My First Experience Throwing Flies in the Surf

This summer I was blessed enough to be able to load my family (including two kids under the age of 5) into the family van and start on the 700 mile drive to Southern California. Driving twelve-plus hours, when you include potty breaks, is ALWAYS (sarcasm) exactly how I want to start all my vacations. In all reality, the drive was a pretty great experience and the kids did awesome! They probably did better on that long drive than I did.

I knew in my heart of hearts that this was a family trip and that meant that I was going to be spending a lot of time in California amusement parks. It surprises me to say this, because I generally dislike all things amusement park, but I really did have a great time waiting in lines, playing with my kids and wife, and just having a good time at amusement parks.

I know you didn’t come here to read about my experiences at theme parks, you came to read about fish! So, on to stories about fishing.

Fly fishing fly

We got down to California early Monday afternoon and we decided to walk down to the beach and play for a little bit. We played in the sand. I taught my 4-year old how to catch sand crabs. That time was also used to scout out some places along the beach where I could likely find some fish. One thing I quickly realized that scouting the beach was like scouting a river; it is important to locate cover/protection and food. Finding those two things greatly increases the likelihood of finding fish. I was made aware by some very wise fly fisherpeople that sand crabs make a tasty snack to surf fish. I made some mental notes of where fish were likely going to be and then went back to enjoying my time with my family.

The following morning began between 5:30-6:00 in the morning (which was long before my wife and two kids woke up). My wonderful mom decided to walk down to the beach with me. As we approached the beach, I spotted a grassy knoll and quickly stopped, strung up my rod, tied on a fly, took off my sandals, and got ready to fish. It was a cool morning with gray skies and a surprising amount of fog. I was informed by Dave, a fellow Fishwest Ambassador, that it was an incoming tide and that the high tide was going to be around 8:00 a.m. As I waded into some moderately rough surf (especially compared to the evening before) I wondered “WHAT am I doing??” The cold morning surf quickly shook that thought from my mind as I got hit waist high with a wave.

Spencer fly fishing on the California coast

The plan was simple: wade as deep as I felt comfortable in the surf, cast around me, move, and repeat. This was easier in thought than in actuality. Don’t get me wrong, it was fun, but it was a lot of work. Fishing in the surf, when compared to fishing still lakes or consistently flowing rivers, is a completely different type from any other wading that I had ever done due to the ebb and flow of the waves. Then combine the task of casting when you’re about to be pounded mid-chest by a larger than normal wave. It creates a very different dynamic. It was a blast, but a lot of work.

Quick notes: When fishing the surf a stripping basket is such a blessing to have. Seaweed is evil. Line control is crucial.

Holding a fresh caught fish

So back to the adventure: As I was stripping, casting, wading, getting frustrated by seaweed, and generally loving this new adventure, something magic happened. I cast over an incoming wave, strip, strip.. pause.. strip, strip, “zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz” the line went tight and my reel’s drag started singing a beautiful song. Fighting a fish in the surf is quite an exhilarating experience! Just like fishing in a river with a strong current, these fish know exactly how to use their environment to their benefit. I was laughing to myself and hoping that nothing was going to separate me from this first fish in the surf. After several line-ripping runs, I finally managed to get the fish to hand. My jaw dropped, I literally laughed out loud as I realized that I had landed a corbina. After several quick photos while in the ankle-to-knee deep water the fish was back on its way to munch on some more sand crabs and whatever other delicious goodness it was going to find.

That time on that beach lent itself to a few other great moments. I had my knuckles get very unpleasantly smashed by the mind-blowing run of an absolutely angry corbina. Unfortunately that fish managed to use a large wave as a vehicle for its escape. I also got a yellow fin croaker to hand. Man, even as a small 8-9 inch fish, that little guy put a great bend in my Redington Predator. Those yellow fin croakers have such beautiful fins!

Fish with fly in its mouth

Honestly, spending a couple mornings fishing the surf helped me realize a few important fly fishing realities that I specifically needed. First, practice casting. I was hit time and time again by waves the middle of launching a cast. Simply put, the waves made a mess of my casting stroke. With additional practice and better muscle memory I believe that my casting would not have been as negatively impacted. Second, perseverance is a developed skill. I can only imagine me as an angler 3 years ago becoming quickly disenchanted with fishing the surf because of the “lack of success” (few fish caught) during my time there. After expanding my views of fishing to include more than high mountain streams and tailwaters chasing trout, my ability to persevere through less than ideal fishing conditions has greatly increased. Third, fish are awesome. I’ve always known this. These mornings were a reminder of how awesome fish are and how appreciating the details makes each fish more unique and memorable.

I really hope to get back to the beach and find a new place to cast into some salty waters for an all new adventure.