We have all heard that being able to "read the beach" is an important part of surf fishing. There is no other skill, that you will master, that will be more important to your overall success. Once you understand the dynamics of the surf zone, you can place your baits in the areas where the fish are more active. It is actually very simple to do.
Waves crash on the beach in a more or less direct fashion. Currents run up or down the beach. The two play against, and with one another, to form patterns in the sand beneath the surface. This happens because sand grains move around quite easily when the currents can lift them from the sea floor. They travel as far as the current can carry them, then they settle down in areas of less current. These areas of sand removal and sand deposits form patterns. Sand sorts itself by size and density of material and even by different shapes, within the same densities and sizes. The entire sea floor is in constant flux, changing and re-arranging itself regularly.
Finely grained sands tend to have less lift, flattened and irregularly shaped sands and shells tend to catch the water and flutter around more, meaning more lift. It is that difference in lift vs. stability that creates the various sea floor structures. While every beach, and every section of beach, is different, some basic formations routinely evolve.
As a wave approaches the shoreline, it brings a sudden current in the same direction it approached from. A constant current, is constant, except for when a wave's energy alters its course. This brief alteration of current direction creates a mixing of currents, and this swashing of currents creates chaos for the sand. The sand grains will wash away from some areas, and will gather in other areas. Areas where sand grains get washed away become sloughs, or troughs, or guts. Areas where the sands settle and gather become bars.
The troughs will actually move with the tides. That is they will come further up towards the dunes as the water deepens, and go further away from the dunes as the water becomes shallow. As the sand leaves the troughs, it clumps up into bars, which follow the movements of the troughs, up and down with the tides. Four times a day these troughs and bars make a major movement from close in to far out. Hard packed portions resist this movement, but the overall majority of the sand on top of the bar will move.
Little creatures, that taste good to fish, live within this swash, and move with the sands as they travel in and out. Most of them survive because they can burrow into the sand to hide. Soft shifting sand is the easiest to burrow into. From such a position, they have adapted to be able to remain hidden, while they feed.
Shrimp have elongated stalks upon which their eyes are attached, so that they can bury themselves, and yet maintain visual contact with their intended food sources. In fact, this ability to remain buried while feeding is the way a lot of creatures have solved the issue of long term survival. The list includes crabs, again eyes on stalks so as to be able to see, while remaining buried in the shifting sands. Coquina clams can sift the waters from a buried position. Sand fleas sift the waters for food items while remaining buried. Worms and burrowing shrimp's survival depends on them being able to do both, that is, hide while feeding.
Fish know that these little creatures taste good, and that they burrow themselves to hide. So they look for these guys in areas that they would normally find them. That is, areas where their little trick of hiding in the sand is compromised by wave and current actions lifting the sands out from around them, and thus exposing them. So the fish look for them in the soft and shifting sands where they usually find these little creatures, because that is exactly where they have had success in gathering them before.
Fish for the fish that feed on creatures that move within the shifting sands, where the shifting sand actually exists. That location changes with the incoming tide and wherever strong currents and wave action have an effect on sand deposits. Look for deposits of sand that are washing away, not gathering together. As a sand bar approaches the dunes with normal rising tidal influences, that activity occurs on the seaside of the bar. When the bar is moving away from the dunes on an outgoing tide, that area of the bar that is losing sand is on the beach side of the bar.
The very top of a sand bar has perhaps the greatest amount of sand movement. Creatures that could hold position when they were in deeper water lose their grip and get flushed out of their secure position. They can reacquire a foothold in short order, but those fleeting moments when they become exposed is all a fish needs to dart in and make the grab. Fish learn to do this at an early age. They learn where to look for creatures, that is where they have been recently exposed and available.
The wave exposes them, then with the assistance of the current, they re-bury themselves. It is a cycle that they live by. Fish can time the wave actions to either relax or actively seek out these creatures. There is a set amount of time for each wave cycle. Exposure followed by camouflage, exposure followed by coverage. Actively feeding fish patrol certain areas, waiting for this exposure period. They look where they would normally find flushed creatures. They look in the shifting sands.
Reading the beach for pompano requires an ability to accurately determine the location of shifting sand. The wave actions show you where these sands are located. The rise and fall and spillage of a wave indicate the water's depth. It will show you precisely where a sand bar's edges lie.
Watch a wave as it comes ashore. It will show very little height, until it reaches shallow water. Then as it encounters the shallow water on the leading edge of a sand bar, it will swell and increase in height. Then it will curl and break. Then it will continue forward as a rumbling of white water over the top of the bar. Then it will calm itself as it enters the deeper water of a slough. Then curl, crest and break again as it reaches another sand bar.
Those risings, cresting, and breakings of the waves, as they come ashore, mark distinct locations, where there is a change in water depth. A cast made into the face of a cresting wave, lands on the seaside of a sandbar. A cast made into the rumbling portion lands on top of a sandbar. A cast made into the spot where the wave clams itself and reforms itself, lands on the beach side of a sand bar. Those three locations mark where the sand is in flux. Cast your bait there. Catch a fish in one of those locations, recast that pole to that area. Catch two fish there, recast all your poles there.
Creatures form colonies and those colonies stay together. They burrow together and they get revealed together. Cast your rig into the areas where they should be being revealed. Fish a healthy beach where colonies exist. Don't just cast out as far as you can, aim your casts with purpose. One on the sea side of the bar, one on top of the bar, and one on the beachside of the bar. Let the fish tell you where they are feeding on that stage of the tide.
If you find a run out /riptide, it will be evident. Foam will be moving out to sea, not traveling with the beach. Cast at the edges of the rip. One cast to the beach side of the bar, where it meets the rip. Another cast to the sea side of the bar where it meets the rip. Creatures will be being uncovered rapidly in a strong rip.
Holes can be seen by noticing different colors of water. Dark water surrounded by lighter colored water indicates a hole. Soft sands are deposited along the edges of a hole. Cast to the edges of the hole. Pompano will cruise the edges, and the sides of a hole. They may hang out in the middle of the hole, but when they are actively feeding, they are looking on the edges in the shifting sands.
Stand on the beach and look at the whole beach. Do you see anything? Anything different from one area to the next ? Are the waves uniform, or do they crash harder here than they do there? Find the shifting sands.
This is for pompano fishing, but applies well to redfish and black drum as well. They feed on sand dwellers too. Use attractive beads to catch your quarry's eye during the uncovering faze of a passing wave. When pompano are looking for food, they will be aggressive. Beads just assist them in seeing your offering, they don't confirm it's worthiness of capture. They are sight feeders with a sense of smell, they are not scent feeders with a sense of sight. Use colorful attractants that tend to match prey items. Since pompano mainly feed on coquina clams, try purple and white. Bright orange or bright yellows and greens are eye catchy as well. But whatever color you choose, if you place your baits accurately, then you will increase your catch of these little devils.
I like to use salted shrimp pieces about the size of my fingernail. Sand fleas when I can gather them. Salted clam pieces, again the size of my finger nail. Fresh cut crab knuckles. Fish Bites work well as an additive to your baits, although at times I think they can detract. I like fresh shrimp for fishing in close to the beach, where a long cast is not needed. I intend to experiment with jigs this next spring.