Guest Blogger: Michael Vorhis, author of ARCHANGEL suspense thriller, OPEN DISTANCE adventure thriller & more to come.

You get hit, full frontal impact, by a steaming freight train, but you manage to stay on your feet. Another one is coming and you brace for it but stand your ground. You’re cold and wet. It doesn’t matter; you’re thinking about something else. You’re fly fishing.

Surf Fish
Surf Fish

There are few experiences quite like fly fishing a beach in the early morning hours, pelicans dive-bombing schools of baitfish a few yards offshore or ridge-soaring minute faces of waves…cormorants going subsurface for anchovies in solitude…gulls wheeling and crying overhead. That many kinds of fish feed in the surf comes as no surprise, but catching them remains a special skill.

When you look at the water movement pattern of a beach, you generally see a distant line along which larger swells break, then a stretch of greener water where those waves–which have now lost some of their energy–roll along unbroken…and then another line of breaking waves just before the dry sand. Often there are multiple break-roll stages, wherein waves lose energy, go green for a time, break and lose more, go green, break and lose yet more…until they wash upon the sand. That action sculpts holes and gullies in the shifting sand bottom which run perpendicular to the waves’ path (or parallel-ish to the shoreline). And because all this landward-rushing water must get back out to sea, “gutters” form—deeper channels above which waves don’t seem to break because of the added depth. It’s in these gullies, troughs, holes and gutters that fish approach, lurk and feed. These are where you want your fly to swim.

Cormorants and other swimming-diving birds can give you a clue as to where bait is plentiful below, which means the fish will be there too. Best retrieves can vary with the time of day, time of year, water temperature and species, and—as with nymphing—slack in a line is a better deal for the fish than it is for you.

Reading Surf

Surf conditions are important to a fly fisherman. You’ll see spinning-outfit folk using squid, shrimp, sea worms, etc. around you. As long as the waves are manageable for them—as long as they can cast enough weight to keep their bait where they want it and still feel the (curiously delicate) tugs, they can do their thing. Their focus on water conditions relates more to how those conditions affect the behavior of the fish. But wielding a fly rod, you’ll want to pay close attention to wind strength and direction, and to swell, for how it also affects your ability to “stand and deliver,” and retrieve, your fly.

I’ve found that a little of the commonly expressed wisdom about fishing in surf is only semi-true for fly fishing. For example, many surf-casters contend that the shallowness of the beach’s slope is not so relevant, as fish exist up and down a coastline and simply select the water depth they want and need, however far from dry sand that depth might be. That may be true and acceptable to them, but that’s because they can add several extra ounces of lead to reach longer distances and stay put there, if they need. A fly fisherman can’t do that. And if bait-casters get in the water at all, they only need do so on the cast, thereafter letting their bait swirl on the bottom around their pyramid of lead with wave action. A fly fisherman, on the other hand, can have a more difficult time reaching the holes and gutters, so must get personally closer to them. That can mean dealing with waves breaking across waist and chest…and then must stand there working the fly.

Tide is important in several respects—how it affects fish feeding habits of course (surf fish know that flood tides reach higher up the beach and wash more little critters down to their mouths), and how it affects a fly fisherman’s reachability of productive bottom contour. Some beaches fish better at lower tide levels than others, and some, for example those where the water comes right up against cliffs at high tide, can be too dangerous to fly fish at flood.

So fish-holding water within reach of a fly rod’s cast–from a standing position that one can maintain without being knocked down–is important. I find I can put a fly where I want it if the beach is a little steeper than if it’s very flat. So I’m pickier than those with spinning gear about which beach I select. Of course it also depends on the day, since low-swell conditions may permit standing a bit further out.

That fish can be found a lot closer to the shore break than one might expect is still universally good to remember. These species have evolved to prowl a zone rich in food, and they know how to get right up to the tumble without getting tumbled themselves. Birds have adapted to this zone too, of course, and so watching for waterfowl that also feed on sand crabs, sand dabs and the like, can tell you where the fish are likely to be.

And as always, light plays a part—most species are far more comfortable entering shallow water when the light is lower, such as in early morning or late evening.

NOTE: Part 2 of this post discusses gear, flies and surf fish species.

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