November 08, 2021
Between summer hurricanes and winter frontal storms, the beaches across the Southeast—and the great fishing spots along them—are constantly shifting and changing.
Sand is added in one area, ripped away from another and deposited miles away. And the holes, runouts and troughs that produced fish today may not even be there tomorrow.
Despite the constant change, the general structure of the beach remains the same, and saltwater anglers who want to learn the basics of surf fishing, either for a family vacation or as a serious pastime, should become familiar with beach dynamics.
Oceanographers agree that along most of the beaches of the southeastern U.S., there's typically a shallow trough—2 to 4 feet deep in the Gulf of Mexico, sometimes deeper on the Atlantic shore—right next to the beach. This is followed by the nearshore bar, which can be anywhere from 50 to 200 feet off the dry sand.
This bar typically has 18 inches to 3 feet of water over it in the Gulf, depending on tide phase, and then the water drops again quickly to 4 feet and more. A secondary bar is often found another 200 to 400 feet farther offshore with much more water over the top. Again, on the Atlantic where the average wave height is greater, the depth on the outside bar is also usually greater.
When waves wash over the nearshore bar, the water builds up in the trough and seeks a way out. It starts running out rapidly over any low spots in the bar, washing away more sand until the area becomes a runout or cut through the bar that's considerably deeper than the surrounding areas. These cuts are made rapidly in storm conditions, and the huge volume of water hitting the beach can quickly close up old runouts and create new ones, sometimes far from the originals.
The reason surf fishermen care about these runouts is that they are fish highways as well as feeding zones. When pompano, whiting, black drum, seatrout and redfish move into the trough near the beach, they usually come in through these cuts. And, as the water begins to flow strongly out of the cuts, the fish often lie in wait just outside, picking off baitfish, crabs and sand fleas carried out with the flow.
According to oceanographers, these relatively small outflows are a miniature version of the much larger outflows that occur when storm waves hit a beach at an angle, creating the notorious “rip currents” that are so dangerous to swimmers. The outflow is pretty much perpendicular to the beach and the nearshore bar, and that’s why swimmers are cautioned to swim sideways down the beach before trying to come back to shore—otherwise, they’re fighting that powerful outflow.
You can often spot the outflows by looking for relatively flat water between the breaking waves. The waves don't usually break when rolling across the trough, but they do on the bars on either side. Another way to locate likely areas is to note "scalloped" shoreline. You can find general areas where these divots occur in the sand by checking Google Maps satellite view—and keep an eye out for extended lone points, always an indication of a hotspot. Of course, these views are usually months or years old unless you get the premium paid services, but the general area where the scallops and points occur remain the same.
The beach is much easier to read at low tide, so if you have the luxury of several days there, walk the shore at low tide, note the location of the runouts and holes, then return when the water is high and running out. When scouting, drop pins on a mapping app to mark your spots as these won’t be nearly as obvious when the water is up.
DOMINATE THE SURF
David Thornton, one of the few surf/pier fishing guides available on the northern Gulf Coast, notes that when the water is clear and calm, he often scales down his leaders to 6-pound test for pompano and whiting.
"It can make a big difference in who catches fish and who doesn't," says Thornton. "And make the hooks small, too—size 4 Kahles do a real good job."
Thornton also notes that when it comes to artificials, heavier jigs work well in the surf, where waves and current can affect the sink rate.
"I like 1/2- to 3/4-ounce jigs with a short bucktail for pompano," says Thornton. "They allow for long casts and have a quick action that turns on the bite."
Another lure that works well, shared with me by Capt. Justin Leake of Panama City Beach, Fla., is to cut off the front half of a Berkley Gulp! Shrimp and thread it on a half-ounce jighead backwards. The combination of waving legs and strong scent is a killer for pompano and reds, Leake says.
But it's also possible to use unweighted or lightly-weighted natural baits freelined through a runout where you find a strong flow—a piece of fresh shrimp or a sandflea washing out just above bottom is hard for any gamefish waiting on the edges to pass up. Once it gets on the outside, hold it there for a few minutes, then retrieve, refresh the bait and start the drift again on the inside of the bar.
Many expert surf anglers also add a chunk of a scented attractant like Fishbites to their hook when fishing cut shrimp or sandfleas. The attractant stays on the hook much better than the natural bait, and the bright color (it’s available in pink, neon green and more) attracts pompano. The advantage is you’re never “fishing on credit” with a bare hook after your shrimp gets nipped off by a bait stealer, as fish will readily grab just the Fishbite. Berkley Gulp! Alive! Sand Fleas and Shrimp also serve very well when live bait is not available.
David Thornton notes that big trout prowl the surf in the first hour of daylight much of the year.
"If the wind is offshore and the surf is fairly calm, throw a topwater that looks like a finger mullet, like a Rapala Skitterwalk, parallel to the beach as well as in the troughs to find the big trout," he says. "They'll be up in just a couple feet of water at this time of day."
Sometimes the fish make it almost too easy. Fast-moving predators like Spanish mackerel, bluefish, ladyfish and jacks run the outside edge of the nearshore bar very rapidly looking for bait. When they find some, they drive it to the surface and tear into it. The flying water and the diving birds that quickly show up make it easy to see where these spots are.
These species all readily grab small 3-inch spoons or jigs of about the same size in light colors. You’ll want a bite leader of 30-pound test if the Spanish and blues are abundant—otherwise you’ll lose too many lures to their teeth.
BIGGER IS BETTER
While you can catch plenty of fish from the beach with a standard 7-foot, medium-light spinning rod, 3000-series reel and 10-pound-test braid, if you’re serious about fishing from the shore, a surf rod or two will be a huge asset.
These not only allow much longer casts due to the leverage of the rod, but they also let you keep your line up out of the wash so that your bait stays put. Rods in the 10-foot range, like the Team Daiwa Surf, do the job and break down into two 5-foot pieces for easy transport.
You'll probably want a 5000-series reel or larger loaded with 20-pound-test braid to give you some added backing and drag power should you hook up with a 30-pound redfish or cobia. Most who use braid add a 3- to 6-foot-long piece of monofilament or fluorocarbon in 15- to 25-pound test, connected with a double uni knot, to act as a bite leader.
If you can swing it, get at least two outfits—this allows you to put baits both inside and outside the bar to see where the fish are running. For those who fish infrequently, many shoreside bait shops rent surf rigs by the day.
You’ll need a sand spike for each rod, as well. My favorite way to fish at the beach is to put out a couple rods in the spikes with bait. I then walk the shore casting with my inshore spinning rig, either throwing a jig for pomps or a big topwater for lunker seatrout and reds running outside the bar. While walking, I keep an eye on the rods in the spikes, of course, but fish usually hook themselves on the Kahle hooks.
Visual clues will lead you to more fish. Reading the surf can be a challenge, but it’s always easiest when there’s a low tide and an offshore wind on or near the new- or full-moon period. These will bring the lowest tides possible, and in some areas cause the nearshore bar to go dry—except for the runouts, which become very obvious.
Walk that dry bar and cast your baits into the trough outside the runouts and you’ll usually find fish. And when the tide turns and the wind swings around to onshore, these areas will all flood and there will be a strong flow through the runouts, making fishing around them even better.
On broad nearshore bars, you may have to wade out a bit to make your cast and reach the fishy water. And don’t forget, rod length equals distance on the beach—a 10-foot rod is good, but a 12-footer is better.
The great thing about surf fishing in the Southeast is that if the pompano aren’t biting, the trout and reds probably are, and if not them the blues and Spanish will keep you busy. It’s a veritable angling smorgasbord, all created by the ever-changing terrain of the surf.