Rookie surf casters, as they gaze into the churning mix of breaking waves and vast expanse of open ocean are often intimidated. They have no clue about where to cast their baits and lures. “It all looks the same,” I often hear. But it doesn’t. Each section of beach has a combination of obvious and subtle characteristics that may determine the presence of fish. The key to reading the beach is being able to locate sections of beach that are most likely to attract fish.
A slough is a deep trough that runs parallel to the beach, bordered by a sand bar on one side and the beach on the other. The distance from the beach to the bar will determine the width of the slough. Fish travel up and down this trough and look for food such small fish, crabs, and sandworms. On the Outer Banks, under normal conditions, we have approximately a two-foot difference in water depth along the ocean beach between low and high tides, and it’s easier to locate a slough at low tide, when the sand bars are easily visible.
When the water depth decreases suddenly in a short distance, such as in the case of a sandbar, the incoming waves will break on top of that bar. In the case of a gently sloping beach, with no outer bar, the waves will gradually spill over, and continue to do so until they eventually break on the beach. This what experienced surf fishers call a flat beach.
Beach sand can also be a tip-off about the contour of the ocean bottom. Very fine, tightly packed sand is often found on a beach with a gradual slope. Coarse sand, or small gravel, is typically found on a steep sloping beach. Sometimes this coarse, large sand is often darker than the fine grain sand, and it’s not unusual to find various types of sand over several miles of beach.
The width of a slough may also be critical. On the Outer Banks, big fish such as red drum tend to prefer the wider, deeper sloughs, with some shallow, shoal water at either end. Speckled trout, flounder and sea mullet can be caught in narrow sloughs where the bar may be as close as fifteen to twenty yards off the beach, but the water between the beach and the bar is several feet deep.
Once you locate a promising slough, it’s time to take the investigation one step further. Fish may travel this ocean “highway”, but they need a way to get on the road. They can do this through a break in the outer bar, easily discovered after watching the waves for several minutes. If there is a break in the bar, a wave will pass over the bar, but will not crest. If the occurrence consistently repeats, that indicates a cut in the bar. Fast moving, rippling, or discolored water may also be seen at these breaks or “outsucks” when the tide is falling. Not only will wandering fish come into the sloughs through these breaks, the fast moving water around these breaks will often form rip currents that send food swirling past the predator fish as they line up in front of the baitfish buffet.
Sloughs are not the only beach formations that attract fish. Currents and winds may scallop out the beach and form points. Frequently, the water is deep on one side of a point, a perfect location for fish to congregate. A well defined point on an open beach may attract fish the same way a piece of structure will hold fish on an otherwise featureless ocean floor. The key is to concentrate your efforts in a location that is just a bit different from the rest of the topography.
Hard structures such as jetties, piers, bridges, or inlets are also locations that encourage fish to stop and congregate. Usually these don’t change, but the beaches around them will change regularly. Inlets can be incredibly productive locations to fish the surf. On a falling tide, the small baitfish and other sources of food are swept out of the inlet, providing a natural chum line that will attract fish from miles away.
Beach formations are constantly appearing, moving, rearranging or disappearing, as the winds, currents, and waves change. A perfect speckled trout hole can appear then vanish in a few days, or even migrate up and down the beach during the course of several weeks. Keep that in mind as you scan the surf line, looking for that ideal slough or perfect point.