After a long, cold winter the Delmarva surf is beginning to warm up and very welcomed signs of life are appearing. Over the past few weeks I have been keeping a close eye on the inshore water temperatures and am happy to see the surf temps have risen significantly. This temperature increase is not only caused by a few warm, sunny days, but also several consecutive days of south wind. With the warmer water, sand fleas are showing up and can be found in the wash. Sand fleas are often overlooked when it comes to bait, but present a good meal to many species of hungry fish.
We should be seeing larger bluefish this month and have already seen kingfish (whiting) and blowfish. Kingfish are always fun to catch and are excellent table fare. When targeting kingfish, I use an 8-foot medium action rod with 10 lb. test monofilament. You can find premade kingfish rigs at most local tackle shops. The bait of choice is bloodworms, Fishbites bloodworm alternative, small pieces of cut bait such as strips of menhaden (bunker), shrimp and cut squid. If you decide to keep your kingfish, make sure you save the heads for your next trip to the surf. A kingfish head is probably one of my favorite baits for stripers (striped bass or rockfish) and red drum.
There have been several very nice black drum caught from the Assateague Island surf over the past few weeks ranging up to 49 inches. These powerful fish can be found cruising in close to the shore and searching the breakers looking for sand fleas and speckled crabs. When fishing for black drum, I use a fishfinder rig with an 8/0 circle hook. These fish are bottom feeders, so having a shorter leader could prove beneficial. These fish can be a bit tricky if you are not paying attention. Black drum have been known to “mouth” the bait and can easily steal your fresh peeler crab or clam. Keep your hooks sharp and a close eye on your rod tip. Baits of choice when targeting black drum include peeler crab, shucked chowder clam, sand fleas and I have heard a few success stories using Fishbites artificial bait.
Stripers are making their migratory trip back up to the cool waters off the New England coast. In recent years, surf anglers have consistently proven that the month of May is prime time to hook into big fish from the beach. Stripers will often swim in close to shore feeding on smaller fish, speckled crabs and sand fleas. Being an ambush predator, stripers also like to stick close to underwater structure, such as breaks in the sandbar. Low tide is a great time to scout out good beach structure, then fish the incoming tide.
Most surf anglers use fresh bunker as the primary bait when fishing for stripers. Bunker can be found at most local tackle shops. When picking out your bunker, it should be firm, slimy and the eyes should be clear. Keep it on ice until you are ready to use it. An average size bunker can be cut into three or more sections utilizing the head as one bait and cutting the body into “chunks”. You should discard the belly section as well as the tail. Other great baits to consider while fishing for spring stripers are peeler crabs, bloodworms, freshly shucked clams and herring. In my experience, the crab and clam don’t seem quite as appetizing to the skates and you also have a great shot at hooking into a black drum if he happens across your bait.
For striper fishing, I prefer using a standard “fish finder” rig. Personally, I like using very sharp 10/0 to 12/0 circle hooks. I find larger hooks are easier to bait and it makes it a little more difficult for skates and smaller dogfish (sand sharks) to get the larger hooks in their mouths. I use 17 lb. test monofilament as my main running line and tie it to a 50 lb. shock leader using a spider hitch / blood knot combination.
If you have never surf fished before and plan on hitting the sand this spring there are important factors I recommend taking into consideration. The first is realizing that surf fishing is very different from other types of fishing. There is no boat or captain to take you to the fish and guide you through every step of the way. When you fish the surf, you are in total control of your fishing experience from your gear to your frame of mind. Sure, being in the right place at the right time will definitely help, but in order to fully appreciate a true surf fishing experience, you need to be prepared to challenge yourself.
I have seen so many beginner anglers give up on surf fishing before they had a chance to really experience the thrill of fishing from the surf. Most of these people start off with very high hopes, decent tackle and everything it takes to catch a nice fish. They rush to get to the beach, quickly unpack their gear, bait their hooks, cast out their bait and expect the fish to be right there waiting for breakfast. After a while they become restless and begin to second-guess everything they are doing. Before long those high hopes start to fade and boredom sets in. They wonder how in the world those other anglers have such great success.
There is no mystery to consistently catching fish from the surf. There is no “secret bait” the tackle shops keep hidden in the back and you don’t always have to cast 100 yards to get to the fish. The most important things you can take with you are patience and a willingness to learn. In time, you will have gained not only invaluable knowledge but also confidence. When you least expect it your rod will bend over, your line will start peeling off the reel and you will realize the thrill of surf fishing and find the fish is not the only one “hooked”.