How to Read a Beach When Surf Fishing

Anyone who has spent time on a beach has undoubtedly witnessed the water level rise and recede as the tide changes from ebb to flow and back again. Of course, most people are aware that the rise and fall of the tides are caused by the gravitational pull of the Sun and the Moon on the Earth.


Thus, while some coastlines have one high tide and one low tide each day that are of the same height (aka Diurnal), other locations experience two uneven tides per day (aka Mixed Tide) and yet, other locations experience two equal low tides and two equal high tides per day (aka Semi-Diurnal). However, both Diurnal, Mixed, and Semi-Diurnal Tides each progress approximately one hour per day such that if a high tide occurs at a given time at a given location one day, then will occur approximately one hour later in the same location the following day.

Tides that Create the Most Tide Change

Then, there are also Spring Tides which occur in the period just after a new or full moon and which create the greatest difference between low tide and high tide and, Neap Tides which occur during the period just after the first or third quarters of the moon and which create the least difference between low and high tide. Thus, because tides are the controlling force for:

Under water creatures

  • Baitfish
  • Crustaceans
  • Mollusks
  • Aquatic worms

    ...that inhabit the surf zone as well as the waters just beyond the surf, they are also the controlling force for surf fishermen. 

    However, when most surf fishermen look at a beach, they simply see an endless stretch of sand and surf with little to distinguish one particular location from another and thus, they tend to choose the locations that they fish at random. Therefore, learning how to read the surf is an extremely important skill for a surf fisherman to acquire since it enables them to differentiate the particular locations on a beach that are most likely to concentrate bait fish while also providing shelter for the predatory fish species that prey on them.


    Where Predator Fish Are in the Surf

    It helps to know that although the surf zone is a rich feeding environment, even larger, predatory, fish require shelter from both currents and waves as well as their own predators and thus, they most often look for deep depressions in the bottom structure on the inshore side of the break line where they can not only find shelter but, also gain easy access to the food sources they seek. In addition, they also use wrecks, jetties, points, and other such structures for the same purpose.

    It is also important to be aware that locales with Diurnal Tides will only have one low and one high tide per day and thus, they will have approximately 12 hours between each tide whereas, locales with Semi-Diurnal Tides will have two low tides and two high tides per day and thus, they will have only have six hours between tides. Furthermore, the lesser or greater the difference between the low and high tides is, the slower or faster the water levels will rise or fall and, the same is true for the number of tides per day.

    Importance of Reading On-Shore Surf

    This information is extremely important to surf fishermen because it determines when the peak fishing periods will occur each day and how long they will last. Thus, one extremely valuable trick to employ when scouting a new beach that you are not familiar with is to explore it at the peak of the low tide. That way, you can see all of the bottom features that will be submerged at high tide and, seeing the bottom structure will provide you with clues to where to find the deep depressions in the sand that tend develop on the inshore side of the break line and which tend to attract and hold predatory fish species at high tide who are waiting to ambush baitfish in the surf.

    Ocean and Cave

    Reading Surf on a New Beach

    On the other hand, if you arrive at an unknown beach at high tide rather than low tide, then there are still some tricks that you can employ to find the best places to fish the surf. For instance, by carefully observing the height of the waves as they rise over the break line, you will began to notice that waves tend to come in sets and that some waves in each set are larger than others.

    Analyze Wave Height

    Thus, by observing the largest waves in a set, you can also see that there are particular locations along a beach where the waves lose their height more quickly after they pass the break line than they do in the adjacent areas which is a sure indication of a deep depression on the inshore side of the break line.

    Discovering Rip Tides

    In addition, as water accumulates on the beach due to the action of the waves, gravity forces it to drain back out to sea and thus, there will be other locations along the beach where “rip tides” form. In these locations, there will be a distinct stream of water draining off of the beach as the water in the stream travels in the opposite direction of the incoming waves and out through the break line via deep channels in the sand dunes that create the break line and thus, the name “rip tide”. Therefore, rip tides are also important features to look for when scouting a beach at high tide because they are like conveyor belts delivering a constant stream of food from the shoreline out to the break line while the predatory fish species hold in the deep depressions behind the break line on either side of the rip tide where they can easily ambush their food as it passes.


    So, as you can see, learning to read the surf is really all about learning to read the bottom structure and then understanding how that structure serves to concentrate baitfish, crustaceans, mollusks, and aquatic worms while also providing shelter for predatory fish species. Thus, it is very important that surf fishermen observe the beaches where they will be fishing at low tide anytime it is possible and then use either a GPS unit or, an app on their cell phones to mark the locations where they find places in the bottom structure that will form deep holes on the inshore side of the break line when the tide is in. Plus, it is also very important that they become keen observers of wave behavior because, the action of the waves over the break line is the key needed to locate depressions behind the break line as well as rip currents which provide both shelter and easy access to food for larger predatory fish species.

    1 comment



    Thank you for this great article. I have just begun surf fishing so it has just been a guessing game as to where to fish. This was tremendously helpful and I can’t wait to get out there again and try it out.

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