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High Surf Beach Landing & Release

By Russ Bassdozer

Let's get right into this topic, okay? To begin, let's define what we are talking about here. We are talking about high surf beaches that have big waves crashing in at you as you stand at the shoreline. In this article, we will quickly review the three types of high surf beaches that you may encounter. Then, the article goes into detailed instructions on how to safely land and release big surf fish from sand beaches in big waves. The safety tips are mostly for you, so you don't get clobbered or worse, but we also give you best handling practices for the safe landing and release of your quarry too!

Let's review the terrain first, so we are all well aware of where we are standing, okay? There are three basic kinds of high surf beaches that you are most likely to encounter along the coast:

  • Wild sand beaches: Cape Cod beaches are good examples of wild sand beaches in that they don't have much, if any, man-made rock groins, jetties, wooden bulkheads, cement breakwaters or anything else tthat someone may have put there to interrupt the ocean's littoral drift. Sand points, bowls, bars and rips are the mainstay on wild sand beaches. There's a wicked current sweep everywhere most of the time, and there are treacherous rips that fish are fond to feed in. Many wild sand beaches drop off quickly right at the shoreline.In the Cape, you can't wade out too far, if at all, on certain stretches...nor do you have to! I remember nights that if you casted out 20 feet, it was 10 feet too far! And I have caught many cows in knee boots and splash pants without ever getting my feet wet! Of course, there are also outer bars, and you can wade out on some of them at low tide, but you don't want to go there unless you know what you are doing.
  • Man-made sand beaches: Long Island and New Jersey beaches are what I call man-made sand beaches in that a lot of federal, state and local government effort has gone into taming the ocean's littoral drift along most of the open surf in these states. You will find it difficult to find a few miles of beaches in these states that are not interrupted by rock jetties, groins, wooden bulkheads, cement breakwaters and other assorted riprap. Furthermore, thet are constantly trucking in and depositng sand from who knows where on these beaches. All this human intervention tends to make man-made beaches blander, with relatively milder current sweeps. The shorelines of man-made sand beaches tend to slope gradually out to deeper water, and you will be hard-pressed to find sections of man-made beaches that drop sharply into deeper water from shore. Many man-made beaches have outer barrier bars, but all the shoreline development tends to push these bars too far offshore to reach by wading, and the bars are often beyond casting distance even at low tide. You may be able to swim out to a few of the closer ones in a wetsuit, but it is a tremendous risk even for the small handful of the most physically fit and experienced surf veterans who do this. 
  • Natural rock beaches: Many islands have natural rocky beaches intermixed with sand beaches. If not for the predominantly rocky nature of their beaches, many of these islands would have vanished or been reduced to little more than sand shoals by the ocean's littoral drift incessantly scouring them away.

Even though the above three kinds of terrain are dramatically different, the way you land and release fish FROM THE BEACH is a fairly common practice on all three. The key words here are "from the beach". It is unsafe for you to try what follows if you are standing on a jetty, on a rock, on a bulkhead or from any other position except standing firmly on a sandy or rocky beach. Got that? Okay, so let's be careful and get down to doing it from the beach in the paragraphs below.

To land her. This may sound basic, but you fight the fish out beyond the swells, and you only bring her into the curlers when you are ready to beach her. You must keep her out beyond the breakers until you reach a point when you can make a clearly calculated decision that the fight is now over, that you have won, and that your opponent is now ready to be subdued and released. If you cannot honestly say that to yourself, then keep her out beyond the breakers long enough for you or her to win the fight. If you bring her into the breakers too quickly, the combined power of the fish and the waves will pretty much guarantee that you will be the loser!

Carefully loosen up the drag when you are ready to try to bring her into the curlers. Then you attempt to surf her in on a curler that will hopefully deposit her up on the beach.  You rarely get it right on the first wave, and the backward suction of the wave will break your line or tear the hook out if the drag is as tight as you typically like it "during the fight". So loosen up the drag during the landing phase, and if you need more drag, you can put your thumb or index finger on the line spool.

Even still, it's very common for them to come unpinned at this stage. Keep cool and rational - win some, lose some - just don't go trying to run into the surf after them! If she stays pinned on, eventually you will get a wave to deposit her up the beach. Just put your finger on the line spool and raise the rod high and use it to hold her stationary where she lays until the backwater fully recedes and leaves her more or less dry. Even as the backwater recedes, it will try, and often be successful, to suck her back out. So just try to maintain the rod tension to hold her there, but if you can't hold her, take your finger off the spool and allow the fish to get sucked back out against the loose reel drag. Then try again on the next incoming wave.

Let's assume it has taken you several tries, but you have the fish now laying on relatively dry sand as a wave recedes. Well, keep the line straight while you carefully walk down to her...if you let your running line go slack and loop all over, it may snarl and snap because you still have no guarantee that the next wave up the beach won't take your prize back to King Neptune!

Of course, you ARE using a heavy terminal leader with a big swivel, a big snap on the other end, and 3-4 feet of heavy line in between, right?  You should grab the leader, and you can kind of clinch down against the leader just below the swivel. At this point, you can use subsequent waves, even just a few inches of water will float her enough to pull her a little higher as you kind of drag her carefully by the leader a little more up the beach. It's safest for you to have a hand gaff sheathed on your belt, and to put the gaff point inside the lower lip, then drag her well up the beach out of harms way. If not a hand gaff, you are at a very dangerous moment when you may have no choice but to put your hand in the mouth or gill of a big wild animal in close proximity to some sharp, cold steel - your hook(s). Of course, make sure it's not a bluefish, barracuda, shark or any other species that you should not stick your hand in its mouth. :)

To release her, go back down to the surf line. It's best to maintain a firm grip on her lower lip. As a wave rushes up, ideally you will find yourself in no more than ankle to knee deep wash. Waste no time in sticking her head under, and start moving her face from side to side forcefully swishing plenty of water through her mouth and gills. It helps if you can try to "right" her into swimming position (back up, belly down), but it's hardly necessary. They usually respond well to forcefully swishing their heads around, and they will quickly "kick out" of your grip and swim away sort of slow and confused, but none the worse for wear! Bottom line, never take one eye off the incoming water during any revival attempt, and if you ever even think you suddenly find yourself out a little too deep, let go of the fish and get out of there ASAP. She'll do what she has to without you risking your life over it.

All high surf beaches are dangerous and unforgiving places. You must constantly weigh the rewards of catching, landing and releasing fish in the surf versus the risks of getting into it just a little too deep. It takes only an instant to go from ankle deep to over your head in trouble. So be careful out there.

Hope this article helps you safely land and release many big surf fish off the beaches.

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