How to catch fish at the beach

I knew absolutely nothing about fishing from the beach, but I wanted to learn. Here’s what I discovered.

I’ve been around bass fishing now for nearly a decade. While I don’t have the time to do it as much as I’d like, I feel comfortable with it. I know the language of it. When someone tells me what worked for them, I can at least attempt to replicate it. I usually don’t — but at least I understand.

When I found myself preparing to spend a week at St. George Island in Florida on a family vacation, it occurred to me that I should try to catch a fish.

(Photo: Whitney Mitchell)

My first thought was, I’ll just bring my biggest, strongest fishing rod, tie on the strongest line I’ve got and … just throw something out there and see what happens.

But then I thought about it: Do I want to break my favorite bass fishing rod? What if I catch a whale? Do whales eat plastic worms?

I knew absolutely nothing about fishing from the beach, but I wanted to learn. Here’s what I discovered. I promise it wasn’t nearly as hard as I thought it would be.

(Photo: Whitney Mitchell)

Surf’s up

After a little bit of research, I learned what I wanted to do was surf fish. This doesn’t involve a board and a nice wave. It just means fishing from the beach. And the best thing you can use to do that with is a surf fishing rod. The one I ended up buying was about $100 for the rod and reel. I probably could have purchased a more affordable one, but remember, I am a bass fishing snob. I paired that with just some good old bass fishing line: 20-pound-test fluorocarbon. There are so many choices in fishing line, and it’s confusing to someone who doesn’t know any better. I chose this one based on a few internet searches, and it seemed to work out all right.

(Photo: Chris Mitchell)

A surf fishing rod and reel are basically just like a giant spinning reel, if you know what that is. Getting the line on there is easy. You wrap it around a little bit, tie a square knot, pull it so it’s tight and start reeling. If the line stays on the reel, you did it right. You’ll know if you did it wrong. I’ve also put a small piece of tape on the end of the line on the reel. I’m sure that’s not how you are supposed to do it, but it worked.

I’ve been serious about fishing for a decade now, and I can’t look you in the eye and tell you I know how much line to put on. My usual rule is to spool on as much line as I think there should be, and then spool on some more.

Once that’s done, you are ready to tie on a bait. But we’ll get to that in a minute. I bought one other thing for my surf fishing trip: a $10 rod holder with a metal spike for it. It turns out the best way to catch a fish in the ocean is to just throw your bait out there, put the rod in a rod holder and enjoy the beach for a while. Not a bad way to fish, to be honest!

(Photo: Chris Mitchell)

What to tie on

So really, my No. 1 area of ignorance was, what do fish eat at the beach? What fish will I catch? And there is a very easy answer for this: Go ask somebody who knows. I chose to visit the only tackle shop I could find on the island. This proved to be a wise move. The nice man there told me I would likely catch whiting fish, and maybe a pompano if I was lucky. He also showed me what to buy to make a pompano rig.

The good news is, they had them ready to go. I bought this packet, poked some fake bait he also sold me (I believe I had shrimp-flavored squares) and added a weight shaped like a pyramid. Why is it shaped like a pyramid? I have no clue. The pyramid weight makes the shrimp squares float about a foot off the bottom; the fish see the delicious snack and definitely want it, and you just reel them in. It’s really that simple.

Well, there’s one more thing. You must attach it to your fishing line coming out of your reel. This isn’t a big deal if you know how to tie a fishing knot. But you may not! If that’s the case, watch this video. This is a very easy knot to tie, and I use it all the time. It’s called a Palomar knot. All I had to do was tie this on the little eye at the end of the pompano rig and then attach the weight to the other end. Then it was time to fish!

(Photo: Whitney Mitchell)

Fish on

This was really easy. I opened up the spinning reel bail (which is that bar that keeps the line from coming out), held it with my finger and then slung that pompano rig as far as I could throw it. It’s pretty heavy, so it sailed off into the distance. I believe you want to get it past the sandbar, where the water gets a little deeper and the fish live. I let the line go for a little while, then closed the bail and plopped the fishing rod down in the holder.

The next, critical step is that I went and played with my daughter on the beach for about 10 minutes. I turned around, and it looked like the rod was twitching a little erratically. That’s when I caught my first whiting!

Whiting are not very big and, for a bass fisherman, not very exciting. But still — I caught a fish! My family and dog were pretty happy about it. But I wanted something more. Something weird!

While I have only heard of whiting from menus at fish restaurants, I still threw it back. This is not a story about how to prepare a fish you catch to eat because I have absolutely no clue how to do any of that.

Once I caught that first fish, I knew I had the right idea, so I just kept doing it. I’d throw it out there, put the rod on its holder and wait until the rod started acting a little erratically. One thing you learn quickly is that the rod is going to move with the waves. That pyramid weight is sitting on the sand, and it gets pushed around a lot in the Gulf of Mexico. But when you have something on the line, you know. There’s a vibration to it; there’s something on the other end not really interested in coming to see you.

Finally, after about 10 casts with my surf rod, I found the fish the man at the tackle shop told me I would: a pompano. This is a cool fish! They are shaped a little bit like a diamond and are surprisingly sturdy little fish. I heard later that they are also delicious, but this guy was spared to swim again.

(Chris Mitchell)

Go catch one for yourself

If you take anything from this story, it should be this: It was easy to catch a fish at the beach. Here are the basic steps you should take.

  • Buy a rod and reel before you get to the beach. It’s going to be much more affordable, I promise.
  • Get some fishing line. Don’t stress over what kind you buy too much.
  • Get comfortable with tying a fishing knot. I like the Palomar, but there are a whole lot of them if you want to learn other knots. You only have to tie one, but if you do it wrong, you aren’t catching anything.
  • Find a local tackle store, and be nice. They love to help and sell you baits and gear.
  • Bring a small set of pliers and scissors. I didn’t catch anything with teeth, but it’s a possibility.
  • Bring some sunscreen, and don’t forget to hydrate.
  • Be careful, or your dog will try to eat the fish you caught.