How to fish shallow Atlantic surf beaches

For some anglers there is no greater thrill than fishing for bass in the pounding surf of an Atlantic beach.

Flat sandy beaches occur all round the coast of Britain, but classic surf fishing conditions are unique to western coasts exposed to the Atlantic Ocean with its prevailing winds and tides. It’s hard to beat surfcasting for bass in such magnificent surroundings.

Types of surf beach

Individual beaches range from tiny, steeply shelving coves facing very deep water, to massive expanses of hard-packed flat sand over which the sea retreats more than a mile on the lowest spring tides. Most beaches fall between these extremes of depth and each needs to be studied and judged on its own merits. Even so, anglers do tend to divide surf beaches into deep and shallow categories. Deep surf beaches offer fish a stable underwater environment and attract a wide range of species. These include both shallow-water fish such as bass, flatties and rays, and fish usually associated with deep rock marks and offshore sandbanks – pollack, conger, tope and turbot. As bass stocks decline, more anglers opt for the variety and better results these beaches offer, even though they lack the magic of a true surf beach. Shallow beaches – what dedicated anglers call ‘real’ surf marks -hold a special appeal because their swirling breakers and currents attract bass. Make no mistake, though they are scarce and elusive these days, bass are still the prize catch. However, the fishing is distinctly hit and miss, because apart from the occasional flatty or spurdog, you might well not get a single bite if the bass don’t arrive. Fishing a shallow surf beach is therefore usually more chancy but there are a number of ways an angler can load the odds slightly in his favour.

The real thing

The vast flat beaches of iron-hard sand look so utterly barren and exposed that they could not support any sort of life. But beneath your feet are buried shoals of sandeels, beds of razor fish and clams, crabs and perhaps the massive black lugworms that burrow deeper than a digger’s arm can reach.

Such buried goodies are only accessible to the fish when covered by water, so these marks can only be fished during the few hours either side of high tide. The moment the tide begins to flood across the sands, thousands of marine animals come out to feed. And sometimes the bass come in to feast on them.

Wind and wave action are the key to successful sport on all these beaches but the shallower the mark, the more critical water and weather patterns become. Probably the single most important skill is distinguishing real bassing surf from other, less productive, types of wave action which may occur.

Swell versus sea

Wind blowing across a stretch of seawater throws up a wave pattern called a ‘sea’. This can produce hefty breakers and white horses as the water sweeps up the beach.

Surf due to a sea is typically both localized and full of dirt and weed. As soon as the wind eases, the waves die too. No serious angler would dismiss such conditions completely, but the chances of good fishing are slim as the waves are usually too violent for marine life to feed in safety. The best chances are usually at the end of the blow and only if the water has remained fairly clean.

In complete contrast, a real bassing surf starts life beneath a weather depression far out in the Atlantic. Like ripples from a stone thrown into a pond, the young waves travel thousands of miles, gradually ageing into lazy but powerful swells. These eventually reach the continental shelf and pour on to the beaches of Cornwall, Wales and South West Ireland.

Oceanic swell surf is clean, persistent and often occurs in dead calm weather, or even when the wind is offshore. Where the short-lived, dirty local surf is likely to depress sport, this pulsing Atlantic water positively energizes the shoreline, providing a healthy but gentle movement of oxygenated water. It has much the same effect on anglers and fish alike, though for very different reasons!

Picking the time

Between twelve hours and three days after the first waves tumble ashore is the time to be wading waist deep, casting a live sandeel or bunch of worms and clams into the farthest table of water (the flat area behind a breaker) you can reach. This delay is variable and hard to predict – it is often a case of trial and error. With a localized sea, you should wait at least until the breakers begin to die down, but it is very different with a swell. In real bassing surf conditions, sport begins slowly, then holds a steady rhythm, sometimes for days on end.

Atlantic surf beach fishing is utterly dependent on weather; more precisely on the south-westerly winds driven by low pressure weather systems. These provide the most attractive conditions for bass when coupled with the big equinox tides, so spring and autumn are by far the best ‘ times. As a rule of thumb, April-May and September-October give the surf enthusiast his best chance of hooking a bass. Indeed the back end of the autumn run brings a large number of the year’s double figure specimens.

Catch ‘em when you can

Inshore gill netting, which began in the 1970s, has largely depleted the stocks of bass. There is no guarantee of running into them from any inshore mark, even in perfect conditions. Predicting where the fish will turn up becomes increasingly difficult year by year, to the extent that no-one should attempt to draw up a list of hot spots ahead of time. They could be anywhere… or nowhere. Do as the experts do – keep your eyes and ears open for any reports of bass. Read the angling press for news of matches or any big catches from the shore and ask in tackle shops, but as for when to fish, let the weather forecast be your guide. Wait for low pressure systems to run in from the Atlantic bringing clean white water. Then grab your tackle and baits and head for the beach.