Tip of the Day
Locate feeding areas with a high probability for holding fish
The key to finding large concentrations of feeding fish is to locate structure that will not only attract fish but also hold fish in the area for an extended period of time. These typical areas with a high probability for holding fish include:
- Edges of deep water. Deep water holes adjacent to shallow flats, sloughs running in front of bars, and pockets flanking the sides of points and shoreline bends. These areas are often associated with rolling, sloped beaches and soft, deep sand. Large collections of shells congregated in a typical area are common occurrences where deep water holes and sloughs have formed.
- Obstructions such as Points, Bends and Sandbars that redirect current, churn the water or create other swift water movement and turbulence along the sloping edges or tips of the structure.
- Cuts through sandbars that are often the epicenters of strong out flowing rip currents. These common breaches as well as the beginning and ending points of the bar serve as access points to deep water for schools of baitfish as well as predator fish and these entry points are prime locations for an ambush.
- Flat water with undulating bottom structure (rippled sand, moguls and narrow troughs) that is associated with choppy, sudsy, turbulent or swirling water on the surface.
Fish will often hold and feed along the edges of these sand structures where current is swift and food sources can be trapped or uprooted by the moving water. Fish will also feed along the transition edges where deep water meets shallow water and where swift water meets calm water. The calm waters allow the fish to stage themselves for an ambush as the moving currents disorient baitfish that are trapped against the strong flow and swept into range of the waiting fish. Fish will also feed in areas where waves crash against the shoreline of steep sloping beaches or points. The waves pull back with strong force to cut a near shore drop off at the water's edge where fish can hold as the returning waves uproot sandfleas, worms, sea clams and other crab that become easy targets for predator fish.
The importance of moving water
It might sound foolish to mention moving water in a constantly moving ocean body but there can never be enough emphasis placed on the importance of finding the water that moves under the surface that you can't see. Swift underwater currents, out flowing rip currents and other forms of swirling circulation current are THE most important attractors of fish looking for feeding grounds. As mentioned above these currents dislodge and disrupt the inhabitants of the ocean floor, they trap and disorient schools of baitfish and the disturbed water often serves as a mask for predator fish to hide behind while they lie in wait ready to pounce on easy prey. Since you obviously can't see these underwater currents you must rely on visual clues on the water's surface to spot them and knowing what types of structure are likely associates of turbulent water offers another set of guidelines to aid you in locating them. Look for the common points, sandbars, cuts and holes mentioned previously and turn your attention towards the surface clues that indicate there is moving current below. If the ocean is not overly rough you might be able to see the swirl or sand dispersion path in the water. You can also identify where current is swift by watching the surface suds moving laterally or outward along the surface and by looking for dingy, contrasting water where sand is being uplifted and dispersed. Focus on water that looks out of place and areas where opposite forces collide and you are likely to find good concentrations of feeding fish.
Find as many high probability targets as possible within short traveling distanceScouting the beach at low tide is the best time to locate and mark good structure to fish at high tide. You more than likely won't know what type of structure the fish are feeding on until you are able to fish a cycle of incoming and outgoing tides so do your best to locate a good variety of structure within close proximity so you don't waste time traveling to another location when one target doesn't produce during optimal feeding periods. A typical stretch of undulating beach might run for 6 miles or so and there are normally several instances of fishable structure along this run of beach. Look for the highest probability targets first (cuts, shoreline bends and large points) and then target the closest holes, sloughs and smaller points within decent traveling time of your main focal points. There are times when beach structure is so plentiful that large schools are hard to come by and picking up a few fish in many areas is the only way to get good numbers of fish, so mark plenty of beach if optimal structure is abundant.
If the bite turns off move to another target
If the area you are fishing is quality water and you have located a good concentration of holding fish stay with the school as long as it produces. If the bite turns off and the fish have left the area move on to your next series of targets until you find another hole that produces. The man with the highest gas bill is often the man with the most fish in the cooler.
Be mindful of patterns
Fish often feed by pattern for whatever reason. The wind direction, current direction and water quality all play key roles in determining these patterns but pay close attention to where you as well as other anglers are having success. If the fish are feeding in the holes it is likely the same up and down the beach. The fish may target the edges or tips of sand structure, they may prefer to feed along the shore break and they might even be feeding on a particular side of a symmetrical structure like a point or sandbar cut. Take note of what is producing and stick with it until the fish change their feeding patterns. These patterns may last for one tidal change, a day or two, a week or even an entire season in some rare cases.
Apply the one up approach when scouting for structure
When combing the beach in search of quality water start with the best structure you can find but strive to one up yourself. The ugliest water might end up being the biggest producer in rare instances but hedging your bets on classic winners is always the best approach to take. A good example of this would be your search for a classic tried and true cut. A reachable sandbar with a deep water slough in front is high quality water but finding a narrow slough with a cut opening through the bar offers a higher probability for locating large concentrations of holding fish. There could very well be several cuts along a typical sandbar so find the most prominent cuts and mark them as higher priority. Apply the one up approach again by looking for a steeper beachfront in front of the cut and/or more turbulent water associated with each cut which improves the probability of holding fish even more. If you are lucky enough to find a prominent shoreline bend with a sandbar, channel cut, narrow slough and deep water pocket flanking the edge of the bend you have found every ingredient of quality structure centered in a single area and your options here for catching fish are unlimited. Start with what has worked on past feeding patterns but always keep an open mind because fish will surprise you and often do the opposite of what common knowledge tells you is the optimum choice.
Learn to quick fish
Quick fishing is a technique you can utilize to find where fish are holding when you have several potential feeding zones in one area. Going back to the cut as an example the fish could be keying on one of several areas. They could be targeting the tips of the bar, the sloping edge of the bar itself, the transition edge in the slough where moving water meets calm holding water or even the drop off in the shore breakers. There are many options here with limited time to fool around and quick fishing is a great solution for covering a lot of ground with the hope of locating the fish quickly and efficiently. The technique here is to carry a light tackle combination rigged with a single hook and rounded weight that will carry through the surf easily. Bait up with a piece of fresh shrimp and hit each target zone keeping the bait moving until you happen upon a potential concentration of fish. Cast onto the bar and let your bait roll off the tip or off the sloping edge into the slough; Start on the tip and slowly retrieve back to shore covering the transition edge and try throwing up the beach along the breakers bringing the bait slowly back through the drop off. Quick fish all of your high probability zones and when you find a pattern target it until the fish force a change. I have had fish start on the tip and move to the shore breakers as the tide flooded in and I have seen them hit in several spots at the same time. Fish will often move from the inner side of a sandbar to the deeper waters outside the bar as the tide retreats
Look for signs of feeding and potential feeding
Birds diving among a school of fish are the most obvious sign of feeding but there are other signs that indicate fish are feeding close by or are likely to feed on location in the future. There isn't a fish in the surf that doesn't dine on sandfleas. Sea Mullet, Croaker, Black Drum, Red Drum and Pompano to name a few will feast on these crabs as they are uprooted into the wash at the surf break. Sand fleas along the water's edge can be found anywhere along the beach. They can be found on soft undulating beaches or compact, flat beaches and indications of large colonies often mean fish will congregate just off shore. You can often find the evidence of past feeding in the form of sandflea carcasses washed up along the high tide line. Large schools of baitfish skipping the water are always a good sign and the existence of sea grass in low concentrations can make for good catches of drum if blue crab is in the area feeding in it. Blue crabs are a favorite food source of Red and Black Drum.
Make better use of your time
One of if not the best set of tips anyone can have and that is how to make the best use of your time. There are many ways you can properly prepare in advance to increase your chances of doing well and there are also many techniques you can employ when you hit the beach to insure your limited available time is well spent. Most folks don't have the luxury of picking up and heading to the banks for a week anytime they feel free. Most anglers are weekend warriors and when you get on the island you want to be as productive as possible and efficient as possible from the time you arrive to the time you leave. First and foremost you need to REALLY consider planning your trips around the moon phases with the Full Moon and New Moon respectively being the best. I have caught fish on poor moon cycles and been skunked on perfect moon cycles when weather didn't cooperate but successful fishing is a lot like playing blackjack. You can play by the seat of your pants and win but serious anglers play the high percentages and win more often. If you can't plan this way don't worry about it (It just means you might have to overcome by fishing harder and smarter)
The second most important aspect of proper time management is working the tides properly. When the tide is low you scout for new or existing structure and mark. Incoming and outgoing tides you fish hard. I will look for really deep holes and sloughs when traveling at low tide and try to pick up a few stragglers before heading back to my sweet spots for optimal feeding times.
If you are fishing good structure that should hold fish target every ledge, drop-off, tip and transition area until you find the feeding pattern. Target the structure thoroughly but DON'T stick around for 1 or 2 fish or no fish at all. If you have marked plenty of good structure and conditions are optimal don't waste an entire high tide cycle betting on fish coming in. You didn't come all the way to the coast to worry about burning gas so hunt the fish until you find them.
When you do find a good concentration of fish take notes. Pay attention to the tide, the water conditions and the current direction. Did you catch them on one side of the structure, both sides, outside the bar or inside the sandbar? Were they hitting in the suds, in deep water, on the edge of turbulent water or in the shore breakers? Take note of anything that could suggest a pattern and while the pattern could change in one day or a week at least you have good current information to start with and good notes for similar conditions in the future.
You don't drive 3 hours or more to sleep so don't stop fishing because it is dark. Just before sunrise and sunset are two of the most optimal feeding times for fish and the 3 hour period around a nightly high tide is peak time for many fish including drum and sea mullet who will feed right at the shore during these times.
If conditions are not optimal (rough seas, extreme wind) don't sit and sulk. Find calmer water in the inlets or in the ocean if possible. I have seen the entire beach get shut out because of rough seas only to see the guys fishing the inlets where sound meets ocean do extremely well. It doesn't always work out that way but what do you have to lose when conditions are less than ideal.
I probably should have put this last tip first because the very first thing you need to do when you hit the beach is find a large sandflea bed and load up. Not only is this free bait but it is awesome bait and in case you haven't figured it out by now there isn't a fish feeding in the surf that doesn't target them.
Fishing with sandfleas
It is no secret to any SERIOUS fishermen that sandfleas are one of the most coveted of all food sources by the likes of Drum, Sea, Mullet, Croaker, Trout and Pompano. Not only are they abundant in supply they are easy prey for fish and if you ever cut open the belly of just about any fish that feeds in the surf you will find that they have been dining on them. You can find sandfleas just about anywhere along the shoreline but they seem to nest in larger quantities where the beach is flat and relatively calm.Locating and catching them is easier done on an outgoing tide. You can often spot large concentrations exiting out with the returning breakers and the signs they leave behind after burrowing into the sand are marked by a “V” shape indention into the sand. They can burrow quickly so timing their return to the sand is critical if you want to catch several without exhausting yourself. Sandflea rakes or flat tipped shovels are the tools of the trade and if you are able to find large colonies you can catch a day's worth with just a few scoops.
There are basically three different varieties of sandfleas. Hard shells, hard shells with orange roe sacks (females) and soft shell varieties called molts. Fish aren't terribly picky when feeding on them but females are preferred over the others and the rare soft shells are prized among veteran sandflea anglers. While the soft shells are harder to find in large quantities there are a few tips you can utilize to catch more of these fish delicacies. Hunting at night yields more crab and hunting on a full moon phase will increase your odds of catching the softies because crab tend to molt during a full moon phase. It takes patience and persistence to find the soft shells but if you look for a hump in the sand as the wave retreats you will find what you covet. Molting crabs with soft shells are unable to burrow deep and they will often stick out like a sore thumb just under the surface of the sand.
To keep the crab alive and fresh you need to put about 8 inches or so of barely moist sand in a bucket. DO NOT add water to the bucket or the fleas will drown; you need only to keep the sand a little moist, cool and out of the sun. It won't hurt to recycle the sand every now and again to filter out the waste product that could kill them also.
There is no real tried and true method of hooking them. Most will just hook them at the front mouth from the bottom and out the back and I prefer to do it this way because it keeps the roe intact on the females. Hook types vary as well as sizes depending on the species targeted but a common rule of thumb is anywhere from a #2 to a #4 Kayle, “J” hook or circle hook. Typical Bottom rigs could take up an entire article which I will try to cover another time.
There are several tips and techniques that apply to fishing different species of fish with sandfleas but as a rough, standard guideline it is common to fish sandfleas close to shore, along sandbar and point ledges, in cloudy disturbed water and anywhere else where swift current or choppy water is uprooting the fleas from the bottom. You can fish them from a sandspike but holding your rod in hand will help to pick up on soft strikes that can often occur when fishing with sandfleas. Lighter tackle is better for feel and minimal bottom weight should be used so the bottom rig can roll or be easily worked through the surf. Fish feeding on the crab love to hit a moving target and if you are fishing clear, calm water the movement will often create a stir of sand that can attract fish like Pompano.
Last but not least sandflea fishing is outstanding on Full Moon and New Moon phases as discussed previously. Soft shells are more abundant and the stronger tidal pulls attributed to these phases mean more crab uprooted from the bottom. Many citation Pompano and Mullet are caught during these lunar phases.
Target Species: Pompano
Since we are now engulfed by the dog days of summer there is no better species to discuss first than the Pompano. These feisty cousins of the Jack are not only big fighters, they are hardy eaters, plentiful and easy to find during the warm months of summer. There are legions of old school veterans that devote most of their time and energy to catching these fish and could care less about anything else in the water. To these guys you can't find a better fish to catch or eat and the Pompano has certainly earned its namesake as the warm weather “King of the Surf”.
There is nothing really tricky about locating or catching Pompano but there are a few tips to know that might help increase your yield as well as the SIZE of your yield. First and foremost you need not look for Pompano in rough, dirty water. These fish are a tropical species that prefer warm water temps and warm water most often means CLEAR and CALM. Pompano can be caught on different beach types (flat or undulating) but I prefer a good balance of the two. The beach doesn't have to be sloping but I like to have a good persistent sandbar, a narrow deep water slough, plenty of soft orange tinted gravel shell beds and hopefully a cut or two in the bar for fish to enter and exit. When you locate this type of water be on the lookout for a couple of other very important visual clues. Look for disturbed water, swirling water or cloudy-sudsy water contrasting against the clear, calm water that might indicate a change in bottom structure. Flat beaches at low tide will often reveal the bumps, underwater troughs and washboard features that chop the water and create good feeding grounds. Your most important visual indicators to seek out are the large nests of sand fleas by the water's edge that Pompano are almost guaranteed to be feeding on. If you find a big nest of these crabs you are more than likely going to find Pompano, Mullet and Drum and the evidence of feeding will present itself along the tide line as a large congregation of carcasses.
(See sandflea tips for further information on catching and keeping sandfleas fresh)
The actual fishing technique for catching Pompano is simple. You bait up with a sandflea or small piece of soft shrimp that mimics a soft shell flea but knowing a few good techniques will help increase the number of fish you put in the cooler. Pompano feed by sight which is the main reason they prefer the clear, calm water so it always helps to visually entice them with your techniques. Many Pompano experts fish with gold colored hooks and rigs armed with orange or red fireball beads that match the orange egg sacks of female sandfleas. Hooks range from #2 to #4 in different varieties and weight is kept to a minimum to allow the bottom rig to roll with the current or be worked through the surf easily. Having your rods stationary in a sandspike is OK but fish at least one rod in your hands at all times. Pompano hit fast and if you aren't ready you will miss a lot of fish. Holding the rod also allows you to bump the rig along the bottom every so often, which stirs up the bottom attracting the fish's attention.
The most important tip as far as terminal tackle is concerned: KEEP YOUR HOOKS SHARP!
If you don't keep your hooks sharp as a razor you will miss more fish than you think especially with stationary rods. Fishing with sandfleas and around shells will dull them quickly so stay on top of this.
There isn't much more to add here but go back and review the sandflea tips in regards to fishing the moon phases. Full moon and New Moon means more current. More current means more sandfleas dislodged from the bottom which means better feeding. Full moon also means molting and more soft shell crabs which are THE favorite of many species. Big Pompano and Mullet are caught during this time so Plan, Plan, Plan ahead.
Things that will make life easier on the beach
- GPS system for marking holes. You can find a basic one for under $100.00 and even the basic models will get you within 30 feet of your marked waypoints. GPS means no more sticks in the dunes that you can't see at night anyways.
- Solarlunar tables and Tide chart. Here is a hint – Everybody knows that fishing sunrise and sunset are great fishing times but the moon actually has a greater influence on fish feeding patterns. There is about a 90 minute window around moonrise and moonset where fish more actively feed and a good Solarlunar table will tell you exactly when this occurs every day. When the moonrise or moonset couples with your normal incoming-outgoing tide schedule you had better have hooks in the water and when the FULL MOON or NEW MOON phase kicks in the fishing should be outstanding.
- Decent pair of polarized sunglasses. You don't have to buy Maui Jim or Costa Del Mar at $150.00 a pop but do get yourself a decent pair of polarized sunglasses. You can't imagine how much these things help when peering at the water and you will see things you never saw before. They take the glare off the water that might make a major difference when scouting for water movement and disturbances and they also do a wonderful job of protecting your eyes for the future.
- Good hook sharpener. If you don't have one go and get one. No civilized angler should ever be without hooks that are razor sharp. If fish are hitting and you aren't getting them on the beach check your hooks because they probably need changing or sharpening.
Target Species: Black Drum
Black Drum has made a monster comeback along the North Carolina coast the last several years. Not only have their numbers increased their popularity as a sport fish has increased as well and they are a great species to target, as there is no creel limit placed on them like their red cousins.
Being that Black Drum and Red Drum are members of the same family one would assume that you follow the same tactics to catch theme but there are a few subtle differences between the two species that could make a big difference when targeting Black Drum. All bottom feeding species prefer to feed in the same waters. They like sloping bars, narrow deep water sloughs and other forms of beach structure that redirect current or stir up the water. They don't mind a little dinge in the water and they don't tend to be a picky eater which is where the Black Drum differs. Black Drum has a strong preference for crab and shrimp and rarely if ever eats other fish types. They love to uproot sandfleas in the NEARSHORE BREAKERS and they will also feed where there is an abundance of blue crab (especially soft shells during molting phase HINT, HINT). You can find Black Drum in a variety of places but the most common places to find them occur where there is turbulent, moving water and plenty of sandfleas. I look for a good drop off close to shore, soft sand with shell gravel, cloudy water from sand dispersion (i.e. swirling current) or choppy, disturbed water in the flats. If you can find these ingredients associated with sandbars, sloughs, cuts and points all the better.
When you do find them fish them like you would Pompano. Fish close to shore, fish light, be ready for quick strikes and KEEP YOUR HOOKS SHARP. You can miss a lot of fish because you aren't watching for the light hits or using dull hooks. These fish can spook easily so reduce the shine of your terminal tackle as much as possible.
Basic Summertime Fishing
Summertime isn't known for great fishing. Big fish are few and far between but nearly all common species can be caught during the summer, it just takes a little more tact and patience. Below are a few tips that might help you escape the summertime fishing doldrums.
- Be on the beach before sun up and fish until about 10:00 a.m. this will be your best feeding time. Late afternoon into night will offer your second chance at optimal feeding conditions.
- If you fish during the heat of day which you probably will find the deepest water possible because fish move to deep water when it gets hot and stagnant. Choppy, swirling, swift moving deep water is even better because there is more oxygen in the water. Fish WILL NOT feed in still water during extreme heat.
- Target summer fish like Pompano and Mullet. Black drum and flounder are good choices to target as well. Puppy Drum are hit and miss but if you target the other species you will more than likely pick up a puppy or two as well.
- Sandfleas are the best bait of summer and softies are more common during this period. You can catch plenty of fleas during the day but better hunting comes at night.
- Hitting good numbers of fish during the summer is more difficult so play the highest percentages. FULL MOON and NEW MOON are without question. Move around to different locals and fish when it is cool.
- Did I mention SANDFLEAS (softies or females with roe) around the FULL MOON?