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Surf's Up: Catch Fish While on Vacation

Summertime is a great time to be on the beach — catching fish.

Surf's Up: Catch Fish While on Vacation

The same spinning rods freshwater anglers use for catching bass or catfish can also have their place in surf-fishing because some great fishing can also take place practically at the tips of an angler’s toes. (Shutterstock image)

Who wants a boring summer vacation?

Nothing else screams “Excitement!” like a reel when a big fish is smoking the line. Stick that surf rod in your kids’ hands and you’ll hook them for life.

For those bitten with the angling bug, that long-awaited summer family vacation just isn’t complete without wading into the cooling surf, long rod in hand, casting a chunk of bait beyond the breakers to see what species of fish are lurking beyond the dropoff. With the line anchored to the sandy bottom by the weight of a pyramid sinker, the rhythmic rising and falling of the rod tip in synchrony to the rumbling of the waves is, for the dedicated surf-fisherman, the most fulfilling moment of a trip to the beach.

While autumn is the season most often associated with the best surf-fishing, summer anglers know there is an incredible variety of fish available to anyone who makes the effort to learn how to select the correct tackle and baits and find places to wet their lines. Species that anglers can catch in the surf include such fine table fare as flounder, red drum, bluefish, pompano and croaker. However, game fish like tarpon and jacks, plus an endless parade of pesky sharks and rays fill out the list of sea creatures in the heavyweight department. To a surf-angler, any fish that makes the clicker whine is worth spending the time casting in the brine.

The selection of surf-fishing rods and reels is as varied as the species of fish an angler can catch with them. There is no economic excuse not to take the plunge because the cost of the tackle can be downright cheap. A trip to a local pawnshop usually reveals a variety of used surf tackle from garage cleanups for pennies on the dollar. I once needed a surf rod in a hurry. A fantastic bite was on and I was in the area on other business. I simply headed to a local Walmart store and purchased a 7-foot Shakespeare Tiger spinning rod complete with a color-coordinated reel already spooled with 15-pound test monofilament line for less than $20. However, almost any fishing rod can be used for surf-fishing duty.

Those expensive long rods capable of casting 6-ounce sinkers certainly have their place when the wind is blowing in your face and a heavy rip current is carrying the bait right back onto the beach. However, the same spinning rods freshwater anglers use for catching bass or catfish can also have their place in surf-fishing because some great fishing can also take place practically at the tips of an angler’s toes.

While confusing to the novice, experienced anglers know that a few standard rules of thumb apply to fishing from the beach.

In most instances, the type of access is going to limit the amount of gear that anglers can carry, but not the amount of money they spend on fishing gear.

Classic surf-fishing gear consists of a large, saltwater-rated spinning reel or revolving spool reel that holds at least 300 yards of 15-pound test monofilament line mounted on a 7- to 10-foot rod that has a butt long enough to stick into a sand spike or plastic tube rod holder pounded into the sand.

This type of surf rod is capable of casting a sinker 50 yards or more, reaching beyond the breakers when the fish are outside the curl. Such a rig comes in handy for landing a big redfish or tarpon because of leverage, line capacity and the rod’s capability of keeping the line above the tops of the waves during a fight.

Nevertheless, the average medium-weight spinning rig works well for casting baits on days when the surf is calm. Pompano, flounder, croakers and other species usually bite very close to the beach and can be easily hooked and landed with short casts. Anglers should watch for subtle dropoffs, lumps of clay or mounds of shells and anything else that appears different from just plain sand. Anything that disrupts the beach contour creating a dip or point could be the ticket to catching fish.

A major consideration when selecting rods, tackle and other gear is the distance an angler must travel to get to the fishing spots. Some beaches allow driving on the sand and may charge access fees. For fishing in these areas, anglers can mount rod holders on their front bumpers for holding surf rods or stow them in the bed of a four-wheel drive pickup or SUV. A vehicle makes it easy to pack multiple rods, large ice chests and all the tackle and rigs necessary to spend the day or night fishing in comfort.


However, if the nearest parking area is a long walk from the beach front, a surf angler may only be able to carry one or two rods and a plastic pail. Into the bucket should go a PVC rod holder, knife, pliers, bait, water, a cutting board, rigs, hooks and sinkers. Another handy thing to have along is a towel for cleaning up after handling fish or bait and for wrapping around a bucket handle to maintain a comfortable grip.

Seagulls are an ever-present problem. If you leave bait unattended or drop a fish on the beach and turn your back for an instant, an entire squadron may attack. Burying a fish in the sand protects it from seagulls if you don’t have a cooler or if the fish is too big to stuff in a bucket.

A simple surf cart can help make managing surf gear a breeze.(Photo by Mike Marsh)

Using a surf cart is a great way to carry tackle, rods and an ice chest through the dunes. Many companies make fishing carts, and I have a couple of them. One is a Sea Striker, which is so lightweight it is easy to put in the bed of a pickup and lift it out to carry it over dunes and other difficult terrain. The other is a heavier cart made by Angler’s Fish-N-Mate that’s set up with a custom Power Kit made by William Clardy (910- 540-8589) of Hampstead, North Carolina. It replaces a beach cart’s standard wheels with a gearbox that has integral wheels and electric controls for traversing any terrain, including soft sand. Clardy also makes a caster wheel that replaces the T-rest on the front of a standard fishing cart.

Surf-fishing terminal rigs are simple affairs. The standard rig for catching smaller species is a two-hook dropper rig with a pyramid or bank sinker clipped to the end. Of course, an angler can also tie his own rigs. However, two-hook rigs are inexpensive to buy at any pier house, discount store or tackle shop. Manufacturers offer them in various leader weights, along with different arrangements of swivels, beads — even anti-twist wires and springs if such frills tickle your fancy.

The other basic rig is the fish-finder rig. Flounder fishermen have always called it a flounder rig. However, bass anglers renamed it the Carolina rig when it became all the rage on the tournament trail. There are many ways to tie the fish-finder rig, including the classic surf-fishing method of using a plastic slide with a clip to hold the sinker on the line above the swivel and leader. The plastic slide prevents the sinker from twisting the line as it rolls in the waves. When the flounder and redfish are biting close to the beach, an angler can simply use a basic Carolina rig consisting of an egg sinker, swivel, leader and hook to catch them.

Bait selection can take more consideration than a first-timer might think. What species of fish do you want to catch? What type of bait can you actually get? How long will the bait stay on the hook?

Shrimp is the most popular all-around surf-fishing bait. A two-hook rig with fresh or frozen shrimp will catch flounder, red drum, croaker, bluefish, sea mullet and other fish. However, shrimp is not very durable. Pinfish and other bait-stealers peck it off, forcing the angler to reel in his line often to check the bait. Squid is much more durable and can draw just as many strikes from the same species. Mullet or other baitfish also make durable baits when they are cut into strips or chunks.

If pompano interests you, you may want to invest in a “sand flea” rake to catch mole crabs for bait. While you may catch a small number of pompano by using shrimp, you will catch a lot more if you use mole crabs. Like pompano, sea mullet and croakers also love sand fleas. Alas, mole crabs are not very durable, so it takes a lot of them for a day’s fishing. Fortunately, anglers can gather them by digging with a tool or bare hands in the sand behind a receding wave.

In recent years, scented baits have become an excellent substitute for natural baits. Fish Bites makes saltwater strip baits in shrimp, bloodworm, fish, sand flea and other flavors.

While an angler can land small fish from the surf by using the wave action to wash them onto the sand, landing larger fish can be difficult. A hand gaff or a mechanical fish gripper like a Boga Grip can help land big fish. If you use one that also has a scale, you will never have to guess how big a fish was, even if you released it to fight another day.

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