I envy largemouth bass fishermen. They hit their favorite spots in a bedazzled boat outfitted with seats and stocked with a dozen or more rods, each one specifically designed for the very lure tied onto the end of its line. I’ve dreamt of owning a quiver of rods, with each surf rod purpose-built for every technique, tactic, and location I might fish—the ideal eeler, the perfect pencil popper-er, the best bucktailer, a darter dominator—but who wants to carry all those rods down the beach?
Short of hiring a caddy or abusing the On The Water summer intern program, it would have to be me, and unless I’m fishing bait or have my truck (or canal bike) in close proximity, bringing multiple rods into the surf isn’t always practical. On the few occasions when I took a second plugging rod with me, the additional setup felt like a millstone around my neck. It eliminated the freedom to walk and cast when moving between locations, and when I left it at the base of the dunes, I couldn’t escape the nagging feeling that someone might come along and grab it or that at the end of the trip, I’d forget it.
So, we surfcasters must be generalists, choosing plugging rods that do many things well, even if they don’t do everything perfectly. In searching for what makes a great all-around surf rod, I consulted some of the Northeast’s most dedicated surfcasters.
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For fishing plugs in most situations, rod length ends up being a matter of personal preference more than necessity. Shorter rods are lighter in weight and easier on the body to cast. For some anglers, that outweighs any extra distance provided by longer rods.
“The eleven-footer gets the call-up on most nights as it can do everything I need it to do, from bucktailing to plugging to chunking,” Connecticut-based surfcaster Toby Lapiniski says of his Lamiglas GSB series, “and I really opt for the ten-footer only when I feel like throwing something different or my shoulder injury is acting up.”
“I prefer a nine-foot rod to longer ones, especially since a good portion of my fishing is done with rocks or things behind me that I would rather not hit with my backcast,” says Massachusetts surf-fisherman, Steve Gallant. “I don’t feel I lose too much distance, but I do have some longer poles for when distance is critical.”
Extra rod length can be an advantage for keeping the line above boulders or other structure that gets between a surfcaster and his fish. “For most of the surf fishing I do, I like an eleven-foot rod. I feel better in structure with my tip elevated,” says plug-maker, rod-builder, and surfcasting renaissance man, Frank Goncalves. “Additional distance is never a bad thing either.”
Most surfcasters let the location determine their chosen rod length. “My regular complement of rods for a season in the Northeast is a basic three: a bay/river nine-footer, a ten-foot jetty stick, and my go-to big fish all-around rod that’s an eleven-foot, three-incher rated for one to six ounces,” says Pete Utschig, a travelling surfcaster and founder of the surfcasting apparel company, Phase Gear.
The “action” of a fishing rod describes how much of it flexes. More than any other feature, this affects how well suited a rod is for a fishing style or technique.
A rod is designated as fast-, moderate-, or slow-action based on how quickly it returns to its natural, unflexed state. Fast rods are stiff and snappy because only the tip section flexes. This makes it more sensitive and reactive, better for casting lighter-weight lures. A slow-action rod may load through the grip and be slow to recover when fully bent. This allows anglers to cast heavier weights more easily and has a more forgiving feel when fighting fish while sacrificing sensitivity and perhaps a bit of hook-setting umph. A moderate action rod falls in between, flexing roughly halfway down the blank and has a softer action for casting heavier lures with plenty of backbone and sensitivity.
Gallant’s all-around, go-to surf stick for the craggy coast of Massachusetts’ North Shore is a Century Stealth. This rod has a moderate-slow action that Steve says fishes a variety of baits well, especially lures that aren’t known for casting easily, like metal lips and long, soft-plastic eel imitations.
Lapinski found similar benefits in casting a moderate-action rod. “For my casting style, which is somewhat of a modified pendulum, a slower action produces longer and more consistent casts.”
While fast-action rods cam help launch long-casting lures like metals and pencil poppers into the stratosphere, the snappy action can cause less-streamlined baits to tumble, foul, and fall short of their target. “With a faster rod, metal lips get fouled up a third of my casts,” says Goncalves.
A slower-loading rod helps lay out the metal lips or long plastics for the best possible casts using these poor-casting lures. “I don’t care much about the weight rating,” says Goncalves, “but if I can load an ounce-and-a-half bucktail and still get off a decent cast with a big metal lip with the same rod, I’m happy.”
I once took a brand new, fast-action, super-high-modulus surf rod out to a favorite beach to fish my favorite tide during my favorite month while using a favorite lure, the bucktail jig … and I hated it. Just as the tide was getting right and the fish were moving in, I left to go get my older, slower rod. A prima-donna move? Probably, but the surf rod is the conduit through which I give life to my lures, and it’s okay—even mandatory—to be high-maintenance about it. Though the rod was newer and fetched twice the price, it didn’t have the smooth action I needed to dip the rod tip and flick the bucktail jig and trailer in a motion that has produced countless bites for me.
There are a few instances in the surf when a fast-action rod is the best choice for a specific lure—topwaters, metals, small swimmers, weightless plastics—but for the most part, a moderate-action rod is the best way to animate the hunks of wood, lead, and plastic populating your plug bag. Snappy retrieves sometimes work, but overall (and especially after dark), smooth, flowing presentations bring more bass to the hook.
“I’ve been tossing more soft plastics and eel imitations, and I think the more moderate flex does a better job of handling them,” says Gallant.
“Seems the preference now is fast-action rods, but I still prefer moderate-slow,” says Goncalves, who explained that this preference comes from a desire to fish eels, rigged eels, and metal lips all in one night.
While reaching the fish and bringing the lures to life are essential, the final piece of the surf-rod puzzle is fighting that big fish to the beach.
“I prefer a more moderate-action rod because it fights the fish as opposed to my body fighting the rod,” says Lapinski.
“A more moderate flex, slower action is better for fighting fish, especially larger ones,” Gallant explains. “While my rod has the backbone needed to turn a large fish, its tip acts as a shock absorber that I think leads to fewer bent or pulled hooks under a heavy load.”
The Starting Point
“Choosing one surf rod is almost like going to the golf course and getting to choose only one club,” said Utschig.
He’s right. The same way a putter is ill-suited for a sand trap, an 11-foot, pool-cue-stiff Canal jigging rod would be nearly useless in a back bay, but anglers can build upon the above advice to find a rod that best fits them and their home waters.
Begin with a 10-foot, moderate-action rod rated for 2- to 5-ounce lures, and specialize from there. If you exclusively fish around heavy structure or need maximum distance, bump up to 11. However, if you feel you aren’t reaching fish, a drop in braided line diameter can add more distance than an increase in rod length. If you primarily fish backwaters and sandy beaches that involve a lot of walking and casting, drop down to 9 feet.
If you most often use small soft plastics, minnow plugs, and small needlefish to the exclusion of large bottle plugs and darters, metal lips, and eels, look for a rod with a 1- to 3- or ¾- to 2-ounce rating.
Even more important than the weight rating is the action. The surfcasters surveyed above were unanimous (a rarity among striper fishermen) in their selection of moderate-action rods.
However, the greatest determining factor in how a surf rod will perform can’t be found on the label. It’s the angler’s familiarity with it. The most successful surfcasters know precisely how a rod feels when a Danny plug is swimming just right or how much force is needed to give a bucktail that strike-inducing flick.
“I have one rod I’ve used for close to twenty years. It’s the only rod I use in the surf and it’s been with me on all the best adventures,” Earl Evans, Rhode Island surfcaster and Van Staal rep, says of his thrice re-gripped Lamiglas GSB. “Most importantly, I know exactly how it’s going to react while fighting a fish.”
Whatever surf rod you have, learn it inside and out, and you’ll catch more fish with it. It might not be a super-specialized tool like largemouth bass fishermen have at their disposal, but as surfcasters have been proving for generations, “it’s the carpenter, not the tools.”
All-Around Surf Rods for Every Budget
Penn Battalion II 1530S10
10’, Moderate-Fast, 1 to 5 oz
Tsunami Airwave 1002MH
10’, Moderate-Fast, 2 to 4 oz
Lamiglas Carbon Surf 10 MHS
10’, Moderate-Fast, 1 to 5 oz
St. Croix Seage 100MMF2
10’, Moderate-Fast, 1 to 4 oz
ODM D.N.A. NXD-104
10’, Moderate/Moderate-Fast, ¾ to 4 oz
Lamiglas GSB 10MS
10’, Moderate, 2 to 5 oz
Century Stealth S-1 1205
10’, Moderate, ¾ to 4 oz
St. Croix Legend Surf 106MM2
10’6”, Moderate, ¾ to 4 oz
Century Surf Machine Elite
11’3”, Variable, 1 to 6 oz