How to Read Surf for Fishing

As an avid fisherman, I am always looking for tips on how to improve my techniques and success in fishing. Living and fishing down at the Jersey Shore can lead to a treasure chest of information on surf fishing if you can separate the truth from fiction. The First lesson to learn on the Jersey Coast is, How To Read Surf For Fishing?

  • Learn to read the low tide beach formations-Humps, Cuts & Dips
  • Learn to Find and Identify Water Structures-Sandbar-Troughs-Holes-Cuts-Points
  • Know the differences in-Wave Sizes-Cresting Waves, Spilling Breakers & Plunging Breakers
  • Learn To “Walk The Dog”

My favorite place to surf fish for Big Striper Bass is at Island State Park in New Jersey. It’s a beautiful stretch of bird and animal sanctuary that is located outside of the popular town of Seaside NJ. Here is where I got my education in reading about the beach and surf fishing from the best teachers in the world.

How to Read Surf for Fishing


I used to spend countless hours casting and looking out over the ocean waiting for the fishing god’s to introduce me and my 11-foot Ugly Stick to the elusive, giant Big Bass Known as Striper.

I dreamt on many a night about filling my freezer and passing on my fish tale to the many visitors who pilgrimage to the island twice a year for the seasonal run.

One morning, at my favorite spot, after an all-night venture fishing through one of two tides with nothing to show, skunking on sand sharks and sea robins for 3 or 4 hours or more. I witnessed what I thought was a miracle.

It was an old guy with his lady friend spreading out their blanket and picnic lunch, not more than 50 feet from where my brother and I staked off our area on the beach with all our newest and most expensive equipment on display.

Once the elderly couple set up their little love nest, he gave his lady friend a big kiss and picked up two rods with what looked like a jig on both, and off he walked at the edge of the waterline and disappeared into the morning glare.

We snickered at the old guy and the old gal. She smiled and waved and laid back for some sun. We went back to the hunt. Fixed on our mission.

Within 20 minutes the old guy walked back down the beach toward me carrying a 15-17 pound Blue and a 40-inch Big Bass. He laid his rods down kissed his lady friend and buried the two fish in the wet sand at the bottom of the picnic blanket.

They stayed finished their lunch and disappeared from the beach like a ghost as the sun warmed the beach and the tide returned to the ocean. We left exhausted and making excuses.

Fishing Tips Surf Casting


What the old guy did was what old-timers called reading the surf is fishing basics for surf anglers from the beach. Then, “Walking the Dog” down the beach to where the big surf fish were at and waiting for surf anglers. I was waiting for the fish to come to me, but he was moving and hunting the fish it’s required in the saltwater surf.

In 20 minutes, he had what I was looking for all night and well into the morning. I needed to learn this technique. I went to the source. The old fisherman from the area. Here is what I learned from them.

The most important aspect is to Find and Identify Structure.

There are 3 Different and most Important Structures in the Surf.

  • Sandbars
  • Troughs
  • Cuts


Read Beach Surf at Low Tide Humps & Dips


The best time to look for structures is low tide when the beach can give up some secrets from a higher viewpoint.

These structures that are found on the beach constantly are changing. It’s Mother Nature’s way of controlling things. The sea’s water law is like all waters law, in that all water finds its way through the path of least resistance. Water seeks its own level and the sand is constantly changing by tides and storms but will always be there. So the beach will always re-configure.

Looking up and down the shoreline, especially at low tide, you can see a series of humps and dips across the landscape that spread along the coastline across the sand. If you turn towards the ocean, you’ll see the dips and humps that run into the ocean and disappear.

Most times these Humps and Dips are proportionate to the same configurations hundreds of yards out in the ocean on Sandbars and Holes covered by water that is unseen. These humps and dips in conjunction with the ones on the shoreline determine how the water flows and where the sand that is stirred up by tides and waves action ends up. The results are smaller versions of points and holes.

Waves break on the highest points of sandbars first, pushing water towards the shore. The seawater returns to the ocean in the dips much like a rip tide but not as strong. The fish are in these dips and the deeper the better. They may be a few feet deeper than the surrounding area but that’s good enough.

At a lower tide, the Surf gives up some of her mysteries by revealing some components of the Structures on the bottom, like humps, Dips, Cuts, Troughs, Holes, Points, and Sandbars. Still, you need to know what you are looking at and how these components interact with waves and surf to catch fish.

The next step after finding the location of the Dips leading into the water is to see if the Dips or Cuts lead you to a Sandbar. You can determine if the Sandbar has a Dip cutting into it by wave action. Follow the dip from the beach to a Sandbar. Study the wave’s action. The following videos are the very best on read surf called Reading the Beach by Rich Troxler 


At a lower tide, the Surf gives up some of her mysteries by revealing some components of the Structures on the bottom, like humps, Dips, Cuts, Troughs, Holes, Points, and Sandbars. Still, you need to know what you are looking at and how these components interact with waves and surf to catch fish.

Read Waves and Water Structures


Most waves get their start through wind energy. The more wind the more energy is stored in the wave. As the waves travel towards the shore the energy of the wave interacts with the seafloor, pushing it upward and affecting the height of the wave, until beaks.

Waves have two types of breakers. Spilling breakers that happen on a flatter shoreline with waves that cascade towards the shore has slow-rising bottoms with no or little Structures that don’t affect the energy of the wave. I always thought this was good. It’s Not! Great for surfers and bathers, but not so good for fishing.

The second type of breaker is called a Plunging breaker. This type of breaker crashes and dumps waves up near the edge of the beach. In this scenario, there are plenty of Structures on the sea bottom located here along with fish.

The waves are higher and the bottom contains many various contours that fish travel through and make their home in.  This is good for fishing!

The changes in the bottom contour affect water movement and wave action. If you can map out an area’s Sandbars and Troughs, then you can find out how to be successful. Locating these bottom contours or Structures is the key and by reading waves you can determine what structure it is and where there the structure starts and ends.

Incoming Tides are the best time to Read Waves. During this time waves are more consistent because the incoming currents run in the same direction.


Fishing Tips Holes and Troughs


These structures reveal themselves to you by how the waves act and move toward the shore. The most obvious of these are Sandbars. These reveal themselves by the way the waves break and moved over them making their way to shore.

The wave hits the Sandbar and rises in height until it can no longer support itself and breaks apart. The remaining energy from the wave washes over the bar and reforms in smaller waves with some or no cresting as it moves toward the beach.

The reason that there is no crest is that there is deeper water in front of the Sandbar and between the beach and the wave now is not strong enough to create enough energy and normally will break at the shoreline as a smaller wave.

The Trough is another Structure that is identified by wave action. If you have an offshore bar that the waves are breaking on it and the waves continue to push whitewater in front of them all the way to shore as in the case of a Spilling Breaker then that will tell you that there is no trough or no deeper side running on Parallel side or the short side of the Sandbar.

If the waves roll over the Sandbar, then reform with no Crest. Then break on the shoreline. That would indicate that there is a deep Trough present. Predatory and Migratory fish like the Stripers relate to these Structures and make them a hunting ground.

While the Trough runs Parallel to the beach, a Hole runs perpendicular to the beach. They are identified by waves that break farther out on either side of the Structure, while the waves that run over top break near shore.

Holes can also be accompanied by a Riptide caused by water that is running back off the beach into The Point is another type of Structure that can be identified by how waves break over or around them.

On some types of shorelines, Points can be found on either side of Holes. Some beaches have Points and Holes alternating and running along the length of the beach. They can be identified by the soft structure wave action that they create.

The Cut is an area or channel that runs between two adjacent Sandbars. It allows water that has washed over the top of a Sandbar to wash back into the ocean side of the Bar. Water will always follow the course of least resistance. You will notice these cuts at low tide, they are easier to see.

Cuts start small but as the flow of water moves in and out it starts to erode the sand and make the channel larger and larger. The best Cuts for fishing are the ones that are deep enough for the fish to use yet narrow enough that their population is contained to a small area. Cuts are identified like a Trough is, by their lack of wave action.

Because the depth of the Cut is deeper than the Sandbars area, and the wave has less interaction with the bottom, the wave does not build as high as on the neighboring Sandbars. So what you will see from the beach is the wave breaking hard on the bars on both sides of the Cuts while waves roll through the area of the Cut and break on the shore.

The water in the Cut can also be developed into a Riptide. That is the current famous for pulling swimmers out to sea. You can identify a Riptide by the ripples on the surface along with foam moving back out to sea.

You can tell if you are fishing in a Cut if your line pulls straight out in front of you and if you are fishing with a plug, you will feel the pull of the outward current on your line. This is a prime place to fish because you are at the entrance and exit of the Trough where bait and predator fish move in and out.

It’s amazing what you can see when the tide is all the way out and everything is exposed on the beach. Take a look at the beach with all components in place. The Sandbar on the left and a Sandbar on the right is divided by the Cut.

The Trough is in front of both Sandbars and is facing the beach. You can see by this dry picture that the Cut acts as the entrance and the exit for water and fish. The Trough would normally be a little deeper. This is the best place to fish in Surf Fishing.


Find a Good Spot to Fish on the Beach Surf


There are many questions that you’ll have about Surf Fishing especially learning it.

The question is now where do you fish? If you look out and spot the Sandbar ask yourself a few questions. Is the Sandbar in casting distance? How are the waves interacting at the Sandbar?  Do the waves have a lot of energy? Do the waves continue to Crest after they roll over the Bar? Do they continue to Crest as they move toward the shore? If the answer is yes. Then, what that tells you is that the Trough, although, it is there in front of the Sandbar is shallow.

The reason was that the wave continued to Crest after it rolled over the top of the Sandbar towards the shore. This might not be a good spot for the predator fish who is hunting smaller species and hanging out, especially during the day, At night the story could change because generally predator fish like Bass and ocean Bluefish, like to have some water over the top of their head.

The rule of thumb for Troughs is that the deeper the better. As we talked about earlier at low tide you can see a lot of the landscape that is normally covered up by water. On a full moon, tidal water moves back even further and this is the best time to observe the ever-changing beach coastline.

Key Structures like Sandbars can be a rod length of the beach and when the tide comes in it brings feed fish and hungry predator fish real close. Another point of reference could sometimes be clarity. You might see the deep trough in front of the Sandbar looking like a color change different than the surrounding area. Take a look from a higher visual point of the beach and surf.

The Wave size is like a measuring stick for the trough deepness. A large Wave equates to lots of energy. As soon as the wave passes over and if the Cresting stops that indicates the wave dropped into a deep Trough. That’s where the big fish could be. That is good information.


How do you catch Striped Bass In Rivers?

To catch Stripers in a Freshwater river:

Fish overnight 10 pm-4 am
On new moon
55-68° H2O temps.
Use a Planer or a Float technique
Jigging technique on a boat
Use Fresh Bait from the River-Alewife, Herring, Shad, or eels
Lures that simulate baitfish on the surface or just below …………………………………………….. Read more

Secrets to Beach Fishing


Fish tend to hug those edges created in front of the Bar and at the edge of the Trough towards the beach. That could be 100 yards out or 10 yards out. The next big storm will change all that too, so the need to scout at low tide starts all over. Here are a few indicators that won’t change:


  • Sandbars nearest to the Shore are the best.
  • Deep Troughs are more productive than shallow Troughs
  • Cuts are where feed fish and predator fish enter and exit through.
  • Structures are harder to read at higher stages of the tide.
  • Low tide and beach formations like Dips & Humps can reveal the Structures that the surf holds.
  • Listen to your old man or the old guy who is fishing beside you. 


Train your eyes to become a better fisherman. Get good surf fishing equipment to use on the surf. Water-sealed reels that are protected from the elements are more important out here in the sand and the salt.

Equipment is key, and clothing is key and also important. If you are not warm and dry, you not fishing for long. Out here where you need protection from the harsh conditions, especially in the late Fall months of Bass season. Still, you can have the best rod or reels that money can buy, but sometimes it won’t help you catch fish.

Knowledge is also key. A lifetime of saltwater fishing knowledge is something special. I have fished on the upside, downside, or in between tides, but as for now, I listen a little more closely to old guys drinking coffee at the tackle shop at the entrance to the island, where everybody has a story about the one that didn’t get away. Thanks to them. Surfcasting, wind direction, ocean current, live bait, how to read surf.

Now I got one!


How do you Catch Striped Bass from Shore?

You’ll need to know:

  • The Water Temperature
  • The Time of High & Low Tides
  • The right kind of Surf Equipment to Use
  • The right Bait, the Striped Bass, is hitting on that Day
  • The right colored lure they’re hitting on
  • A weight that holds the bottom
  • How to Read Surf ..………………………………………………………………………  Read more


JimGalloway Author/Editor



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