Fishing the Surf Zone

Fishing the Surf Zone

Helping anglers new to surf fishing.

Malibu Shoreline Kanan Dume Peninsula in the Far Distance

Malibu Shoreline Kanan Dume Peninsula in the Far Distance

Winter is a great time of year to hit the beach for some surf fishing. Compared to the warmer months there are few people on the beach and in the water. Recently a So Cal friend of mine was visited by his brother from Michigan and they wanted to go surf fishing. They turned to me for some advice and here it is.

There are many techniques and set-ups that produce in the surf. I favor fishing the beach like a freshwater bass angler using light line applications, artificial lures  and moving around until I locate fish. The following is an excellent set-up for the novice. For most bass anglers you probably already have most of the equipment you need.  Without going into vast detail here are some guidelines.

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Equipment and Rigging

I use a long spinning rod, 9'-6" ultra light slow action. This rod is designed for light weight salmon fishing. Fish size is relative and most surf fish have small soft mouths. The rod length not only casts light baits well it also allows you to hold your line above larger waves that are between you and your lure. I couple the rod with a 2500 spinning reel.

The reel is spooled with 8lb braid and a 6lb fluorocarbon leader, 3' to 4' in length, mono is fine too. The set-up is a 'Carolina Rig' using a swivel connection between the main line and leader. The swivel is important as the surf zone produces a lot of line twist. Above the swivel I use a 1/2 oz. tungsten bullet weight with a glass bead between the swivel and weight. You can use an egg sinker but the bullet weight casts beautifully, especially into the wind. During heavy surf conditions increase your weight size. 

At the end of the leader I attach a #4 Gamakatsu Aberdeen hook dressed with a Berkley Powerbait 2" Power Grub pumpkinseed color. A Berkley Gulp 6" Sandworm Camo pattern is another excellent choice. I break the 6" worm into three smaller pieces. Again these fish generally have small mouths. Not always but even big fish eat little things. I'm appealing to the entire fish population, catching numbers and simply having fun. The hook is rigged exposed and I often apply Pro Cure Sand Shrimp (Ghost) Bait Sauce.

A pair of 6" forceps is going to be very handy in removing hooks from fish with small mouths. Most forceps feature small blades for cutting line. They also clamp nicely onto shirt pockets and such making them easy to access and hang onto.

Techniques and Where

Ventura County Coastline Just South of Pt. Mugu

Ventura County Coastline Just South of Pt. Mugu

Cast and allow the surf to move the bait back to you while keeping slack out of the line. Many fish will be directly behind each crashing wave including the shore break. Wade out into the surf and you will miss many fish that are now behind you in inches of water. 

The crashing waves dislodges food from the sand. They also create troughs that allow fish to easily hold in as the waves wash food to them. Breaking waves, depressions, channels, the edge of riptides/eddies, rock meeting sand, any change to the bottom can hold fish. Just like low pool at the lake, low tide is an excellent time to visit the surf zone to view these conditions. 

Just be aware that the softer sand elements are in constant flux as the surf keeps moving things around. The surface water patterns and how waves break will give indications to the bottom changes below. Now that you know what to look for keep searching until you find fish.


Just like the California Delta a moving tide, incoming or outgoing, is when predators are looking for food to come to them. A slack tide occurs between the shift from an incoming to an outgoing tide and vise versa. During this period it usually represents the toughest bite. You can find tide charts online and at saltwater tackle shops.

Playing the Fish

When you hook up move the fish to you with the incoming waves. As the surf moves back out keep steady pressure on the fish but don't fight the fish against an outgoing water surge. You will likely pull the hook out or break off a big fish. As waves come in bring the fish to the edge of the shoreline. Now you have truly 'landed' a fish. Be careful with sharks, rays and other toothy species. 

Be Aware

Zuma Beach Malibu

Zuma Beach Malibu

If you wade out into the surf you can step into a hidden depression. Some of these holes are very deep. This is something to think about when you are wearing waders in cold water. There is safety in numbers so if you can fish with others.  But it is possible to fish the surf without wading into the surf.

Don't take anything with you that you don't want to get wet or can't afford to lose. Rouge waves always seem to happen when you least expect it. Whichever way you carry your gear keep zippers zipped and pockets buttoned. If you bend over to handle a fish things will fall out and likely be swept away into the ocean.

When you finish surf fishing rinse the salt water off your gear as soon as possible. The salt and sand is very corrosive so a thorough rinsing will keep your gear working and last longer. If present I will rinse at the beach showers and then again when I return home.

Last Cast

Venice Beach Sunset

Venice Beach Sunset

Surf fishing is a great way to enjoy fishing and escape our busy life's. It doesn't necessarily require an all day commitment. The air is fresh and the scenery, including the bikinis, is spectacular. And you never know what you might catch. Good luck and I hope to see you at the Surf Zone.

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