While pier and surf fishing are easy ways for inexperienced anglers to get their feet wet, they can also present challenges that confound the most seasoned angler. The surf-fishing zone is a feeding zone for all sizes of fish, where highly oxygenated water attracts everything from small crabs to alpha predators such as red drum, striped bass and snook.
At its simplest, pier and surf fishing require little more than a handful of tackle, a basic saltwater rod and reel combo, and some saltwater fishing bait. At its most complex, pier and surf fishing can involve custom-built rods, finely tuned casting reels, intricate rigs, and handmade lures and plugs.
Surf fishing can be one of the best places to enter the world of saltwater fishing. Almost any stretch of the coast is a good place to fish, and all it takes is a little knowledge and some basic saltwater tackle to get started.
To the untrained eye, one section of beach may look like any other, but experienced surf fishermen have a sixth sense that can detect variations in the underwater structure. Obvious features such as jetties, rocks, creek mouths and points are easy to find; while subtle structures that include bars, sloughs and cuts take careful observation to identify.
While beach literacy can take someone who is surf fishing years to develop, a few rules will get you started. First, waves break over shallow water. Visit the beach at low tide and look for breaking waves to find the top of the bars. Second, most sandy beaches feature a deep slough that runs between the shore and the outer bar. The outer bar will often be interrupted by deep cuts that allow water to enter and escape with the changing tide.
Some fish, such as red drum, are drawn to the shallow, rough water on top of the bar. Other fish, such as striped bass, tend to lurk in the deeper water along the edges of a cut. And many fish — such as panfish, flounder, speckled trout, snook, bluefish and smaller redfish — patrol the deep slough running between the beach and the bar. Larger predators — tarpon, sharks and cobia, for example — patrol the outer edge of the bar.
A well-equipped surf angler will use a combination of heavy surf fishing rods, medium casting rods and light saltwater fishing tackle to place baits in each of the major feeding zones.
Like surf fishing, pier fishing is an easy way to get into the sport. Not only do fishing piers attract fish; they attract crowds of fishermen. The best way to learn the ropes is to watch those more experienced in pier fishing in action. Also, budding anglers can usually get all the saltwater bait and tackle they will need from the pier house and plenty of sound pier fishing advice from on-site staff.
Pier fishing is often diverse because of the wide range in water covered by the structure. At the base of the fishing pier, anglers will use light saltwater tackle to target fish that hunt the shallows. Midway down the fishing pier, meat hunters will bail panfish two at a time with a medium combo. The end of the fishing pier is usually reserved for anglers chasing trophy fish with heavy tackle.
Each fishing pier has its own rules and regulations, but the primary rule is always safety first. Anglers lined shoulder-to-shoulder, swinging rods and slinging hooks is an accident waiting to happen. To cast from the fishing pier, it is usually best to lean over the railing and swing the bait under the deck on the backcast. When a situation requires an overhead cast, make sure no one is standing on either side or in back and holler, “Going out!” before letting loose.
In jetty fishing, fish are easy to find, but can be difficult to catch. While rocks and rubble below the water will host the entire food chain, the jagged, slippery surfaces sticking out of the water can be dangerous to walk on. A pair of steel-studded fishing boots will help an angler grip the slick rocks. A medium-action spinning combo will cover most of the water available to jetty fishermen.
The deep rocks in a jetty contain some of the tastiest fish. Anglers who dangle a single hook bottom rig armed with a stout hook and baited with a chunk of crab, clam or shrimp can pull blackfish, triggerfish or sheepshead out of the rocks.
Larger species visit rock jetties looking for an easy meal. Jetty jockeys hit the rocks armed with an arsenal of plugs, jigs andspoons to match the hatch depending on the season and targeted species.
Not only do the rocks and rubble of the jetty provide holes and crags for baitfish to hide and gamefish to hunt, but the water flowing by the jetty will scallop the bottom surrounding the structure. Look for deep holes at the base of the jetty where the water rushes in and carries sand out.
Points are natural jetties that protrude into the ocean and create an obstacle where gamefish can corral baitfish. The current flowing past a point will create areas of shallow water bordering deep holes. At low tide, surf anglers can wade out onto the point and cast beyond the breakers. With incoming tide, the rising water will chase anglers back onto the beach, where they can fish holes and bars that might have been exposed during low tide.
The powerful currents that created the point will constantly reshape the beach by moving sand from bars to holes and back again. Be warned, this swiftly moving water can also push anglers from shallow water into water that is over their heads. Also, anglers who wade off dry land should constantly stay aware of tidal conditions: Water that is shallow at low tide may be too deep to cross at high tide. Extra caution must be taken when wading onto a point, as one wrong step could be trouble.
Anywhere two bodies of water meet is a good place to find fish. Nowhere does that occur more predictably than in the mouth of a river or inlet. Not only do inlets and deltas feature colliding water bodies, but they are often marked by structures such as jetties, bridges, sandbars, sloughs and deep holes.
This combination of structure and convergent water creates a scenario that surf fishing enthusiasts can’t ignore. To find the fish, look for rips, bars, jetties or deep sloughs. In most cases, the fish will be waiting for a meal to sweep by in the current. Since the fish are usually stationary, it is best to use a bait such as a Carolina rig, jig or plug that is moving in the current.
As with any fishing method, getting a bite or getting skunked can be the difference between a few hours or a few feet. When fishing river mouths or inlets, it is good to cover a lot of ground during different tide periods. It is not uncommon to make repeated casts without catching anything, while the angler standing next to you hauls in fish after fish on every cast; or to leave an area fishless then return a few hours later and find a bite on every cast.
Seawalls and Bulkheads
Property owners build seawalls and bulkheads for a reason: to keep the ocean from eating away at their investment. For anglers, these structures are an investment — in good fishing.
Seawalls and bulkheads usually mean deep water close to shore. Waves beat against the wall and suck sand back to sea; or swift water running by a bulkhead will gouge out substrate at its base.
For this reason, it is best to drop a bait or lure straight down and bounce it around the base of the structure. An angler can even walk up and down the top of the wall while bouncing bait below. When a fish is hooked, be prepared to chase it the length of the wall — the same feature that draws fish to the wall to hide from predators can help the fish escape.
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