Surf Fishing for Beginners: The Ultimate Guide

Any type of fishing is fun, but there’s something special about standing on the beach and casting into the ocean. Surf fishing can be very relaxing, but also extremely exciting. And the best part is you don’t have a ton of experience or expensive gear to haul in some big fish. Here is all the information you’ll need to get started on your surf fishing journey.

What fish are in the surf?

The type of fish you might try to catch depends on where you’re located and the time of year. Many species make their way north during the warmer months then return south during the winter. Here are some common species you might expect to catch from the beach.

Striped Bass

Striped bass, or stripers as they are commonly known, can be found on both the east and west coasts of the United States where they feed in the tidal zone within easy reach of the shore angler.

A striped bass, commonly known as a ‘striper’

They are silvery green in color and have several black horizontal stripes running down their bodies, hence the nickname ‘stripers’.

Best way to catch striped bass: Target them is with a live fish such as eel, herring, smelt or menhaden using the fish finder rig.

Bluefish

Bluefish is a strong and ferocious species that can be found along both the Gulf and Atlantic coastlines. Bluefish possess a spiky dorsal fin, forked tail and have blue-green coloration on the upper body which fades to white on the lower part and belly. 

Best way to catch bluefish: Fish for them at dawn or dusk using mall live fish such as menhaden, herring, mackerel and butterfish. Spinners or other artificial bait also work well.

Important! Bluefish have strong teeth so always use a fine wire leader as they can easily bite through 80lb fluorocarbon or monofilament.

Red Drum

The red drum, or red fish as it is commonly known, as the name suggests have a red coloration along their backs which fades into white on the belly. They also have a very distinguishable black spot at the base of their tails which is designed to confuse predators into thinking this is their eye.

Red Drum have a black spot on their tails to trick predators into thinking it’s an eye.

Red Drum can be found in the Atlantic Ocean from Massachusetts down to Florida and into the Gulf of Mexico.

Best way to catch red drum: Target them an hour before high tide and in low light conditions such as dawn or dusk using shrimp as bait. Artificial baits like spoons, jigs, and plugs work great as well.

Weakfish

The weakfish is a member of the drum family and has a dark brown coloration with a tint of green along the head and back with a silverish hue and dusky spots along the flanks.

Weakfish can be found on the Atlantic coast from Novi Scotia right down to South East Florida but are more commonly found between New York and North Carolina.

“Everyone should believe in something. I believe I’ll go fishing.”

— Henry David Thoreau

Best way to catch weakfish: Target weakfish at dawn and into the first hour of daylight with both bait and artificial lures such as small jigs, bucktails and spinners.

Fluke

Summer flounder, sometimes referred to as flukes, are found in the Atlantic Ocean, from Nova Scotia all the way down to Florida. They are most commonly found, though, from Cape Cod down to North Carolina.

Flukes are members of the flatfish family and spend their entire lives living and feeding on the seabed. They can change their skin color to suit the surrounding environment enabling them to blend in which keeps them hidden from predators.

Flukes are ambush predators which means that they do not chase their prey but instead they hide and wait for a meal to pass by. They rely heavily on sight to feed rather than smell, so they are reluctant to eat during darkness and low light levels. 

Best way to catch fluke: Use the fish finder rig and use a small live fish such as a crocker or minnow. Artificial lures also work well if fished very slowly along the bottom.

Pompano

The Pompano are a flat bodied, silvery fish, can have a yellowish tinge to their underside and a wide forked tail which makes them powerful swimmers. Although they can grow to over 8lb in weight, they very rarely get to over 4lb and can be found from Massachusetts all the way to Florida and throughout the Gulf. These fish are a migrating species and move with the changing water temperatures, so weather will play a big part in locating them.

Best way to catch pompano: Target pompano with sand fleas, shrimp, fiddler crabs, clams and small strips of squid using a simple fish finder rig just flicked out into the surf. Pompano are also very predatory and will take small fish pattern lures and spinners.

The best tide for surf fishing

Surf fishing is always fun, but if you want to catch the most fish, pay attention to the tides.

Generally speaking, the period leading up to high tide is the optimal time for surf fishing. This is when the water brings the fish inward towards the beach as opposed to after high tide when the water and fish flow away from the beach.

Low tide is generally not a good time to surf. The water is lower and most of the bait fish and bigger fish have been pulled away from the shore.

However, low tide a great time to read the beach and prepare for fishing when the tide returns. Many of the features of the beach, such as the sand bars and troughs are visible only at low tide.

Surf fishing gear and tackle

Rods

Surf fishing rods are longer and heavier than typical freshwater rods. A beginner surf fishing rod can be between 8-10 feet. Longer rods are better suited for heavier rigs and larger species. The common belief is longer rods always mean greater casting distance. That might be true to a point, but longer rods can also be harder to control. I’ve found that a ten foot rod is versatile enough to work well in most situations.

Surf fishing rods can be one or two pieces. Many serious anglers prefer one piece rods, but two piece rods are easier to transport. The difference between a one and two piece rod won’t be noticeable for most beginners.

Like all fishing gear, surf rods can vary in price. A decent starter rod and reel combo can found for around $75. Higher end rods from brands like G Loomis can cost over $200.

Spinning Rods vs Baitcasting Rods

You may have heard the terms spinning rod and baitcasting rod, but what’s the difference? Other than the size of the eyelets and rod material, there’s actually not much of a difference in the rod itself. The bigger difference is the type of reel used and where the reel is fixed to rod. Spinning rods use spinning reels that attach to the bottom of the rod. Baitcasting rods use baitcasting reels that sit on top of the rod.

Baitcasting rod advantages

  • made out of stronger materials, so are more durable
  • better suited for larger fish
  • can be cast farther and with more accuracy

Spinning rod advantages

  • easier to maneuver, making them well-suited for beginners
  • work well when targeting smaller fish
  • tend to be more affordable

So which is better? Shorter answer is “it depends.” A lot of anglers will start with a spinning rod and eventually move onto a baitcasting rod. However, there’s a time and place for both. It just depends on the type of fishing you plan on doing.

Reels

Surf fishing reels are similar in appearance to most freshwater reels. A key difference is the size. Surf reels are typically larger and designed to hold a lot of line, which is required for long distance casts. Another difference is surf reels are better suited to resists the effects of sand and salt. Even so, keep your reel out of the sand by using a sand spike and wash the reel off with fresh water after use.

As mentioned, there are two types of reel for surf casting, the spinning reel and the bait casting style of reel You will need to decide which style of reel you want to use before purchasing a rod as the reel seats are positioned on different parts of the butt section depending on which reel the rod has been designed for.

As a guide, greater distance can be achieved with the baitcasting style reel, but the spinning reel is ideal for beginners and when greater distance isn’t required.

Line

For the modern-day surf angler there are three main types of fishing line to choose from:  monofilament, fluorocarbon and braid. All three types of line have pros and cons so the angler needs to decide which one best suits their needs before any purchase is made.

Monofilament line

Monofilament line, commonly known as mono, is a single strand line that is most commonly made from nylon. Compared to braided line and fluorocarbon, mono has far more stretch meaning that it gives more forgiveness in certain situations. That helps when a large fish suddenly dives, as the stretch in the line can help prevent the hook from pulling out.

It also has a slow sinking rate compared to other lines, so it is ideal for using topwater baits and lures or when the angler wants to suspend baits or employ a slow sinking rate. Monofilament line is also the cheapest of all the line types on the market.

Although the ability to stretch 25% more than other lines can have an advantage, it also has a lot less sensitivity so this will be a disadvantage when feeling for bites.

Fluorocarbon line

Another type of line available to the angler is fluorocarbon and this, like monofilament, is made from a single strand, but because the molecules in fluorocarbon are more tightly packed, it makes this type of line denser and quite a bit heavier than mono. 

One advantage of fluorocarbon is that it has exceptionally low visibility under water due to having the same refractive index as water. It is also more abrasive resistant than other lines so it is a good choice when fishing around rough ground or anywhere where the line can rub against structures.

This type of line also sinks a lot quicker than monofilament, so it is a better choice for when the angler wants to get baits or lures down quicker or for keeping a bait on the bottom. 

“Be patient and calm – for no one can catch fish in anger,”

— Herbert Hoover

Braided line

The third option for the angler is to use a braided line, often called a super line, which is made by weaving man-made materials such as spectra and dacron into one strand. This type of line is soft and has a very low diameter so the angler will be able to achiev greater distance when casting out.

One advantage of using a braided line is that is has zero stretch which results in better bite detection plus improved hook ups, especially when fishing at distance. This type of line also floats so it is ideal when using surface baits or lures, but with it being very visible under water it is advisable to always use a fluorocarbon leader.

As with fluorocarbon, care must be taken when playing a hard fighting fish as any sudden dives can result in the hook pulling out of the mouth or the line breaking.

Tackle

Sinkers and Weights

Sinkers allow you to present the bait in a way that looks natural fish. Some sinkers are meant to be move along the ocean floor, while others like the pyramid sinkers listed below, are meant to stay in one place. Pyramid sinkers are often used with rigs, which is a certain type of setup usually involving hook or multiple hooks, sinkers, and a section of line. The fish finder rig is a very popular surf fishing rig that uses a pyramid sinker.

Common surf fishing sinkers include:

  • Tongue sinker
  • Pyramid sinker
  • Storm sinker
  • Sputnik sinker
  • Dropper sinkers
  • Egg weight
  • Coin weight

Read more about surf fishing sinkers.

Leaders

A leader is a section of heavier line between your tackle and main line. A leader has several benefits:

  1. protects the tackle from getting ripped off by sharp objects (underwater rocks, bluefish teeth)
  2. helps absorb the force of a cast, especially when using heavier tackle
  3. Gives you something easier to grab onto when pulling in a fish

A leader can be made from heavier flourocarbon or monofilament line. Pre-made steel leaders are cheap and easy to use as well.

Our advice: When in doubt, use a leader.

Hooks

The smallest mass-produced hook commonly available is a size 18, with the hooks increasing in size as the numbers decrease evenly: 16, 14, 12 and so on until you get to a size 2. After a size 2 there is a size 1 available before a slash and a zero is added after the number. It is at this stage that the numbers increase singly: 1/0, 2/0, 3/0 etc until you reach what is generally regarded as the largest hook which is a 12/0.

Selecting the right hook size depends on the bait you use and the species of fish your targeting. For example, if you are looking to catch a striped bass with a small 4” live herring, lip hooking this bait on a size 2/0 hook would be a good choice. If the angler has decided to use fresh clams or cut bait, a larger hook somewhere in the 5/0 size would be a better choice as the baits are larger and a good amount of point protruding from the bait to ensure a good hook up is needed.

Use a circle hook for catch and release.

Circle hooks have become popular in recent years, especially for catch and release. They are manufactured so that the hook point is turned inwards towards the shank which greatly reduces the possibility of deep hooking a fish.

Bait

Live Bait

Sand Fleas

Sand fleas, which are also known commonly as sand crabs or mole crabs, are a small type of crustacean that can be found along many surf beaches. They are a natural prey for the species that are in the area.

The best method to fish with a sand flea in the surf is by using the fish finder rig. The angler can place the rod in a sand spike or hold the rod and feel for bites.

A wide range of fish will happily eat a sand flea including pompano, sheepshead, mullet, croaker, redfish, flounder and striped bass.

Shrimp

Another live bait that works amazingly well is shrimp. Shrimp can be purchased at your local bait shop or easily be collected prior to fishing.

When using live shrimp as bait, you can either use a bottom rig such as the fish finder rig, a double dropper bottom rig that uses two separate hooks, so two baits can be fished at the same time.

Most fish that live in the surf will be partial to a live shrimp, but they are especially effective when targeting mackerel, bass, redfish, snook, permit and speckled trout.

Pinfish

Pinfish are also a good choice as they are abundant and extremely hardy compared to other common baitfish.

Pinfish can be fished either underneath a bobber, on a bottom rig with a sinker such as a fish finder rig or, if fishing close in when the angler wants the pinfish to swim naturally, they can be fished free lined.

Most predatory species that can be found in the surf zone will not refuse a live pinfish. Various snapper species such as mangrove and mutton snapper, grouper, various types of shark, snook, redfish, tarpon and jack crevalle are all attracted to pinfish.

Mullet

Mullet, commonly known as finger mullet, might be the best live bait for surf fishing. These are small juvenile mullet that are around the size of an adult’s finger and a plentiful supply can be caught or purchased from a bait shop.

The best way to hook a mullet is by hooking it through both lips which keeps it alive for longer and helps it swim in a natural manner. As with pinfish, they can be fished on the bottom with a sinker, underneath a bobber.

Mullet can also be free lined for a range of species such as striped bass, redfish, snook, flounder, tarpon and mackerel.

Artificial Bait

Artificial bait (also known as soft plastic bait) is perfect for surf fishing. They can be used to catch species such as striped bass, snook, tarpon, redfish and trout to name a few. Artificial bait is available in a wide range of sizes, styles and colors and some even come pre-scented with fish attractants.

Here are four reason why soft plastic bait is perfect for surf fishing:

  1. They look and smell real. Soft plastic bait has a life-like appearance. Plus scent will help entice a strike plus the fish is likely to hold on for longer, helping the angler to get a good hook up.
  2. They’re versatile. This bait can be fished in different ways and at various depths, such as weightless if you want to target the surface area, or on a heavy jig head or carolina rig if the need to get the bait down deep is required.
  3. They’re affordable. The price of sift plastic bait has come down, as more companies mass produce this Each packet will contain multiple pieces that can target a variety of species.
  4. They’re convenient. Artificial bait is easier to buy and store compared to live or cut bait. We’ve written about how much we love live bait, but the artificial option is a lot less work.

The Berkely Swimming Mullet is our go-to soft fishing bait. The visibility and scent dispersion attracts fish like crazy. Berkely claims this bait has 400x more scent dispersion than other plastic bait. We just know it works.

All of the bait listed above can be rigged just like live bait. A darter head works great. You can also use a Carolina rig, Texas rig, or drop shot.

Lures

Poppers

Poppers are a type of surf fishing lure that attracts fish using sound. There are a couple of varieties of poppers, but what they all have in common is a hollowed-out “mouth.” When you drag the lure along the water, it makes a kind of bubbling noise. This sound will sound like live bait to the fish. Species like bass are especially attracted to poppers.

The two kinds of poppers out there are known as chuggers and spitters.

Chuggers

Chuggers have symmetrical “lips,” which allows a bubble to form over the lure as you tug it across the water. The bursting of that bubble makes a “pop”—hence the name “poppers.”

Spitters

Spitters have asymmetrical lips. Because of that, they don’t make a proper “pop;” they make a “spitting” sound.

These surf fishing lures are excellent for new anglers because they’re reasonably easy to use. All you have to do is cast them and then tug on your rod every now and then. Go fast when it’s windy and slow when it’s calm. It’s best to use them when it’s darker out.

Plugs

Plugs are surf fishing lures designed to look like something a large fish might eat. They usually look like baitfish, but they can look like bugs, frogs, or mice, too. Poppers are a type of plug lures—all poppers are plugs, but all plugs are not poppers. These surf fishing lures are ideal for catching bass, mackerel, pollock, and other top-of-the-food-chain fish.

There are two kinds of plugs: floating and diving.

Floating Plugs

Floating plugs stay at the surface of the water (or, at least, don’t dive too deep down). Like poppers, some types make sounds similar to those live bait would make as they traverse the water.

Diving Plugs

Diving plugs go below the surface of the water. They have parts, known as vanes, at the tip of their “mouths.” These vanes are what pull the lure down as it crosses the water. The size and shape of a vane determine the depth to which the plug will go.

Spoons

Spoons get their name from their distinctive shape. These utensil-shaped lures are great for catching fish like salmon, walleye, northern pikes, and trout. Manufacturers can make them out of plastic, metal, or wood, and they usually have a shiny side for visibility.

There are five types of spoons:

Jigging spoons are dense and leveled. They’re for deeper waters and are ideal for bass and walleye.

Surface spoons work excellently in waters that are weedy or rocky. You’ll want to break out these ones for fish like pikes.

Traditional (or Canadian) spoons are known for their quaking when pulled under the water. They come in a range of weights, meaning there are traditional spoons for everything from panfish to trout.

Trolling spoons are very lightweight lures, with a three-inch spoon weighing only 0.125oz. These lures are useful for catching fish that live in open waters.

Weedless spoons are the best for waters with boggy tops. Usually, these spoons weigh around 0.25oz to 1.3oz.

If you’re fishing in light conditions, choose a spoon. Their flashiness will be most visible, which means more potential fish.

Lead-Head Jigs

Lead-head jigs, also known as bucktail jigs, are very multipurpose lures. You can use them in various depths of water and weather conditions. It’s even the lure of choice for the U.S. Navy Seals.

Like other lures on this list, lead-head jigs look like live bait. You can get them in lower weights (around 0.125oz) and higher weights (3oz), depending on your needs. They’re among the best lures for bluefish, and they can bring in flukes, bass, and false albacore, among others.

Metal Lures

Metal lures, also known as tin lures, are dense, aerodynamic lures. They dip into deep waters with ease, making them outstanding surf fishing lures for striped bass and bluefish. These types of lures are the heaviest on this list, weighing up to 6oz. As a rule, they’re a plain chromic color, but you can customize them with whatever colors or accessories you’d like.

These lures dive deep, so choose them for deep-water jigging.

Other Essential Tools

Sand Spike

A sand spike is used to hold your rod out of the sand and surf when you’re not holding it. It’s usually a section of pvc pipe with one end cut on an angle to make it sink into the sand easily.

Sand spikes can easily be made with a few dollars worth of material from Home Depot or they can also be purchased pretty cheap online or from a tackle shop. Either way, make sure to bring a sand spike for each rod you’re using. It’s a small investment and protects your rod from the harsh effects of sand and saltwater.

Pliers

Always keep a decent pair of pliers on hand. That is, unless you’d rather use your fingers to pull a hook out of a bluefish’s mouth. Pliers also come in handy for making adjustments to lures and cutting line or leaders. The Rapala’s Angler’s Pliers come in an 8.5″ version and are a good buy for under $20.

Fillet Knife

In the event you catch something you want to eat, you’ll need a fillet knife. Fillet knives vary in price and quality. A Cheap one can be found for around $10 bucks, but those tend to be dull and don’t sharpen well. Think of how frustrating it is to slice a tomoato with a dull kitchen knife.

My trusty (and a little rusty) Rapala fillet knife.

Two of the higher quality brands are Bubba Blade and Dexter Russel. Models from those brands range from around $40 to $60. It’s worth the investment if you plan on using it often.

The Fish Finder Rig

The fish finder rig is one of the most effective surf rigs you can use for surf fishing. Whether you’re a beginner or experienced surf fisherman, the fish finder rig is almost guaranteed to increase your catch rate.

The fish finder is a simple rig. A pyramid sinker is attached to a snap swivel connected to the main like. Next, a bead and barrel swivel connect the leader, which runs to a single hook.

What’s so great about the fish finder rig?

Good presentation of bait is key to increasing your catch rate. If the bait doesn’t imitate or act in a natural manner, fish will be reluctant to bite. Because the leader can move freely around the pyramid weight, the bait can flutter and drift enticingly in a natural manner.

The Fish Finder rig is one of the most effective ways to present bait naturally.

Reading the Beach: Where to Cast

Fish typically stay in the troughs and holes in between sandbars at the beach. These deep areas are where to cast when surf fishing. Your ability to correctly identify the components of a beach that are under the waves will give you a significant advantage. Let’s start by understanding the different parts of the beach.

Important parts of the beach

Sandbars

Think of sandbars as long hills of sand underneath the surface of the waves running parallel to the shore. There are usually about two or three sandbars that separate the coast from the open ocean.

Sandbars cause the crashing water from the wave to turn white. When white water dissipates over a long distance, you know the sandbar has a gradual slope. Conversely, if you see white water immediately close to darker water, this indicates a much steeper sandbar slope. 

Troughs

Troughs are the hollows between two sandbars. Picture them as trenches beneath the waves. They can be shallow or deep depending on the slope of the sandbars on either side. 

Channels

Channels are cuts in sandbars that create a direct highway from the ocean to the shore. As water passes through  channels, a rip current that slices through the sand bar. 

Where to Cast to Get the Most Bites

Your first goal is to locate the sandbars where you plan to fish. As the waves crash, look for water that turns white. White waters indicate a bump below the water surface or the sandbars.

After pinpointing the sandbars, you can begin to look for where the water turns dark. These dark water spots will indicate troughs or even deeper holes that dig into the sand. Fish tend to crowd in these dark water areas for cover and the ability to feed.

Fish hold on both the shoreside and seaside parts of the sandbars. These are the troughs or the holes where the water is colorful and deep. Smaller fish, as well as their larger predators, will stay in these areas. Cast your lines and adjust to where you’re finding success.

Casting in jetties

Alternatively, you can also cast your line in the channels or jetties. These are other possible options for where to cast when beach fishing. 

Small fish sometimes wait near channels in the sandbar for nutrients coming directly from the ocean. Predator fish will use these channels as a hunting ground to search for prey too. Channels offer the possibility of both kinds of fish. 

Built up rock formations create jetties. You can find these jetties on some beaches. Smaller fish and crustaceans will hold in the water around these formations as the rocks provide them cover. These are also ideal places to seek bigger catches as predator fish wander these waters in search of food. 

How to Cast

Successful surf fishing begins with the cast. Ok, maybe it begins with choosing the right tackle, time of day, location and all that. But casting is definitely important. It’s so important, that we dedicated a whole article on How to Surfcast Like a Pro.

These are the three keys you’ll need to maximize your casting…

The Stance

Standing on the beach facing the sea, with the legs shoulder width apart, take a step forward with the left foot. This is generally a good stance, although anglers may need to make slight adjustments to the position of their feet until a comfortable stance is found.

Your Hands

Hold the rod by placing two fingers in front of the reel stem and the other two fingers behind it and grip it tightly. As a general guide, the baited hook or lure should be about 2’ down from the tip eye but the angler can make slight adjustments to suit themselves.

Hold the line with the index finger and open the bale arm.  Always double check that the line isn’t fouled up in any way, such as wrapped around the tip eye or hooked around a guide on the rod. The left hand should now grip the end of the butt section. 

The Cast

Bring the rod over the right shoulder until it is approximately in a horizontal position. Start slowly then quickly snap the rod forward over your shoulder, aiming at your target.  Release the line from your index finger when the rod passes your shoulder.

Tips for Landing a Trophy Fish

Talk to the locals

Nobody knows the area better than the locals. If you see other folks fishing, don’t be afraid to (politely) start a conversation. In my experience, local anglers are more than happy to share some advice.

A good place to get some “free” advice is the local tackle shop. It’s always nice to help the local economy as well.

Show Up Early at Low Tide 

Arriving at your prospective fishing ground at low tide will allow you to view the best spots to cast your lines. Low tide reveals the layout of the sand so you can clearly see the sandbars, holes, channels, and troughs.

Locating these areas will increase your chances of success when the tide gets higher and fish begin to populate the area. It’s much easier to observe and take note of the structure of the beach than it is to read waves. 

Practice Casting at Home

Find a field or open space near your house to practice your casting. Just tie a 3 or 4 ounce sinker to the end of your line and practice letting it fly. It’ll save time and frustration when you hit the beach

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I need a license to surf fish?

States have different rules and regulations around where and when you need a license. Licenses are typically not required for children under the age of 16

Is surf fishing good for kids?

Yes! Surf fishing is a great activity to get the kids involved in. I take my kids to the same beaches my parents took me to as a kid

A few things to keep in mind if you’re bringing the kids:

  • Surf rods are longer and harder to control, compared to freshwater rods. Younger kids will likely need some help.
  • Fishing usually involves a lot of waiting, which kids don’t like to do. It’s ok if they’d rather jump in the waves or play in the sand for a bit.

Where is the best place to buy surf fishing gear?

Bait and tackle shops

Most beach towns have at least one shop that sells everything you need, regardless of your level of experience. In addition to having quality gear, they also have vast knowledge of the local surf, so don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Our favorite shop for fishing gear is FIN-ATICS in Ocean City, New Jersey.

Sporting goods stores

You can also find whatever you need online, you just don’t get the individualized attention you’ll get from walking in a store. Places like Dick’s Sporting Goods and Bass Pro Shops have physical locations across the country and a ton more stuff on their website, often with free shipping.

Amazon

Most people are familiar with Amazon and have probably ordered tons of stuff from online retail giant. When it comes to fishing gear, Amazon can be hit-or-miss. They usually have decent gear at good prices, but they don’t always have the higher quality products. It’s worth check a few other sites before buying on Amazon, especially for higher priced items like rods and reels.

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