Surf perch fishing is, without a doubt, one of the most underutilized fisheries in the United States.
Why? Because they can be fished year-round on just about any ocean beach or coastline, all the way from southern California into British Columbia. Not only that, but they’re abundant, aggressive, and very accessible. And the kicker? Compared to how accessible surf fishing is, almost no one fishes for them.
That makes surf perch fishing an amazing opportunity for anyone close to the west coast, and a great entry point for beginners just getting into surf fishing. In this guide, I’m going to give you all the tools you need to be successful. I’ll cover the gear you need, surf perch rigs, where to find them, and strategies to get you set up for success and help you catch your limit.
If you already have your gear, or you just want to find something specific, use the table of contents below to get the information you need.
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What Are Surf Perch?
Surf perch (or surfperch) are thin, saucer-shaped schooling surf fish, usually found in coastal waters close to shore. Of all the surf species, they are generally the most abundant and easy to catch. They can be any one of 22 species in the family Embiotocidae, but the most sought-out species is the redtail surfperch (found from northern California to B.C.). In southern California, barred surfperch, silver surfperch, and walleye surfperch are all common.
Quick Surf Perch Facts
- Record catches exceed 4 pounds but are commonly caught in the 2-pound range
- The record length is 18 inches, but fish around 12 inches are common
- Females give birth to live young in the spring
- They spend most of their lives in the surf zone (20-50 feet offshore) but can be found much deeper.
Because there are so many species and they’re so abundant, surfperch are a great option for first-time surf fishermen. They also have high daily catch limits, varying from 12-20 across the west coast (check your local fishing regulations before heading out), and make great table fare.
Fish ID: The Redtail Surfperch
Because redtails are commonly sought and some states have specific regulations around them, it’s important to be able to identify your catch. Luckily, they’re pretty easy: just look for the red tail.
Some other characteristics of redtails include:
- 8-12 red or brown bars on the side of the body (usually fairly faint)
- Red to pink fins
- Spines that are taller than the soft rays (on the dorsal fin).
Surfperch Fishing Gear
Surf fishing requires a different set of gear than lake or pond fishing. Opinions vary on the best setup, with some anglers preferring light tackle (like me) and others preferring heavy. But there is some equipment that is essential to catch surfperch successfully.
There is a lot of room for variation in rod selection. The one thing that all surf fishing rods share, though, is length. Here are the qualities to look for in a surf rod:
- Spinning Rod
- Length: 8″-11″ (depending on your height and ability to handle the rod)
- Action: Medium-fast
- Material: Graphite, for sensitivity and casting power (though this is isn’t necessary; fiberglass will work fine)
- Weight capacity: 1-4 ounces (more if you prefer the heavy tackle approach)
Aside from length, these aren’t hard and fast rules. Some anglers feel they can get away with weights as small as 1/2 oz, and so choose a lighter rod to boost sensitivity and enjoy the fight more. Depending on where you’re fishing, local shops may offer rod rentals so you can see what works best for you.
Another thing to note is that if you have a good chinook salmon rod, it’ll probably work for surf fishing, too. I use my 9′ Heavy Okuma Guide Select Pro for surf fishing and I love it, but the Okuma Rockaway is a surf specific rod that’s relatively affordable, too (about 100 bucks on Amazon).
Reel selection can also vary, but here are a couple of things to look for.
Size 3000-5000 Spinning Reel: Most surfperch fishermen use a spinning reel because they are best for light tackle, and they’re more beginner-friendly than baitcasters. Reel size depends on how heavy or light of line you’ll be using. Because you’ll need to make long casts, though, 3000 is the minimum. You can size up beyond 5000 if you want to use heavier line, but 4000 series reels are ideal for the rig I recommend (more on this below).
Saltwater specific: This isn’t necessary, and I’ve spent plenty of time surf fishing with a non-salt water reel. It will, however, increase the life of your reel if you buy one made specifically for saltwater, due to the corrosion-resistant materials used. Always rinse your reel off with fresh water after fishing, especially if it’s not designed for saltwater.
My favorite reel for the price is the Okuma Rockaway 6000 (the smallest size they make it in), but if you’re looking for a premium option that’ll last forever, the Penn Battle III 4000 would be my number one pick.
Some people prefer to use monofilament for their mainline and leader, but I recommend a combo that usually works a lot better.
For your mainline, your best bet will be braided line in the 15-20 pound range. Braid is best for a couple of reasons. The first is that braid doesn’t stretch like monofilament line, so it will provide greater sensitivity. Mono can stretch up to 25%, which at the long distances you’ll be casting can add up to hundreds of missed bites.
The second is that because of the smaller line diameter (for its test rating), it has a greater casting distance and has less drag. This is especially important in surf fishing, where the wind can be fierce and the surf can drag your line all over the place. Braid is a huge improvement over mono in this regard, and you’ll notice the difference immediately if you’re just switching over from mono.
You can also use high-vis line with braid. This isn’t a big deal, but it’s a little extra edge that can help you to better see where your line is in the surf.
Though surfperch aren’t particularly line-shy, you want your leader to be minimally visible. This is why I recommend fluorocarbon leaders in the 10-15 pound test range.
Fluorocarbon stretches less than mono and it provides greater abrasion resistance. It’s also nearly invisible, which is better for a stealthy presentation.
Using the rig that I recommend, your leader should be about 3-5 feet in length. Check out this article for the lowdown on the best fluorocarbon fishing lines.
Hook Size For Surfperch
Getting the right-sized hook is critical to catching surfperch. Surfperch have small mouths, so you need much smaller hooks than you might for other saltwater species like sea bass or lingcod.
The best hooks for surfperch are #2 or #4 circle or octopus hooks. #4 may mean more fish, but smaller size, and #2 may mean less fish, but bigger size. This is anecdotal, though, and hook size preference varies from angler to angler. I generally use #4, because I think it’s easier for the fish to take and get a good hookset.
Circle hooks or octopus hooks pretty much set themselves, so you’ll just need to feel the bite and apply pressure when you do. Because you’re dealing with so much line, you’ll lose a lot of fish if you have to set the hook yourself.
I generally use octopus hooks, but either will work well.
Surf Fishing Weights
The best sinkers for surfperch fishing apply to most types of surf fishing. The goal is to hold your rig in place on the bottom without it rolling around too much.
Usually, three-sided pyramid sinkers work best. They tend to resist rolling side to side, and are less likely to get pushed or flipped up by the ebb and flow of the waves. The size you’ll need can vary greatly, ranging anywhere from 1/2 oz to 4 oz. It all depends on the surf conditions and the tackle setup you use.
There is a ton of debate among anglers surrounding the best sinker weight for surf fishing. What this means for you is that you should probably have a few of each (because snags do happen), and experiment as you go. If you can’t keep your line tight, or you find it being pulled sideways by offshore currents, you need more weight.
As a rule of thumb, I start with one and a half to two ounces in calm water (less than three-foot swells). As the water gets rougher, I up the weight as necessary, up to about 3-4 ounces. I’ve found that if you need more than that to keep your weight in place, it’s probably not a good day for surf perch fishing (though I’m sure there are others who would beg to differ).
Chest waders are essential for surfperch fishing. Many great surfperch beaches have a very gentle slope, so if you can’t wade into the water you’ll be much further from the fish than you need to be.
Being closer to the fish not only means you don’t have to cast as far, but it also means better line control. You’ll be better able to keep your line high enough to clear waves, and the closer distance means you’ll be better able to feel the fish bite.
Chest waders do present a huge danger when fishing in the surf, so always keep an eye on the waves. Don’t push your luck by getting out as deep as you can, either. You’ll usually only need to wade in just to the point where if you were wearing hip waders, you’d be getting wet.
Aside from the essentials, there are a couple of other pieces of equipment items you’ll probably want.
- Surf fishing cart
- Polarized glasses
- Fish net (for keeping fish)
You don’t need to bring any of these things, but they can all be nice to have. A backpack or surf cart is a good way to haul around extra tackle, snacks, and whatever else you need. Polarized glasses won’t help you see fish or structure like in lakes, but they’re great for reducing glare off the waves. A cooler (usually paired with a fish cart) is helpful for keeping your catch fresh. Alternatively, you can use a fish net that clips onto your hip and hangs into the water. It all depends on how you want to fish, but keep these in mind the next time you go out.
What Is The Best Surf Perch Bait?
Anglers vary here as well, but it helps to understand the diet of a surfperch so you know what they’re looking for.
Surfperch are opportunistic eaters, snagging just about any floating thing that gets washed their way. In the sandy areas where they live, food is plentiful. Surfperch will eat:
- sand crabs (also called mole crabs or sand fleas)
- sand shrimp (also called ghost shrimp),
- mussels and clams (specifically clam necks)
- marine worms (commonly called sandworms).
Any of these will also work for bait. Here’s a little more on each of them, including the baits that I think are best.
Sand Crabs: These are extremely popular. This is due to the fact that they’re abundant across the entire west coast and you can easily catch them yourself. All you need is a sand rake or sand net, and just by sifting through a couple of nets full of wet sand, you can get handfuls of them.
Sand shrimp: These can also be caught yourself, but catching them is a little more involved. You’ll need to make or buy a shrimp pump, which pulls sand from deeper down in order to get to where they live. In my experience, they stay on the hook better than sand crabs and their smaller average size makes them a little more attractive to small-mouthed surf fish.
Mussels and clams: These are also easy to gather yourself in most places and make great bait. The big advantage to them is that they stay on the hook much better than sand crabs or shrimp, and catch fish just about as well. How easy they are to get varies by location, but along the Oregon coast (where I fish) they’re usually plentiful at low tide. Check your local fishing laws before harvesting.
The Best Surfperch Bait: Berkley Gulp! Sandworms
The last bait is sand worms. These are harder to find naturally due to their small size, but luckily there’s an even better artificial alternative: Berkley Gulp Sandworms.
These come in different sizes and colors, can be found at tackle shops across the coast, and are extremely effective bait. They stay on the hook better than natural baits, last far longer, and their long worm shape gives them an irresistible action. Though you have to buy them, these are my go-to bait because I hate having to constantly rebait my hooks (which happens constantly with natural baits in the pummeling surf).
You can get Gulp sandworms in just about any tackle shop on the coast, but if you want to order some for your next outing, you can get them on Amazon.
Every angler has their own preferences, but here are my rankings of the best surf perch bait, in order from favorite to least favorite.
- Berkley Gulp Sandworms (2 inches, in Camo or Bloody color)
- Clam necks
- Sand Shrimp
- Sand Crabs
Though I have my favorites, I encourage you to experiment with different types of bait and see what works best for you.
How To Tie A Surf Perch Rig
To catch surf fish, you need a rig that will keep your bait exactly where you want it in the surf. You also need that bait to be just a little off the bottom, ideally floating as free as possible to entice these fish into an easy meal.
There are several rigs that surf anglers use, but there are two in particular that I know work great. They are the hi-low rig and the fish finder rig.
The Hi-Low Rig
When it comes to rigging for surfperch fishing specifically, I think the hi-low rig is your best bet. This is because it lets you use two hooks instead of one (three if you’re in Oregon, which I recommend doing if you’re fishing there). This doubles (or triples) your chances of catching a fish with each cast. And because surf perch are a schooling fish, having as many baits in their zone as possible is a great idea. Catching two, and even three, fish on one cast is not uncommon with this rig.
Here’s what you need to tie it:
- 3-5 feet of 10-15 pound test fluorocarbon line
- 1-4 oz pyramid sinker
- 2-3 circle hooks or octopus hooks
- 2-3 three-way swivels (optional; I prefer to tie dropper loops instead)
- Snap swivel (optional but recommended)
You’ll want your first hook to be roughly 10″-12″ from the sinker, with each hook being 6″-8″ apart. Whichever method you go with, give yourself enough line to accomplish this (I use 3-4 feet when tying dropper loops).
If you’re using 3-way swivels, tying it up is super easy. First, cut lengths of line that will create the right-sized gaps. Then:
- Tie 2 or 3 three-way swivels inline with each other.
- Tie a 3- 4 inch length of line to the third side of each swivel.
- Tie your hooks to those lengths (using a snell or improved clinch knot).
- Tie a snap swivel to the bottom end.
- Attach your sinker.
Tying a snap swivel isn’t necessary, but it’s highly recommended. It allows you to change weights out easily, which is often necessary to adjust for surf conditions. Depending on your line test, it’s also possible to bend a snap swivel out of place when you get snagged. This lets you drop your weight without having to break off your whole rig (and you can trust me, because I’ve done it).
Alternatively, you can tie this rig using dropper loops. These are easier to tie on the fly and don’t cost you money, which is why I prefer them. They also allow you to easily attach hooks without knots (explained below), and the hook will naturally sit facing upright, which amounts to better hook sets.
How To Tie A Dropper Loop
For the best visualization, check out the video above. But here’s a quick explanation of how to tie them.
- Make a large loop (2-3 inch diameter) by folding the line over itself
- Wrap the tag end around the loop (as if you were tying a regular overhand knot) 3 times.
- Use your finger to create and hold a small gap between the loop and the tag end
- Make three more wraps, continuing to move in the same direction around the original loop
- Pull the large loop (the first one you created) through the small loop you created with your wraps
- Hold this new loop tight (I usually do this with my teeth) while evenly cinching down the knot from both sides
Then you can just feed the dropper loop through the eye of your hook, and feed the hook back through the end of the loop. Pull this tight and your hook is attached with no knot tying (and corresponding loss of line) involved.
The dropper loop takes some practice to get just right and know how much line you’ll have left over. But once you learn it, it’s invaluable for all kinds of fishing, and it’s the only way I tie my hi-low rigs.
The Fish Finder Rig
The fish finder rig is an extremely popular surf fishing rig, and for good reason. While it only has one hook, the use of a sliding sinker means fish won’t feel as much tension from the line when they take the bait. It also allows your bait to float around freely at the end of your line, which is key to imitating the food that surf fish normally eat.
The fish finder rig is extremely simple. Here’s what you need:
- Sinker slide w/ sinker snap (get a “braid friendly” sinker slide, or tie a 2-foot length of fluoro directly to your mainline to prevent abrasion)
- barrel swivel
- 6-12 inches of 10-15 pound test fluorocarbon line
- #2 or #4 circle or octopus hook
This rig is easy to tie. Simply slide your sinker slide onto the mainline (or fluoro leader), tie a barrel swivel to that using an improved clinch knot, then tie your 6-12 inch fluoro leader to the barrel swivel. Tie on your hook at the end, and snap your desired sinker in place. Then this rig is ready to fish!
How To Fish For Surf Perch
Fishing for surfperch involves two things; finding them, and fishing for them. Here’s how to do both.
Where To Fish For Surfperch
Surfperch can be found on coastlines up and down the west coast, just about anywhere you can access them. But like most species, they like to hang around cover. Though you can find them on sandy flats, they tend to congregate around depressions in the bottom or rock formations. These provide protection from the surf, as well as an easy spot to dart out and ambush prey.
You can find these cover locations by scouting your fishing beaches at low tide. Look along the shore for depressions in the sand (which often hold water at low tide) or rock formations with corresponding holes. These will be the best places to catch surf perch.
In addition to this, steeper beaches tend to be better than flatter ones. On the Oregon coast, these can be tough to find, but even a little increase in slope is usually better than none. You can also look for riptides, which the fish congregate around because they stir up food. These can often be found around the mouths of rivers, though even places where small creeks flow into the ocean can be great.
A final tip on location is to fish for them where you find sand crabs. Sand crabs are found everywhere, but there are places where they seem to be especially abundant. You’ll see them floating in the water with every outgoing wave and see skeletons all over the place. Those are great spots to try fishing.
If you’re not catching them, the best option is to move. Surf perch are usually found in schools, so where there’s one there are more. If you fish for 10 minutes or more without a bite, move a little way up the beach and try again.
Best Time To Fish For Surfperch
Opinions vary on the best time to fish for surf perch, but it’s generally accepted by surf anglers that fishing the incoming tide through high tide is best. It’s not totally understood why, but anecdotally this is the most productive time. Start 2-3 hours before high tide, and fish until the fish stop biting.
It will also help if you can fish for them during their spawn. According to Oregon Fish and Wildlife, this means spring through early summer. They move in closer to the shore during this time and congregate in large schools. During this time the fishing action can be absolutely red-hot (as in bites on every cast and double or triple catches), though you can productively catch them any time of year.
Surf Perch Fishing Technique
Surf fishing is pretty simple. It’s as easy as cast, wait, and retrieve.
Cast out about as far from shore as you can (fish are usually found in the calmer spots between the first and second breaker or second and third breaker). Then reel up your slack so your line is taught and wait 20 or 30 seconds. Retrieve some more line, then repeat the process.
I’ve noticed through experience that bites tend to come easier when the water is a little calmer in between sets of waves. They can and will come at any time, but if you can have your bait in their zone when the water is relatively flat, they’re more likely to bite. I’ll leave my bait in a spot longer than the usual 20-30 seconds if that area is being pounded by waves, because often right after the set rolls through and the water starts to wash back out, the fish are more apt to bite.
Once you find where the fish are holding, you’ll only need to cast out to just beyond them to keep getting bites. If you’re not getting bites anywhere along your retrieve, move up or down the beach. It may even help to move to a totally different beach, especially if you’ve already thoroughly searched a particular area with structure.
It’s pretty much as simple as that! Just keep moving and keep your bait in the water, and you’ll probably catch something.
Finally, always check your license requirements and local fishing regulations before fishing. Catch limits vary by state, and some places have length restrictions on redtails. Other than that, keep your lines wet and enjoy the beach!