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Copyright © 1998 - 2014 Captain Jim Freda

Surf Scanning
by Capt. Jim Freda
Shore Catch Guide Service

very time I go down to the surf the first thing that goes through my mind is “Surf Scanning”. That is to scan the surf in all directions and look for any visual clues that will help me determine where I am going to make my first few casts. I like to teach what scanning is and how to scan to all my clients each time I guide them because knowing what to look for is critical to your success. Many times the minutest observation if caught by you can put you on fish.

So I have compiled some scanning instructions, clues, and observations with my mental thoughts and explanations pertaining to each of these in this article. Think about these and be aware of them the next time you hit the suds.

Scanning may seem to be elementary to everyone but when I first started many years ago to fish the surf some of the crafty salts that I learned from where able to pinpoint objects that I never saw. For instance it is common for many surfcasters to miss tightly packed birds that are working on a pod of bait just above the water line when they are off in the distance a quarter mile or so.

Copyright © Jim Freda

When I think of scanning I think of it as a highly developed skill. It is not a brief perusal of the water in front of you in a casual manner. Rather it is work that requires concentration while looking at every piece of water that is in your sight.

This means sweeping the water with your eyes while covering a semi-circle of water that lies in front of you. You look to the left-in my case that would be north, in front of you-in my case east, and you look to the right-in my case that would be south. In other words I sweep out an angle of 180 degrees that encompasses my field of view. This is no different than how a professional lifeguard would scan the water in front of them looking at every piece of water to see where all able bodies might be.

As I scan the water I am processing what I see with what I might expect to see. In my mind there are many visual observations that I have acquired over time that identify fish, tell me regions or spots where fish might be, identify bait, notice different types of bait behavior, bird behavior, wave action, identify underlying beach topography, identify rips, cuts, troughs, and currents, and more.

False Dawn Nervous Water Copyright © Jim Freda
False Dawn Nervous Water

My first visual scan of the surf will take place at a height that is above sea level. This means that I will stop and pause on the beach berm, a boardwalk, possibly street side, or other elevated structure. A view from such a vantage point gives me a wider field of view allowing me to scan without my vision being obstructed by incoming waves when standing at eye level with the water. If enough light is available I will scan from this position with a good pair of binoculars.

At first I look for signs of breaking fish or any commotion that may be taking place on the surface of the water. This will be obvious to spot if a blitz is taking place but if it is not than one has to tune into looking for the subtle signs that would identify that fish are present.

Being able to identify these subtle signs that striped bass can produce is what will separate the seasoned veteran from the beginner. These subtle signs will manifest themselves as discrete boils, a gentle swirl, a surface tension breaking porpoise, or a small push of wavelets moving forward.

Wavelets Copyright © Jim Freda

When one learns how to recognize these signs that is a good start. But the next level of seasoning comes when one can spot just about every one of these events when it takes place. What I mean is this.

Let’s say that fish are in the area that you are at but they are not showing except for the subtle signs mentioned above. In two minutes of time a bass makes five subtle boils. You spot and see all five of them. That’s excellent, you’re a sharpie. But let’s say you only spot two of them. That’s only 40% and you missed 60% of your opportunities to cast to a breaking fish. See good scanning involves not only being able to recognize a visual sign but to be able to spot them 100% of the time that they do occur.

Are far as conditions are concerned optimal scanning conditions are when the water is oil slick calm with little glare on the surface. When there is a chop on the water seeing and spotting these subtle signs can become very difficult. Many fishermen can’t distinguish them at all. In conditions like these a true sharpie will prove his real colors. Wearing a good pair of polarized sunglasses is also a must.

Discrete Boil Copyright © Jim Freda
Discrete Boil

Besides looking for visual or subtle signs of fish I will also look for other signs that can tell me where I most likely expect fish to be. Bird play and bird behavior is also key as how they are behaving can be used to pinpoint bait and fish. Other determinations are based on the behavior of fish in their relationship to their environment.

There are a number of physical factors that come into play when looking at the relationship of fish to their environment. These would include identifying where waves are breaking, identifying where sandbars are located, identifying rip currents, identifying beach scarps, identifying energetic backwash areas, identifying drift or littoral currents, identifying tidal stages, identifying areas of upwelling, identifying outer bars, cuts, and troughs.

All these physical features can be connected to locating fish in some way so the more you know about the physical and dynamic nature of a beach the more likely you will be able to identify where fish, particularly striped bass, will be located. If you have never taken an Oceanography or Marine Science class I would recommend doing so if you have the time. You will be amazed how acquiring this knowledge will make you a better fisherman.

Making visual observations while “Surf Scanning” is just as important as any plug, lure, piece of tackle or equipment that you might possess. Being learned and keyed in on these visual observations will make you a more successful and complete fisherman. You will catch more fish, reduce your frustration level, same time, and often be into a fish on your very first cast! End

Copyright © 1998 - 2014 Jim Freda, All Rights Reserved

Articles by Captain Jim Freda

Capt. Jim FREDAEmail Captain Jim Freda

Jim Freda is a highly respected charter captain, author, outdoor writer, seminar speaker, and photographer. His first book Fishing the New Jersey Coast, has been a best seller and received the “New Jersey Center for the Book Award” as one of the most notable NJ books. He co-authored a second book Saltwater Fishing a Tactical Approach, A Guide for Northeast Beach and Boat Fishermen, with his Shore Catch associates Capt Gene Quigley and Shell E. Caris.

Jim has weekly fishing columns that appear in the Bergen Record, NJ's second largest newspaper and the Coast Star and Ocean Star newspapers of Monmouth and Ocean Counties. Nationally, Jim is a contributing editor for Fly Fishing in Saltwaters magazine and also writes for Fly Fisherman magazine, Saltwater Sportsman, Eastern Fly Fishing, Big Game Journal, and Regionally he writes for On the Water magazine where he has is own monthly column, The Fisherman magazine and the NJ Federation of Sportsman Clubs newspaper.

As a seminar speaker Jim is featured as one of the celebrities on the Saltwater Sportsman National Seminar Series, as one of the “Stars of the Show” at the Fly Fishing Show in Somerset, NJ, the Northeast’s largest fly fishing show and is on the National Pro Seminar slate at the Toyota Saltwater Expo also in Somerset. He is also regularly featured each year at many of the local fishing clubs in the surrounding area including the State’s two largest clubs the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association and the Saltwater Anglers of Bergen County. Capt Jim has also been a guest speaker at all the Trout Unlimited Clubs in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Jim has also been a special guest speaker at the Bloomberg Network in New York City.

He is a member of the National Factory Pro Team for St. Croix Rods and pro staff for Fins Fishing Line, AVET Reels, Spro, Gamakatsu, Hogy, Korkers, Costa Del Mar, Columbia Sportswear and Aquaskinz.

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Saltwater Fishing A Tactical Approach Fishing the NJ Coast