How to Surf Fish - Reading the Beach | Great Days Outdoors

When learning to how to surf fish, finding and fishing structures along the beach can be crucial to success. But circumstances do not always allow anglers to look into the water in order to determine these locations. Minimal sunlight, rough or dingy water can obscure sandbars from direct view, and in the case of rough surf even hide them all together. But even with minimal experience, new anglers can learn surf fishing tactics that will allow them to approach waters featuring these more challenging conditions.

Surf Fishing Tactics: Rough Waters Means Heavier Gear

Fortunately for anglers on the Emerald Coast, the Gulf of Mexico only occasionally experiences sustained periods of rough surf (3 to 6 feet) and discolored water. And it only rarely produces winds and waves so high as to make it practically impossible to fish in (waves over 6 feet). But you will need to alter some of your surf fishing tactics and locations to remain successful during these more trying times. For one, adding more weight to hold against stronger winds and currents is practically a ‘must’. So this requires heavier duty gear including longer rods and bigger reels with a heavier line to match the conditions.

Rods of 10 to 12 feet are great tools under these conditions, and the power rating stamped on them should support weights in the 2 to 6-ounce range. And a longer rod helps keep the line above breaking waves which can move your bait or drag it down current. As well, the reel should balance well on the rod and have sufficient maximum drag and line capacity for heavier lines, especially if you are using braid. 20# to 30# braided lines still have a relatively small diameter that allows longer casts and lessens drag from wind and waves. An important surf fishing tactics rule for safe surfcasting is for your line to test almost 10 times the number of ounces you are throwing. So a 30# line is recommended when casting rigs with a 3-ounce weight and a 60# line is recommended for throwing 6-ounce weighted rigs. This is to keep the line from popping and potentially hurting someone (including you), should the bail trip or line tangle during the cast. Believe me, it CAN happen!

When it comes to how much weight to use, a general surf fishing tactic is about one ounce per foot of surf or 10 miles per hour of wind you are casting into.

Most surf anglers use pyramid sinkers, but the claw-foot or ‘sputnik’ sinkers usually hold better in extremely rough conditions. It all depends on the species you are targeting and the circumstances you encounter during the course of the day. It seems overkill to fish for pompano with 30# or 40# line, but some days you have to use a heavier rig to reach them.



Surf Fishing Tactics: Taking What Nature Gives     

When the forward speed of the top of a wave or swell exceeds that of the lower part, a breaker forms when water actually cascades down its front. ‘Whitewater’ as surfers refer to it, can restrict light passing through that water, making the depth virtually impossible to determine by sight alone. But the tradeoff is the very fact a wave is breaking is indicative of relatively shallow water. So anglers can use this factor to determine the boundary of deeper water where the waves cease breaking. When viewed from a wide angle perspective, the basic water depth contours take shape around the areas of breaking waves and white water over sandbars. Any region where the waves cease to break can be construed as being relatively deeper water, and that edge is where fish may accumulate. They will either be seeking refuge from fighting the wave turbulence and currents or using that location as a feeding station where prey items are released from the rolling surf. The surf fishing tactic anglers want to focus on is focusing on placing their bait in these areas in order to maximize opportunities to get it in front of hungry fish.


Rip currents create temporary feeding locations for fish.



On an incoming (rising) tide, fish often feed along this inner edge of the sandbar/ trough slope or they may seek out temporary rip currents along the beach. Rips occur where waves run up the beach and then create a swirling current as the water flows back down the angled sand and into the incoming waves. During the warmer months sandfleas, coquina, and other food items are often swept off the beach in this manner. And pompano, whiting, etc. will lie in wait just a few yards from shore for their breakfast, lunch, or dinner. This provides a light tackle surf fishing tactic opportunity to anglers during these rough water conditions close to shore. Otherwise, during an outgoing (falling) tide these same fish (plus many others) are more likely to seek out breaks at the end of sandbars (much farther from shore) where deeper water in the longshore trough will channel food out to them.

There are often water clarity issues when rolling surf stirs up the bottom sediments. This forces fish that do remain in the surf zone to feed more by smell than by sight as underwater visibility is greatly reduced. Once the wind dies down, or switches to offshore after a front the water usually clears with each succeeding tide cycle until the wind picks up again several days later. A savvy angler will ‘plug into’ this cycle and determine how trends of water clarity and wave height will affect the bite during their fishing session. They will use the the descriptive words of each day’s Coastal Marine Forecast from the National Weather Service, along with their arsenal of surf fishing tactics, to plan accordingly.  Besides wave height, the period describes whether it is a wind wave (3 to 6 seconds) or groundswell (6 to 9 seconds). Swells tend to disturb the water more and for longer periods than do the smaller ‘wind waves’ which may still allow some underwater visibility. So periodically monitoring nearby wind and wave weather stations and/or tidal gauges can help you observe and adjust to changing conditions during the course of the day.


Surf Fishing Tactics: The Blind Spot

In nominal conditions of dingy water and rough surf, blind casting into the water and hoping for the best is not a surf fishing tactic I recommend. Anything you can do to improve your odds of getting (and keeping) your bait in front of your targeted fish will increase the odds in your favor. These are the conditions when double drop rigs with bright colored foam floats work best. Especially when you add a piece of scented Fishbites that will stay on the hook longer in the turbid water. If you haven’t gotten a bite after 15-20 minutes you need to check the bait and possibly relocate the rig if there is a better-looking spot nearby. Under these conditions fish like pompano tend to wander around, while others like whiting and drum may be more stationary. Either way, you have to find them to catch them!   


The absolute toughest conditions to determine precisely where to cast while is in low light or very dingy water when there is not enough surf running to help you determine the location of any sandbar structures. ‘Hunt and peck’ is the surf fishing tactic for this scenario, and with some luck you might come across a school of fish or even an occasional ‘loner’. The thing is not to give up or stop trying. As long as you are actively fishing there is at least a chance of getting a bite whether you can tell what the bottom looks like or not. And under these challenging conditions, the rewards are even more satisfying.


I hope these help!


Surf Fishing Tactics: Planning resources-

NWS Coastal Marine Forecasts:

Pascagoula to Pensacola (out 20 miles)

Pensacola to Destin (out 20 miles)

Destin to Mexico Bch (out 20 miles)


Surf Fishing Tactics: Real-time resource-

Water temperature and tide:

Panama City Beach Pier, FL

Pensacola Bay, FL

Perdido Pass, AL

Dauphin Island, AL


Surf Fishing Tactics: Beachside Webcams-

Mexico Beach, FL

Panama City Beach, FL

Fort Walton Beach, FL

Destin, FL

Navarre Beach, FL

Pensacola Beach, FL

Orange Beach/Gulf Shores, AL

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