A Beginner’s Guide to Surf Fishing

Almanac Digital-1

Millions of Texans play along the Gulf beaches. The sand, waves, birds, and shells blend into a glorious place to play. It is also among the most bountiful fishing waters in the world.

Forget your image of lawn-chair sitting anglers, chugging beer as they wait for a hit on rods stuffed in a sand spike. The key to catching fish regularly off the beach is to become a predator, as mobile and resourceful as any shark or osprey.

Sharks are just one of many varieties of fishes available to surf fishermen. Catching them involves more than picking out a pretty patch of beach and lobbing out a bait. Just like a bass fisherman working a brushy shoreline or deep creek channel, surf anglers must look for structure that attracts fish.

“You have to look for something different. If you stop, ask yourself ‘why did I stop here?’ If it was just to take a break, get back in the truck and keep driving. What you’re looking for is food chain activity—birds, obvious surface feeding activity, baitfish. Watch for calm water where there’s a break in the sand bar; where there’s a solid line of surf, and then you see a 50-yard gap, that’s where water is exiting that first gut and entering the Gulf. That’s where the predator fish are waiting,” said former guide and surf-fishing legend Billy Sandifer.

Waiting for the fish to come to you is not productive, he said. “Even if you are shark fishing, you need to run baits. If they’re not run in two hours, move.”

The variety of fishes also allows unlimited choices in tackle and lures.

“I rarely fished with live bait except during the finger mullet migration, when there was too much live bait for an artificial to compete,” Sandifer said. “I would lure fish for all species, including fish that were too big. But, there’s nothing wrong with using dead shrimp on bottom to fill a cooler with big whiting.”

Sandifer said timing is critical for catching certain species. “For example, there are 10 days of the year, Sept. 20-30, that are most appropriate for tarpon. The dusky anchovy or red bone minnow, a baitfish about 1-1/2 inches long, comes in to spawn, and the tarpon come with them and stay with them. And at the same time, a quarter million fish-eating birds are here for the same reason. They’re fixing to migrate to South America.”

Fly-fishing the surf is not the equipment-intensive chore you might think. “I had fly-fishermen come down who swore you could never sight-cast to jack crevalle. So, I traded a casting outfit for an 8-weight rod, and on the second attempt landed a 25-pound jack. They go straight out. You’ve just got to pay attention, learn to catch big fish.”

Sandifer said an angler can land huge fish on light tackle if he doesn’t lose his composure. “Once you get some experience with big fish, you do not do all that goofy stuff that loses fish. You can catch a hell of a fish on 10-pound line.”

Jacks are a barroom brawl of a fishing adventure on the beach. “They’ll be everywhere. You can see birds from a half-mile, pelicans and terns, and you can see the explosions of jacks. They’ll be moving quite fast. They mess up the neighborhood and split. And they’re always running north. When we would find them, I would throw the Suburban in reverse and floor it. When we got 100 yards ahead of them, everyone grabbed a rod and then here they came.”

Sandifer said sight-casting to autumn jack crevalle was his favorite trip down the beach. “They’re meaner than a junk yard dog, they average 22 pounds, and they’re 10 yards in front of you. The adrenaline is in overdrive. I’ve chased them with everything from fly rods to 8-pound-test spinning tackle to 20-pound-test casting rods.

“The jacks will be right in front of you in the first swell, 25-pound torpedoes everywhere. It starts in late September and runs into December, during the traditional run of finger mullet out of the bay systems. They know the finger mullet are there, and the pelagic predators come out there to feed on the finger mullet. Everything—Spanish mackerel, ladyfish, tarpon—rocking and rolling right there in front of you.”

Pompano, the tasty panfish caught almost exclusively in the surf, are prime in the December and January surf.

Sandifer said speckled trout are a regular treat in the summer surf. “I’ve seen trout so big the ‘experts’ won’t acknowledge that they get that big, trout that would frighten any biologist. I’ve seen a dozen trout that were bigger than the state record.

“Once they spawn and the water gets hot and the bays turn hyper-saline, they go to the surf.

Caution is paramount in the surf. Never fish alone—treacherous undertows claim anglers every year: “We do not wade across guts down here. We have the deepest water in Texas here. When you’re fishing in knee deep water, you’re part of the food chain.”

 

Wheels on the Beach

If you are planning to “run the beach,” you better have the right wheels underneath you.

“You see every soccer mom in Texas down there,” Sandifer laughed. “You need a high-center vehicle. It’s so soft; when you start dragging the differential, then you’re in trouble. That’s when they get frustrated, hit the brakes, and they’re history. I advise novice beach drivers to stay in the main tracks, whether they like it or not. If you see an area that looks like it’s good, but nobody else has driven there, there’s a good reason.

“My best advice is to let your tire air pressure down to 25 pounds, carry a jack, reasonable supplies, and a cell phone. Stay in the main tracks, don’t hit the brakes or try to go too fast, and you’ll be okay.”

Life on the beach involves more than vehicles. To be there when the water clears and the fish turn on, you often need to camp on the sand.

“Most people camp too high, take too much gear, and sit too far from their rods,” Sandifer said. “They sit in a circle around the cooler, getting a horrendous sunburn. The boys that catch the fish don’t carry much gear or stay too long in one place. You’ll see them at the 30-mile mark, then at the 40, then at the 45. They’re the apex predators, stalking and hunting. Then when they find fish, they stack ‘em up.”

 

Great Surf-Fishing Destinations

Mustang Island, from Port Aransas to Corpus Christi, offers great beach access with a number of park roads. On much of the beach, you have to park and walk rather than drive to your fishing spot, so pack light.

A quick ferry ride takes you from Woody’s at Port Aransas to the St. Joseph’s Island jetties, offering access to many miles of prime beach along St. Joe. Again, it is all walking. Many anglers prefer the jetties with more visible structure and less walking.

You can likewise catch a ride from Matagorda to the beach on Matagorda Island. This is superb angling territory, frequently visited by tarpon from Pass Cavallo south. Some anglers bring a mountain bike to help cover more beach.