Top Bait Rigs for Surf Fishing

Five surf fishing rigs you should know how to tie no matter what coast you're fishing.
Blackfish tautog surf fishing
Blackfish (tautog) are suckers for baits such as crabs and clams. Author Nick Honachefsky caught this blackfish from the surf on a fishfinder rig. Nick Honachefsky

The surf zone is a wild arena. Completely different environments span the Northeast to the Carolinas all the way to Florida. Texas and California are distinct too. But anglers who prowl the beaches know some surf rigs can be ubiquitously applied. Still, the many different options available might confuse those who don’t understand their applications. And surf spots in different states sometimes have different names for the same rigs. As a diehard New Jersey surf caster, I want to help you pick the best rigs for your favorite species. The hi-lo rig, pill float rig, fishfinder rig, chunk rig, and mullet rig are some my favorites for stripers, redfish and pompano, even sharks.

The Hi-Lo Surf Rig

Hi Lo Dropper Loop Rig
The Hi-Lo Rig: This rig consists of a 75-pound barrel swivel, 30-inch section of 25- to 40-pound leader, and two dropper loops 12 to 16 inches apart. Use appropriate hooks scaled to the size of the fish species you’re targeting. Tie a loop knot on the end to easily switch out weights. Nick Honachefsky

Quick Summary: Why have one hook when you can have two? Joking aside, there’s more to the logic of a hi-lo rig (dropper loop rig) than just having another hook. The hi-lo rig, sometimes spelled high-low rig, is meant to cover the waters just off the sea floor, anywhere bottom fish are feeding. Even one foot can make a difference to get bites when targeting true bottom feeders or to convince wary fish to swim up and eat a bait. Bait with worms, clams, shrimp, crabs or small chunk baits. (You can also use the rig when fishing bridges or piers — just space out the hooks accordingly.)

Design: Use a 75-pound barrel swivel and 30-inch section of leader. Tie the two dropper loops 16 inches apart in the leader. Pick appropriate size hooks scaled to the fish species you’re targeting, then thread the hooks on to the dropper loops. Tie a loop knot to the opposite end of the leader that you tied the swivel. A loop knot allows you to easily attach and remove a weight for different conditions. In the surf, pyramid sinkers work the best to hold bottom.

Species: Surf stripers, snapper, grouper, black sea bass, rockfish, tautog

The Fishfinder Slide Rig

Fishfinder Surf Rig
The Fishfinder Slide Rig: For this rig, thread a slide with sinker clip onto the main line. Then tie on a 75-pound barrel swivel, 20 to 30 inches of 25- to 40-pound leader, and ending with a snelled octopus or circle hook. Nick Honachefsky

Quick Summary: The fishfinder rig is meant to allow feeding fish to pick up a natural bait without feeling any unnatural resistance. The lack of tension helps prevent a gamefish from spitting out the offering. Try this setup when using live baits such as bunker (menhaden), mullet, eels, pilchards, sandworms or bloodworms. You can also use chunk baits or fresh clams as well. Besides the surf, good spots to use fishfinder rigs include inlets or creeks when the tide is running. Anglers should free-spool the line and allow a fish to take it unhindered in the current for a natural presentation.

Design: Utilize a fishfinder slide with sinker clip to attach a pyramid or bank-style sinker, or you can substitute an egg sinker for the slide clip. I prefer to use a 75-pound barrel swivel to prevent the sliding weight from reaching the hook. To the swivel, tie on 20 to 30 inches of leader and a snelled hook.

Species: Fluke, southern flounder, striped Bass, red drum, cobia, sheepshead

The Pill Float Rig

Pill float surf rig
The Pill Float Rig: A hi-lo (dropper loop) rig design with 75-pound barrel swivel, 30-inch section of leader, and two dropper loops 12 to 16 inches apart. The small pill-shaped floats should be threaded on the dropper loops first, before adding hooks. Nick Honachefsky

Quick Summary: Use this rig to keep the baits floating off the bottom to prevent crabs from stealing your baits. Sandfleas, worm bits and clam bits are great natural baits. Artificial offerings such as Fishbites, Fishgum and Gulp Saltwater Surf Bytes work too. Targets are generally smaller fish species up to 4 pounds. Or use the rig to procure live baits such as grunts and pinfish for the livewell. One other spot this rig excels: fun fishing along bridges and piers.

Design: A hi-lo rig design, except with small Styrofoam pill shaped floats in front of the size number 4 to 8 bait-holder hooks.

Species: Pompano, whiting (northern kingfish), white perch, grunts, pinfish

The Chunk Rig

Chunk surf rig
The Chunk Rig: This rig centers around a three-way swivel, with one arm getting a sinker clip and weight, and the other arm receiving a 30-inch piece of 40- to 80-pound mono leader and snelled octopus or circle hook. Nick Honachefsky

Quick Summary: Tie on the chunk rig when targeting larger gamefish and you want to throw big baits. Use chunk baits such as menhaden, bluefish, cut mullet, pinfish, grunts or herring. A long leader allows bigger fish to pick up the bait and swim off. Then, an angler can and should reel tight for an effective hook-set. This is a great all-around rig when casting from the shoreline targeting different species. Just about everything eats chunk baits, except maybe those few crab-crunchers.

Design: Tie on a three-way swivel, with a sinker clip attached to one eye to handle a pyramid weight. The other eye receives a 30-inch piece of 40- to 80-pound mono leader. A snelled circle hook, scaled accordingly from 5/0 to 12/0, ensures solid hook sets.

Species: Sharks, striped bass, bluefish, drum, snook

The Mullet Rig

Mullet fishing surf rig
The Mullet Rig: A small, oval Styrofoam float with a built-in 4-inch length of wire, ending with a dual barb hook. The main line, float rig, and sinker are connected to a three-way swivel. Nick Honachefsky

Quick Summary: Specifically designed to throw fresh or frozen mullet, this rig allows the whole bait to be fished in a natural manner. The mullet floats just above the sandy seafloor in an enticing display to attract feeding gamefish. Also, the float keeps your bait off bottom where crabs can pick it apart.

Design: For this rig, I use an oval Styrofoam float built-in with a 4-inch length of wire, ending with a dual-barb hook. To bait this rig, remove the hook first. Thread the mullet on the wire from the mouth down through the body out the anal vent. Then, reattach the hook back to the metal leader. Make sure one barb is pierced into the side of the tail. Tie your floating mullet to a length of leader that connects to a three-way swivel. Connect your swivel to the main line. The third leg gets a sinker clip and weight.

Species: Striped Bass, bluefish, red drum, sharks