Although having access to a boat can be a blessing in most saltwater fishing situations, there’s something to be said about chasing fish on foot. Here in North Carolina, as in most states, you can pursue fish in the surf almost 12 months a year. Still, as with most types of fishing, I have a few favorite months to hit the beach.
Sometime around late August or September, on the Carolina Coast, you can start to feel a change in the winds. Literally. Our predominant south winds of summer-time are occasionally interrupted by a day or two of northerly breezes. During those times, the temps drops, the humidity disappears, and you get a taste of the upcoming few months. At some point during that time, we’ll get a steady north wind for several days, known locally as a Mullet Blow.
A mullet blow is so-named because it initiates a mass exodus of mullet from their summer homes in the sounds and estuaries, out the inlets and into the ocean. This age-old migration, cued by the seasonal changes, effects more than the just the mullet that it’s named for. Along with the mullet, silversides, anchovies, glass minnows and several other species make their way into the surf. During the months of September and October, you can stand along the shoreline of most any inlet in the south-east, and watch hundreds of thousands of baitfish as they head out to sea.
As these baitfish make their way out to the beach, several predators also feel the seasonal cues and head towards the beaches looking for food. Here in the Carolinas, Spanish Mackerel, Bluefish, False Albacore, Ladyfish, Jacks, Speckled Trout and Redfish all make their way to the surf-line to feast. Head further south into Florida and you can add Snook and Tarpon to the predator list. This meeting of prey and predator can make for some of the best fishing action of the year.
In the Carolinas, we usually have shots at Spanish Mackerel, Ladyfish and Jacks along the beaches through the month of October. Bluefish stay around into November. False Albacore usually show up around September, but your best shots for them along the beach will be in October and November. Speckled Trout and Redfish start to make their way into the surf in September and stay there well into winter.
The beaches along the south-east coast either face east, south-east, or south. When we get a northerly wind in the fall, any of the beaches facing south or south-east block the wind and give us a flat, calm surf. Fly fishing these areas in the spring and summer can be frustrating with winds blowing from the south causing waves and chop along the beaches. Six out of seven days in the fall, the beaches along the southern Atlantic coast are a welcome sight to an angler with a fly rod. Not only will you be welcomed to flat, clean surf, but hopefully you’ll find hordes of blitzing fish feeding along the water’s edge. With a few essential pieces of gear, you can have a memorable day chasing fish on foot.
Depending on the weather and species, I’ve fished everything from 4wts to 10wts, but my favorite stick for the surf is a fast action 6wt. A 6wt does well with most of smaller predator fish such as mackerel, bluefish and specked trout. If I am targeting redfish in the surf, I will usually bump up to an 8wt to handle the larger flies and fish. And if I am on the hunt for False Albacore, I will carry a 9wt with me. Albies are about the only thing that we catch from surf that require a great amount of backing. On a boat, we have the option of chasing after them. On foot, your only option is to hold on and hope you don’t see the last few wraps of backing on your arbor. For Albacore, bring a reel with a good drag and 200 yards of backing. For everything else, 50-100 yards is plenty. Whichever fish you pursue, a machined aluminum reel with a sealed drag is an advantage when dealing with the harsh saltwater conditions.
Although in certain circumstances a floating or sinking line is called for, 95% of the time an intermediate line is my preference. My favorite intermediate lines are integrated shooting heads with clear tips. The integrated shooting heads allow for quick shots at moving fish. The clear tip helps cut down on visibility in clear water and lets you get away with shorter leaders. The shooting head lines I use are rated in grains, not wts. On a 6wt my preference is 250gr, on a 7wt I go 300gr, 8wt gets 350 and a 9wt does well with a 400gr line. Leaders are pretty basic. About 6ft of 20lb test with a 30lb fluro bite tippet is my preference for toothy critters like Spanish Mackerel and Bluefish. I’ll drop down to 15lb fluro tippet for Speckled Trout, Redfish and False Albacore. Albies have great eye sight, and I don’t have a lot of luck with any tippet that’s more visible than 20lb fluro.
My fly box usually consists of Clousers, Surf Candies along with other epoxy patterns, and a few Crease Flies. Most of the baitfish in the surf range from 1-3” silversides and anchovies, up to 3-5” mullet. I usually stick with thin, streamlined patterns around 1.5-2.5” on size 4 or 2 hooks when targeting Mackerel, Blues and Albacore. For Trout and Redfish, I usually fish Clousers in the 2.5-3.5” range tied on size 2 or 1 hooks. My favorite colors for clear water or bright sun are solid white, or tan/grey/olive over white. My favorite color for low light or dirty water is the infamous tutti frutti, pink over chartreuse. For reds and trout, black over orange clousers with copper flash is another favorite. Matching the size of the bait you are fishing around is much more important than color, so keep it simple with the fly box.
Another very important piece of equipment is a stripping basket. With the wind, surf, and current, the basket helps keep your line right there at waist level… instead of 30ft down-current, tied in knots and wrapped around your left ankle. Even if the current is calm, an intermediate line will sink in the surf at your feet and it can be a pain to pick up the line as you are trying to shoot it. I’ve tried quite a few different baskets over the years…mesh, foam and hard plastic, and my favorites by far are the rectangular plastic ones from Orvis.
A good pair of waders will come handy by the time you get into October. If you fish waders, just be sure to keep your wader belt on, so that they don’t fill with water if you take a spill. I know quite a few anglers who have fallen in the surf and would have been in trouble if they hadn’t been wearing a belt.
In the fall, I have an equal amount of luck fishing the inlets, and fishing the beach fronts. If time allows, I will stop and hit several beach access areas trying to locate birds working bait. If I find that, I know I’m in for an exciting time. If not, I will search out beach structure, rips, tide lines or anything else that may concentrate bait. The bait and fish may be on the move, so be ready to sprint down the beach throughout the day chasing down busting fish, but that’s just part of the fun. I hope this helps you get headed in the right direction. We are just starting into my favorite time of year for saltwater fishing, so grab your gear and get to it, and have fun!