Assateague Island Surf Fishing

This article is about surf fishing the Atlantic coast of Maryland and Virginia. The author is Rob Dunning, aka Reel Angler, an experienced and dedicated surf fishing enthusiast.

Surf fishing is truly for those who love to be outdoors in all conditions. It’s not always productive and fishing by boat is almost always more successful.  Many anglers, like myself, may fish a number of years before they catch their first keeper striper.  It is, after all, fishing and not catching. Many fishermen have told me “you have to put your time in”. But this is a sport that is gratifying enough in its self without guaranteed catches.  Every time I go fishing I find myself learning or trying something new.  There are so many variables that no two fishing trips are ever identical.

I primarily fish Assateague Island, both the Maryland and Virginia sides. Over the years I have grown to exert most of my time and effort in the spring and fall when migratory stripers can be had. I’ve found that summer time for me is better spent tuna fishing or vacationing with the family. Small fish and fishing crowded beaches are not for me. Not only are legal stripers present in late fall and spring but larger blues are often about as well.  Stripers are my target species, however, I do respect the fight of 5 lb and larger bluefish.  An occasional black drum or flounder are also welcomed catches. Just about anything that bends the rod can get your heart pumping! 

Equipment does not have to be fancy or expensive, just reliable.  I use spinning reels, but many prefer conventional reels for surfcasting. Conventional reels offer greater distance in casting.  This can sometimes be a mute point since at times the fish can be in close to shore.  Distance is not something I concentrate too much on.  In time I’m sure I will dabble more with conventional gear.  I have used inexpensive reels and have gradually upgraded to bait runner style spinning reels.  The great advantage to these is the fish can take the bait and run while giving you time to get to the rod.  I have had a number of instances where a rod was pulled down out of the spike into the sand, and in very rare occasions in the wash before I could get to it. 

The rods I use vary in length, but that is because many were given to me or bought at yard sales.  They vary between 9 and 11 feet long.  It’s my opinion that a rod of 9-10 ft is more than adequate for our Delmarva Coast.  I stand at 6’5” so I have no problem casting a 12’ or longer rod.  However, I don’t think the extra length is necessary.  I personally find 10’ to be just to my liking.  I primarily bait fish and do so in some rough water/weather at times.  Rough conditions mandate that I use 8 oz. or more to hold bottom.  This is why I lean towards a stiffer rod for bait casting.  Lighter action rods are better for casting plugs and other artificials.

I believe bait fishing is the most effective way to catch fish in our surf.  Some may disagree but plugs take a lot of walking and effort.  It is rare to see anyone on the island using plugs.  I do have them just in case there is a blitz or the fish want something other than what I’m offering.  As in any fishing situation, live bait is the best bait to have.  Finding live bait and keeping it that way long enough to use it on the beach is often difficult if not impossible to do.  One possible exception is to fish a live eel.  They will live a long time if cared for properly and stripers love them.  I have them with me every so often just in case.  They have to be worked like a plug or you will have problems!

I use two basic rigs for bait fishing.  I use a fish finder rig that can be rigged in two ways and a hi-lo rig.  One fish finder rig is consisted of a 7/0 – 8/0 circle hook (or larger) tied to 20”-30” of leader which in turn is tied to a 3-way swivel, which has a weight and the main line attached.  The second rig is simply the same size hook tied to the end of a 12-20”or longer leader with a weight slide above the swivel end of the leader.  This second rig casts farther and easier and the fish can pick up the bait and go further before noticing the weight.  The hi-lo rig is a leader with a weight snap at the bottom and two dropper loops tied above one another approximately 16” apart.   About 16” above the top loop is the top swivel used to attach to the main line.  With the weight on the very bottom of the rig, they cast quite well.  I like them for two main reasons; more bait in the water = more fish (in theory) and the dropper loops allow me to change hooks easily.  The rig helps to elevate the bait, which may help in presentation but stripers are bottom feeders anyway.  I have caught my largest fish on fish finder rigs.  I use 50 lb test monofilament for leader material and for shock leaders. 

My running lines are usually 17 – 20 lb test monofilament, 20#s being the norm.  With casting heavy weights and rigs I am forced to use shock leaders.  Braided line has the advantage of not needing a shock leader.  I, however, would want a long mono leader tied to the braided line when hand leadering a big fish.  I don’t need any more cuts on my hands.  The other advantage to braided line is that it lasts longer and does not need to be replaced as often.  I respool all reels at least once each year faithfully.  Braided line may be something I experiment more with in the near future. 

Using circle hooks reduces the stress to the fish and the time it takes to release it. It also prevents a fish from getting gut hooked. Because the hook set isn’t an issue with circle hooks, I am able to fish 3 or more rods at a time. I tag all stripers that are released.  There will be days when you are over your limit or are catching sub-legal fish and must return fish whether they are tagged or not.

Bunker chunks and heads are my bait of choice and usually it is the striper’s as well.  The fresher the bait, the better.  However, I have seen rockfish take bunker that was previously frozen.  Some fishermen put more emphasis on this than others.  If you can’t get fresh bait, then frozen will have to do.  Bunker heads are nice in that they last longer in the water.  Bait stealers don’t mess with them as much and the heads won’t fall apart as readily either.  Clams can be used, especially in the spring when targeting black drum.  New Jersey is known for its use of clams for bait.  But again, our regional bait of choice is bunker.  “Match the hatch”.

Reading the beach and searching for structure is important to locating where fish may congregate.  I find what structure is on Assateague to be very subtle at times.  I look for bowls and cuts in the sand bars at low tide.  The most common structures there are the sloughs that run parallel with the beach.  If no structure is found, then cast out and hope for fish swimming up and down the sloughs.  The beach is always changing.  What was there yesterday may not be there next month or next week for that matter.

Tides are important in most fishing circumstances as they are in the surf.  Two hours before and two hours after high tide are supposed to be the best for fishing.  However, I find I often have to fish when I am available to fish and cannot be overwhelmed by not hitting the tides perfectly.  If the fish are there and they are hungry, then they will bite.  Time of day can be important as well.  Overcast days seem better than bright sunny days.  Fishing from sundown to sunrise is best especially in springtime when water temperatures are rising and days are growing longer.  It seems the bass are not only weary of being discovered by their prey but also by what might prey on them.

In short, one must continue to learn and adapt to the many changing variables of surf fishing.