Surf’s Up by Brandon Swet

The state of Florida is considered to be a fisherman’s paradise. You have the Gulf of Mexico, the famous Florida Keys, Lake Okeechobee, and enough fishable water to make your head spin. If you’ve ever been to Florida it’s almost overwhelming with the amount of areas that you can fish and the types of fish you can catch. I was lucky enough to spend 4 months in Florida job searching and visiting my girlfriend who has a house located in Southeast Florida in the town of Boynton Beach. This area of Florida is unique because the Gulfstream is only a few short miles off the coast and brings some very large pelagics fairly close to shore. Close enough that you can catch sailfish from a kayak along with Tuna, Wahoo, and other large species. Now I wasn’t able to get a kayak until the last few weeks I was in Florida so I wasn’t able to tussle with any of the large pelagics, but I did spent a lot of time fishing the surf. Growing up in New Jersey I’d done some surf fishing for striped bass, bluefish, and fluke, but it never really appealed to me in any way. To be honest I really disliked and always thought “man if I could just get a boat I’d have the whole ocean to fish!”. So when I’d arrived in Florida I kind of turned my nose up to the thought of having to fly fish the surf. I really expected it to be a waste of my time and I was fairly frustrated I wouldn’t have a boat that would allow me to really explore the Florida fisheries. Not long after I had arrived in Florida I was walking on the beach on a fairly rough day with high winds scanning the waves hoping I’d possibly catch a glimpse of something. After chatting with some locals they informed me there should be some jack crevalle around and possibly some bluefish later in the evening if the surf calmed down. I decided to take a seat after not seeing anything after walking about a mile or so. I sat and observed the waves as they rolled in, scanning them left to right and top to bottom looking for any signs of life I could find. After sitting for about 15-20 minutes I’d had just about enough and concluded the surf is useless and I’ll have to focus my efforts elsewhere like the canals or the intercoastal waterway. I go to stand up and all of a sudden I see this dark circular object riding in the bottom of a wave just a few feet from where the waves crash upon the shore. I watch intently for a few seconds and am able to make out the sickle shaped tail and yellow anal fin to determine its a jack crevalle.

I’ve never caught jacks before, but I’ve spoke with plenty of friends who have wrestled with them and enlightened me on how fun these fish are to catch. I watch the fish as he cruises through the waves and goes on the attack specifically where the wave crashes and stirs up a plethora of sand. A trough is created where the waves crash that is only about 3-4 feet deep, but thats plenty of water for a jack and there’s plenty of food there for him. Instead of running back to the house and grabbing my fly rod I sit back down and continue to observe the fish until he disappears back into the rough surf. I spent two more hours that day watching the surf and end up seeing 5 more jacks replicate the same feeding process I had observed earlier. This gives me some hope that maybe the surf isn’t all that bad. Maybe I can actually get a shot at catching a jack just a few feet away from where I’m standing. So I do what any good fly fisherman would do, go back to the house, make myself a nice adult beverage, tie up some flies that I pray will work, and get ready for war.

Like I said previously I’d never caught jack crevalle before this, but I’ve heard stories of broken rods, bleeding fingers, and line burn like you wouldn’t believe. I figured what’s the big deal? I’ve caught steelhead that make drag screaming runs and muskies that shake violently and show impressive bursts of speed, how bad could a 5lb jack be? So after some research and some time behind the vise I grabbed the 8wt and headed out the door ready to try and tackle one of these little buggers. I walked the beach until I found an area where the trough was deeper than most places on the beach. The tide was going out and the deeper trough was really stirred up from the rough surf. My fly of choice was a flatwing in a pink/white flavor that I had just tied the night before. I tied my flatwing with a 40lb mono loop on the rear with 4 brass beads to add both weight and sound while also making sure my fly would keel properly. I worked the trough over fairly well with no success. The wind was blowing pretty hard out of the East and casting became tiring fairly quickly. I decided instead I would walk the beach in hopes of seeing a jack in the surf and just try to feed him my flatwing the best I could. After about a 10 minute walk I see a dark circle in an incoming and know exactly what it is. I quick strip line off my reel and aerialize my flatwing as fast as I can while keeping a keen eye on the fish. As I go to send a cast to him my line wraps around my foot and piles up in front of me in a big mess. Furiously trying to untangle the line I lose sight of the fish and have officially blown my first opportunity. I didn’t see a fish the rest of the day and the weather turned for the worse over the next couple days so I was on house arrest.

Most of the people that fly fish the beach will use a stripping basket to prevent line tangles and the mess that I had to deal with. It’s very difficult to cast 60 feet of line into a 12-15 mph East wind while standing in the surf and having the water wrap your line around your feet. You’d figure I’d cave and use a stripping basket right? Well after enough time spent out there I got used to where the line was around my feet and would pick my legs up at the proper time and just let the line untangle itself. I can only imagine what the curious onlookers thought of me as I danced around in the surf like a moron trying to get the line of my legs while delivering a proper cast. I tried a stripping basket for a while, but just couldn’t get use to its awkwardness. I simply just called it doing my jack dance. What really allowed me to do this was the Airflo Ridge Tropical Clear Tip line. I can’t say enough positive things about this line when it comes to fishing Florida and the surf. The line is textured to allow me to grip it even when my hands are soaked, its very rigid to withstand the heat, and it shoots like a laser. The rigidity of the line in my opinion also helped when casting in the surf because the line would pull off the water extremely easy. It doesn’t take many false casts to get this line up to speed to punch it into a 10-15 mph wind and still land with a nice delicacy. I used other lines for the same applications and they didn’t function anywhere near as well as this line did.

After a few days the weather had calmed down and I was able to get back out on the beach for a another shot at some fish. I began to prowl the beach looking for that beautiful dark circle riding its way through a wave. Low and behold I find what I’m looking for only a few short minutes into my observation. This time I’m a little more prepared for the situation knowing that I’m only going to get a few shots in a very short amount of time. I had previously stripped line of my reel and coiled in in my left hand so when I saw a fish I could drop the coils, make a false cast or two, and present my fly to the fish. I drop my coils, pick a spot 10 or so feet in front of the fish (very important when it comes to feeding fish), and send my flatwing out there with hopes of connecting. The flatwing lands and I let it sink just about a foot below the surface and begin making long fast strips teeming with excitement. I placed a good cast in front of the fish so on the first strip I see the fish change direction and acknowledge my fly. The second strip seems to really excite him and he turns on the burners racing towards my fly. At this point I figured he was interested enough to eat so I pause the fly and I watch my flatwing disappear inside his mouth. I stripset hard sinking my hook in his mouth and the fish takes off down the beach. The jack immediately picks up the rest of the fly line I had out and makes his best attempt to melt my drag. I couldn’t get my hand out of the way of my fly reel handle fast enough as it cracks my thumb and later on turns into a blood blister. Mind you this jack is only about 5lbs and I actually thought it was going to snap my 8wt like a twig. I’ve caught 10lb+ steelhead on this rod and they didn’t it bend it half as hard as this jack. I’m astounded at how hard this jack fighting I really can’t do much except lean into him and do my best to keep as much possible pressure on him to tire him out. After a number of arduous runs and attempts to flee I finally get the fish in the position where I can turn around and run straight away from him to help him ride the waves and beach himself. I’d done it. I caught a jack in the surf and it was one of the wildest rides of my life. I couldn’t believe how hard this little fish pulled. I was hooked on them and it became an obsession over the next few months.

I spent the next 3 months fishing the beach as often as I could. I would spend whatever free time I had walking the beach and fishing a number of conditions. Winter in Florida doesn’t bode the greatest conditions for surf fishing. I spent a lot of days fishing heavy East winds and 5ft seas, but that’s when the fish seemed to be most active. On days it was glass calm I rarely saw any fish cruising around. I was able to find a good clip of spanish mackerel in the mornings during March, but they didn’t stay around long. These fish were a lot of fun to catch and when a blitz came along it didn’t take long to for a fly to get eaten. The biggest jack I ended up catching was only around 8lbs, but that was enough for me. I had a few shots at some fish over 10lbs, but either I blew my opportunity or I just got flat out turned down. It seemed that sometimes you could actually fish your fly too slow and they would lose interest. Heavy clousers were great in the surf as they got down quick and mimicked small glass minnows which were the main forage. Flatwings were great when the water was really churned up because it presented a larger target and I was able to incorporate a rattle by using brass beads which also doubled as weight. I caught jacks December-March with the biggest fish showing up in March as I was leaving. Go figure!

I really expected the Florida surf in the winter to be nothing but disappointing. The weather was gnarly and I was told by many a fisherman that if it was rough enough to surf I might as well go bass fishing. I learned a lot during my time there when it came to fly fishing. I really learned how to control my casting in the wind and just slow everything down. I would actually go up to the beach sometimes and just practice casting at different distances in the wind. Therefore no matter what condition I was presented with when I wanted to fish I’d be able to fish it. I can’t tell you how many people told me I was crazy, but I loved it. I pushed myself to get better and it all paid off. I didn’t catch any giant jacks or tarpon or what have you, but I prevailed through conditions that most fly fisherman wouldn’t even think about fishing in. It was an incredible experience and the surf really proved all my thoughts wrong. It was really interesting to see how many fish would be 15 feet from where everyone would walk on the beach and you’d never know they were there unless you took the proper time to observe. If you ever plan on making a trip down to Florida make sure you bring a fly rod and seriously consider fishing the surf. Sometimes it’s great to be able to have a guide, but a lot of times that’s costly and your limited to only so much fishing time. In the summer months the snook, barracuda, and some tarpon show up on the beaches and can provide worlds of fun. If you’re a snowbird and spend some time down there in the winter there’s plenty of jacks and macks to keep you busy. The best part is the fish are only about 20-30 feet away and are very aggressive. Hopefully next time I go back I’ll be able to wrestle with some of the larger jacks, but if not there’s plenty of small ones to keep me busy! As always remember to carry out what you carry in and do your part to keep our waterways clean. I can’t stress enough how important it is to keep our waterways clean and keep our fisheries healthy. For more fishing adventures follow me over on Instagram @luke_flywalker19. Tight lines!