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Surf's Up

Spring brings great oceanside action along southern coasts

By: David A. Brown,

Warming water stimulates angling opportunities all throughout southern waters, but none present such broad accessibility and low-impact ease of operation as the activity generally known as surf fishing. The scope of where-to and how-to is as broad as the ocean itself, but here's a quick tutorial to get you started.

What species to expect

Pompano are unquestionably the premier surf species for Florida's surf fishing scene. They're a highly mobile fish, so consult the area fishing reports and make friends at the local tackle shops to keep up with their migratory positioning.

Others to expect include whiting, slot-sized redfish, black drum, sheepshead, spot, flounder and bluefish. Spring and fall see good runs of jumbo "bull" reds well over the 27-inch maximum length, while summer brings lots of sharks – mostly blacktips, spinners, bulls and the occasional tiger – into the shallow surf.

Click image for surf fishing photo gallery

If you've never fished the surf, it's best to learn a few basics from experienced anglers before messing with the sharks. It's a blast while the rod's bending, but handling a big, toothy fish in the surf is serious business – with a very real risk of injury.

Double your chances

For most of the more manageable surf species, a single-hook fish finder rig will certainly produce. But until you dial in a concentration of fish, you'll immediately improve your chances of attracting attention by using the double dropper rig. Simple in design, the rig places 1/0-3/0 hooks on a fluorocarbon leader with dropper loops and adds float beads that keep the baits off the bottom and in the line of sight for fish cruising the surf. A sinker of 4-8 ounces anchors the rig.

Sand fleas, shrimp and brined clam strips are well-received by most surf species, but dressing up each loop with red, orange, gold or blue beads and adding a colorful piece of synthetic bait called Fish Bites to the hook helps close the deal. Savvy anglers bait each hook with a different offering until the fish indicate which one they prefer that day.

Fish your surf rigs on 8- to 12-foot rods that allow you to reach out and over the waves. If you set only one line, you can hold the rod until a fish bites, but the big outfit will get pretty heavy after a few minutes, so a sand spike makes a convenient holder to keep the reel well above splashing waves. Spikes also enable you to fish multiple rods with ease and security. For optimal convenience, load your gear onto a surf cart with built-in rod holders and wheel everything from one spot to the next.

Site selection

On any decent weather day, you could find fish just about anywhere along the surf zone, but nature offers clues to help you find the sweet spots. Some beaches allow vehicular traffic so you can cruise and look; but where driving is prohibited, you'll want to pay attention to the often subtle details.

"When I hit the beach I take a scan of the coast and look for something different," Jacksonville angler David Gill said. "Anything will do but I scan for something that just looks different or catches my eye. This tells me there is a sand bar, or current or piece of structure close by. I also look for different wave action and direction, or (sign) that something is going on there."

Obvious shell clustering and shark teeth indicate strong current that's also sufficient to carry the clams, sand fleas and other food the fish are eating. The way the water moves is equally important, so watch the waves roll up and recede. Straight lines mean minimal dynamics, whereas multiple lines of receding water – typically exiting in diagonal angles – indicate the cross currents that really jumble up the surf. Also promising are the runouts which form distinct and narrow funnels in the sand as a wave returns to the ocean. 

With any such beach elements, the more the water stirs, the more the food becomes vulnerable and available to predators, so look for something different.

"Confused or crisscrossing water is a good sign to fish both sides," Gill said. "I also look for dips or low spots in the sand – areas that have been washed out by current and indicate a runout."

Lastly, you'll want to note the location of sandbars, indicated by breaking waves. These high points offer attractive feeding zones for pompano and whiting, which forage on what the waves stir up atop these hills. Between the shoreline and the first bar, and then between successive bars, the lower troughs appeal the feeding habits of redfish, black drum and sheepshead, while also presenting natural travel lanes for all surf species.

Hard structure, from random rocks to the beach side of inlet jetties presents a buffet of baitfish and crustaceans, so expect a concentration of fish in these spots. Similarly, piers will attract fish, while also offering you extended access to the surf zone.

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