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