Surf Fishing in Freshwater

With these shore-based approaches to freshwater fishing, anglers awaiting striped bass and bluefish can enjoy downsized pre-season surfcasting.

When some cool late-April winds blew across the water, I wished I’d thrown a jacket over my light hooded sweatshirt. There was a small chop from the wind, but the water was otherwise calm. I wound up with my 7-foot rod and let the small minnow plug fly into the wind. It was my first after-dark fishing mission since the previous fall, and it felt good to be fishing nocturnally once again, even if I was surf fishing in freshwater.

As I daydreamed about what the upcoming season might hold – maybe that long-awaited 50-pounder or a blitz of trophy-size bass that lasted for hours – I was brought back to the present by a sharp rap on the rod tip. I set the hook and the light-action rod folded into a big arc. The fish didn’t run, but let loose some good head shakes and drew me into a couple stalemates before relenting and allowing me to slide it onto the shore. When I flicked on my light, it wasn’t longitudinal stripes reflected back at me, but a mottled green, gold and black body, a huge reflective eye and some jagged teeth. It was a walleye, and a fine one at that.

(Note: On The Water is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.)

Walleye use their bulbous eyes, gaping mouth and fang-like teeth to locate, inhale and clamp down on prey in shallow water at night.

The past couple of Aprils, I’ve forgone the usual early-spring schoolie hunt and taken my shorebound exploits elsewhere – namely the freshwaters of the Northeast. And truth be told, some of this fishing feels just similar enough to saltwater surfcasting to keep my appetite sated until May brings up the stripers that can actually pull drag.

Reservoir Trout

It’s not a stretch to compare launching ½- to 1-ounce Krocodile spoons as far as possible from the bank of a reservoir to fishing in the surf. In fact, many anglers actually employ their lighter surf sticks to get the maximum distance with their metals.

A Luhr Jensen Krocodile spoon closely matches the size and action of common lake trout forage like alewives and smelt.

Usually a deepwater dweller, the cold spring waters draw lake trout into the shallows of Wachusett Reservoir in MA and Kensico Reservoir in NY to feed on small white perch, alewives and other forage fish. Lakers aren’t what I’d call a very discerning fish, so lure selection is made based on what’s going to get a lot of attention and what’s going to cast the farthest. Getting your lure to the bottom is essential, and a slow retrieve with frequent pauses seems to get the most strikes. A lift-and-drop retrieve is another way to trigger strikes from this lake-dwelling char, as they especially like snapping at free-falling lures.

This spoon-fed lake trout was sitting in 40 feet of water when it struck a Luhr Jensen Krocodile spoon. (Photo: Luke Mantini)

Reservoir brown trout are considerably more tight-lipped when it comes to hitting lures, but are no less predatory than lakers when it comes to munching on the alewives population. Some monster browns lurk in reservoirs, as evidenced by the 18-pound Connecticut state record caught at Saugatuck Reservoir in June 2011 on a 2-ounce spoon cast long on a 9-foot, 6-inch surf rod.

Nighttime ‘Eyes

Several lakes and a couple rivers in the Northeast have fishable populations of walleye. In the spring, before they spawn (or try to spawn in most cases) the fish will run the shoreline eating juvenile perch, alewives or whatever 2- to 4-inch baitfish are abundant. The big reflective eyes mean that walleye are primarily nighttime hunters, and this, in conjunction with their shallow-water springtime feeding grounds, makes shore-casting a great approach to these fish.

Cast and retrieve downsized plugs like a floating original Rapala or Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnow, in the 3- to 5-inch range. Even better are small curly-tail grubs like the Mister Twister. For colors, look no further than your striper plugs for inspiration – yellow or white is deadly on ol’ “marble eyes.”

Mister Twister 3-inch Curly Tail Grub
Original Floating Rapala

With all lures, a straight retrieve broken up with a couple quick snaps of the rod tip will work just fine.

Walleye have a reputation as being poor fighters, but on a light rod with light line, they are just as sporting as any stocked trout, and they are often a good deal larger. If that’s not enough to convince you to fish for them, perhaps their 5-star quality on the dinner plate will sway you into venturing out for walleye after dark this April. Check your state’s freshwater abstracts for walleye waters and applicable regulations.

Prespawn Smallies

By the time the smallmouth bass are transitioning into their gluttonous prespawn mode, the calendar is just about to flip over to May, but letting a couple keeper stripers sneak by is well worth experiencing the acrobatics of a ticked-off smallmouth.

The smallies, which spent the winter sulking in deep water, will move into shallow water and attack just about anything that comes near them with the voracity of a spring-run bluefish. They’re fattening up to pack on the weight lost over the lean winter, and to prepare for the spawn, and will be cruising over easily waded sandy flats.

Soft plastics like Ned rigs, tube jigs and paddletail swimbaits (shown, swallowed) excel at catching aggressive pre-spawn smallies as they roam the flats.

Covering water is the key to success, as the bass will spread out and roam over wide areas in search of food. I like a 7- to 7½-foot rod for these smallies. Tube jigs, fished just like a bucktail jig for stripers, are tough to beat. White, root-beer and watermelon are all good colors.

Though nothing in freshwater will ever compare to the feeling of a big striper’s shoulder-dislocating headshakes, variety is, as they say, the spice of life. So before putting on the blinders for a striper-only spring season, try out some of your surfcasting know-how on the shore-accessible sweetwater fisheries throughout the Northeast.

Related Content

Article: “Surfcasting” for Trout

Article: Surfcasting Techniques for Largemouth

2 on “Surf Fishing in Freshwater

  1. Cal

    Really cool article, I live in northern Canada and own a boat, but a few seasons back I realized that most years my biggest fish are caught for shore. In the last 6 seasons I’ve become obsessed with “Freshwater Surf Fishing”, and the more I learn the better it pays off. I generally fish some pretty big water, using long MH steelhead rods to launch spoons and small surf plugs way out there. Cover lots of water, learn to pay attention to relatively subtle features, and cross refference my win’s to better focus my future efforts. Last year I caught almost 20 pike around 40″, including a beefy 42″ fish that likely would have broke 20 lbs, from shore. Just waiting for May 15th and a whole new season kicks off.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *