Floundering at the Water's Edge
A lifelong unlucky angler casts far and wide to uncover the secrets to successful surf fishing. Will he get the blues? This is his tale.
My fishing trips usually end badly. My first boyhood attempt at angling nearly got me drowned. Eager to put the bait way out in the deep water where my keen young mind suspected the fish were lurking, I cast with such spastic athleticism that I bodily flung myself into the canal. Unable to swim, I stripped cord grass from the muddy bank until my grandfather, father and brother yanked me out.
Undaunted by this early experience, I persevered, albeit with a somewhat unorthodox style I was convinced would someday prove fruitful. To improve my skills, I started fishing with people who knew what they were doing. Then they stopped catching fish. That’s when I realized I was contagiously unlucky.
If, by contrast, you are the lucky type, a little knowledge will go a long way toward landing a big one. Surf fishing is the simplest, least expensive way to angling success, and even if you don’t catch anything, standing at the water’s edge, listening to the gulls and waves, is not such a bad way to spend a few hours.
The first thing you need is a good bait and tackle shop. At Bill’s Sport Shop in Lewes, owners Bill and Kathy Baker sell beauty supplies as well. The concept is brilliant. Drive up to most bait and tackle shops and half of the cars in the lot will be occupied by women who have been abandoned by their mates for a box of frozen squid. “Won’t be a minute honey.” Thirty minutes later, the man emerges, still laughing over the high-spirited banter of the shop. But as his wife’s mood has sunk like one of the 4-ounce sinkers he just bought, he finds his weekend fishing plans in jeopardy.
Bill’s and Kathy’s fusion of bait, tackle and beauty supplies—perms and worms, as the sign outside says—prevents such marital friction, though the mix was not an intentional marketing plan. “We just think of it all as bait,” Kathy says.
Live peelers, black salties or eel; fresh bunker; squid or mullet; foundation or eye shadow; cut bait or man bait—Bill and Kathy have it, plus any rod, reel, tackle and lure.
They also supply lots of advice, and that is what makes a real bait and tackle shop. Bill hosts the fishing report on WGMD 92.7 FM after the news three times a day, and he hosts his own sports show. Their son Brian and daughter-in-law Debbie complete the team. Their dog Minnie greets customers with a wag of her tail.
When I visit, Mike Warren is walking around the shop, working on an order. He supplies many of their lures and rigs, all hand-tied and sold as MAW’s Tails. He makes every type of rig for freshwater and saltwater and is a guru of surf fishing.
There are lots of different surf rigs out there, many manufactured by large companies, many tied locally. Many of the simple rigs one finds in shops are tied right in the store. Choosing one from the myriad selection hanging from the pegboard is not as difficult as it might seem to a novice, but not as easy as sophomores like me often assume.
In the surf fishing section, Mike gives meÊ a review of the basics. “Right now, for blues, you want a top-bottom rig with a three-quarter green fireball and a No. 2 hook,” he says, reaching up to tap a rig strung with fluorescent green Styrofoam floats. “It seems that lately they’ve been hittin’ the green.”
I confess that I’ve been using red.
“They’re going after green now,” Mike insists. “The thing is, it changes. You might throw cut bait one day and not get anything, then throw a whole mullet rig and they hit that.”
Fish, as any old salt knows, are finicky, or so they appear. I had always been a little suspicious of the idea that fish have moods, but as Mike explains it, it makes sense: “They go after whatever they’re feeding on.”
Understanding fish is a skill that comes with only time. I’m still struggling to understand the tackle.
Comprehending sinkers alone is daunting. You’ve got your bank sinkers, bell sinkers, barrel sinkers, split shots and Sputniks; your pyramids, storm sinkers, tongue sinkers and in-line sinkers. Each has a purpose. A Sputnik looks like the satellite it’s named for and holds a line on the bottom in heavy surf. A tongue sinker looks like a tongue. (Mike demonstrates this one by holding it under his cookie-duster mustache, then making an “aahh” sound.) A tongue sinker dives into the sand almost like a Danforth anchor, so it holds with the strength of a sinker that is far heavier.
Mike proves a fine guide, and his lures—alien figures in chartreuse, orange and pink—are fantastic creations. He started making two types 17 years ago. He now ties every conceivable rig, from floaters and fish finders to hoochies and ragmops.
Kathy confirms that the blues are running. “They always come in around Mother’s Day, and the sharks follow on Father’s Day.”
After Mike’s review of bluefish rigs, I feel a bit more confident about hitting the beach. In general, I know a bit about bluefish. Use cut mullet, bunker or whole mullet. If blues are feeding, they will hit just about anything. If you start getting a lot of hits on cut bait or pulling in two fish on a top-bottom rig, you can bet a school is moving through. If so, try a spoon. It’s a simple metal oval designed to flutter and flash in the water. If you cast one into a school, it will rarely come back empty, and there’s no need to rebait the hook.
Stripers, the delicious striped bass often served as specials at coastal eateries, like live bait or lures that mimic wounded baitfish. While they’re easy to catch near the rocks and groins where they hang out, they also run in gullies close to shore. Because stripers are wary of metal leaders and swivel clips, you’ll have a good chance of hooking one if you tie your lures on by hand, using a strong monofilament leader. But they will also take cut bait.
Their fall run provides the best opportunities. One fall a few years back, there was a weeklong run of large blues and stripers that hit so quickly, anglers ran between rods, alternately casting one then reeling another. Fish pulled the rods out of sand spikes while anglers re-baited rigs.
Sand sharks and spiny dogfish are also common catches. They’re big, pull like sled dogs and slash the surface. They tend to feed on the bottom, so skip the float on your rig. If you’re on the bottom, you’ll catch a lot of skate as well. Most folks consider them an annoyance because they are difficult to clean and cook, and they hug the bottom rather than fight. So if you feel like you’re dragging a cinderblock through the sand as you spin your reel, get your needle-nose pliers ready. If you want to keep your fingers, the tool is necessary for de-hooking the skate; they have very sharp teeth and incredibly powerful jaws.
The local bait and tackle shop is, again, the best place to hone knowledge of such things. The folks at B&R Tackle, at the bottom end of South Bethany on Del. 1, have always been helpful. Old Inlet, just north of Indian River Inlet, opened in April 1962. The area’s oldest shop, it has been run by the Evans family for 35 years. I stopped in to see Clark Evans, who gives surf fishing lessons from the shop every Tuesday in June, July and August.
“There’s been a real revival of surf fishing lately,” says Clark, who writes for The Fisherman magazine. He attributes the trend in part to surf fishing’s easy fit with families on vacation. Kids love it, and the beach is available for the whole family to enjoy.
Clark’s lessons begin with an introduction to the nuances of environment. “Most people just think of the beach as a flat place that’s the same everywhere, with water that just stays put, but it’s a really dynamic place.”
Looking at signs to understand the effects of forces like wind, tide and surf is the best place to begin figuring out where and when to fish. One of the most basic and important observations an angler can make is where the waves break. Fish feed just beyond that point, but most folks cast their bait as far as possible and, as a result, overshoot the fish. Bigger surf does require a longer rod to throw a heavier weight farther and to keep the line high in the water over the cresting waves, but for most conditions, Clark recommends a 9-foot or 10-foot rod as a good starter.
Moving the bait around every few minutes is a good way to pinpoint where the action is. Even looking at the sand gives clues. “Look down,” says Clark. “If there are a lot of shells, the ground is getting stirred up, which puts a lot of the invertebrates that bait fish feed on in the water. The larger fish line up behind them.”
There’s a lot more to know—a lot. Understanding how wind, tide, topography and littoral drift move water around is critical. Are fish-attracting nutrients being brought in or pushed away? Is the water temperature changing because of the movement? The list is long, and the effects of these environmental factors don’t explain things still harder to understand, such as what the fish think about it all.
Clark’s understanding is impressive, but I wondered at what point the equation became too complicated. When do fishermen just throw their hands in the air or start making stuff up?
For elucidation, I call my nephew Vinny. He’s a solid angler who lived in the Florida Keys for several years, feeding himself on snook he reeled in and lobsters he caught free-diving. He’s also a marine biologist. He replied to my voice mail while I was fishing on the beach at sunset, enduring my usual poor luck.
As I try to make out his voice over the breaking surf, I realize that Vinny is saying much of what Clark had told me.
“Yeah,” I reply, “but it seems like there are just too many factors involved to do more than simply increase your odds.”
“You’re right,” he says.
“So are those wildly extravagant explanations I often hear from avid fishermen valid?”
“Most fisherman are pretty results oriented,” Vinny says. “They have experience. In most cases, they know the local waters and what makes fish bite. Sometimes they are right. But fishermen are also great storytellers, so when they aren’t sure, they rely on that skill.”
What matters most, according to Vinny, is not just smarts, but practical experience gained over time—not just scientific knowledge about marine environments and biology, but familiarity with what has worked consistently in the past.
“A scientist would probably design a pretty crappy lure,” he says, summing it up.
Understanding fishing, then, is complicated. But fishing doesn’t have to be. For me, the whole point of recreation is to avoid complication, to strip away the tangle of stuff that gets in the way of enjoying life. I don’t want the process of going fishing to overwhelm the simple fun of doing the fishing, and I don’t want it to get expensive. It’s fun to buy toys, and a quiver of rods and a tackle box loaded with shiny lures can make one feel like 007. But all that stuff is hard to carry, and chaos quickly reduces it to a sandy, knotted nest of hooks and line. Besides, it’s a fish one is after, not Goldfinger-like gizmos. Bare necessities make fishing more fun.
Guided by this philosophy, I recently began hand-lining: no rod, reel or sand spike. All I have to carry over the dunes is a bucket. I toss into it my line, some tackle and my bait. The bucket serves as my seat.
I learned to hand-line in Costa Rica. The spool I bought from a hardware store there is a simple plastic ring ridged to fit in the hand. It is wound with thick, high-test monofilament. To cast, one swings the line lariat-style overhead, then lets the weight fly like a rock from a sling, holding the spool to allow the line to feed out. It takes a little practice, but with a 1- or 2-ounce sinker, you can cast far enough in most surf. A hand-over-hand motion reels in the line. With my first experience, I was hooked—in the shorts. As I said, it takes a little practice.
Soon, however, I could cast competently. I thus set off down the beach, hoping to collect some sardines from the tidal pools as bait. I had tied on my own homemade lures as well. I tied a No. 2 hook to the shiny lever of a toenail clipper, lashed on a skirt of dental floss then, with borrowed fingernail polish, painted a half-ounce barrel sinker red and slid it over the knot attaching the hook. It looked like a baitfish to me.
Walking down the beach, I saw thousands of small fish tossed onto the sand by the surf. Then I saw that they had been run in by schools of frenzied amberjack that roiled the water only a few yards from shore.
I threw my lure. The jack hit so hard, they straightened the small hooks on my companion’s lures, but my Rite Aid toenail clipper worked brilliantly. My performance was not so polished.
Struggling to cast out into the feeding school, I stumbled and fell repeatedly in the large shore break, getting thrown rear-over-teakettle back onto the sand. I soon found myself wrapped in monofilament and tethered to an angry amberjack.
I remember thinking that what I was doing had to be inherently dangerous. But I was having great fun—as were the people watching from the beach.
We caught enough fish to make a gallon of ceviche, which we enjoyed at sunset with cocktails. Which leads to the last point: Cooking fish is as much fun as catching them.
Surf fishing yields all sorts of delicacies, though the tastier the fish, the harder it will likely be to catch.
Locally, striper is the prize most seek. My Uncle Nick, now in his 80s, has caught them for years and is still at it.
“I usually bake them in this fish-shaped dish I have,” he says. “I rub the fish with olive oil and sauté a little celery, onions and tomato. I put in some basil, then put that under the filets so they don’t stick. Then I put it on and around the fish and top it all off with some slices of tomato and a sprig of basil.”
I can attest that it’s delicious.
He also stuffs filets with Aunt Betty Jean’s crab casserole. Make a roux, then beat in a whole egg. Add some capers, sherry and crab meat at the end. Stuff it into the fish, then top it with cracker crumbs.
“It’s really nothing special. I just came up with it to use all the crabs Nick used to catch. He would sit and pick crabs while he watched football games, so I had to have some way to use it all,” Aunt Betty Jean says.
Her favorite fish is croaker, a common catch in Delaware. “I just love it,” she says. She prepares it in a classic Southern manner: batter-fried. “You don’t need much oil,” she says. “Fish has a little oil in it, too.” She recommends House of Autrey seafood breader mix.
Fish is plain good eatin’, even bluefish. A lot of folks will quickly dismiss the sharp-toothed fighter, Pomatomus saltatrix, as too oily. But not I. The trick is to clean it right away. If you can’t, bl