There's no angling experience quite comparable to fishing on a high energy surf beach. These dynamic and ever-changing areas are home to some top class fishing, and to get the most from your time on the sand knowing all the little sweet spots on a beach, and when to be fishing them, is a great asset to have.
Given some beaches can fade off into the distance and be quite lengthy, it's no surprise they can be particularly daunting places to fish, and isolating the hot spots to focus on isn't always a straightforward exercise, sometimes leaving you second-guessing if you're made the right call.
First thing is first, choosing a suitable stretch of sand to fish, and then pinpointing the likely hot spots along it. When confronted with the expansive vista of a lengthy, churning surf beach standard practice for many is to firstly use any vantage points over the beach to initially scan the area thoroughly for schools of fish and key places to fish. A bird's eye view can reveal a range of likely features, and even fish, much easier than can be done at water level. Some patience initially picking out the better looking gutters and structures at this time can save you a lot of time and effort later on. Gutter placement can change literally overnight, so it's recommended having a good scan over the beach before rushing onto the sand even if it's a familiar location.
While you're positioned at a height it also pays to look for the natural predators of fish like salmon for instance, which could also reveal the location of fish. Seals, dolphins and sharks are probably the three most common found hounding salmon, and it can be a case of find the predator find the prey. This also works in reverse with large schools of mullet etc for example pointing the way to a possible jewie or shark hot spot.
Gutters or holes are typically the primary spots you're looking to fish in the surf. Essentially these are deeper zones that fish use to feed and move close to the beach and can concentrate a lot of life. Surf gutters can come in many sizes and shapes, but the most stock standard would run either parallel to the shore, or be at right angles to it. The better gutters on a beach aren't necessarily the deepest most obvious ones, and even more subtle channels quite close to shore can produce monster jewies, sharks and others.
Gutters and holes are denoted by a lack of breaking waves and appear as darker coloured water indicating an increase in depth compared to surrounding areas. The better gutters will have a clear branch to deeper water, which gives even the largest of predators easy access. Where the deeper water feeds into your gutter is an entry point for the fish.
Broadly speaking try to avoid a gutter that has too much loose weed and rock in close. Some structure is welcome however, as long as it's obvious and you can successfully fish around it without losing too much gear or fish. Structure can hold bait and in turn predators and provide a break from the current for fish. Excessive sideways rip or current is also not desirable, although can mostly be overcome with the use of wire leg sinkers (AKA grapnel sinkers) or just using lures in some areas.
Don't be afraid to fish in a washing machine either, as surf fish thrive in such conditions, and will be less flighty and more likely to hold in your immediate area than if the water is too calm and sterile. A decent swell running and stirred water can actually provide cover for fish. Some anglers will even deliberately fish the edge of sand bars and around any foam layers or 'white water' on milder days as this is a prime ambush point for predators.
As touched on rocky structure in the water can attract bait and in turn larger predatory species. The better surf beaches for mulloway and sharks for example will have dark shadows of reef nearby to gutters. The structure itself can also have quite deep holes etched out around it and hold fish as well. Setting baits and even casting lures in proximity to any structure can be fruitful.
Besides reef and rock in the surf zone there's a swag of holding points to prospect on the beach you've chosen. Natural lagoons punctuate some beaches which can almost entrap fish, through to beach corners which are areas where the beach finishes and sand and rock meet resulting in a crossover of both beach and rock species.
While the rules for beach fishing are quite rubbery there's some broad peak times to consider when planning your sand sessions. The low light periods of dawn and dusk are always good for giving up fish if the bulk daylight hours aren't, regardless of the tide. Night time sessions also have a habit of revealing surprises and often see gutters get raided by larger predators.
Tides guide the efforts of many on the beach, with several hours either side of high tide a prime slot to be fishing. Those extra keen usually stay until their gutter is sanded out and looks unfishable. If you can align an incoming tide with your session and fish through the tide you've probably experienced the best of your gutter for the day. Furthermore, moon phases are also a guiding factor, with full and new moons providing greater water movement and generally a more prolonged and intense beach bite.
No doubt experience does come into it as far as reading a beach goes and spotting both the main and more subtle features to be concentrating on. The more you do of it however, and the more you encounter fish in a range of surf areas and at different times, your success rate on the sand should only improve!