There's something fine and natural about getting next to nature, and nowhere is that easier for coastal anglers than surf fishing. You're barefoot (weather permitting) with the surf booming close by, the wind blowing and not another soul in sight. Lots of passing seabirds and fish busting the surface, too, if you're lucky.
If you're still learning to "read the surf," one of the best things you can do is watch where the locals fish. Move closer, study the water and wave breaks in front of them, but be sure to respect their space.
Or a calm sunrise and you're sipping hot coffee with friends who share the same goal of catching fresh fish in the outdoors -- sand between toes -- without blowing your retirement on a boat, motor(s), trailer and tow vehicle. (You will need a vehicle of course, but more on that in a moment).
Picking your spot and timing it right is important, of course. If you can "read the surf," for instance -- that certainly helps. If you can't, locate a locally favorite stretch of surf, and study the line of breakers off the beach. Often they're formed by first and second sandbars, where a line of waves break white. There might even be a third sandbar in deeper water. Watch for a break in the second and third bars, where the water flows back out to sea. All of that water from the waves has to return offshore, right? This excess water is where so-called "rip currents" may drag a swimmer offshore for a short distance. This same current draws natural food out to the fish, and that's where your bait should often be.
Watch where the locals fish; if you see a cluster of six guys down the beach a ways, clustered together with about 18 long rods sitting in sand spikes, then you can bet they know what they're doing and they've picked the right spot. Move closer and observe, but don't crowd them. Study the water and wave breaks in front of them. Inquire when the local tide will be "right." They probably won't be there for a dead-low tide, unless they're socializing. Incoming tides are often best, especially early in the morning, when the light is low and gamefish prowl close to the beach. Early is good, because families with their joyful kids haven't arrived yet; that won't happen until at least 10 a.m. during weekends, maybe later.
Don't kid yourself and bring just any tackle to the beach. Regular "surf rats" use a surf rod from 12 to 15 feet in length with big line guides, designed to launch a bait and weight up to 100 yards offshore. A big saltwater spinning reel packed with 20- or 25-pound line can take the abuse of a serious cast and still subdue sizeable fish. Lighter line might snap in mid-cast, while heavier line takes up too much reel-spool capacity. You can bring a smaller rod (say seven feet in length) for casting at closer fish, especially during high tide. Several of these big rods are normally set out; a serious surf veteran might use four to six outfits.
The big surf rods are set into sand spikes, which are PVC pipes some three to four feet long, sharpened at one end, and about 2-1/4 inches in diameter. These are driven into the sand and provide a stable platform for your rods. Refrain from using buckets or coolers, that won't stop a rod from being pulled down into sand or water. Why? The last thing you want is one of those fine reels falling into gritty sand or worse, saltwater and sand. Both are very bad for reels. Watching a surf rod pulled out to sea by a big fish can be a bummer, as well.
Bluefish often feed in the surf when they hem in schools of smaller baitfish. They're not picky and will hit jigs, spoons and plugs.
Set the reel's drag light when using regular j-hooks and stay close by, because you have to react quickly when a fish hits and set the hook. With Kahle or circle hooks, fish hook themselves. That means with a strike, you can take your time and set your coffee down. Just be sure the drag is set with several pounds of pressure -- you want a nice bend in that rod, so the fish gets hooked.
Favorite leaders and hooks vary from one region to another, and the nearest small tackle shop or anglers on the beach can shed light on this. You basically want a leader a little tougher than your casting line, perhaps rigged with two baited hooks that at least partially set themselves -- such as Kahle hooks -- that certainly works best on pompano and probably a variety of other fish.
If you see Pelicans diving into the water, chances are they've found schooling baitfish -- and very likely, predator fish.
For lead weights, don't rely on just anything from your sinker box. Pyramid sinkers up to six ounces were designed for surf casting, because they dig into the sand. You don't want your baits rolling down the beach 50 yards in a current, crossing other angler's lines, right? In addition, carry several spider weights. These have copper legs that stick out, and really dig into the sand. A fast current makes these necessary. How fast is fast? An example would be the stormy weather that Texas surf anglers fish, while hoping for a run of "bull" redfish when a tropical storm (or worse) is in the Gulf of Mexico. That makes for serious tides and current.
Baits are a local situation. If you're after big predators such as bull redfish and sharks, then a big chunk of mullet is hard to beat. (The serious shark guys fishing the surf, of course, use much bigger tackle -- boat tackle, and they have to deliver their big, whole fish, like a small tuna or stingray, offshore by some ingenious means. Like a balloon, surfboard or jet ski. Some guys even swim the bait offshore, with a bonito under their arm like a football, which is dangerous and definitely NOT recommended.
When after a variety of smaller fish, then the usual frozen shrimp, squid or cut bait will work. If you specialize in pompano, be prepared to dig your own mole crabs (sand fleas) from wet beach sand, preferably using a rake designed for that task.
Keep your bait fresh and snug in an icechest, something most fish will appreciate. Stinky bait and circling flies is no way to go through life.
As for artificial baits, carry a small selection. Spoons are always good, and topwater plugs in fairly calm weather are great on feeding fish. Several mullet-imitation lures are invaluable, especially during the fall mullet run, when all good finger mullet point their noses south, running in huge schools towards Florida. This draws attention from countless predators, and these feeding frenzies can be spotted from afar, either from whitewater action or diving pelicans and terns. The first good cold front of autumn usually triggers this scene.
While you're at it, keep a pair of needlenose pliers on that belt and a small fillet knife handy. Ever try digging treble hooks out of a flopping, toothy bluefish or Spanish mackerel with your bare hands? It's not as fun as it sounds.
Seatrout also feed in the surf, but you'll need the smaller seven-foot rod for throwing plugs and spoons to thse fish.
Getting to the beach is a requirement, and that means either hiking in or driving on sand. The hiking is healthy, but you'll need a packframe, at least, to carry gear. Or some sort of cart with inflatable wheels that works on soft sand.
If you're going to drive on the beach, like they do on North Carolina's Outer Banks or Padre Island in Texas, a four-wheel drive is nice. With or without four-wheel, you should drop your tire pressure down to 24 pounds or lower, so those tires can better grab the sand. (Back on the highway, keep your speed down until arriving at the nearest Stop-and-Rob, which likely has an air pressure machine to re-fill). A tire gauge in your glove box is mandatory, of course. Be sure to carry a spare tire, and a flat board to support the tire jack. (That same board is handy when cutting bait).
Years ago in college days, we often managed 40 miles of beach driving on Padre Island, using my Volkswagon Thing. We did so without a spare tire, since space was tight. One morning after some hard driving, someone heard a sss---sss---sss outside the car, and yelled to turn down the radio. We stopped and glumly watched the tire going flat, with a catfish spine sticking out of the sidewall. Forty miles from pavement...but we had arrived at our spot, so we pulled out the tackle.
A good day to fish. Six hours later, a moving dot appeared on the hot and shimmering sand dune horizon. It was a Volkswagon bus, arriving to camp and fish. They cheerfully lent us their spare tire and we found a handy piece of driftwood to place under the jack, changing our flat. We soon sped away in a cloud of sand, to return their tire the next day -- and to fish again.
Our friends back home were amazed to hear the tale. Some called it living right, while others spoke of Karma. We'd had no negative vibes that day, the fishing was too good, and that must have counted for something. The surf and sun were perfect, and we'd caught a heavy stringer of pompano, flounder and whiting. It never occurred that we might not make it home that night.
Such is the optimism of youth. These days I pack a little more carefully, even carry a tow chain in case we get bogged down. Or another vehicle drives too high above the high tide mark, digging in like a turtle in soft sand, spinning their tires and needing help.
Surf fishermen have to stick together, because quite often, we're the only people out there -- alone on a wide expanse of breaking waves on sand.
Joe Richard is a Gainesville, Florida writer and photographer who owns Seafavorites.com, a stock photo web site of outdoor photography.