Surf fishing is when you stand on the shore and/or wade in the surf to fish. This method of fishing may include casting a bait or lure and can be done from a fishing pier, rocky or sandy beaches or even a rock jetty. Beachcasting is a type of surfcasting where you stand on the beach and cast near the shoreline or into the surf itself.
Surf fishing is a fun activity to try with friends and family. There are many options near beaches for great surf fishing, such as fishing piers, public parks, shorelines, boardwalks and more. Here are some tips to get you started:
- Bring the correct saltwater gear and tackle for the conditions and type of fish you’re trying to catch.
- Decide on the fishing methods you’ll be using before you find the ideal fishing spot.
- Check the tide charts so you know whether the tide is coming in or out – this affects the feeding patterns of the fish.
- Use natural baits like mullet, squid or shrimp when you’re just starting out. Since these are the natural foods the fish eat, they’re very effective and work for all different kinds of fish.
- Check the state fishing regulations in your area before heading out. Some states will require you to get a fishing license if you plan on fishing from the shoreline or a fishing pier.
Whether you’re saltwater surf or pier fishing, you’ll catch the same types of fish – striped bass, redfish, snook, flounder, sea trout and pompano. However, depending on the location you choose, your tackle and technique will be different. For example, if you fish from the beach, you may need to walk along the shore or wade into the water to get to the places where you’ll find the best fish.
Saltwater Surf Fishing Tackle
Here are some recommendations for what to bring with you:
- A medium to heavy action rod that is 7 to 12 feet long, equipped with a corrosion-resistant, heavy-duty spinning reel.
- A test line rated from 17 to 20 pounds with a 30- to 40-pound test leader line (you can go as high as a 50-pound leader line if you need to use heavier sinkers due to strong currents or high winds).
- A bunch of lures, such as metal spoons, plugs, soft plastics and jigs, or live bait like crabs or shrimp.
- Several different hooks in sizes ranging from 1/10 to 10/0, depending on the type of bait you’re using and the type of fish you’re trying to catch.
- Sinkers that weigh 3 to 8 ounces (if you’re fishing in places with strong tides or currents, opt for heavier sinkers).
- A sand spike or rod holder to keep your reel from moving and stop it from touching the sand.
Where to go Saltwater Surf Fishing
Now that you have your gear, it’s time to head to the beach and look for some great fishing spots. If you aren’t able to physically see any great locations, get a topical map, check local fishing reports or find a local to ask.
Jetties and Breakwaters
Keep an eye out for rock formations or jetties that jut out into the water and affect the current. Jetties are especially great for surf fishing because they’re made of rocks that usually extend below the water. These rocks create great homes for baitfish and other things that game fish like to eat. You can also find holes in these jetties and breakwaters since waves often crash into them, eroding the sand under the rocks and creating spots where fish can hide. Predatory fish often ambush these spots looking for a meal. By fishing in areas with jetties and breakwaters, you’ll also have access to deeper waters.
Points are naturally occurring land or sand formations that stick out into the ocean waters, creating an area of current where large fish can trap smaller fish. As the current flows past the shore point, it creates shallow spots next to deep holes. Try to wade out to the point when the tide is low and cast out past the breakers. As the tide starts to come in, look for holes and bars that have been uncovered by the low tide – these are good places to find fish. Just make sure to be careful when fishing on a point because the fast-moving current can quickly push you from shallow to deep water.
You can often find troughs by looking for areas where the waves break off of the beach or shore. These troughs run parallel to the shore and often contain areas of fast-moving currents. They are great places to find crustaceans and baitfish. If you watch the surface of these areas, you can often find large schools of baitfish. You can also sometimes find several birds circling overhead. If you’re fishing in these areas, try using a fish finder rig so you can check for sea trout, bluefish, pompano and flounder.
When shore and surf fishing, it helps to start by looking for schools of baitfish. Where there are baitfish, there tend to be hungry game fish nearby. But you’ll need to move quickly because game fish don’t tend to stick around long after grabbing a bite to eat.
If you find a school of baitfish, check the middle of the group for holes or lighter-colored circles – this is where you’ll find the game fish. When there’s a predator around, the smaller fish try to keep away from it, so they won’t get eaten. This often leaves a hole in the middle of the school. If you don’t see any holes, you can simply cast your lure or bait towards the outside of the baitfish school and see if you get any bites.
Another great place to catch fish is where two bodies of flowing water merge, also known as an inlet. You can often find these locations by looking for other fishing features like sloughs, bridges, jetties, deep holes and sandbars. When you combine a structure with merging water, you get a great spot for surf fishing. The best places to look for game fish is in troughs, bars or rips where they like to sit and wait for a meal to float by. Game fish don’t tend to move much, so you should choose baits that have a Carolina rig, or a plug or jig that moves with the current. These baits will mimic the natural way the fish gets its food.
Up for a new fishing challenge? Once you’ve gotten good at saltwater surf and pier fishing, find yourself a small flats boat and give flats or backwater fishing a try.
When schools of fish swim together in a tight formation, it can create a color change in the water. If you want to find some great fishing, keep an eye out for areas of a different color that seem to be moving. If you happen to spot a school of fish, cast ahead of it and let your bait drift into it.
Birds can also help you find fish. Watch to see where the birds are circling and diving, then try to get close enough to see the fish. If you see the fish moving around, try to aim shallow, but if they look like they’re injured, you’ll want to fish deeper.
Deep Shore Water
Currents often run next to the shore, sometimes forming deep pockets of water. If you see an area where the water is darker, that generally means it is deeper. Larger fish like to sit in these deeper pockets to rest or to wait for a quick meal. You may be surprised at the size of the fish you can pull out of these pockets.
A breaker is the area where the ocean waves break, creating a dip in the sand by the shore. Baitfish like to gather in this dip, looking for food. And where there are baitfish, there are usually big fish that are also looking for a meal. This means breakers can be great places to catch fish; however, fish don’t generally stay in these locations for very long.
Currents can collide under the water near inlets, points or other artificial structures. Food collects along the water column in areas where these currents merge. This food attracts baitfish, which then attract game fish. You won’t be able to find these locations simply by looking for crashing waves – they’re generally found in areas that appear a bit calmer.
Surf and Coastal Shore
You can enjoy surf and coastal fishing from basically anywhere along the ocean shore. You can use breakwaters, jetties or a boat. If you’re really adventurous, you can even wade into the ocean and cast out into the waves to see if you can catch any of the fish lurking underneath.
Regardless of where you choose to fish, you’ll find that surf and shore fishing can be challenging. There aren’t many places for fish to hide, so you’ll need to become good at reading the ocean. This includes learning how to look for spots of different color in the water, reading the waves, understanding migration patterns and checking the ocean temperature.
Saltwater Weed Beds
Once you become good at fishing, you’ll start to notice different colors in the ocean. By spotting these color changes, you can find weed beds, which often hold different types of fish and various other creatures. If you’re looking for game fish, try fishing around the edges of these weeds. This is where smaller fish like to feed – and where bigger fish come to eat the smaller fish.
About twice per day, the tides will raise and lower the water. These changing tides differ depending on the location and will affect where you can find fish.
Areas where the water is shallow might be great spots to fish when the tide is high, but when the tide is low, they turn into mud bogs. A slight dip in the bottom, known as a slough, might be the perfect place to find bottom-feeding fish when the tide is low, but might not be an appealing spot for these same fish during high tide.
Rising or falling tides, also called running tides, are your best bet because they help your bait move in a manner similar to what the fish are used to. When fishing in brackish water, it’s also important to note the time of day, location and any changes in tides. Brackish water is coastal water that contains a mix of salt and fresh water. Here you can find both freshwater and saltwater fish. This type of water is generally found in rivers and tidal creeks on the coast and, because it is located next to the ocean, it is also affected by the tides.
You’ll generally find the best fishing when the tide is rising or falling – not when it’s high or low with barely any tidal current, also known as “slack tides.”
Floating Foam and Debris
When waves break, they create foam, which is then carried along by the currents. As the current pushes the foam along, it picks up small ocean life and debris. This attracts small fish looking for food, which then attracts large fish looking to eat the smaller fish. Since these foaming piles of debris can get pretty big, they also offer some great shade for bigger game fish.
When water moves in and around sandbars, rocks and points, it looks for the fastest place to escape. This swift-moving water creates a faster-moving path of water that flows through the obstructions. In these areas, watch for changes in the speed or color of the surrounding water, which may be carrying sand or mud. It’s in these deeper “rivers” that you’ll find the larger fish.
Saltwater Surf Fishing from the Pier
If you’re just starting out and are torn between surf or saltwater pier fishing, you should first try fishing from a pier. Since it only requires a limited amount of tackle, pier fishing is the perfect place to start. It’s also fun to fish from piers because it allows you to try a variety of depths, giving you access to different types of fish.
When it comes to pier fishing, it’s important to be safe. With so many different people fishing from the pier at the same time, it’s easy to accidentally hook someone. Before you cast, check to see how close you are to others and don’t cast overhead if someone is nearby.
Saltwater Pier Fishing Tackle
Here’s what you’ll need to get started with saltwater pier fishing:
- A 6 to 9-foot medium heavy action rod with a spinning reel that is resistant to corrosion.
- A test braid that is rated from 10 to 15 pounds or monofilament fishing line with fluorocarbon leader line that is rated from 20 to 30 pounds.
- Several circle hooks, from sizes 2/0 to 4/0 (choose larger hooks if you plan on using larger baits).
- An assortment of sinkers. You may want to buy some egg and split-shot sinkers with different weights, so you have heavier sinkers to use if the currents get strong.
- A variety of lures, such as spoons, jigs, topwater plugs and soft plastic shrimp, or live bait, such as shrimp.
- A float or popping cork so your live baits don’t sink to the bottom.
Where to go Saltwater Pier Fishing
If you plan to go pier fishing, start with the areas listed below. You can either try a few different locations and see if you can find the best spot, or you can simply ask another person who is fishing on the pier.
The pilings and rocks near fishing piers are home to small marine plants, oysters and barnacles. These are all foods that larger game fish like to eat. Fish also like to hang around these pilings and rocks, looking for shade or hiding from larger fish. When fishing off a pier near the pilings, try live-lining a shrimp rigged on a 2/0 circle hook with a popping cork.
Seawalls or Bulkheads
To stop the ocean currents from eroding the shorelines, many piers are built near bulkheads or seawalls. These types of structures provide great fishing because all types of fish like to gather in these areas. If you’re planning to fish near a bulkhead or seawall, use one of the lures or baits listed above and drop it straight down. Then, bounce or jig it around once it reaches the bottom of the structure.