Easy to navigate, but difficult to master, sand beaches offer the surfcaster a truly wild experience.
Open sand beaches such as those found along New Jersey, Long Island, parts of Rhode Island, and Cape Cod are the most challenging surf structure to consistently catch stripers from. I’m not sure many surfcasters would initially agree with this assessment, but I’ve come to totally and completely embrace this truth. Sand beaches can be a very serious challenge! There are several reasons for this proclamation, but I think the two that frustrate me the most are 1) the fact that a sand beach is constantly changing, sometimes literally overnight, and 2) you often have to search for fish, either by driving or walking substantial distances. The sand beach can feel like a living beast, never the same and often surprising anglers with new and lost opportunities. Further, wide-open sand beaches often typify the phrase “here today, gone tomorrow,” with fish and bait moving around constantly. As a result, I get skunked on wide-open sand beaches more than any other structure I fish.
Yet, sand beaches are also one of the most rewarding places to fish. There is a wildness to the open sand beaches. On many nights there is a sense of the truly raw, almost aggressive, power of the surf. However, if you happen to catch a calm night, you can stare out into the dark at the horizon and into infinity. The immensity of the ocean dominates all in these places. There is an adventurous aspect to walking and casting along a sand beach that is often lost when fishing a backwater cove or bay, or some other sheltered area. Wandering the ribbon of sand, between firmer earth and the dark water, a fisherman has space for profundity—in thought, and in fishing success. You just never know what awaits; a gigantic fish, or a whole new philosophy on life.
There are so many ways to make the most of these places. Every angler has their own take, and there has been an avalanche of information written on finding and reading “soft” sandy structure and what lures to use. However, there are so many factors to account for, every single night, that sand beaches can feel really overwhelming. Particularly if you want to secure consistent action with the largest fish. Specifically, on the sand, you’re constantly faced with two of the most complex factors: is there bait within casting distance, and am I in the right spot? Not all structure is like this. If you fish inlets for example, you have a lot less to worry about in both these regards; there is almost always bait washing right out in front of you, and stripers and blues are almost always attracted to it. Now, you still have to figure out exactly what to use to catch them, and when the biggest fish show up, but you’re far ahead of the game when compared to the sand. Therefore, since sand beaches can be so tough, I suggest focusing down on very specific variables and try not to spread yourself too thin. Here are my thoughts on what you should be focusing on first.
The first suggestion I have, is to focus on just a few types of structure. Good structure may attract bait, but primarily it will provide stripers with a feeding advantage that will concentrate them and keep them in the area. There is an immense spectrum of structure types on the sand that can be productive: bars, cuts, corners, beach lips, drop-offs, etc. However, I would suggest starting out focusing on just deeper troughs, bowls, and rip currents. While fish can come up on the flats to chase bait like sand eels and spearing, the most consistent action is often in the deeper water of troughs and bowls. More advanced sand anglers will fish a staggering variety of nuanced structure, but I suggest you first focus on deeper water. Troughs and bowls are the easiest to recognize; look for areas of darker colored water, even if it’s very close to shore. Rips are probably even more consistent in action than troughs or bowls, though sometimes harder to spot and more subject to disappearing overnight. Beach rips both pull bait from the surrounding area out into deeper water where bass wait to chow down, and provide stripers with a substantial feeding advantage since they can overpower their prey in the current. The current is sometimes clearly visible at higher tide stages during the day, but rips are easier to find at lower tide stages. Look for channels running out into the open water where the increased current has cut into the sand. Memorize their location during the day, and then come back to fish after night fall.
If you take this suggestion, you can just walk past other structure while you learn a beach. However, if you want to focus just on corners and white water, instead of troughs and rips, that’s fine too. But trying to do everything on a mile stretch of beach can spread you too thin, and you end up being less effective, even though you’re sampling more areas. Instead, just pick a couple to learn and focus on first. It may seem counter intuitive, but especially if you’re new to the surf game, it’s better to just ignore some variables and become effective with one bit of structure, before moving onto another.
This is a perfect transition into plug or fly use: my second “focus” tip. On sand beaches, I tend to carry a whole lot less plugs or flies than I do in boulder fields or other areas. I find that on sand beaches I typically run into two simple scenarios: either the fish are 1) focused in on sand eels, menhaden (bunker/pogies), or occasionally mullet, or 2) they will hit anything presented correctly to where they are feeding. Therefore, I bring a few plugs that are good sand eel imitators and a few large plugs that mimic large bait fish. These may include a couple of moderately-sized needles and plastic swimmers and then a couple of large gliders and a big metal lip or two. Then, I forget about any potential bait situation, and bring a handful more plugs I think will be best for the specific scenario. That is, if I know I’ll have a lot of sweep, I might bring more darters and bottle plugs. If it’s going to be calm with a little current, I bring some larger needles and soft plastics.
These are just a couple examples, but the point is you neither want to limit yourself to just a couple plugs, nor do you want to bother bringing 50. Eight different colors of Red Fins are no good, as is a six-tube bag filled to the max. While being prepared is advisable, I would drill down on your areas and try to focus in on just a half-dozen different presentations and profiles (roughly). I try to capture a spectrum of skinny/fat, long/ short, and active/passive plugs. Using just those examples, I might then carry a couple Super Strike needles, a CCW jetty swimmer, a 12-inch Lunker City Slug-go, a couple Bomber A-Salts, a Northbar bottle darter, and a Super Strike Zig-Zag darter. That covers a lot of ground, and I would feel at least mostly prepared for whatever the night threw at me, without having to haul 20 pounds of plugs 5 miles down the beach.
Next, hand in hand with focusing on just one kind of structure, I would suggest picking just one or two stretches of beach to fish until you feel totally comfortable with them. Then, once you have a good handle on what is going on—which may take multiple weeks, months, or seasons—you can add another area to your repertoire. One of the biggest mistakes beginner and intermediate surf anglers make is running all over creation trying to fish a dozen different beaches. I know it’s tempting to cover as much ground as possible, but it’s also overwhelming and harder to really learn. Try instead to become intimately familiar with just one beach at a time. While it may change throughout the season—and certainly between last season and the beginning of this season—you can still discover a lot of patterns and log fish and bait behavior. Spreading yourself too thin on sand beaches can ruin any chance at consistency. I do concede that in the fall it’s often difficult to not partake in chasing bait, schools of fish, and the gaggle of fishermen clamoring after them both. Therefore, if you really want to chase the schoolie blitzes, at least try and focus on just one or two beaches for the spring and summer portions of the season. Then, if you must, you can run around more in the fall.
Finally, switching gears entirely, you also have to stay mentally engaged and totally focused to have the most success. This applies to every spot out there, every day or night, but on sand beaches nuance can matter even more than in other places. Paying close attention to what the water is doing, and understanding how predator and prey will relate to it, is crucial. Just throwing whatever plug you have on the rod because that’s what you threw last time, without considering what’s happening tonight, is a terrible mistake. Further, mental focus also includes being ready at any moment to set the hook and fight the fish of your lifetime. Laziness with your cast and retrieve, talking too much with your buddy, or day dreaming can mean the difference between having a great night and going home with a broken heart. I know personally I can become very distracted fishing with someone else, as I like to talk, so it’s nice to have an agreement with your fishing partner (or crew) that you’re going to focus on the fishing, and not social time. Instead, just set aside a little time at the beginning of the night while you’re gearing-up to catch up and talk about the kids’ soccer game, or the latest braided line. Or, save the chit-chat for beers and celebration back at the buggy after you’ve had a night nailing cows!