Jan. 2009
Reading the Beach
By Joe Malat


The majority of questions I hear at every one of the Outer Banks Surf Fishing Schools are about “reading the beach,” which translates to being able to locate the sloughs, sandbars, shoals and deep-water cuts in the bars that that are likely to hold fish.

A slough is a deep trough, usually running parallel to the beach, bordered by a sand bar on one side and the beach on the other. The distance from the beach to the bar determines the width of the slough. Fish travel up and down this slough and look for food in the dynamic surf zone of breaking waves and strong currents.

It’s easy to locate a slough at low tide, when the sand bars are easily visible. When the water depth on a sandbar decreases, the incoming waves will break on top of that bar. On a gently sloping beach, with no outer bar, the waves will gradually spill over, and continue to do so until they eventually break on the beach. This is called a flat beach.

Joe Malat holds a speckled trout he caught from a narrow slough in Nags Head, on the Outer Banks. Notice the waves breaking on the top of the sandbar.

Beach sand can also offer a clue to the contour of the ocean bottom. Very fine, tightly-packed sand is often found on a gradually sloping beach. Coarse sand and small gravel is typically found on a steeply sloping beach. Sometimes, this coarse, large sand is often darker than the fine grain sand. It’s not unusual to find various types of sand along several miles of beach.

The width of a slough may also dictate which fish may be there. On the Outer Banks, big fish such as red drum, striped bass and bluefish tend to prefer the wider, deeper sloughs, with some shallow, shoal water at either end. On the Outer Banks, under normal conditions on the ocean beach, there is a two to three-foot difference in water depth between low and high tides.

The breaking waves on either side of the photo indicate a sandbar. The two anglers are fishing for speckled trout at the opening in the bar. PHOTO BY JOE MALAT.

Once you locate a promising slough, it’s time to take the investigation further. Fish may travel this ocean “highway”, but they need a way to get on the road. They can do this through a break in the outer bar. At a break in the bar, a wave will pass over the bar, but will not crest at the break, where the water is deep. If the occurrence consistently repeats as several sets of waves come to the beach, that’s a cut in the bar. Fast moving, rippling, or discolored water may also be seen at these breaks or “outsucks” when the tide is falling.

Fish come into the sloughs through these breaks and the fast moving water around these breaks will often form rip currents that send food swirling past the predator fish as they line up in front of the baitfish buffet.

Sloughs are not the only beach formations that attract fish. Currents and winds may carve out the beach and form points. Frequently, the water is deep on one side of a point, a perfect location for fish to congregate. A well defined point on an open beach may attract fish the same way a piece of structure will hold fish on an otherwise featureless ocean floor. The key is to concentrate your efforts in a location that is just a bit different from the rest of the topography.

Hard structures such as jetties, piers, bridges, or inlets are also locations that encourage fish to stop and congregate. Usually these don’t change, but the beaches around them will change regularly. Inlets can be incredibly productive locations to fish the surf. On a falling tide, the small baitfish and other sources of food are swept out of the inlet, providing a natural chum line that will attract fish from miles away.

Beach formations are constantly appearing, moving, rearranging or disappearing, as the winds, currents, and waves change. A perfect speckled trout hole can appear then vanish in a few days, or even migrate up and down the beach during the course of several weeks. Keep that in mind as you scan the surf line, looking for that ideal slough or perfect point.

I’ll be doing seminars on reading the beach at the Fishing Expo in Richmond, VA, January 16-18 2009 at the Richmond Raceway Complex.

For more information, visit my web site, www.joemalat.com and go to the “Seminars” page.

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