Surf Perch, Think Crappie on Steroids

nickBy Nick Curcione, TFO Advisory Staff


Churning waves and rip currents with undertows that suck the bottom from your feet like a giant vacuum give new meaning to the word turbulence.

It’s no wonder then that confronting these conditions with fly gear can seem downright foolish. However, as with most challenging endeavors, with proper technique and equipment, fly anglers can successfully fish any surf zone.

The following discussion will concentrate on Southern Calif., and its vast and virtually unrestricted beachfront.  The primary species is the barred surf perch. Think of it as a crappie on steroids. By saltwater standards it is relatively small but its abundance and readiness to strike a variety of artificials serves as an ideal adversary for the light tackle fly aficionado.

Surf perch can be taken on various fly patterns in sizes from 1 to 4.   Photo Nick Curcione.

Surf perch can be taken on various fly patterns in sizes from 1 to 4.
Photo Nick Curcione.


Geographically they range along a considerable stretch of the Pacific coastline from Bodega Bay, (approximately 70-miles north of San Francisco) all the way south into the area around San Quintin.


Productive perch fishing can be had from beaches at both the northern and southern limits of this range, but, for this article the area from Oxnard south to San Diego will be the focus.


Most of these fish are in the ½ to 2-pound range, but are hard striking and strong fish. They are designed that way to survive their daunting habitat. Unlike the tranquil environment of their freshwater cousins, they live and feed in a very dynamic, turbulent water system. So, while they are not line burners, they’ll put a good bend in the rod and resist you for every inch of line you strip back.


Catching barred perch can be a year- long proposition, (one of my largest close to the 3-pond mark was taken in mid September) but the best months typically run from Dec. to April. Jan. is usually the month when you can expect larger specimens in the form of females that come into the surf from deeper water in preparation for spawning. They also come to feed, primarily in the form of sand crabs, which make up approximately 90 percent of their diet.


Study the tides and surf

As in all forms of surf fishing, feeding habits of the perch are closely tied to tidal phases.

Strong tidal currents like those associated with full and new moon phases act like a giant mixer churning up the bottom stirring up food sources, ( like sand crabs). Perch key into this so, time fishing o coincide with periods of optimum water movement. Generally this means you should try and fish during incoming or outgoing tides. However, not all beaches fish the same. Some will yield the best action on an incoming tide while others are best fished on an outgoing.

In most cases the bottom may not be visible, so reading the waves is imperative.  Photo by Nick Curcione.

In most cases the bottom may not be visible, so reading the waves is imperative.
Photo by Nick Curcione.

Just as trout anglers know that all sections of a stream are not equally productive, so it is with the beachfront.

To the uninitiated all beaches may look relatively similar, but as experienced surfers and veteran surf anglers there is an important variation. Surfperch like other predators are programmed to feed in habitat that will yield a maximum payoff of food with a minimum expenditure of effort. Fish will congregate in places where there the food source is abundant and readily accessible. In the case of their principal food source, sand crabs, anglers need to quickly identify areas in the surf line where the crabs are most likely hold. These areas are a function of bottom confirmation. Holes and troughs in the surf are places where sand crabs are relatively abundant. Whether they frequent these places by design or are simply washed there by the current, no one can say for sure. It’s enough to know that these are areas where you want to present your flies.

In most cases the bottom may not be visible, reading the waves is imperative.

Waves tend to break over shallow areas; they tend to roll over deeper areas such as cuts and troughs along the bottom.

For example, if you observe a relatively flat area of water washing toward shore with waves breaking on either side of it, that’s a sign that there is a bottom depression directly beneath the flat section of water. This deeper water will tend to hold fish like perch because that is where bait sources are likely to be concentrated. Sand crabs and small baitfish that are swept into these calmer pockets where they become easy prey for likes of perch.

Bottom depressions are prime areas to direct your casts but you also have to exercise an extra measure of caution when wading particularly if water visibility is compromised. In the event you are having difficulty identifying these spots (repeated trips to the beach front will sharpen your skills) do not despair. The truth is perch can be taken in all kinds of surf conditions so the best practice is to walk the beach and try to cover as much shore front as possible.

Tackle Choices


I opt for the 6/8-weight TFO Mini Mag rod.

It is a hybrid combination of S-Glass and carbon fiber. It’s only 8-feet, but it will throw all the line you need to reach perch, (most casts don’t need to be longer than 60-feet). This rod weight could be considered the heavy end of the scale for this type of fishing and it’s a good choice if the surf is especially violent and you have to throw heavily weighted flies.

Two good choices for two-handed anglers are the Pandion 6-weight and the 7/8-weight TiCr X conversion kit. With both of these sticks I use a Skagit line with a fast sinking tip.

Shooting heads are the way to go.

The leader set up is very simple and consists of a single section, (5 to 8-feet) of 8-lb test mono. Fasten an end loop in the mono (make it about 8 to 10-inches long) by means of a six-turn surgeon’s knot, (this is an overhand knot where you go through the overhand knot six times). Take this loop fold it over itself and tie a surgeon’s knot, (a double overhand knot). This gives you a double line loop in the leader that you interlock with the loop in in the tag end of the shooting head.


Fly Patterns

Fly patterns for surfperch can also be simple affairs but they should incorporate three basic features. They should be durable, they must not have any tendency to foul and should be tied in such a manner that the hook point rides up.

On practically all my surf flies I incorporate some type of weight either in the form of bead chain or dumbbell eyes. Any fly that bears a resemblance to their principal diet source, (sand crabs) will draw strikes. Color varies from grey to tan. Anglers should incorporate a clump of orange chenille to simulate the roe sack on female crabs.

Practically any bonefish pattern tied on size 1 to 4 hooks will be productive.


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