sand and the flat end can be banged on with a rubber mallet to drive it in deep. You want it deep so that it doesn’t fall over. You don’t want sand in your reel. Another way to insert the rod holder into the sand is to stick it in as far as you can, then stick your lips on the top of it and suck. As you suck, it will magically sink into the sand. I am not kidding. This is not a dirty joke. It works.
When you deploy your bait, you then set the weight into the sand (by tugging, so that the legs of the spider weight dig in) and then put the rod into the rod holder. It is important to remember to reduce the drag on your line so that a fish won’t pull your rod holder over and drag the rod and reel into the water. You want the drag to be just tight enough to hold the weight in place, but slip if a fish takes off with your bait. Set the clicker on so that you will not miss the fish taking off. The sound of a clicker suddenly taking off has been known to raise dead surf-fishermen from the grave. It is quite a thrilling sound. Another trick, don’t stick your rod into the PVC rod holder all the way to the reel. Leave about 6 or 8 inches out of the holder. If a fish picks up your bait and moves toward you, and if you have your rod holder sticking straight up, your rod will fall into the rod holder. The solid “thunk” sound that the rod makes falling into the holder alerts you that a fish is playing with your stuff. That “thunk” is almost as exciting as the clicker going wild when one takes off with your bait.
The stingray shuffle
Stepping on a stingray causes him to react by shaking his tail at you. Since the tail contains sharp barbs, you don’t want to step on a sting ray. When wading, shuffle your feet across the bottom. This will hopefully cause you to kick him and cause him to swim away, rather than stepping on him so he can’t swim away and reacts violently to the situation.
Get ready to look like a nut. You will need to spend some time with your long rod and a big weight out in a field practice casting. Casting from the beach you want to learn to cast a long way. There are dudes that can cast 200 yards. Yes, I said yards. Needless to say, they can reach deep water when they go fishing. Research, watch videos, study and practice the off-the-ground and pendulum casts. It takes a lot of practice, but you can get to casting a long way. (Or, buy a yak!)
Knots – For fishing, you will need the following knots:
Knot to tie line to lure – improved cinch or Palomar or trilene
Knot to tie different sizes of mono – such as shock leader to line – Albright
Knot to tie line to reel – improved cinch
Knot to tie really big line (leaders) to hooks and swivels – improved cinch
or trilene – with less loops.
Spend some time at www.animatedknots.com
For hooking mullet, you can do several things. First, you can hook a mullet through the back, just behind the dorsal fin, so that he can swim. The advantage of this is he stays alive a long time and swims well. The disadvantage, he comes off pretty easily on a cast. Or, you can hook him through the head, one of two ways, either through the eyes, or into the bottom lip and out through the small dent in the top of the head, just in front of, and between the eyes. Mullet stay on the hook better this way, on the cast, but they don’t live as long. Also, many times the fish will bite the mullet at the gills or behind the gills and not get the hook. You can add an extra hook on a short piece of line in order to counter this. Just put two hooks into the mullet, one in the head and another in the Southern half.
One other way to hook a mullet, through the tail. Hooked this way, the mullet comes off pretty easily but this allows him to swim better than any other way. I do this if crabs are eating my mullet too fast. I do this in order to allow the mullet to evade the crabs.
For hooking crab, some hook them whole, some use half a crab, some remove the bottom shell and use some portion of the crab. A big drum will have no trouble eating a whole crab. Pulling or cutting a portion off has the advantage of allowing more scent to flow from the crab into the water. It also has the disadvantage of allowing cannibal crabs to eat out the meat of your bait crab. Just use a big hook and run it into one leg hole and out another leg hole.
So you have done it all, studied how to surf fish, got the stuff and are going fishing. First, find a good spot, the deeper the guts the better. Don’t get stuck driving on the sand. Loose dry sand is hard to drive in. Wet packed sand is practically a highway.
Drive to a good spot. Insert a couple of rod-holders into the sand. Get some bait, from the store or with a cast net. (I buy fish bites and use them. They work!) Hook a small bit of bait (fish bite, shrimp, squid…) to a bait rod (small bass type rod) with small hooks and toss it into the first gut. Use the cast net, buy bait. First thing you need is bait. Get bait.
I always go fishing with bait pre-acquired. It may be frozen and bought, but I want to be fishing as soon as I hit the sand. I can catch more, fresher, later.
When you have acquired bait, load some onto a big hook, on your bigger rod and deposit it out as deep as you can. Go back, stick it into a rod holder, loosen the drag, turn on the clicker, stick the rod into the holder with a few inches sticking out. Tighten the line so as to keep it taunt. Then go about setting up your next rod, setting up an umbrella, getting more bait, whatever. Just keep an eye on the rods. They will move with the waves, the movement is slow and rhythmic. You want a fast twitching, that’s a fish. When one appears, allow him to play with the bait till he takes it. I go over and get my rod, so that I can hold it and feel the fish. I have pulled in baits too soon more times than I care to admit. Wait on the fish to take the bait. They don’t have hands, they are using their mouths to pull on the bait, but they will often pick at it before completely mouthing it. With circle hooks, you never set the hook, you just begin pulling.
If you catch a fish, you will want a camera, gloves, long pliers, and a measuring tape. With a big fish, you will often be unable to get him far enough up onto the sand to stop him from swimming off. Use the gloves to grab your leader and pull him on in. Use the pliers to remove the hook. For sharks, stand straddling his head, facing the same direction he is, (if his butt us pointing South, yours should be too), open his mouth (don’t worry, it is back under his nose, if you grab the nose you have a margin of safety) and hold it open while a partner removes the hook using long channel locks. If the hook is in too scary of a place, give it to him. He will look groovy swimming through the water with the new lip ring. It will fall out soon. Measure him and take his picture for bragging rights.
After a day in the salt and sand, you will need to clean your gear. I have a bucket with holes drilled into it and I put my reels in the bucket and soak them with WD-40. Many don’t like to lube their reels with WD-40, but I do use it to prevent corrosion and initially and quickly clean my reels. Upon returning home, I usually give my reels a good, thorough cleaning, but the quick bath with WD-40 just gets the salt water out and the sand off. Never pressure wash sandy equipment, the pressure will drive sand into the inside of your reels and such, exactly where you don’t want it.
Conclusion / Random thoughts:
If fishing at night – take insect repellent.
A headlight makes life easier. Many people tie a light stick to the end of their rods to better see if the rod is bouncing from a fish pulling on it.
If fishing at day – take sunscreen (and a hat).
A small spray bottle of water can be used to wash sand off yourself, so you don’t get it in the truck.
You need ice chests and buckets (bucketS (plural) – for bait, fish, food…
Buckets are invaluable. For holding bait, for holding a dirty cast net, for carrying water to wet (and firm up) soft dry powder sand when the truck is stuck.
Garbage bags for protecting truck seat.
PFD (life vest) for yakking or wading out far!!!!!!!!!!
Toilet paper, TPWD book, towels
\\ Your fishing license //
Have fun, if you catch no fish. You were still fishing!
That's a great guide for beginners. Green to ya. Great job.
Wow. This is really good stuff.
Cotton picken good reading.I'm just about to the easier kind of fishing stage of life.I know it's not all that easy,but blownout trailer tires,bad water pumps,and crowded boat ramps are getting a little old.Setting under a shade,drinking cold beer,and watching some rods sounds great to me.Surf fishing and flounder gigging are on my bucket list.Oh ya,halibut fishing in Alaska too.
Good stuff, thanks for sharing!
That's some stuff I've been needing. Thanks.
I wish I had all of that info when I first surf fishing. That will cut someone time in half.
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