Tuesday, August 07, 2001
Port O'Connor Surf Fishing Safely, Boat Handling Tricks
Think like a Bass fisherman and when you hit the water you are going to be hunting lunkers in some type of structure. Saltwater fishing, however, presents similar but less visible challenges when it comes to fishing “structure”.
I would have to say that “structure” as it applies to saltwater fishing is a very relative term. The term structure on the coast could mean a small sand bar, submerged reef, gut, cut, mud and shell line, sand and grass line, water color change, etc. This structure is less visible and sometimes hard to identify.
The surf has been outstanding during late July and is absolutely on fire already in August. The one big problem you have with the surf is that it is so expansive. Running down the beach, one breaker looks like the rest and everything begins to look the same. Run far enough and you may have the fortune to have bait working along with some actively feeding birds. That is like asking your Poker buddies to lay their hand down so you can decide whether or not to place a bet. Too EASY!
SURF STRUCTURE BREAKDOWN
Most everyone knows that when fishing the surf, you want to look for breaking waves to identify the location of the sandbars. The beachfront on the Texas Coast typically has three of these bars. In our area, the first bar is nearly on the beach with the second bar some 75 yards off the beach and the third bar 100 to 125 yards off the beach. The bars run parallel to the beach.
(Guts & Cuts)
The troughs between the bars are called “guts”. These guts give the bars a front taper and a back taper. The waves build as they come up the front taper, crest on the top, and break on the upper back taper of the bar. Watching a set of breakers, you will see a solid crest of white water. Noticing a break in the white water or gap in the crest would point you to a “cut”. A cut is a depression in the bar running perpendicular to the beach. Some call these “washouts”.
So far, this is a piece of cake and you’ve LEARNED nothing. Let’s go fishing! We’ve got blue water to the beach, a light breaking surf, “where’s the fish”? Approach a set of breakers and try to identify any anomaly’s in it that would point to some type of cut. In the absence of this, I will fish the biggest breaking surf I can find. I typically start working the front, top, and backside tapers of the bars. If the surf is relatively calm, I will start on the second bar. One rule of thumb, “the calmer the surf, the closer the fish will be to the beach”. The opposite applies, i.e., “the rougher the surf, the farther the fish are from the beach”.
We’ve hit every hard breaker, cut, gut, etc. and we’re coming up short. This brings us to our next type of structure.
(The Color Change)
We’ve run a five mile stretch “blue/green” to the beach water” and everything looks the same relative to what we’ve been fishing. Now we are on an ugly streak catching Sharks, Gafftop, Ladyfish, and Hardheads. We boxed a half limit of Trout over working bait on a “luck stop” early and now we are struggling. The fish were all on the backside taper of the second bar and now every set we make along the way bring the same thing, “no Trout”. We move in, out, and still come up with nothing. We are fishing the “structure” holding the fish early; we’ve fished other similar zones closer to the beach, farther from the beach and nothing.
As we power down the shoreline we come to some really heavy breakers that have trashed a 10-yard stretch of water along the beach for a hundred yards. PAYDIRT! Our first cast lands a solid trout on the edge of the dirty water and there are more fish deeper in it. In a blink of the eye, we’re heading for the ramp with full limits of solid fish. Dirty water has its place in the list of “structure” to be identified in the surf. Extremely clear water is very threatening to bait fish. In the surf, TROUT CAN BE CONSIDERED BAITFISH” for any number of predators including Sharks, Porpoises, Tarpon, etc. Thinking like this will point you to dirty water in the surf when nothing else pays off.
Enjoyed the trip boys, we’ll see you next time!
NEVER LET YOUR GUARD DOWN
Anyone fishing the surf without some type of fear has no place there. The hazards of wading the surf are numerous and well published. Let’s talk for a minute about fishing the surf from a boat. I’m not going to bore you with safety talk about a good running motor, strong hull, sturdy anchor and the like. These things are a “given”. Let’s talk
“ADVANCED SURF 101”.
I never fish the surf without a five-gallon bucket, self-bailing deck or not. Quick water expulsion from the cockpit is essential. After taking one wave over the bow or the side, you need quick water evacuation and probable relocation of the boat. Ice Cream surf (very calm) pushes you closer to the beach in search of fish. This puts you in a precarious position as many times you will be sitting on top of the second bar casting at the first.
Now I will introduce you to “Cuban Threes”. Even when the surf is slick, periodically waves will come to the beach and then rise, crest, curl, and break. These are called “Cuban Threes” and guess what? They come in threes. The first is usually the worst followed by two waves of lesser impact. However, if the first one renders you in peril, the second two will put you under. If the first wave just rattles your cage a bit, the second two will just continue the “wake up” process.
If a rolling wave comes in and you are still positioned on the second bar, it will crest, curl and break on your boat. You must regroup from this quickly and determine whether or not these instances are going to continue. If they are, you either have to move closer to the first bar to get beyond the break in the wave or move farther out ahead of the building wave on the second bar. Moving toward the beach may be a good move, however, it often times positions you ON TOP of your fish.
(Offshore Winds, Inbound Surf)
I’ve been dealing with this a lot lately. An offshore northerly wind with an inbound surf will make your brain hurt. In these conditions, we have to “read the water” and “feel the deal” before we get crazy with an overly aggressive set in breaking surf. My first stop, I will drop anchor and let the boat settle out to see what’s what. Many times, the boat will not sit at anchor the way you think. In breaking surf, I always want the nose of the boat pointing into the waves. THIS GOES WITHOUT SAYING, but I’ll say it just for grins. Avoid sitting stern to the waves. This is a NO NO and will land you upside down picking up your gear off the beach.
If the offshore winds ARE in fact blowing your boat off the beach, then you have to believe what you are seeing and not what you are thinking. While the surf is rolling toward the beach, your boat IS actually being pushed offshore by the wind.
(The Set Up)
For fish on or behind the SECOND BAR, I will run between the first and second bar and drop anchor into the gut. I will then motor the boat nose out peeling anchor line off the back of the boat until clearing the second bar. I will tie the anchor off on the side of the boat and with combined wind and current will usually end up with some type of “nose to the wave” set up.
I have five cleats on my boat. One directly on the nose, one on the gunnel on each side of the console (side balance points), and one on each side at the stern. I use a pivot rope a lot. I have a stern tie down rope on a rear cleat. The rope is long enough to reach the middle cleat at the console. Now, you have a long slide bar with which to tie your anchor line on to. I tie a quick release “loop” half-hitch to the slide rope at the exact point that I estimate will make the boat sit best given wind and current conditions. I take the remainder of the anchor line and tie it to the forward cleat to keep the anchor rope from sliding back toward the motor. With this, you can actually be anchored off the side of the boat sitting perfectly “nose out”. While the winds are offshore and certainly keeping you off the beach, the current or particular tide is sliding you down the beach one way or the other. Always keep an eye on the anchor line. I designate one fisherman closest to the anchor rope to keep an eye on it. If current or winds change and the rope slides beneath the boat, you can be IN BIG TROUBLE. Having drifted over the anchor line or fouling the anchor in the motor are precarious situations. One wrong wave and the boat will typically be flipped upside down.
Sometimes you need dump the anchor and get the boat adjusted quickly. I tie a large gallon sized oil jug to the end of my anchor line. This way, if I need to dump the anchor, I can do it quickly without losing my most valued piece of equipment. Get the boat under control and then double back to the buoy and gather your line and anchor.
Dropping anchor, drifting off the beach and then throwing back at the anchor is peculiar to say the least but it works. With offshore winds and inbound surf, APPLY MORE THROTTLE. Throwing artificials, I will use heavier jig heads of 3/8 and ½ ounce. This will help you slam the bait toward the beach cutting through the wind. If you are using live finfish, try using ¾ and 1 ounce barrel weights with no swivel. Let the weight fall to the hook. This will rip the bait through the breeze and hopefully into the fish.
(Don’t Get In A Hurry)
Fish the surf with a different frame of mind. Instead of getting in a “hammer down” mind set that has you racing to beat the clock, approach it like a 50 year old bottle of Brandy. Fishing the surf is about timing. On a trip recently, Team Coastal Capt. James Cunningham had boat problems and had to return to Port O briefly. On his return to the surf, conditions were deteriorating with a summer squall. We visited by phone as I was running in from the surf limited out. My advice to him was that he wait it out at our camp house on the Island and return when the squall broke. Roughly an hour later, the squall broke and weather settled and he jumped back in the surf and finished his limit.
The same statement can apply when making a set by boat or attempting to wade fish the surf. When arriving in the surf, get a gut check on the general conditions. If things are rough but settling, be conservative. If it is rough and getting rougher, BAIL OUT. The worst surf conditions in our area and I would think most on the coast are an EAST WIND AND EASTERLY CURRENT. When the wind and tide are against each other, it makes for a heavy mixed up surf.
(Surf-It-In for Distance)
When fishing from a boat, try to time your cast where your bait will land just ahead of a wave rolling for the beach. Keep the reel in free spool after the bait hits the water and lightly thumb the reel as the wave carries the bait forward toward the beach. By doing this, you can usually get another 8 to 10 feet of distance.
Fishing with artificial lures in the surf can be exhilarating. One tactic I’ve used in moderate surf is to drift sideways to the beach and let a southerly wind push you gently toward land. You can quickly determine where the fish are and what particular zone they are holding in. I typically stay at the throttle while my party is catching fish. As the boat approaches breaking surf, typically on the second bar, I will power up and stair step down and back out beginning the process over again. This allows you to stay focused on the particular structure you are fishing in the surf. If you are focusing on dirty water, you can stay with it the whole time as it slides up or down the beach. This tactic has landed many a Trout aboard the “Bowed-Up”.
Fishing the surf is one of those special things that has many rewards. There is just something about running the beach that is new and different compared to the bays. I hope you have many “green to the beach” days and that the above information will help you in your pursuit of fish and fun.
Capt. Kris Kelley