Fly Fishing the Surf on the Central Coast


Article contributed by Editor-in-Chief J. Townsend.

My adventure on the Central Coast of California began as most fishing stories begin with the annoying buzzing of an alarm. As you lay in bed, slowly your eyes creep open and for a split second you contemplate silencing the alarm and just going back to sleep. Then, your eyes spring open as you remember that you are getting up at the crack of dawn to partake in one of the most amazing activities in the world! Fishing.

This morning’s adventure is far different from many of the other early morning expeditions because I will be fly fishing in the surf on Monterey State Beach. Surf Fly Fishing, you ask? You are probably as perplexed as I was the first time I heard of this type of fishing. To me surf fishing has always involved taking an overly large surf rod and propelling a large heavy weight into the crashing surf in order to land a fish that cruises the surf zone looking for food. Fly fishing, on the other hand, has always involved flicking a small, almost weightless fly, into a peaceful flowing stream in some far off mountain setting.

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For many, the intersection of where these two methods meet is not uncommon. The owner of the local fly fishing shop, in Carmel, CA, recommended that I fish the coast when I dropped by his store the day before my beach trip. He said, “We have been in a 30 year drought and unless you want to hike 2.5 hours each way up into the mountains than your best bet is the surf.” . It’s not that I don’t enjoy a good hike up into the mountains but I had my wife and two year old daughter with me as well. Who, I thought, probably wouldn’t find the strenuous hike up, the four hour fishing session, and the exhausting return hike as enjoyable as I.

Saltwater FliesSo here I am, shifting my eyes back and forth from the crashing surf and the open box of saltwater flies in my hand. My wife and daughter are playing on the beach and I am perplexed by this new method of fishing. Taking my mental image of what I should be doing and coordinating my body to do the same was now my major challenge. Added to this equation was the fact that the tide was out and was crashing merely 15 feet from the peak tide mark.

My mental game was on check. I had watched some videos and read up on casting techniques the night before. Basically, like in flats fishing, you want to send out about 40 to 60 feet of line with only two or three false casts. This would all be accomplished by casting the fly rod like a normal fishing pole at the finale of the last false cast. One major hiccup I encountered was that most surf fly fisherman use what is termed a stripping bucket. This contraption hooks around your waste, usually by a belt, and is used to catch the line that you strip off the reel so you can cast out to 30 or 60 feet. The line is also stripped off into this bucket to prevent it from getting tangled by the surf and wrapped around your feet.  Which I would later learn is extremely frustrating.

Hiccup number two. You need sinking line. The fly shop owner, as he was walking me through the basics, told me this and I had no idea if I had sinking or floating line on my reel. Once I was in the surf, casting like a mad man, I quickly realized the importance of floating versus sinking. My, now self-identified, floating line was continuously washing back to me in the surf (and getting tangled around my feet).

The morning progressed and I began to identified my major mistakes. I began to focus on ways in which I could overcome my lack of preparation. Step one, cast fly as far as possible and let the surf push it back towards shore. Once in a suitable location, I would give it a couple of false casts and then send it sailing back just barely past the breakers. Ohhhh, Ohhhh, a bite? Nope!.. just some kelp. I would retrieve my line, strip the kelp and recast. Wash, Rinse, Repeat. I knew my technique was not perfect but I was bound and determined to keep trying. I would not let the surf get the best of me.

Prepared surf fly fisherman will cast their line out beyond the breakers and then strip, think hand pulling, the line back and into the bucket until they position their fly into the correct location for a fish strike. This strike would most likely come from a surf perch, striped bass, halibut, or the less frequent leopard shark. Those were my hopes as I continued to battle the surf with my fly rod. As the day progressed my mind drifted from the image of a fresh fish fillet on the grill to being overcome by frustration in myself for my unpreparedness.

Unfortunately for me, I was unable to land a fish, but – there is always a but, I did find a new passion for surf fly fishing. I also thoroughly enjoyed my time on the beach that day with my wife and daughter.

That day I did mentally accept the challenge to try again to master this art of fly fishing the surf. Where I live, in Southern California, the surf is often the only chance a fisherman may get to use their fly rod locally. Now, with some proper planning and preparation, I will be ready to challenge the surf again.

Fly Rod and Saltwater Fly

Justin Townsend

Justin (Choctaw) is an avid hunter, angler, and chef whose passion for the outdoors lead him to create Harvesting Nature in 2011. He continues to hunt, fish, and cook all while sharing his experiences with others through film, podcasts, print, and with recipes. He also proudly serves in the United States Coast Guard.

One thought on “Fly Fishing the Surf on the Central Coast

  • Mom F.

    This sounds like work! 🙂 With practice, I know you will master it. Keep enjoying God’s beautiful nature!


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