Winter Surf Fishing: Places to Go and Species to Target

It’s awfully difficult to convince yourself to leave your cozy home and fish in the cold and wet of winter.  However, if you live within driving distance of the ocean, you may want to push pause on the winter time blues and go surf fishing.  

Surf fishing is a blast when it’s warm but when things get cold, surf fishing truly heats up.  Some of the best surf fishing happens in the winter when the conditions are right. Not to mention, winter brings fewer crowds and less competition on the beach.  That leaves more room to cast and a whole lot more fish to catch.

All that’s left is to see what opportunities exist in your area.  Let’s take a tour of several top surf fishing destinations and species that are sure to keep your adrenaline pumping this winter.

Winter Surf Fishing on the West Coast

The Pacific Ocean coastline hosts some of the finest fishing for shore bound anglers looking to sling some lead into the surf.  

Mild winters are punctuated by powerful storms that dump rain and unleash howling wind.  However, plan your timing right and the west coast, from Washington State to Southern California, delivers top notch surf fishing for several popular saltwater species.

Species to target

By far, the most popular species for surf fishing on the west coast are surfperch.  These spunky fish average 1 to 2 pounds and make delicious table fair.  They are also super abundant and easy to catch.  

Redtail surfperch are the most common and can be found along Washington, Oregon and Northern California.  Further south, Calico and Barred surfperch predominate.  Spring through fall are popular months to chase surfperch at just about any beach along the coast.  Winter surf fishing is often over looked.

Tactics and baits for winter time surfperch are much the same as any other time of year, which we cover in our complete surfperch fishing guide.  However, the biggest factor governing success in winter is the weather. 

Winter weather brings bigger surf and harsh weather that can drive surfperch further from shore.  Not to mention, stormy weather creates dangerous surf conditions for anglers. 

Yet on the flip side, lulls between storms or atmospheric increases in pressure tend to spawn feeding frenzies as fish move toward shore in calmer surf.  

Take advantage of these moments because they are short lived.  Avoid digging in your heels and stay mobile.  If you are not catching fish, move up and down the beach casting frequently.  They are generally schooled up in winter and feed in tight pockets along calm troughs just off shore.  Once you find them, get ready for action!

Jetties are excellent spots to target surfperch when the waves are not pounding.  The rocky habitat of jetties also creates a diverse fishery.  It’s a veritable grab bag of species that make every cast a mystery.  Greenling, lingcod and rockfish are just a few fish that you’ll find swimming within reach of shore along the northern Pacific coast in winter.

Down in Southern California where the sun shines a bit more, late winter surf smelt are an exciting option for trying your hand at cast netting in the breakers.  

Where to go

Anywhere the surf crashes onto the beach is a good spot to fish for surfperch.  They’re just about everywhere.  Countless beaches are easily accessible right from Highway 101 or a short walk from a parking area.  

For winter anglers chasing surfperch in Washington or Oregon, be sure to check out our guide of the 11 best beaches for redtail surfperch.  

During the winter months, beaches around Kalaloch are some of the best in Washington State.  For Oregon, the Cannon Beach area pumps out some good surfperch fishing in winter, as do beaches and jetties near Florence and Gold Beach.

The popularity of surfperch fishing is booming but California beaches in winter are nearly empty and you’ll have gobs of fish all to yourself.  September through May is actually the peak season for Barred and Calico surfperch.  Check out some of our best hotspots for surf fishing in Northern California and Southern California.

When trying to find a new spot for yourself, look for steeper, sandy beaches.  Beaches where waves pound on small gravel is also excellent.  Timing is critical in winter though.  Go when the surf is mild and the tidal swings are smaller.  Not only is it safer for you, mild surf also encourages perch to push closer to shore.  

Winter Surf Fishing on the Gulf Coast

When northern winters start to feel icy on the bones, the Gulf Coast beaches from Texas to Florida become more appealing for surf fishing.  

With hundreds of miles of accessible coastline, the surf fishing options in the Gulf are truly some of the best in the country.  Trophy species are all within casting distance from shore and something is always biting.  Winter provides the perfect time for fewer crowds and plenty of big fish. 

Species to target

Whether you are after a cooler full of tasty whiting or targeting a trophy sized shark, the Gulf Coast has it all.  Here’s what surf anglers can expect to encounter at the beach this winter.

Whiting and Pompano:  What whiting and pompano lack in size, they make up for with quantity and taste.  Pompano can reach 4 or 5 pounds on occasion but whiting average 1 to 2 pounds.  

Both are scrappy fighters and easy to catch with light tackle.  Shrimp or cut bait fished near bottom (pompano rigs work great) prove too good to pass up for dense schools cruising sandy stretches in the surf.  Many anglers catch a few whiting or pompano to use as irresistible bait for sharks and reds. 

Redfish:  Winter marks the start of impressive redfish migrations into the gulf.  Among them are hefty bull reds, some reaching 50 pounds or more.  Anyone fishing the surf, jetties or piers has a shot at big reds using a variety of baits and lures.  

Black Drum:  These brutes pack some heat and a stout rod is a must.  Weighing up to 80 pounds, black drum are a thrilling catch all along the Gulf Coast in winter.  Drums tolerate cool water and therefore, are found close to shore.

Gear up with bottom rigs and enough lead to hold the bait steady in the surf.  You can’t go wrong with cut bait or shrimp.  A slot limit may be in affect depending on where you are fishing.  Either way, small drum around 16-20 inches are some of the best tasting.

Sharks:  Think twice before taking on the many varieties of sharks that cruise the southern coast in early winter.  A heavy rod, high strength line with a wire leader and maybe even a buddy to hang onto you, are the prerequisites to doing battle with these toothy giants. 

Large chucks of fresh cut bait and a long cast should get you close to the hunting grounds of nearby sharks.  When the surf is mild, daring anglers paddle their baits out to deeper water using kayaks and free spool back to shore.  

Patience is key but once you’re hooked up, prepare for a long fight.  Even when you get the beast to shore the fight is far from over.  Releasing a shark is a challenge without doing damage to you or it.  Check your local regulations since many species of sharks cannot be retained.  

Speckled Trout:  While not officially a fish of the surf, speckled trout do deserve a quick mention.  Inshore areas like the Mississippi River Delta may not have breaking surf pounding the beaches.  However, it’s possible for inshore anglers to wade into calm water and cast for beautiful speckled trout in winter.  Cast shrimp imitations or soft plastics on jigs for non-stop action.

Where to go

From the most southern beaches of Texas, up past Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, all the way to the Florida Everglades, are countless surf fishing locations.

In Texas, some of the best winter surf fishing is found around Port Aransas on Mustang Island.  Beaches and jetties are generally walk-in only but plenty off-beach parking along the road provides access to most sections of beach.

Further north, Matagorda beach is virtually roadless for miles.  Anglers preferring seclusion should find it to their liking.   

If you would rather drive from spot to spot on the beach, most populated areas like Galveston have abundant drive-in access.  

The Mississippi Delta is enormous and beach access is limited for walk-in surf fishing.  However, Grand Isle State Park is a spectacular location for winter surf fishing.

From Gulfport to Pensacola and all the way down to Everglades National Park, just pick a beach.  It’s all about timing in the winter but most days there is usually something biting near shore.  Talk to locals and see what beaches have been good lately.  

When trying to decide where to make your first cast, look for a little structure that gets fish to congregate before moving on.  Passes and jetties are always a good bet.

Winter Surf Fishing on the Southeast Coast

East coast anglers are a lucky bunch.  Surf fishing on the southern Atlantic shoreline is about as good as it gets and winter months are no exception.  From Miami to the Carolinas, winter surf fishing can keep you busy all winter.

Species to target

A huge variety of fish swim the southeast coastline all year.  Although, much like the sun loving beach goers, many species of fish flee from the surf as temperatures drop. 

That doesn’t mean fish aren’t still around.  Pompano, whiting, sharks, and mackerel are catchable depending on the beach.   

In Georgia, even puffer fish are caught in the surf.  For some, few fish taste better than puffer fish.  Pier anglers in Georgia also get a crack at sheepshead and the occasional speckled sea trout.

Surf anglers in the Carolinas get a nice variety of fish as well.  Flounder are possible in winter and readily take small minnows.  Whiting are always possible and simple bottom rigs with small shrimp as bait outperform most other baits. 

Pompano are definitely the big draw in winter along the east coast of Florida.  Huge southerly runs draw hundreds of anglers up and down the coast December through March.  

It may not be the big runs of spring but winter pompano will get you through the winter just fine.  

For pompano, good baits include sand fleas, cut squid and shrimp.  Use a surf fishing pompano rig and a fair amount of lead.  2 to 3 ounces should do it.  It’s important to keep your bait anchored in place.  

Catching pompano in the winter is not guaranteed and water clarity governs the bite on some days.  Super murky or muddy water is not ideal but neither is crystal clear water.  You’re looking for something in between.  An early season cold front can really get the pompano moving.  If you are struggling to catch fish, move on to a new spot.

Where to go

Everything from St. Augustine south should give you a crack at pompano when the run is hot.  All beaches are fair game in the winter.  It’s just a matter of finding where the pompano are on any given day.  

If you can only pick one zone to target winter pompano in Florida, go for the stretch between Melbourne Beach and Sebastian Inlet.  Deep troughs that channel feeding fish form on the steep beaches in this area.  Better still, pompano are within easy casting distance from shore.

There are plenty of beaches in Georgia but not all are accessible by car.  By far, the best surf fishing beaches in Georgia with drive up access are on Tybee Island between the Tybee and the Back River fishing piers.  

Further south on the coast of Georgia, premier surf fishing is found on beaches near St. Simons including East Beach and Massengale Park.  The point by Gould’s inlet is also worth your time.  Sharks, redfish and speckled trout are all available in the winter.

Surf fishing in the Carolinas is nothing short of spectacular when you time it right.  For South Carolina beach fishing, check out Folly Beach and the area around Breach Inlet.  Pompano are a popular winter target and the occasional black drum and late season bull red spice things up.  Having heavy gear handy is a good idea.

Look no further than the Outer Banks if you’re surf fishing in North Carolina.  The Outer Banks have some of the finest surf fishing all year long.  Nowhere is the fishing better than Cape Point.  Getting there requires a ferry ride and a 4WD vehicle but the surf fishing is legendary.  

Other North Carolina surf fishing hotspots include Carolina Beach and Cape Hatteras.   

Winter Surf Fishing on the Northeast Coast

There is no way to sugar coat it.  Winter surf fishing on the northeast coast is not going to be easy.  It’s cold and most of the big striper action ends in the fall.  Yet that is no reason to put your surf fishing gear into hibernation for the winter.

Fish still swim in protected bays, estuaries and inlet areas all along the coast.  Patience is critical but fishing slow and moving often is the true key to success when surf fishing the northeast.

Species to target

Striped bass steal the show when it comes to casting in the surf on beaches from Montauk, New York, clear down to Virginia.  The fall run is something special that should be on every angler’s bucket list.  Only problem is, it shuts down by mid-October or November on most beaches.

Alas, all is not lost during winter, there are still fish skulking along some beaches and even a few stripers are to be had.  These are usually juvenile stripers or “schoolies” that are a far cry from the 50 pound behemoths that prowl the beaches spring through fall.  Never the less, for intrepid and determined anglers, braving the cold just might pay off.

A “high-low rig” with cut bait or clams is a fool proof choice for winter stripers.  Use a couple ounces of lead to keep the bait stationary.  Winter stripers are lethargic and want a small, easy meal this time of year.  

Where to go

Focusing in on the most likely beaches is going to bump up the odds for success.  Starting from the south, Virginia striper fishing is going to be best in the lower Chesapeake in winter.  Speckled trout are also a top species this time of year along in-shore areas when the water temperatures don’t drop too far.

Heading north, New Jersey beaches still produce faithful catches even deep into winter.  Focus in on inlet areas and bays in Monmouth County and Ocean County.

Further north, it gets colder and the fishing is hit or miss.  Herring or squid fishing from piers in New York is usually the extent of saltwater fishing during winter.  You might be better off waiting until spring or better yet, take a trip south for the winter.

Wrapping it up

That wraps up our coastal tour but everything we covered in this article is just the tip of the iceberg.  There are countless opportunities for winter surf fishing.  With the right planning and preparation, you are bound to have plenty of arm aching action. Oh and don’t forget, with the winter sun setting early, surf fishing at night is a great opportunity to catch more fish, so read our guide on how to do it.

Knowing where and when to go surf fishing is just the first step.  To really ratchet up your catch rate, be sure to check out our article on the best surf fishing lures no angler should be without.

Winter is a great time to visit ocean beaches and wet your line.  But please remember to exercise plenty of caution when fishing.  Winter surf can get rough and unpredictable.  Never turn your back on the ocean.