The Open Beach Ė What you donít see matters.
by Rich Troxler
Through the years, many people have contacted me expressing interest in “mindset” type information, as it pertains to surf fishing. In my opinion, this is a very valid interest, as most fishing has more in common with problem solving than anything else. Once you have the VS 250, the custom rod, and enough plugs to fill a garage, what do you do with them LOL. Well, trying to cover all of that would take at least two books, so let’s cover a few things that may help next time you step out onto the beach.
Surf fishing is becoming ever more popular by the day, and with the increased recruitment of new surf fishermen, the one thing I’ve noticed more than anything else is how often they will walk out on to the beach, stand in one spot, cast and never move. Now there are some very legitimate reasons for standing your ground, and I’ll cover those later, but for the most part many of those standing there are doing so because they don’t have a plan, and they have no idea of what they are looking at/for.
So what goes through my mind when I walk onto a beach? I’ll tell you mine, but I will also ask others to tell me their thoughts. As I’ve stated before, what follows is based on my own experiences and is therefore subject to debate. Surf fishing should always be considered a work in progress. And thanks to a plague of lawyers, here’s the disclaimer. Any similarities between what I might say and what others may have written, should be considered as consensus, not plagiarism. So let’s roll.
I always like to start from the top down with everything I do, including fishing, so I’ll start by stating the obvious. You can’t catch what is not there. Fish are not spread uniformly across the beach, and no combination of conditions will act to “create” fish. They have to be in the area and when they are, they are most probably there because of bait and structure, in that order of importance. Structure with no bait is nothing but water. So, getting on a bite has everything to do with finding bait and then working it backwards.
When I walk out onto a new stretch of beach for the first time, I am typically looking to get onto a bite. Whatever bite I was on is over and I am in seek mode. Needless to say, this is not about daytime blitzes, or what is generally accepted as “stupid” fishing. It’s about getting on a solid bite, day or night, and using your noodle to get you there. So what are the things that I am considering as I make my first pass? First and foremost, what is the bait that is in the area, and second, what structure is around on that section of beach. Two simple elements, that often hide behind complex realities.
GOT BAIT? -
Typically when I hit a beach for the first time, I have an idea of what bait MIGHT be present. There is a wealth of information already available on bait migration patterns, so I’m not going to cover that here. Locating and/or identifying bait is a sensory experience. Sometimes you will see it washed up on the beach, especially if blues have been around. Pieces of bunker, peanuts and sand eels come to mind here. Sometimes you can see it in the wash, like mullet in tight heading west, or a school of adult bunker working down the beach within casting range. Sometimes you can feel it hitting your line, especially so with the sensitivity of braided line. And most times, you can just flat out smell it when it is present. So always keep your senses attuned to the presence of bait, because it is bait that is half the equation that leads to a bite.
Frequently, it is possible for there to be several bait types around for a given stretch of beach. I call these “food-chain events”. An example of a common food chain event would be this. Sand eels on the beach, small bass on the sand eels, shad on the sand eels, bigger bass on the shad. You could be throwing small bucks or needles into the wash and catching smaller bass all night, but if you hook a shad or two in the process, it should alert you to the possibility that some larger fish might be in the area. I always take these scenarios into account when I load my plug bag.
Basically, most bait fall into two categories, small/long/slender, or large-bodied. There may be other subdivisions based on specific locales and runs, but the above covers 90% of the scenarios you are likely to encounter on the open beach. The only other things to consider when choosing your profiles are conditions, such as day/night, head/tail wind, big surf, etc. Once you’ve settled on your basic profiles, what I call “test patterns”, it is time to find fish.
I do things a little different than most and it’s just my thing, I ain’t sellin nothin here. If I’m driving the beach that I’m fishing, then I carry up to three rods, each with a different profile or depth oriented plug. I tie direct, so this makes it easier for me when I am in seek mode. If you are walking, then you will need to be able to rotate easily between your chosen few profiles until you find what the fish are looking for, or go blind trying. This probably means a clip or snap.
So when you hit the beach for the first time, don’t get carried away with standing in one place and “throwing the bag” as more often than not, catching fish has to do with the presence of bait, location, presentation, and/or stage of the tide. The idea is to match the profile of the bait(s) you think are present, as closely as possible, and cover as much territory as you can. AND KEEP IT SIMPLE.
WHAT’S STRUCTURE AND HOW DO I FIND IT? -
Now this is where it gets interesting. Reading a beach, particularly at night, takes a little time to learn, but it is well worth the effort. While the science behind what shapes a beach is fairly dense, all of what you will need to know can be gained through simple observation. Why do you need to know this? The simple version is that bass relate to structure, to feed, rest, whatever.
Structure can take several forms on the beach, hard/soft, big/small, so once again, I’ll take it from the top down and start by defining the above examples. I define hard structure as anything that causes water to move over or around it, and it comes in all sizes, big and small. An example of big would be a large offshore bar formation, small, a minor point or hump at the waters edge. The real importance of hard structure is the effect it has on the water THAT RUNS OVER AND AROUND IT, resulting in CURRENTS, SWEEP, AND EDDIES. I define soft structure as the interface between currents/sweep and eddies.
Because so much of reading a beach involves understanding wave action, now might be a good time for a quick primer, for those who need it. Waves are basically energy traveling through the water and the way they break can tell you a lot about the ocean floor underneath them. As a wave approaches shore and the bottom begins to rise, the wave begins to rise in proportion, until it can no longer support itself and breaks. A fast rise in bottom depth produces a quick building, fast breaking wave. A gradually rising bottom produces a gradually building and slowly breaking wave. Offshore bars give up their presence by the waves breaking on them and the cuts within the bar are noted by the absence of waves (or much smaller break). Points will cause the wave to break over it, but not on either side. Surfers love this kind of structure for the nice long localized waves they tend to produce. So how and where waves break can tell you a lot about what’s going on underneath them.
At this point I can’t come up with an organized method of presenting further information, so I’m just going to run and gun, like I do when I’m looking for fish on the beach.
LET’S GO FIND FISH -
Sand doesn’t disappear. It always winds up somewhere, so when I hit the beach, the first thing I look for is obvious stuff, like offshore bars. These are easy to find as long as there is wave action to expose their location. Calm nights in the fall (prevailing northerlies in my area), not so easy. If I can see them, I then try to locate the edges and cuts, as these are “classic” spots to start. I then look at the beach to see what the last big blow did to the beachfront, as this can give you clues as to what lies under the water. Like I said, sand doesn’t disappear, it always goes somewhere.
So let’s say I roll up in front of a nice looking bar, just past casting distance, maybe 300 yards wide with a nice cut in the middle. If the sand leading down to the water’s edge is gradually sloping and without feature, then I assume this to be shallow, non-descript water, without a deep trough between bar and shore. The waves rolling in would seem to support this if they break on the bar, followed by a slow gradual built and long shore break. A few casts with a buck or other bottom/sand eel profile will confirm my suspicions. This water doesn’t have a lot going on, but I would quickly run my test patterns anyway, top/bottom, in/out, figuring sweep direction and strength, etc, and then it’s time to move around.
The only moves left at this first stop are to locate/fish where the shore break from the cut in the bar comes through, and/or fish the outer ends of the bar. First the cut. Because the wave doesn’t break on the outer bar when it rolls through the cut, it will break larger on the beach than those that have lost much of their energy breaking on the outer bar. This is possible soft structure, so I approach it from the direction of the sweep, let’s say west to east in this case. Once I identify the line where the cut breakers are rolling through, I will throw my test patterns at it from the west side, starting a little ways back off, and allowing the sweep to keep the bait(s) running along the large/small wave interface as much as possible. I then proceed east, maybe 20 steps or so, and repeat the process, then another 20 steps, etc, until I work my to the other end of the cut breakers. At this point, I might decide to fish one or both bar ends, or head down the beach and look for more productive water.
If the above scenario had a deeply scalloped, fast dropping shore, then I would assume a deeper trough, checking for confirmation by observing shore break, (fast build and break at your feet) and a few casts with the bottom bouncers in my chosen profiles. I would work it much the same, but spend more attention on the break up close, because of the highly localized wave action and steeper drop into deeper water (soft and hard structure). This also depending on what bait/wind conditions, etc. It is hard to explain some things because there are so many variables. I’d fish close if I found sand eels washed up, but of course, if I a$$ into a school of bunker with big fish on them, I wouldn’t be concerned about shore break at all. Speaking of bunker, they tend to like deeper trough-like water as opposed to shallow flat bottom. Bait, like bass, is where you find it.
So I hit this first spot and there’s nothing doing. I get back in my buggy, turn the key, and head slowly down the beach with my window down, so as to get a good view of the beach. I’m now looking for anything and everything. I’m sniffing the air, watching the water for bars, checking the shoreline for deep gouges, scalloped sand humps, excessive clam shells, anything that tells me that water is doing something. ANYTHING, but boring, flat, uneventful beach.
If there are a series of points, then I stop and fish both sides of them. I love points, even small ones. I look at points as an “I-bar”, a sand bar that runs perpendicular to the beach, and their effect on water and bait is different than a parallel offshore bar. Many times a point can run a fair distance underwater from the beach, and sometimes if your lucky, can sprout wing bars at the end, forming a “T-bar”. And most times, the only way you can identify them is by observing wave action.
Points generally have deeper water to either side, with one side usually being deeper than the other. My observations are that in my area (the entire stretch of Long Islands south shore beaches), the west side of most points tends to be the deeper side. I’m sure it has something to do with prevailing winds, tides, sweep, and all, but I don’t really need to know why, I just automatically fish the west sides of points first.
Points get overlooked by many because they either don’t notice them, or don’t recognize their fish catching potential. The effect of points on water depends on which way the waves are rolling in. Understanding that Long Island’s south shore runs dead west to east should help you transpose the following examples to your area. On a dead south, they split the wave down the middle, but on a more common quarterly wind, let’s say SW, they have a more interesting effect. As the wave breaks over the point, part of the water runs over the top in the direction of the wind and the wave kind of expires, but on the facing side of the point, some of the water bounces off the point and makes a smaller secondary wave heading quarterly back against the rest of the waves.
Sometimes it can have a dramatic effect, with waves colliding up against each other producing “confused” choppy water, but more often than not the effect is far subtler. You have probably witnessed this to one degree or another and never paid any heed to it, but the key point here is that this particular wave action should tell you that something is going on, hard structure wise, on the ocean floor. That same bouncing wave action off the deep end of a point may also produce favorable feeding conditions for bass, so they should always be investigated.
Points also do something offshore bars do not. They block bait, particularly an east to west migrator like mullet. They don’t actually block it, but points do force bait into a confined area of water, giving the predators a decided advantage. And it’s not just near-shore migrators like mullet, almost any bait can be herded toward and pinned against a point. Points can also be curved in one direction or another, forming an arc type shape, and again, in my experience, these seem to bend toward the west. And if you are lucky enough to have one form in the area you fish, then a T’bar configuration can downright corral bait. I’ve witnessed some incredible peanut massacres in curved and T-bar type point formations.
So while I’m point jumping, I also keep my eye out on the beach for certain changes, like large wash outs or coves. As I stated earlier, the state of the beach after the last big blow leaves clues to what lies beneath. So far I have covered an offshore bar and points, and these are the big two in my book. But what about the small moves, fishing’s analog to baseball’s “little ball”?
When driving the beach, I will frequently pull off, just to get a closer look at some of the smaller features of the beach. I like sections of beach that have alternating small hills (minor points) and coves in between. The very way they are laid out shows that current is at work in the area. Each minor point most probably extends a short distance into the water, and like its bigger brothers, causes currents to form on either side of them. They also represent places where bait can be pinned, or run into. And if I catch a fish in the area, then I’ll fish every one of them, using the same bait.
This entails quick little walks between points. I figure (or already know) which way the sweep is and fish my bait accordingly, and if I hook up again, then I really ramp it up. I make note of where it was caught (out far, in the wash) and start working rapid fire, walking point to point, fishing the coves, fishing the points, until I stop catching and/or I don’t like the “feel” of the water. And I repeat the process on the way back to my truck to make sure I didn’t miss anybody. Then I move a short distance down the beach again. Some people may not want to move from a spot after catching a fish, because they feel they may miss a fish if they leave. But when I’m on the beach and the bite slows a little, I always think that there are a whole lot more waiting to get caught, just a short distance away. I’ve given this batch my best shot, time to move on down the beach.
I mentioned the “feel” of the water. This is going to be hard to describe because it really is an experience thing, but being aware that it exists may help you develop your own “feel” quicker. With all the little and not so little factors that affect water current on the beach, sometimes the way your plug is swimming in the water can tell you a lot.
A classic example of using “feel” to detect a change in the water is fishing a rip current, the same current that carries swimmers out to sea. If you were to fish a plug in one, your plug would have a much greater tendency to stay out in front of you, instead of drifting with the sweep you might have experienced 50 yards down the beach. Your plug would also be working like mad even if you weren’t reeling. It feels like the never-ending back suction from a wave.
Changes like these represent a change in soft structure and should always be looked at. An example of a bad feel would be like trying to work a swimming plug in the direction of the prevailing sweep. The plug slogs along, doesn’t work right, won’t dig in, and just doesn’t “feel” right. So all these large and small bits of structure affect the way water moves, many times within short distances of each other, and fish relate to all the things in their world. And most times the only way you have of knowing whether the water you’re fishing is good or bad, is by feel.
Because I fish almost exclusively at night, I rely heavily on feel to let me know if I’m fishing the type of water that will produce fish. Sometimes as I’m moving around I’ll get on a small point and my plug just dances. There is good water movement and the plug responds well. Other times, I’ll cast to dead water, plug won’t work right, no back suck from waves, whatever, it doesn’t feel right. Just as over time you develop confidence in your knowledge of working certain plugs, you will also develop the feel for good water. I can’t really explain it any better than that.
So to sum it up, when I hit the beach, I pay close attention to big pieces of structure, and even closer attention to the smaller bits of structure along the beach. I don’t believe that fish are spread uniformly across the beach, so I go find them. I believe that fish know their world a whole lot better than I ever will, but I don’t let that stop me from trying to figure out the “little ball” of fishing. I don’t stand in one place unless I’m sure a bite is coming at some stage of the tide, this knowledge coming from the whole process described above. Even then, I still move around a lot. When I’m in seek mode, I place my faith in my “test pattern” plugs and rarely change them unless conditions change. Finding fish has a whole lot to do with the presence of bait and some form of structure. Catching them has a whole lot to do with presentation, and/or stage of the tide, and little to do with subtle variations of color on a plug.
Well this is some of what goes on in my noggin when I step out onto the beach. Each fisherman over time develops their own paradigm of how they approach the beach, and hopefully some of the things I’ve offered above might turn you on to something that you can incorporate into yours. As always, fishing is a never ending learning process, so feel free to toss some of your observations into the knowledge pool if you are so inclined. An old dog like me, likes to learn new tricks.