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How to Read the Surf for Fishing

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When you step onto the sandy shore to surf cast for the first time, you may be intimidated by the roiling waves and seething breakers. But in this seascape are clues to the places to cast for the best fishing success.

Identifying the substructure underneath the surf where fish may be attracted to gather and feed can help you catch more fish. Whether you’re surf fishing for redfish or for sharks, here are some tips and tricks on how to read the surf for fishing.

How Waves Are Made

The action of the wind, combined with the terrain of the ocean floor, make the waves. There are surface waves created from the friction caused between the wind and the sea’s surface. Crests appear on the sea-air interface and are pushed forward, building them up.

There are tidal waves created from the gravitational pull between celestial bodies like the moon and the ocean water. There are also dangerous waves, like tsunamis and storm surges, created in the middle of the ocean that gather power and strength as they move toward a coastline.  

Waves initially get some of their power from the wind. When the wind blows over the top of the water, it transfers some of its energy to the water, which creates waves. Once the waves are starting to move, they roll toward the shore. As they do, they react to changes and obstacles along the seafloor. 

 wave anatomy graphic

Wave Anatomy

The peak or crest of a wave is its highest point, and the trough is its lowest. A series of large waves is called a swell, and swells emerge from long expanses of open ocean, called fetches, where surface waves have had a chance to build up with lots of energy. 

Scientists and oceanographers describe waves by noting the wave height (the distance above sea level the crest reaches), wave length (the distance between the crest of one wave to another) and wave frequency, which is how many waves move past a specific point in a designated amount of time. 

Another important term in wave formation – fetch – refers to the amount of space a wave travels across without encountering a land obstacle.

It may look as if the waves are moving water toward land, but in fact, the power and energy of a wave move the water in a circular motion. Although it rises and falls, it generally stays in the same place.

Each distinct type of wave creates new currents and eddies. To find the spots near the shore that the fish feel the most comfortable, it’s crucial to understand the types of waves and the anatomy of the shoreline. 

Types of Waves

When waves close in on the shore, they begin to change due to the sand’s shallowness and shape (or rock) underneath. Friction between the wave and the seafloor makes the wave slow down, but it does not affect the wave frequency, which is the amount of time between the waves’ crests. 

The wave crest begins to move faster than its trough, and this instability makes the wave break. It causes the waves to tumble over themselves, in a way, creating the breakers you’re used to seeing crash on the beach. 

There are four types of breakers – spilling, plunging, surging and collapsing. 

the 4 types of breakers

  • Spilling Waves – These are the safest to swim and look as if the wave’s crest is spilling down its face in a mess of bubbles. 
  • Plunging Waves – These waves rapidly slow down, and the crest is carried forward by momentum and pushed by the wind. This set of conditions creates the perfect tubes of which surfers dream. 
  • Surging Waves – These never really break in a straight, formal line, but burble up to the shore, crashing rapidly and in a confusion of bubbles and froth. 
  • Collapsing Waves – These breakers are part surging and part plunging. They never really break but create a lot of foam. 

Dissecting the Shoreline

The place where the sea and sand meet continually changes shape and form. The wind and the waves are continuously working their magic on the sand below. There are a couple of different formations to keep an eye out for, like troughs, rips and sandbars, when you hit the beach to cast for blues or bass. 

  • Sandbars – A sandbar is one of the most straightforward formations as it will turn the water a slightly lighter shade or even break the surface in a long line. Waves rise and crest as they pass over the shallow bar, creating breaks and a lot of foam. 

    Fishing the deeper water between the shore and the bar, or between distinct sandbars, is an excellent way to land a fish. Anglers often surf cast with multiple rods, but be mindful of the currents and which way they’re flowing, as you don’t want your lines tangled. 
  • Cuts – Also called rips or run-outs, these darker blue areas between sandbars are swift currents created by the funneling effect between shoals, sit perpendicular to the shoreline and are an ideal place to cast. 

    When waves move over a sandbar, they crest and break, creating foam. When they sweep over the deeper channel between the bars, the waves don’t break.

    Look for the unbroken sea between the bars. Fish set themselves up on the far side to hunt for the creatures that are riding the rip current. Fish like stripers and blues love to hunt in between the troughs as well, using the rips as roadways.

    Remember that cuts will start generally narrow, but the faster current will gradually widen them. The perfect place is a balance of narrowness and depth. You want to find a cut that’s deep enough that larger fish will want to use it but narrow enough that the same fish are contained in a limited area. 

man running on beach

  • Troughs – These are the spaces between the shoreline and the sandbar. Fish love to hang out in troughs because it gives them ample hunting opportunities and protection from the incoming breakers. The deeper the trough, the better.

    One way to know how deep a trough is comes about by looking at its colors (the deeper the channel, the darker the blue), but you can also tell how deep it is by the waves’ behavior. Always note the direction the current is running.

    Sometimes there are both outer and inner sandbars, which you can see as horizontal stripes across the blue of the ocean. Accordingly, there are also first troughs and outer troughs.

    Both of these are most productive on an incoming tide or when the tide is turning. 
  • Holes – These can be part of a rip or something else entirely. Holes sometimes occur close to the shoreline and are usually a much deeper blue, delineating their greater depth. 

    Fish will hang out on the slopes of the hole, waiting for prey of their own. Cast toward the sides of the hole, as well as you can see it. If you can make it, cast across the hole and drag your lure through the center, enticing anything even deeper to come up for a snack.

    You may also be able to identify some deep holes by the type of debris left in the sand. Deeper holes attract bigger sea creatures and their predators. Look for large fragments of shells from crabs, clams or any other creature on which predatory fish would like to snack.
  • Points – Created by the tides’ relentless push and pull, a point protrudes from the ocean’s shoreline. A point will interrupt the line of shore and sea, jutting out into the ocean.

    As you approach the point, study the color of the water around it. Most points slope away from the shoreline evenly, but in a few cases, the wave and wind action will carve away an underwater hollow, which you can identify by the darker blue water and lack of breaking waves.

    Fish use this cavity for protection and a staging area. Cast along the edges of the darker blue area close to the point.

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Fishing the Cuts and Bars

You need the right fishing apparel to be successful in a surf-casting expedition, but you also need to know how to read the surf for fishing. If you want a lot of chances to hook large stripers, try fishing the cuts and troughs predominantly.

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Fish use cuts as a freeway of sorts to either find another trough in which to hunt or to boogie out toward the open ocean. The best way to fish a trough is to use it to find a more lucrative rip, by using a bobber or plug for your first cast. 

Cast the plug into a trough, which you can distinguish by its lack of waves or foam and deeper blue hue. Your plug will follow the current of the trough to the rip. The plug will move parallel to the shore until it reaches the rip. There it may pause, but then the plug will begin to float away from the shoreline.  

Other Casting Tips

man reeling in fish

If you have the time and inclination, scout out your potential casting area at low tide. When the tide is high, it may be hard to discern where the cuts and bars are. Low tides provide ample opportunities to spot likely sandbars and troughs. 

If you don’t have time, you can always try and suss out a sandbar’s location and the corresponding troughs and cuts by climbing to the highest point around, like a dune. If the weather is calm enough, you should spot the patchwork pattern of lighter and darker blues across the water, representing the deeper and shallower spots. 

Overcast days may help hide the shadow your line casts on the water, and make it more likely that a fish will strike. Rainy days also hide any casting movements across the water, but if you’re hooked on fishing in the rain, make sure to keep an eye out for storm surges.

Know the habits of your local fish population. Some types of fish like to feed at high tide, while others prefer low tide. Dawn and dusk seem to be particularly popular times of day for feeding fish. If you can find an intersection of the turn of the tide and the day’s turn conditions, you may have ideal surf-casting conditions. 

Situations to Avoid graphic

Situations to Avoid

  • Rip Currents – Many anglers also enjoy swimming in the ocean, and it’s always wise to be wary of rip currents. These currents are much faster than cuts and can race faster than an Olympic swimmer

    You can identify a rip current by the slight ripples on the surface or a glassy appearance in otherwise choppy water. Severe rip currents will also stir up a lot of sand and silt to create a murky soup. If you’re ever caught in a rip current, swim parallel to the beach and slightly angle in to get out of it. 
  • Tsunamis – These massive waves come in a series and can be caused by extreme weather far out to sea or extraordinarily long fetches. Witnesses of tsunamis say that the water level rises or falls dramatically before the first killer waves arrive. 

The Final Word

The better you know the forces behind waves, the importance and effect of the tides and the shoreline’s anatomy, the better your chances of hooking a lot of fish. 

The ideal way to deepen your angling expertise is by thinking like a fish. Most of the larger fish that anglers go after are predators themselves, so if you can understand what their best vantage points are along the shore, the better off you’ll be. 

When surf-casting, keep an eye on the weather, know your tides and have the right fishing apparel and gear for optimal success. 

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Image Credits

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