By JERRY LaBELLA
|Photo by JERRY LaBELLA
|There’s a lot more involved in being successful at surf-fishing than simply entering the water at any beach line.
The early morning sun had scarcely peeked over the cloudy horizon when shrilling cries of sea gulls dive-bombing for bait awakened us.
Minutes later, we were wading in waist-deep, nippy water, the kind that brings a breath-taking revitalization to the male counterpart upon entry.
With each step, the sandy bottom melted under our feet, giving evidence to a brisk incoming tide. Glancing at the light-green water, we could easily see the bottom, and out near the first gut schools of baitfish interrupted the shimmering surface.
Solitude quickly abated, as my companion's drag let out with an encouraging screech. A smile spread across his face, while his arching rod quivered against the backdrop of a dimly lit sky.
After seeing where he made his hookup, I immediately tossed out a cast in the same direction. My heart pounded with expectation, and my hand trembled nervously around the rod grip as I worked the lure in.
With reckless abandon, my line started peeling from my reel. In ecstasy, we both gave way to hooting and hollering. Trout were being hooked and put onto the stringers as fast as we could cast our light tackle southward.
In retrospect, that was one of the better wadefishing trips of earlier days. Admittedly, back then it was a hit-and-miss situation — mostly miss, as I recall.
However, successful wadefishing doesn't have to be arduous. Like any other type of fishing, learning the art of wadefishing takes know-how, patience and persistence. Obviously, accomplishing the know-how will aid in overcoming the other two remaining factors.
Without a doubt, any consistently successful wadefishing angler has caused much of his own good fortune. He's learned the do's and don'ts from sheer persistence and being alert. Simply put, the wadefishing game to him is no longer a game of chance, but one of astute calculation.
The angler who scores in the surf with any consistency is an angler who knows the importance tide and weather play in the picture of success. He recognizes that the surf is a very temperamental environment, yielding its bounty at its own convenience.
There's no doubt about it, the true wadefishing angler is part prophet, meteorologist, fanatic and scientist — and for good reason. He ventures not into the surf without first analyzing all conditions — tide, temperature, wind direction and underwater terrain, all of which have been given much forethought and planning.
Above all, he's aware of his own limitations, the things he can and cannot control, among the latter being the weather and its winds that can turn the surf into a chocolate-colored mess in a matter of minutes.
Full of persistence and patience, the genuine wadefishing angler is never frustrated to the point of considering boat fishing as his only option. No, he'll diligently search for areas that provide some wadefishing alternatives, knowing conditions can change from one moment to the next.
Any persistent wadefishing angler with any amount of salt in his navel can certainly relate one incident or another where varying conditions caused him to change his strategy.
One that comes to mind happened several years ago in early March while fishing Breton Island. A dozen or so boats came scurrying from the Gulf side of the island looking for shelter when a sudden norther accompanied by rain and lightning moved in on unsuspecting surf anglers. All sat at anchor in the harbor area and waited until the storm subsided, but unfortunately the wind remained relentless.
|Photo by JERRY LaBELLA
|When tidal ranges are over a foot, the two hours on either side of the change will be most productive.
This caused most of the boats to head back to the launch, with the exception of some who were staying overnight, just as we were. With ominous clouds building, everyone aboard my boat began to discount wadefishing, at least for that day.
But that wasn't my intention, despite the fact that I stood there shivering with a beach towel around me, overlooking the calm, green water surrounding the boat. Tempting me even more was how clearly the anchor and rope could be seen 15 feet away in 3 feet of water.
Serving no notice, I picked up my gear and slid back into the water, abandoning the idea of snacking and putting on dry clothing as was the case with the others. They gave no consideration to the thought of getting back into the water, particularly since the temperature was falling.
I waded toward the island's old docking structure, not far from where we had anchored. As I made my way there, I recalled how years ago I accidentally discovered the unusual water depth therein — having jumped overboard — and almost drowned. The oil company had dug this section out to the depth of 8 feet to accommodate crew boat traffic that brought in oil-field personnel and equipment. I figured fish must be lying in ambush anywhere a deep hole is surrounded by shallow water.
After stationing myself right outside the dock and on the ledge of the hole, I made several casts paralleling the dock's piling legs. Each time my gold spoon was retrieved, I noticed a speckled trout in hot pursuit, only turning and running back to the deep hole as soon as the lure was lifted from the water.
It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that my retrieve was too slow, so I retrieved faster. After 10 casts, I had 10 speckled trout tugging at my stringer. My buddies looked on from the boat until they could stand it no more. They eventually mustered up enough courage to brave the chilling water and join in on the action.
Now, besides persistence and patience — with a little fanaticism thrown in — tide is also of equal importance to success, not to mention easier to predict than the weather. Without tidal current, baitfish, crabs and shrimp will not move far, causing game fish to become inactive and harder to catch.
Undeniably, it is arguable which tide is best, flooding or ebbing, but all agree that some movement is better than no movement. And the longer the tidal movement, the more bait is dispersed. This, nevertheless, doesn't mean that the strongest or fastest tide is necessarily the best. It all depends on where and what part of the tide movement you happen to be fishing.
“Typically, you want to fish the first two hours of the tide movement and especially the last two hours before it ends,” says Herman Solar, a veteran fishing guide and notable fishing authority.
This is even more true when tidal range is over a foot. Solar says tidal speed increases after the first two hours of movement and only slows down at the beginning of the last two hours. When the tide is moving during its peak or mid range, bait is dispersed because it cannot maintain a holding pattern until it slows. Where there's no bait, there's no fish.
The saying that “the early bird catches the worm” carries much validity when it comes to wadefishing. In warmer months, being there early — before sunrise — will make the difference between catching or not, since warm beachfront waters cool overnight, making for more productive feeding grounds at or near the first gut.
As these waters warm with each passing minute of sunlight, fish move out deeper in search of cooler water, sometimes way beyond the reach of wadefishing anglers.
Consequently, the latecomer doesn't have a chance of catching his fish in the more convenient, shallower waters near shore. Ironically, even when some wadefishing anglers arrive early, they unwittingly pass up the shallow, productive waters near shore and opt for deeper water fishing past the first gut.
|Photo by JERRY LaBELLA
|As the day wears on, fish tend to move away from the beach, and into the guts in deeper water.
To the less-experienced, the surf appears to be all the same — a vulnerable shore beaten by pounding waves. With time and practice, however, the astute angler is able to discern the subtle distinctions. The technique is called reading the water — an essential art in identifying the highway routes fish like to travel.
As illustrated earlier, fish relate to irregularities in bottom formation; therefore, it's advantageous to read these signs from above the water's surface. You can do this when the surf is either flat-calm or wavy.
For instance, on calm days you can determine the gut locations by coloration variances produced by depth of water along the beach — dark water is deeper water, lighter water is shallower. Knowing these clues gives you an edge in locating fish.
When wave action is present, you can determine the depth of a gut even before entering the water. This is done by sizing up the height of the breaking wave as it meets the bar or gut. The curl-to-crest measurement of the wave will be slightly deeper than the actual depth of the gut.
Seasoned wadefishing anglers can tell where a gut begins and if there's a break along the run.
“I can look at a beachfront on a breezy day,” Solar says, “and tell exactly where the first gut starts and where the next one begins. If there's breaks in the gut, I can tell where these are located because the wave action will be almost flat between where the gut stops and picks up again.”
After locating these guts, preferably starting with the first from the beach, try fishing them both parallel and perpendicular to the shore. Here is where fish and bait move with tidal currents along the beach, and they'll commonly gang up in these troughs. It's a good practice to first locate the ledge of the trough, position yourself halfway down it, then fish it parallel to the beach.
It's also a good idea to look for other telltale signs where fish like to hangout. This would include scattered seashells, grass beds, protruding tree stumps, sloughs and indentations along the beach.
On the precautionary side, certain places can be dangerous for wadefishing anglers. For example, extreme caution should be exercised when fishing around deep-running passes, cuts, and island extremities. Such places may conceal deep, sudden drop-offs close to shore that can ensnare the unwary.