Surf Fishing Etiquette

“Sam, they are here!” was all it took to get me on the beach one evening this past week. I had been receiving e-mails and reading a lot of great fishing reports online about successful anglers catching stripers from the surf, but hearing those four words from a good friend was like a shot of adrenalin. It did not take me long to pack up, stop to get fresh bunker, a few peeler crabs and before I knew it, I was kicked back in my beach chair anxiously watching every movement of three rod tips.

After about an hour, I saw a familiar truck bouncing down the beach towards me. It was a good friend of mine I had met a few years ago. He is someone who has always been very generous to me when it comes to sharing his experience and knowledge about fishing. He had expressed many times that he was not interested in catching smaller fish; he wanted to catch the “big one”. Before long he pulls his truck up next to mine for a quick chat before heading home.

With a hint of sarcasm, I asked him, “So, did you get that big striper you’ve been looking for?” To my surprise he calmly said, “yep… fifty-one inches”. It took me a few seconds to comprehend what he had just said. “Fifty-one inches”, I exclaimed, “that is your biggest striper, right?” Again, in a calm voice he said, “yep, she was a little on the skinny side, but I could tell she was a big fish right away”. Then, with much anticipation, I asked him to recount the entire event. He politely answered my numerous questions and also told me about the other several large stripers he had caught and released over the past two days.

After many “congratulations” and “you deserved it” I waved goodbye and he left me there to ponder what had just happened. My good friend had finally caught the “one fish” he had been looking for, the fish of a lifetime. Not only did he catch that fish, but he released it. Because of the incredible amount of respect he had for that old striper, he did not even take precious time to get a photo. I’m still not sure if releasing that fish was easy for him or it took an amazing amount of willpower. Either way, I am certainly impressed.

With the larger stripers currently being caught from the Delmarva surf, remember that it is very important to have respect for the fish you catch. There is absolutely nothing wrong with keeping your catch as long as it meets the size and creel regulations for that fish. However, if you plan on releasing a large fish, do it quickly and safely. You have to realize this fish has just fought the battle of its life and now, being out of the water, it is unable to breathe. Quickly and safely remove the hook, gently pick up the fish and “cradle” it against your chest. If possible, have someone take a quick photo and then get the fish back into the water.

The best way to make sure the fish survives is to get into knee-deep water and submerge the fish in its natural swimming position. Then, while holding on to the base of the tail gently push and pull the fish back and forth to get the water flowing through its gills. If done correctly, the fish should “kick off” and swim through the breakers. If the fish goes “belly up”, do your best to get a hold of the fish and try repeating the process. Always be aware of the waves, especially when concentrating on releasing a fish.

When surf fishing, having respect for your surroundings is very important and this includes respecting nearby anglers. There are many unwritten rules that surf fishermen live by and abiding by these rules can make a big difference to other anglers.

First of all, I believe most fishermen are superstitious in one way or another; however I think the quickest way to upset any experienced angler is to set up your fishing gear too close to them and their “fishing hole”. Even though it may seem like common sense not to do this, some anglers have a hard time keeping their distance (especially when they just saw you catch a nice fish and then proudly pose for a picture). I have had anglers stop and set up their sand spikes within twenty feet of mine. Not only can this cause tangled lines because of wind or a strong current, it can also be very uncomfortable not knowing the casting ability of your new neighbor. Anglers in general like to have plenty of elbow room. If you find yourself the one who has been encroached upon, it is likely because the other angler does not know any better. If you decide to talk to them try to be patient and polite.

Seagulls are very common on our beaches and you will almost always find them watching you in the distance. They are waiting for you to change baits and will be right behind you to scoop up the scraps. The problem occurs when anglers throw the old bait back into the wash. The birds will fly down to get the scraps and sometimes right into your fishing line. I have found just dropping the old bait will attract less attention than tossing it in any direction. If you are fishing near someone, please do not dump your leftover bait into the water. The bait is likely to drift towards the other anglers and it will attract an unbelievable number of gulls.

Another commonly talked about annoyance occurs while surf fishing at night. Some anglers believe that bright lights, such as vehicle headlights, large fires and lanterns, “spook” the fish. There are many opinions on whether this is a superstition or a fact. Personally, I find it annoying when I have to re-acquire my night vision because of unnecessarily bright lights.

You may hear or read anglers advising others to turn off their vehicle’s headlights while driving by someone’s fishing area; however I feel this is very bad advice. Using headlights on beaches that allow vehicle access is a necessity at night. Depending on the beach, there can be many dangerous objects that are barely visible even with headlights on. I recommend using your low beams and trying your best not to point them directly towards another angler or the surf.

Instead of a large lantern that lights up your entire fishing area, I have found the use of a small headlamp very helpful. If you have a hard time seeing your fishing rods at night, you can get the bracelet style glow sticks and attach them to the rod tips.

There are various other “rules” but the bottom line is using common sense and being respectful. Not only will you be able to relax and enjoy your fishing experience, but you never know who you could be influencing.

Sam Kilgore is a published author and owner of He also owns and operates Ocean Computers, a computer repair and website design business. His passion in life is learning and teaching people many aspects of saltwater fishing.

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