Surf Fishing Basics – Steve McKenna

About three years ago I started working at a large bait and tackle store located in Rhode Island. During the course of my job duties at the shop I routinely fielded a myriad of questions from hundreds of customers daily ranging from what’s the price of a dozen sea worms to where’s the restroom. Most of the inquiries directed towards me however centered on surf-casting for striped bass, probably since this is my expertise. A lot of these questions, as you might assume, are from inquisitive patrons who are just getting started in this method of saltwater fishing, or from those folks who have been only surf casting for a while and who are thirsty for detailed information so their trips to the shoreline will be more productive.

From this group of budding and novice surfcasters the questions asked of me are always the same:

  • What gear do I need?
  • What lure or bait should I be using? And…
  • Where’s the best place to catch a striper?

It is those three pressing questions which have motivated me to write this article. Therefore, the following is a fundamental guide which will answer those important aforementioned questions and hopefully make surf casting a bit easier, much more enjoyable and perhaps, result in all of you new people landing a keeper or two during the upcoming season. Let’s get started!

GEAR

Before setting foot on the beach a neophyte surf-caster must acquire several pieces of rudimentary gear which are absolutely necessary. The foundation of any successful surf-fishing endeavor includes proper rod, reel, and line selection plus other fundamental accessories.

ROD

Walk into any well stocked tackle store and a new person to surf-fishing will quickly be overwhelmed. There are just too many choices. To reduce your anxiety level a bit, try to adhere to the following simple formula when selecting a good rod for the surf.

First of all, beginners are strongly advised to stay away from conventional tackle, i.e. revolving spool reels and matching rods.

This style of fishing tackle can be difficult to master which may detract from a rookie’s overall enjoyment.

Therefore, a spinning rod should be your first choice. Said rod should be at least 8 ½ feet with a 9 footer being the best overall length. Moreover, this stick is best in medium action with lure weight ratings between 3/4 oz. to 2 or 2 ½ oz, and comparable line ratings of 12 to 20 pound test. Your spinner could also have a reel seat made of graphite/stainless steel composite for convenience. And a good surf stick should have a set of ceramic guides and tip top.

Also, depending on your budget try to select a rod that is either graphite composite or 100% graphite. The latter is generally more expensive. These rods will run anywhere between 80 and 400 dollars. Fiberglass rods are still available and usually cheaper but I would still stick with a graphite composite model. These rods are generally more reasonable in price than pure graphite rods.

Plus, graphite composite sticks usually have more forgiving action than all graphite models which, in my opinion, make for a better all around fishing tool.

REEL

Making a decision on a reel can be as confusing as rod choice for anyone unfamiliar with or new to the art of surf-fishing. There are just too many choices. To me the selection is easy – buy a Penn 704Z.

This model has been around for a long, long time. It has been and continues to be a staple in our sport. For about 100 bucks you’ll have a strong, dependable, and simple reel capable of winching in any striper the surf has to offer. The 704Z is also versatile holding plenty of 12 to 20lb. test line and is at home on surf rods between 8 to 12 feet.

LINE

Fishing line is probably the most important item any surf-caster should consider before heading to the beach. Remember, line is your link to the fish so no angler should take it for granted. Consequently, a novice surf-fisherman should buy good quality line.

Presently, there are a lot of good fishing lines out there made from many different materials. My best advice to the new surf guy or gal would be to fill their reels with monofilament. Co-filament and braided lines are very popular these days, but from my experience are not good choices for novices mainly because the knots required are tougher to tie and not as reliable as with simple monofilament. Also, the abrasion resistance of some braids is suspect. Therefore, stick with good quality mono such as lines from Berkley (Big Game), Bagley (Silver Thread), or Ande Back Country. Fifteen, Seventeen, or Twenty pound test strengths would be my choice for the surf (fifteen-pound-test being the lower end). Finally, even good line (mono) is cheap so change it frequently.

One last thought on rod, reel and line; after each surf excursion your gear should be rinsed with fresh water. Also, spray your reel with some type of anti-salt/lubricant such as WD-40 or CRC-656. This five minute procedure will ensure that your gear will be in tip top condition for each successive trip to the sea.

WADERS

Waders are an absolutely necessary piece of gear if you want to surf-fish correctly. They are almost as important as a good surf stick, reel, and line. Since most surf-casting takes place near or in the water keeping dry and comfortable is paramount. Therefore, buy the best pair of waders that you can afford. The old saying “You get what you pay for” particularly rings true when considering waders. I’d stay away from waders made from 100% rubber. They are usually very, very heavy and will wear you down quickly. Remember, surf-fishing means walking over sandy beaches or tough, rocky terrain. So it would be in your best interest to get the lightest, most durable pair your pocket book allows. Waders sold by Hodgeman, Simms, Orvis, and L.L. Bean companies fit the bill for surf-casters and won’t break the bank.

Also, there are two types of waders: stocking foot or boot foot. Although stocking foot waders are becoming more and more popular among the surf-fishing crowd lately, I would stick with the traditional boot foot models. These are generally cheaper and more durable (but not as comfortable) as the stocking foot type.

SURF TOP

In keeping with the staying dry and comfortable theme while surf-fishing, a novice is strongly advised to purchase some type of waterproof jacket. Such a jacket will offer added protection from booming surf, residual spray and windy, rainy weather. The Grunden’s company offers a great line of rain parkas for relatively cheap money. The Brigg Parka and the new “Sund” are some of the preferred models. They are the best I have ever used.

NECK LIGHT

A lot of surf-fishing takes place during low light periods of the day and after dark. Therefore a quality neck light is essential for illuminating areas where you are wading or walking, tying knots, and unhooking fish. Again, there are many products out there on the market today at all different prices. My favorite light for years has been the disposable light from Garrity. It costs a mere 3 bucks, lasts a month of surf trips and is bright. I tape this to some bargain surgical tubing and hang it around my neck for easy access and handling.

PLIERS

I will not go surf-fishing without a pair of good long handle pliers that have cutters. They are essential for un-hooking fish, particularly bluefish and for cutting fishing line and leaders. Buy a pair that at the very least are rust resistant. Stainless steel models are a good choice. Make sure your pliers have a line cutting feature though.

LEADERS

Shock leaders are another important element of a surf-casters overall gear. Running line (from your reel) should never be connected directly to your lure or hook. A buffer zone is needed between line and lure (hook) because fish have spines, fins, and sharp edges which will quickly part even 20 pound test mono. Also, a lot of surf-fishing is done around rocky, reefy areas which will abrade running line causing it to fail usually at the worst possible moment. Therefore, use at least a 36 inch piece of 30 to 50 pound test monofilament or even fluorocarbon material. Tie this heavier trace of line to your running line via a quality barrel swivel (color-black). Use a high quality heavy snap or clip at the other end, also in black, to attach your lures.

PLUG BAG

The last piece of essential gear for the surfcaster is a lure bag. After all, one needs something to tote around their lures, leaders, pliers, and other possibles. Don’t buy a real big one though as you should be traveling light. There is no need to carry 47 plugs with you. Try to reduce your collection of artificials to a bare minimum. Check out the next section of this article and you’ll see what I mean.

LURES

What lures or bait to use for stripers in the surf?

In this category, I would first like to say that surf-casting, at least in my mind, is not soaking a chunk of bait to the bottom, sitting in a lawn chair, drinking a cold one while waiting for a striper to come along. Some people like to “surf-fish” this way but my conception of fishing the edge of the Atlantic is casting an artifical lure or live eel into one or more selected spots that I decide to fish. Moreover, surf-fishing to me is a hunt. I am constantly moving and casting looking for some action. With that said, I’ll give my recommendations on what artificials and bait a new surf-caster should be throwing at hungry striped bass. In my opinion a new guy or gal to the surf should start out utilizing artificial lures. They are pretty easy to use, very productive, and will help the neophyte get comfortable with casting and fishing the beach.

Here is my list of lures for all the new people out there. The list is short, but very, very versatile and productive.

1. ¾ ounce lead-headed bucktail jig– white with 3 or 4 inch white with plastic/rubber twister tail or pork rind. This is a very versatile lure and easy to use. A great producer of stripers of all sizes day or night from early spring through the fall.

2. Five inch Rebel or Redfin Swimmer- all white or silver with blue or black back. This is not a great casting plug but a proven producer none the less. It will take bass anytime of the day or night. A great lure when small baitfish are around.

3. A 2 oz. ACME Kastmaster or a 2 ounce Point Jude Lures Sea Scallop- single hook with a bucktail. Another staple artificial in the surf. Primarily just a day time lure but will take stripers from April until the end of the season. A great casting lure and ideal when distance is required.

4. Seven inch Redfin from Cotton Cordell – 1oz. All white or silver with blue or black back. This plug is fantastic during low light periods- dusk and dawn- and after dark. Very good in inlets, rips or calm, shallow water. Check out our You Tube video on how to weight this lure with water to further increase the action, casting distance and overall effectiveness.

5. 1- ½ ounce Danny Style Surface Swimmer from Gibbs, Beachmaster, Atom, Tattoo, or Troublemaker. White, blue, black, or yellow. This plug is another must in a surfcaster’s arsenal. A great daytime or after dark lure. Use one of these instead of a popping plug during the daylight hours. You’ll be surprised. Tune this lure to swim on surface by bending front eye down.

6. One to 1 ½ oz. “Stubby” Needlefish from Gibbs, SuperStrike, or Habs. All black, yellow, or green back with a white belly. Use during dusk, dawn, and after dark. Great casting lure. Reel slowly, keeping the needlefish on the surface.

One last note on artificial lures: you’ll notice that I didn’t include any popping plug in my selection. This is for good reason! First of all I’m not a big fan. All of the previously mentioned lures will often outfish a popper 5 to 1. If you have to buy a popper, which seems to be the first plug a surf-caster purchases, get something on the small side like a 1 -½ oz. Super Strike Little Neck Popper in white or yellow, or a silver Creek Chub of similar weight. Fish them slowly for bass and faster for blues.

After a rookie masters artificials, I would strongly advise anyone new to surf-casting to consider using live eels. Casting live eels into the surf during low light periods or after dark is THE BEST METHOD to catch striped bass.

Live eels don’t cast well and take some time getting used to but definitely worth a try if you want to consistently put quality stripers on the beach. For those interested, here’s the drill: Buy a 5 gallon bucket and travel to your local bait and tackle shop. Purchase at least 6 live eels, preferably 12 to 14 inches in length. Put the eels in your bucket and cover them with a wet rag. Throw in a couple of ice cube if the temperature is warm. Then travel to your favorite striper hole. After setting up your gear, grab an eel around the middle with a dry rag (burlap is the ultimate for grabbing eels) and whack the eel’s head on the rim of the bucket or a nearby rock a few times. A great eel hook is a live bait or octopus in 5 or 6/0 in black or bronze tied to a 36 inch length of 50 pound test mono or fluorocarbon with a black barrel swivel at the other end. Attach the eel by inserting the hook under the chin and out the top of the head directly behind the eel’s eye. Then begin casting the eel into productive water reeling slowly while keeping your rod tip high, almost perpendicular to the water. When you feel a hit, drop your rod tip horizontally to the water, reel in the slack until you feel tension then set the hook hard.

Where’s the best place to catch a striper?

This is the last and most asked question that I have to address.

It is a difficult one because there are just so many spots in the NorthEast where stripers can be caught. My honest response to most budding surf-fisherman is as follows; in the last 30 years of my experience the absolute best place to catch striped bass on a consistent basis is around the mouths of estuary rivers. Such locales are striper magnets drawing plenty of fish from the beginning of their migration until the end. From Maine to New York and South a novice surf-caster will find many locations where tidal river systems flow into the ocean or bays. Moreover, stripers can be caught in these inlets on all stages of the tide (although experience has taught me that ebbing tides produce best).

To locate inlets in your area it is a very good idea to obtain a local nautical chart (s) from a boating supply store or a large book retailer in your area. Another excellent resource are the “Shore Guides” available from “On The Water”.

These coastal maps are invaluable tools to the surf fisherman, detailing shoreline structure such as river mouths, water depths and other fishy spots like reefs, rocks, points, sandbars, and beaches along any stretch of coast. After finding likely spots on your map, physically travel to each area during the day, ideally at a low tide. Such day time excursions often add important information about access, parking, and physical structure of each locale. Being familiar with a surf-fishing spot is imperative especially if you are planning a night time return. Now that I have pointed you new folks in the right direction, it is up to the individual surf caster to absorb the fundamentals and expand on them over time. I would also strongly suggest to anyone who wants to catch stripers in the surf to get out as much as your schedule allows. Remember, time spent on the water is invaluable. There is really no substitute! You now have the basic tools and knowledge. Get out and cast and experience all the joys surf-fishing has to offer.

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