A dedicated surfcaster provides a roadmap to finding little-known locations with big-fish potential.
The world feels as if it is swiftly becoming devoid of mystery and intrigue. The staggering amount of information available to anyone, at any time, has slowly created a reality where nothing is surprising. Humans will be on Mars within 6 years (if you believe Elon Musk) or within 20 years (if you believe NASA). China just turned on a “second sun,” a nuclear-fusion reactor capable of energy creation that was possible only on the surface of the real sun … until now. And, it turns out that the Earth is careening toward the Milky Way’s black hole faster than we thought.
The incredible, the remarkable, the fascinating all start to become mundane under the constant onslaught of “more.” More information, more statistics, more data, more accessibility, more hype, more, more, more! You need only to Google a question and the answer is spit back at you, succinctly at first, but then repeatedly as the single flake of a fact becomes an avalanche of specifics, opinions, and discussion as you scroll and click, click and scroll. Indeed, using the “how to catch more striped bass” search term will reward a curious angler with over 19 million hits.
Yet, surfcasting remains an enigma; it remains permeated with infinite complexity and deep, profound secrets. No matter how much is learned, documented, or analyzed; no matter how many hours are spent in the actual act of fishing; no matter how many books are written and read, we will not “solve” surf fishing. It is not a proof or a logic puzzle. It is controlled and dictated by forces we don’t entirely understand and have no direct power over. Not even as a worldwide species could we explain, with finality, how to catch every fish, at every spot, at every moment. Statistical probability will always spit out some error number, no matter how small. We cannot control the spinning of Earth or the trajectory of the moon; therefore, we cannot control the weather or the tides. We can predict and measure these factors, but control will remain forever elusive.
This says nothing of trying to predict the behavior of tens of millions of individual creatures—the fish themselves. How could anyone predict the actions of just one school over a single season? This is a feat beyond humanity; it’s likely beyond computation as we understand it, not to mention the resistance to sharing information.
Surf fishing is suffused with deceit and misdirection—bold-faced lies intended not to hurt the fellow angler but to protect information that was hard-sought and hard-earned. That means there will never be a surf-fishing database of all known angling information. And so, surf fishing will remain unsolvable, which is part of its majesty and beauty—the infuriating complexity of it all.
Despite this, I have heard it said that there are no more “secret spots.” I guess this is a concession that part of the puzzle has been solved—that the coast is a known variable, so if someone isn’t fishing the spot you’re fishing, it’s because it isn’t viable or there are simply better spots. For me, that is a devastating, brutally cynical belief that I cannot accept. Perhaps, with the slimmest of probabilities, someone at some point has fished every inch of the “Striper Coast,” from Machias to McClellanville, during the entire history of mankind in North America. I suppose that’s possible, yet I know there are places that are unfished right now—or at least they were until I found them.
This is the greatest secret a surfcaster can ever have—a spot all your own.
Finding my own secret spot is something I have humbly been defeated at again and again. It is something I strived for years to accomplish before I eventually succeeded. So, I am here to dissuade you from the notion that there is nothing left to discover. This is the story of one of those places.
It Begins With Desire
The hot toddy wafted thin wisps of steam across my field of view as I sipped and stared blankly right through my computer screen. It was deep within the dark, frozen heart of winter, and the hour was late. As often happens when I start pulling apart my log, analyzing my season, I saw only failures and missed opportunities. So many mistakes despite hundreds of fish caught, some in excess of 30 pounds. It had spawned a fit of insomnia, and I poured the Jack Daniels in my peppermint tea in search for solace. It wasn’t working.
My old log lay open to a random page, jumbled among various handwritten notes made over the prior weeks. I scowled at the mess and scrunched my nose as the whiskey opened my sinuses. The too-bright screen had multiple windows all pinched and squished onto the same field of view: satellite maps, nautical charts, my digital log, and old reports from a variety of sources. It was a slew of information I was attempting to work through with one goal: finding a new spot. This search was centered along one stretch of shoreline that I had been ignoring for years.
I wondered whether not having a location along this particular stretch was limiting the number of fish I caught during migration periods. This was based solely on intuition, though I knew that not having a spot along it was limiting my catches in the fall when bait was thick. There was no intuition necessary about that, since I’d heard about it from fellow anglers and it had been plastered all over the reports from the previous season.
I wanted a fishing spot that I could escape to, an oasis known only to me; one that I would have to figure out all on my own.
It didn’t happen that night. It took many more late evenings and distracted workdays before I compiled a handful of potential spots. These were primarily boulder fields because those are where I love to fish.
Over the River and Through the Woods
As February gave way to March and the first cracks in the deep freeze of winter started to show, I began to scout my list of potential spots. First and foremost, was parking. The first location I tried wasn’t viable because it was clear I would be busted before I could even lock the doors of the car. The second was interesting, but it also had some severe hurdles to overcome. And so it went, me checking the access situation before even attempting to scout the shoreline. The fifth spot on my list of eight looked the most promising.
Scouting in daylight is tricky but necessary. I try to act as naturally as possible, which means no taking notes or wearing fishing-related clothing—nothing to betray my true intentions. On that particular trip, I brought my camera and looked the part of a birding enthusiast, complete with binoculars slung across my chest. I walked the shoreline, trying not to dawdle, and feigned interest in birds. I also took plenty of photos of the structure, noting the movement of water and some remarkable features. It looked fantastic! I left with enough information to begin planning for the first trip of the season.
At home, I carefully looked over the photos. I planned where I would stand and the most likely scenario for the best action based on what I knew of other locations, the movements of fish, and the likely bait. I thought this spot was probably going to be an incoming tide one, with wind in my face, since boulder fields often are. It was a fast-and-loose rule, but at least somewhere to start. I made notes in my spreadsheet, outlining where this location would fit in my season, and then put it aside to work on my planning for other spots and other fishing projects.
The Best-Laid Plans
Fast-forward to the first week in May. I was geared up in waders for my first nighttime foray into this new spot, though my confidence was low. It was early and I was primarily hoping to get a feel for the spot at night without making my presence known.
I was on the shore in about 15 minutes, sweaty from hustling and nerves. I stood for a moment and took in the night, letting it seep into me and soften my mood. I took deep breaths with my eyes closed to focus my mind, shake off the nerves, and get a feel for the night. A fatal error in surf fishing is not being in touch with what is going on around you, so I always try to keep my mind in tune with the vibrations and vibes of what the night feels like. Channeling this helps me pick the first plug out of the bag and what tactics I’ll be using. Particularly at a new spot, I want to try and tune in to what is happening around me—to be the receiver for what is being broadcast.
What was being broadcast that night was languid stillness. Smoothness and softness, with no ferocity or energy. It was just short of dullness. There was potential, yes, but I immediately surmised fishing was going to be slow and I was ultimately correct.
The first lure out was a 9-inch Slug-Go. This bait excels in calm conditions where casting distance isn’t an issue, and I was very confident it would catch me any small or moderately-sized fish in the area. It is not a traditional “search bait” in the strictest sense since it is subtle and quiet, yet I have such high confidence in it that I perform the extra work necessary to deliver it to the fish.
I walked and cast the soft-plastic slug, stopping at a few of the likeliest spots. I was glad I had taken the time to mark notable features on satellite maps and memorize their locations since everything looked entirely different in the dark. There was also the nagging feeling that comes with the first few sessions at a new spot … that feeling of being incompetent or unprepared. As I progressed along the shoreline, I noted as many things as I could, and I even made a couple of voice recordings with my phone’s camera so I wouldn’t forget. The act of recording is usually enough, but I always save the notes anyway.
I only had a couple of small fish that night and they seemed to come at entirely random times.
By the beginning of June, I realized that I had made several incorrect assumptions about the place—how the water would move, where the bait would accumulate, even the depth close to shore. I took careful notes after every trip, being extra thorough, even for me.
The biggest “ah-ha” moment came when I learned that the area does not spot fish well on the flood tide. I was lucky to have discovered this because it came down to a few casts at the end of my night. After another four-hour slog yielding nothing but fresh air, I made “one more cast” (which was probably five) at the final bit of good structure as I was on my way home. The tide had switched, and I was curious how deep the water was, and whether I could work the structure from the same perch I used at higher tide levels. I was barely paying attention to my glidebait at the edge of a collection of boulders I had begun to call “The Halo” when it was hammered by a decent fish. My drag finally slipped for the first time at my new spot.
I ended up breaking the fish off trying to get it through the quagmire of boulders. After a quick re-tie, I waded back out a bit, and I ended up landing three fish between 18 and 24 pounds, with a handful of shorts. The bite died, and another hour slipped by before I headed back to the car. My back was sore from the longest session of the young season, but I finally felt I was onto something. I was so excited on the drive home, as the eastern sky started to get light, that I blasted Pantera and rocked out in celebration.
I went back the following night but caught only a few schoolies. That continued through the week— catching schoolies with a couple of larger fish thrown in—until the productive tide slipped into the daylight.
The next tide came around two weeks later. Some very large fish had settled into the area, and I began carrying really big plugs to focus on tempting the larger fish. Water temperatures had remained stable, so I took the same approach I had earlier in the month.
It was a new moon, and I spent a lot of time moving around in the boulders, trying to figure out “the spot within the spot.” Knowing where to stand and cast is an important factor if you’re trying to get a presentation just right to fool a large fish. I ended up getting it nearly right and landed, among many smaller fish, eight fish between 20 and 32 pounds over five nights. I was ecstatic to have the hard data to support choosing this new spot.
But there’s more to learning a spot than simply where the fish are—knowing where they’ll go once hooked is also important. That week, I broke off four fish that ran against an extremely tight drag and lost another two that threw the hook shortly after the first run. I didn’t know the spot well enough to deal with these large fish and the rocky structure. I let the big fish run when I should fought tooth-and-nail to turn their heads. I learned there were multiple larger rocks beyond where I stood, and the whole area was much shallower than I first thought. As a result, the fish ran hard with the current, turning down along the shore because they couldn’t go down any deeper. They rubbed off on one of several substantial hang-ups as a result. I’d first called the spot “the Halo” because I thought the ring of rocks would protect me from sharks, but it began to take on new meaning: once I got a fish past the ring of rocks, I was likely to land it.
The rest of the summer was not nearly as profound. I noted in my log that I had “wasted my time” there because I’d missed productive tides at more familiar areas in favor of trying to learn this new one. In truth, time spent understanding and learning something new is never wasted—in fishing or in life. Without experimenting, I’d never progress.
Case in point: through all this “wasted time” I discovered another “spot within the spot” further down the shore that held schoolies and teen fish at another part of the tide. I started calling it “Plan B,” and it turned out to be a great backup if I wasn’t having success at the Halo.
As I moved through summer and the Halo and Plan B stopped producing, I was unsure whether the area would be an “upper echelon” location or a decent, seasonal-specific spot. But I reminded myself that it was impossible to judge a location by a single season. It can take years to understand even the most basic bit of structure and water movement.
Over several tides in September, I had another handful of teen and 20-pounders, along with many smaller fish. Noisy, hard-thumping plugs were best, mimicking fleeing prey trapped in the current. In the fall, the spot had a totally different vibe than the spring and summer. It was raw and aggressive. Wild-eyed, charging stripers blasted bait at my feet, rolling it up onto my toes. One night, I was kicking peanut bunker back into the water as they fled the onslaught and watched as stripers inhaled them at my feet. However, there was one night in particular that showed me my investment in this new spot was going to be worth it….
A hurricane was barreling up the coast, a bruiser with real teeth and stamina. There was talk of massive flooding and power outages, and the local news and weather channels were in near hysterics. Normal folks were hunkering down; businesses closed and boarded-up windows as if we were on the coast of Florida. I was glued to satellite predictions, excited for the good fishing the storm might bring.
The full moon, a perfect, gigantic tide—and now the storm. There had been a variety of big baitfish in the area, including mullet. The exceptional nature of the moon, the bait, and the storm made me dizzy. I just paced, stared at the wall, and generally checked out of conscious living until I was deep into my third coffee at 10 p.m., driving to the coast through a torrent of rain.
When I opened the car door on my arrival, the intensity of the night smacked me in the face. The wind almost pushed me back inside the car. Once on shore, I couldn’t believe the immensity of the waves crashing against the rocks. I tried repeatedly to get into position on my favorite rock, but each time, the waves picked me up and set me back down behind the rock some distance away. I was lifted up and moved by the scruff of the neck, like a bad puppy.
Eventually, I retreated to a rock I call “the Couch.” It’s difficult to balance there under normal conditions, but that night, I felt like I was tiptoeing along a high wire in a hurricane.
I broke off four fish that I couldn’t turn while teetering on the Couch—once on back-to-back casts. Before I ran out of darters—the only plug the fish would hit—I landed a mid-30-pound fish. As the waves tumbled me back toward the shore, I calculated that single fish cost me more than $80 in lures, but I felt like the richest man alive.
The Next Season
Early into my second season at the new location, I caught a 38-pound fish at the Halo and other fish over 20 pounds using subtle, natural presentations such as glidebaits, soft plastics, darters, and needlefish. I also had good success with smaller fish at Plan B.
I dedicated a lot of time to truly learning the spot, to checking off different scenarios by fishing different tides, weather patterns, and wind directions. Thoroughness and determination (more than skill or knowledge) was the key to unlocking the secrets of this spot.
The Big One
In early June, it had been blowing northeast for 48 hours, and the first night I could get out to the spot was the first night the wind had completely laid down. There was still a small, slow swell, but it was intensely foggy and eerily calm. I hadn’t had a hit all night, and I started to daydream of past nights at this spot.
I tried to focus, work the night, let it come in and out of me and tap into the world. It felt right. I fished glidebaits and needles, darters and Danny plugs. Nothing. The historically productive part of the tide ended without any hits, but it still felt right. I knew it’d be a long season and that I’d regret the pace I was trying to sustain in these early days. By October, I’d be a shell, used up, but it was June, and I knew grit and determination were everything in the surf. So, I stayed.
Out of the bag slid the Slug-Go, last in the rotation, almost a measure of desperation. If there’s a fish here, this is my last chance, I thought. I twitched, paused, and let the soft-plastic bait dart and glide. A hit finally came, but it was unremarkable. I set the hook without too much force because my drag was soft—the small hook in the Slug-Go was a weak link, and I had to compensate. The consequence of the soft set was the world igniting in sound and violence. I couldn’t see anything, but it sounded like someone had dropped a manhole cover into the water. I lost my balance as I was yanked forward, rod tip dropping low. The drag sang, once, twice, but I didn’t turn the handle. I let my mind go blank and relied on muscle memory. The fish came in shockingly fast, as some of the really big ones do, though the headshakes were making my knees twitch.
I didn’t turn on my light because I didn’t want the fish to spook. It continued to swim all the way around my rock. I couldn’t reach it and I didn’t dare hoist its head up with such a small hook being the only connection. Holding my rod high in the air with one hand, I dropped to my knees on the boulder and then slid into the water. I didn’t actually know how big the fish was, but then it was right in my face.
I clamped one hand on its jaw, but it shook free. Profanity poured from me as I tried again, and then I got it. I dropped my rod into the water, grabbed my Boga Grip, attached it to the fish, and exhaled deeply, with just a little bit of a shudder.
Back toward shore, I read the scale—44 pounds, though a too-short leash on my Boga Grip kept me from completely lifting the fish. I was satisfied with the reading, though, and determined to release the fish in good health, I returned it to the water.
As it slid out of my arms, I thought, years, thousands of hours of investment, and here is the result. No, not the fish – not this hard slab of refined predatory power swimming away from me into the night. I was thinking of the spot. It’s good, and it’s mine.