Fly Fishing in the Surf: Tips and Techniques for Success

Whether you are on a planned guided trip to fish the flats and surf zones or a leisurely holiday with the family, the excitement to cast a fly while walking on the beach is great!

As simple as it sounds, saltwater fly fishing from the beach can have its challenges. It helps to know a few things when fly fishing in the surf.

Knowing the difference between low tide and high tide, understanding the wave sets and surf environment adds up and contributes positively to catching fish.

As fly anglers, it pays the know your saltwater fish, especially the surf species, when saltwater fishing.

reading the water

Reading the water

Reading the water is one of the most important things to learn for any fishing format. In fly fishing, it helps tremendously to be able to read the water and cast the fly accordingly. Surf fishing with a fly rod is no different, and reading the water is key to surf fly fishing.

It’s a general rule of thumb to fly fish on an incoming tide. The once shallower reefs and sandbanks flood with water, and the predators move into these zones to feed.

Identify the rips (undercurrents) in the surf zone; the outgoing wave wash usually reveals them. You can generally see the angle and direction the water is going on the backwash. Often a rip current will cut across the outgoing water and form a ripple (rip).

This is a great place to fly fish but carries a heavyweight on the conscience as it isn’t the safest, and the water can more often than not be overpowering. Especially on an incoming tide when the waves are getting bigger. As tempting as it is, avoid these areas and instead focus on the safer gullies.

Waves are continuous when surf fishing; they generally come in sets of 7, with the 7th one being the biggest of that set, and as the tide comes in or goes out, the waves increase and decrease in size accordingly.

Knowing the tide chart and times for the day’s surf fly fishing is always essential.

Identifying the feeding zones

identifying the feeding zones

A gully or hole is where there are slightly deeper holes in the sand bottom; this is where smaller fish feed, and in turn, the larger ones come into the zone to eat. These can be very productive areas. Casting a floating line with a shooting head system and heavier flies often produces the best results.

Blind cast to these areas with fast retrieves.

Surf can be a very productive area for fly anglers when beach fishing. The surf zone is where most foods get washed around and fed on by the smaller fish, and this is the area that surf perch, false albacore, or striped bass would concentrate in. So be sure to bring some striped bass flies patterns.

The backline is the zone just behind the swell where the wave starts to form. This is usually a deeper area and sometimes will be unreachable when fly fishing from the beach. Fly fishermen would need to cast a long line out to reach the zone, and with the help of a shooting line this can be achieved.

The fly angler can use surf candies or a closer minnow in these areas for that extra weight for casting and a good sink rate.

Top Tips Surf Fly Fishing From The Beach

Top Tips for fly fishing the surf from the beach
Watch for signals

Birds are the best signal and a fisherman’s companion when out fly fishing on the beach. With a fly rod in hand, follow the birds, move where they move, and if the area has no birds working the zone, chances are there isn’t much for the angler to fish either.

If the birds are diving or hovering and are in the range of your casting ability, then you are sure to catch something.

Look for structure

When structure is mentioned in surf fishing, it can sound a bit odd. But keep an eye out for boulders or rocky under banks, dips, or holes in the sandbank. These could hold some extra potential.

Try to find out a little about the area you are fishing in as there may be a sunken boat, barge, or rocks that lie beneath the surface that arent visible from the beach. These fish-attracting areas are great places to start your fly fishing session at.

Move around
move around

One of the keys to becoming an effective surf fly fisher is having the desire to explore and move around. Standing and waiting for the fish to come on the feed at a specific spot is fine, but you could be missing out on some great action just over the next sand dune.

If nothing is happening, then move! Walk, ride whichever but move on to new areas. But do this with a watchful eye on the water.

Succesful surf fly anglers plan their day and know where they will start. If none of the previously decided places are producing, then the swift move to a new, possibly more productive stretch of the beach is in order. Who knows, you could find your small piece of surf heaven.

Change up your approach.

You need to be flexible in your approach. Changing tactics to suit the conditions and water is the key to possibly finding the fish and getting that eaten. Many fish, especially large fish, will frequent the same feeding areas as before, so changing to adapt to these areas is critical.

You may encounter deep holes, river mouths, tidal creeks, and salt ponds, all of which have a specific way to fish. Calm water can be very productive but keep your distance and use those longer casts to prospect.

Apply what you know from the land

Using the lay of the land to work out what lies below the surface of the water is a crucial skill and something worth learning. Generally speaking, following sloping terrain leads to a hole or deeper water sections. If this water is in casting range from the beach, you could very well be in for a good time.

These deeper water sections are prime locations for baitfish which means the predators could be cruising the water column. The San Francisco bay area is a prime example of this type of fishing, the surf with a fly rod.

For the deeper water sections, you will need to throw heavier flies to get down fast enough. If you are fishing the Florida surf, Spey rods could be an option for distance.

Scouting the area on a low tide would be the best thing to do as you would then be able to get an idea of how the bottom look and possibly work out where the fish would feed on the high tide.

Timing is key

What time you fish is very important. Catching the tide at the right time is essential. The incoming tide is a good one to fish; it’s when the fish come onto the feed looking for food. Clouser minnows are ideal for this type of fishing; these fly patterns sink fast enough to get into the zone. If there was just one fly to use, then it would be this one.

For the incoming tide, start in the shallow water, casting just behind the breaking wave. The big fish hang out there, waiting for more water to flood the sandbanks to feed. Crab patterns can be very, very effective when this happens.

Dawn and dusk are prime times to be out on the water with fly gear. Besides the obvious times, one should not overlook the daytime to focus on the fish cruising the sandbanks, this can be very tough fishing, but it is the ultimate challenge.

Go with what’s happening.
go with what is happening

Tides and currents are two of your best friends when fishing in the surf. The strength of the tide influences the currents and whether it’s coming in or going out.

Influences like the lay of the coastline, structure above and beneath the water’s surface, and underwater rocky banks and boulder formations affect the fishing. Work with what you have.

The wind has a significant role to play in the way you can fish the currents and tides, try to use it to your advantage, and get the most out of it.

All of the above influences and change on a whim, and it’s best to be flexible and adaptable to all changes. Remember that the predatory fish patrol the current lines looking for valuable baitfish to feed on. It is these areas that you need to concentrate on.

A stripping basket is very handy when sight fishing or blind casting in these currents and tides. It helps with line management and control.

Practice your casting before heading out

As with anything in life,’ practice makes perfect. This couldn’t be more true when casting fly rods. When fishing the surf, there is generally going to be at least a breeze, and it’s not going to stop.

Learning to last a saltwater fly rod before you head out is recommended. Get comfortable with your setup and know your limits.

Fish aren’t always going to be very close, so the longer forward cast will be needed at some stage. Practice the double haul; this will get you a few extra meters, especially when you are cast heavier flies like a clouser minnow.

Use the wind

Most anglers hate the wind, but it, in fact, can be our ally. An onshore wind brings baitfish closer to the shoreline, which brings the predatory fish in closer as well. The headwind isn’t the easiest to cast in. Try using the water haul, Belgium cast, sidearm methods or into the wind cast for these conditions. If you can do a roll cast to a close target, then go for it!

It’s often the case that in these high wind conditions, most anglers stay at home, which means more water for you, and the high winds also bring the striped bass and surf perch right up to the shore to feed. You won’t be needing any long cast for them, so stick out the strong winds and use them to your benefit.

Be prepared for anything.

Safety is always the first concern. Take it slow on the water, keep your eyes peeled for fish as well as potentially hazardous obstacles and scenarios. Sandbanks move with currents, and waters rise faster than usual on some occasions. All these things need to be monitored at all times.

When walking in the deeper waters, slide your feet instead of stepping. This will help you feel as you go through any deep drop off etc.

Double-check everything twice before you leave the van. There is nothing worse than when you get to your fishing spot, start fishing only to realize you left something behind.

If you’re planning on fly fishing the flats, here are some of our flats fishing techniques.

The best gear to use when fly fishing in the surf

best gear to use when fly fishing in the surf

You are going to want to use anything from a 7 weight fly rod up to a 12wt rod for surf fishing. Anything under a 7wt wouldn’t be heavy enough to throw the larger flies like the clouser minnow.

The ideal rod would be a 9′ 9wt rod with a moderate fast action. Some anglers enjoy faster rods for the surf conditions, but this is entirely up to you. A fast rod with a softer rod tip is always a winner.


You want a fly reel that will hold sufficient backing and the fly line in the correct weight for the fly rod. Ensure you have a saltwater conditioned reel as the freshwater reels won’t last very long. The salt will start to erode them in no time.


It’s advisable to carry a few different fly lines. Floating and an intermediate line are the main two to have.

You could also have a standard running line, with a few different heads to change between. The running line is the fastest change-over option when things need to be changed fast. A simple loop-to-loop connection, and that’s it.

Fly Selection

On the fly box side of things, a few simple flies in various weights is all that is needed. Clouser minnows, surf candies, deceivers, and a few surface flies are all the patterns you will need. Have a few small flies available if you need them for those feeding mullet shoals.

We also recommend some of these surf fishing waders if you want or looking for one.


Where to Fly Fishing the Surf in Southern California?

The most popular places to fly fish the surf in Southern California are in San Diego, Ventura, and Santa Barbara. Other popular spots include Malibu, Morro Bay, and the Salton Sea.

What Size Leader for Surf Fly Fishing?

The size of leader for surf fly fishing depends on the type of fish you are targeting and the strength of the surf. Generally, a 9- to 12-foot leader is appropriate for most ocean surf fishing. For heavier surf conditions, a longer leader of 12- to 16-foot can be used.

How to Set up Surf Fly Fishing?

Surf fly fishing set up involves selecting the correct rod, reel, and line weight. A 9- to 11-foot, medium action rod is ideal for surf fishing as it provides the flexibility to cast long distances. A large arbor reel with a good drag system is necessary to handle strong runs from large fish. A weight-forward floating line is best suited to surf fishing. The leader should be the same length as the rod and should be tied to the end of the line. Tie on a weighted fly and cast out with a slow, steady retrieve.

How to Decide What size Reel for fly fishing saltwater surf?

The size of reel you need for saltwater surf fly fishing depends on the size and type of fish you are targeting. Generally, a large arbor reel with a good drag system is best for larger game fish, such as tarpon, redfish, and snook. For smaller fish, such as bonefish and striped bass, a medium-sized reel can be used. It is important to choose a reel that is capable of handling the weight of the line you are using.


surf fly fishing conclusion

To conclude the above, surf fishing is great fun and can easily be taken up by eager fly fishers. Cover the basics well and use what you know from other fishing formats or conditions to help make better choices that will hopefully lead to screaming reels and big smiles.

Tight Lines!

Photo of author

Kyle Knight

I’m a South African based fly fisherman who has been fly fishing and tying for the past 20 years. I enjoy targeting numerous fresh water species ranging from trout, carp and bass as well as our estuary species Grunter, Garrick and Kob. I have a funny thing that I can only use flies I have tied myself to catch fish.

Save Up To 25% On Your Next Fly Fishing Order

We have partnered with Trident Fly Fishing to get the best deals on fly fishing gear for our readers. We will take you directly to their exclusive discount page if you click the button below.

Trident Fly Fishing Deal

Leave a Comment