This is the Ultimate Surf Fishing Guide for beginners. It starts from scratch and breaks down every facet of surf fishing with detailed instructions and complete diagrams.
Surf fishing can become an overwhelming experience if you aren’t prepared. The amount of area to fish is massive, the equipment is much larger than freshwater gear. Not to mention, some saltwater species are very large and intimidating. If you aren’t sure how to surf fish—don’t worry at all, it’s much easier than you think, and can be among some of the most rewarding experiences you’ve ever had. This guide starts from scratch and tells you everything you need to know on how to surf fish as a beginner. From picking your rod and reel, bait and rigs; to finding a good spot on the beach to fish. This guide will walk you through your equipment setup and fishing strategy to give you the confidence to go out and catch fish.
Surf Fishing Rods & Surf Fishing Reels
Surf fishing is much more demanding on your gear than fishing in freshwater. For your surf fishing setup, you will need to use much larger fishing rods and reels to be able to cast your bait further and handle much larger and stronger fish. Surf fishing rods are almost twice as long as freshwater rods, attached with a reel that can hold hundreds of yards of thick fishing line. For beginners, we recommend a surf rod combo between 8ft to 10ft in length attached with a 6000 to 8000 series reel, spooled with 25lb to 50lb braided fishing line.
Surf Fishing Reel
Surf fishing reels come in a variety of shapes and sizes. When choosing a surf fishing reel, one of the easiest and most popular kinds to use is called a “spinning” reel. Manufacturers typically give their surf fishing reels a size rating in increments of 1000, starting at size 1000. Select a spinning reel in the 6000-8000 size range that can hold a minimum of 500yds of 25lb braid. The most important factor is the amount of line that it can hold because many saltwater species can grow over 3ft in length! Anything that large can easily peel off hundreds of yards of line. If you think you’ll be fishing mostly for larger fish over 3ft long, such as sharks or rays, get a reel that holds a minimum of 500yds of 25lb braid.
Surf Fishing Rod
Surf fishing rods are significantly bigger than other types of fishing rods. Simply, this is what’s required to successfully cast heavy baits to fish that are in the surf. Your rod needs enough height and power to cast beyond the waves breaking near the shore. An 8ft surf rod will work well in areas where the water is calm; otherwise, choose a minimum length of 10ft. Surf rods also have characteristics called “power” and “action”. The power represents the strength of your rod while the action represents how “bendable” it is. Select a Medium-Heavy power rating with a Moderate action. This will be a great all-around rod, allowing you to cast heavy sinkers and handle fish over 3ft in length.
Surf Fishing Line
Braid is the preferred line type for surf fishing. Make sure to have enough to fill your reel with the right amount of line. If your reel can spool 500yds of 25lb braided line, then make sure you spool it with about 500yds of 25lb braided line. Adding too little or too much fishing line will cause problems that can easily be avoided. Because braid is so thin and gets slick when wet, your fishing knot has to be very secure so it doesn’t slip. For this, use the Palomar knot.
Best Surf Fishing Rigs for Frozen Bait
You can never go wrong when you fish with natural bait. The most convenient and accessible way to use natural bait is to buy it frozen. While fresh bait is ideal, frozen bait works great too. The most popular and universal frozen baits found across the US are shrimp and squid. Frozen fish such as bunker, shad, and mullet are also very popular. Depending on which frozen bait you’re using, you will need to choose a fishing “rig”. A rig refers to how your hook, weight, and swivel are assembled together. This is important because with the right fishing rig, you will present your bait to the fish in the best way to get them to bite. Choose the right rig, and you will have much better success.
Larger Cutbait Rigs
Use large fish finder rigs for large cut bait to target fish over 3ft such as sharks, striped bass, and bull sized red drum. A good heavy set up is the fish finder rig with a 4oz sinker baited with a 2” thick cut of frozen fish such a mullet, shad, or bunker. If there are bottom feeders such as toad fish, sea cats, or crabs that keep eating your bait, add a 2” foam float to your leader a few inches away from the hook, or just change to a float rig. A float rig will lift your bait off the bottom away from many of the crabs and other species that eat your bait before the larger fish do.
Shrimp & Squid Rigs
Use shrimp and squid to target species such as sea trout, croaker, sheepshead, flounder, rockfish, and all types of perch. Remember, almost every species eats shrimp and squid, and that’s why you should always have shrimp and squid rigs on-hand. When you want to cast long distances and need to hold the bottom, use a smaller Fish Finder rig with a pyramid sinker. For casting short distances for fish less than 3ft, use a ready rig with 1-2oz. Ready rigs aren’t as natural as fish finder rigs, but they are easy to cast and manage. These are a great pick for fishing with family and friends. We recommend using #4 wide-gap hooks for squid, and 2/0 J hooks for shrimp.
Specialty rigs such as the Bottom Rig (Old Dominion Rig) and Pompano Rigs are also very popular for smaller surf species. As you can tell by the name, the Pompano Rig is primarily used for pompano, and other fish of the same relative size like spot, croaker, and perch. Fish this rig very close to shore during high-tide right where the first wave breaks (known as the “lip”). The Bottom Rig however is made primarily of wire, and it’s designed for rocky bottoms and turbulent surf. It’s an excellent rig for using around piers, jetties, rocks, bridges, and inlets.
Surf Fishing with Lures
Saltwater lures are simply artificial imitations of what fish like to eat. Spoons, jigs, and topwater poppers are some of the most popular fishing lures to use. These lures attract fish visually since they do not have any natural smell like frozen bait. Use them when water clarity is high and surf conditions are moderate so fish can see them better. Unlike natural bait, you will need to cast the lure and give it life-like action yourself to entice the fish to bite. To use the weedless silver spoon, cast the spoon parallel to the shoreline in the trough and steadily retrieve it back to you. If you suspect there are bluefish around, then do a fast retrieve.
The spoon will reflect lots of light in high clarity water and mimic a baitfish. If nothing bites after 10 minutes, try the grub and jig. Cast into the trough and let it sink to the bottom. Then begin to retrieve it by bouncing it on the bottom. Make sure to pause often to allow fish to pick the jig up off the bottom. Jigs work great in moving water along jetties and inlets. If you see baitfish that are active on the surface, then this is a great opportunity to try a topwater popper. Cast out and make it zig-zag on the surface with pauses every so often. Fish often hit on the pause. If you don’t see any active fish, this is still a great lure to make them curious and see what all the commotion is about.
Surf Fishing Gear
Heading to the beach with the correct assortment of surf fishing gear is critical. You’ll need to be able to safely handle fish of all sizes, as well as the tools to setup your fishing gear properly. To cut your frozen bait, you will need a fillet knife between 6 to 9 inches. This will also serve as the same knife you use to fillet the fish you catch if you want to keep them for eating. You will also need a pair of good pliers. These are absolutely essential. You will be dealing with fish that have teeth, and fish that have very small mouths that are too small for your fingers. Using pliers to remove a fishhook is the safest and best way to remove it. We recommend 6” to 12” pliers with a line cutter, crimper, and wire cutter, like the 6.5” pliers from our Freshwater Kit. These additional features will help fix and maintain your surf rigs.
You should also have a towel to keep things clean and take care of your surf fishing equipment. A wet towel will also help you to get a good grip on fish that you catch, allowing you to handle them safely. Having a pair of bolt cutters on hand is also a must for safe handling if the hook is swallowed. When dealing with hooks and wire, you might need to cut the hook or a piece of wire off if pliers don’t suffice. Accidents do happen, and you may need the bolt cutters to cut the hook in a first aid emergency. For fishing with multiple rods, you will need sand spikes. Place them securely in the ground so they don’t move under pressure. These are a must for fishing with multiple rods, help keeping them secure and off the sand. For other useful tips check out Take Me Fishing’s Expert Surf Tips.
The Best Time to Surf Fish
Here is an excerpt from our full-length article on the best time to surf fish:
Once you find an area to fish, the best time to surf fish is almost always when the tide is moving. Movement creates current, and fish rely on current to bring them easy meals. To plan this, simply look at a tide chart of your area. It’ll tell you the predicted times for high tide and low tide. Plan to have your line in the water about 2–3 hours before high tide [emphasis mine]. In general, high tide brings fish in closer to the beach and hopefully to the areas you scouted beforehand. This is often the best window of time to fish on the beach, but the true answer is it depends. It could be the outgoing tide that starts putting you on the fish. For example, fish tend to position themselves on the outside of the inlets of creeks, bays, and waterways when they empty during the outgoing tide. Some areas produce best on the incoming tide, others on the outgoing, and some do well (or poorly) during both.
Surf Fishing Setup and Strategy
We highly recommend surf fishing using two poles per angler. This will allow you to target multiple species without the difficulty of managing many rods. Being able to stand in between both rods will allow you to react quickly when a fish bites, significantly improving your catch rate. Have one pole rigged with a heavier rig for cut bait and one pole sporting a smaller rig for shrimp or squid. Use the larger rig to target larger species, and use the smaller rig to target smaller species. When it’s time to cast, walk into the water to maximize your casting distance.
After you cast your bait, let it sink to the bottom. If you find that the waves and current are too strong and carry your weight back to shore, you will need to keep adding weight until it stays on the bottom and doesn’t move. Once it finally hits the bottom and stays, slowly backup with your bail open, gradually releasing line from your fingers but keeping it taut so that the line doesn’t catch in the waves. Close the bail and put the rod in your sand spike, then gradually reel in the line until it is tight and creates a bend in your rod. Then wait. Fish are heavily attracted by the scent of your bait, so give it time for the fish to find it, but be ready because sometimes it can happen very quickly. It’s often the case that larger fish will take longer wait times, while smaller fish take shorter wait times.
Finding a Good Fishing Spot on the Beach
When you arrive at the beach, you will need to find a spot to cast your bait. Fortunately, fish have preferences of where they like be and don’t swim around aimlessly. If you can identify these areas where fish like to congregate, then you will significantly increase your chances of catching fish. These fishy areas include sandbars, troughs, points, seams, and cover. You can start searching for these before you even go fishing. Search your beach using programs and apps like our Places to Boat and Fish Maps, Google Maps, Navionics, and Fishbrain. Calling your local fishing store for this information is also very useful, as it is their business!
A sandbar, also called a shoal, is an underwater ridge usually made up of sand or gravel. The most effective method for identifying a sandbar is to stand on the beach at low tide and watch the waves and locate where they break. If a sandbar is present, the waves will break over the bar. Sometimes at low-tide the top of the bar will be exposed and easily visible. If multiple bars are present, then waves will reform and break again when they encounter the next bar.
Sandbars on Maps
When using online maps and photographs to locate sandbars, don’t rely too heavily on the information unless it is very recent. Sandbars are made of sand, so they are constantly shifting. It is not uncommon for a sandbar to exist one year and the next year be gone or in a different location. Most sandbars are found within casting distance of the surf, typically 20-30 yards out, but you will rarely target fish on the sandbar itself. Instead, you will use the sandbar as a reference point to locate the deeper channel that forms between the sandbar and shore, called the trough, as well any channel or drop-off beyond the sandbars.
Beach Fishing the Trough
A trough, also known as the slough, is the deeper water that forms between the shoreline and the sandbar, as well as the deeper water that forms between sandbars if there are multiple sandbars. If the sandbar is found about 20-30 yards out, then the trough will be found about 10-20 yards out. The trough is where you will target your fish. Troughs act as a highway for all species of fish to swim along the channel looking for their prey. As the tide moves, the sandbar creates lots of turbulence that pushes small baitfish and other bait into the deep trough.
Fish Activity in the Trough
Smaller fish under 3ft will usually be in the white wash right past where the wave breaks. This is not on the sandbar, but on the slope where it drops down. If a school of baitfish is present, then predator fish will use the trough to trap and corral the baitfish to feed on them. The best places to fish around a sandbar are near the entryways, called a seam or cut, and points. Seams and points are sometimes called “the spot on the spot” because these are the best spots for fish to ambush their prey. They will usually be the most productive spots in the trough and sandbar.
Beach Seams, Points, and Cover
A seam, also called a cut, is an entryway where water can flow in and out of the trough. This is usually marked by the absence of sand on a sandbar. You will notice that while waves break over the sandbar, they do not break over the seam. A seam is a great spot to fish, as it typically sports the largest number fish anywhere on the beach. A seam condenses traffic in and out of the trough. Be aware of points as well. Points are the shallow area of the beach that jut out (like a point).
Points are a Primary Target
They tend to gradually recede as they continue away from the beach, as opposed to the rest of the coastline that gets deeper, faster. When there is a point that extends into a trough, this acts as a barrier that fish will use to their advantage. Target the sides of points where deeper pools form, also called pockets, but do not target the point itself as the area is too shallow. Make sure to walk the beach and search online maps for other types of structure as well. Sandbars and troughs are often times the most difficult pieces of structure to find, but structures such as rocks, jetties, bridges, and piers will all be much easier to find.
All the surf fishing rigs, lures and tackle from this guide can be found in our Surf Fishing Kit