Fishing a Beach: Riptides

Riptides form when water forced inshore by waves flows alongshore through the troughs between sandbars and then seaward through a cut between bars. The strong current of the riptide sweeps baitfish into deeper water, where predators line up for a meal. Illustration by Tom Richardson.

Fishing a long stretch of beach can be daunting, as so much of the area looks the same from above the surface. However, once you learn how to “read” a beach—which begins with observing how the water behaves as it interacts with the bottom structure—you’ll be able to identify certain spots that have the best potential to hold fish.

One such spot is a riptide. Riptides are formed by waves forcing water over the longshore sandbars that run parallel to the beach. The water piles up between the sandbars and seeks a way to flow back towards deeper water. It flows parallel to the beach in a longshore current until it finds a cut between sandbars. The current in a riptide can be incredibly strong because it combines the force of several longshore currents as they meet and flow toward the ocean. The bigger the swells hitting the beach, the more water is forced over the sandbars and the stronger the current of the riptide. That’s why swimmers are warned of riptides during periods of heavy surf.

Live eels and chunks can be cast upcurrent, toward the sandbars, and allowed to drift with the current or tumble along the bottom.

Fortunately for fishermen, riptides also set up a great fishing situation, as all that current sweeps lots of baitfish seaward through the cut in the sandbar. Waiting to eat them are all kinds of inshore predators, from striped bass and bluefish to false albacore, bonito and even fluke.

Caution is advised when fishing a riptide, as you’ll likely be doing it when a swell is running. If the surf is breaking over the outer sandbar, keep a good distance and always have someone at the helm watching for a rogue wave and ready to get you out of trouble. The best approach is to set up to one side of the riptide’s “head” or plume, where it dumps out between the cut. The fish will usually be cruising along the edges of the head, waiting to pick off injured or disoriented baitfish as they try to make their escape. A good strategy is to cast to the edge of the fast water and let the current sweep your lure or fly out toward deeper water.

If you’re lucky, you may see the fish feeding on the surface, but sometimes you’ll need to work different levels of the water column with different lures until you find the fish. Start with topwater plugs, flies and unweighted soft-plastics, then switch to slightly heavier lures such as metal spoons and mid-sized jigs before finally going deep and hopping a heavy jig over the bottom. As always, try to identify the prevailing forage and match it with your lure.

You can also fish natural bait in a riptide. Live eels and chunks can be cast upcurrent, toward the sandbars, and allowed to drift with the current or tumble along the bottom. A chunk bait anchored to the bottom with a large pyramid sinker and positioned just outside the main flow or on the outer slope of the sandbar may also attract the attention of a big striper or blue. In this case you’ll need to anchor, of course—and make sure you’re holding bottom.

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