Surf Fishing Q&A with Bill Varney

Every day I get some great surf fishing questions by email.  Taking just a few from the bowels of my inbox here is a sample of my favorites over the years in this Surf Fishing Q&A.

Bill Varney with a Spotfin Croaker

How can I avoid tangling with kelp when I’m fishing at the beach? 

Kelp in the surf can be one tough condition to work with.  Fish are no different than humans when it comes to swimming with debris—nobody likes it!  So when you go to the beach try this to avoid seaweed.  First, find an area above the beach (like a rise or cliff) where you can see the water.  Look for darker areas of water; this is where you will most likely have a concentration on kelp and grasses.  Find the adjoining areas of clear water and line them up with a permanent landmark.  Walk down to the sand and line yourself up with the “clear” landmark and fish.  Although all the kelp may not be gone from this area at least most of it will be to the side. 

Another thing I’ve noticed over the years is that at high tide all the kelp and debris on the beach will be suspended in the water—most often very close to shore.  So try fishing areas from low tide up toward high tide.  This way most of the kelp will still be on the beach and not on your line. 

Lastly, when it comes to kelp and tangles—be patient.  Recently, I hooked into a nice spotfin croaker.  Before I knew it I was tangled with a two-hundred-pound patty of kelp.  Rather than pulling hard and possibly breaking my line, I was patient and allowed the kelp to eventually wash to land.  Take a few minutes to follow the tangle down the beach and reel it slowly to shore with the help of waves.  In no time it will be close and you will be able to grab the kelp mess and bring it to shore.  I did, and was rewarded with a big spotfin! 

Read Next: Halibut Candy: The Lucky Craft Flash Minnow

Can surf fish be found around dredges? 

When most folks see the turbid, off-color, and foaming water from a dredge they tend to stay away because it seems that fish don’t like it.  But for a short while the opposite is true, they actually love it! 

Dredges are used to move sand from one area to another.  Most times we see them used to enhance the size of a beach or improve maritime navigation.  They are simply taking sand from one area and depositing it into another.  But what else is it depositing?  Everything that lives in the sand too! 

In the first few days of a dredge project clams, crabs, worms, and every other marine creature is being pumped right out to sea and feeding the fish.  So if you see a dredge going up on your beach don’t be afraid to go a bit downstream and cast to where the clear water meets the turbid water.  This is where fish will be waiting to forage on the fresh plume of free bait. 

What baits work best in the surf? 

I break surf baits down into two general categories:  Live bait and lures.  With lures, you have many choices.  For Halibut hardbaits such as Lucky Craft Flash Minnows, Rapalla, Sebile, Yo-zuri, and several other “hard baits” work exceptionally well.  For other surf fish (like corbina, spotfin croaker, and halibut) try one-half and three-fourths ounce Krocodiles and Kastmasters.  Both of these lures work well in the surf and attract a wide variety of surf fish.  When fishing for perch and the occasional corbina a Carolina rigged Gulp! sandworm or a one and one-half inch plastic grub seems to work great too. 

Lucky Craft for fishing the surf Q&A

For natural live bait, the list is almost endless but the most common choices would be: Sand crabs, lug and bloodworms, ghost shrimp, sidewinder crabs, mussels and clams.  Some of these baits can be purchased at your local tackle shop.  Others must be collected at the beach or in nearby marine areas near harbors, jetties and estuaries.  My suggestion is to call one of the many great tackle shops near the beach and ask them what bait they carry and where to use it.  You may also pick up a copy of my book, which gives details about how to find, catch and keep bait alive. 

Sand crab

How do I find fish at the beach ? 

There are a great many places to find fish at the beach but here are a few of my favorites:  When you first get to the beach find a high spot on the sand where you can see waves crashing on the beach.  Look up and down the beach for off-colored, foaming and swirling water.  This is where a rip current has formed.  If you find this you will find fish.  Approach the rip current from the side and fish it’s edges where clean water meets turbid water. 

Another place for fish to hide at the beach is in the long shore trough.  When waves break, both an inside and outside trough are formed.  The inside trough is just a few feet from shore.  You have seen it before (or even experienced it) when you see a surfer walk out and then drop into neck deep water.  Fishing is good here at high tide because forage is churned up in the trough and it is also a safe place for fish to hide. 

Similar to the trough that forms near the beach, the outside trough forms beneath waves that break the farthest from shore and is a productive spot to fish at low tide. 

My favorite place at the beach to fish during winter is around any rock structure.  Looks for jetties, harbor entrances and rock outcroppings.  This is where fish feed and hide during the winter months.  When first approaching a jetty or rock structure pay special attention to the direction of the swell.  Normally you will find that fishing on the opposite side of where the swell meets the rocks is most productive.  Fish use the eddy current, which is produced on the opposite side by the swell, to help them find food, air and a safe place to live. 

Fish The Surf


Apr 24, 2023 at 7:31 pm

If using 20lb test can you use 20lb fluorocarbon line as a leader or does it need to be heavier, say 30-40lbs?

Apr 25, 2023 at 2:08 pm

Typically, in the surf you want your mainline to be stronger than your leader unless you are fishing sharp structure like a rock or coral reef. The main rule on thumb here is to make sure your drag is set correctly so you do not break off at your connection knot. Set your drag in accordance to the lighter line whether it be your mainline or leader, in order to avoid breaking off at your connection knot.

Leave a Comment