Avoid these sins of surfcasting, you and your favorite surf rod will enjoy a long and happy life together
One second I was swinging my rod back to make a cast toward the fish-filled Cape Cod Canal, and the next, I was watching the top three-quarters of my rod tumble down the rocky embankment while I clutched the rod butt and reel seat.
Broken rods happen. Sometimes they won’t be your fault—most times, they will. I break an average of one surf rod every two years, so I know all too well the finer points of turning a one-piece into a two-piece. I’ve left shards of graphite from New Jersey to Cape Cod. Read these tragic tales and learn from my mistakes.
1. High Sticking
Island Beach State Park, NJ; November 2006.
The Northeast wind had created enough chop that the entirety of the “pocket” where the North Jetty of Barnegat Inlet hits the sand at the southernmost point of Island Beach State Park, was covered in foam. Every so often, a striped olive back and spiny dorsal fin would add some color to the whitewater. I set up shop about 20 yards down the jetty, where the occaisional wave would wash over at ankle height. In the 30 minutes I’d been fishing, I’d had a hit on every cast after switching to chartreuse bucktail. I lifted my rod straight up to pull what would have been my fifth fish close to the edge of the rocks when a wave caught the tired fish and pushed it right to my boots. The rod, which I’d been holding straight up in the air, horseshoed and snapped 6 inches from the tip.
Holding a rod straight up while landing or preparing to land a striper in the surf is a great way to shorten your rod. Most rods are not meant to bend beyond a 90-degree angle, especially not in a full “U.” A properly bent rod puts the majority of the strain on the heaviest part of the rod, toward the foregrip. As the rod is bent farther into a U, the strain moves up the rod to weaker sections that will ultimately give way.
The best way to land a fish is to simply back away from the surf while keeping the rod at a low angle. The waves will do the rest. When landing fish on a jetty or rock, where backing up isn’t an option, keep the rod low. When the fish is tired and close, point the rod straight at it and use one of your hands to grab the rod between the foregrip and the first guide, then use the other hand to reach for the line or leader. Once you have a firm hold on the leader, tuck the rod under your armpit and pull the fish to you.
2. Swinging Fish
Montauk, NY; October 2005
Sunrise under the Light rarely disappoints in October. On this particular day, the fishing was so good that I was tired of climbing down from my position above the breaking waves to retrieve and release my fish, most of which weren’t very big. Of the fishermen around me, most also climbed down to grab their fish, but several would simply get the fish in close, lower the rod, pick up the slack and lift the fish clear out of the water and directly to them. Because these guys were taking less time to land their fish, they were hooking more of them, a prospect that I found very enticing. On my next fish, I decided I was going to lift it to my position. When the bass was on its side next to the bluff, I lowered the tip, picked up the slack and gave a mighty heave. The entire fish was out of the water, suspended in midair for an instant when a sharp POP made me jump and the fish went plummeting back into the water. My rod, which seconds before had made such a beautiful arc against the rising sun, now formed a dreadful acute angle. For the few steps I was trying to save in landing a fish, I still ended up having to climb down to unhook it, and then had to walk all the way back to my truck to get my backup rod.
Don’t swing fish. It’s lazy and stupid. It puts too much strain on the rod, and it’s tough on the fish too, especially when accompanied by a tail-over-teakettle throw back into the wash. Land your fish at the water’s edge, and you’ll never have to turn your back to the blitz in order to retrieve a backup rod.
Cape Cod Canal, MA; September 2009
I saw the peanut bunker first, about 20 yards from the bank, silently leaping a full foot out of the water, only to leap again the instant it touched down. Following that second jump, a striper erupted from below, hell-bent on making a meal of the small bunker. The bass thrashed on the surface for a few seconds, giving me time to reel in and attempt to cast a Sebile Stick Shadd at it. As I followed through on my cast, a loud crack turned the heads of all the nearby fishermen in my direction. Totally flummoxed by my now two-piece rod, I examined the Stick Shadd and discovered that it had cracked and filled with water. It must have weighed a solid 8 ounces, well beyond the 2- to 5-ounce rating clearly stated just below where the rod had snapped.
While I should have noticed the lure was too heavy—and definitely should not have dragged the lure over the rocks and cracked its body in the first place—many anglers willfully ignore the ratings on their rods, especially when it comes to throwing bait rigs. Remember: the rod’s rating includes both the weight of the sinker and the weight of the bait. A chunk of bunker could weigh 3 ounces on its own; combined with a sinker that already maxes out the rod’s rating, the rig is primed to make a yardstick out of your surf rod.
4. Situational Unawareness
Cape Cod Canal, MA; August 2013
Big fish on the surface in late summer is a rare treat, but the full moon tides had made for some memorable morning fishing for anglers on the right part of the Canal. I happened to be on the wrong part of the Canal, but made the day memorable nonetheless. With the water high, I stood about eye-level to the service road when I found a sturdy, flat rock. The previous day’s reports of large schools of big fish attacking every lure in sight may have made me a touch overeager as I wound up to cast. Though my lure never made it into the Canal, the top half of my rod did. When I looked around to seek answers to the question I posed loudly after the rod splintered at the handle (“What the f—?!”), I found my lure stuck firmly in the seat of my bicycle. My rod was not rated to cast a bicycle, so naturally it folded.
Watch for trees, rocks, bikes, dogs and other fishermen when making a cast. If you are casting in tight quarters, whether it is in a crowd of fishermen or on a steep-sloping bank, it’s a good idea to get in the habit of turning your head around to make sure all is clear before unloading a cast.
5. Chipping the Graphite
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico; August 2009
Though I wasn’t fishing this particular rod when it lost a little off the top, I still helped. I was on a week-long trip to the Pacific beaches of Mexico chasing roosterfish on ATVs rigged with rod racks. On the third day, while running the beach looking for life with my friend Scotty Pullen of Lex Lures, we occasionally heard a sharp clacking as the vehicle bounced along the sand. When we realized the sound was being made by two of the rods knocking against each other, Scotty stopped the ATV and asked if I thought this was a problem. I didn’t, and we continued on our way. When we found feeding fish a half-mile down the beach, Scott hopped off the ATV, cast and immediately hooked up. The fish, a manhole-cover-sized jack crevalle, put up a stubborn battle, but Scotty got the upper hand and worked the fish toward the beach. Just as he was about to land the fish, the jack made a final surge that snipped the top 8 inches off the rod. Scott denied allegations of high-sticking, and proved his innocence when he took the rod back to the ATV rod holder. The break lined up perfectly with the tip of the other rod, which had been slamming into the broken rod throughout the entire ride there.
Many rods that break for seemingly no reason actually break because the rod was damaged. Dropping a rod on the rocks, accidentally hitting it with a lure, and knocking rods together all have the potential to create weak spots in your rod’s graphite that could eventually fail. The graphite and resins used to make modern rod blanks aren’t so delicate that you need to handle them with kid gloves, but you should take care to store them properly and do your best to avoid dropping rods or allowing them to knock against rocks or other hard objects.
If you avoid these sins of surfcasting, you and your favorite surf rod will enjoy a long and happy life together—provided you steer clear of ceiling fans, car windows, angry spouses and all the other off-the-water threats.