June 22, 2023
Surf fishing comes in many forms, and is largely defined by geographic location, tackle preference and target species. In Florida, fishing this sometimes-dynamic margin of land and water is increasingly popular and anglers who prefer fishing live or natural baits can present them in myriad ways. You can fish a single bait or multiple baits, as close as the trough against the sand, or as distant as a football field away, or even more. Let's cover the bait, rigs and gear you'll need for surf fishing success!
Popular Bait Rigs for Surf Fishing
A surf bait rig is generally comprised of a hook or hooks, leader material (either monofilament or fluorocarbon) swivel to attach the main fishing line, a snap swivel to attach a sinker, and in some cases, attractor beads or buoyant floats. To the terminal end is a sinker, the style and weight of which is chosen with rod size, surf conditions and casting distance needs in mind.
Standard Dropper Rig
Dropper rigs allow the use of 2 or 3 baited hooks which can sometimes result in double hookups on schooling fish such as pompano. This style of rig presents more baits at various depths, increasing the odds of hooking a fish. When a strike is missed, an angler can depend on a second bait for a following bite, instead of automatically reeling in to re-bait a hook.
The dropper loop is easy to form—you simply make an overhand loop about 2 to 3 inches in diameter in the leader line, make about 5 twists in the portions of the leader that touch (make an X) and then pass the top of the loop through the center of the twists. Pull the standing lines to tighten the knot. This loop is called a “snood.” Most surf anglers use a specialized rig board fitted with short pegs to make the snood. Next, flatten the loop between your fingers, or with pliers, and then pass it through the eye of the hook and feed it farther until it is long enough to pass around the hook bend. Finish by snugging it tight at the eye. There is no need for a knot. Changing out the hook is easy. Just slip one off and slip the other on. The crimped loop also allows you to slip on a bead or “pill float” before the hook as an attractor.
Most anglers like a 34- to 40-inch leader overall, and the 4- to 6-inch snoods and hooks spaced about 18 to 20 inches apart to prevent tangling. This spaces them evenly between the top swivel (to which you tie your fishing line) and the bottom swivel-snap (to which you attach your sinker).
This rig is a dropper loop rig, except the snoods are tied separately and then each is attached to the main leader line between two figure-eight knots spaced about 3 inches apart. They perform like “stoppers.” The snoods can slip back and forth between the knots and also can rotate 360 degrees on the leader. Anglers claim this design cuts down on the twisting of the leader.
Carolina Rig/Fishfinder Rig
This one is used for freshwater bass and typically with soft-plastic lures but it has its place in surf fishing with live or dead bait. A small egg sinker slides freely on the fishing line and a small bead is threaded below it before being tied to a swivel which serves as a stopper. A bite leader of various lengths is tied to the swivel which is tied a single hook of choice. This rig allows for a live baitfish, like mullet or croaker, to take a bit of line as it swims and the angler can choose between setting the hook instantly or giving a fish a few seconds to swallow the bait. Red drum, snook and tarpon can be fished with this one.
The fishfinder rig works the same way that the Carolina rig does, though it is traditionally rigged with a sinker slide that has a clip to attach the sinker.
This long-used rig is originally a bottom fishing rig for reef species but can be used in the surf. Some anglers use dropper loops and others depend on 3-way swivels in the lead to which a single line and hook is attached. A 3-hook chicken rig calls for three 3-way swivels between each line section and hook however, and then a top swivel for attaching to fishing line and the sinker is tied to the bottom 3-way swivel. That’s a lot of terminal hardware, and the swivels tend to gather any algae or small bits of seaweed. Knots are much cleaner in that regard.
Hooks, Hardware, Lines & Baits for Surf Fishing
Anglers can choose between standard J hooks and circle hooks, with the latter far superior for “set rod” fishing. With the rod in a sandspike, a fish takes the bait on a tout line and hooks itself. The strike might be a bent rod, or a rod that suddenly “goes straight” as slack is created when a hooked fish swims toward the rod. The angler only needs to get to the rod, take it out of the spike and reel the slack in to feel and then fight the fish. Popular circle hooks include the Eagle Claw L197 and L2004EL. Others swear by the classic Mustad wide-gap Kahle hook. It “self-sets” in the same manner as the circle hook.
A size 2/0 or 1/0 is perfect for surf baits such as sand fleas, cut and salted clams or live or fresh-dead shrimp for pompano, whiting, croakers or black drum. Step up to 3/0 to 5/0 when fishing baitfish, live or fresh-dead, for red drum, snook, tarpon or big bluefish.
Choose top-quality swivels and swivel snaps that stand up to the rigors of surf fishing. Top-of-line VMC Duo-lock snap swivels rarely snap open, which can result in a lost sinker.
For rig attractors, you can go with a small plastic bead in red or chartreuse, or choose a styrofoam “float” which looks like a capsule, and adds a bit of buoyancy to the boated hook, and color. Many surf anglers swear that float color is important, especially in turbid water. Hot pink, chartreuse and white are among popular colors.
Surf sinkers can make or break your bait presentation. The sight of the sinker determines casting distance to a degree, but more importantly, keeps your baits in place on the bottom. Surf anglers fishing live baitfish with a rod in hand can go with small egg sinkers on their rig of choice, but those fishing multiple baits with a set rod need to figure out the balance between casting and surf conditions. You can’t expect a light-tipped rod to cast a 5- or 6-ouncer. On the flip side, a stiff 12- to 13-foot rod won’t load with a light sinker under 3 ounces. The bigger the surf, the more weight you'll need.
So-called pyramid sinkers come in 1- to 6-ounce sizes, and are either three-sided or four-sided. Both types have a flat front with a bronze eye to connect to a snap. The tail end is pointed for casting aerodynamics. The four-sided version holds the bottom better. The best bottom-holding sinker is called a Sputnik, or storm sinker. It has stainless steel “legs” that really dig into the sand and hold tight in big surf. They are more expensive, ringing in around $4 to $5, but worth it. When you reel in to check baits, the legs “unlock” and fold back.
Surf anglers have hot debates over fishing line choice. Those casting lures or fishing live baits on lighter tackle have come over to braided lines in a big way. There are two distinct camps among the “sand spike” crowd. Traditionally, monofilament gets the nod because it provides stretch that better ensures that your sinker stays on the bottom even when the surf is big. Still, others swear by braid, mostly for increased casting distance, but with braid it pays to select a surf rod with more flex in the tip—it gives way a bit to compensate for the lack of stretch in braided line. Many build their bait leader rigs from mono, primarily in the 20-pound-test class, though many anglers prefer fluorocarbon, especially when the surf waters are clear from lack of wind and wave action.
Now that you know everything about the best baits, rigs and gear for surf fishing, it's time to get out and put your knowledge to the test. Each beach is different, so learning how to read the water will be the next logical step, which you can read more about by clicking here.