Many species can be caught surf fishing. Southern California anglers are most likely to encounter barred surfperch, yellow and spotfin croaker, corbina, halibut, bat ray, leopard shark, shovelnose guitarfish, and walleye surfperch. Of those, barred surf perch are the most common catch, particularly from sandy beaches.
After I started fly fishing the surf, I spent time a lot of time between trips studying about the various species, especially surfperch, flies and techniques, understanding tides, and how to read the surf. It’s my firm belief that the better you understand your target species, their diet, and habitat, the greater success you’ll enjoy on the water.
To me, barred surfperch are shaped like sunfish, oval and flattened. They have a relatively large mouth terminal on a blunted head. They’re a silver colored fish that is dark on the top, shading lighter to the underside, they get their name from the several golden or brassy colored bars on their sides. Two other surfperch have similar markings. The absence reddish color on the fins readily distinguishes barred surfperch from the calico and redtail surfperch. Barred surfperch can reach lengths up to 17 inches and weighs over four pounds. Personally, my best fish has been around 14-15 inches.
Typically found along sandy Pacific Ocean beaches from Mexico northward past San Francisco Bay, these surfperch are frequently found shallow. They seem to associate with bottom depressions. However, they have been caught in waters over 200 feet deep.
These beautiful fish spend much of their lives in the surf zone, where they feed, mate, and give birth. I think one of the more fascinating things about surfperch is they are viviparous. Simply, they give live birth to their young, anywhere from four to over one hundred depending on the age and size of the mother. I first encountered this one June at a beach north of Monterey. Fishing three flies, I caught a double. I dropped one fish into my stripping basket while I released the other. After releasing the second fish I found two “babies” in my basket, which I quickly released into the water. I can only hope they were mature enough to survive.
Breeding season occurs from late fall into the winter. After a five month gestation period, the young are birthed from May through July, where the females seek the deeper troughs and calmer pools to release their young. New born barred surfperch are two inches or so in length. They reach sexual maturity in one or two year when they’re six inches or so in length. Life expectancy is from six to nine years.
Sociable by nature, barred surfperch form schools of liked-sized fish. An important fact, as if you’re catching on sized fish, staying put won’t likely improve the size, you need to move on down the beach. Studies indicate that surfperch are homebodies, rarely moving very far, under a couple miles, although they have been recorded moving 30 miles.
Barred surfperch feed primarily on sand crabs, but don’t hesitate to feed on other crustaceans, small crabs, clams, and other tidbits stirred up by the incoming waves. These fish ride the waves searching for items being stirred up. Their mouth structure allows them to quickly suck up likely prey, roll it around in their mouths separating out and discarding non-food items. Deep in the throat they have fully developed teeth to crush food items.
It’s when they’re riding the waves that fly fishing for surf perch is at its best. Some of the finest fishing I’ve experienced for them is during an incoming time with strong waves. When surfers are present, the surfperch are also surfing for a meal.
In my next blog I’ll cover what I use in the way of equipment, flies, rigging, and some on presentation. After that I’ll cover reading the surf and how to use that to increase your catch rate.