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How to Fly Fish the Surf

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Here at the California Fly Shop, clients are constantly asking for tips on local fishing spots. Many are surprised when one of our first recommendations is to fish the local San Mateo County surf - which is half an hour away from our shop. When most people think of fly fishing in saltwater, stalking bonefish and other well-known game fish on tropical beaches and flats usually comes to mind. However, for fly fishermen looking for an unconventional challenge that’s easily accessible, head to the surf! Here in San Mateo County, fly fishing the surf will most commonly yield various species of surf perch, but you’ll also encounter stripers, white sea bass, halibut, and leopard sharks. With patience and proper application of the surf fishing basics discussed in this article, any fly fisherman can catch fish in the surf environment. 

Although the ideal fly rod weight and setup varies based on the target species and conditions, an 8-weight single-handed rod will be the most versatile rod for the surf. If you want to specifically target striped bass, move up to a nine-weight rod. Many of our clients are also using switch rods like the Beulah Surf Rod 7/8 or 8/9 in the surf - their advantage being that they can cast farther and in wind more easily than single-handed rods. Regarding reels, small perch won’t take much drag, but striped bass, halibut, and leopard sharks will make powerful runs and take hundreds of feet of backing, which necessitates a saltwater-safe reel with a high-quality drag system. The surf can be fished with several different fly lines, but we recommend a shooting head system with an intermediate running line, or a fly line like the Scientific Anglers Coastal ExpressTaper, which has an integrated shooting head and intermediate running line. 

A stripping basket to collect and organize loose line is essential. There are several styles of stripping baskets on the market so give us a call so you can select the right one. Regardless of the specific stripping basket you use, be sure that water can drain out of the basket for safety - you should drill holes in the bottom of solid plastic stripping baskets. As for leaders, we recommend starting with five feet of six to 10 pound Maxima, although ideal leader length and strength depends on the target species and conditions. Essential surf flies in this area include Clousers in various colors (chartreuse/white, olive/white, blue/white), mole crab patterns, shrimp patterns, and even Woolly Buggers.

Prior to your each outing, check the surf conditions and tides before going to the beach as at times, poor conditions make fly fishing the surf impossible. Conditions are ideal when the surf is small and the tide is either rising or falling quickly when you plan to fish. Also consider conditions such as wind, crowds, and the presence of seaweed. Surf species can be caught throughout the day but feed most-actively at dawn and dusk.

The size of the ocean is intimidating to novice surf fishermen. For the purpose of catching fish, the ocean beyond one’s casting range should be ignored. Before fishing, observe how waves are breaking on the beach and note any irregularities, which indicate “structure” such as holes, troughs and rip currents where fish congregate to feed. Also look for birds or even fish that are actively feeding on fish in the surf. Cast in and around the structure or bait and wait for the fly to sink to the bottom before retrieving it. Retrieve with short, fast strips and occasional pauses. Maintain contact with the fly throughout the retrieve. If you can’t feel the drag of the fly at the end of the line it is unlikely that you will feel a bite. Beginners often wade too far out and are surprised to learn that perch are often caught without wading beyond knee-depth.

Fish in the surf zone are concentrated around structure. If you do not get any bites after a dozen-or-so casts, move on to the next piece of fishy-looking water. When a fish takes the fly, set the hook with a “strip strike” by stripping the fly line with a long and powerful stroke while keeping the fly rod horizontal to the water. A traditional trout-set will not work in the surf! Use the waves to “surf” the fish onto the beach at the end of the fight.

Hiring a guide for the first few outings is the fastest way to become proficient and find the best places to fish in your area. For local surf reports and information, check out the bulletin board on www.danblanton.com. The surf is a dynamic environment and full of surprises. Be prepared but most important of all, relax and have fun!