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
Nice article! I was wondering if you have any pages or thoughts on surf fishing etiquette with regard to other fishermen or swimmers. I plan on going to a beach where surf fishing is encouraged, but I was wondering about swimmers.
I definitely recommend caution around swimmers. Try to stay 100 yards or more away. If the beach is densely populated, I wouldn’t run more that one rod and I would stick to casting lures rather than bait. While it is unlikely to result in an attack, cut bait will most definitely bring in predators including shark. Trust me, there are shark. But don’t be afraid to get out there and run some lines. Just put in the effort to get 200-300 yards away and you can fish whatever is within regulations. Don’t be afraid of shark, but be smart about shark.
very clear and good article easy to understand. Thank you
Just starting and I putting my gear together, your site is automatically. I am 71 and Washington state do crappy
Of maniging the rivers where I live on the coast.
Going beach fishing for first time at Dauphin Island Alabama. Any suggestions, help would be amazing! Thank u
Sharks are great this time of year. Use a 4 oz pyramid sinker fish finder rig like in our diagram with a 1-2 inch wide chunk of cut bait like mullet. You should get on a shark or two.
I’m heading to Little Gaspirilla Island July 4 weekend and will be there a week. Hopefully going to fish most of the time. What is hitting around there at this time of year and what type of setup should I have for that area of the Gulf? Any advice is much appreciated! Cheers!
You should be getting plenty of shark biting this time of year. Definitely be careful. The water should be crystal clear. A good combination of whiting for tablefare plus bigger shark for fun can be expected. Good Luck!
In regard to reel capacity, you’re suggesting a reel in the 6000-8000 size range that’ll hold 500 yards of 25 lb braid. A reel that was suggested to me lists the capacity of the 6000 at 40/390 and the 8000 at 65/390
Can this be recalculated to 25 lb?
Does the math from lbs translate to the length (40/25=1.6×390=624) or are there some other magic numbers to figure this out?
Each reel is different even if it is the same lineup. They often don’t follow the exact same matrx. So a good rule of thumb is to increase the capacity by 100 yards for every 10 lbs of braid reduced. So for in your example I would just look at it like 15 lbs = 150 yd difference so 390+150 =540. The real issue with all of this is that spools of line typically are overspooled by 50 yards so the mfg don’t get complaints (we do that) and the line tables for reels are if you get them professionally spooled. So how you spool it, what line you use, how accurate the reel mfg is etc etc play more of a part for the exact #. Therefore, I always recommend with any brand of reel to keep it simple and just add/subtract 100 yards for every 10 lbs. Also the rule works for mono but its 100 yards for every 5 lbs. No matter what you do you are always going to be 25-50 yards off in your estimates. We make our line capacity really easy to understand on our 7000 reel surf combo and it holds 500 yards of 30 lb braid. That is if you get it professionally spooled. For anything you spool yourself I would estimate that you will fill your reel with 1/4-1/3 less. We are not as perfect as machines.
Hi Andrew, I really enjoyed reading your article on Surf fishing for beginners! I’ve fished all over the country. Presently the family is staying on St. Simon Island in Georgia right on the beach. Haven’t been surf fishing since I was stationed at Ft.Bragg, N.C. a few decades ago. I’m aware of this Not being the best time to fish, mostly because the water is still to cold. Nonetheless, being a diehard outdoorsman, I’m here now for a couple weeks and then heading into Florida for a couple more weeks. I’m curious if you would happen to know any specifics on where, how or when in regards to fishing that might increase my odds in this unfamiliar location. Thank you in advance and by the way, very informative article!!
Couple things for Georgia. Fish the incoming tide, especially peak high tide. Walk out into the surf until you get to chest height and cast out. Then walk back. The low country coast line has such a huge tidal change +/- 7 ft that its really shallow until you get 50-100 yds out at high tide. Don’t worry to much about the location on the beach in terms of fish. Because its the low country the structure of the beaches are really uniform. However, it is always a bonus to fish on a beach that is near an inlet or on the edge of the island (north or south). Use cut mullet on a bigger rod and reel like our Surf Combo and then fish 1-2″ strips of squid on a smaller rod like our Multispecies combo. Our tackle in the Surf Fishing kit has everything we use to catch fish in the surf (I live in Hilton Head) and all the red drum you see in our articles were mainly caught on the beach in the low country.
Thanks for an awesome informative article. I am heading to Tybee island in December for a week and plan to try my hand at surf fishing. I’ve never done it before and this article was super helpful, I hope. I know winter fishing is different than the warmer months so if you have any additional pointers, feel free to sling them this way.
Thanks again, Don
Tybee is awesome, we spend a lot of time fishing on Hilton Head. What I recommend doing is getting in touch with a local bait shop along the coast. Looks like there is one called Rip Tide Bait and Tackle right on the island. https://www.facebook.com/pages/category/Community/Rip-Tide-Bait-and-Tackle-Tybee-Pier-548637951916311/ I want you to get in touch with them because there are major migrations that happen around that time of year. Specifically the very large bull red drum run. All of our pictures with giant red drum were caught in that area when they were running at the end of november. We caught 14 of them in 2 days! If they are running you want to use heavy tackle with big chunks of cut bait. If a larger species isn’t running through you probably want to fish with smaller bait like squid strips or shrimp on lighter tackle to target smaller fish for table fair that are around all year. This would be speckled trout, croaker/whiting, fluke, smaller shark etc.
I know that bait shop. I’ll check it out. I think it may be seasonal. There may be someone in Thunderbolt or Whitemarsh that can help though. I lived in GA for 19 years and policed on Tybee for a few and I’m kicking myself for not taking advantage of that time to do more fishing off the beach
Don – *thumbs up* looks like Ed has you covered. One of the first things to do is get in touch with the local bait shop like he suggests. What’s around will depend on how the water temp has been. Another thing you can do is take a quick look at Tybee on Google Earth or any satellite imagery. Take note of some of the more prominent structures around the island and where things are situated. That way you’ll have some potential fishing spots ready. And if the shop says the drum are biting on the point at the south end, for example, you’ll have an idea where that is and what to look for.
Hope this all helps, and thanks alot for your comment, we appreciate it. If you get into some fish feel free to send us a nice photo.
Good luck, Andrew
You and Ed were super helpful. I think the baitshop on the pier may be seasonal, but there may be someone on Thunderbolt of Whitemarsh who can help. I will definitely submit pics if I get “hooked up”.
About to spend a week out in Salvo NC and haven’t been surf fishing since going with my dad — this was an excellent and informative refresher! Thanks for your time and attention to detail, looking forward to a week of learning and relaxation.
John, thanks for the nice comment. Enjoy the excellent surf fishing down there, hope it’s a nice trip. Send us a photo if you get into some fish.
Great article. Been surf fishing for over 50 years now and I still learn something new every time out. This is a very thorough overview of surf fishing. From baits, tackle and where to fish. Tailored Tackle makes some great surf fishing starter kits as well. Everything you need to get started and catch fish from the beach. Keep up the great work.
Thanks Rex, we appreciate your comment.
One of the greatest parts of fishing is that the learning never stops. Every day is a new day.
Good luck to you,
This is awesome!! I’ve been looking for something for my sons to be able to get more information on surf fishing when we are not on the sand. This will be great for them. Thank you!!
We’re very happy to hear that, that’s exactly why we’re here. Thank you for the comment, and good luck to you and the family.
I’m still newish to surf fishing and have been absolutely in love with it so far. I’ve been looking for the best stuff to use to hopefully land some monster fish.
I have family coming in town this weekend and want to give them a fishing experience they will never forget. I know with the stuff I have learned here it will help me give them this experience.
Thank you for all your help
Thanks Carter, we appreciate your comment. We’re always very happy to help. Here’s our surf fishing tutorial that follows the article if you’re interested. Send us a photo of the monster when you catch it. Good luck!
Thanks a lot for this article that summarizes everything to know about surf fishing. I am a beginner. When I go to the beach, I just send my bait as far as I can. The further I send my bait, the better. Funny!
Thanks for your comment, we’re always happy to help. Send us a nice photo if you get into some fish. Good luck!
I’m happy I found thus article. I normally fish streams and lakes, but fished the ocean for guide salmon trips a few times and from shore a really long time ago, once.
We are going camping on the coast with a couple other families and a bunch of kids. I think with the help of your insight, we will have the kids bringing in dinner! I can’t wait to see them battling with some big fish.
Thank you for taking the time to put this together!
Thanks Rich, hope this puts everybody on some fish. Feel free to share any fish photos afterward. Have a great time!
Thank you for this, such an insightful read, my interest in fishing peaked on a boat trip in the Gambia, and ever since I’ve had this tug at my spirit to start. well now in my 40’s what better time to start if not now and I’m taking notes along the way because no one else fishes in my family so I’ll have to lead the way in our new form of recreation.
Thank you, we’re happy to hear. The great part is you can apply these fundamentals to surf fish anywhere in the world. Don’t be discouraged if things start out slow, one thing not mentioned in the article is Time. Behind all the photos is lots of time and persistence.
Great blog! I started fishing with my grandpa when I was still in diapers. Later, the teenage years brought girls into the picture, which apparently obliterated my fishing priorities at the time. Eventually, I was out on my own chasing big city dreams, more girls, and dollar bills. Now I’m in my 40’s, grandpa is dead, and I’m just now getting back into fishing after all these years. Now there’s apps, buttloads of youtube videos, and internet service on my phone even at the lake! While being able to google “what do trout eat” with a fishing pole in one hand convenient, it doesn’t compare to the wisdom grandpa shared back in the old days. Now, it’s too late to go fishing with grandpa… But, this site would be one even he would appreciate!
Thank you! Nice to hear you’re headed back to the water. Technology sure has changed over the years, but the fish haven’t. I think Grandpa will always know best, I know mine does. Cheers