Surf fishing and fly fishing are fundamentally dissimilar. In fact, these activities are on opposite ends of the fishing spectrum. Fly fishing is (often) about precision and timing; surf fishing, on the other hand, is (often) about strength and power. While a fly fisherman uses bird feathers, deer hair, and rabbit fur to craft an imitation worthy of fooling a wary trout, a surf fisherman cuts up squid, bloodworms, or fresh fish to land his quarry. Fly rods are long and slender, a fine-tuned blend of force and yield. Surf fishing rods are long and thick, a testament to the power of the ocean and its fish. These inherent differences are unavoidable and striking. The similarity between the two forms is less apparent, but no less interesting.
To be a successful surf fisherman or fly fisherman, a person must have a deep understanding of ocean and river environments. For surf fishing, this means a knowledge of currents and sandbars; tides and temperatures; and, weather conditions and calendar quirks. For fly fishing, this means a comprehension of mayfly hatches and cubic flow; trout behavior and casting technique; and, (again) weather conditions and calendar quirks. A surf fisherman or a fly fisherman can spend a lifetime gaining environmental knowledge. For those who don't possess this type of acumen, the internet and bookshelves are loaded with important and necessary information.
There are other similarities between the two fishing forms. For example, the way that a fisherman approaches a fight remains relatively constant. If a fly angler lets a trout flee into a fast rapid section, she risks losing the fish; if a surfisher allows a large ray to bury itself in the sand, he will likely end the battle exhausted and defeated (more on this specific scenario later). Both sports enable a human to engage with the natural world and emerge better for the experience. And, finally, both produce feelings of euphoria following a successful catch. In the end, a landed fish is a landed fish, and the difference between dainty wild brook trout and powerful bluefish melds away amid celebratory shouts and photographs.
I caught over 40 fish from the surf during my week at the Outer Banks. Ostensibly on a relaxing beach vacation with my fiancee's family, I spent hours upon hours catching croaker, spot, whiting, northern kingfish, and even a skate. It wasn't the first time I've surf fished, and I believe that my previous experiences have made me into a competent practitioner of the craft. I catch a lot of smaller fish, but the novelty of landing unfamiliar species generates excitement about even the tiniest ocean fish. The highlight of the week came when I caught a small skate (a ray) in the frothy wash of the shore. With its tail, the fish was nearly two feet long. The other memorable moment happened when I hooked a bigger ray, only to have it bury itself in the sand. Some teenage boys helped me force the fish to the surface, but it snapped off as I tried to pull it out of the water. A good time was had by all, and the ray taught me that I can't always expect to take on a fish and win.
While I would rarely choose surf fishing over fly fishing, I find both to be highly entertaining enterprises. If you have never taken up a surf rod, I recommend giving it a try.