Reading the Winter Beach

When winter comes in California it sure can be hard on the beach. Wind, rain, and swells do an about-face and begin to churn from the north.  Southern swells and warm water are replaced by slicing, cutting waves of change.  In a matter of days, the entire beach is reshaped with billions of tons of sand suspended in water and then flushed across the shore. Reading the winter beach can be a challenging task but can dramatically improve your fishing.

New holes form as do troughs and once the storms calm down the fish begin to retrace their steps, finding safe havens with new beds of food to forage upon.  The angler, as with the fish, also needs to retrace their steps on a favorite beach and find the new holes, troughs, and sandbars that have developed. 

The secret to success at surf fishing is being prepared.  By visiting your local beach and locating the areas where fish tend to congregate you will know in advance where to start your trip the next day.  Rip currents, jetties, holes, troughs, and sandbars are all places fish congregate.  

Storm surf along with tidal changes, riptides, and inshore holes work together to produce some of the most productive fishing spots.  Knowing just where to fish and being able to read the beach will come with time and practice.  The first step when you get to the shore is to find an area where you can get a good view of the waterline.  Standing on the beach’s berm above the waves is a good place to start. 

Points and bays along the winter surf for fishing. When reading the beach, look for these points and bays.

Survey the water’s edge and look for where the water rushes up the farthest onto the beach.  This is a bay.  Look for areas in between where a point pushes out.  As you look up and down the beach, you’ll probably see several of these points and bay areas.  Water circulates around these areas and creates fishing opportunities. 

The best place to fish on a point is along its sides where the water slows down as the bottom drops off.  Waves break along a point in a triangle.  The best place to fish is along the edge of the triangle shape.  This is where the current, created by the breaking waves, slow down and releases the bait and particles it carries. 

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When fishing between the points look just offshore and find the gutter or trough that runs parallel to the beach.  If you’re looking straight out to sea, it is twenty to sixty feet in front of you, parallel to the shore.  Both an inside and outside trough are created by breaking waves and may be more pronounced after larger surf. 

A trough is a favorite place for fish to hide.  Corbina use the trough to lay in wait and then rush up the beach to eat sand crabs.  Perch stay suspended in the trough and feed on churned-up bait.  One of the best times to search for these troughs is at low tide.  Be sure to “mark” your spot by using landmarks (located behind you) so you can find it again when fishing at high tide. 

Besides troughs formed by waves, strong rip currents also move tons of sand and provide structure for fish.  Rid currents are formed by waves that approach the coast nearly head-on then reverse themselves and push both water and sand offshore.  As these currents carry water offshore they also provide both current and food for inshore fish. 

Rip currents appear with off-colored swirling water, rippled areas, and foam.  Some rip tides may be obvious while others are more subtle.   

As rip currents pull water offshore they also form a trough perpendicular to the shore where fish wait to find food. Rip currents form in the shape of a mushroom and create neutral pockets on each side.  These neutral pockets, formed by an eddy circulation, along with an offshore trough provide some promising areas to fish. 

Fish will congregate on either side of a riptide. Learn how to read the winter beach to spot these.

Scan the water for rip currents as they will often form and subside.  Some may be subtle and only a few feet from shore.  Others will be more pronounced and can extend well beyond the surf line.  The best place to fish a rip current is along its sides.  Cast out and retrieve your bait slowly across these areas where current meets calm water.   

Similar to rip currents, rock jetties also provide eddy circulation, which attracts fish.  Rock outcroppings produce water movement around their point.  This is where currents create a natural feeding habitat due to water movement caused by waves and tidal changes. 

As the tide moves up and down throughout the day water currents vary in strength and intensity.  At slack tides, very little water will be moving around rock points.  At larger tidal changes, more water and thus stronger eddy circulation will occur. 

Eddy circulation is important because it provides a current where fish can suspend themselves while water flushes through their gills providing oxygen.  The eddy also provides a current for bait and nutrients to pass within the fish’s strike zone. 

Slack tide conditions and small surf create minimal circulation and force fish to search for food.  Large surf and strong tidal conditions create too much current and make it difficult for fish to stay in place and feed.  Fishing is always best when there is a slow to moderate current condition.  Conditions of no current or a very strong one are the least productive and make fishing tough. 

To find where the current has created a fishing eddy look out toward the jetties’ point and find the leeward or downward side of the current.  Look for approaching swells and watch them as they approach the rocks.  The opposite side from which they approach is the leeward area where an eddy will form.  The eddy has similar characteristics to the rip current:  swirling water, rippled areas, and foam. 

When fishing rock jetties, cast along the outside and inside edges of the eddy.  The outside edge may be toward open water and the inside up against the rocks.  Fish will lurk in these areas waiting to ambush their next meal. 

Fish The Surf

Getting to know the subtle differences at your local beach will help you to find more fish and may be the difference between catching fish or just watching sunbathers. 

Ira was born and raised in Portland, Oregon where he first found his love of fishing with trout, salmon, and steelhead. Over the years he grew to target any species he could find in the Pacific Northwest including albacore, musky, and sturgeon. After graduating high school, Ira moved to San Diego to...