An Introduction to Surf Fishing

by Joe Malat, Outer Banks Editor

With a minimum of effort and expense, anyone can catch a fish from the beach. Start with a few rigs, some bait and a rod and reel. If you do not have the necessary items, start with a visit to your favorite tackle shop. Most tackle shops on the Outer Banks sell balanced rod and reel combinations in a variety of lengths and weights. There's no single rod and reel that will be perfect for spring, summer, and fall fishing, but eight to nine feet is a versatile rod length, and a good starter outfit. Look for a rod that is not too soft, with too much flex in the tip, one that will handle up to four ounces of weight to hold a rig on the bottom.

Most of the time you will be fishing with pieces of natural bait such as bloodworms, squid, shrimp, or mullet and two hook bottom rigs. They are versatile and good for several species of small fish, and afford the opportunity to change hook sizes, styles and sinkers easily, to suit the species of fish, and conditions of the ocean. Some shops sell them with the hooks and sinkers already attached.

"Fireball rigs" are specialized bottom rigs. They may have one or two hooks, with a brightly colored float fixed just in front of the hook. They're good for bluefish, but anything will bite them.

Baits are very seasonal, and I strongly suggest that you ask the local tackle shop people for a recommendation. Keep your bait fresh and out of the sun, in a cooler or refrigerator. Like their human counterparts, fish like to eat things that look good and smell fresh.

Each bait has a special method of preparation. Bloodworms are cut into small pieces. Mullet can be filleted and cut into chunks or strips. Squid works best when cut into thin, wedge shaped pieces that imitate a swimming bait fish in the current. Mole crabs, or sand fleas, are small crustaceans that burrow into the sand between the low tide and high tide marks, and are an effective, low budget bait for several species. Hook them from their underside up through the top shell.

It's also a good idea to take a few artificial lures to the beach. Occasionally fish will school up and feed very actively right in the surf. This is especially true of bluefish, striped bass, or Spanish mackerel, particularly early and late in the day. Lures need to be cast out and retrieved, and when retrieved, look like a harried bait fish swimming away from the predator. If you have to pick one or two lures, choose something that is shiny and heavy enough to cast.

When you buy one, buy a spare. The worst thing imaginable is to have fish all around you in a feeding frenzy, and hear the line break with a sickening "POW!", as you watch your only lure sail off on a world record cast. Some handy accessories are a knife, a pair of pliers, and a rag. If I am walking over to the beach and not driving, I carry a five gallon plastic bucket. Hook your rigs and lures around the top, put your knife, bait, a few pieces of ice and a cold drink or two in the bottom, and use it to carry off your fish.

One other item you don't want to be without is a sand spike, a piece of PVC pipe that is shoved down into the sand. The butt of your fishing rod is inserted into the pipe. Never lay the rod and reel down in the sand. Sand gravitates to every crack and crevice of a fishing reel like steel to a magnet, and can wreck a reel in a heartbeat.

After a day's fishing, a gentle freshwater wash down of the rod and reel will minimize salt corrosion. Spray the reel and rod guides with a moisture displacer, and wipe off the excess with a rag.

Some folks may miss out on the fun of surf fishing because they don't know where or how to begin, and may be slightly intimidated by the salty looking veterans that can cast a country mile. Those folks have honed their skills through years of practice and catch fish from the beach when rookies come up empty. Don't crowd them, they have paid their dues, and earn what they catch, but don't be afraid to get out there and give it a try.