I’m sure you’ve seen them there, when you went to the beach: sunglasses, hat, and shorts wearing barefoot guys with long slender fishing rods staring off to the horizon. I also bet you wondered about what, if anything they ever caught and how they know where and when to fish.
I know I did until I tried my hand at surf fishing, and after a many hours of getting nothing but pruney toes, I finally figured out what surf fishing is all about, and since then, it has become an almost spiritual hobby, being alone on the beach, at first off hours of the day staring off into the sunset, truing to outsmart wily surf fish.
The truth is that when the surf fish are running, they’re almost ridiculously east to catch so long as you understand the basics of surf fishing. Every year, between Christmas and New Years, I head down to the beach with a bucket and a fishing rod, and half fill the bucket with barred surfperch, a staple of Southern California and the coast of Baja California down Mexico way. Barred perch spawn in this time so there are plenty to catch in a couple hours to make up a nice meal for a crew of six or eight.
After mastering the barred perch, I’ve turned my attention to other denizens of the beach, including Corbina, the king of California and Mexico surf fishes, and Spotfin Croaker, one of the finest eating fishes of the surf. I have friends who even target Halibut form the surf and have seen them land 36 inch California Halibut fishing with a fly from the surf. In fact, the Halibut world record holder fly fisherman in two separate line classes fishes regularly form the surf not 5 miles from my home, and it is there that he hooked his record holders.
I have exported my surf fishing knowledge successfully deep down the Mexican Pacific Coast, the Gulf Coast of the US, the Northeast, the Mid Atlantic States, and even in the Far East. I fished along side and Old Japanese man sitting on a beach on the inland sea in Yamaguchi Prefecture on the southern tip of Honshu Island, as he explained to me in excruciating detail exactly how to catch, handle, and hook the appropriate bait.
H was speaking in Japanese of course, as I smiled, nodded and interjected an occasional “ah so.” Actually I do speak some Japanese but it’s limited to ordering food, finding the bathroom, and teasing young girls, so the vast majority of what he was saying was going totally over my head, but I would never have let on that I was only catching about every fourth word.
Ok, so much for my surf fishing exploits, I’m sure you’re wondering, “How DO I catch fish in the surf anywhere in the world?” Well, I’m glad you asked. The first thing you have to understand is that the fish you are going to catch in the surf know what they’re doing. This is their habitat. These aren’t fish that normally inhabit deeper water but just happened to wander to the water’s edge, these fish are there intentionally. It’s what they do. They’re good at it. The only reason they’re here is that they’re hunting for food. They’ve leaned how to carve out an existence by eating what is on the very beach you are standing on.
I have to laugh when I talk to surf fisherman that I happen across. I was talking to one particularly frustrated guy who was fishing in Malibu and was complaining that the guy who had this spot just before he came was catching lots of perch but he wasn’t having such good luck. I asked him what he was using for bait and he showed me this package of fresh shrimp he’d just bought at the supermarket. Well, trust me, this wasn’t fresh shrimp, it was defrosted, and it sure looked to me like the farmed shrimp from Thailand.
He’s have been far better off taking those shrimp home, sautéing them in some butter, garlic and lemon, and pouring them over some pasta, than wasting his time fishing with them on a California Beach. This was mistake number one.
As I stood there watching and talking with this fisherman, I also noticed another serious gap in his surf fishing knowledge. The tide was receding. A receding tide is the worst time to fish in the surf. Take a moment to think like a fish that lives and hunts in the surf. The tide recedes exposing the beach to the other great predators of the surf line, the birds. The birds scatter about prodding and poking in the sand looking for small creatures to eat.
They unearth clams, sand crabs, worms, and ghost shrimp, whatever they can find to munch on, now that the newly uncovered seabed is exposed, they find a kill all sorts of critters and leave a mess. They dig small holes with their beaks, scratch up the sand with their feet, and do their best to leave no stone unturned.
As the tide starts to come in, each wave goes a little father up onto the beach, chasing the birds away and dragging the newly loosened sand hither and yon. While the sea birds found lots to eat, they certainly didn’t get everything. Many creatures successfully evaded the birds, but their semi secure burrows, nooks and crannies where they hid are now in disarray and the incoming tide breaks them down even further. Many of these creatures now find themselves being washed away by the swirling whitewater of the surf.
The now free creatures are now fair game for the sea-bound predators, the surf fish. The surf fish follow the tide in feasting on the buffet the birds uncovered and the incoming surf is now washing free. This is how the surf fish make their living.
OK, you should have learned two very important principles so far. First, is that surf fish are looking for natural food as they hunt the surf. A piece of cut squid, a deep water denizen, is out of place in the surf line, and while a particularly dumb fish night snap at it because it looks interesting, or a fish frenzied by the spawn might eat it in his spawning stupor, the average, intelligent (since it’s lived this long) surf predator will view it with some suspicion.
When you go to a surf beach, look for local, natural bait. Dig around in the sand at the surf line looking for small shellfish, clams, sand crabs or worms. The best time to do this is at low tide because you’ll have the most amount of undersea surface exposed. You’ll probably chase the birds away as you poke and prod in the sand. In Southern California, the most common beach critter is the sand crab.
These pea-sized shellfish are rather easy to catch with a special rake that allows you to sieve them through a screen that passes the sand but not the crabs. You can also catch them with a bucket and some water, just like you would be panning for gold.
You’ll do so much better using local natural bait than anything else. I know a well off retired man who surf fishes and still hasn’t figured out this fact. He sends off to Maine to buy special worms that cost $7.50 each and has them Fed Ex’ed in to surf fish with and can’t understand why the kids with their home made sand crab rake out fish him. If you’d rather buy bait, find a local bait shop and ask them what works best and what they have for sale. They often do have local baits, usually live to sell to serious surf fishermen.
The second principle is to fish the incoming tide. The surf fish wait for the tide to come in. They know when it comes in and are lined up waiting for it to come in. Experience and a keen nose have taught them that the time to eat is the incoming tide. The absolute best time to surf fish is from halfway between two hours before high tide until the high tide.
This is the only time I fish – those two hours. It comes around twice a day so you should be able to work that into your schedule. While you’re at the bait and tackle store ask them for a tide table. They’re usually free, and if not there are tide calculators on the Internet that will allow you to calculate the tides on any day anywhere in the world.
Here’s a surf fishing secret that I’ll bet you never thought of, but given my stories and explanations above, I’ll bet sounds logical to you. How far out do you think you have to cast to catch fish in the surf? Well, I’m sure you’ve seen guys with 14 foot long rods that they wade into the water waist deep and hurl several hundred yards away from the beach – and I’m sure that there are some kinds of fish that are caught that way, like striped bass along the East Coast.
If you’re targeting surf fish, not deep water species, though, the correct answer is, not very far. I catch the vast majority of my surf fish in ankle deep water – certainly shallower than knee deep. Sometimes along the Pacific coast beaches, I see fish feeding literally with their backs out of the water!
I like to cast just in front of the braking wave – into the white water. This is the home of the surf fish. They’re in close. I retrieve slowly dragging my bait up the beach slope, and if I get a hit, more often than not, it’s in very shallow water, like between ankle and knee deep. Surprised? I was when I first started leaning about surf fish. It’s now my “market’ where I stop by to pick up some fresh fish any time I’m in the mood.
So there’s my secrets: 1) fish with local bait you can collect from the beach yourself at low tide, 2) fish the last two hours of the incoming tide, and 3) fish shallow.