Long casts have their place in the surf game, but there are times when the most productive water is virtually at your feet.
There is no disputing that long casts are impressive and to some, serve as a barometer of one’s surf fishing expertise. It is also a fact that long casts are, under certain conditions, necessary to connect you to feeding stripers or bluefish. We have all seen days or nights when those who cast the furthest out-fished everyone else on the beach. However, with the exception of a handful of locations scattered along the Striper Coast, those situations are the exception rather than the rule. It is great to have that ability and I believe in tuning your gear to maximize your casting distance by spooling your spinning reels to within 1/8 inch of the spool’s rim with fine diameter braid to get maximum distance when needed.
The problem is that too many casters become so preoccupied with how far they can cast they forget that some of the most productive water is sometimes within just 50 feet of where they are standing. On oceanfront beaches, troughs or the lip of the beach on the outer edge of the wash is common feeding ground for stripers, and fluke too for that matter, especially when sand eels are the primary forage. Yet I’ll watch an entire lineup of casters fish their cast two thirds to three quarters of the way in and then quickly reel in to make their next cast. That’s fine when it is established that all of the hits are coming at the end of your cast, but until then, you might very possibly be passing up some of the most productive water in front of you.
Even if you continue reeling all the way to the wash, you may not be “fishing” that last 50 feet. If you are fishing a 10- or 11-foot rod and you strike the classic surf fishing pose with your rod butt between your legs and the tip at 2 o’clock, and depending on the lure you are using, there’s a good chance your offering is not working the way it should. Shallow running swimming plugs, including metal lips; plastic bodied minnow shaped swimmers like Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnows, Daiwa SP Minnows; Bombers and darters often require that you lower your rod tip as the plug nears the beach in order to allow it to continue swimming properly. The same can be said for needlefish plugs and soft plastics like the Tsunami Swim Eel, or any of the various swim shads on the market. Once your lure approaches the shore, try holding the rod horizontally next to your body with the butt tucked under your arm and the tip pointed out and down towards the water. The super light surf rods on the market these days make holding a surf or jetty stick this way a lot more comfortable than it used to be.
Fan casting along an open beach is a good way to cover the water in front of you, but I like to take it a step further if the surf is relatively calm. Push out a comfortable distance into the wash so that you can make parallel casts to your left and right just outside of the wash. This approach can be really effective when mullet are moving along the surfline in the fall. They tend to hug the shoreline and some days it takes no more than an underhand flip of the rod to put your lure in the strike zone. Casting parallel to the beach allows you to keep your offering in the strike zone for a longer period of time.
Fishing from atop a jetty can also make it difficult to finish out your cast and if there is one place you want to work your lure all the way to your rod tip, it is from a jetty. Jetties harbor all kinds of good forage, including crabs, baby lobsters, porgies, cunners and small blackfish. If it is not feasible to get safely down near the waterline, point your rod tip as low as you can as your lure approaches the rocks. Here too, laying some casts parallel to the rocks is likely to draw strikes from fish hugging the jetty looking for their next meal. While shallow running swimming plugs can be very effective for working jetties and rock piles, there are some where I found sinking models easier to keep working right up to the rocks. The 5-1/2-inch sinking Rebel in a mackerel finish has taken many fish for me on Long Island’s West End Two Jetty over the years.
Finishing your cast is just as important, if not more so, when fishing quiet back bay waters and the backsides of inlets. While these waters are usually well suited to wading with stretches of shallows leading to the edge of deep water channels, there are many nights when gamefish will be found feeding in those shallows, sometimes in as little as 2 feet of water. Some of my fondest memories are of nights when stripers anywhere from 10 to 30 pounds were rooting sand eels out of the bottom, their backs and tails well above the calm surface. Once hooked, they ran like bonefish as they sought the safety of the nearby channel. Whenever I fish these areas, I always approach the water’s edge quietly and make several casts through the shallows before wading into the water. When wading these backside areas, it is not uncommon to have a fish explode on your plug as you are about to lift it from the water, so keep your lure working all the way to your rod tip.
There are other non-traditional surf fishing locations where fishing tight to the water’s edge can pay dividends. While some surfcasters might frown on fishing from docks or around bridges, these areas can be highly productive for bass, blues and weakfish. Working dock lights is common practice for snook fishermen in Florida and is just as effective for gamefish here in the Northeast. There are several canals and creeks on Long Island where stripers and weakfish can be seen cruising slowly along lighted bulkheads gorging on the grass and sand shrimp hugging the structure. I took one of my largest shore caught weakfish, a 14-pounder, under just such conditions. As I eyed the line of water where dark met light, I noticed movement to my right. Slowly making its way up against the bulkhead less than 10 feet away was this tiderunner weak. I slowly backed up a couple of steps and hung my soft plastic 6 inches below the surface next to the dock. The fish never hesitated but the real challenge came from trying to keep her from cutting me off on one of the many pilings in the marina.
There are many bridges scattered up and down the Striper Coast and as most striped bass fishermen know, these structures are a magnet for striped bass. A great selection of forage, current breaks and eddies, and lots of ambush points, including the shadow line created by overhead lighting along many of these bridges make them worth including on your itinerary. A good portion of them have accessible shorelines bordering the structure, which allows casters to work the up-current and down-current sides of the bridge. Most also have a main channel running through the middle of the span. Here again, the urge is to try to reach the deeper water of the channel but there is usually lots of fish holding structure much closer to the shoreline. Anyone who has ever peered from atop a bridge and watched stripers lined up with their noses pressed against the shadow line on a bridge’s uptide side can appreciate what I’m about to say next. When I began fishing bridges too many years ago, I would make long casts, often hooking fish near the outer limits of those casts. Eventually I realized that the thrashing and commotion caused by those fish fighting to cut me off on the barnacle encrusted abutments were spooking those fish set up at the top and bottom of the shadow line between the shore and my hooked fish. A quick look from up top to see where and how many fish were set up in the shadow line allowed us to gauge our casts accordingly, starting with fish closest to shore and gradually extending our casts to those fish further out in the channel. Most nights we could land those close by fish without spooking those set up further out in the channel. We extended that tactic to nights when there were no fish showing but feeding down deep, beginning with short casts and working our way to the outer limits of our casts.
So the next time you grunt and heave as you try to throw your plug halfway to Europe, remember that longer is not always better.