Surf fishing is a sport where the fisherman stands either on the beach or in the shallow water close to the beach and casts their line into the surf.
For those who want to fish in the ocean without a boat, this is a fun option that will still reel in impressive fish. But what fish do you catch in the surf?
The fish that are most commonly caught when surf fishing include saltwater catfish, whiting, shark, striped bass, bluefish, spotted seatrout, flounder, red drum, and pompano. However, hundreds of different kinds of fish can be caught in the surf, depending on the state in which you’re fishing.
While surf fishing has the same general concepts regardless of location, state regulations and surf fishing species vary by region. These differences will be explored further below.
Types of Fish You Can Catch in the Surf by Region
Although surf fishing can be done in any coastal state, there are certain states and places that will bring in more fish than others. If you are looking to catch a certain fish species, some places in the U.S. are better than others.
If you don’t know what you want to catch and you just want to have a good time fishing at the beach, here are recommendations for the best areas and the kind of fish that live in the surf at each.
Gulf of Mexico
By far one of the best places in the United States to go surf fishing is the Gulf of Mexico. This area is ideal because of the temperate water and warm weather.
The Gulf of Mexico includes the western coast of Florida, southern Alabama, southern Louisiana, southern Mississippi, and the eastern coast of Texas.
The most prized catch is the Florida Pompano, which can only be caught on the gulf shores. Known as the best-tasting fish in the sea, this fish can be caught with sand fleas and a lot of patience.
Whiting and redfish are also among the most common fish caught in the Gulf. The sizes that fall within regulation are good for eating, and when the schools are running the surf, they give you the chance to catch big fish.
Speckled trout are another easy fish to catch on the Gulf shores and are good eating. The black drum, the distant cousin of the red drum, can grow up to 50 pounds in this area, making it a fun opportunity to catch a big fish. However, the older ones are not good for eating because they are tough and usually have worms.
Mackerels are tricky, as the Spanish mackerel is abundant in the area but can be easily confused with a baby king mackerel, which is illegal to catch.
Bluefish, sharks, flounder, ladyfish, and stingrays are all other extremely common kinds of fish found in the Gulf of Mexico.
Florida is known for its vast range of marine life, making it a hotspot for coastal fishing. The majority of public beaches in Florida allow for surf fishing. All you need to do is get a saltwater fishing permit and fish within the permitted hours.
Popular species surf fishermen seek out in Florida include:
- Southern kingfish (whiting)
- Red drum
- Black drum
That’s not a complete list, but those are some of the favorites.
The most common surf fish caught in Florida are whiting and the Florida pompano. Both of these fish are known for their excellent flavor and high population in Florida’s warm waters.
I took two trips to Florida recently to fish and the locals at the bait shops all confirmed that Pompano is the best-eating surf fish. They have a light texture and flavor that make for excellent fish tacos after a long sunny day on the beach.
Sand perch is another type of fish found in Florida. It was the first surf fish I caught in Florida.
On my first couple trips all the fish I caught were small. What do you expect from a trout fisherman from Idaho?
But man is surf fishing in Florida a blast!
Southern Atlantic Coast
The Southeast, especially North Carolina, is known for its incredible surf fishing. Large fish are frequently caught here, and the migration season in the spring and fall offers you a chance to bring in lots of red and black drums.
The most common kinds of fish that you will find on the Southeast coast include red and black drum, bluefish, croaker (or kingfish), cobia, pompano, flounder, mackerel, mullet, sheepshead, spot, striped bass, and gray trout.
Fishing in the Northeastern region of the United States can be an exciting experience. Small fishing towns get their whole personality from the fish they catch, and their seasons are determined by whichever fish is currently running.
The most popular fish that you will find north of Virginia are the striped bass, American shad, monkfish, dogfish, bluefish, and false albacore.
It is worth noting that striped bass is the most sought-after fish in the northeast, with record-breaking specimens caught in New England (81 pounds). Entire towns get caught up in the frenzy when the bass run. The false albacore or “little tuna” is a fun fish to catch but has tough meat and is not desirable to eat.
There are two drastically different worlds of fishing when it comes to the Pacific coast, similar to the Atlantic coast. The northern part, near Oregon, and then the southern part, near California.
The Oregon coast offers lots of fishing. But bigger fish like sturgeon and salmon generally can’t be caught in the surf. The most common saltwater fish caught from the shore are herring, with rockfish, lingcod, greenling, cabezon, and surfperch also being very populous.
In California, the fish you can catch varies by location because of the diverse coastline. Rocks, cliffs, seaweed, and sand all host different species, but the most common fish you can catch anywhere in southern California include yellowfin, spot fin croaker, corbina, halibut, leopard sharks, and walleye surfperch.
Best Bait for Surf Fishing
Your bait when surf fishing will vary depending on what kind of fish you want to catch. Your bait is easily considered the most important component of successful surf fishing. If you don’t catch your own bait, don’t hesitate to pay a little bit more money to get better dead or artificial bait. The results will be worth the cost!
While most fish prefer live bait, frozen bait preserved in salt water is also a good option. However, if you are looking to reel in bigger game fish or even a shark, you will need bigger bait than half a shrimp head.
There are several live bait options. Knowing which type of fish are attracted to each one is helpful before you go out and catch (or buy) your bait.
Live shrimp are fish’s favorite food in the southern regions of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Using these as bait in the deeper water just past the breaking waves will almost guarantee a catch. Hooking the bait in a way that still allows them to swim is best and will bring the fish in more quickly.
Using shrimp as bait will bring in pompano, halibut, redfish, speckled trout, black drum, and mackerel.
Small crabs are also an easy option for bait, and you can collect them yourself. Looking near rocky areas and underneath piers will be your best bet to find enough to use as bait. Again, hook placement that guarantees movement from the crab will bring in more fish.
The fish best baited with crabs are snook, permit, grouper, redfish, and black drum.
Mullet is a great bait option for catching larger fish, but the key to good fishing is to use LIVE mullet as bait. If they are swimming and thrashing around, it will quickly attract more fish.
There are often schools of mullet just past the breaking waves. So in order to catch your own bait, cast your line just behind a breaking wave. You will be amazed at what you can reel in.
Mullet can help you reel in sharks, mackerel, and kingfish, to name just a few.
Last but not least, sand fleas are a cheap and easy option for live bait. You can catch them yourself with a rake. However, they often die when being hooked because of their small size, so you may need to switch them out more frequently.
The fish that like sand fleas the most are speckled trout, snapper, grouper, black drum, and redfish.
Some regulations don’t allow for the use of live bait for certain fish or during certain times of the year. If this is the case, or if it’s a lazy day and you don’t want to catch your bait, dead bait can be used instead.
However, the same bait that works when it’s alive doesn’t always work as well when it’s dead or frozen. You may need to change it up depending on what you want to catch.
Herring is a good option for cut bait and is most common in the northern regions of the US. It can be used to catch king salmon, coho salmon, sharks, steelhead, halibut, and striped bass.
It turns out that shrimp can be just as good dead as it is alive, so using frozen shrimp to catch fish will work just fine as bait.
Squid is a good bait option for when the waves are large and choppy. Relatively easy to find frozen or fresh, you can cut up the squid into small chunks before casting your line. The fish that like squid include bonefish, kahawai, pink snapper, and bluefish.
Artificial bait is another option for areas with more regulations, and it works almost as well as live bait.
Spoons are another bait option that works well if you are looking to cast far into the surf. This lure is popular when fishing in northern regions and will bring in lingcod, salmon, and speckled trout.
Topwater plugs do an excellent job of attracting more aggressive predator fish, such as tuna, tarpon, giant trevally, steelhead, and snook.
Softbait jigs are great to use when trying to catch bottom feeders, as they can look like wounded smaller fish. They will attract redfish, black drum, kahawai, and bonefish.
Surf Fishing Regulations
Knowing the state and federal laws surrounding saltwater fishing is essential to avoid fines and penalties. Most states have protected fish that you cannot catch, and there are often laws surrounding what kind of bait can be used to catch certain fish.
Since North Carolina is a hotspot for surf fishing, the laws surrounding coastal fishing in that state will be used as an example here.
First and foremost, a coastal recreational fishing license for people older than 16 must be obtained to do any kind of surf or pier fishing.
There are size and bag limits for each seasonal fish. You are responsible for knowing what they are and if certain fish can even be caught. For example, it is illegal in North Carolina to fish for or catch any type of flounder.
There are regulations surrounding dolphins, clams, crabs, and shrimp, and the inland fishing regulations also apply to coastal fishing for three miles out into the Atlantic.
While these laws apply specifically to the North Carolina coast, there are similar laws and regulations for every state that you can go coastal fishing in. Again, it is important to be aware of these regulations before going out and spending the day fishing.
It is also important to note that pier fishing may have different laws than surf fishing, even though some people use these terms interchangeably.
Final Thoughts on Surf Fish Species
There are countless kinds of fish caught by surf fishing. Because of the difficult coastline on the west coast, surf fishing is easier on the east coast.
The temperate water and warmer weather in the Southeast make it ideal for recreational surf fishermen. But the bigger fish can be caught in the Northeast and Northwest.
If surf fishing interests you, find a fishing shop on a coastline near you. They are always full of helpful information and will help you find the best bait for the best fish.
Related: The Best Surf Fishing Rods Reviewed (Hands-on Guide)