In the Surf: When the Going Gets Tough - The Fisherman

In the Surf: When the Going Gets Tough

2017 10 When The Going Gets Tough Catch
The ocean surf and inlets are usually more productive in the fall than in spring and summer. Match the spot you fish with season, tides, moon phases and the weather.

We may not always like reality, but it’s always wise to face it. Like it or not fish stocks of stripers and blues are down, and weakfish are, well, hard to find! Sure, it was fun back in the ‘90s and early 2000s when acres of stripers turned the water to a froth in Montauk and catching was easy, but the sport of surf fishing survives not only as a way to catch fish, but also as an activity that provides exercise, an outdoor experience, and a chance to challenge one’s skills. Happily, there is a relationship between improving one’s skills and catching fish, but sometimes improvement requires motivation.

I love the sport, so in spite of downturns in abundance I’ve always stuck with it and used the off seasons as a way to bolster my skills. I started writing in the 1970s, and one of my writing mentors was Frank Woolner from the Salt Water Sportsman. In addition to helping me develop my skills as an outdoor writer we’d often discuss surf fishing. Although he said many things I remember, one statement in particular stuck in my head. He said, “Some of the best surf fishermen in the world are on Long Island because you have just enough fish to make developing your skills worthwhile.” Even when the fishing gets tougher, there’s still enough fish to make skill improvement translate into catching more fish. That begs the question: What options and opportunities are available to enjoy surf fishing and improve success?

Tackle Details

Paying attention to details is often shortchanged for a variety of reasons, however, with smaller stocks, details gain added importance. I’ve heard many excuses over the years: “I’m too busy, I forgot how old the knot was, or I was tired,” but the reality is that keeping up with your tackle isn’t all that time consuming. By the way, I agree it can be boring!

Although in an era of braided lines we have confidence in the ability of the line to stand up to time, we should regularly run our fingers up and down the last 20 feet of line and if it is frayed or damaged in any way cut that portion away. Also, change knots frequently.

Since we’re discussing cutting away line and retying, let’s look at knots. It’s my experience that some anglers tie bad knots. They compensate for this not by learning to tie good knots, rather by using heavy line that isn’t fit for the task. Some think, since 50 percent knot strength tied with 20-pound test provides a breaking strength of 10 pounds, I’ll compensate with 50-pound test line that provides a breaking strength of 25 pounds. However, heavier line affects casting distance and accuracy. Anglers also try to compensate for bad knots by tying complex knots touted by others. In truth, a 95 percent knot that is so easy to tie it can be tied, with practice, in the dark, is the improved clinch knot. Yes, it must be a perfect knot and should be retied before each trip, but it is easy to tie and reliable. Remember to make 10 turns with braid rather than the five turns commonly used for monofilament. Practice this knot until you easily get it right and you’ll have a friend forever.

Make sure you take a moment to do basic maintenance on your reels. Clean the outside, lubricate easy to get at parts, and take care of even slight malfunctions immediately, and avoid future problems. Murphy’s Law insists that your reel will fail while you fight a trophy. A quick examination of the rod is also a good idea: loose, broken, or cracked guides always lead to broken lines and lost fish. Look at your lures, too. Examine hook hangers, hooks for rust, and any irregularities. Fix what you can and ditch the lure if it can’t be fixed.

2017 10 When The Going Gets Tough Rod
Poppers and pencil poppers are on the “short list” of dependable lures throughout the season.

Fish Prime Times

I always recommend to those I mentor that they go fishing when conditions are good instead of simply “going.” To get a handle on prime time consider that moon phases, tide stages, and weather conditions including wind direction and velocity, and cloud cover or deep blue skies, all figure into creating good opportunities. Doesn’t it make more sense to fish two hours of prime time instead of four hours that are outside the productive box? By the way, it is not uncommon for “prime time” boxes to shift from year to year and even season to season, so I recommend anglers work local beaches and figure out what “prime time” is in their backyards. Once you have intimate knowledge of local beaches it is easier to adjust to subtle and sometimes big shifts in prime time.

Feet are one of a surf fisherman’s most important tools, so use them. I observe that many anglers walk on, stand in one place, fish, and then leave. Also, I note that many anglers with four-wheel-drive vehicles rarely fish the beach between where they get on and whatever spot they are headed to. Perhaps an equally poor choice is wandering around the beach without purpose. So, instead of either of these choices look around for interesting water, walk or drive from structure to structure, and make purposeful casts.

Don’t Chase Ghosts

Fishing reports are useful and so are blog reports, but they should be used judiciously. One thing to remember is that although the report may be real-time, the fish being discussed have already been caught: that event is over. I don’t believe it’s a good strategy to chase yesterday’s blitzes because they happened yesterday. I believe one can find useful information in reports, but one should never assume that someone else’s success will be your success tomorrow.

Instead, fish close to home, learn those beaches thoroughly, find the prime times to fish and find your own fish and enjoy your own blitzes.

Anglers have favorite lures and they have confidence in them. That’s great because confidence leads to good presentations that lead to success. However, is it wise to use a favorite lure regardless of the type of bait, weather, and surf conditions? Some angler’s tote around lure bags that resemble suitcases seemingly trying to carry every lure style in every color and size. I don’t subscribe to this approach because all lures are not created equal and in truth there is a short list of lures that produce consistently under a variety of conditions. Many lures are niche lures, meaning they tend to produce under a precise set of circumstances. I do carry them and use them, but only when I know circumstances are appropriate.

The short-list-lures catch fish most of the time, and choosing to carry only these most of the time means I have fewer choices and that makes my thinking process easier. Fewer lures means extracting one is easier on my fingers, and I save time trying to extricate a lure from a bag crammed with lures.

What do I carry? In daylight I carry a few pencil poppers, standard poppers, a few tins, and bucktails along with trailers. I prefer pork rind as trailers, but now that Uncle Josh no longer makes them, you can substitute Otter Tails or Fat Cow Strips. They are effective trailers and just as easy to carry around in jars as pork rind. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that a bucktail with a trailer is my most productive overall lure. If you are uncomfortable with bucktails, I recommend you practice until you are comfortable. They catch fish regardless of the bait species present, the depth of the feeding zone, and the mood of the fish.

At night, I remove the popping plugs and replace them with hard plastic swimmers such as Bombers, SP Minnows, RedFins, etc., darters, bottle plugs, and metal lipped swimmers. Bucktails are productive at night but the other lures sometimes work better when fish rise closer to the surface under the cover of darkness. Work night time lures much slower than under the sun, and avoid presentations that feature “warp-speed” retrieves that mostly catch blues.

2017 10 When The Going Gets Tough Catch 2
Pay attention to details: knots, line, rod, reel, and you’ll catch more fish.


Some anglers I’ve spoken to seem to believe that lure selection remains the same from one end of the season to the next. Many also believe that the same stretches of beach can be productive at any time. The reality, however, is quite different from that. One of the most important changes that happens is that one bait dominates at one point in the season, while another bait is common at another time. Lures used when sand eels dominate are not nearly as productive when cast to fish feeding on adult bunker, for example. So, if an angler understands how bait species come and go throughout the course of a season and then adapts both lures and their presentations, that surf rat is much more likely to be successful.

It’s also important to understand that locations aren’t uniformly productive from April to November. For instance, inlets and estuaries tend to be most productive early and sometimes late in the season, while the open ocean beaches tend to produce best in the fall when migrating schools of baitfish beckon predators from offshore towards shore. I like to consider each season separately and adapt my fishing approach to the exact conditions of bait, weather, and migratory imperative.

Conserve the Resource

Although the things cited above should help us catch more fish, none of them do anything to improve the state of our fisheries. Surf fishing has a long history of producing concerned sportsmen who, as their love of the sport grew, became more and more involved with efforts to protect and conserve the resources that provide us with immeasurable amounts of fun, recreation, and satisfaction. The heroes in this effort are many: too many to mention them all, but in my years of surf fishing, I note Bob Rance, Irwin Levy, and Blair Moger (Save Our Stripers), Fred Schwab, Bob Pond (Stripers Unlimited), and Willy Young (LIBBA, Montauk Surfcasters) to name only a few dedicated surf fishermen who sacrificed a lot in the effort to protect and manage striped bass more effectively as well as fight for shoreline access.

Unfortunately, many of these men are gone but the battle continues for sportsmen to fight for the right to hunt and catch stripers. Stocks need to be large for us to have consistent success, and we desperately need new warriors in the fight as others grow old and pass from the scene.

There is an unexpected benefit to getting involved in the conservation effort. Indeed, one meets lots of very good surf anglers and, upon getting to know you, they share knowledge and often a mentoring process occurs. In the end, helping to keep more fish in the ocean enhances one’s success.



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