- Black sea bass have dangerously sharp spines on their dorsal fin that can puncture human skin.
- The all-tackle world record for black sea bass is 9 pounds, 8 ounces.
- When hooked in deep water and brought quickly to the surface, a black sea bass will often regurgitate its stomach contents.
The tides ebb and flow. The waves roll in and break. The wind whistles. The music of nature draws many creatures to the seashore. It is said that the sound of the surf is the greatest relaxant on earth. It’s also one of the greatest allures to fishermen.
Blame it on the moon. Its gravitational pull causes the tide to come in and go back out again. Throw in the wind, and you have the two main variables that control fishing in the surf. How good the fisherman is and how hungry the fish are certainly count, but the other two factors actually control.
As a teenager, a classmate named George and I would wade out as far as we could. The wave action would lift my body off the sand, float it for a few seconds and then gently let it settle back onto the ocean floor. Some days we could get to the second sandbar. The third bar seemed a world away, but beckoned young boys to try.
One calm day with clear skies and clear water, George and I decided to take the challenge. We had heard that’s where the good fishingwas. Our biggest worry was that school started in a month.
A small swell picked me up and then set me down as the water withdrew. To my left, about 10 feet away in waist-deep water, was a dark shadow about five feet long. It appeared to have ears sticking out of its head. Hammerhead! Foolishly, I tried to outrun it to shore. Amazingly, I did. Either it wasn’t hungry or 7th- graders were too skinny to be worth the effort.
We sat on the sand for a long time talking about how lucky I was to still have legs. And then we went back into the Gulf to fish, though not quite as far out. The surf has that kind of tug.
Surf Fish, Surf Fishing
Most surf fish are sight feeders. So don’t go if the water is too rough and muddy.
Oh, you can go, but don’t expect the fish to see your bait. And expect to get thrashed around a lot by the waves – not that that isn’t fun for a while, but you won’t have much to show for it at day’s end. On the Gulf Coast and East Coast, the breezes are out of the southeast from June or July through October, and the weather – barring a hurricane – is otherwise fairly stable. That’s usually a good time to go.
Speckled trout and redfish are what most surf fishermen are after in the Gulf. The purists (and most regulations pamphlets) call them spotted sea trout and red drum. In Gulf waters, though, one of the intrigues is the smorgasbord of other fish that might hit the bait. Whiting and croakers are common, and Spanish mackerel are exciting when the water is clear and flat. Skipjacks (a.k.a. ladyfish) are sporting fighters, but not coveted as table fare. Same goes for the jack crevalle. A couple of catfish are alwaysthere – the gafftop, which is edible, and the hardhead which is not. The latter is often called the “tourist trout” since it is so prevalent and easy to catch on natural bait. And don’t leave out blacktip sharks, which are fine eating. My son and a friend started catching 4-foot blacktops on Padre Island one morning before there was a bag limit on them, and laid them out along the beach as they brought them in. Before long, a crowd gathered to gawk. Nobody went back into the water after that but the two fishermen.
Along the Atlantic side of Florida, the main fish are tarpon, snook, shark and giant jack crevalle. “Don’t look for trout in the surf,” are the words of Mark Nichols, president of D.O.A. Lures, of Palm City Florida. “They’d get eaten by the tarpon.”
In the fall, Spanish mackerel migrate into the Atlantic coast waters off Florida, and pompano are there in fall and winter. During the winter, bluefish are also popular with surf fishermen there and on up the East Coast where striped bass join them as the fish of choice.
According to Nichols, the Atlantic surf gets deep quicker than does the Gulf. “If you fished the second ‘gut,’ like people do in the Gulf, you’d either drown or get eaten by a shark,” he said. Fishing just 10 feet from shore in the Atlantic, Nichols once landed a 100-pound tarpon.
In the Gulf, most fishermen do fish the second gut. A gut is the channel between the sandbars and parallel to the shore. The second gut lies between the first and second sand bars. Fish run through the guts chasing baitfish, making them vulnerable to fishermen.
Surf tackle ranges from stout rods and heavy reels capable of casting heavily weighted bait rigs and lures 100 yards or more to lighter bait-casting or spinning gear. Some wade into the surf to fish, some sit in lawn chairs watching a rod inserted into PVC pipe stuck in the sand. It’s the fisherman’s choice.
Glenn Boydston, formerly with Texas Parks & Wildlife, and a seasoned surf-chunker, chooses 20-pound test monofilament on a bait-casting reel. Over in the Atlantic, Nichols opts for 10-pound test braided line. I like 12-pound monofilament. We all agree that a shock leader tied onto a black barrel swivel is imperative with the saw-toothed surf fish. The leader should be somewhere between 25- and 40-pound test monofilament or wire. When tarpon and snook are present, Nichols recommends 40- to 60-pound test.
If you’re fishing live bait, a 2-ounce egg sinker will work with a variety of bait rigs. Some anglers prefer weights with prongs that will catch in the sand and hold against the current. A 5/0-circle hook works well for catching – and releasing. In the Gulf, shrimp are usually available, as are a variety of baitfish like mullet, croakers and piggy perch. In the Atlantic, larger mullet and menhaden are the choice.
Any of the live baits will work when dead, although some species of fish prefer live bait. My personal best redfish bit a chunk of cut-up crab. All of the baitfish can be used whole or cut, and even frozen shrimp can be successful.
If you prefer to “fool ‘em instead of feeding ‘em,” a gold spoon has been the standard surf fishing artificial lure for years. Some like silver or other finishes. The fish don’t seem to care. Just satisfy yourself. A spoon will usually cast well, even into the wind.
Mullet-imitating lures like MirrOlures or the D.O.A. “Bait Buster” are excellent plugs. I’m still wishing I could have just seen the fish that took a “Bait Buster” several years ago and ran on me until completely spoolingmy reel and snapping the line!
Caution In The Waves
A wading belt is recommended for those who actually get out into the surf. Some are inflatable for flotation or feature a CO2 cartridge that can be activated if the undertow takes hold. There is a new product called “SOSpenders,” which are suspenders with CO2 inflation built in.
And don’t tie a short stringer onto a wading belt or around your waist or belt loop, unless you have extra legs. Some, like Nichols, won’t even tie on a long stringer. Sharks are notorious stringer thieves, and they don’t care what else they have to drag with it.
There are some risks, for sure. Be aware of them. It is a wise man that respects the sea and the perils it embodies.
The rewards of fishing the surf, though, far outweigh the hazards.