If you can hit a beach ball with a tennis racket, you can cast a fly rod.
Fly fishing is not the complex and mystical fishing method that some folks believe it to be. Many tend to overthink the process and techniques, and often simply scare themselves back to using more conventional equipment. If you can hit a beach ball with a tennis racket, you can cast a fly rod; and if you are proficient at manipulating artificial baits, learning to do the same with flies is not rocket science.
The best surf fly anglers I know are also exceptional all-around anglers. They fully comprehend the dynamics of fishing and use the fly rod as another tool in their arsenal. Those folks also have an intimate understanding of the relationship between bait and game fish, and their specific behaviors.
Many surf and wade fly anglers also have a desire to explore, seeking out their quarry, rather than waiting for fish to come to them. There is immense satisfaction in the journey of discovery. Sure, there will be times when you hit the beach to find fish on the move all around you, but those are often exceptions to the rule. Most of the season is not like the concentrated spring and fall runs. Hoofing it to get to productive areas works much better in my book than standing in one spot and waiting for fish to arrive. I will often hike a beach for miles before finally encountering striped bass willing to eat flies.
And when you venture forth to an unfamiliar stretch of sand or backwater you never know what you might discover; perhaps your own honey hole and a slice of seclusion. But that “walkabout” is not just a serendipitous stroll in the park. The watchful and alert fly angler is the one who bags the most fish from the beach. Being aware of your surroundings and taking your cues from nature yields big rewards and the fulfillment that comes from finding your own fish.
Over the years I have had countless flyfishing experiences that have broadened my understanding and appreciation of the environments bordered by land and sea. I have also learned much from the experiences of others. The principles and practices that follow have served me well during my time on the beach and perhaps they might offer you some insight into your own brand of surf fly fishing.
1) Select The Right Gear
First, you want to find gear suitable to the task, the conditions and the species targeted. This includes rods, reels lines and leaders. For most Northeast surf applications, 9-foot fly rods of 9 and 10 weight will meet most surf conditions, especially for striped bass, bluefish and false albacore. Downsizing to 7 and 8 weight for backwaters and smaller fish like hickory shad or smaller stripers would also be appropriate. And a heavier 11 weight rod might serve you well if you’re into casting big full-size bunker-style patterns. One-hand, switch and spey rods are all options for the surf. Large arbor or wide spool reels with solid drag systems are the models of choice. For most surf situations, an intermediate sink tip line will get the job done. A spare spool or spare reel loaded with an alternate fly line, like a high-density sink tip or floater will give you more versatility when fishing the beach. And always use a stripping basket to assist with line management. Leaders can be simple; varying lengths of 12-, 16- and 20-pound fluorocarbon will cover many bases. My favored length is 6 feet.
2) Use Wind To Your Advantage
Wind is a consistent reality when fishing the surf, and is often viewed as the number one nemesis of saltwater fly anglers. But wind can be an ally. Winds coming off the water and onto the beach will often push baitfish into the surf zone where gamefish will follow. While extreme winds certainly present challenging and often overwhelming fly-casting conditions, moderate wind can be a surf angler’s friend. Practice sidearm casting that will often enable you push the fly line under and through wind better than an overhead cast. And cast low to the surface of the water. One of the reasons pelicans fly low is to take advantage of reduced drag just above the surface. Also, orient your casting position to take as much advantage of the effects of the wind on your forward or back cast; become proficient at employing the double haul. And add a few “lee” locations to your list of favorite fly fishing spots. Be diligent in using your fly fishing tackle. New fly anglers often get frustrated by less-than-ideal conditions and tend to revert back to spinning or conventional gear. Stay vigilant and fly fish through the difficult periods. And while on the subject of casting, practice, practice and practice.
3) Learn To Read Water
Gain a thorough understanding of the environment within the close-to-shore surf zone, especially the behavioral patterns and interactions of predators and prey. Learn as much about the habits of baitfish and other forms of fish food as you do about the fish you chase. Visualize what is going on beneath the water. Have an open mind and pay attention to the lessons that nature teaches. I recall one situation when I hit the beach early one morning to find just one solitary sea gull there to join me. I started to walk east but the bird flew west and by its demeanor and attitude something told me to follow. Within minutes, false albacore began to break the surface close enough to the beach to make some casts with the fly rod. Perhaps it was luck but I believe the gull knew something I didn’t.
4) Study Near-Shore Structure
This is especially relevant with surf fly fishing since bait and fish proximity to shore or within at least a flycaster’s reach is an imperative. Be aware of anything out of the ordinary along a stretch of beach or backwater area. Even a slight bend or depression in a shoreline could be enough of a difference to affect your fly fishing outcome. Some of the more classic forms of fish attracting and holding areas include boulder fields, channels, cuts, docks, sunken barges, boats and rock piles. One of my most productive fly fishing beach spots is an area that holds a bunch of large concrete blocks that fell from a barge close to shore. The gradient of land masses often holds clues to how land slopes once it meets and merges with water. On more than one occasion I have followed sloping terrain to find a hole or depression immediately off the beach that either held or attracted bait and fish, well within range of a fly rod cast. The best time to explore the potential of a near-shore area is at low time and the more extreme the low tide, the better; neap and spring tides are great for this sort of observation.
5) Uniqueness Of The Scenario
Adapt your fly fishing strategies and approaches to suit these circumstances. Some fly fishing situations that you will encounter wade fishing in our region include sand and cobble beaches, inlets, jetties, flats, harbors, bays, back country, river mouths, tidal creeks and ponds. Each scenario presents its own challenges and opportunities. For example, during the early spring and then again during the fall run, sand beaches that attract sand eels and or whitebait will often be the most productive places to fish. Likewise a favorite wading flat might light up during that transition period between spring and summer. Jetties and inlets might just be the ticket to some great late summer fishing when pelagic visitors like Atlantic bonito and little tunny are around. The lesson here is that not one size fits all and to be candid, the best teacher for helping an angler best understand opportunity is time on the water. And at night, bass will often be right at your feet.
6) Time Of Day
Regardless of where you fish along the Atlantic coast there are three universally accepted prime times for fly-fishing the surf: pre-dawn into the early morning hours; the time period immediately before and after dusk; and during the dark hours of the night. Fishing at these times will often offer some of the best fishing windows. But don’t neglect other times as well. Learn the relationship between time and tide at several local fishing hole and fish them often. Some of the best beach surprises come at the most unexpected times.
In the Northeast, both spring and fall months will see quarry moving to and from the near surf zone in search of a meal. These can be highly productive periods for the flyrodder. No matter where one fishes along the East Coast, spring and fall months are prime periods for the surf fly angler. Most gamefish will exhibit heightened activity at these times, whether the result of pre or post spawning activity or due to the abundance of baitfish and ideal water conditions. The hotter summer months can either be boom or bust depending on where the fishing occurs.
8) Moon Phases
Much has been written about the best moon phases for fish the surf. In the final analysis new moon and full moon phases both have their advocates. Some anglers will fish religiously for two or three days on either side of a new moon while others will totally ignore the new moon and concentrate all their efforts around the big tides of a full moon.
9) Tides And Currents
One of the most important factors for successful surf fishing is an understanding of tides and currents and their interrelationship. In many respects they are mutually dependent. Both forms of water flow influence movements and feeding behaviors of bait and game fish. Fish will transition deeper into inter-tidal areas on the flood and follow bait with retreating water. For example, striped bass will often move on and off flats with flooding and ebbing tides. Fish will also feed deeper into marshes, grass lines, mangroves, harbors and back country areas on high water, and again move out with falling water. Gamefish naturally gravitate toward areas of current where vulnerable prey can be ambushed.
10) Tactical Wading And Safety
Some surf anglers prefer to stay put in one known productive spot while others are constantly on the move, opting to seek fish out rather than wait for them to come to me. That approach is not one of aimlessly walking about but rather part of a strategy that embraces many of the elements previously discussed – season and time of day, tide phase, current flow, and bait movements. How, where and when one fishes is determined through assimilation of that knowledge and projecting where the bite is most likely to occur.
11) Fly Selection
When it comes to fly patterns, the most important considerations are profile, size and movement in the water. A fly need not be a precise, realistic replica of a food source. Color or color combinations are very often a secondary consideration. Match the fly to the general size and shape of prevalent baitfish, and manipulate the fly during the retrieve to mimic the natural movements of vulnerable prey.
12) Take Caution
Pay attention to the surroundings. Shifting sands from storms can create new hazards and jetties can be especially dangerous. Wade cautiously and rather than plodding ahead, take it slow. Shuffle your feet laterally as you move instead of taking big blind steps. This will help prevent you from falling into a pot hole, tripping over an unexpected rock or stepping on something that could cause harm, like the stinger of a ray. Plus, you’ll spook less fish.
In the final analysis just be prepared and have fun. There is nothing more frustrating than being on a beach or on some expansive sand flat only to realize you left a critical piece of angling gear back in your vehicle, or at home. If you plan on spending an entire day on the water to take advantage of both tide cycles, pack some extra gear and essential in backpack or fanny pack. And if need, be bring a lunch, snack and something to drink. You don’t want hunger or thirst to hamper your efforts when the fish turn on.
Angelo Peluso is the author of numerous fly fishing books, including: Saltwater Flies of the Northeast; Fly Fishing Long Island; Saltwater Flies of the Southeast and Gulf Coast; and Fly Fishing the Surf. All books are available from all major retailers and online book sellers.