Seeing a sand-spiked rod bend toward the waves is enough to get the heart beating fast, even before making the 5-meter dash across the sand to set the hook. With that being said, surf-fishing rigs and bait are often the most effective way to catch fish, especially large fish. There are three things to take into consideration when choosing the right surf-fishing rigs: location, time of year and bait presence. Once you do that, all that’s left is to tweak the details of these three simple surf-fishing rigs to suit your scenario.
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The most simple rig is the fish-finder rig. It consists of a leader with a hook, and a heavy-duty barrel swivel like the SPRO Power Swivel is tied to the mainline behind a Sea Striker Braid-Friendly Sinker Slide. The fish-finder rig is ideal for large pieces of bait because an angler can “drop back” to a biting fish, and give it time to ingest the bait. Fish-finder rigs are effective for everything from fluke to brown sharks, but you’ll want to adjust your hook size, leader length and leader strength to the fish you’re targeting.
The longer the leader, the more wind resistance, and less casting distance. Legal (inline) circle hooks must be used for striped bass when fishing with bait. When using clams for striped bass bait in the surf, the Eagle Claw Lazer Sharp (non-offset) Octopus Circle hook is a good choice due to its long shank and thin-wire construction which holds soft, subtle baits in place without destroying them. When striped bass fishing with larger, chunked baits in the surf, the Gamakatsu Octopus Circle Straight Eye hook excels, because a sturdy hook with a wide gap keeps larger baits in place.
With fluke, casting distance is rarely an issue, as these fish will generally set up shop right in the breakers. I’ve seen ospreys pluck fluke out of only inches of water at the surfline. For these fish, I’ll use a long Seaguar Inshore Fluorocarbon leader of about 30 inches to allow the bait to flutter and entice the hungry flatfish. The best times to catch fluke are from June to early September.
When it comes to fishing for stripers, the location will determine the length of the leader. If a long cast is needed to reach the fish, leaders can be as short as 6 inches (red drum surfcasters down south fish leaders even shorter than that). This will keep the weight and the bait close together during the cast, allowing you to get the maximum distance. If the bass aren’t far from shore, leaders from 24 to 30 inches will work best. Although this isn’t always the case, I usually find myself using a longer leader with clams and a shorter leader with bunker. This is because when I’m fishing clams, I never want my bait too far beyond the breakers, because this zone is where the wave activity will naturally break up the shellfish, and bass are looking for an easy meal. The longer leader will also allow the clam and its trailing pieces to be washed around with the swell, which is a more natural look for the bait. It’s best to target stripers in the surf from May to October.
Article: Striped Bass Bait Guide
With bunker, depending on the location, a little extra distance usually helps, so I pin the weight right on top of the bait. I find it less important for the bunker to be moving about on the bottom, especially since too much movement might cause the bait to spin, which looks unnatural to stripers. A sharp 8/0 or 9/0 Gamakatsu Inline Octopus Circle hook is ideal because the gap is wide enough to penetrate the jaw of the striper. There is no need to set the hook when using a circle hook. When you feel the weight of the fish, wait a few seconds and then reel down on the fish. With a circle hook, the point will penetrate the mouth without a hookset. The fish will typically be hooked in the corner of the mouth.
Article: The Bunker Handbook
When targeting big bluefish, surf-fishing rigs with wire leaders are often necessary to prevent bite-offs. Furthermore, bluefish don’t have as large of a mouth as striped bass, but a big sharp circle hook is a good choice. 8/0 or 9/0 inline circle hooks are my favorite choice, and a larger single hook makes it easier to unhook blues. Bluefish are typically caught from May to October.
With sharks, a wire leader is absolutely necessary, in conjunction with a long heavy-duty monofilament leader to protect against the shark’s sandpaper skin. Summer is the best time to catch a shark in the surf.
Article: Shore-Based Sharking
This rig is used by anglers hoping to double their odds by presenting two hooked baits off the same rig. Unlike the fish-finder rig, where the weight is above the hook, in a high/low rig, the hooks are spaced out above the weight. The advantage to this rig is the ability to offer two baits at once, but the downside is having a fixed weight. Whereas an angler using a fish-finder rig is able to drop back to a biting fish and feed it line without having to worry about it feeling the weight, anglers fishing a high/low rig need to set the hook quickly or risk the fish dropping the bait after feeling the unnatural tension from the weight. For this reason, high/low rigs are more effective with smaller, softer baits such as clams or worms.
High/low rigs are great options for early-or-late-season stripers, small bluefish, fluke, black sea bass, tautog, or scup. Hooks will depend, of course on the species. For stripers, I like a 5/0 Eagle Claw Lazer Sharp (non-offset) Octopus Circle hook tipped with clams or worms. A 5/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hook is also a good choice for bottom fish like fluke, black sea bass, tautog, and scup. When targeting bottom fish, clams, squid, and worms usually do the trick.
High/low rigs can be tied with either monofilament or fluorocarbon leader material. Monofilament has better stretch, but it lacks the abrasion-resistance of fluorocarbon, which absorbs sunlight and is nearly invisible underwater. Additionally, leader material like Seaguar Inshore Fluorocarbon has a thinner diameter than monofilament, which further contributes to its low-visibility.
A high/low rig also allows you the chance for a double-header and decreases the odds of having your bait stolen. When tied properly, it should remain tangle-free. Using straight-shanked hooks as opposed to hooks with down-turned eyes, will reduce tangling.
Whole Mullet Rig
This contraption is quite popular with anglers to our south when targeting big bluefish in the surf. A styrofoam float keeps the bait floating off the bottom, where it’s easier for fish to find, and harder for the crabs. To rig a whole mullet, remove the double hook, push the wire down the center of the bait and out the vent, then re-attach the hook. This rig is perfect for fish like bluefish that are notorious for hitting the tails of baitfish.