For a surfcaster, the wading belt goes from accessory to essential. In waders, a belt creates a seal around an angler’s midsection that slows down water intrusion if he takes a misstep into deep water. This gives a fisherman who’s been knocked down by a wave or swept off a sandbar extra time to recover before an uncomfortable situation becomes life-threatening.
In addition to the safety component, a wading belt also provides a convenient way to keep tools close at hand in the surf. Kitted-out surfcasters make the most of the limited real estate they have between the plug bag and belt so they don’t have to leave any important gear back in the truck.
The last pair of waders you bought probably came with a belt. It was likely one of those stretchy elastic ones that’s fine for fly fishing in the Catskills but downright useless in the surf. Not only are these belts less effective at preventing water from filling your waders, they lack the sturdiness needed to transport several pounds of gear without sagging or flipping.
Two-inch nylon webbing is the standard material for surf belts. It’s durable, rigid, and doesn’t absorb water. Most surf-fishing-specific accessories are made with loops to accommodate 2-inch belts, so fishermen can mix and match accessories and belts from a variety of manufacturers—and since “tactical” surfcasting belts are so unique to our area, most of those manufacturers are right here in the Northeast.
Such belts are available with a number of different fasteners. My first proper surf belt had a large plastic clip, which fastened securely, but needed adjustment when I switched between waders and wetsuit because of the increased bulk of the thick neoprene over the breathable wader material. Adjusting the belt between trips was a minor inconvenience, but it also left room for error that would create an imperfect seal when clipping on a belt that was just a bit too loose. An advantage of the plastic buckle is that it is nearly impossible to accidentally open. For added security, some high-end belt manufacturers even use plastic clips that have multiple release points.
Many serious surfcasters use a belt with a large metal dive clip. This allows the belt to be tightened to the perfect level without any adjustments, meaning an angler doesn’t have to lengthen or shorten the belt depending on how many layers are under the waders—or in my case, how much weight I’ve put on in the offseason. These belts can still open accidentally, but are backed up with Velcro to prevent them from tumbling into the surf.
Another option is the roller locking buckle on the Z-Belt. This operates under the same principle as a D-ring football belt, but is more secure and, is backed up with Velcro. It’s less bulky than the dive belt buckle and less likely to open accidentally.
A well-equipped surf belt usually includes a fish gripper—either the plastic type or a metal scale/lip-gripper. These keep hands clear of hooks and teeth when landing and releasing unruly stripers or blues.
Most surfcasters don’t leave home without a pair of robust, stainless pliers on their belts. Some fishermen buy an upgraded sheath that holds the pliers securely, won’t degrade, and fits the 2-inch webbing on a surf belt.
An essential tool that too many surfcasters do leave home without is a dive knife. While it probably won’t come into play on every trip, or even every season, having it can get you out of a sticky situation, such as getting tangled in discarded braided line or rope. A knife is also handy for bleeding fish destined for the dinner table or cutting bait. Look for a knife with a locking sheath that loops securely onto the surf belt.
Belt attachments like D-rings and carabiners serve a number of functions, such as lanyard attachment points, holders for fish-grippers, and even a hands-free rod holder.
As kayak fishermen say, “If you love it, leash it,” and the same is true in the surf. To avoid losing an expensive set of pliers into a tumbling surf, attach it to the belt with a lanyard. Make sure the lanyard is long enough to allow full use of the tool.
Transporting the Plug Bag
Many surf fishermen also use their belt to transport their plug bags. I’ve always carried my bag over my shoulder using the strap that came with it. According to a poll of On The Water’s Instagram followers, I’m part of a narrow majority who wear the plug bag that way (58% shoulder strap vs 42% belt).
When I thought about why I’ve always carried the plug bag over my shoulder, I couldn’t come up with a good reason. I tried to think of the advantages, and the best one was being able to take off the bag and place it on land behind me while fishing. While I don’t do this on open beaches or in boulder fields, I regularly remove it on jetties or at the Cape Cod Canal because I can leave it high and dry without worrying that it will be claimed by a rising tide or rogue wave—and carrying a bag full of 4- and 5-ounce jigs makes my shoulder ache just thinking about it.
Carrying a bag over the shoulder seems to have more disadvantages than advantages, one that the belt-carrying crowd are quick to point out. For instance, the uneven distribution of weight taxes the back after a few hours in the surf. A plug bag hanging off a shoulder strap swings freely, both during the cast and when bending over to land a fish, while a belt-mounted bag holds steady. The after-cast, plug-bag readjustment has become so ingrained in my fishing program that even when I’m not wearing a plug bag, I’ve caught myself reaching to readjust it after a cast lands. Lastly, the strap is a potential point of failure. While it is usually made from the same, or nearly the same, webbing material as a surf belt, the clips, which are most often plastic and metal, are the weak points. I’ve had multiple clips fail in the middle of a night of fishing, forcing me to add my bag to my belt—where it probably should have been in the first place.