How Do You Read the Beach for Surf Fishing?

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Written By Donny Karr

Donny Karr is a Tournament Angler with more than 20 years of fishing experience and a writer whose work has been featured in magazines for over a decade. He is a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. He enjoys bass and crappie fishing in the lakes around the south-eastern United States. He also fishes for trout in the streams and rivers of the Appalachian mountains. Donny has written for Georgia Outdoor News, Paddling Space, Man Can Outdoors, Alabama Outdoor News, and Bassmaster.


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To read the beach for surf fishing, identify sandbars, troughs, rips, and cuts where fish congregate. Observe wave patterns, water color, and bird activity to locate baitfish. Focus on fishing during tidal changes and transitions between sandbars and deeper channels, where predator fish are likely to hunt for prey.

If you’re visiting your favorite beach and want to catch some fish while you’ve got your toes in the sand, there’s a few things you’ll need to know if you want to have the best chance at catching anything. Expert anglers will advise you to “read the beach” when surf fishing. 

If you’re fairly new to surf fishing, you’re probably asking the same question that many other anglers want to know. 

How do you read the beach for surf fishing?

There’s an old saying that 90 percent of the fish are located in 10 percent of the water, which is essentially true when it comes to surf fishing or other types of angling. I’ve compiled this article as a handy guide that covers the basics when it comes to reading the surf and the beach so you will be able to pinpoint just where to cast your surf fishing rig. 

The Best Surf Fishing Locations

If you’re an angler that only visits the beach a few times each year, you’re probably unfamiliar with some of the methods used to discern which areas are better than others and where the best fishing spot on any beach will be. I often see people wandering the beach with a surf fishing rod, casting it out into an area without the slightest clue of whether or not it’s ideal for catching fish. 

It’s important that you understand and be able to read the beach if you truly want to maximize your efforts and actually catch fish. In my experience, there are a few different techniques I often use to read the beach for surf fishing. 

The first thing you need to do is consider what type of fish you’re trying to catch. If you’re like most recreational surf anglers, you’re just fishing to catch any type of species that will bite. Once you get more experienced, you’ll want to start specifically targeting certain kinds of fish like mackerel, redfish, striped bass and others. 

Knowing what type of fish you’re after will determine whether you want to fish in deeper holes, around sand bars or out farther past the breaking waves. In the following sections, we’ll cover how to reach the beach for surf fishing in more detail. 

Donny Surf Fishing
Donny Karr Surf Fishing Location

What Does it Mean to Read the Beach?

Many beginner anglers might be confused at how someone might “read the beach” to help them catch more fish. Reading the beach for surf fishing involves looking at the waves and noticing how they break, how close together they are, as well as a number of other factors. 

The reason we are able to read the beach is that the action of the waves are a direct result of the ocean floor beneath them. The wind also plays a major role in shaping the waves and you’ll need to take wind direction and speed into consideration when you think about the best locations for surf fishing on a beach. 

There is quite a bit more detail we could get into regarding how waves are made, as well as the different types of waves and what a wave actually consists of in terms of physics. However, for this article, we’re going to get right into the details of how to reach the beach for your next surf fishing trip. 

How to Read a Beach, Source: Beach Bomber Fishing
How to Read a Beach, Source: Beach Bomber Fishing


Before we get into how to read the beach, it’s important that you have a firm understanding of sandbars and exactly why they are. If you already know what a sandbar is, you can skip ahead, but for those that are just starting out, sandbars are a major factor when it comes to reading the beach and spotting the best places to cast your line. 

A sandbar is a raised area in the surf where the current has carved out the areas around it, leaving a long, narrow section that is very shallow or even sticking up out of the water. You can spot these formations by looking for the lighter-colored sections of the water where the waves are breaking. The darker sections indicate deeper water, whereas the lighter sections show you that a sandbar exists. 

Sandbars will always have higher waves coming over them because as the bottom of the wave meets the shallow sandbar, it gets pushed upward, causing it to break as it rises. There might sometimes be two or more sandbars as you go out from the shoreline. Many game fish species will be in between these sandbars at different locations, which we’ll get into next. 


The troughs between sandbars are where fish will usually be hanging out, waiting to ambush any small creatures like crabs, sand fleas, or bait fish that the current brings in. The key to knowing where to cast your rig in most scenarios for fishing along the beach depends on these troughs and their relation to sandbars. 

A trough is simply the space of water between the shoreline and the sandbar, or it might be the space between two sandbars. The fish you’re after are likely going to be swimming around somewhere in these troughs, looking for a meal. 

In many cases, certain types of game fish species will circle around in these troughs looking for bait fish and other creatures on either side of these troughs. If a trough is deeper, you can be assured that it will be better than a shallow trough as this allows the fish more room to swim around and search. 

Bigger fish typically like to have a certain amount of water over their heads and it’s rare that you’ll find a nice-sized striped bass or king mackerel in very shallow water. The waves coming over these sandbars will often push small bait fish, crabs, mollusks and all sorts of creatures up over the edge of the sandbar and into the waiting mouth of fish on the edge of the trough.  

You can identify these troughs and their depth by looking at how the waves don’t crest as they come over the trough. It’s also important to notice how dark the water looks between sandbars and the shore. If the water is darker with a flat surface, that’s likely where you want to fish. Cast your rig right on the inner edge of the sandbar for the best chance at a bite. 

Donny Karr Surf Fishing with a Redfish
Donny Karr Surf Fishing with a Redfish


Understanding cuts is the secret to catching a few fish now and then and being an expert surf fishing angler. If you can identify where a cut is located on a section of water, it opens up a world of possibilities on where you might want to cast your line and the amount of bites you can expect. 

A cut is basically a gap or channel that runs between two sandbars. What’s important about the cut is that it allows the water that’s washing over the sandbars and into the troughs to flow back out to sea. These cuts are also what creates deadly rip tides, or rip currents, that often sweep swimmers and beach-goers out into the ocean. 

These cuts are often difficult to spot in high tide unless you know how to read the beach properly. Cuts will often start out small, but due to the amount of water passing through them, they will become larger. These cuts might range from a few feet to hundreds of feet in some cases. 

The secret to fishing in a cut is finding one that’s deep enough to have larger fish swimming through it and narrow enough to create a bottleneck effect where the fish are going to be concentrated in one specific area. 

You can spot an ideal cut by using the same identification factors you should use to spot a trough. Look for darker water and less wave breaking or cresting. I usually like to walk along the beach and scan the water to spot cuts in a sandbar. You might have to walk a mile or more before you can find the cut, but if you’re willing to put in the legwork, it’s well-worth the effort. 


A hole, much like a cut, is just what you want to be looking for when you’re trying to read the beach for surf fishing. Holes are places where bigger fish will feel comfortable hanging out and are very easy to fish if you’re fortunate enough to spot one. 

A hole is a spot in which there is deeper water, but there isn’t a trough feeding into them.  If there are no sandbars on the section of beach you’re at, you can closely examine the water and try to spot holes. Many anglers sometimes confuse a hole with a cut, but there are a few ways you can tell each one apart from the other. 

If you’re wondering which is better, a hole vs a cut, any avid surf angler will tell you that a cut is exponentially better than fishing in a hole. However, a hole is a decent place to fish when there are no obvious fishing structures like sandbars around. 

Holes are fairly common at any beach, but you might never realize that they exist unless you know how to read the beach. If you’re able to venture out on the beach at low tide, you will be able to spot most holes near the shoreline and mark them so that you can return during high tide and fish them. 

I usually spot holes by looking for a small dip or cove where the shoreline juts out a bit from the rest of the waterline. If you look closely, you might spot darker water where waves are breaking on either side of this dip while the waves out in front of this dip break closer to shore or right at the shore. This is very likely a hole and fish will often congregate around these holes, even if they’re only a few feet deeper than the surrounding water. 

Fish will hang out around the edge of this hole, so you want to fish all around it to have the best chance at getting a bite. Most anglers make the mistake of casting right into the center of the hole and wonder why they aren’t getting a bite. I always cast out around the edges of the darker blue water when fishing around a hole. 


In many cases, you can find points on one side of a hole. You can spot a point on either side of a hole by looking at the waves. The waves will break much earlier on one side of the hole than the other, indicating the side where the point is located. You can be certain that you’re at a point if the waves turn into wash or suds as they reach the shoreline while the areas next to them are breaking. 

Most fish prefer areas where the breaking waves create chaos and turbulence where bait fish have trouble escaping. This is what happens at the spot where a hole and point come together. Fish will lurk on this side of the hole and chase bait fish up onto the more shallow point, pinning them up against the sand. 

When fishing a hole, I always look for a point on either side and concentrate my efforts on this juncture between the hole and the point for the best results. I’ve caught a lot of blues and striped bass around holes by focusing on this juncture. 


The bottom of the shoreline along the beach is always changing with the tides, especially after a storm. If you’re able to examine your beach at low tide to get a feel for what the bottom looks like, it will give you a big advantage over anyone else fishing along this section of beach. However, if you know how to read the beach, you’ll be able to hone in on any of these five types of structure and catch fish. 

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