Staying Safe in the Surf
by Joe Lyons
admit it, I’m not the most intense surfcaster in
the striper surf. You will not find me in a wetsuit, Ala Montauk Extreme, doggie
paddling out to the far rocks. Nor will you find me in a kayak; fishing in a
nor’easter, while enjoying a Nantucket sleigh ride courtesy of a fifteen-pound
I’m a fairly
conservative fisherman. I opt for safety in practice, and I advocate it at every
opportunity. Sometimes, while writing my reminders, I’m struck feeling a little
stodgy, as if I’m coming across as the surfcasting safety monitor. I live
in Rhode Island though, so too often, I find myself reading about an unfortunate
angler that perished while fishing. This article will cast some light on
what happens when things go terribly wrong while surfcasting and what can be
done to prevent such unfortunate accidents.
Before we get too paranoid though, let me first state
that surfcasting is, by and a large, a very safe activity. While researching the
newspaper accounts of surfcasting accidents some interesting facts emerged: The
person who appears to be most vulnerable to falling victim to drowning, or a bad
fall followed by drowning: The lone, nocturnal surfcaster, is not the typical
victim. Apparently, those who venture out into the dark with surf rod in hand
know what they’re doing. Most of the people who have perished in the surf have
done so in daylight hours, in the company of others, or at least witnessed by
others. Additionally, people are just as often swept into the drink via a rogue
wave, as fall in. Knowing when to go fishing and when to stay home is the single
biggest safety decision one can make. The best equipment cannot take the place
of common sense.
There are roughly six major environments that shore
fishermen frequent: Sand Beaches, Sand Bars, Breachways, Jetties, and
Inlets and Rocky Shores. Of course there is Bridge and Pier fishing, and, and a
maybe one or two others, but most of the safety measures described below are
interchangeable. While each type of fishing presents its own difficulties and
risks, we’ll find that many of the challenges can be more than met with the
following measures. But first, lets talk a little bit about
I recently corresponded with a fellow angler about the
merits of using Personal Flotation Devices (PFD) like the self-inflating life vests
currently available. He did not believe in them. His argument was that in the
most likely scenario, the potential victim usually whacks his head and is
knocked unconscious and is unable to pull the cord. His comments reminded me of
the famous line in the classic movie Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. Butch
does not understand why Sundance would rather fight a desperate gun battle at
the top of a cliff rather than jump to possible safety to the water below.
Sundance reveals that the reason he does not want to jump is because he can’t
swim. To which Butch replies, “Can’t swim? Hell, the fall will probably kill
At the time, I did not know the facts about the
usefulness of such devices so rather than argue I looked into it. I could not
find any reports of anglers drowning while wearing any kind of personal
This finding does not render that fellow’s argument invalid
however; getting slammed into the rocks by incoming waves could certainly prove
fatal. But it is interesting. Maybe Butch and that fellow were right, but I
think I’ll stick with the percentages and elect to continue wearing my
|Basic Gear: Korkers, Head Flashlight, Wader Belt and a Personal Floatation Device (PFD)
Another wise product choice for safety around rocks is
Korkers (picture on left). For those who are unfamiliar with this product, Korkers are strap-on
sandals that go over wader boots and provide traction via carbide spikes screwed
into the sole.
Still, these are rarely seen in the field. Usually, when I’m
fishing around rocks and I see someone without Korkers, I’ll inquire why. Most
people reply that they cost too much. Depending on the model you can get a pair from $50 to $85.00 and they
are a bargain at that price. Korkers are probably the single best piece of
equipment you can invest in. Not only do they add an element of safety, they
greatly improve the number of places you can fish from. Invariably, the guy who
says he can’t afford them is driving a +$30,000 sport utility vehicle.
Some other useful safety items include: a whistle, flashlight and back up
flashlight, and small first aid kit. Overall though, I’ve noticed a complete
lack of attention to safety. Many anglers are reckless and take few
Sand Beaches are the safest of all spots the shore
angler can pick. The worst thing that can happen on a sand beach is that you get
knocked down while wading, are unable to get up and fall victim to the undertow
or get finished off by another incoming comber. Each case is extremely rare.
Occasionally, when there is a big sea on, you have to exercise extra caution,
particularly when the beach has eroded and develops a steep decent approaching
the water line. A good safety tip for beach fishing: Use two wading belts, one
around the waist and one up around the chest. Still, fishing accidents and
deaths on sandy beaches are almost unheard of. CLICK for a good picture of a very dangerous “chopped” beach.
Sand Bars are slightly more dangerous than sand
beaches but accidents are rare here also. There are a couple of things one can
do when approaching sand bars to increase the likelihood of a safe outing. Most
sand bars require you to walk through a slough of deeper water as you approach.
When crossing this deeper water, take note where the water is on your body when
you initially go out. Is it thigh-high? Waist-high? If it is waist high and tide
still coming in – it is not a good idea to risk it. If you are unfamiliar
with the height and velocity of an incoming tide, play it safe, and fish the
falling end of the tide only. That way, you can come back without worrying about
a flood in your waders. Also, make a mental note of a landmark that lines
up with the crossing area, use the landmark to find the crossing spot on the
When on the sand bar, do not test the drop off to see
how steep it is. The drop-off on most sand bars is very steep, no need to tempt
fate. Another thing, though it may sound foolish, is to double check your tide
chart to make sure it is correct, and adjusted for daylight savings time if need
be. You have to be tidewise on a sandbar, and I have occasionally run across
tide charts that were wrong, particularly some of the charts available on the
Internet. Another thing to watch out for on sand bars is fog. If you note a fog
coming in, it is best to get off before you get fogged in and disoriented. A
good extra piece of safety equipment for sand bars is a compass in the event the
fog catches you unprepared.
Inlets and Breachways
Inlets and Breachways are unique in that there is
usually fast moving water most of the time. From a safety perspective, the
presence of others at inlets and breachways is a good thing. Accidents are more
common at breachways mainly because they sometimes attract inexperienced
fisherman untrained in the finer points of landing fish. Two big dangers of
breachway fishing are slipping when trying to land fish, and getting swept of
the end by a rogue wave. The end of the breachway is sometimes just too
dangerous to be on. Still, some have a hard time accepting this fact. An angler
on the Internet message board Reel-Time
relayed a story about a young man who ignored the warnings of the breachway
regulars and laughingly went out to the breachway end during a heavy-sea. A
moment later, when the regulars looked backed, he was gone. Fortunately, one of
the regulars was able to retrieve a rope from his vehicle and get it to the
young man before he went down for the last time. What struck the poster was how
far away the young man was swept in just moments.
Another hard to accept fact about breachway fishing is
that sometimes there is no safe way to get your fish out the rocks. I like to
fish breachways in foul weather, but if I can’t get the fish to a safe landing
area, I’ll have to cut it loose. I witnessed a person get their boot stuck
in the rocks while trying to hurry a fish up, and nearly get struck by a large
wave that would have spelled serious injury. He ended up having to crawl out of
his waders in order to extricate himself
At sand inlets the biggest safety concern is getting
swept of your feet by the current. Sometimes, if you act quickly, you can plant
the butt-end of the rod and regain your footing but if this fails, do not try
swimming against the current. Your best bet if caught in an inlet current
is to shed the waders and swim with the tide until it subsides and then swim
parallel to the beach away from the current and to shore. Korkers are
indispensable for fishing breachways, and personal flotation devices like SOS
Suspenders are necessary for wading sand inlets.
Rocky Shores are, by far, the most dangerous places to
fish. There are many reasons: The footing is treacherous. It’s easy to twist an
ankle or break a leg or crack your noggin. Rocky shores are often desolate; so
once hurt you could be in for a long wait before help arrives. In Rhode Island,
Points, Lighthouses and Bay Mouths typically support rocky shore environments.
Stripers love rocky shores so it makes sense that they are popular spots to
fish. Sometimes you’ll find the need to wade a rocky beach and that ratchets up
the level of difficulty considerably. I feel a big part of the reason so many
accidents happen around rocks is that many of the people fishing these areas do
not have the skills and should not be attempting the areas. In a nutshell, rocky
shore fishing is not for beginners. Korkers and a cellphone are good safety
equipment choices for fishing rocky shores.
dangerous type of condition, outside of lightning, is a fair weather east wind.
The fair weather easterly wind flow spawns rogue waves with a greater degree of
surprise than other conditions. Additionally, persons that would never fish on a
rainy northeast day routinely venture out on a day of fair weather easterly
winds. It’s another example of Mother Nature fooling the angler. When you leave
your house, it looks and feels like a nice day. But there are always
unpredictable sea conditions to accompany easterly wind conditions. When one
arrives at the shore they are confronted with big waves, but they elect to fish
anyway. The smart play is to not fish under such conditions.
Of all the fishing spots up and down the striper
coast, one place emerges as the most dangerous: Hazard Ave in Narragansett, Rhode Island.
There are two reasons for this; the configuration of the rocks and the fact that
Hazard Ave is "rogue wave central." As luck would have it, the nastiest spot at
Hazard is the most popular. The relatively flat expanse of rock immediately to
the south of the entrance, which appears safe but according to reports from
divers, there are caverns below. It’s deceiving: you think you are standing on
nice, fairly flat surface of solid rock, but you are really on top of a cave.
The inside of the cave is under water and the slowly tapering rock is slick with
black slime by the water’s edge. To make matters worse, this is also the spot
where the rogue waves tend to home in.
The typical Hazard Ave. drowning scenario plays out
something like this. An angler (or even a walker) on dry rock gets hit with a
rogue wave, knocked off their feet, and ends up in the water, yet fairly close
to shore. They scramble to get back up on the rocks, but there is nowhere to get
a toe or handhold. The next wave then hits them from behind and they either go
under the rock and into the cave below, or they are bashed senseless against the
rocks. Either way the end result is usually fatal. Had they fallen in anywhere
else, at East Beach or Point Judith Light for example, they would have stood a
much better chance of coming out alive. Those that have fallen in at Hazard and
lived to tell about it, like Robert Casino of Narragansett, RI did so because
once in the water they swam out to sea and held onto the buoy, or the fish trap
that is sometimes there, until help arrived. Mr. Casino, an experienced surfman,
did just that, he kept his head (and his pole!) and was eventually rescued by
the Coast Guard.
I’m starting to feel a little stogy again, for I know I’m preaching to the choir. The type of angler that reads this magazine does not fit the profile of a surfcasting-drowning victim. Indeed, the readership of this magazine can count more potential saviors than victims. For those of you who find yourself in the company of others who are unprepared, get involved early,
try and warn those with less experience that they may be in danger. If you wait until someone is in peril it maybe too late and you could end up getting hurt while trying to help him. As experienced surfcasters, you are the ones that people will be looking to for help if things should go wrong.
EDITORS NOTE: Additional pictures of the rocks on Hazard Ave by Steven Wilkinson on Flickr at http://www.flickr.com/photos/skwpics/4441333577/ and http://www.flickr.com/photos/skwpics/4442111462/in/photostream/
Copyright © 2002 - 2013 Joe Lyons, All Rights Reserved
Articles by Joe Lyons
Joe Lyons has been a surfcaster for over twenty years on the rocks and beaches of Rhode Island and Block Island. An accomplished writer he is a regular contributer to several New England and Northeast fishing magazines. In 2002 he put his experience and knowledge to "good use" by becoming a professional surfcasting guide in Rhode Island and Block Island. Among his many clients has been Peter Kaminsky, the well known writer for the New York Times and author of numerous books on fishing and many other subjects.
Joe resides in West Warwick, RI 02893 and can be reached by calling (401) 615-2636 or by the Contact Us page on Surfcasting-RhodeIsland.com where you will find his complete Guiding information.