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Surf fishing and be a bit intimidating to the uninitiated. It’s you against a vast ocean, and even though some lakes are huge, you still feel like the fish are confined enough that you have a shot. Dialing in the perfect spots on a beach, however, takes some luck in the beginning, but with just a bit of experience, prime cuts and troughs, as well as ideal tides, will emerge. None of it means anything, though, if you can’t present a bait to your surf targets properly. And make no mistake, just casting a bait into the waves and the keeping it in place is more challenging than lobbing out a worm for catfish on the lake.

Read Next: Best Surf Fishing Rods

A bait soaking in the surf is at the mercy of the push and pull of the waves, which means certain rigs and components are necessary to counteract the rough environment. Outlined here are the three most common and effective surf fishing rigs. No matter your target species or where you’re fishing throughout the country, they’ll produce. By altering the style of sinker you use, the size and shape of the hook, and the strength and length of the leader material you incorporate, there is no bait these rig can’t properly deliver and fish effectively. We’ll start by explaining how to build each surf fishing rig, and then break down a few key components to better help you attack your home beach.

The Standard Bottom Rig

A standard surf fishing rig with a pyramid sinker, circle hook, and fishing line on a blue background
A standard bottom rig. Joe Cermele

A standard bottom surf fishing rig is designed to simply hold your bait in a fixed position on the bottom, and it starts with a three-way swivel. This piece of terminal tackle provides three tie-in points:

  1. One for the main line running to your surf fishing reel.
  2. One for the leader that attaches the hook.
  3. One for a snap that will hold the sinker.

Though a similar configuration could be achieved with a series of knots, each eye of a three-way swivel can rotate independently. This is critical when surf fishing, as wave action and current will be constantly trying to shift, pull, and move your rig. Without a three-way swivel, you’d likely end up with a twisted mess, and, furthermore, not much action as a tangled rig won’t be presenting your bait to the fish properly.

Start by connecting the hook to the leader via a snell knot or Palomar knot. Next, connect the opposite end of the leader to one eye of the three-way swivel with a Palomar knot. Now, use another Palomar knot to connect your main line to another swivel eye. Finish by adding a snap to the remaining eye of the swivel. Clip on the desired weight, pin your bait of choice on the hook, and you’re ready to go. Just make sure you leader measures less than approximately 18 inches, as it will cast more smoothly and decrease the odds of tangling.

This video shows how to tie a Palomar knot.

The Fishfinder Surf Fishing Rig

A fishfinder rig for surf fishing featuring a pyramid sinker, fishing hook, and fishing line on a blue surface
A fishfinder rig. Joe Cermele

A fishfinder rig is one of the most popular delivery methods for casting large baits intended for big fish like redfish and striped bass, though it can be scaled down for use in targeting fish of any size. Though simple to construct, this surf fishing rig addresses a few minor flaws of the standard bottom rig. Most notably, when a fish grabs a piece of bait connected to standard bottom rig and moves away, it will instantly feel resistance from the weight as it’s held in a fixed position on your line.

The fishfinder rig counteracts this by incorporating a piece of terminal tackle called a sinker slide—a.k.a. fishfinder. This small plastic tube features an eyelet for attaching a clip to hold your sinker. The tube is slid onto your main line first during rig construction. Next, you slide a plastic bead onto your main line. After the bead, you tie a barrel swivel to the end of your mainline via a Uni Knot or Palomar knot. The barrel swivel acts as a stopper for the sinker slide, and the bead serves as chafe protection, so the sinker slide never butts up against the knot connecting the barrel swivel. The leader and hook would be tied to the remaining eye of the barrel swivel and the rig is complete. However, the length of that leader matters.

This video demonstrates how to tie a Uni Knot.

Because of the sinker slide, a fish can now pick up the bait and move away without feeling instant resistance from the weight, but a fishfinder rig also helps you avoid what’s known as “helicoptering.” This happens when casting a heavy sinker and large bait like a whole mullet or menhaden head. If the leader is too long, it will spin—or helicopter—in the air, creating a twisted mess upon splashdown. The beauty of a fishfinder rig, however, is that you can get away with a leader measuring as little as 6 or 8 inches. This is a common tactic of red drum surf anglers, as it keeps the entire rig compact for the cast but since the sinker can slide freely up the line, the current and wave action will move the bait away from the sinker after it hits the bottom, creating space between the two for a more natural bait presentation.

The High-Low Surf Fishing Rig

A high and low surf fishing rig, tied with a pyramid sinker, fishing hooks, and fishing line, shown on a blue background.
A high-low rig. Joe Cermele

Although the high-low rig can be used for larger targets like bluefish, striped bass, and red drum, it’s typically reserved for smaller fish like croakers, seatrout, flounder, and pompano. This is primarily because it presents small baits like shrimp, clam pieces, little crabs, and squid strips more effectively than it would large, heavy pieces of bait.

A high-low surf fishing rig allows you to present two small baits simultaneously—one right off the bottom and the other further up the line and, therefore, a bit higher in the water column. While you can space these baits as far apart as you’d like, they’re usually no more than 12 to 15 inches apart, as any farther would create an extra-long rig that could be more difficult to cast.

To build a high-low rig, you first must learn how to tie a dropper loop. Though not difficult, this knot sometimes requires a little practice to perfect. This knot creates a loop perpendicular to the main leader. Think of it as an L shape. To avoid twisting, you want each finished dropper loop to be no more than 8 inches long. The easiest way to create a high-low rig is to start with a longer piece of leader than you need and tie in two dropper loops approximately 12 to 15 inches apart toward the middle of the length of leader.

This video demonstrates how to tie a Dropper Loop.

Once your droppers are in the right position, tie a snap to the bottom of the leader with a Palomar knot or uni knot approximately six inches below the bottom dropper loop. Next, tie a barrel swivel approximately 8 to 10 inches above the top dropper loop. Attach hooks to the end of each dropper loop by simply running the loop through the eye of each hook, then working the loop around each hook and pulling each hook tight. With the weight anchoring the rig at the bottom, the idea is that your two pieces of bait will be suspended above it, targeting fish in two slightly different locations. Of course, when dealing with nibblers like croakers and kingfish, two hooks and two baits also increases the odds that one gets the point before stripping the hook clean.

Choosing the Right Sinker for a Surf Fishing Rig

At the base level, a sinker is nothing but a hunk of lead designed to keep a bait on the bottom. When surf fishing, however, sinker selection is extremely important in your surf fishing rig. If you choose the wrong style for the task at hand it can lead to being completely ineffectual in some cases. So, let’s take a look at some of the most popular styles of sinker for the surf, all of which can be incorporated into the rigs we just broke down.

Pyramid Sinker

The pyramid sinker is the most used sinker in surf fishing rigs. As the name suggests, it’s pyramid shaped, which distributes most of its weight to the wider base. The pointed end of the sinker is supposed to drive into a sand bottom like an arrowhead, and subsequent wave action should wash more sand over the wide base burying the sinker. The intent of the design is to make it difficult for waves and current to move your rig once it’s in place. This ability to anchor a bait in a stationary position can be critical when targeting a specific hole or cut within the surf zone. Note, however, that a pyramid sinker is not the ideal choice for areas with rocky bottoms as they’re more likely to get snagged.

Disc Sinker

Disc sinkers look like thick coins with smooth, rounded edges. Because they lay flat on the bottom, they’re easily covered over by sand which helps them stay on place. Granted, disc sinkers don’t hold as fast as pyramid sinkers on surf fishing rigs in heavy current or ripping waves, making them more suited to calmer conditions and shallower water. They’re also used more often for presenting smaller baits that don’t create a lot of drag that can dislodge a disc sinker from the sand or mud. They’re a great choice when using a lighter surf outfit for species like kingfish, croakers, and pompano that generally feed tight to the beach in the shallow wash.

Bank Sinker

Although bank sinkers are very common in many freshwater fisheries, they’re more of a specialty item in the surf and on surf fishing rigs. This is mainly because wave action and tidal current will move them around easily, making them a poor choice if keeping your bait static is necessary. However, there are certain cases where a rolling sinker comes in handy. Many pompano and croaker anglers prefer to let their baits roll around the bottom with the waves. The idea is that the bait will encounter more fish if constantly on the move than sitting in a fixed position. It’s a good approach for these smaller species than often hunt in roving schools. Likewise, if you’re fishing an area with a rocky bottom, a heavy bank sinker is less likely to get hopelessly wedged in the rocks because of its round shape.

Sputnik Sinker

Speaking of specialized sinkers, the Sputnik fits the bill. A favorite of anglers soaking whole mullet for redfish in the Carolinas, this bottom-heavy sinker features a series of wire arms, making it highly reminiscent of the famed Russian Sputnik satellite. Not only will a Sputnik sinker fly a mile, but those arms will dig into the sand. Many anglers feel this style of sinker holds better than and pyramid, particularly when using very big baits will create a lot of resistance against wave and tidal movement. One downside, however, is that those wire arms can also foul your surf fishing rig more easily than a pyramid sinker.

Floats for Surf Fishing Rigs

Another add-on you might consider when building any of these surf fishing rigs is a float. Peg floats come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and you’d slide one on your leader before tying on the hook. They’re simply pegged in place and most often positioned right up against the eye of hook. When incorporated into a fishfinder or standard bottom rig, a float can keep your bait hovering just off the bottom and, therefore, make it more visible to any fish in the area. Naturally, the heavier your bait, the bigger your float will need to be to keep it suspended up off the bottom.

Smaller pill-sized floats can also be threaded onto each dropper loop in a high-low rig before attaching the hooks. Not only will they keep your baits suspended, but they’ll also ramp up visual appeal. Choosing colors like day-glo orange, neon yellow, or chartreuse makes it easier for fish to spot your offering amid the roiled, sandy wash, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on the beach during a hot croaker bite when rigs with one color of float were clearly outfishing all the rest. So, don’t be afraid to buy a variety of colors and swap out if the action is slow.