From June through September, our Mid-Atlantic area beaches are lined with anglers trying their luck at surf fishing. There’s usually plenty of room to cast, but depending on where you’re fishing if you casted left or right instead of straight ahead, your Doodlebug rig would likely land on a beach blanket or a truck hood rather than sand. Before and after the crowds arrive, however, surf anglers can have huge stretches of beach all to themselves. This includes the month of April — when surf fishing along the Mid-Atlantic coast can produce some surprisingly spectacular catches.

surf fishing for drum
April can produce some spectacular surf fishing results.

Quality Fish in the Surf

This isn’t the time of year when hordes of spot, croakerkingfish, or flounder are going to chomp on your bait 30 seconds after the weight hits bottom. Panfish are generally in short supply or completely absent. But April is often when you can score the surf catch of a lifetime. Black drum generally arrive earliest, followed by trophy-sized striped bass. Big “racer” bluefish of 30-plus inches begin showing up. And before the month is out there’s a chance of bull reds making an appearance as well. You may fish all day long for a handful of bites, but often they’ll be the bites that make it all worthwhile.

There are, of course, exceptions. Clear-nose rays can be plentiful pests at this time of year. Dogfish don’t yet tend to be around in huge numbers during April but can still show up and fool you into thinking your target species is on the line. And there’s also the unknown. This is, after all, the ocean. You simply never know exactly what the heck will be out there. We’ve seen days when countless 10- to 14-inch rockfish hit one after the next, turning an entire tidal cycle into an endless sequence of rebait and recast. We’ve seen days when something, be it crab or finned critter, mysteriously pecked or picked off one bait after the next without ever providing any indication of a bite.

Then, there’s the weather. A strong wind and crashing waves can slam the surf fishing door shut faster than anything else. A drop in temperatures can turn off a hot bite overnight. Hey, this is fishing and you know the drill, but surf anglers are subject to the whims of the weather even more so than most other fishermen. Still… 50 pound drum… 50 pound rockfish… need we say more?

Tactics for Spring Surf Fishing

Though there’s a bit more leeway in long stretches of featureless beach, as usual, where you set up and cast will have a huge impact on your success rate. On the beach, this means looking for bars, breaks, and sloughs. Truth be told, however, just how choosy you can be depends entirely upon how mobile you are. When you’re walking out on foot cradling rods and sand-spikes under one arm with a cooler strap slung over the shoulder, you won’t get very far no matter how good the spot does or doesn’t look. Get an OSV permit and roll across the sand sitting behind the steering wheel, on the other hand, and you can cruise for miles until you see an appealing spot. That said, remember that any deviation from the norm is what you want. A break in the outer bar, a slough that creates an unusual swirl in the wash, a hole where the waves don’t break, and so on.

surf fishing in april
Go surf fishing in April and you'll often find that you have the beach to yourself.

What about rigs and bait? Casting into the surf in April it’s relatively straightforward. Fishfinder-style rigs with 8/0 to 10/0 hooks are the norm. Sand fleas are a hands-down winner for baits, though some drum-specific sharpies prefer freshly shucked clam. All of that said, an 8/0 hook baited with two large sand fleas and a strip of Fishbites clam flavor will be exceptionally tough to beat. Fresh clam comes off the hook easily in rough conditions and with depressing frequency flies off on the cast, but the Fishbites holds fast until it melts away. Rockfish and red drum will smack the combo, and black drum utterly adore it. Late in the month or early in May when temperatures come up a bit, mullet chunks generally grow in effectiveness. But for most of April, you just can’t go wrong baiting up with fleas and Fishbites together.

How much weight you’ll want to choose depends entirely on the conditions. As a rule you’ll want to use enough to keep tension on the line and hold fast in the surf, which can require anything from a two-ounce pyramid sinker to 10 ounce “Sputnik” or “spider” weights with wire legs that dig into the sand.

Hit the beach later in the spring and you’ll get more bites. Fish the surf in the summer or fall and the pace of the action is likely to be far, far faster. But visit the beach this April and you may find a beach with little competition — and lots of quality.

Bonus April Surf Fishing Tip: Heave Ho

Much of the year fish in the surf feed in close to the breakers and overcasting them is a common problem. These larger fish, however, are more focused on migrating up the coast than they are on sticking around and feeding. So generally speaking, it’s best to heave-ho your casts out as far as possible into the surf.