Bill Varney – SURF LINES

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Thursday, July 05, 2018
Learning to surf fish on the beach

Being prepared for fall surf fishing
This summer has produced some crazy-good surf fishing. Stripers in San Diego, world-class corbina fishing in Santa Barbara and everything in between.

Recently, Scripps Institute reported the surface water temperature at Scripps Pier in La Jolla hit a record 78.6 degrees. That’s the highest temperature recorded in 102 years. With hurricanes on the horizon, there is no doubt the water temp will go even higher.

With all this hot water how is that going to affect surf fishing? Well, that’s anyone’s guess, but here’s mine: Warm water generally signals less sand crabs and a migration of some surf fish toward the north. Fish generally follow their food, so as the food moves north into cooler water, so do the fish.

In previous years of warm water, perch have been hard to find in Southern California but are found in abundance in areas like Pismo, Guadalupe, Monterey and beaches north. Yet, it also encourages fish rarely seen in California to move up the coast. Corvina, bonefish, needlefish and jacks are just of few of the fish we might expect to see this fall.

GHOST SHRIMP MAKE excellent bait in the fall when sand crabs become scarce.

Fall has always been my favorite time to fish the beach, when crowds are thin, water is warm and fish are numerous. As with the change of seasons, bait changes from season to season too.

Summer brings us loads of sand crabs and the on rush of corbina to rake the sandy shores for food. When summer ends sand crabs sink out as they prepare for their winter hibernation and fish begin searching for a new food to take the place of crab.

Fall baits such as bloodworms, ghost shrimp and lugworms work well for fishing the beach from autumn through spring. As the billion or more sand crabs leave the beaches, surf fish such as barred perch, spotfin croaker, leopard sharks, yellowfin croaker and the occasional corbina look for a new source of food to comfort their veracious appetites.

One of the best surf baits has always been ghost shrimp. Credited with catching some of the biggest surf fish on record (the current world record corbina being one), the ghost shrimp is one of my favorite surf baits. Ghost shrimp can be found inside your local estuary or harbor where they can be “pumped” by hand.

As with most surf baits fished on light line, I always use the Carolina rig for ghost shrimp. Use a long shank worm hook for shrimp. Insert the hook near the shrimp’s tail and “feed” the hook upwards through the center of its body. Exit the business end of the hook just below the shrimp’s head and between the legs. This is by far the hardest part of the shrimp’s body and by hooking here will allow you to give the bait a moderate cast without losing it.

Storing shrimp correctly is important because of their fragility. Unlike sand crabs, ghost shrimp may be stored in a refrigerator. If you have bait left over after a day of fishing, rinse it out with saltwater at the shore just before leaving the beach. Because shrimp excrete urine (which will eventually kill them) bring home a bottle of saltwater from the beach to rinse them at least once per day.

I like to take it one step further by using a five-gallon aquarium that fits in a “dorm” refrigerator to keep my ghost shrimp alive and crisp. Keep the temperature in the refrigerator around 54 degrees and change the water every two to three days. Shrimp kept this way will last about a week and be much fresher and crisper on the hook.

When I take shrimp to the beach, I will always place them in my hip bait bucket with a couple of ice cubes. That way when I reach the beach they stay cool and don’t cook inside my closed bait container.

Another bait you can find at your local tackle shop are lug and bloodworms.

Bloodworms have a storied past and are considered one of the best baits ever used at the beach. One great advantage of the blood worm is its durability. Their outside casing is so tough feel free to catch one, two, or five fish on the same bait — it’s that strong.

LUG AND BLOODWORMS attract fish in fall and winter and can usually be found at most local tackle shops.

The lugworm is a recent addition to surf fishing baits and has become a great substitute for bloodworms. These worms are farmed in controlled conditions and can be grown in huge quantities. This helps to make them more widely available and less expensive. Both blood and lugworms can be kept for up to two weeks in your refrigerator.

Because you will use the entire worm for bait, it takes a bit of practice to get one on your hook. Inside the worm’s mouth you’ll find a set of two to four pinchers. They appear as if they are tiny fingernails. The worm uses these to catch its prey and to dig holes in the sand. On larger worms these claws will get your attention as they clamp onto your skin with a sharp pinch!

It is essential to have the worm expose it’s “claws” outside of the casing to hook it correctly. Rub the worm against your coat or pinch it with your pliers to open its mouth. The fresher the worm, the faster and more pronounced the pinchers and mouth will be.

To get the worm in a position to place on the hook, pinch the “neck” (just below the pinchers) between your thumb and forefinger. Holding the worm firmly and insert the sharp hook end into the mouth (center of the pinchers). Slowly and carefully, trying not to puncture the worm casing, feed the worm up the hook (and the hook down the center of the worm). Pull the worm onto the hook until you reach the hook eye and mono knot. Firmly grasp the mouth and pull it over the hook’s eye. At this point the worm can also be slipped up the line. Puncture the casing of the worm with the hook and leave a one and one-half inch piece of worm, just below the hook. Be sure to pull the hook past the barb so it sets well and will hold the worm in place as you cast.

Check your worm every cast to make sure it has not slid down the line and bunched up. Also, make sure the worm is flat on your hook so it looks like a worm moving along the bottom as you retrieve. After each fish just pull another one and one-half inch piece down below the hook and off you go.

Great combination — worms and grubs : A great way to enhance your grubs is by adding a small piece of worm above the eye of your hook so it sits atop the grub. I start with a whole worm but when most of my worm has been eaten, I like to add a 1½-inch grub below the remaining piece of worm. Try it — you’ll be amazed at the results.

Now is a good time to begin collecting bait to be used in fall and winter. Being prepared by collecting bait a day, week or month before a fishing trip and freezing it, can make the difference between catching fish or not. Every few months I’ll spend some time working on collecting, processing and freezing bait.

Take some time to collect rock mussel and sand crabs. Make sure the crabs are of the hard shell variety (harder the better). I place them in snack-size zip bags with enough for one day of fishing. Make several varieties: One with crabs alone, one with crabs and taco sauce (pick your favorite) and one with crabs and a piece of juicy mussel. Once frozen and thawed, the crabs will have a softer shell and will be naturally scented. I guarantee that during wintertime this will drive fish crazy!

Mussel makes excellent fresh and frozen bait and they are easily collected from the rocks of a jetty or the pilings of a pier. After collecting a handful of mussel, let it sit overnight and it will be easier to shuck the next day. Clean the mussel and place it in small zip top bags with enough for one day of fishing. A great variation on this is to cut squid into strips (about the size of a pencil) and add this to the mussel bag. The squid will absorb both the color and smell of the mussel and will be both easy to keep on the hook and deadly effective.

Put bait packages in labeled brown paper bags in the freezer. Once per year throw out old bait and start over. That’s sage advice especially for those who want to stay married!

Knowing when sand crabs begin to leave the beach and knowing what baits work as fall and winter replacements will not only make you a better angler but will ensure that you’ll be catching fish at the beach long into this year’s warm water days of winter.

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WON’s surf fishing editor Bill Varney is teaming up with CCA Calfiornia for an on-the-beach surf fishing clinic at Bolsa Chica State Beach on Saturday, Sept. 22. To learn more about the clinic visit his website:

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