When to go
Along the Panhandle we have lots of opportunities for surf fishing. The best time for surf fishing is March-November, however, some years we have good surf fishing all year if we have a warm winter. Our main targets are Pompano and Whiting but many other species are available including Redfish, Blue Fish, Ladyfish, Blue Runners, Spanish, Black Drum, Sharks, Sheepshead and Bonita.
Tides and weather play a big part in surf fishing. The fish will bite anytime during the day but the best times are when the tide is either rising or falling. During the warmer months, early morning and late afternoon combined with a tidal change is by far the best. During the winter months, fishing the days leading up to a cold front when the temps are slightly warmer and there is a southerly wind with some wave action is best. [back to top]
Where to go
You can surf fish anywhere along the coast but taking some time to pick out the perfect location on the beach will pay off. First, I would stand on top of a sand dune and look at the water with a good pair of polarized sunglasses. When looking at the water, you are looking for color changes and where the waves break. The lighter colored water will be the shallow areas and the darker colors will be the deeper areas we call “holes”. When there is wave action, the waves will break in the shallow areas. In the deeper areas, it will normally peak but not actually break. I would want my baits placed in the deeper areas.
Look for places along the beach that are irregular.
Look for places along the beach that are irregular as these tend to be better feeding spots. I usually fish four bottom or set rods. When I first arrive at the beach, I cast them all different distances looking for exactly what depth the fish are feeding. After an hour or so, I may have all the rods in shallow water or all very deep depending on where I get my first bites. After a while you may stop getting bites and need to go back and spread out the depth of the rods to find where the fish are. As the tide, wind, and surf conditions change the fish may initially quit biting. When this occurs, go back to your starting pattern of fishing at different depths and you will soon find where they are feeding. [back to top]
Rods and reels
You are going to need a surf rod and reel in the 8 ft. to 12 ft. range with medium to medium light action. It would be nice to have a smaller rod, 6ft to 7ft medium light action that you can cast pompano jigs and spoons for fish that you see cruising the shallows or busting on the surface. For a surf reel on your larger combo, something in the 8000 size and something in the 4000 size is best. [back to top]
Use a reel in the 4000 or 8000 size.
On your longer bottom fishing combo, use a 15 lb. to 25 lb. mono line or even better yet a 30 lb.- 50 lb. Power Pro Braided line. The nice thing about braid is it casts about 10% to 20% farther than mono, last 2 or 3 times as long but costs slightly more. On your smaller combo used for casting jigs and spoons, use 10 lb. to 15 lb. mono and better yet is 20 lb. to 30 lb. Power Pro Braided line. [back to top]
Use 15lb to 25lb mono line or a 30lb to 50lb braided line.
You can buy pre-made commercial rigs, hand tied Half Hitch Tackle rigs, or tie your own. Our rigs are tied on 20 lb. mono with Owner Mutu Light Hooks size #1 and pompano floats. If you are going to tie your own rigs, I would use 25 lb. Seaguar Fluorocarbon. The nice thing about fluorocarbon is that it is invisible to the fish and you will get more bites. What makes Fluorocarbon invisible to fish is that it is the same density as saltwater and does not refract light.
Our hand tied rigs come with a small float just above the hook. The small float serves two purposes, first, as an attractor second, it floats your bait just off the bottom so the small crabs in the surf do not steal it so fast. [back to top]
Pre-made commercial rigs.
Custom hand-tied Half Hitch rigs.
Fluorocarbon leader material is invisible to the fish.
You can use either pyramid sinkers or spider leads. I personally like pyramid leads but many people choose the spider leads because they hold better in the sand. My only problem with the spider leads is that sometimes they hold too well and don’t release from the bottom when you get a bite. I always use a lead no smaller than 3 oz. no matter what the surf conditions are. The main reason is twofold. You need to cast the rig out and give it just a minute for the lead to settle into the sand, then, reel the line tight where the rod has just enough tension for it to have a slight bend when placed in the rod holder. Two things can happen when you get a bite, the fish grabs the bait and runs offshore setting the hook himself; the second the fish grabs the bait and runs towards the shore. When using a 3 oz. or larger lead, there is enough tension when the fish dislodges that the lead will set the hook for you.
When the fish bites and runs offshore, you will see the rod bend over and bounce signaling you have a fish on. When the fish bites and runs towards the shore, the rod with the slight bend will stand straight up with slack in the line signaling the fish is on and heading towards you.
Lastly, many times I will paint my leads Orange, Pink or Yellow with Vinyl Lure and Jig Finish paint. I do this as an attractor because many of the fish are drawn to colors. [back to top]
Spider leads and pyramid sinkers.
Rods ready for bite.
Rod with fish running offshore with bait.
Rod with fish
Sand Fleas are by far the best bait for surf fishing. You have heard the phrase, “Match the hatch” well, sand fleas are the most common food for fish in the surf. Other things that make good bait are live shrimp, fiddler crabs, and fresh peeled shrimp. The reason for fresh peeled shrimp over frozen is that when you freeze anything, ice crystals form in the frozen product and when it thaws it loses some natural oils and flavor. When you use fresh peeled shrimp, you peel the shrimp and place it on the hook and cast out. It then begins letting out the natural oils and flavors into the water acting much like chum to attract the fish.
When using sand fleas, live is the best and much of the spring we have live ones for sale. Frozen will work but live or fresh is best. If I had a choice, smaller is better than too big. I would much rather have two tiny sand fleas on one hook rather than one that is too big. When hooking a sand flea, hook from the bottom side through the digging flipper then through the back of the shell. Be careful not to break the shell when pushing the hook through so it will not fly off when you cast.
To catch sand fleas along the surf, you will need a sand flea rake. During the high tide period look for the sand fleas as they scurry along the surf line and dig into the sand. Also look for beds of sand fleas. They make small V’s in the sand where only the tentacles are exposed to filter plankton. Sand fleas will live well in a cooler with ice for several days. Use a cooler with a sandwich tray, put ice in the bottom of the cooler and keep moist but not soupy sand in the sandwich tray, put the sand fleas in the sand. If you plan to keep the sand fleas for several days you will need to take them to the beach and wash them twice daily and replace the sand with fresh sand as they produce waste in their sand that will eventually kill them.
The best time to really get the sand fleas is at night when we have a high tide during the evening hours. Use a flash light to locate them; they are much less skittish after dark.
Some artificial choices that work well are Fishbites or Berkley Gulp Sand fleas. [back to top]
Sand spikes, surf carts, and accessories
On your sand spikes, make sure they are well buried in the sand. I have seen many sand spikes get pulled over and the rod get dragged into the water and lost. I use a rubber mallet to pound the sand spike into the sand so it will stay in place.
Having a good beach cart to get all your stuff to the beach is a must have item. The aluminum cart is great because it has rod holders and pulls over the sand fairly easy. Better yet is the Wheelez Sport Caddie. The Sport Caddie glides over the sand but does not have rod holders. I have seen many people attach rod holders to a cooler which makes the Sport Caddie the ticket. [back to top]
Drive sand spikes in with a rubber mallet
The Wheelez Sport Caddie glides over the sand easily.
This aluminum cart includes rod holders.
Big tires roll easy on sand.
While bottom fishing for Pompano, Whiting and Redfish I always have my smaller rod rigged with a pompano jig incase I spot a fish cruising near the shore. It is also a good idea to have a few spoons or gotcha plugs in case any Spanish Mackerel, Ladyfish, Blue Runners or Bonita are cruising along busting the surface.
There are quite a few sharks in the surf and they can be caught during the day or evening hours. The best baits are Northern mackerel, Bonita chunks, Ladyfish chunks or Bluefish chunks. We use a wire leader 150 lb. to 270 lb., twisted wire, or #10 Malin wire with a 12/0 or 13/0 Mustad 39960 circle hook. [back to top]
Spoons catch Spanish Mackeral.
Wire leader for shark fishing.
This Outdoor Tip was provided by Tim Broom, Half Hitch Destin