The Beginner’s Guide to Surfcasting for Striped Bass
From fishing gear to advice on where to fish, here’s everything you need to know to get started surfcasting
So, you want to start surfcasting for striped bass. You’re in good company. From the inlets of North Carolina to the rocky shores of Maine, stripers have long been a favorite quarry of surf anglers. Even if your experience is limited to sweet water, fear not. We’ve assembled a blue-ribbon team to help you get started: Peter Jenkins, owner of The Saltwater Edge, a premier outfitter in Middletown, RI; and Dennis Zambrotta, author of Surfcasting Around The Block, who’s been catching stripers for over a half-century.
Gearing Up: Start With a Good Surf-Casting Rod and Reel for Beginners
Before you head to your local surfcasting shop, know that expensive equipment won’t make you a better angler. That only comes with time. You won’t be spending top dollar, but you also don’t want substandard gear that might not last more than a season. Let’s start with the rod.
Zambrotta says that a nine- or ten-foot rod will handle most situations. Jenkins agrees, and adds that “rod length gets you casting distance.” Be prepared to spend about $150 to $200 on a decent stick. A basic-quality spinning reel that can handle braided line goes for about $100 to $150. Note that prices can vary widely from shop to shop; it’s a good idea to go in with a budget and stay within it. You can always upgrade in the future.
The Best Line, Leader, and Other Tools You’ll Need for Surf Casting
Get some braided line between 20- and 30-pound test. You’ll also need leader material that goes between the braid and the plug. Your leader should be at least three-feet long. Fluorocarbon is a specialty material; go with 20-pound nylon, which is far less expensive. You can join the braided line and leader with an Albright or uni knot, or use a barrel swivel. If you go with a swivel, Jenkins cautions not to accidentally reel it through the top guides of your rod. Some surfcasters use another swivel as the terminal connection between the leader and plug; others prefer a direct connection via a clinch or improved clinch knot. (You can find tutorials for all these knots online.) Get a heavy-duty set of anglers’ clippers and needle-nose pliers. Note that salt water is highly corrosive; you may need to rinse with tap water, dry, and wipe down your tools with WD-40 several times a season.
Do You Need Waders to Surfcast?
You don’t need waders. Some anglers prefer studded or felt-soled waders, if only to have a waterproof layer that covers most of their body. Knee-high rubber boots will suffice for many situations. However, if you’re going to be walking on hard structure such as rocks or a jetty, studded sandals like Korkers are a good idea. Rubber soles, wet rocks, and seaweed are a dangerous combination.
5 Surfcasting Tips for Beginners
1. Cover the water column with different plugs
The sheer number of lures and plugs hanging on store racks is confusing. You could keep things ultra-simple with a soft plastic paddle-tail shad and still expect to catch fish. But our experts each suggest a basic kit that gives you options and covers the water column. Jenkins likes to start beginning surfcasters with three plugs: a pencil popper, a swimming plug, and a darter. Pencil poppers are easy to cast, make a good searching lure, and can be popped or retrieved slowly to create a V-shaped wake on the surface. A swimmer, Jenkins notes, has a little lip that helps it get down a couple feet below the surface. Darters go even deeper.
Zambrotta’s suggestions are similar: a top water lure like a popper for daytime action; some sort of swimmer; and a lead-head bucktail jig, 0.5 to 1.5 ounce. Zambrotta also suggests a soft plastic or shad with paddle tail. The beauty of all these lures, he says, is that, “you cast them out and reel them in, and they catch fish.”
Finally, stripers and bluefish stocks need your help. You want to quickly release undersized fish. Ask the shop to remove the treble from the tail of your plugs, and replace it with a single hook. Crimp the barbs on all hooks. It will make un-hooking and releasing fish a lot easier.
Read Next: The 25 Best Striper Surf Lures of All Time
2. Does Lure Color Make a Difference for Stripers?
This is one of those questions that inflames passions. There are as many color theories as there are surfcasters. But we’re here to simplify. Jenkins suggests you keep colors basic, such as bone white, yellow/chartreuse, and black/blurple (bluish-purplish). Zambrotta favors natural colors for daylight (like silvery sides and a darker back), and brighter colors like whites and yellows for after dark.
3. How Fast Do You Reel A Plug in When Surfcasting?
Think slow and steady. In fact, many surfcasters recommend you fish a swimming plug as slow as you can. If you can feel a swimming plug wobbling, you’re fishing it the right way. With a plug like a darter, Jenkins says, you want to make it dig deeper, so when it hits the water make a few hard cranks. Once it reaches depth, you fish it as slow as possible. Some darter-style plugs will float if you do nothing, so if you pause the retrieve, make those hard cranks to get it down again. You may need to fish a jig-style bucktail or soft plastic faster to prevent it from hanging up on the bottom. For poppers, stay with a retrieve fast enough to create a V-wake. Experiment with pauses and jerky rod movements.
4. The Million-Dollar Question: Where to fish?
A surfcasting shop is a great place to pick up intel and learn about local hot spots. However, don’t assume that boldly asking is going to get you to the current hot bite. Zambrotta says you should spend some money first—a couple plugs, for example—before you ask. As a valued customer, it’s in the shop’s interest to see you succeed. Zambrotta also suggests you use the power of observation. “Take a ride, and see where people are fishing. You don’t even need to fish. Just sit and watch.” Who’s catching and who’s not is data that goes into the bank. A good rule of thumb is to look for areas with moving water, like beaches, breachways, and estuaries.
Jenkins says a location like a river mouth or a sand beach, is a good place to start. “To read a sand beach is to recognize where there’s whitewater,” he says. “Look for structure and look for edges: where hard meets soft; where shallow meets deep.” Zambrotta echoes that advice. “Look for whitewater. Anywhere with waves breaking with foam is where you want to cast. It’s where baitfish are most vulnerable.” Estuaries are prime real estate because of the prevalence of bait. Predators are constantly coming and going throughout the season. Try to give a spot an hour before moving on.
5. When is The Best Time to Surfcast for Striped Bass?
Although many surfcasters believe nighttime is the right time, Zambrotta suggests you start in daylight. Go out at first and last light, about an hour before sunrise and set, and “stay out there for about two hours.” You’ll be able to see what you’re doing, learn where there’s structure, and how fish and water relate to it.
How to Take Care of Your Surfcasting Gear
Your tackle will last a lot longer if you take good care of it. Always rinse your rod and reel with tap water after an outing on the salt. Avoid high-velocity streams of water to clean your gear—like water from a high-pressure garden hose—because they can force undesirable elements into the workings of a reel. Jenkins suggests using a water flow that resembles a gentle rain.
Experience is The Best Teacher
The more you fish, the more you’ll learn. The more you learn, the more you’ll catch. So get out there and get plugging.