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Waves on Sand: Traditional Surf Fishing Techniques for the Fly Rodder
by Ken Abrames

(First Published in the Nov/Dec1994 issue of "Flyfishing Magazine")

The surf has long been viewed by the general fishing public as a place where the fly rod has a very limited use. This opinion, misinformed as it is, has been passed down through the years by many sports writers who simply did not take the time to research the use of fly tackle in surf fishing but rather rewrote the opinions penned by the main-line saltwater sports writers of the fifties and sixties. The party line went something like this: Always bring along a fly rod because once in a while the there is calm enough for you to be able to cast far enough to use it. This advice appears sensible when first heard and this is undoubtedly the reason it was taken at face value and repeated so often. This was unfortunate because for many years fly fishing has been the favorite choice of many experienced surf fishermen. No other method of fishing is as well suited to fish the white water currents of the breaking waves correctly.

Waves are to surf fishing what rivers are to trout fishing-- the source of current. Water in a river moves, water in a wave moves. Moving water causes fish to locate in particular places. Waves are the visual aids we use to find where the stripers are located when feeding. Like the trout and salmon, stripers are fish of current. Each part of their body, from their strong maneuverable fins to their keen eyesight and quick intelligence evolved to enable the striper to thrive in the surf's mix of powerful elemental forces. More than any other fish, the striper is at home when in the surf.

The surf is not a chaotic mass of undifferentiated churning turbulence. To the surf fisherman's eye there is a definite order and boundary to the motion of the water within the waves. The currents generated in the surf are powerful but predictable. They act and move according to definite natural laws. Water always seeds its own level, flows downhill and always takes the path of least resistance.

Stripers like to feed in the turbulence of the surf, they are drawn to it like butterflies are to flowers. It is in their nature to ride the currents in the waves and feed on the wing in this watery wind. This fondness for feeding within the surf makes them susceptible to many of the traditional fly rod techniques such as the wet fly swing, the greased line swing, the dead drift, the hand twist and modified strip retrieves. All these old fashioned methods evolved from the problem of controlling or using drag while delivering a fly to fish that are feeding in current. These proven methods of presentation allow an angler to correctly present the fly and catch many fish that will simply ignore the flies of the cast and strip school.

Waves are the manifestation of energy pulsing toward the shoreline. When an ocean wave comes in contact with the land this energy is released upon the shoreline and creates the surf. Waves create a dynamic living environment. Waves become breakers, breakers become surf, surf creates current and stripers feed in this current that the breaking waves produce. Fly fishing is done within the white water of the surf zone not out beyond the waves. It is within the currents of the breaking waves that fish come to feed and most of this water is within the casting range of the ordinary fly fisherman.

A molecule of water in an ocean wave is somewhat inert. Picture it as a ball floating in the water, when a wave passes by it, to your eye, it goes up then down but does not move forward or back to a measurable degree. Actually, it forms an orbit, a circle with the end of its up and down journey a tiny bit closer to the shore.

The bass ordinarily will feed at a particular period or state of the wave. They may feed when the wave rises prior to breaking or just before it breaks to become surf. When this is happening, the bass will feed on the baitfish that are being lifted up and lowered down by the orbital movement of the water in the wave. In the center of the wave there is no current movement. Stripers often ride in this center and can be seen in full silhouette as they swim along searching for food. At times they will hold on an edge of current and when the wave passes over them, they will feed on the baitfish that are being lowered to them as the wave passes their position, or will feed by attacking when the baitfish are lifted up by the wave.

The simplest way to catch fish that are feeding this way is to cast down the length of the wave and let your fly be carried both up and down and forward and back by the motion of the water as the energy of the wave passes through it. Keep a slight tension on the fly but allow it to be moved by the water itself. A floating line lends itself to this presentation because of its ability to be mended. Weighted flies will catch fish, but non-weighted flies suspend in a more lifelike manner.

As a wave moves closer to the coastline the bottom rises up and creates friction that slows the base of the wave and transfers the water movement from a circular to an elliptical shape. This friction increases until the wave no longer is stable and starts to fall. The ellipse flattens out and becomes flow. At this point, the wave becomes a breaker and the wave-energized water is propelled up onto the shoreline with direction and momentum--current.

Gravity pulls this water back towards sea level but the direction and energy of the flow causes the water to move parallel to the shoreline until it finds a path or channel to flow outward and equalize. This flow is called, "long shore current" and the paths or channels that release this current flow back out into the ocean are called "rip currents." On a sand beach, these two types of currents along with combined flow current and swash current are the major primary forces that determine the location and feeding patterns of stripers. All these currents are generated by waves.

When a wave begins to break, it spills forward creating current. When baitfish are swimming along a beach, they are being held by and are swimming into either the long shore current or the rip current. When these baitfish are inside the surf line and a wave breaks over them, they will turn into the current formed by the white water of the breaking wave and be tumbled and momentarily disoriented.

As the wave passes and its current merges with and into the long shore current, the baitfish will regroup and return to swimming into the long shore current. At some point along the beach the long shore current will meet another long shore current heading in the opposite direction. When these two currents meet they will merge, change direction 90 degrees and become a rip current which will flow out through the line of breakers. Rip currents tend to carry the baitfish out through the line of breakers. The baitfish will swim against this powerful current and try to swim back toward the shore line but they have a hard time making progress against the flow. Rip currents are bait traps which hold the baitfish for extended periods of time. Stripers moving into the surf to feed usually enter through the doorways of the rip currents.

A rip current is often bordered by a sand bar or high spot on one or both sides. When a wave approaches it, the base of the wave feels the sand bar and slows. The wave then begins to steepen and finally breaks forming a swirling pocket of white water that sweeps over the baitfish being held by the rip current and lifts, tumbles and knocks them about and in the process makes them extremely vulnerable to the bass.

Along any sand beach these current dynamics are at work. They are called circulation cells. When the waves are parallel to the beach the long shore currents that feed the rip currents are equal and a symmetrical circulation cell is produced. When the waves approach at an angle, the cell is asymmetrical. These circulation cells are the prime feeding stations for fish.

Stripers always feed in rhythm with the breaking waves. When a wave breaks it sets up a powerful current that dominates the movement of baitfish and controls their behavior. The bass wait for this to occur, and when it does, they feed on them while their attention is focused on the current. This is a very simple principal that holds true wherever you find stripers feeding in the surf.

When the fish are feeding in the white water of a breaking wave, their feeding will be linked to how the baitfish that are present are reacting to the currents the waves are producing. They may be feeding just as the wave breaks, just after it breaks, in the current that is sweeping toward the shoreline or in the wake behind the tumbling wave. To find out what part of the wave they are feeding in, you must present your fly in harmony with a particular stage of a breaking wave.

Watch the waves, notice when and how they form, crest and tumble, then time your cast to correspond their rhythm. Make a cast just as the wave is about to crest, have the fly alight just before the current from the white water appears, then allow the current to sweep and tumble the fly. It is good form to keep as much slack out of your line as possible. You do this by positioning yourself correctly, tending the line and by making strategic mends. If fish are feeding in the first part of the break, you will have action within a few casts. It is easier to control your presentation if you cast on an angle to the waves rather then casting straight out towards them. Your fly will be swept in with more of a wet fly swing than a dead drift and it is easier to keep in contact with the fly. If this part of the wave does not produce, time your cast to fall after the wave has begun to spill but try to cast beyond the current. This will cause your fly to be carried in at a later stage of the flow than when your cast is made before the wave breaks.

Often the fish will feed once this section of stronger current has set up. The current will sweep your line in faster than the fly, so mend to maintain contact with your fly but allow it to be swept along by the current. In order to catch fish you have to mend, if you do it, you will not catch fish that you would have caught if you had maintained proper line control.

After a wave breaks, it is followed by a wake of turbulence that continues to move toward the beach, this is called combined flow current and as it loses energy near the end of the sweep, it becomes swash current-the home of mole crabs. Fish often will feed in this wash especially if the waves are big. Wait until the wave breaks and diminishes somewhat then cast as far as you can, tighten your line and allow the fly to swim across the current either by stripping it in, or by holding the line tight and using a wet fly swing. You can feed line into this drift and catch fish with a modified greased line swing, which is often the most productive method of all, because it allows the fly to be carried to the fish by the current naturally.

One of the variables that is found in the surf everywhere is the breaker itself. There are four major kinds of breakers; spilling, found on shallow beach slopes, plunging, found on shallow to intermediate beach slopes (surfer waver), collapsing, intermediate to steep beach slopes, and surging, found on steep beach slopes. They all have in common the orbital and elliptical movement of water within the wave and, as they collapse, they all form long shore and rip currents. The preferred breakers for fishing sand beaches are the spilling and the plunging because the fish feed in the white water of the breaking wave itself. (see below)

There are particular phenomena that occur along beaches which create "hot spots" where large numbers of bass can at times be easily caught. They are important where they are found but they are not always present. Jetties, tidal inlets, sand bars, bright steady lights, break-ins, or drop-offs, rocks, wrecks, points and vegetation fall into this category. They all have one characteristic of being locally important.

One night I went surf fishing at Narragansett beach, Rhode Island. I arrived at seven o'clock and left at ten. The waves were not big and I was able to wade wherever I wished. They were perfect waves, shaped correctly and their cadence was exactly right. The long shore current pointed out the undulations on the bottom by the rips and sweeps that it made. There was white water on the edges of each slight rise in the bottom and each slot where the ripcurrent had cut a hole through the sand was easy to see. I knew exactly where I should fish.

I began by walking up the beach to my right and stopped at the first rip current slot. The current was well defined and headed directly out through the breakers. To the right of the slot was a bar, and as the waves broke over the edge of it they formed a perfect swirling pocket of white water that abutted the current in the slot. It was the place to fish. After I made my cast to the edge of the pocket, the current of the rip held my line firmly and when the waves broke over my flies I did not heave to mend at all. I fished the pocket on top of it, behind it and after it had passed. Then I fished the rip itself, both sides and the middle. When I had finished, I walked up the beach to the next slot and the next, fishing each one of them as I walked along.

Once I had finished all of them, I decided to walk up the beach, re-rig, do a little thinking and change flies. I took off my leader, make a new one and looped it on. Then I thought about what had happened and what I was going to do.

Even though I had not seen any bait at all, I believed there mush be sand eels somewhere and probably silversides. I took out a fly box and found a small sand eel pattern and a slightly larger silverside fly. I tied them on as two droppers, and then fixed a much larger mullet pattern to the end of my leader as a tail fly. It was six inches long and had a dark back. I then returned to the surf.

I started fishing down the beach toward my starting point. The flies I had chosen gave me confidence that I was covering the possibilities well. It took me a few casts to adjust my rhythm to the three flies and I checked them after each cast to make sure they were not fouled. I hadn't had a touch on the way up and I wasn't concerned about whether or not I was going to catch fish. I just wanted to fish.

The conditions remained the same as I fished back down, the current's pull on the line felt right and I felt good about the way I was fishing. I fished the whole length of the beach, taking a step or two between casts and pausing to fish longer when I came across one of those slots. I fished short and I fished long, I fished with wet fly swings and with strip retrieves, I greased lined the turbulence behind the waves and fished the long shore currents along the beach. I studied the swash current as it swept up and down the sandy beach looking for the fins of fish that might be feeding on the mole crabs who live there.

I did not find any fish on the beach that night but the water was perfect for fishing, so I fished. When I go back to that beach, I will fish it better because I was able to fish it when the conditions were perfect for seeing. I learned things about where fish will hold and feed that I did not know until that night. Those three hours of fishing were and investment-not a loss. Fishing is more than the catching of fish from time to time. The dynamics and nomenclature of waves is a broad and complex study, it is explained in detail in many fascinating texts on oceanography such as: " The Evolving Coast" by Richard Davis, Jr. published by Scientific American Library or "Introduction to Oceanography" by David A. Ross, which is published by Prentice Hall.

© 1980, 2000

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