Fish Finder Rig: The Secret to The Best Surf Fishing Rig

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There are a wide range of large fish that live just below the breaking waves of the coast. You can find red drum, bluefish, snook, fluke, striped bass, and a few types of shark which all make excellent sport fish for fishing in the surf. The high oxygen content in the crashing waves attracts many fish both large and small, but if you are looking for some sizable opponents to have on the end of your line, surf fishing can give you exactly that.

One of the most popular saltwater rigs for fishing in the surf is the fish finder rig. It is a simple rig for surf fishing that makes use of a pyramid shaped sinker and sliding weight to make your bait dance and wiggle in both large and small surf. When using a fish finder rig for surf fishing, you can easily land more fish easily! Everything from snook to shark are possible with the right size hook and line.

This article explains the fish finder rig for surf fishing and how it can help make fishing in the surf more prosperous and lucrative. Whether you are fishing for your next meal or a trophy for the wall, the best rig will help you locate fish just off shore while beach fishing.

The Fish Finder Rig Set Up and Supplies

The fish finder rig is comprised of a circle hook attached a short section of leader line, which in turn is joined to the main line using a swivel. Directly above the swivel there is a plastic red bead ,followed by a pyramid sinker connected to the main line via a sinker slider.

What you Need to Make a Fish Finder Rig

A Large Pyramid Sinker

The pyramid-shaped sinker is a vital element to the fish finder rig. The goal is for the sinker to help keep the rig where you cast it, regardless of the waves that might be trying to send it back to shore. Additionally, the pyramid shape helps pull your bait along in a naturally wiggling fashion so it looks like a wounded fish to hungry sharks or other target fish nearby.

The pyramid weight is the most commonly used and recommended shape, but egg-shaped sinkers can be used as well. However, they may not provide the same staying power as a pyramid if you’re in large waves. The sharp points on the pyramid can dig into the sand and anchor themselves there while an egg sinker will roll around with the waves.

When fishing for your standard-sized 20-40 inch inshore fish, a 3-ounce pyramid weight is suitable to keep your rig in place. For larger fish over 40 inches in length, or for areas with a much stronger surf and undertow, you should opt for a 6-ounce sinker.

A Monofilament or Steel Leader

Your leader will depend almost entirely on what fish you are targeting. There is really no set rule for the best length of a leader and it can range from 4 inches to 30 inches or more depending on how far you plant to cast, whether or not you are using a leader clip, what fish you are targeting, and what bait type you are using.

For fish that are commonly found at the break line and nearer to shore, such as flatfish, a longer monofilament leader of 24-30 inches is most commonly recommended. This length will give your bait a natural movement style that can attract a range of hungry fish to come closer.

If you need to cast your line much further from shore, a shorter monofilament leader is normally used. Four to six inches is not uncommon. It will help keep the overall weight of the rig down giving you more chances for a maximum casting distance. 

For more aggressive fish such as bluefish and shark, steel leaders are required. The length of the leader will depend entirely on your targeted fish size and bait usage but is normally 20-24 inches in length. Long leaders of any type will have much more wind resistance than normal, so take this into account when determining what leader length is best for you.

For your mainline, a 12-18 inch 40# test monofilament leader is suitable for most inshore fish between 20 and 40 inches, while larger break line and surf fish should have an 18-24 inch 50# test monofilament leader.

Braided main line can be used in some cases where water visibility is limited, such as brackish riverheads or estuaries, but is normally too noticeable for most fish and will spook them. The benefit to the braided line is that it will not stretch giving you a great result when setting a hook, but it can cut easily when using a sinker slider.

A Sinker Slider and Bead

A sinker slider is useful for the fish finder rig as it allows your bait to dance and wiggle in the water while your pyramid sinker keeps the rig in place. It also helps ensure that when a fish takes your bait, you will feel it since it won’t transmit any of the vibrations from the sinker back to your rod.

Using a braided line with a fish finder rig is not recommended as the constant back and forth friction from the sliding sinker will eventually cut your line. When building your fish finder rig, only go with monofilament, fluorocarbon, or steel wire leaders to prevent this.

A Circle Hook

Circle hooks or octopus hooks are necessary with a fish finder rig. The gap on this style of hook is large enough that a fish can self-set the hook into their mouth. You won’t need to have hands on your rod at all times to know when to set the hook manually. Simply set your rig, cast it out, and check it every now and then for a fish on the line.

Circle hooks are also a great option for mouth hooking. You won’t have to worry with poorly set hooks in the gills or gut. Instead, they more often than not will naturally slide into the corner of the mouth which allows for quick and easy unhooking as well.

When fishing for inshore fish measuring around 20-40 inches, a hook size of 5/0 is suitable for most fish you might encounter when surf fishing. For surf fish 40 inches or larger, an 8/0 or 9/0 should be used instead to ensure it is large enough for the proper bait as well as able to properly penetrate the corner of the mouth.

Plastic Fishing Bead

Plastic beads are used as a precaution more than anything. Their job is to protect your barrel swivel or snap swivel line from the sinker slider. This prevents damaging or breaking the line from the constant friction and sudden smacks when the rig is in the surf.

Beads can be any color you choose, though many surf fishermen recommend going for orange, purple or chartreuse colored beads as they are a natural attraction color to many saltwater species. For bead size, 5mm and 8mm are usually the only two sizes used on fish finder rigs for any size of fish inshore or surf fishing.

How to make the Fish Finder Rig

Fish Finder Rig 01 scaled

Step by Step Instructions

Make your leader.

Select your leader and decide on the length that will work for you. Attach the circle or octopus hook to one end and a barrel swivel or snap swivel to the other. Set the leader aside for now.

Attach the sinker.

Attach your pyramid sinker to the sinker slider with a snell knot and run your main through the sinker slider and plastic bead.

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Tightly tie the barrel swivel of your leader onto your main line. Ensure the plastic bead prevents the sinker slider from hitting the swivel.

Choose your bait.

The rig is done, now all you have to do is decide on your bait and head out to the water to catch some fish!

How to Fish the Fish Finder Rig

surf fishing
When fishing with your fish finder rig, target areas of the water that has some breaking surf and with little chance of underwater rocks.

The best place to fish with your fish finder rig is off the shoreline in an area that has some breaking surf, but no major waves. You want to look for a spot that has very little chance of underwater rocks and corals or you risk getting your rig stuck.

Try to target areas of the water where the wave crests are whiter as this can signify there is a shallow area of water. This is a good spot for predatory fish to target their next meal which, if you’re lucky, will be your bait. You can commonly find striped bass, halibut, flatfish and redfish in these areas.

Try to cast your rig in the area you think your best target fish may be hiding. Long leaders may limit the distance you can get, so consider using a leader clip for easier casting and better distance. Once you get your rig cast, the only thing left to do is wait.

Keep checking your rods regularly to see if you have a bite. Additionally, you may want to check every 20 minutes to see if your bait is still on the hook. A fish too small for your hook may have stolen it, or the movement of the water could have dislodged it from the hook. Bottom feeders such as crabs and shrimp can also take your bait without bothering the hook, so regular checks are a good choice whether you have a single rod or multiple.

Gear – best rod and reel choices

If you’re searching for a surf rod, keep in mind a standard fishing rod won’t do the job. Surf rods are anywhere from 8 to 12 feet in length and are extremely flexible with incredible strength. They’re made to be placed in a rod holder and fished in multiples, so you will often see anglers running 5 or more rods at the same time to get a catch. You want to check your rods every few minutes to ensure the bait is still attached and no hooks have been landed.

They are made to hold a few hundred yards of 50 pound test fishing line to ensure you get a suitable distance away from the beach to land your target fish. Most tackle shops will have a wide selection of surf rod and reel combos from brands such as Shimano, Penn and Daiwa among others.

Best Bait for Surf Fishing

A wide range of non-live bait will work for surf fishing, but you might get better results with specific bait depending on your location. For example, east coast shoreline and break water fish will respond well to squid, herring and sardine. As you move further south down the coastline and into the gulf coast, you can use shrimp, crayfish, crabs, sand fleas and other crustaceans.

Clams are another often used bait, but they should only be used when the wave activity is low. Too much water movement will break up the meat and leave it trailing away from your hook. However, a long leader will make clam bits and pieces look natural and could attract a wider range of target fish.

Fish heads and cut bait are another choice for larger targets such as sharks. Setting your hook through the nose on fish heads will give a natural and very enticing movement that brings in hungry fish, the same goes for hooking through the spine on cut bait. Local bait species are your best option as fish from other locations will look foreign to your target fish and may send them away instead of lure them in to your rig.

Live bait and artificial lures are shunned by most anglers that enjoy surf fishing as they rarely work well with the tailored tackle of a fish finder rig. However, you can always experiment with anything on the rig from hook size to a longer leader to different bait and see what works in your area.

Types of Fishing Line

For your mainline on this rig, a 40 and 50# test line is your best option for a wide majority of standard target surf fish species. If you’re looking for sharks or other extremely large and powerful fish, you may want to move into a 100# test or higher.

Monofilament or fluorocarbon is most often recommended as it is strong and reliable for this type of rig. It also blends in well to most water types and won’t spook your target by giving your rig away to them. Braided line is more resistant to damage from corals, rocks and other underwater debris, but can be easily seen in clear water. Additionally, the braided choice is very prone to damage from sinker slider friction.

Final Thoughts on the Fish Finder Rig

Surf fishing with a fish finder rig is an excellent way to land your next monster-sized trophy. Whether you are hoping for a tasty striped bass, unusual-looking flatfish, or a massive shark you can catch more trophies than ever before when using a fish finder rig.

Whether you are new to surf fishing or simply want to give different rigs a try, the fish finder rig will live up to its name once you get it in the water. It won’t take long after casting your rig in the water that you’ll see the end of your rod dancing from a hooked fish. 

Don’t be afraid to grab a rod and throw together a standard rig, or experiment with different hook sizes, sinker styles, and bait combinations to see what works best for you. If you’ve tried other rigs and not gotten the results you want when it comes to targeting fish, it’s time to try the best rig and go with the fish finder.

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Rick Wallace is a passionate angler and fly fisher whose work has appeared in fishing publications including FlyLife. He's appeared in fishing movies, founded a successful fishing site and spends every spare moment on the water. He's into kayak fishing, ultralight lure fishing and pretty much any other kind of fishing out there.
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