Three Surefire Places to Catch Fish from the Surf

Have you ever gone down to the beach to go surf fishing and wondered where in the world to start?  After walking to the water’s edge what do you look for and where are the fish?   

Finding the best spot to fish on the beach is much harder than fishing from a boat using a fish finder and anchoring over your favorite rock.  Waves crashing on a sandy beach almost always appear the same in either direction and make it hard to pick just the right spot to begin to fish.  The right place to fish at every beach is a bit different, but with a few tips it’s easy to find where a good place to start might be. 

I like to look for three telltale signs of fish: Rip currents, long shore troughs and rock jetties.  Each of these three places provides the safety and food that fish demand.   

I like to look for three telltale signs of fish: Rip currents, long shore troughs and rock jetties.

Let’s start by first talking about what you need to do once you’ve reached the beach.  Now that you’re at the beach, the first thing to do is walk to just above the water’s edge and find an area where you have a good view of the waterline.  Standing on the sand berm above the waves is a good place to start.   

Take a few minutes to look up and down the beach.  First, look at the beach itself and see how it curves into the water at the shoreline.  If you look carefully, you will see areas that are points and areas which are bays.  The combination of surf, current and tidal movement will create both small and large sand bays and points.  Many times, rip currents work in conjunction with the shape of the beach to provide offshore rivers that churn up bait and hold fish. 

Rip currents form when a set of consecutive waves pushes a large volume of water up onto the face of the beach.  The “stacked up” water will rush away from the beach and create an offshore current.  It appears with off-colored swirling water, with rippled areas and possibly foam.  Some rips may be vigorous and obvious while others are subtle.  Rip currents may form over a period of hours or appear in just minutes.  Take time to scour the water while you’re fishing and look for the beginning of new rip currents.  Approach these areas and cast along their sides.  Retrieve your bait slowly along these areas, where fish will be swimming in and out of the churning water looking for food. 

Rip currents can be small or extend twice or three times as far out as the surf break itself.  As they channel water out and away from land, they churn up food and create a trough that is perpendicular to the beach.  Fish wait near these offshore troughs for bait churned up by the rough waters.  A rip current will pull bait and other objects away from the beach and out to sea.  On each side of the rip is a neutral pocket formed by an eddy circulation.  This eddy circulation makes the rip current the shape of a mushroom. 

The best way to fish a rip current would be along its sides casting out in a fan motion and slowly retrieving your bait across the bottom.  Always be sure to keep your line tight to your sinker and pay special attention to where a rip current passes over the long shore trough and creates a T shaped highway in the surf. 

Similarly to rip currents, long shore troughs create channels of current that attract fish.  Long shore troughs are created by breaking waves and most beaches will have both an inshore and an offshore trough.  Troughs, which are no more than depressions in the sand, are a perfect place for fish to hide and find food. 

Troughs, which are no more than depressions in the sand, are a perfect place for fish to hide and find food.

Generally, two troughs will form.  One created by the inside shore break, mostly during high tide and another formed by sets of waves breaking farther offshore when the tide is low.  The most effective time to fish the inner trough is during high tide periods.  While a low tide is the best time to fish the outer trough. 

The inshore trough is 20 to 60 feet out from the sand and runs parallel to the beach.  Most long shore troughs are 5-10 feet wide and 3 feet deep and can run 10-100 feet in length.  In areas with large surf the long shore trough will be well pronounced. 

I am often asked how to find the trough at a beach when it’s high tide and the trough is well underwater.  One way might be to watch the swimmers and surfers as they enter the water and see if they sink down and then rise up again.  This always tells you where the trough is. 

The best time to find the long shore trough on your favorite beach is at low tide.  Choose a day when you can go to the beach at low tide, the lower tide the better.  Walk along the beach and find the troughs.  Some may be subtle, only a few feet wide or long. Others may be huge and stretch hundreds of feet.  Mark these areas by looking back toward shore and lining them up with a permanent object or landmark.  Your next step is to return at high tide and fish.  Thereafter, check the spots occasionally at low tide as the beach can quickly reform and fill in yesterday’s honey trough. 

Many California beaches include jetties built to slow the flow of water or sand along the coast.  These jetties make great places for fish to hide and feed.  Rocks not only provide shelter for fish but also act as a host for a variety of marine creatures that provide forage for surf fish. 

As a kid, I always believed that if I could walk to the end of the jetty, take my 12’ Calcutta and fling a 4oz sinker a mile out I’d catch the biggest fish ever.  What I didn’t know was that the fish, the really big fish, were right under my feet—lodged in between the rocks hiding and feeding like a stealth killer. 

That’s one of the common mistakes about fishing a jetty—there are far more fish just below you in the rocks than there will ever be out in the middle of the sea.  Just think about this for a second… Surf fish didn’t get big by swimming out in the open ocean unprotected.  Wanting to enjoy their retirement they found a safe place and holed up between the rocks of a jetty.   That’s where they find their true safety. 

That’s one of the common mistakes about fishing a jetty – there are far more fish just below you in the rocks than there will ever be out in the middle of the sea.

Rock jetties come in all shapes and sizes.  A series of rocks creates a similar eddy circulation to the one found in rip currents.  The outcropping of rock creates an eddy circulation around its point.  This is where current creates a natural feeding habitat due to the water movement caused by waves and tidal changes.  Eddies that form at rock structures are more predictable and therefore easier to locate than rip current eddies. 

Tidal movements up and down in conjunction with swells will produce eddies around rock jetties.  These swirling, off colored, foaming waters are the best place to find feeding fish.  

So, when you decide to fish from a jetty try this approach first: Stand at the shore end of the jetty and look out toward its point.  First, determine what direction the swell is coming from.  If it’s from the South, the eddy will develop on the North side of the jetty.  Conversely, if the swell is from the North the eddy will be on the South side. 

Rig your rod (I like to use a bit heavier and longer rod for the rocks) with the Carolina Rig.  Match that with a 2000-3000 series reel loaded with 6lb mono.  Downsize your sinker to 1/4th oz.  By having the lightest weight possible, you will get snagged far less than a heavier weight.  Next, add a short 8” to 12” leader of 6lb fluorocarbon.  Fluorocarbon is both “invisible” and very abrasion resistant.  Use a #1, 2 or 4 size octopus style hook. 

Walk to the area where you can see the eddy circulation working.  Instead of casting out to sea cast just beyond where the water meets the rocks.  Allow your sinker and bait to work its way back and forth in the current, toward and away from the rocks.  Keep your line tight to your sinker with no slack and stand ready for a fight.  

If you snag, jiggle your sinker loose and start over.  Most large surf fish don’t nibble but swallow and swim back to their hole.  If you feel a pull upon your line wind down, pull up and begin the fight.  Now that you’ve pulled that big fish from between the rocks you may need to find your way back to the sand to land it.  Good luck with that! 

Jetties, rip currents and long shore troughs all present opportunity to catch surf fish.  Take a bit of time at the beach to discover the location and workings of these three hot spots and you’re sure to catch the fish of a lifetime!