Classic Pro Tips: How to Fly Fish California Beaches

Written by: Nathan Cook, Fishing Manager of Orvis San Jose

Barred Surf Perch are the dominant species on the coast.
All photos by Nathan Cook

Living and working in Silicon Valley means two things: enjoying the sun for 300 days per year and longing to get to the mountains on my favorite trout streams, about 3-hours away. While those of us in living in major metro areas like the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles are used to and accept the travel required for pristine trout fisheries, I’ve always been a big fan of local fishing before or after work for carp and bass. Then it dawned on me one day – I live 30-minutes away from the largest fishery in the world: the Pacific Ocean. Are you taking advantage of this gigantic resource? Whether you travel to California for business or are fortunate to live here, this is your basic guide to targeting surfperch, the “bluegill of the sea,” in the Golden State.

Equipment Basics
While these fish can easily be landed with a 5-weight rod, you will need a rod to stand up to the elements. I always recommend an 8-weight for this fishing (my favorite is the Helios 2 10-foot 8-weight). These fish tug very hard, and you won’t be missing out on any fun with this rod model. Switch and Spey rods are also great tools for attacking this fishery. You will want to pair the rod with a fast-sinking shooting head line, as you’ll need to cut through the churning waters and get your fly down fast. (I recommend the Hydros HD Depth Charge.) The reel needs to stand up to a constant barrage of salt and sand. Make it a large arbor, and you have a great surf setup. A rigid stripping basket with drain holes is a necessity for controlling slack and ease of shooting line. Orvis’s basket is a great option. Just drill some holes in the bottom and apply sticker swag to the outside.

Here’s how to put it all together.

For terminal tackle, you’ll want to keep it short: 5 to 7 feet. Straight fluorocarbon tippet is great for getting down fast. These fish aren’t too leader-shy, and you may get caught up on kelp, so leave the 5X at home and bring the heavy stuff. From my line, I’ll start with one foot of 50-lb tied to a barrel swivel to relieve twisting in the system. Next I’ll tie three feet of 35-lb from the swivel, and end with a perfection loop. You can add dropper loops if you want to fish multiple flies. Then I’ll tie 20-lb via loop-to-loop and tie the fly using a non-slip mono loop. (See the diagram above.)

Flies are typically Clouser-style variations in sizes 2, 4, and 6. I enjoy using commercially tied flies such as the Sand Crab, Cowen’s Somethin’ Else, and Spawning Gotcha. If you enjoy tying your own flies, local patterns like Murokoshi’s Rusty Squirrel, Shane’s C-4, and Yoshimoto’s Surf Miki are a great start. Incorporating a little orange or red and a pulsating material will get the job done.

The caviar of surf species: orange sand crab eggs.

Water Conditions and Where to Find Surf Perch
There is not one tide that fishes the best. How a beach fishes greatly depends on micro-scale currents, beach orientation, and beach slope. My ideal conditions are: a couple hours before high tide, on a steep beach, with swells between 2 and 5 feet. Surfperch feed on shrimp, sand crabs, and other crustaceans that get dislodged as a wave hits the beach. These are optimal conditions to accomplish this and allow us to safely fish.

Surfperch, just like trout, hang out where they feel safe and have food funnel to them. Those species caught along the beach will often be in water 1 to 5 feet deep, and in holes, troughs, and rip currents cut out by wave activity, typically behind the last set of breakers. Cast over the back of the last wave in a set as it hits the beach. Look for dark blue spots and foam lines. Sometimes these are as small as a toilet bowl, so look carefully. Resist the urge to send your fly to Tokyo, as you’ll be casting over many fish. Focus your efforts within 30 feet, and then experiment with longer casts. There are some days when 70-foot casts are required, but it’s easy to accomplish with the correct gear.

A gorgeous day on California’s coast is hard to beat.

Surfperch are bottom-feeders, so make sure your fly is dragging along the sand, and strip the fly back toward you or allow it to swing with the current, just like you’re fishing for steelhead. Make sure you have a slack-free connection to the fly and make a firm strip-set when you feel any resistance or a tug. As in any saltwater situation, a “trout set” is a killer, so resist the urge to raise the rod to set the hook.

What to Expect
Simply put, the surf is like fishing in a washing machine. Line management is critical and keeping your head on a swivel is vital to anticipating the movement of water and swell formation, which is essential to timing your casts and fly presentations. While surfperch are nearly a dime-a-dozen, understand that 90 percent of the fish are in 10 percent of the water. Cover water quickly but efficiently to find them. Some days this requires the patience and work ethic of a winter steelhead angler.

Jacksmelt are full of muscle and will be happy to peel line off your reel.

Surfperch are typically most active nocturnally. Fish for them around sunrise and sunset from spring through fall. Most of California’s coast is subject to high winds around noon, as inland temperatures rise, and you will have a tough time fishing midday because you’ll be casting to fish with lockjaw and handling beachgoers in your back cast. The coldest time of year on our coast is during the summer, with a lingering fog bank, and water temperatures consistently in the low to mid-50s F. Waders are a good idea to pack along with lightweight fleece layers and a waterproof jacket.

This is a unique fishery that is always in flux and you never know what you may catch. Even if the fishing’s slow, watching dolphins, seals, and whales go about their business is always a treat.

Check out my podcast with Tom Rosenbauer on fishing the surf here.

21 thoughts on “Classic Pro Tips: How to Fly Fish California Beaches”

  1. Good stuff, thanks for crediting Glenn on the Surf Miki fly. The multi-fly rig is good, the one you drew looks similar to one that Mark Won designed. Beginners may want to stick to one fly at first as it is as you said, a “washing machine” experience. After years of multi fly rigs I find I have just as much fun with the simplicity of one fly and probably catch as many fish. Thanks again.

    Tommy Baker, Aptos CA.

    1. Glenn and Mark are awesome guys and definitely have it dialed in with local surf fishing. I completely agree with you, much like nymphing for trout, starting off with one fly certainly makes the casting experience more manageable and enjoyable. Using multiple flies only increases your chances of catching fish, but being able to create a wide loop is important to cast these more complex rigs. There have been many days where the fish are concentrating on the bottom fly, and I’ll ditch the top fly to make casting easier. If I can get away with catching fish on an easier setup, I’m always game to do so ;).

  2. Wish this was published a year ago when I was living right on the coast longing for trout fishing as well.

    1. It’s never too late to get back to the CA coast. Give our shop a call up if you’re back in town when you find yourself longing for awesome fly fishing. Salt or freshwater, just let us know! There’s always something to fish for around these parts.

  3. One thing we look for on the true north coast of CA(Humboldt/Del Norte) are the brown Pelicans. Anytime of day. If you Se Brown pelicans flying around an area, go down with your setup.

    1. Birds definitely know what’s going on and are much better anglers than we are. We’ll use them to point out where the fish are, especially stripers, down in our neck of the woods. It’s always awesome to see a flock of birds working their way up towards you. It’s almost like a hatch on a river.

  4. I’m gearing up to finally fly the fish the surf on a trip to Cayucos soon. Since most conventional-tackle surf fisherman have gone to lighter tackle in the surf lately (8-12 pound line), I;m wondering why the leader material you specified is so heavy….?
    On the same beach, last year, I was hammering the surf perch on spinning gear. Really looking forward to repeating this adventure with a fly rod in my hand!

    1. Nice! I love fishing the Cayucos area. The main reason I like to use heavier tippet is when I get into snags, I can just horse the fly out of it. The fish aren’t too leader-shy either, so I like to use the heaviest tippet I can get away with (which is my philosophy in all forms of fishing). That being said, there is nothing wrong with fishing light tackle out there, so long as it’s properly tapered using fly gear.

  5. Pingback: Tippets: Fishing California’s Beaches, Rigging Indicators | MidCurrent
  6. Good article on fishing the surf. Only one item I disagree with and the recommendation of a “steep beach”. Steep beaches are very dangerous, as the wave rolls up behind you and pulls your legs out when it heads back to the sea. The flatter the beach the safer. Flat beaches have plenty of structure too.
    I see no need for Flourocarbon as the fish are not leader shy (I even use snaps so I can quickly change flies). The conservationist streak in me says if it is not necessary, then don’t use a line that will never deteriorate.
    My credentials? I fish the surf 2 – 3 days a week and have for years. My name is Sam and I lead surf fish outings monthly for the Santa Cruz Fly Fishermen club and you are invited to join us on the beach. Times are is on our website,

    Thanks for listening and thanks again for an excellent article.

    1. Hi I am new to surf fishing I need to know what backing, line and tippet to buy for an 8 rod I was thinking of buying for such activity. Could you recommend a good brand for fishing in san diego?

  7. I am avid surf fisherman and I have had a continual issue with running line tangle that is making me crazy. I use a two handed Sage 5wt, 30ft Rio shooting head. I have tried every Rio running line,Lazar line, doesnt matter. They all twist up on themselves. I have tried a swivel in the leader, but I havent tried a spey swivel between head and running line yet. I have also tried pre-stretching the running line. My rig is usually just one fly..nothing crazy.

    1. That’s definitely a tough one, Chris. I don’t believe this issue has been solved with any line manufacturer. A large arbor reel does help some. While I’m still at the car, I peel off about 60-feet of line off my reel and give it a good stretch. However, I’ll usually have to stretch it again while I’m on the beach at some point. I do use two barrel swivels on my single-fly rig, but that won’t alleviate twisting in your running line.

    2. Most fly fishermen throw a natural twist on every cast but with small flies and light leaders, the twist comes un-done while the fly is fished. With bulkier flys, multiple flies and heavy leaders the twist remains and compounds. It’s noticeable at you feet all twisted at times. The cure is fast and easy. With all your line out on any particular length of cast, hold the rod above the handle and the other hand on the handle very end, spin right for right hand people a few revolutions. Straight line again.

  8. Hello, I live in Pismo Beach. Is the coast here a good spot for surf fly fishing? I have never tried surf fly fishing before but I have a saltwater 9wt setup I used on the flats for bonefish for when I lived in Hawaii. What kind of flies and type line do you use? Thank you

    1. Jeremy, you can take that same exact set up that we use in Hawaii for the bones- float line , hand wound leaders #25 #20 #15 #12 brown crazy Charlies with you to the surf in Pismo and strip it – those perch will hit those flies – It takes a lot of time in the water and patience. I’ve been doing a saltwater flyfishing from San Diego up to Marin County for three or four years now. Southern California is nice because there are more species like Corbina and California halibut as well as the perch and bass. What is very cool about surf perch is the very distinctive way they hit the fly -multiple tapping/tug sensation.

    2. Jeremy,
      Could you comment on your experience fishing for Bones in Hawaii?
      I have fished Annini beach and Tunnels on Kauai without success. Any tips?

    3. Wow! Surprised to see this article re-posted. Pismo is a cool beach to fish, being flat and long. I spent three years living in SLO and fished it often. Your bonefish rig will be fine, just assess if your fly is getting down fast enough and dragging the bottom. Bonefish flies will do just fine as well. Experiment with colors and sizes. In my experience, sizes 2-6 with a little orange or red coloration does the trick.

  9. I am just starting out Surf fly fishing. I use a 6 wt Sage rod. Looking to get the best set up to fish in the Ventura and Santa Barbara area. Suggestion on rod and reel and line would be helpful. I see Corbina where I fish. Have had two on and can’t land them. Any insights on fishing Corbina would be appreciated. I assume same rod and reel but different flies? Also what is the best time to fish. I hear in the mornings at low tied to see the structure and then I am told two hours before and two hours after high tied. Thanks.

  10. I live in Pacifica and have had one lesson and I go only occasionally. I have yet to catch anything but kelp but I’ll keep trying when the surf sucks. Thanks for the article!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *