surf fishing lesson

Last week Fred B and I went surf fishing at the National Seashore. It was the most frustrating trip I can recall. Not because we didn’t catch anything – that’s not all that unusual and not even frustrating if the weather’s nice. What made this so frustrating was that about a hundred feet from us a guy was catching fish like crazy. He got my attention after I watched him land about 6 fish and I’ve yet to get a bite. I start watching very close to see exactly what he’s doing differently than us. There are lots of variables – the bait, the rig, the distance fcast rom shore to name a few. As best I could tell he was using sand fleas, same as us; he was using four rods with 2 different types of rigs – two rigged with standard pompano rigs, same as us; the other two rigged slightly different but certainly duplicatable. For about 3 hours this guy caught fish, I’m guessing maybe 20 – we caught nothing. Mercifully he left. Fred suggested we move to his spot since clearly he was fishing a hole where we were fishing a desert. I thought to myself, the downside of that was that we would move there and catch nothing but at least we’d know. That’s what happened – we fished his spot for a half hour without a bite. Man was I bummed.

Fred left and I went to Flagler a few days later. I cast and caught a fish almost immediately. Interestingly on two previous trips with Fred, one of us caught a fish almost immediately. Then I went dry again – but this time nobody seemed to be catching anything. I reeled in to check my bait and it was gone. This was again reminiscent – every time we reeled in before, our bait was gone. I started thinking that very small fish were maybe nibbling away at the bait and decided to bait up with smaller sandfleas and smaller hooks. When I started reeling in I noticed that the line seemed to be angled a little different than I remembered casting. I also noticed that it seemed heavy, like the weight had dug into the sand. I reeled in very slowly and the weight seemed constant rather than pulling out of the sand. When I got it to the surf, there was a large blue crab hanging on to the flea. I went over to the second rod and repeated the slow retrieval. Same heavy feel and same end result – a big crab. I started casting and then retrieving a few minutes later and each time either my bait was already half eaten or there was a crab attached. I did manage to catch 6 fish but in each case the fish bit within a minute of the cast – meaning a fish got to the bait before the crabs. This totally explained what the other guy was doing, He was fishing with 4 rods and basically cast them in sequence and then retrieved in sequence. By that I mean he would go back and reel in his first rod shortly after casting his forth. So his bait was not in the water more than a few minutes. He either got a bite on one rod while reeling in another or reeled in with no bait. We had been leaving our bait out there alone for 20 to 30 minutes – as it turns out with no bait. He was rebaiting and recasting every few minutes. I had assumed he was getting bites but in reality he was just maiking sure he had bait in the water.

Sounds unbelieveable but in the fishing section of Friday’s paper the surf report said fishing was poor because of the large number of crabs eating the bait. I sure felt relieved to break the code and also amazed that there could possibly be that many crabs from Flagler to way south of New Symrna – a stretch of at least 40 miles. Big Red’s and tarpon feed heavily on crabs so I’m expecting to start seeing that kind of action soon!!!

ah, the beach

Another great day surf fishing at Flagler so why write about it. Well a couple of differences this time. The weather was great and for the first time in quite a while I hit a west breeze – which means casting with the wind at my back and an ultra calm, clear surf. What could go wrong. It became instantly clear that the sand flea situation had changed. Instead of jilliions of them, I saw none. uh oh, that’s not good. I spent about 15 minutes and did manage to get enough to start anyway. Not sure if this is a seasonal problem, something to do with the cooler weather, or exactly what. I have to remember next November to catch a jillion and freeze them for the dry spell.

Turned out not to be that great a problem since not much was biting sand fleas anyway. So early on with the favorable wind and surf, I decided to really plug it hard using my new shorter, light weight rod and all my new bass pro shop lures. I just switch the reel from the 11′ surf monster rod to a 2 handed, 7′ beauty. One thing for sure, I could cast most of the stuff on the order of 100 yds – way more than adequate. After about a half dozen casts with a small, heavy jig spoon, nailed a nice blue. Interesting thing was that he hit about 20′ from the beach, just at the drop-off. Changed to a mirrorlure. Caught 2 more blues and a surprise – a nice flounder. I never would have anticipated catching a flounder on such a large lure and in the surf. And like the first blue, all the fish nailed the lure within a few feet of the beach so my 100 yd casts were mostly for exercise. Did get one whiting on the sand flea. So all in all had a ball casting the surf. And once again I learned – don’t use soft lures in the surf! chomp, gone; chomp, gone. This time I also learned that fishing top water has it’s problems with diving seagulls. They came out of nowhere and only fast, fast reeling and jerking kept them from picking up my zara.

Our freezer is starting to fill with fish even with me giving away more than half the catch. The blues fillet just beautifully and are the easiest to deal with of any kind I’ve cleaned. They have an extremely small stomach cavity which means they are almost all meat and easy to trim around the bones. The flounder was also quite interesting since I had never filleted one before. As you know they are extremely flat and have a definite top and bottom as opposed to most fish which have “sides”. This was a nice size flounder but still was only about 2” thick. Turns out that you fillet the top side since the bone structure runs horizontally and close to the underside (bottom). You really do need a sharp knife, which I have, but the end result is a very nice looking fillet – a one piece fillet, not the two side fillets you are used to.

And one last thing that for some reason didn’t make the news last night. We had a Tsunami at Flagler Beach. I had the rod with the sand fleas in my sand spike about 25′ up from the surf while I was casting for blues. I look up every minute or so to check for action on that rod. I look up and no rod! Instead I spot it heading down in the clutches of a major wave, no doubt a Tsunami. I ran over and just managed to get there before it went over the edge into the surf dropoff. Had that happened it would have been history. The sand spike had stopped rolling so I got to that just in the nick of time too. I watched local news last night to see if it had been reported but apparently I was the only one who experienced it. Now I know exactly how those people in Indonesia felt.

Would you believe?

Would you believe that I stood in line for hours and hours last night outside the Ormond Beach Wal-Mart in 40 degree weather with the wind howling at 20mph to get an XBox360? And would you believe that when I finally got it at 5AM, I headed directly to the beach to surf fish for blues which run particularly strong in cold, northwest winds? Visualize me standing knee deep in the surf, casting my largest spoon a country mile into a school of big blues nailing mullet on the surface.

New Invention

Problem – When you go surf fishing you have lots of tackle to carry. Not just me but everybody. I have two rods. These are 10-12′ rods with fairly heavy reels loaded with 250 yds of line. Nobody uses just one and most have 3. The common technique is to use a different type of bait on each rod to accommodate the wide variety of fish in the surf. And of course you need a sand spike for each rod. These aren’t heavy but awkward to carry. A tackle box. Most people bring a 5 gallon plastic paint bucket to carry bait and eventually to carry fish. I use a cooler with ice. Then a chair of some sort; most use a standard folding beach chair. A fish cleaning board rounds out my booty but most folks have a sand flea basket to catch bait. I have a couple extra things like a sand flea pouch, hand cloth, and maybe something to read.

If you get to the beach early, not too big a problem because you can set up right at the stairs or ramp and make a couple of easy trips to the truck. But if it’s crowded you have to set up further away which means carrying all this thru soft sand. By the time you get all your gear set up, you’re worn to a frazzle if you’ve had to walk a few hundred feet.

I’ve seen two solutions. A few guys bring their wives to carry stuff. They just sit on the beach after the trek and read. That works – ask Nancy. Others have invested in a special surf fishing cart which is a wagon with large, pneumatic tires and multiple rod holders to place the rods vertically. These work too but are fairly heavy and difficult to get in and out of the truck. They work well in hard sand but not quite as well in really mushy, coquina sand; Also they are easy to maneuver on a ramp but not nearly as easy on stairs. Plus they cost about $160 for the smallest versions. The money doesn’t bother me but it seems they solve one problem but create several new ones.

My solution – the Surf fishing poncho.

Visualize a poncho with a set of pouches especially configured for surf gear. It has the same pouch set front and back. There’s a large rectangular, 16 x 24” pouch for carrying the tackle boxes. I use the clear plastic flat type. I actually use two – one for lures and one for bait rigs, weights etc. Hence the front and back pouches to balance the weight. These pouches are centered and ride in front of your chest and across your back. On both sides of the center pouch is a 2” x 24” vertical pouch for carrying the rods. You can insert the rods either in the front or back pouches depending on how you want to balance the weight. I happen to sometimes carry a spare, shorter rod for casting smaller lures so with 4 rod pouches, (two front, two back), I’m covered. Across the bottom is a 2” wide pouch that runs horizontally. The sand spikes slide into this patch, one enters from the left; one from the right. To top it off there are rings to hang stuff at the top of the shoulders and the center of the neck. There are no sleeves so you can load up one side and rotate it on your body and load the other side. A tie strap at the waist lets you pull it all together for walking. So in my case I load up everything and have my hands free to carry the cooler and a chair. I’m thinking that I can load up and easily walk a few hundred yards down the beach, even in the softest sand, with no trouble at all. I’m also thinking I will be a style setter on the beach and will have crowds following me asking where they can get such a fine outfit.

My new problem – getting Nancy to make it!

Got the Blues

Hit the beach this morning about 30 minutes after it turned from calm to gale force winds. It was low tide so the surf was manageable. I caught a couple of whiting in the first hour and then spotted some bird action a couple hundred yards down the beach. Then fish tearing up the water. I quickly rigged up my big casting outfit with a large spoon. I figured maybe with that size lure I’d be able to cast into the wind but still had my doubts. When I got to where the fish were, it was quiet, as you might expect. I pitched the spoon out, maybe 50-60 yds and wham, a blue nailed it before it had moved 10 feet. Landed it and made another cast. Wham, another fish. But that was it. I cast a few dozen more times with no results so I guess the school had moved on out of range or downshore. But no signs of them. This all reminded me of catching blues when I was a teenager. Then I would have caught quite a few more because I would have run down the beach instead of walking and would have chased after them as far as I could. Now just walking in that soft sand a couple of hundred yards had me huffing. Wait a minute – maybe it’s the soft sand. Back then we had nice hard sand. Also now that I have such nice tackle, I left it all back in my original spot while I chased after the fish with just my trusty casting outfit. So I thought about people stealing my stuff. In the old days I didn’t have any stuff to steal and wouldn’t have worried about it even if I did.

I went back to my original spot and fished for another couple of hours until the surf just got too huge to deal with. I changed weights twice but still, the surf picked up my rig and brought it right into shore. I was getting bites but it was almost impossible to distinguish between a bite and a rolling surf. What a great day!!!!!!!

And once again my sandfleas seemed to be scoring higher than my neighboring fishermen. Clearly we were all using local fleas so maybe there’s something else about my fleas. I watched intently as guys on both sides of me used standard sandflea traps to snag their bait. These are metal baskets on a long handle and catch those fleas that are flowing back from a high wave. My technique, on the other hand, is to dig deep into the sand and catch those that are fairly far under the sand. Is it possible that there is some difference between surface fleas and deep sand fleas? Are my fleas perhaps tougher or tastier? They all look more or less the same but could mine be a subspecies? I have always known that the deep down fleas are larger than those close to the surface. Perhaps they get to be big by digging faster and thereby surviving sand pipers. Boy, there’s a lot to ponder on this whole subject. But I intend to get to the bottom of it.

Today also threw cold water on my afternoon theory. I caught my fish when I first got there and went thru my usual hot time – 12 to 3 pm – more or less fishless. And one other fact, as I was arriving there was a guy leaving with a very large bucket full of nice fish = pompano, whiting, and blues. He said he had been there since 4AM and the fish more or less quit biting when the wind came up about 9:30 AM. You know when a guy is out there before daylight, he is one serious fisherman. He deserved all the ones he caught.

Foreign bait theory

On Tuesday Nancy and I went to the beach for a day of sun and fun. You know I surf fish but you probably didn’t know that Nancy can sew quite nicely due to the high ambient light level and has a much easier time with darker fabrics. So we can have all this togetherness time without getting in each other’s sh.t.. We went directly to the National Seashore south of New Symrna after first stopping to pick up a Publix deli sandwich. We got to the beach about noon and I was totally blown away by the amount of seaweed – a foot deep all over the beach and worse, solid masses from the surfline out about 30-50′. I picked a load of sand fleas but soon confirmed that it was totally unfishable. We ate the sandwich and then humped all the gear back to the truck.

Instead of just going home, we decided to head north and back to my old spot at Flagler. Maybe we could still snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. We get there only to find the smallish parking lot totally full. By now it’s pushing 1PM and this is looking like a total loss. We pushed north along A1A to see if we could find another spot. We found parking a couple of miles further north, on the south end of Gamble-Rogers Park. There was one other car and a motor home. Before unloading the gear I checked out the beach and found the water to be fairly clean and clear, no seaweed, and the waves very manageable. So even if this was a bad fishing spot, at least the conditions would be good.

I had the sand fleas from New Symrna so in 2 minutes had bait in the water. Within about 15 minutes I hooked and landed a large Pompano. Pompano are the ultimate surf fish from a fighting and eating standpoint. Try pricing them at a fish market. You consider yourself lucky if you get one or two a trip. The guy who was fishing beside me came over and asked what I was using for bait and he was surprised to learn it was sand fleas, the same as he’d been using since about 9AM that morning without a bite. I told him it was probably just dumb luck but that generally I had been having better luck in the afternoons. About 15 minutes later I landed another nice, nice Pompano. Shortly after that another couple came down and heard that I had caught a couple of nice fish so they set up operation about 30′ away. There were miles of empty beach but this guy had to get right up close and personal. AH. He soon had 3 rods going using sand fleas. I picked up another fish a bit later and a 4th still later while the newcomer went empty. The first guy did catch a smaller one but at least he caught something. The new jerk guy came over and asked what kind of rig I was using. I described it but he wanted to actually see it. So I reeled it in and he said, “oh, that’s a whiting rig”. Now I know this guy is a jerk. So I said, well it looks like a whiting rig for sure but I tied it up myself and it’s just a bit different. That was total BS but I owed this guy. He looked at it really intently now and said, “oh, yeah, I see it now – nice touch”. Soon thereafter they packed up and left; so did the first guy. I got good looks at their tackle and honestly couldn’t see a bit of difference so no way it was tackle. We were all using sand fleas but……. they were using local fleas and I was using the New Symrna variety. I have to admit I could see no difference at all but but maybe………….. So I hooked up a couple of local fleas to test my theory. Nada, zip – not a bite.

So I think the evidence is indisputable that the foreign fleas out performed the locals. It makes me ponder though, are the New Symrna fleas tastier or is it just their foreign origin. If I took Flagler fleas to New Symrna would they outperform the locals??? Did I screw up the local ecology when I threw a few of the New Symrna guys onto the Flager Beach?

surf fishing mystery

I’ve been surf fishing quite a bit lately and loving every minute of it. I love the beach, I love fishing – how could I not love surf fishing. My favorite location, up until this point, is a strip of beach about halfway between Ormond and Flagler – seems to be highly productive and not overly populated (with people) this time of year. And it’s an easy, no traffic 40 minute scenic back country drive

My routine is simple – I pick out the exact spot on the beach and then dig a load of sand fleas right at the surf line. I’ve never seen a beach so thick with sand fleas. I can catch enough in 5 minutes to last me a full day. For those not familiar with fleas, these are crab like hard shell critters, maybe half the size of your thumb. With a couple dozen legs, an orange colored egg sac on the underside, and a hard shell, they are an excellent, natural bait. By excellent I mean the fish love them and they stay on the hook well. And of course they’re free. The point I want you to understand is that they stay on the hook well. Some baits are soft and wash off the hook after a bit so you have to keep rebaiting. But fleas, in the absence of fish, will stay on all day. I fish with a rig that includes a weight and two hooks. The weight is at the bottom; one hook is attached about a foot above the weight; the second hook about 2′ above the bottom hook. The idea behind this rig is that you have two baits fishing at two different depths in the water. So theoretically you should more than double your catch because you are covering different depths and you still have a bait even if one gets taken off. I’m giving this much detail because this rig created a mystery for me yesterday.

It’s not unusual to get a bite, miss the fish, leave your bait out there and get a second bite and hopefully the fish. That’s a big advantage of the two hooks – you don’t have to reel in each time you get a bite. I noticed yesterday that I was getting a bite, leaving it out and not getting a second bite. I’d wait maybe 5-10 minutes and then reel in only to find both hooks bare. That’s frustrating because you don’t know how long you’ve been fishing with no bait. After experiencing the double empty hook phenomena a couple of times, I shortened the time between the first bite and reeling in. Two bare hooks. I keep shortening the time until I decided to just reel in after the first bite – two bare hooks. How is this possible? Surely the two fish arn’t biting synchronously – maybe that could happen once or twice but every time? I don’t think so. And even if that were the case, I would catch at least one, every now and again. When you are standing in the surf, up to your ankles in sand, watching the rollers, birds, waves – you have plenty of time for deep thoughts and the bare hook problem is as deep as my thoughts go these days. So I developed a theory. These are very stealthy fish and can strip a hook without you feeling a bite. I get that. My theory is that these very tricky fish would nibble away at the bait without ever tugging on the line until both hooks were bare. They would then grab the weight and give it a tug to request more bait. And it worked. After the tug, I’d promptly reel in and send them out two fresh, juicy sand fleas. Is that smart or what!!

One other thing I learned – you know how those little sand pipers can keep just out of the water as they grab sand fleas? No matter how large the wave, they have perfect timing. They don’t have to be facing the surf – an inner sense of exactly where the water is. Well it turns out, I don’t have that same inner sense. I was bent over, not facing the waves, scooping a handful of sand when whoosh, a wave knocked me off my feet. Talk about feeling stupid – and wet.