Beach Buggies

How to choose, outfit and operate your SUV for fly fishing the shoreline.

Not all saltwater fly fishing is done from boats. Many of us rely on shank's mare, and what boats do for the offshore angler, four-wheel-drive vehicles do for those of us who walk the beaches, sod banks and rock piles. They save time and effort by carrying gear we otherwise couldn't, they make it easy to cover lots of ground, and they provide rapid mobility when chasing shoals of fish.

But choosing and using one of the popular SUVs (sport-utility vehicles) for fly fishing in the surf requires more than kicking the tires and picking out the color you like best. Those anglers who enjoy effortless fishing trip after trip invested much thought, time and effort in the selection and modification of their vehicle. What follows will help you navigate your way into the sand for hassle-free fly-fishing adventures.

What to Look For
Today, there are more types of 4x4s available than ever before, from traditional small Jeep CJs to sedans, station wagons, pickups, campers and motor homes. This doesn't even include ATVs ("four-wheelers" or "dune buggies"). Selection of a vehicle appropriate to your particular fishing needs is the first consideration. Get a 4x4 with more room than you think you will need. For my own fishing, I find a four-door Ford Explorer comfortable enough for two anglers but definitely cramped with three and their gear. A four-door model, with the rear seat folded, gives easier access to gear than a two-door. Also consider whether you will want to lock your rigged rods inside. Importantly, will you also use the car for regular street use or limit it to fishing functions? This may affect how you will store your gear and what tires you choose.

Despite higher fuel consumption, modern automatic transmissions are rugged and superior to manual for beach driving. Shifting is more efficient, which means you won't lose momentum when moving from gear to gear. Small cars, like the many imported wagons or mini-vans with light-duty four-wheel drive, may get you to work in a typical snowstorm but won't do the job in deep sand. Most lack sufficient ground clearance, horsepower and traction. Passenger cars, which have only "full-time four-wheel drive," are not equipped for heavy sand duty either. Just as no boat is suitable for every task, neither is every beach buggy.

Not all sand is equal. Some beach surfaces are hard enough to run in two-wheel drive at regular highway speeds with fully inflated tires. On Rhode Island's western beaches, a 4x4 is required, but relatively hard, coarse sand allows you to run without deflating tires, a real convenience when you go back onto the highway. In deep "sugar," like that in parts of Cape Cod or North Carolina's Outer Banks, you must have a proper 4x4 with the right tires suitably deflated, and most importantly, knowledge of how to drive on sand. The point is simply to know the beach you will tackle in advance.

Protective measures against sand and salt can be kept to a minimum. Modern anti-corrosion coatings are great and obviate the need for supplementary undercoating or rustproofing. The scores of buggy drivers I know are content with the factory issue, and many believe that additional undercoating actually retains water and salt, which contribute to rusting problems. Hose off the exterior with fresh water after each beach trip, particularly the undercarriage. Be thorough, getting under the engine, into the wheel wells and inside the wheels and brakes. Salt air takes its toll on car finishes, so wax exterior surfaces regularly.
In the interior, avoid carpeting if fishing is of primary concern; it looks nice, but it's difficult to get the sand out. Many anglers insist on complete rubber flooring rather than cloth carpeting, though rubber storage area liners are also available, custom sized for most vehicles. They are the best way to keep the rear storage area of your SUV clean. Use a whisk broom or vacuum regularly to keep the interior clean. Waders, especially neoprenes, which stay wet longer, introduce dampness to upholstery. Either cover your seats with beach towels or fit them with customized nylon or vinyl-backed slip-on covers.

Nostalgia photos of the early days of beach fishing show 1930 vintage Model A Fords with large, tubed "balloon" tires. Although smooth treads were long touted as ideal beach shoes, they are not recommended if the vehicle is to be used for regular highway driving. Today's tubeless radials, suitably deflated, will do the job on the sand and also provide good highway safety. However, the heaviest snow treads are not recommended -- you want to slide over the sand, not dig into it. Wheels should be at least 15 inches for better clearance.

Some Assembly Required
Unlike boats, beach buggies were not designed with fishermen in mind, so all require some personal customizing. Before you select or fit out your buggy, list all the tackle and gear you will want to carry and remember that you will be working out of the vehicle, not just storing everything neatly. In addition to a container for communications and safety equipment, it helps to have a box for wet waders, jetty spikes and rain gear. A roof box for gear that isn't used regularly preserves interior storage room; secure storage boxes are readily available for pick-up trucks. A spare tire that stores underneath the chassis, rather than on the outside or in the rear inside, also saves space.

It's common to carry at least two rods rigged for each angler on a 4x4, so rod holders or racks are an important accessory. They may be located inside for security, on the roof for highway travel or on the front of your vehicle for quick access while fishing. At times you may need all of the above arrangements. They needn't be complicated or difficult to install, though making the effort to rig proper holders will make your fishing life a lot more enjoyable. Just exercise your ingenuity. You can also fashion racks across the roof inside so the rods are overhead. Pickup truck drivers can build a lightweight wooden frame over the truck bed and lay the rods atop it; they're out of the way but accessible. If your pickup has a cap, you can generally lock your fully rigged rods inside if you have a slide-opening rear window in the cab.

For outside roof racks, the easiest route is to purchase snow-ski racks. The down side is that when you open the racks to remove one rod, all the rest are loose and may move around and tangle. It's better to make racks that hold each rod separately. Use short sections of PVC or broom/utility clips to hold the grips in place at the rear and slotted rod racks to keep the tips apart on the front end. Magnetic holders, one on the hood, the other on the roof, prove very handy as well. They attach and remove in seconds and hold rods securely. Whatever design you select for your roof racks, make sure you can reach them. Unless you are 6 feet 8 inches, if your vehicle lacks running boards or a high bumper on which to stand, access to your tackle can be difficult.

When on the beach, most surf anglers prefer to store their rods on front bumper racks, vertical tubes that hold rods ready for action. Rods across the front only minimally obstruct vision, and most East Coast shore communities have their power lines high enough to offer clearance for surf anglers' rods. You can buy rod racks ready to install (some specifically designed for fly rods) or you can fashion your own. You can use any combination of tubular metal, wood or PVC. Despite being a klutz with tools, with the help of friends who actually know how to work a screwdriver, I've built racks for six different cars, from compact Hondas to a series of 4x4s. While none won design awards, all did the job to my satisfaction.

Another alternative is a cooler rack, sometimes called a "front porch," that mounts on the front of your car or truck, holds an ice chest and also includes rod holders. Tackle shops or garages in many shore communities can order and install them for you.

Hit the Sand
Most beaches limit travel to 10 or 15 miles an hour, but a brief ritual is called for prior to heading across the sand: Deflate your tires, lock the wheel hubs and shift into four-wheel drive. Light pickups and SUVs (Blazers, Explorers, Durangos and the like) perform best with about 15 pounds of pressure. Use less for really deep sugar, a little more for larger vehicles. About 20 years ago, my first buggy, an old 3/4-ton Jeep pickup truck running on 16 pounds, got bogged down to the hub caps on Chappaquiddick. I was admittedly skeptical when a native advised me to lower the pressure further, yet with all tires at 12 pounds, I easily drove out of the ruts. It was a valuable lesson. Also, keep all four tire pressures equal or you may experience traction difficulties. A recent device on the market, called Tire Buddy II, facilitates the irritating chore of deflation. Simply screw it onto the tire valve and it automatically lowers the pressure to 15 pounds (or another pressure you choose) and shuts off. The operation is simple, you don't need a pressure gauge, and you get consistent and uniform pressure. With a couple of these, you can be ready to go in a few minutes.

Some vehicles require the driver to stop, get out and manually turn the front wheel hubs from "free" to "lock" position. Many newer models lock automatically when shifted into four- wheel drive, which can usually be done while the vehicle is moving by pushing a button or moving a lever. Check the instruction manual of any vehicle you consider. The locking hubs prevent undue stress on the front axles when pulling through sand. You should disengage the hubs after leaving the beach. The auto hubs can be disengaged by shifting out of four-wheel and backing up a few feet. Manual hubs must be disengaged by hand.

Shifting into four-wheel drive may seem too obvious to mention, but the first time I drove the sand, I got out, carefully deflated my tires, dutifully locked the hubs and proceeded to advance one truck length -- before getting hopelessly bogged down in the deep sand! After I turned the air blue with appropriate expletives, one of my partners calmly asked the embarrassing question, "Did you shift the gear lever into four-wheel?"

Sometimes the most obvious instruction is the easiest to neglect.