Three Tips for Successful Sight Casting from the Surf

Southern California’s surf is filled with life, but did you know that oftentimes fish will cruise around in ankle-deep water? This zone is what we surf anglers refer to as the “skinny” or the “skinny water”. I also like to call it the shallows or “the ultra-shallow waters”.

The bottom line, a few local species spend a lot of time in the same depth of water where many people stand. In fact, if you fish the surf enough during the summer months, it won’t take long for a fish to bump right into your ankles as a wave rolls onto the shore.

Spotting Fish in the Shallows

Corbina, spotfin croaker, shovelnose guitarfish, and sting rays inhabit this zone with regularity during the summer months. They’ll cruise this ultra-shallow portion of the beach, hunting for sand crabs and taking advantage of the warm surface water. Of those four species listed, two are highly sought after by local surf anglers: corbina and spotfin croaker. 

Both corbina and spotfin can frequently be spotted with their dorsal spines breaking the water’s surface as they scour the ultra-shallow water in search of a meal. If you can’t spot their spines, you should be able to make out their signature “v-shape” that they leave behind in the water as they turn back to sea in a receding wave just before the water becomes too shallow.

What is Sight Casting?

Sight casting is a style of fishing that involves the angler visually spotting his target fish and casting accordingly in hopes of a hook-up. In So Cal, spotfin and corbina are atop the list for sight casting. 

How to Successfully Sight Cast for Spotfin and Corbina

There’s really only one rule you need to follow when sight casting, but it can be broken down into a few different elements. The rule: present your bait within the path of your target, in a manner that won’t spook the fish. How do you go about doing this? Three things… (1) Stealthiness, (2) Timing, and (3) Placement.

  1. Be Stealth: Don’t Let the Fish Notice You

The first key to successful sight casting is to be stealth. You can’t let the fish notice you. Remember, you need to place your bait in the projected path of the fish in a manner that will NOT spook the fish. Many different factors can help or hurt you here. This is where lighter gear plays a role. 

Your line, believe it or not, isn’t a huge deal. Keep it 15-pounds and below and you’ll be just fine. These fish aren’t line-shy like everybody thinks. They’re people-shy and all things that might seem “unnatural”-shy. 

Corbina has what’s called a “barbel” that hangs from their chin. They use this to sense vibrations and in doing so, they can use it to hunt for crabs and other prey as well as to sense human footsteps coming and even the vibrations of a led weight hitting the sand. 

The main reason corbina are perceived to be “line-shy” is their uncanny ability to literally “feel” an angler’s presence. Their eyes aren’t too bad either so it’s important to stay out of their direct line of sight. Before you consider going from a 10-pound to a 6-pound-test or even a 4-pound-test, consider going lower on the weight. 

Since I don’t like to change my rig very much, I limit myself to natural factors. I use an 8’6” Okuma Celilo, a Penn Battle II 4000 spooled with a 15-pound mainline, and I almost always use a Carolina rig with a 2.5-foot leader of 15-pound fluorocarbon, a 1-ounce egg weight, and a #2 or #4 Owner Mosquito hook. 

So what can I do to remain stealthy? I stay out of the fish’s direct line of sight, keep my distance, time my cast right, and place my bait in an optimal area that won’t spook the fish. I sort of just spoiled the next two points, but let’s talk about them

  • Timing Your Cast

Timing your cast is extremely important when it comes to sight casting for both spotfin and corbina. The best practice is to spot your target from a distance, and then wait for a rolling wave to create natural disturbances on the water’s surface and more noise and vibration around the fish. When the wave is rolling right over your target fish, it’s time to take action. 

  • Placing Your Cast

Typically, you’ll spot these fish cruising in a lateral manner as they move slightly in and out with the waves. When the water is mellower, there will be less “in and out”, and more casual cruising. So, figure out the trajectory of the fish before that wave rolls on over. 

As the wave begins to roll over the fish, you want your bait (and weight) to be entering the water at least 6-to-8-feet in front of it. If executed properly, the fish will not have noticed your bait entering the water, nor your weight hitting the sand. Again, it’s important the fish doesn’t see you either. So keep your distance. 

Once you’ve properly placed your bait, the hard part is over… kind of. The rest of it is up to the fish. Keep your line taught enough to know there aren’t any serious bows/slack in the line, but don’t risk an unnatural presentation. You might find yourself repeating this process a few times before you get one to bite, but it’s absolutely exhilarating when it works. 

One more piece of advice. When you do get one to bite, I recommend setting your hook to the side rather than upward. If you set upward like you normally would if you had casted further, the unnaturally short distance in this case would make for a severely sharp angle which would force the fish up toward the water’s surface. By doing so you risk unnecessary added tension and weight which might result in a spat hook. 

Video: Sight Casting in So Cal’s Surf

If you’d like a visual reference, check out this video on sight casting for spotfin croaker

You’ll see with my first hook-up (mussel meat for bait), I spotted a group of two corbina and a spotfin croaker which were all spread out over maybe a 10-foot span. I was a little late on the cast as a wave had just passed over them, but I knew casting for three fish provided a higher percentage cast than one, so I sacrificed a little bit of stealthiness in this scenario.

In my second hook up (sand crabs for bait), I had an added element of stealthiness in the sunset glare. Additionally, I found a spot where numerous spotfin were gathering prior to coming in closer with the waves only to retreat again with the wave would then recede. I placed my bait where it looked like they were gathering and watched. It took a few waves but it paid off. 

You can also be a little bolder than I was and cast where they were feeding rather than where they were gathering. The only problem is your bait may rest on exposed sand between waves as the water recedes and prepares to come back in with the next wave. 

There’s a lot to consider and there’s no “one correct way”. So give it a watch and gather what you want. 

Tight lines! 

Nick Heid