The Ultimate Edge: Fly Fishing the Texas Surf
By Casey R. Smartt
As anglers we often talk about fishing “the edge.” Edges in the water column are important because they create opportunities for predators to attack or ambush prey. A few examples of edges include reefs, mud lines, weed lines, temperature and current gradients, sandbars, submerged structure, and shorelines. These are all good places to deliver a fly. The surf, where a giant mass of water collides with a giant mass of land, is perhaps the ultimate edge. And yes… it too can be a good place to deliver a fly.
Fly fishing in the surf is the topic of many e-mails and phone calls I receive from anglers who want to try something beyond bay and flats fishing. I love the surf so I encourage most folks to try it. An angler could spend his entire life, and many have, trying to figure out the secrets and endure the hardships of the surf. There are so many facets and so many things to learn, but the mystery of course is what keeps us coming back for more.
The easiest fish to catch in the surf are the ones feeding at the surface. When predators amass in large schools, they push balls of bait to the top and pound away until they get their fill. These surface blitzes can be seen rolling down the beach at great distances and are usually marked by diving gulls and pelicans. For a guy with a fly rod, it’s as good as it gets. Just get within casting range and flop your offering into the middle of the explosions… pure excitement.
Like nearly any place else, fish in the surf are opportunistic feeders. They seek out the easiest most efficient way to get a meal. Sometimes they feed at the surface, but more often they stage along ambush points where currents and structure allow them to surprise and attack prey.
Learning to identify these ambush points is known as “reading the surf.” Reading the surf requires experience, imagination, and a fundamental understanding of the forces at work below the breaking waves and foam. From the bank, the surf may appear to be a static system- a simple intersection between flat sand and curling waves. But there is way more to it than that.
Below those waves is a bottom structure that is alive and ever changing. Currents driven by wind and celestial powers sculpt the sand into a series of guts and bars. These structural features follow the shoreline along the full length of the beach. They look like uniform submerged windrows that pile up below crashing waves but in reality they are ever-changing. Subtle variations like small potholes or bends and large variations like j-hooks and washouts or breaches in the bars are present throughout their length.
The powerful force of moving water forms these features and they are great places for predators to stage and attack prey. Baitfish can be tumbled off bars by wave action or swept around or through the bars by currents. Predators lie in wait for the delivery, concealed either in the depths or in the confusion of the froth. The challenge as an angler is to spot these areas and get your fly into them.
At high tide, if you wade across the shallow wash area called the wade gut and plant your feet on the first bar, you will be staring out across the first gut toward the inside of the second bar. Waves are likely breaking over the second bar and the wash from those waves is carrying over into the gut in front of you. Where are the fish?
Imagine that you are staring upstream toward a waterfall. Hungry fish are waiting below the waterfall for prey that tumbles helplessly down to them. That is the image. Now cast across the gut and drop your fly on top of the second bar. Make a short retrieve and drag your fly “over the waterfall.” The strike occurs as the fly tumbles down into the gut. This tactic is one of my favorites and has accounted for many fish over the years.
If the wind or distance is limiting your ability to reach the second bar, then slide your feet slowly toward the outside of the first bar to a point where the bar begins to slope into the first gut in front of you. Now imagine the gut in front of you is a river and you are knee-deep on its edge. Visualize the way the fish in that river would patrol its banks and its bed, working the currents and searching for an errant victim. Make your casts and deliver your fly to the fish you envision in that river.
When you encounter special features in the surf like prominent j-hooks or washouts, take advantage of them. The inside curve of a j-hook is often a stake out point for fish. Water driven over the bottom of the j-hook is deposited in the small trough at the base and carries with it all sorts of food. Again, it is like a very small waterfall. Casting your fly onto the shallow hump of the j-hook and allowing it to tumble over the waterfall and into the trough is a tactic that can draw strikes from waiting fish. You also can deliver a fly directly to the pothole and let it fall in.
The edges of washouts and breaches in bars can be fished several ways. One way is cast a fly directly into the breach and let the current suck it out to waiting fish. A second method is to actually stand on the bar that is breached and approach the washout from the upstream side. Make a cast on the inside edge of the bar and allow the current to carry the fly down to and out through the washout. Predators will stake out the outside edge of the washout. It is exactly the same technique you might use to catch fish along secondary channels on the edges of flats during a falling tide. The predators lie in wait outside the secondary channel and pounce on prey swept out to them.
If you are lucky enough to find yourself casting to nothing but breaking fish in the surf you won’t need to fall back on creative tactics. But at some point you’ll likely find yourself staring across an endless expanse of water wondering where to start. Remember that the world below the surface is very much alive and changing. Currents collide and combine, bars collapse and rebuild, channels are gouged and filled again. It is the ultimate edge.