Complete Surf Fishing Guide: The Breakdown

Complete Surf Fishing Guide: The Breakdown

Surf Fishing at Sunset

Surf fishing might look simplistic but it can open your eyes to a whole different world in the sport. Fishing in the surf is much more than simply casting into the waves. It takes experience to read beach structure and understand different situations.

Depending on the species of fish you’re targeting, you’ll need a specific rod and reel setup that will be able to handle the lure type as well as the fish themselves.

Luckily we’re about to cover some of the most important surf fishing tips that will get you started on the right foot.

Finding the Right Surf Fishing Spot

Where Should I Look?

I usually scope out good spots during a lower tide, since it’s easier to see any variations on the ocean floor. You’ll notice there are dips, trenches, and other differences that will eventually hold fish during a higher tide. These areas are commonly known as “holes” and “troughs” and will be crucial for success.

How Far Do I Cast?

You don’t really have to cast far at all. Most of the time you’ll find fish right past the first wave break, even closer too. There will be times you have to cast further, like when birds are dive-bombing bait out deep, etc.

Don’t Stop Moving

Even if you’ve found a great hole, if it’s not producing fish you need to move. One of the biggest mistake surf anglers make is standing in one spot for hours, ultimately wasting the trip. Surf species are constantly moving up and down the beach so you should do the same.

Always Check the Tides

NOAA Santa Cruz TidesThe general rule of thumb when doing any fishing that deals with tides is to fish two hours before and two hours after high tide. This is a bit different everywhere, of course, but it’s a solid rule to remember if you’re new to a spot.

Every day there will be different wave heights during both high and low tide, and it’s important to know when the swells are too big and when they’re just not enough to kick bait around. I personally use the NOAA website to track tides but my buddy Greg enjoys the Tide Graph Pro app for his iPhone that allows him to quickly check tides wherever he is. Always do your research prior to each trip and your efforts will definitely pay off!

Basic Surf Fishing Setup

The key to choosing your rod and reel setup is to keep things simple. The surf is a harsher environment than most other kinds of fishing in terms of wear and tear on your gear so keep quality in mind. Buy a reel that’s too cheap and you risk ball bearings that deteriorate or a drag system that can’t handle the species you’re after.

Your rod should be of decent quality as well, especially if you plan on casting and retrieving lures for hours on end. Spending a few more bucks can get you a more lightweight, balanced and sensitive rod, all of which will help you out on the water.

The Best Surf Fishing Rod For You

Your rod doesn’t have to be enormously long. Usually an 8-10 foot pole can get you out far enough since fish such as striper, surf perch and halibut feed within the first few wave breakers. If you want to throw lures, typically a rod rated 1-4oz. will have enough tip action to launch the lures and enough backbone to set hook properly. 

  • Finding the Right Rod Action: Make sure you don’t buy a rod that is too stiff. Your rod should have enough taper (aka “action” or “softness”) in the tip yet enough backbone to give you leverage and lifting power. The right action will allow you to work your lures properly and keep steady pressure on the fish throughout the fight.
  • Balance Your Rod: This isn’t the most important thing in the world but if you’re able to balance your rod and reel then it will definitely help your casting and lessen the strain on your arm. When choosing a surf rod, grab the reel you’re planning on pairing it with and strap it on. After assembling the setup place your finger a few inches above the reel seat and see if the rod balances out. Play around with different rods and reels and see which pair balances the best.
  • High Quality Guides: I always make sure that the guides on my surf rod are of decent or high quality. You can’t go wrong with Fuji Guides and any other brand that can handle braid abrasion will be great. Some guides offer more rigid support than others meaning they’re less prone to bending out. Always keep an eye out for rods with sturdy and braid-friendly guides and you’ll save money in the long run.

The Best Surf Fishing Reel

It never hurts to spend a bit more on your surf reel since it will be constantly battling sand and saltwater. Depending on the size of your rod, a decent surf reel should be around the 3000-5000 size. This range of sizes will hold enough line in case you ever run into a drag-peeling fight. I don’t like 2500 size reels for the surf because they don’t have enough line capacity and the 6000 size and up is too big and heavy to cast properly.

A few things to look out for before the big purchase:

Sealed Ball Bearings

Make sure that your reel has sealed ball bearings. Saltwater and sand will eventually get into your reel one way or another, and having sealed bearings will prevent any rust and other corrosion.

Remember that a higher number of bearings doesn’t always mean better quality! It’s the quality of each bearing that will make the difference. You can buy a $20 reel with 11 bearings yet a $150 reel with 7 high-quality bearings will feel twice as smooth.

Drag Cap With Rubber Gasket

I love my Shimano Stradic Ci4+ & Penn Slammer III reels because they both provide a rubber gasket on the drag cap. This keeps any unwanted sand and seawater from seeping into the drag system in case I get drenched on accident. Not many reels offer these and it’s not completely necessary but it does help save you at times.

High Gear Ratio

 It’s important to have a high gear ratio for your surf reel. A higher gear ratio in a spinning reel will be somewhere around the 6:1 speed and this allows you to pick up slack line faster when a wave hits and work your lures more effectively.

Best Line Choice for Surf Fishing


I swear by braided line when surf fishing. It’s thinner, stronger and has zero stretch properties. This means you can cast further, use heavier line without sacrificing thickness and most importantly set hook hard without the “bungee cord” effect.

Braided line is more expensive but will last much longer than monofilament or fluorocarbon. For every 2-3 times you swap out the mono/fluoro you only have to change braid once so the price balances out eventually.

Monofilament Line Options (12-15lb for lures, 15-25lb for bait)

  • Trilene Big Game
  • Maxima Ultragreen
  • Yo-Zuri Hybrid

Braided Line Options (30-40lb for lures, 30-65lb for bait)

  • Daiwa J-Braid
  • PowerPro Spectra
  • PowerPro Super 8 Slick

Fluorocarbon Line Options (15-25lb for making leaders)

  • Seaguar InvisX
  • Seaguar Blue Label
  • Yo-Zuri H.D. Leader

The Most Effective Surf Fishing Rigs

As I mentioned before, keep things simple. You only need to remember a few rigs when you hit the surf unless a specific species needs otherwise. Keeping your arsenal down to a few basic rigs will help you fish more efficiently but best of all you’ll save some money.

Sliding Sinker Rig

If you plan on bait fishing then this rig is the way to go. It’s the simplest, most effective way of keeping your bait planted on the bottom while still giving it room to drift around a little, making for a very natural presentation.

(The tackle is listed in order based on what goes on the line first, second, etc.)

  • Plastic Sinker Slide
  • 4-6 Ounce Pyramid/Spider Sinker (attached to sinker slide)
  • Plastic Trout Bead (optional but helps protect the knot from the sinker slide)
  • Snap Swivel
  • Barrel Swivel (clips onto snap swivel)
  • 12-18” Leader Line
  • Size 1/0-3/0 Gamakatsu Octopus Hook for sand crabs and other bait
    • Size 6 Gamakatsu Baitholder for perch grubs such as “Berkley Gulp! Sandworms”

Dropper Loop Rig

Make sure you master the Dropper Loop Knot before trying this method. After tying one or more knots cut one side of the loop as close to the knot as possible and use a Snell Knot to attach the hook. This rig allows multiple baits to be suspended above the sand while keeping the entire rig in place unlike the Sliding Sinker Rig. If you like leaving your rods out on rod holders then this is perfect for you.

(The tackle is listed in order based on what goes on the line first, second, etc.)

  • 18-36” Fluorocarbon Leader Line
  • Size 1/0-3/0 Gamakatsu Octopus Hook for sand crabs and other bait
    • Size 6 Gamakatsu Baitholder for perch grubs such as “Berkley Gulp! Sandworms”
  • 4-6 Ounce Pyramid/Spider Sinker

The Best Bait for Surf Fishing

There are a bunch of options for both frozen and live bait but you only need a few to succeed. My personal favorite are live pile worms and bloodworms. These are great for almost any species out on the beach including striper, surf perch, leopard shark, etc.

If you don’t feel like spending the money on live worms, look right under your feet! There are millions of live, wriggling sand crabs scattered all over the beach. You can sift through them using a specialized sand crab net or simply with your bare hands.

Try to find the soft-shelled sand crabs, and you easily determine which ones they are by gently squeezing them. Other deadly live bait options include ghost shrimp, grass shrimp and bullheads, all of which are irresistible to the fish.

Frozen bait works as well. Try anchovies, squid, and shrimp on your bait rigs and you’ll target a large number of species. Play around with your options and see which ones work best for you. If you can afford live bait I’d definitely recommend it! A struggling live bait on your hook will always give you that extra edge.

The Best Surf Fishing Lures

This part can get a little tricky because you can throw just about anything out there for multiple species. As I’ve mentioned a million times, keep things simple. Bring a few baits to cover different levels of the water column and you’re good to go!

  • Topwater Lures: Most anglers who fish topwater enjoy using poppers since they don’t require as much effort to work as the walking baits do. A few popular brands that I’ve sold to a bunch of surf anglers include the Cotton Cordell Pencil Popper and River2Sea Bubble Walker 128. Any other popper is fine as long as it is heavy enough to cast far and provides decent hardware (split rings and hooks) that won’t rust or bend out on big fish.
  • Jerkabaits: Hands down the most popular and effective surf lure. Jerkbaits are simple to use, cast a mile and their action is unbeatable. The erratic wobble of a jerkbait provides flash and vibration that few other lures can imitate. My personal favorite is the Daiwa SP Minnow (floating or sinking versions are both great) as well as the Yo-Zuri Mag Minnow. Simply cast and retrieve these lures and you’re sure to get bit in no time. Make sure to modify your jerkbaits because the stock hooks and split rings simply suck!
  • Paddle Tail Swimbaits: A paddle tail swimbait is a great way of covering the lower water column. With a swimbait you’re able to fish slower and keep your bait in the strike zone longer than a ripbait or topwater lure. The most effective and durable swimbaits I’ve ever used are the Big Hammer paddle tails paired with the Big Hammer lead heads.
  • Bucktail Jigs: A bucktail is the same concept as the swimbait but with a more finesse profile. Both can be fished slowly and close to the bottom. The added action of the fluttering skirt gives off an irresistible movement that fish can’t ignore. Slap a curly-tail grub on the back and you’re good to go.

I hope you’ve learned a thing or two from this article. In the comments below please notify me if anything was unclear or if you have a suggestion to add. I appreciate all of your support, tight lines!


  1. Cool, thanks man it’s always good to refresh and remember stuff. Can’t wait for the stripers. Getting itchy in Northern Cal here. Perch fishing has been off and on. The tide/waves this winter have been carving up the beaches pretty good. Interesting winter fishing, Monterey, Santa Cruz etc.

    • Talked to a few customers at work today and they told me the swells in Santa Cruz/Monterey have been huge the past few weeks! Few shaker striper at Pajaro Dunes but for the most part it’s been perch. A buddy of mine came in and told me he was catching a few striper in the Bay near Oyster Point on bucktails and spoons the other day so I might go try that out soon.

  2. Well the stripers are finally being caught by the handfuls by the reports in the Monterey Bay area anyway. I haven’t personally caught them by the handfuls but 3 or 4 at a time. They are there and numerous but mostly schoolies. Saw a guy with a 27 incher last week at Fort Ord. Anyway have fun guys you can catch them now and hope they get biggggggeeeeerrrrrr.

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