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How to handle Big Waves, Current & Kelp - Surf Fishing California

Updated: Feb 2

Surf Fishing in California can be exciting and rewarding, but it can also be challenging, especially in heavy surf and weedy conditions with the high-energy Pacific coastline. It can get tough out there - but here's how to manage those big waves and still catch fish.

Surf Fishing California

In this article, we'll share some great tips around rigs, tackle and baits for surf fishing with an in-depth how-to from a professional surf fishing guide to help you have a successful and enjoyable experience fishing in big waves, heavy current and weedy, kelpy conditions.

These techniques and methods for shore casting for sharks, rays, surf perch, striped bass, halibut, rockfish, lingcod, white sea bass, drum, croaker and similar species on the West and East Coast will work wherever you have to deal with adverse conditions whilst surf fishing.


How to handle Big Waves and Kelp and still catch lots of Fish guide index

tips for California Surf Fishing
Best tips for California Surf Fishing: How to handle Big Waves and Kelp and still catch lots of Fish

Best Tips for California Surf Fishing: Safety First and useful apps for surf fishing

Before heading out, always check the weather conditions, tides, and detailed surf forecasts.

Heavy surf waves can be dangerous, so prioritize safety and avoid fishing in hazardous conditions.

Best apps for surf fishing

The best way to plan ahead is to know what conditions you're going to be facing, and the easiest way to do this is to download a well-reviewed Surf Forecasting App, or several, that shows the wave rating in Kj (kilo joules) and wave height.

An app called Epic is one, and SurfLine website and app is another that's introduced the feature on their website in a paid-for version.

Generally, for surf fishing in California for species like surf perch, bass, halibut and croaker on an open ocean beach, any day with a Kj rating of under 200 is going to be just fine and manageable on a standard open sandy beach.

This will usually translate into small waves in the 1 to 3-foot range with little current.


The best time to go surf fishing in California
Some very fishable conditions with waves in the 2 to 3-foot class on Surf Line's forecasting service. This would be a good time to hit the beach.

Best times to go surf fishing

Days rated less than 100kj will be calm with small waves and very fishable conditions.

This is probably the best time to go surf fishing for a beginner, family or young angler - when the wave power rating is 100Kj or less on the Epic app, with waves in the 1 to 3-foot range, maximum.

The SurfLine app generally tracks Kj lower, with less than 75Kj generally a nice day to surf fish according to their data.

Days like this are common in the summer in Southern and Central California. Make the most of lulls in the swell like this and GO FISHING!

A rating of 200 to 400 Kj will be bigger and nastier and is a common figure for surf in areas like Monterey Bay, Central Coast, Oregon, Washington, and the Bay Area on the high-energy Pacific coastline.

Expect lots of current and water moving in this sort of Kj rating, but it'll still be fishable. The surf perch, bass and similar species will handle this just fine, but you may need to use a much bigger sinker and heavier tackle.

A bad day to go surf fishing California
Epic (app) showing a decent size swell hitting a Los Angeles beach. With a high Kj wave rating of over 500 and 4-foot waves forecast, this would not be a good day to go surf fishing with light tackle.

Above 400 and into 500 and 600 Kj-rated days, often associated with storms and big swells above 4 feet, and things will get sketchy for open ocean action unless you're a very competent striped bass or surf perch angler.

Lots of current and big shore break will make these conditions tough for even experienced surf anglers.

So, the best tip to start with when planning a surf fishing trip is to plan ahead and know the conditions ahead of time via the many apps and data sources available.

If it's big and nasty, swell-wise, go prepared with suitable tackle and sinkers (more on this shortly), find a different more sheltered venue, or stay home and hit that next calmer window.

Surf Fishing California
Download a surf forecasting app (this one is called Epic) and monitor the surf height and Kj rating of the surf ahead of time. A Kj (kilo joule) rating of under 100 makes this a great week to go surf fishing.

Finding the Best Spots to Fish in Heavy Swells, Big Waves and Strong Current

Now we know what the conditions are likely going to be ahead of time and can go prepared, let's work out how to find the fish once we hit the shore.

In small to moderate swells, look for areas with obvious structure, such as jetties, coves, pocket beaches, islands, rock formations, and big sandbars, as they create deeper pockets of calmer water where fish gather to shelter and feed.

These locations can offer some protection from the heavy surf and provide better opportunities for targeting food, particularly for predators like striped bass, flounder, croaker, drum, halibut, and surf perch, who will wait for passing bait fish in these deeper pockets.

If they're near rocks, even better. Where the sand meets the rocks is a great spot to start, for halibut in particular.

The middle section of the photo below - between the sand and the reefy areas - has several potentially productive spots that will offer shelter, food and a fishable area for surf anglers targeting a mix of bass, rockfish, halibut, surf perch and croaker species.

best California surf fishing tips places to fish
Structured water - rocks and a reef in this case - offer protection from waves, current and big swells for surf species. Try the sandy areas adjacent to the rocks for a great place to fish in any conditions.

Lots of surf perch species also love feeding near rocks and will tolerate big swells and nasty conditions.

To find these deeper, structured areas on the beach, either ID the rock piles at low tide or through prior experience of the spot.

Watch the waves for a while to identify the general pattern.

You'll notice that waves break differently over shallower and deeper areas.

Deeper holes often have waves breaking further offshore and forming a smoother, deeper channel closer to the shore. Fish into this deeper channel, where fish will shelter.

Or, look for darker water: Deeper holes tend to appear darker compared to the shallower surrounding areas.

This is because the deeper water absorbs more light, and the sand doesn't reflect the light as easily because it's under more water.

Keep an eye out for areas with darker or deeper-looking water and target these pockets of water with a fresh bait, a simple dropper loop or pulley rig and a proper sputnik surf sinker.

Best tips surf fishing california
Look for darker water like this patch in the upper middler. Deeper holes tend to appear darker compared to the shallower surrounding areas. Keep an eye out for areas with darker or deeper-looking water.

Also, note the sandbars, particularly where that first deeper section is close to shore. Sandbars are underwater ridges of sand that run parallel to the shoreline and will always have a deeper section adjacent.

They can influence wave patterns in different ways and create the deeper troughs between the shore and the sandbar, which are often one of the best spots to target when surf fishing anywhere.

A good tip is to look for areas where waves are breaking consistently and then suddenly become calmer or stop breaking — this may indicate a deeper trough or hole.

Fish will hold up here, especially when conditions are tough. They will have an easier time feeding and less current to fight in a deeper area like this.

Changes in wave height are also a good clue.

Deeper holes can cause waves to change height as they pass over them.

Watch for areas where waves suddenly increase or decrease in size or where they break less aggressively.

These fluctuations can indicate a change in water depth, and a worthwhile spot to have a few casts in when you can identify where the deeper water is.

surf fishing california
If you look at the wave trying to break outside on the top left of the photo, clear fluctuations and breaks in the way the wave is forming are visible, giving us clues about where the deeper water is.

If it's sunny or clear, use polarized sunglasses to spot structure. We love Costa Del Mar Reeftons for this. Wear a peaked hat, too.

Polarized sunglasses can help you see through the water's surface glare and give you a clearer view of the underwater terrain.

This can be especially helpful in identifying changes in water depth and spotting potential fishing spots.

By fishing or walking the beach at different tide stages, you can also see where the drop-offs or holes are that may hold fish in bigger swells.

Also, when surf fishing in a new area, don't hesitate to strike up a conversation with local anglers. They can provide valuable information on where to find deeper holes and share insights about the best fishing spots in the area. Lots will be happy to help.

Remember, safety is crucial when exploring the surf for deeper holes. Always be aware of changing tides and wave conditions, and never wade or fish in areas that may be dangerous.

It's a good idea to fish with a buddy, especially when exploring unfamiliar surf fishing locations.

Alternatively, target areas where the surf can't impact your fishing as much. Think estuary-type spots, beaches with harbor walls or protective jetties and beaches angled away from the prevailing swell.

But, hey, if you want an easy life, go fish the park pond! For the purposes of this article. we're assuming you're braving it on an open beach...


Best Times to Fish from the Beach in Heavy Swells

The best time to surf fish in a big swell is two hours either side of the high tide, at dawn or early in the day before the wind has a chance to create more wind swell.

Fish tend to move closer to shore to feed during high tide, making it easier to target them.

Best Tips for Surf Fishing California
The Best Times to fish in heavy swells are at dawn or dusk when the wind is the least

The lower the tide, the less likely it is the fish will be closer to the shoreline, and in a big swell this creates large areas of shallow, fast-moving water in the surf zone.

Fish will be less likely to feed in this zone due to the effort they'd have to expend in doing so – they're more likely to wait until nearer high tide when they will have an easier time feeding.

So the best time to surf fish in a heavy swell is when there's the most water in front of you, and the least amount of wind or extra swell.


Choose the right Rod and Reel Combo for Beach Fishing in Rough Conditions

In heavier surf conditions, you'll need heavier equipment to cast bigger sinkers and baits.

For example, for general surf perch fishing from the shore in heavy surf, such as 3 to 6-foot waves and seas with a Kj rating above 200kj, a medium-action rod capable of casting a decent size sinker up to 3 or 4 ounces (maybe more), a durable spinning reel in the 3000 to 5000-size range, and braided line (around 20 to 40-pound test) with a short mono or fluorocarbon top shot / casting leader 4 to 15-feet is recommended.

This will allow you to cast either a heavy egg sinker on a Carolina Rig, a bait and wait rig like a Single Dropper Loop with a bigger sputnik surf sinker, or a heavier articfial lure like a swimbait or metal jig.

Braid main line is the best option for surf fishing in heavy swells because the low diameter doesn't get caught by the waves and current as much.

Try 10-15lb for light line Carolina Rig surf fishing, 20-30lb for bait-and-wait surf fishing or light lure fishing for perch and halibut etc, 30-40lb for lure fishing for striped bass and white seabass or heavier bait and fishing with big sinkers, and 40-60lb for shark and ray fishing with big sinkers and wire leaders.

Braid main line much above 60-100lb is often too thick and heavy for surf fishing in rough conditions, unless you're shark fishing near a reef.

Best surf fishing rod for rough conditions
One of the 10 or 11-foot Okuma Rockaway SP models rated to cast up to 3 ounces is a useful Carolina Rig, bait and wait or lure fishing pole in rough conditions.

Avoid using too light tackle as it may not handle the powerful waves and larger fish well, and you'll lose gear to the inevitable kelp.

You also won't be able to use a big enough sinker to hold bottom if bait-and-wait fishing, or prevent it from washing down the current too fast if you're bouncing live baits or small artificial around the surf zone.

Also, avoid heavy monofilament or fluorocarbon main lines over 10 or 15-pound, or braid main lines over 40-pound breaking strain for this.

The extra thickness in the line allow the moving water (current, waves etc) to put more pressure on the sinker and cause it to dislodge more frequently, or wash down current faster than a natural food item moves.

This will negatively impact your catch rate.

A bait-and-wait sinker and rig should stay put and not move so the fish can find the bait from the scent trail in the current.

Tip: A bait that's been bounced down the current like a sand crab, grub or sand worm, shouldn't move faster than the current or it'll look unnatural to a wary fish.


Choose the best Rigs for Beach Casting in Rough Conditions

A basic Single or Double Dropper Loop rig or a Carolina rig is the best choice for surf fishing in rough conditions.

These setups allow you to present your bait near the bottom where many surf species feed and will hold up in rough conditions, they're also simple to use and tangle-free.

Check out the rigs below for two of our favorites for surf fishing in tough conditions.

The Single Dropper Loop is particularly good because it's simple and can be fished close to shore with minimal tangles in the rough surf.

It catches everything that swims on the West Coast including croaker, corbina, surf perch and all species of bass!

If you want to get kitted out like a pro, check out the one-stop-shop kit below for the best surf fishing terminal tackle - it contains everything you need to catch surf perch and similar fish from the beach in all sorts of conditions, including rough surf, with the sinkers up to 1oz and proven baits. It's like a cheat mode for West Coast surf fishing.


How to Choose the Best Sinkers for Beach Casting in Rough Conditions

Sinker choice is perhaps the area where most people go wrong when it comes to surf fishing in rough conditions, or anywhere with current or large waves.

Most people pick the wrong type or size, leading to poor presentation and low catch rates. The sinker washes down the current in seconds, way out of the bite zone.

Rig picks up kelp, hooks surfers, swings round to the shorebreak too fast, no bites...repeat until you get bored. This is a common problem we hear when guiding inexperienced surf anglers regarding sinker choice - they can't hold bottom, or the rig is being washed downstream too fast.

Good news: The chart below will change all that.

By cross-referencing the Wave Size and Current on the bottom axis, and the type of Tackle and Line Strength on the vertical axis, you'll get an idea of the kind of sinker that's going to work best in those conditions.

For example, if the surf is 2-3 foot with little current and you're using about a 6-pound line on a light combo, a 3/4-ounce sinker is going to work great.

How to choose sinker for Surf Fishing California
How to choose the right sinker for Surf Fishing in California

It's not an exact science, but this is a great place to start your approach, and it's based on years of experience in surf fishing in all sorts of conditions.

It's important to note that fresh baits like a cut mackerel for a shark or Fishbites that attract fish by scent generally need a wired surf sinker to hold them in place bait-and-wait-style, whereas more active moving baits like lures, grubs and sand crabs work best with an egg sinker and roving approach.

Probably the best tip for using sputnik surf sinkers in heavy conditions is to zip-tie the arms in place with plastic cable ties so they can't break out and lose grip under pressure from current, waves or kelp.

The sputnik sinker in the images below has a cable-tie holding the arms in the open position for fishing in nasty conditions. If a big set of waves causes a non-tied sinker's arms to disengage and lose grip, you'll likely have to recast a lot.

With the arms held open, you'll achieve a longer soak time in the bite zone and thus more opportunities to get hooked up.

Avoid using pyramid or similar sinkers in strong currents - they'll need a lot more weight to stay static compared to a wired surf sinker. Don't be that guy we mentioned earlier, please...

The sinkers below are the ones we use in our guided sessions and we highly recommend checking them out if you're looking for the best surf fishing sinkers around. They're great value, too.


Choose the Best Baits for Beach Casting in Rough Conditions in California, Oregon, Washington State

First, you need to use bait that can withstand the impact of the waves and attract fish in rough conditions.

To do this, your bait needs: durability, scent, visual triggers and maybe movement from a live bait like a worm or sand crab, too.

Common successful baits for surf fishing in bad or rough conditions in California, Oregon and Washtington State include sand crabs (with eggs, or a soft shell crab), bloodworms (also called lugworm, pileworms and sandworms), ghost or market shrimp, Fishbites strips and squid.

fishbites bloodworm for surf fishing california
Fishbites Bloodworm Bag O Worms is a killer bait for lots of species when the water is cloudy or conditions are rough. Lots of scent and a visual stimuli with the red shade, too.

Live or fresh bait or heavily scented baits like Fishbites is almost always more effective than an inert bait, so try to catch or purchase bait just before fishing.

That's a good rule for any sort of West Coast surf fishing, really.

You can often find sand crabs (also called sand fleas) on sandy beaches in warmer months on the West and East Coast.

yellowfin croaker surf fishing california
A yellowfin croaker caught in weedy conditions on sand crabs. The wriggling live crab really stands out in cloudy, weedy water

Sand crabs are great bait, especially if can find one with an orange clump of eggs or a pale color crab with a soft shell that's about to shed its shell.

Hook several small to medium size crabs on a size 1, 2, 4 or 6 Tanago J hook on a Carlina Rig, or use a Single Dropper Loop for a catch-everything surf fishing rig on the West Coast in any conditions.

surf fishing California Best Rigs
One of the best Baits for Beach Casting in Rough Conditions is a Sand Crab, or bunch of small crabs on a J hook and American Sea Fishing Single Dropper Loop rig

By the way, the products featured on the rig above include a 3.5oz sputnik surf sinker and Single Dropper Loop.

This is a reliable set-up for all sorts of West Coast surf species in all conditions, especially when it's a bit rough with some current.

Bait-wise, sand crabs work well because they're usually tough and withstand a long cast. But they don't have tons of scent - not as much as, say, a chunk of fresh mackerel or strip of Fishbites.

So, if you can find it, some bait with lots of scent is a great choice..

As mentioned, Fishbites is another winner. It stays on the hook, puts out a lot of scent, and everything eats it. We use it a ton on our guided trips for a busy day.

Croaker, in particular, LOVE it!

Fishbites best surf fishing california baits
Fishbites is one of the best surf fishing baits for any conditions in California. This Yellowfin Croaker couldn't resist a strip of the bloodworm on a Croaker Rig.

For using Fishbites on the West Coast, a good tip is that Sand Flea and Bloodworm scents are phenomenal baits for all sorts of croaker, surf perch and similar species.

Try a small strip the size of your thumbnail on a Croaker Rig, Dropper Loop or Mustu Circle Hook (size 4, 6 or 8)...

Fishbites E-Z Flea, best bait for croaker in rough conditions surf fishing california
Fishbites E-Z Flea is a favorite because it stays on the hook in all conditions and catches loads of fish.

One of the best baits for catching surf species in rough conditions and cloudy water is squid. It catches everything and is a great beginner bait.

Get the frozen kind and keep it frozen until you want to use it, and don't refreeze if you want to keep optimal bait. Discard once defrosted.

The best way to use squid for surf fishing is to cut it into small sections and lightly hook one to three-inch strips on a size 1 or 2 hook.

A head section also has lots of scent that fish will sense in the cloudy water, making it easier for them to find.

Remember: if the fish can't see it, they have to smell it to eat it, so good quality fresh, scented or fresh frozen bait is everything!

 surf fishing California bait squid
Best Tips for California Surf Fishing: Squid is one of the best baits for general surf fishing in cloudy water and big surf

Other good baits for rough conditions include cut bait like fresh mackerel for sharks and rays, fresh live ghost shrimp, fresh mussel meat shucked straight from the nearby rocks and clam meat. Rough conditions will tear up the bottom and make new food items like shellfish available to fish, and they'll take advantage of this.

surf fishing California  mussel meat bait surf perch
Best Tips for California Surf Fishing: Fresh baits like mussel meat secured with bait elastic are a good choice for rough conditions

By the way, it's worth using Light bait elastic to secure soft baits onto the hook.

It'll stop it flying off on the cast or when the fish nibbles on it, and it's something we use a lot of in our guiding service. So, the rule for baits in heavy surf is durable and lots of scent.


More tips from a guide for Beach Casting in Rough Conditions

If you're fishing near kelp or weed, bring a glove or two.

This will allow you to hand line in lumps of kelp without slicing your hand on braid main lines, or sharp mussel shells embedded in gnarly old lumps of seaweed and trash.

On this subject, always hand-line in big lumps of kelp using gloves, don't try and haul them in with the rod alone.

Get a friend to hold the rod whilst you carefully drag the kelp to the shoreline using the waves to propel the mass up the beach so you can grab it and untangle your rig.

surf fishing California tips for big waves heavy current kelp
A giant ball of kelp that had to be hand-lined using gloves!

At no point should you wrap the line around your hand - if a powerful shore break drags a large lump of kelp back out to sea with your rig attached, let it go or it will cut your hand like cheesewire. Leader cautiously it like a marlin or a shark with the gloved hand/s!

Check your line after every kelp or weed encounter, too.

The rough stems and trash embedded in the weed balls can shred line and I've seen too many fish lost due to damaged leaders from fishing in weed. If in doubt, cut and retie.

It's worth keeping in mind that in heavy surf, you'll need to cast bigger sinkers, and maybe cast farther out to reach deeper waters where fish are more likely to be.

Practice your casting technique to achieve greater distance and accuracy.

Stay mobile. If you're not getting bites in one spot, don't hesitate to move to a different location.

Fish tend to school in certain concentrated areas in rough conditions, so changing your position can make a big difference.

Surf fishing can be unpredictable, and it might take some time to find the right spot and get the fish biting or work out the pattern. Patience and perseverance are key to success. Never give up.

Remember, surf fishing in heavy waves requires good equipment, experience and skill...

If you're new to this type of fishing, consider going with a more experienced angler or hiring a local guide to show you the ropes and ensure a safe and enjoyable experience.

Surf fishing California orange county
Best Tips for California Surf Fishing: Hire a Surf Fishing Guide for great sport like this!

Finally, always follow local fishing regulations and guidelines. Practice catch-and-release when appropriate and avoid leaving any trash behind.

Thanks for reading this guide to some of the aspects of surf fishing that often seem daunting, but can be easy with a few tips.

If you'd like to learn more, consider booking a guided surf fishing in Southern California with me (a licensed, bonded pro guide) with info via or click here for trip info.

Hopefully, this article will help you find the fish next time you hit the beach in less-than-ideal conditions!

soupfin tope spinner swimmer shark caught surf fishing California
Surf Fishing California Tips: The Author with a big soupfin shark caught on the tactics, baits and tackle described in this article in rough conditions in California


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