How To Read The Surf For Surf Fishing (with video)

How to Read the Surf

In this article, I’ll be offering an in-depth overview of how to read the surf for surf fishing. Reading the surf (or reading the water) is a method by which anglers analyze the water surface in an attempt to figure out what type of terrain they’re fishing. In most styles of fishing, fish prefer to hang out and feed in areas that provide good structure. So, within reading the surf, the goal is to be able to find and identify the structure. This article and video will explain the various water patterns that indicate good structure.

We’ll be covering troughs along with other deep holes or deep pockets. We’ll also go over rip currents and a few other important indicators. I understand that learning how to read the surf can be tough… even in person. Photos lack perspective when it comes to understanding the movement of the water. For that reason, I took the time to put together a video on reading the surf. Check it out, and as usual, let me know if you have any questions.

How to Read the Surf

*Important* There is one point that I forgot to make in the video. This point should drastically help you learn how to read the surf for surf fishing.

The best way to spot a deep pocket is to look for the clean water. Even when a wave has already built up and begun cresting and breaking, if that wave passes over a deep pocket, it will lose its crest. This can be seen in the first clip of the video and the last clip very clearly. The reason for this is as follows. When a wave builds up, it gains its crest because of increased “footing” or the natural rising slant of the sand. If a big enough trough or deep pocket is present, that so-called “footing” falls out from under the wave as it passes over the deeper section. When this happens, the crest is lost, the wave stops breaking, and the result is clean blue/green water. Look for this in the first and last clip in the video.

Please let me know if you have any clarifying questions on this concept or any others.

How to Spot a Trough in the Surf

First and foremost, reading the surf will be easier in low surf. If you show up and you’re having a very difficult time trying to read the surf, makes sure to watch the video above. And then, make sure to read up on how waves affect surf fishing and read up on what the best conditions are for surf fishing because you may have just come on a bad day

In the image below, we see a few different types of structure. First, let’s answer the question, “what is a trough?”. A trough is just a deep section of sand that runs parallel to, perpendicular to, or even diagonal to the shoreline. Ranging from a few inches deeper, to a couple feet deeper than the surrounding sand, troughs are simply a submerged “trench”. They’re basically holes that are wider than long (or longer than wide depending on how you look at it).

how to read the surf
Red Arrows: Troughs Running Parallel to the Right | Yellow Arrow: Shallow Hole

Troughs are important because fish will typically cruise through these dug-out sections looking for food. Sand crabs and other forms of baits are often burrowed in the sand in front of a trough. As the edge of that trough deteriorates, those sand crabs will be sucked over the trough. Fish will then take this opportunity to feed on them. The red arrows in the image above indicate troughs that run parallel with the shoreline. It’s important to note that the image depicts a spot that will be optimal at a slightly higher tide. Ideally, we’d want a rising tide to fill in another foot to two more feet here. However, this doesn’t mean rising tide is always the best tide for surf fishing.

When you’re reading the surf, reading on the receding water is key. As a wave approaches the shoreline, you won’t see much. But, as the water begins to recede, the water will fill in the holes and dip down if there’s any sort of deeper section. The deeper the water, the tougher it is to read, but we’ll get into that.

How to Spot a Deep Pocket or Hole

Holes, deep pockets, and troughs are all very similar. Depending on the angler, exact definitions and names for each term may vary. Generally speaking, a hole is smaller than a deep pocket. Usually when I call something a “deep pocket”, it’s a large, deep area (ex. 60ft x 20ft). But, I often interchange the terms as they are very similar. A trough will usually be narrow but can be very long or short.

Look again at the image above. While the red arrows indicate troughs, the yellow arrow indicates a hole. This hole will likely be too small to be seen when the water level provides desirable coverage. I’d like to see a hole more around the size of 10×10 or even 20×20. The bigger the better.

Is there such a thing as “too much structure”?

With a hole/deep pocket, very rarely is one “too big”. Maybe if it’s larger than 150-feet. The concern is, at that point, there’s less of an appeal to uniqueness because of its vastness. This brings up another good point that I think is more relevant to multitude of structures rather than size of structure.

Sometimes, you’ll see no structure at all, other times, you’ll see structure everywhere (scallops, troughs, holes, rocks, etc.). If there’s no structure, I fish off feeling. This might sound confusing, but if you’ve fished long enough, or even surfed long enough, you’ll understand that even when you can’t see something and explain why it’s good, you can feel it. But, that’s way down the road. If there is structure, I’m hoping to find it intermittently. I want most of the beach to look baron (or like there’s not much going on) and then I want to find two or three really good-looking spots. That way, it almost leaves the fish with no reason not to be holding in the spots that I find. If there’s too much structure, what makes a fish hang out or feed in the one of many different spots that I found?

Reading the Surf: Wind Ripples and Clean Water

reading the surf
Deep Pocket/Hole (Aerial Perspective)

The image above is what I would call a deep pocket. This photo was taken from an aerial perspective. I would say the pocket is about 40 feet by 20 feet (maybe a little bigger). When you’re looking for holes, the same “dip” down can be seen as the water recedes after a wave. It’s usually less dramatic than with troughs, and again, the deeper (further out) it is, the tougher to spot. The best way to spot a deep pocket or hole is to look for what I call “wind ripples”, and to also look for the cleaner/bluer water.

The water above a deep pocket will look somewhat disturbed and there will be a lot of misdirection. At the same time, it will look calmer and cleaner than the water around it. What happens is that as a wave builds, it uses the seafloor to support itself, when the seafloor drops down, the wave doesn’t break but just rolls right over until the seafloor rises back up again (indicating the end or closest edge of the hole). When the “wave” reaches the final edge of the hole, it regains its support and quickly forms again to crash shortly thereafter. That explains why the water remains relatively cleaner in a deeper pocket. But why wind ripples?

Wind Ripples and What They Mean for Reading the Surf

The image below could be called a deep pocket, a hole or even a trough (in a crescent-shape). I can’t stress this enough. When you’re learning how to read the surf, it doesn’t necessarily matter if you’re unsure of what you’re seeing. If you can identify one spot as different or more textured than the water around it, give it a shot. Understanding what it is will come with time.

Nonetheless, as you look at this illustration, take note of the disturbed surface within the red circle. That’s what I mean by “wind ripples”. It looks like how water would usually look on a windy day, but this isn’t being caused by wind. Rather, when you have “walls” of sand underneath the water surface, the flow of water is interrupted and it then ricochets in different directions. That misdirection shows on the surface as wind ripples! Pretty cool huh? The photo below is a little tough to see, especially because it’s getting ripped into the wave that’s about to crash, but hopefully, the video clears it all up for you.

Rip Currents and How to Spot Them

Rip Currents are another important indicator to be able to identify. A rip current occurs when some form of narrow channel pulls fast-moving water in a direction other than the shoreline. They can be caused by all sorts of things, but usually it’s a combination of swell, terrain and a few other factors. One important scenario to look for is a rip current formed by (or that forms) a trough that runs perpendicular to the shoreline. In this scenario, you have structure and a rip all in one place. Throw in some sand crabs or bait fish and we’re in heaven. The easiest indicator of a rip to spot would be the white or sandy water that gets churned up and sucked out to sea (as indicated in the illustration below).

The image below isn’t necessarily a spot I’d like to fish as it’s a little too far out there for light tackle. I’d consider sharking here, but my bait might have a difficult time holding. When I’m looking for rips to fish, I’m looking for rips paired with some sort of structure. Watch this video and see if you can spot the rip current with the perpendicular trough that exasperates the rip current. Below this image, I’ll put the time(s) of the video where it appears (in case you need a cheat sheet.

Instances in video that show a perpendicular trough paired with a rip:

0:27 | 1:08 | 1:29 | 1:41

Another important part of that video to point out is the “rippled surface” or “wind ripples” at ‘1:51’. This shows a hole/ perpendicular trough paired with a rip current. Rip currents are important for two reasons. First, they rip bait up from underneath the sand, and second, they can push scent out to fish (especially bigger predators).

Arriving at Low and Fishing the Rising Tide

If you’re new to reading the surf, showing up at a low tide can help you learn the structures a little better. Scout the beach looking for holes and other structure just above the water line or in the shallow water. As the tide then rises, the structure that you found while unsubmerged, will then be submerged and you’ll be able to see what it looks like on the water’s surface. The same exercise can be done in the opposite fashion. Show up at high tide, find some structure, guess what it is, and when the tide goes out, see if you were right.

The image above was taken at low tide and the image below was taken 2 hours after that one. Given the severe drop in terrain, it would take another foot to two feet in a rising tide to fill this spot to my desired coverage, but it’s still a really good-looking spot and it shows some good indicators. We’ve got rippled water and some deeper darker pockets. I know it’s tough to see in the photo, but again the first video I mentioned in this article should give you a really good idea of what you’re looking for.

Many anglers ask if high tide is the best time for surf fishing and the simple answer is that it depends. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. Some locations it is, and other it isn’t. So don’t get it stuck in your brain that you can only fish a rising tide or a high tide. Try them all and learn for yourself.

Benefits to Knowing How to Read the Surf

Knowing how to read the surf is vital if you’re serious about surf fishing. The two biggest benefits to reading the surf properly are these: First, you can show up to any beach at any tidal phase/tidal height and be confident that you can find structure. Fishing to structure (in my opinion) is more important than simply fishing a rising tide.

The next thing reading the surf can do for you is fill your arsenal of spots. Spots that you know will be good at certain tidal heights. I know I didn’t go over hard structure like rocks and reefs, but those will look similar to holes. I have a handful of spots that have permanent rocky structure that I like to fish at a certain tidal height because I know once the tide reaches “x” tidal height, the structure is submerged perfectly for fish to hang out in and feed in.

Maybe I’ll talk more on hard structure later, but for now, I don’t want to push too much info on everyone. I think this was pretty jam-packed and I don’t want to overwhelm anyone just yet. I hope this article helps you guys out and if it didn’t I’m fairly confident the video will do a better job of clarifying some of my points. If you have any questions at all, don’t hesitate to reach out. As the summer heats up I’ll be offering more guided sessions as well so if you’re interested, check out the link.


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