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September 21, 2007

Surf + Jetty - Fish at Your Feet

Quit wasting your time casting long distances to outside bars when the best fishing can be found in the first wave.
Pockets of deep water right along the beach will provide the best fishing. Work your lures at varying angles.

Shorelines along beaches are often deathtraps for baitfish. Driven into the dizzying waves by predatory fish, masses of baitfish become easy pickings as the backwash flows down the beach, touching off a feeding frenzy. Savvy surf fisherman from Maine to the Gulf know just how to read this surf for in-close action. Whether it's the thrill of busting fish in the trough or a sudden stop as a fish slams a lure at your feet, there's something special about catching fish in the first wave - the wave closest to the beach.

Many species feed close to shore - sometimes so close you can see their backs cutting through the white water as they feed - but striped bass are perhaps best suited to roam the first wave. On more than one occasion I've seen them feeding in rolling water too rough for most other fish. But stripers aren't your only first-wave target option. Along the Gulf coast from Florida to Texas, small- to medium-size redfish often feed close to the shore.

Snook is another great species to target in the first wave. Both snook and striped bass feed as regularly in the first wave as they do out in open water, and the bigger fish tend to feed alone or in small groups. I got my first taste of catching snook in the surf on a trip to Costa Rica. I was fishing a river mouth when a 20-pounder slammed my swimming plug in the white water, just yards from my feet.

Conditions such as the size of the wave and tide, water clarity and the steepness of the beach's slope will ultimately dictate the technique needed to figure out the first wave. For instance, as the tide drops, a steep beach might start to resemble a shallow beach. Steep beaches remain fishable longer in larger surf - fishing conditions can be decent with six-foot waves - but spots with one- to three-foot surf are ideal.

FISH THE POCKET
The best sections along beaches are places with pockets of deep water right along the shoreline. Depending on how steep the beach is, these pockets can reach depths of over ten feet. To find deeper pockets along beaches, look for color changes - the darker blue-green water will stand out from the light-colored shallow bars. On a shallow beach there will only be a subtle color change. In low light or with discolored water, watch the surf to find deeper water close to shore. If a wave breaks over a bar, rolls and disappears before reaching shore, more often than not there is a pocket of deeper water between that bar and shore.

In areas with plenty of baitfish, the tide may not matter, but when the food source is less abundant, incoming tides and the first two hours of an outgoing tide offer prime fishing conditions. From high to low tide, the waterline on some beaches with small tides may move only several yards, but in locations with eight- to ten-foot tides that distance may be several football fields long. As water levels change during the tide, baitfish keep moving. Gamefish and anglers follow. Beaches with a big tidal swing offer the most stable water levels within an hour on each side of high and low tide.

BEACH BUSTERS
Fish often strike aggressively during these first-wave blitzes as long as the bait isn't too thick, otherwise you can be in for a long day. If the fish are not hitting surface lures, try bouncing the bottom with a bucktail or a jighead with a rubber tail. Deep-running plugs work well, too. Sometimes bigger predators will feed along the bottom below the school-size surface feeders. The big guys sit down low, saving energy and picking up the dead or crippled baitfish that fall from the frenzy above. If the bait is small, fish dropper flies or small plastic baits several feet in front of a swimming plug or tin. Droppers work especially well under thick schools of sand eels or peanut bunker.

Look for small surf - one to three feet high - and try to cover as much water as possible with your casts. Use shallow-running swimming plugs that match the bait size. Your lure should mimic the way bait moves with the flow along the beach. Watch the waves or feel for resistance on the lure as the water rolls off the beach. When a receding wave catches the lure, drop the rod tip so your lure moves naturally. Wade carefully and quietly, since most of the time you can sight-fish and present the lure without even having to get wet.

In bigger surf, try using the same techniques but work smaller sections of water, fish more slowly and use bigger plugs or lures with more weight like tins, spoons or jigs if you need to get down. In heavy surf you will need to stand higher on the beach and make longer casts. In big surf on a steep beach, aggressive wading is a recipe for disaster so make certain to stay above the water line.

A DAY AT THE BEACH
Beaches along the Gulf of Mexico are generally flatter, with smaller troughs and surf compared to some east coast locations. Beaches like Ogunquit, Maine; Daytona, Florida; and Ocracoke Island on the Outer Banks of North Carolina are very hard, shallow beaches with subtle contours. These beaches are ideal in small surf but fishing becomes difficult as wave size increases. Outer ocean beaches with big tides, such as on Cape Cod, are unique because they offer a blend of shorelines that slope from steep to shallow.
- Lou Tabory

Surface poppers can be effective in the white water or in the flat water just outside the break. Work the water flowing off the beach by casting the plug at an angle so the popper drifts over the pocket just beyond the backwash. Noisy lures, such as pencil poppers fished with a lot of action are deadly in small surf if they are worked slowly.

Small surf fishing is ideal for flyfishing, and an intermediate-sinking line with attractor patterns works best. Try feeding line with the receding wave to keep the lure in the feeding zone longer. Casting at an angle to the beach and retrieving along the flow lets the lure move freely with the flowing wave. If visibility is poor, fish the lure right to your feet and let it hold in the flow before making another cast. Often, strikes will come just a couple of feet off your rod tip.

Live eels work best for the angler trying to catch a big cow in striper country, and nighttime is the time to work the bigger holes along a steep beach. Hook the eel through both lips and work it like a slow-moving swimming plug or let it swim freely, keeping just enough tension to feel a strike. Be patient and fish the eel right up the slope of the beach to your rod tip.

Match your tackle to the water conditions, bait size and fish size. In small surf, 6 1/2- to 7 1/2-foot rods with ten- to 15-pound line should cover most conditions. In heavier water with the possibility of bigger fish, bring a stout, eight- to ten-foot rod with 17- to 25-pound line. Choose lures according to the bait size and water conditions.

I've watched surf fishermen all along the coast spend hours of hard work casting to the outside bars for a variety of fish when, in many cases, the best fishing was more easily accessible right at their feet, in the first wave.