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September 21, 2007

Surf + Jetty - Riders on the Sand

When the fishing is hot and you need to get to the action fast, nothing beats a tricked-out beach buggy.
Beach buggies help anglers get to the bite quickly and efficiently.
Photo: Sam Talarico/Talaricophotography.com

Shortly after World War II, surf fishing exploded in popularity and with it came beach buggies. Originally assembled from old Model A and T Fords outfitted with surplus airplane tires, beach buggies have been a favorite means of running the beach ever since.

Beach buggies help you cover long stretches of sand more quickly than on foot, allow you to carry extra gear and food for an extended stay and provide the mobility for access to a variety of water. When other locations offer good fishing opportunities for several species of fish in a variety of water conditions you can get to them with a beach buggy. But before you go off and buy a four-wheel-drive vehicle and run it onto the sand, here are some simple steps that you can take to make over-sand driving safer and better for both the angler and environment.

Basic Instincts
Vehicle size is important, but just about any four-wheel-drive with enough ground clearance will run on the beach. For example, small Jeeps are agile and, with proper tire pressure, glide over the sand easily. On the other hand, larger sport-utility vehicles, such as RVs, require more knowledge, experience and planning to operate safely, particularly if the sand is soft.

Regardless of the vehicle, tire pressure is crucial. Each vehicle is different, but a good rule of thumb is to maintain tire pressure of 15 to 18 pounds. In very soft sand, 12 to 15 pounds is better and will put less strain on the transmission. If your buggy is jumping or skipping you are cutting up the track and stressing your buggy - drop the tire pressure and avoid spinning the tires. If you start to spin your tires, stop, back up and try again. Spinning tires will only bury the tire deeper. If you do get stuck, replace your divots as a courtesy to others when you get free.

Bumper racks that hold multiple rods and a cooler are the most functional.
Photo: Joe Cermele

If I know that a beach is soft and rutty, I usually run in low-range four-wheel-drive. Because some buggies will not shift into four-wheel drive or will not shift from high to low range once they are stuck, keep the transmission in low range at all times unless you are familiar with the beach conditions. At the same time, know that storms, big tides and heavy surf can have an impact along any beach. Conditions at locations such as Nauset Beach on Cape Cod and Cape Point at Hatteras can change in one tide, let alone from season to season.

When driving in a good track, understand that the vehicle will want to flow with the track. Let the buggy move with it and do not oversteer. Drive in the track and pull off only in locations that are level, safe and legal to run on. Do not park in the track. Instead, stay well to one side to give other buggies an easy path. The general rule on most beaches is that the departing vehicle has the right of way, so buggies heading out onto the beach must yield to a buggy leaving the beach.

On outer beaches, with their constantly-shifting sands, drive between the dunes, below the dune grass to just above the high-tide line - the berm crest. Do not drive on the dunes or the grass or in designated wildlife areas. And never back down toward the water. When backing up choose a level area or back up the slope. It's wise to follow the track; a wide beach might have multiple tracks for both entering and departing traffic. If you are on a barrier beach there will usually be an inside road or track. Often this route is in better shape unless exceptionally high tides cause flooding.

Water can be not only hazardous but deadly. A friend once made a mistake that cost him his buggy and almost killed him and his wife. He was running at night without lights and ran into flowing water. If someone had not thrown them a line they would have been swept out the mouth of Pleasant Bay on Cape Cod. Never run through water unless you are sure that the bottom is hard. When in doubt put on waders and test it. Finally, do not speed. Excessive speed can cause the tires to catch, making the vehicle turn out of control and putting others on the beach in danger.

How to Hit the Beach
To gain access to some beaches, an over-sand permit, safety equipment and adherence to strict usage rules are required. Driving the beach is not a right, but a privilege, and how you conduct yourself while driving on the beach will have an impact on future beach access for all of us. Each year different groups try to close beaches to over-sand use - don't give these individuals any ammunition. Drive carefully and responsibly and respect the environment, the wildlife and the rights of property owners. Also, remember that reckless or careless driving can get you or your car into trouble. Each year anglers lose buggies while running the beach - safety must come first.

To drive on some beaches the local or federal government will require you to carry basic equipment, and even on beaches that do not, it is still wise to carry this gear. A shovel, a spare tire, a tow rope, a jack and a jack support of at least 144 square inches, a tire gauge that can read down to five pounds, a first-aid kit, a high-powered flashlight, a fire extinguisher, road flares and trash bags will get you out of most problems and help keep the beach clean. In remote locations or during the off-season I like to carry a tire inflator that plugs into the cigarette lighter outlet.

In terms of fishing gear necessities, rod racks on the roof will allow for more tackle. Front vertical rod racks are useful when chasing fish because you can stow and gain access to tackle quickly. Racks that hold rods plus a cooler and other gear are better because you can keep wet and sandy items out of the buggy. Serious anglers will build or buy slide-out trays that stow a warehouse of gear in the back of the vehicle. Extreme five-day coolers are ideal for warm climates to store ice and food. The optimum over-sand vehicle is one you can camp out in. You will never find a better waterfront room. Regulated beaches usually allow three-day stays for campers - in places without time limits, and, with some planning on your part, you could stay until the holding tanks are full.

Before planning a trip, call ahead to be sure that the beaches are open. This spring a local beach was closed after a nor'easter caused severe wash over. Nesting birds may also cause beach closures from spring to summer. Beach buggy associations provide useful information and advice for both beginners and veteran buggy drivers. Beaches that require permits usually list the rules and equipment requirements on the Internet.

Take a Drive
Here is a list of some of the bigger, more popular locations to run the beach. There are certainly several smaller areas that also provide great fishing.
Massachusetts: Cape Cod National Seashore at Race Point and Nauset Beach
New Jersey: Sandy Hook and Island Beach State Park
Maryland: Assateague Island National Seashore and Chincoteague Island National Wildlife Refuge (one long barrier island that runs into Virginia)
North Carolina: The Outer Banks from Kill Devil Hills to Cape Lookout provides a vast expanse of beach to run with many access points and ferry service to some islands.
Texas: Padre Island National Seashore offers miles of beach for fishing and some primitive camping.