Surf Fly Fishing Primer and Tips

Discussion in 'Fly Fishing' started by CraigSmith, Jan 25, 2015.

  1. CraigSmith

    SDFish VIP

    Feb 25, 2008
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    I have been posting the following to SDFISH in various forms since the earliest days of SDFISH 15 or so years ago. Its been a few years so I thought I's post an updated version.

    The surfzone is an ever changing environment where the best locations on a beach can change from day to day, tide to tide, or even during a tide. Storm surges or heavy surf alter beaches quite rapidly. Some beaches, or even sections of beaches, will fish better on outgoing tides and others on incoming tides. Some beaches will fit a particular pattern fairly regularly and others will not. Experience on the water is required to sort out these trends. However there some guidelines that can be used to narrow down productive times and locations.

    First some rules of thumb - to which there are always exceptions of course. Just to be clear, there will be exceptions. The best single day of surf fishing in terms of fish caught during an outing occurred during the middle of a winter day, bright sun, and dead slack low tide. I found a deep hole at Blacks Beach that was loaded with fish.
    Low light conditions are usually better as with many other types of fishing.

    Incoming tides are often better as food is pushed up from deeper water and the incoming tide sirs up edibles in the previously dry sand. Slack tides are usually poorest since less food is dislodged and stirred up.

    Cobble stone beaches are usually very poor.

    Many structures are often most productive only at certain times during the tide. This will depend on current force, depth etc. Much like spots in a river will be more or less productive as the water level and current speed change. Each structure will be different.

    Now some structure to look for:

    Running parallel to the beach are sets of sandbars and troughs. Shallow grade beaches usually have more sets of these than steeper grade beaches. Fish use the troughs as highways up and down the beach. If you look at the breakers on a beach, there will usually be one or more sets of larger breakers farther out with some smaller lines of breakers that are mostly foamy water closer to the beach. The troughs are usually in flat water sections between the forming breakers. Those troughs close to the beach can be very productive.

    Channels usually run roughly perpendicular to the beach. Fish use them to move from deep to shallow water and vice versa. They can often be identified by the flotsam that collects in them as waves receded. Usually you can see a well defined current with obvious current seams on both sides, though one side is often more noticeable. Rip currents often form over the larger channels. From an elevated vantage point they are usually quite easy to see - kind of like looking for current seams in a river. Surfers often ride these currents out to sea. From beach level, you will notice that waves over a channel often do not break as high and/or break closer to shore. Food and fish are often concentrated in these channels, especially on outgoing tides. They are worth working on any tide. Work them from the points close to the beach or from the sides as far out as you can safely get. Sometimes you will find deep channels with adjacent shallow sand bars or sand points that you can wade out on to access deeper parts of the channel. Work your fly in and adjacent to the channels. Swing your fly in the current along the edge and into it like you would a downstream wet fly or streamer presentation. Feed extra line into strong currents and allow them to pull the fly into deeper water.

    Pockets and small holes often form behind (on the seaward side that is) of isolated rocks, small rock piles, or man made structure such as pier pilings. Food collects in them and fish may hold in them like trout behind a rock. They are always worth a few casts.

    Heavy surf often pounds deep holes into the beach. Always worth a few casts if you find one. Scouting from an elevated vantage point will sometimes reveal them, especially when the sun is high.

    Rock Piles and Jetties - Neap tides, when water movement is less and the environment more stable is often the most productive time to safely fish these structures. When the environment is less volatile baitfish and then game fish will be more likely to hold on these structures. Sometimes you will find a channel right adjacent to a rock pile or jetty and this is an ideal fishy situation. Rock piles and jetties will sometimes produce at slack tide when other areas are dead.

    Some other tips:

    You don't need to cast far; 40-60 feet is plenty. Fish are often right up on the beach, even big ones. During the summer months you will often see the exposed backs of corbina as the waves recede. The observant angler wading to calf deep water will often see perch scurry by or the tell tale puff of a halibut that jets off just before you step on it.

    Most anglers like stripping baskets but a few don't. The main thing is to remain in contact with your fly and keep from getting tangled up in line. Most fly anglers who try a session without a stripping bucket soon go out and make or buy one. To avoid having the waves push your flyline right back at you, wait to make your cast until the breaking foamy water gets to about 2-3 rod lengths away. Then by the time the time the line hits the water they surge will be a rod length or so away and will not grab the line.

    Don’t just cast straight out from the beach. Also, try angles where you can work the fly more parallel to the shore. This will often put your fly in a trough longer.

    Red and orange are good attractor colors. Many types of crabs have similarly colored roe sacs. I try to incorporate these colors into all of my patterns. Yellow and chartreuse are also good colors. And black too. I also like to incorporate gold flash into my flies. I’m not sure if it is any better than silver or pearl or other colors, but I have confidence in flies with some gold flash. In twenty years of fly fishing the surf I have probably caught more fish on chartreuse/white and red/yellow Clouser minnows. Maybe that’s just because that’s what I use most though. Lots of other colors work though.

    Fish will pick up a fly rolling in the current but you may not detect the strike before they eject the fly. If you are continually stripping the fly you are more likely to remain in contact with the fly and detect strikes. You do not usually need to strip very fast; but it sometimes pays to move the fly as fast as you can.

    Scout beaches during minus tides. With the tide lower than usual as it is during a minus tide, you can locate potentially productive areas that are normally covered with water. Make mental or physical notes of what you see and wait, or come back and fish when the tide comes in.

    Keep at it. You can have a lot of days with skunks, and then a bunch of great outings. One of the things I like about the surf zone is that I never know what I might hook up with - perch, corbina, sand bass, spotted bay bass, rays, shovenose guitarfish, leopard shark, striped bass, spotfin croaker, halibut.

    Rods: 6wt to 8wt. Some anglers will use a 4 or a 5wt but remember that powerful surf hydraulics can make a small fish feel much larger. Hook a 3 to 4 foot long guitarfish or a legal halibut on a 5 or 6wt and you may wish you have a heavier stick.

    Usually you want your fly on the bottom so sinking lines are the best options. Some anglers like full sinking, others integrated shooting head lines or traditional shooting head systems. Integrated shooting head lines have a 24-30 foot fast sinking section factory mated to a floating or intermediate (slow) sinking running line. Traditional shooting head system loop the sinking head to the running line. For most situations it is better to avoid any line with a floating section. If lining up with an integrated shooting head lined sized in grains, just get one that matches your rod and has a sink rate of at least 4 inches per second.

    No need for expensive tapered leaders. Just 4 to 8 feet of 8 to 12lb test nylon mono or fluorocarbon. I tend to use 8lb most often since it is easier to break off if I snag some floating kelp.

    Flies: Stuff about 1.5 to 3 inches long. Clouser minnows, crab patterns, bonefish flies, lefty’s deceivers, woolly buggers. They all work and a lot more. If hunting halibut then do not be afraid to go larger. I always crush the barbs. Much easier to release fish and often you do not even need to touch them. Easier on a bird if you happen to accidently snag one

    I always wear glasses of some type; eyes are valuable. I used to wear safety glasses at dawn and dusk. Now I wear yellow tinted polarized sunglasses designed to be worn in foggy conditions. Yellow hooters glasses also work. They allow me to see well in dawn or dusk conditions even if overcast.

    Wading: Shuffle to encourage sting rays to get out of the way. Watch where you put your feet. When winter storm pound holes in the bottom you can go from 12 inches deep to several feet in one stride. Rocks can trip you. Turn sideways to big waves. Don’t turn you back on the surf. If you need to retie step up on to dry sand. I got knocked over by a wave once when untangling a knot. I didn’t see it coming. Stripping baskets should have drain holes. If a wave fills it up you get a sudden change of center of gravity that can cause you to lose your balance.

    Look behind you to watch for people, dogs, etc. Assume non anglers will not pay attention to what you are doing and walk right where your backcast is going. You don’t want to deal with the ramifications of snagging a person or a dog.

    Water here is rarely above 72 deg. and usually cooler. Cool water and breezes can lead to a chill outing even during summer mornings and evenings. I wear a waders, booties, and water resistant/proof shell to keep dry.

    Food: I like to fish near places that serve carne asada or machaca burritos. Beer, coffee, hot chocolate, or tea is a nice bonus.
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  2. buddha

    SDFish VIP

    Feb 26, 2008
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    chula vista
    Excellent stuff! The only fly fishing I have ever done has been in Alaska where all I had to was cast it 5 feet in front of me and catch a silver salmon 10 to 20 lbs. with no talent whatsoever!

    My other experience also in Alaska was for arctic grayling. Those little fish sure do fight hard with that big dorsal fin the currents in the rivers!

    Other that... zero fly fishing experience at all!
  3. mcfish

    SDFish VIP

    Feb 20, 2011
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    fisher marine18
    Great post! Every time I thought of something to add to it, you covered it in the following paragraph. Are you recommending the Roberto's at Torrey Pines?
  4. bajacamp

    SDFish VIP

    Apr 4, 2011
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    Excellent read on the surf, always good to refresh the mind.....Love those burritos and beer after fishing.......
  5. dooolan

    Staff Member SDFish VIP

    Mar 6, 2008
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    AbNormal Heights
    Fact: There is a Rolberto or Robertos taco shop near every good surf fishing spot

    Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk
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