Skills: Fly Fishing the Surf

Every time I go to the beach on vacation, I take a fly rod with me. Sometimes I already have plans to do some flats fishing with a guide but just as often, my only plan is to get up early each morning and cast around in the surf to see what might bite. That’s one of the neat things about fishing in the ocean. You never know just what you might find!

I’ve been doing this for years. Some years it’s really productive and other years not so much. It is fishing after all. The one thing that is a constant is the strange looks I get from other people on the beach – strange looks that often lead to questions. And they are typically not questions aimed at gaining knowledge, rather to find out exactly what kind of idiot I am.

On this last trip I was approached by a kid who asked, “Did you catch anything?”

“Yes,” I replied. “I caught quite a few.”

“Wait, really? You actually caught fish? On a fly rod?”

I gathered that part of his dismay was because he’d been fishing the beach himself with no luck. But he was most especially shocked that I’d been catching them on a fly. Despite the fairly well publicized evolution of fly fishing, much of the world still makes the assumption that fly fishing is something that is done in streams for trout. Nothing more.

If you are under that same assumption, let me assure you that you can catch anything that swims on a fly rod. Your only real limitation is depth. In other words, deep-sea fishing with a fly rod, while it can be done, is hardly a practical undertaking. However, fishing the saltwater flats with a fly rod is not only productive and fun, but has been a popular pursuit for decades. Fly fishing the surf sort of falls into that middle ground of practicality. It’s definitely a challenge, but with the right technique, can be very productive. And if you’re going to the beach anyway…

If you’ve ever considered surf fishing with a fly rod, you’re going to need a few things. Unless you just know of specific fish feeding in the surf that require heavier tackle, a rod outfit in the 8-10 weight range should take care of most situations.  Unlike freshwater set-ups, your reel is probably the most important component of your saltwater outfit. Not only do you want something more resistant to corrosion, but something with a significant drag system. Even the smallest of saltwater fish can run hard and fast, and a cheap reel will at best result in a lot of lost fish. Really cheap reels with plastic parts may even “melt” on you!

Leaders should be in the 9’ range and at least a 10lb. test. Most of the time when fishing the surf, you’re casting larger flies in water that doesn’t have a lot of clarity, so fine tippets are not needed. In fact, many saltwater species are rather “toothy” and can cut through traditional monofilament. You may want to consider adding metal bite guards or using wire leaders and/or tippet.

For fly selection, I typically keep it simple and use multi-purpose baitfish patterns. Clouser Minnows and Lefty’s Deceivers in a variety of colors will take care of most situations. It never hurts to have a few crab patterns as well. If the area you’re fishing has a specific fly fishing shop nearby (most don’t), you can probably get some good fly recommendations there.

Homemade Stripping Basket

One of the most important things you’ll need is a stripping basket. I learned this the hard way on my first surf fishing experience. Most of the flies you’ll be fishing will be some sort of streamer, which means you’ll be stripping a lot of line. Unlike stream fishing, the line you strip will not rest neatly by your side when you strip it. Rather, the surf takes that slack line quickly in toward the shore, then out toward the sea, repeatedly. Not only will this cause big problems when you hook up, but the line routinely just wraps around your legs.

Stripping baskets can be purchased from most fly fishing suppliers or you can make your own. See the companion article “Stripping Baskets” in this newsletter to learn how. It’s cheap and easy!

Now that you have all of the right stuff, it’s time to talk tactics. Effectively fishing the surf is going to require as much observation as anything. If you just stand on the beach and repeatedly cast to the ocean, you’re going to end up with gobs of slack line when the tide rushes it back to you, you’ll wear yourself out, and you likely won’t catch many fish. Watch the water first.

The first thing to look for is feeding fish. If you can find schools of baitfish breaking the water, there’s something bigger chasing them. If you find a lot of this going on, you should have a really good day! Also watch for birds gathering over a certain piece of water. They’re looking for the same thing you are and they have a much better view. Typically, when you find the birds you find the fish.

Whether you can visibly see fish feeding or you’re simply casting blind, you want to time your casts. If you’re randomly casting into breaking waves, you’re probably not putting the fly in front of the fish and even if you do, you likely won’t be able to detect a strike due to excess slack created by the breaking wave. Fish will normally feed in the calm water just behind the breaking wave. In rough surf, these can be very short windows. In calm surf, they can be long windows.

In either case, waves tend to break in consistent patterns. Watch them. The waves may break in threes with calm water behind them. Or they may break may break in fives with calm water behind them. Take the time to learn the pattern. When you have it figured out you can time your casts accordingly to place and strip the fly behind the final wave in each series. And working at an angle, casting and stripping almost parallel to the breaking wave, will keep your fly in the prime target area for the most amount of time.

Fishing at Sunrise

The best time to fish the surf will certainly be when the surf is most calm. However, unless you’re at a private or sparsely populated beach, you’re best time is going to be from sunrise until 8 or 9am. That’s about the time when folks begin walking the beach looking for seashells and what not, and I can assure you that they will pay no attention to you. Since that fly line goes about as far behind you as in front of you, the chances of putting a Clouser Minnow into the lip of a passing beachcomber are high! Of course, when you get into late morning and afternoon, you add swimmers to the list of obstacles.

But that makes it perfect when you’re on a family vacation. Get up early and fish a couple of hours, then spend the rest of the day with your spouse or kids. Give it a try on your next beach trip and don’t give up if you strike out the first time. Like most other types of fly fishing, you have to suffer through some failure before things start to click. But when it clicks, it is all kinds of fun! Oh, and don’t forget that saltwater can really trash your gear, even the good stuff. Be sure to thoroughly rinse all of your gear after each outing.

How Stuff Works: Stripping Baskets

Plastic Stripping Basket

When you’re doing any type of fly fishing that involves stripping in great amounts of line after each cast, keeping that slack line under control can be a challenge. In streams and rivers, it’s usually not too big of a problem because the line will usually rest neatly in the water by your side. In a boat that is not equipped with some sort of stripping deck, it can be a little bit of a problem as your line wants to snag and tangle on absolutely everything in the boat. The biggest challenge is surf fishing because the constant rushing approach and retreat of the tide repeatedly wraps this slack line around your legs.

Mesh Stripping Basket

Stripping baskets are designed to solve this problem. I’ve seen larger, freestanding stripping baskets used in boats. But the most common stripping baskets are smaller and are worn around your waste. After you cast and you’re retrieving line, you simply strip and feed the line into the basket. They are basically just a bin with a series of upright “posts.” The posts help prevent the line from tangling inside the basket. There are also baskets made of mesh, but many note that these are often not durable.

Stripping baskets are pretty simple devices that have been around for decades, and they can be purchased from most fly fishing suppliers. If you don’t want to fork over $40-$90 for a plastic tub on a belt, you can also make your own. I did and it works great.

Start with a hard plastic bin like you find in the storage sections at Wal-mart, Home Depot, etc. It should be approximately 16”x 11” and about 5 or 6” deep. You’re also going to need a drill, a sander, some zip ties, wire cutters, and a bungee cord. The bungee cord will be used to secure the bin around your waist, so the length needed will be dependent on your size. You want it to be tight enough to keep the bin from falling off you but not so tight that it’s digging the bin into you.

Bottom View of Homemade Stripping Basket

Begin by drilling approximately ten 3/32” holes in the bottom of the bin near the edges. These will serve as drain holes for your stripping basket to keep water from accumulating inside. Next drill nine 3/32” holes spread equally in the middle of the bin. And drill another nine 3/32” holes right next to the ones you just drilled. These will serve as attachment points for your zip ties (the zip ties will act as the “posts” inside the box that help keep your line from tangling). Finally, drill two larger, approximately 3/16” holes (big enough to accept the hooks on your bungee) on the front of the bin, one near each top corner. This is where your bungee cord will attach. With light sand paper, smooth the front and back of each hole you drilled.

Interior View of Homemade Stripping Basket

Next, attach nine 4” zip ties through the “double holes” you created in the bottom of the bin, allowing the end of the zip tie to point upward into the interior of the bin. With your wire cutters, snip the tips off each zip tie so that you’re left with a 2” post that stands at an approximate right angle from the base of the bin. Hook one end of the bungee into one of the larger front holes. Bring the bungee around your waist and hook the other end into the second hole. I actually use two shorter bungees because I think it’s easier to attach and detach. You’re ready to go fishing!

Where you position the basket is a matter of preference. I typically see them positioned on the front of the body, but I prefer to wear mine closer to my left hip so I can feed line into the basket with a more natural stripping motion. I always use it when surf fishing and very frequently when I’m fishing from the canoe.

How Stuff Works: Polarized Sunglasses

I once heard a highly regarded fly fisherman say that he considered polarized sunglasses to be his most important piece of gear. These sort of statements always amuse me because I can’t help to wonder how important those sunglasses would be if he didn’t have a rod or a line or a fly! But I definitely get what he meant. While polarized sunglasses may not be THE most important piece of gear, they are often the most underestimated by many fishermen.

Polarized Sunglasses

Many fishermen, particularly those new to the sport, probably underestimate them because they don’t understand the difference in sunglasses and polarized sunglasses. They see sunglasses as merely a means of protecting your eyes from bright light and may opt not to wear them at all on overcast days or when fishing in shadier locations like the mountains. While polarized sunglasses do protect your eyes and reduce eyestrain in bright conditions, they have far greater importance when it comes to tactical applications.

Light usually scatters in all directions, but when it’s reflected from flat surfaces, it typically becomes polarized, travelling in a more uniform (usually horizontal) direction. This creates a serious intensity of reflected light that causes glare and reduces visibility. The more reflective that flat surface is, the more intense the glare will be – consider how a signaling mirror works.

Looking Through Polarized Lens

Water has highly reflective properties and basically acts like a mirror that intensifies those reflected rays even more. I’m sure everyone can think of instances when driving where significant glare was encountered. More than likely, the worst glare you ever encountered when driving was during or right after a rain. Pavement is a flat surface that can reflect light and cause glare. Wet pavement intensifies that reflection and creates more intense glare. With that in mind, it stands to reason that you will get even more intense glare when light reflects off the surface of lakes, rivers, streams, etc.

So, “regular” sunglasses will help in these situations by essentially darkening this reflected light, making it less stressful to your eye, but the glare will still be there and will prohibit you from seeing anything on, or in the case of water, under that surface. But the chemical filter on the lenses of polarized sunglasses is designed to absorb horizontal light waves, while still allowing vertical waves to pass through. Because light only travels in one direction through polarized lenses, glare is eliminated, or at least reduced.

Contrary to what I believe many anglers expect, this technology does not create “magic fish-seeing glasses!” Fish will not suddenly be visible when you put on your polarized glasses, but with better ability to see through the water, you will be much better equipped to spot fish. However, the most consistent benefits you will receive from polarized glasses are the ability to better see your dry fly on the surface, and the ability to read water by better recognizing slower seams and deeper troughs and pockets. Additionally, being able to better see the stream bottom will allow for easier, safer wading.

Just how well your polarized glasses eliminate glare often depends on the angle the light hits and reflects off the water. There will be times on bright sunny days when the light reflects at such a severe angle that even the polarized lenses don’t seem to help. During these times, your best bet is to change the angle the light is hitting your eye by repositioning. For example, you may be on the left side of the stream facing and fishing toward the right and encounter an insurmountable amount of glare. Often by fishing from the other side of the stream and facing/fishing the other direction, you can totally eliminate the glare.

Even on overcast days or in shady areas, you can encounter significant glare, so I almost always wear polarized glasses when fishing. This is where lens color becomes important. Darker lens colors, like gray, will block more light, making them more ideal for bright conditions. They also work well on deep blue water and better maintain true color. But they block a little too much light in low light conditions like overcast, heavy shade, or dawn and dusk, which offsets the benefits of polarization.

Lighter lens colors, like yellow or rose, allow more light in and are perfect for fishing in low light conditions. They often even make things appear brighter. But in bright conditions, you want something that will filter light, not magnify it, so these are not good choices for sunny conditions on open water.

If you plan to fish a lot and expect to fish in a variety of different light conditions, you may find it beneficial to have multiple pairs of polarized glasses in different lens colors. But if you’re looking for one, multi-purpose lens color, an amber, copper or brown color sort of fits right in the middle. And these lens colors work particularly well in shallow water where most fly fishermen operate.

Fitover Glasses

The shape of the frames can also be a factor in how well the glasses work. Frames that “wrap” more will help prevent direct and/or reflected light from entering on the sides. “Straight” frames, like an aviator style, allow more light in from side and rear angles. While prescription polarized sunglasses are available they can be problematic in a wrap style frame. Essentially, you’re dealing with a bent lens on a wrap style frame. The stronger the prescription and the more severe the bend in the lens, the more distortion you’ll get when looking side to side. Straight frames are better suited for prescription sunglasses.

If you wear corrective lenses and prefer the benefits of a wrap style frame or if you simply don’t want to fork over the money for prescription sunglasses, there are a number “fitover” sunglasses that are designed to be worn right over your regular eyeglasses.

Clouser Minnow

In freshwater or salt, one of the best baitfish patterns around…. I recently went to Perdido Key, FL on vacation. Once a year, my wife and I take a beach vacation somewhere, usually with another couple. And while these trips are more about relaxation and socializing, I always try to work in at least a little fishing, sometimes with a guide. I didn’t know much about this area and never really even took time to research, so I just packed some gear and planned to figure it out when I got there.


On our first day, while kicked back on the beach enjoying an adult beverage, I observed a tremendous amount of feeding activity in the surf. Schools of bigger fish were ripping through schools of smaller fish, and it was happening up and down the coast as far as I could see. Looks like I wouldn’t have to do any scouting after all. All the activity I needed was right outside my back door!


My big problem was that I didn’t know what kind of fish were getting eaten and what kind of fish were doing the eating. Don’t you just love beach problems? My saltwater experience is just as limited as my saltwater gear, so I approached it in the exact same way I would approach an unfamiliar freshwater situation. When in doubt, go generic. It was apparent that they were feeding on some kind of baitfish. And what is the most generic, universal fly for imitating a baitfish? A Clouser Minnow.


The fly was originated by Bob Clouser in 1987. Bob was a fly shop owner and guide in Pennsylvania and developed the fly for smallmouth bass on the Susquehanna River. I first learned of the fly in the early 90’s and fished it regularly on the smallmouth streams of Central Kentucky. Over the decades, it has been varied in color and style, and has accounted for nearly every species of fish known. Whether freshwater or salt, the diet of nearly every big fish includes small fish. And whether freshwater or salt, most baitfish have some very common characteristics. Most have a long, slender profile, a darker back and a lighter belly, and pronounced eyes that often act as a trigger for predators.


Clousers are tied in almost every color combo

While there are various color combinations to better match specific baitfish, all Clouser Minnows have the above-mentioned characteristics. They also have lead eyes positioned in such a way as to allow the fly to ride hook up. And with their bucktail bodies, they retain very little water, making them feel lighter and easier to cast than most other flies their size.

While I most often use this fly for warmwater species, I’ve taken a number of tailwater trout and even the occasional large brown in the park on it. You can bet I’ll fish it more than once in late fall in the park when those big browns begin moving before and after spawn. I tie them on traditional streamer hooks for trout, on larger gape hooks for bass, and on stainless hooks for saltwater species. I’ve had success with a number of different color combinations but my “go to” colors are white and black and white and olive.


So the first morning I was at the beach, I got to the water at sunrise with a black and white Clouser tied to my leader. On the second cast into the first school of feeding fish, I was hooked up. The ol’ Clouser does it again and I can now add a couple of speckled sea trout and a whole lot of ladyfish to its list of victims!