FishingHow to Fish

Fish Away Winter Blues

Let’s face it… It’s winter and you’re probably not spending much time fishing. Most of the exotics have moved out of the area for warmer water, the bite on most local species has slowed as the water has cooled down, and rockfish season is now closed in U.S. waters. Hunting season is in full swing, there is snow in the local mountains and football is on TV. Even with all those things telling you to keep your fishing gear in the garage, I’m here to tell you that there is one type of fishing that is on fire right now and based on the crowds (or lack thereof) many Southern California anglers are missing out.

Barred surfperch can be found along the Southern California coast almost year round, but wintertime is prime time to target these aggressive fish. As the water cools, they move into the shallow surf zone to mate. Barred surf perch are unique in that they are one of the few fish to give birth to live young. If you happen to catch a pregnant female (usually during the spring) be sure to handle her with care and get her back into the water as quickly as possible.

One of the best things about fishing for surfperch is that it’s so easily accessible.

It’s virtually free to go, you don’t need any special gear, and you don’t need a lot of time to sneak out and pull on a few fish.

This makes these feisty little guys a perfect species to target during the “off season”. On top of that it’s a great way to introduce kids and newbies to that fishing addiction we all have in common.

Barred surf perch can be found along sandy beaches from Baja to Northern California. While they can be found year- round, late fall and winter is prime time for targeting them as they concentrate in the shallow waters of the surf zone and feed more aggressively during their mating season. They are an aggressive feeder and can often be territorial as well. Their diet consists mostly of various worms and shellfish, and they have a very powerful jaw with 2 rows of teeth allowing them to crush the shells of their prey.

Narrowing it down to the specific patches of water holding the fish takes a little more work. Sure you can cast blindly, cover as much ground as possible and eventually stumble across some biters, but if you put in a little more time and pay attention to the conditions and read the water you can usually find pockets of feeding fish fairly quickly. Like most fish, surf perch will usually be associated with some sort of structure. I like to look for any type of irregularity in the waves or water color since these will usually mark a channel, trough, sand bar, current line or often times a combination of these features. If there are jetties along the beach you’re fishing, the direction of the waves or current will create an eddy on the down swell/current side that will usually hold fish. Keep in mind that conditions always change and fish always move, so you need to stay mobile too. Just because you caught fish in one spot before doesn’t mean they’re still there.

Photo courtesy of Bill Varney at

When I’m fishing the surf (or otherwise) I like to stay mobile. During winter, there isn’t a ton of forage for the perch so they are usually eager to bite your offering if you can get it in front of them. Even if the patch of water I’m working has ideal conditions, I’ll move if I don’t get bit within a handful of casts. Does this mean there are no fish there? Absolutely not, make a mental note to hit this spot a little later. Often times a little more tide or a little less tide is all it takes for a spot to go from zero action to bites on every cast. When you do get bit, take note of the conditions and look for similar conditions throughout that session.

While many surf anglers will use specialized gear that caters to their type of fishing, you can get by with almost any light tackle spinning setup you’d use for local lakes are harbors. Most would recommend using 6 – 8 pound test monofilament, which will work just fine for catching some fish. But just like most other types of fishing a fluorocarbon leader offers better abrasion resistance and is less visible underwater, and a spectra mainline can help you feel more bites and maintain better contact with your bait.

Anglers that spend more time in the surf zone will likely upgrade to specialized gear for this, which is usually a long, sensitive rod in the 9′ range, with a matching spinning reel or baitcaster spooled up with 6 or 8 pound test line. Personally I like to fish the Daiwa DXS series in 9′ rated for 6-12 lb. line (DXS902MLFS) matched up with a Daiwa Ballistic Spinning Reel. The extra length of the rod does two things. It gives you better range on your casts, and it helps you to keep your line up higher above the breaking waves allowing you to keep your bait in the bite zone a little longer. I’m a big fan of fishing a braided mainline with a fluorocarbon leader for the increased sensitivity, but a monofilament mainline works just fine as well.

For rigging, the most common setup to fish is the proven Carolina rig. You’re going to want to run your main line through an egg sinker to a swivel. From the swivel, run an 18” – 36” leader to your hook. The size and type of hook will vary depending on the type and size of bait you’re using, but a good place to start is a size 6 mosquito hook.

For bait, Berkley Gulp! Camo sandworms are probably the most universal baits for the surf and among the easiest to fish. Simply open the bag and thread one on the hook. This is a very versatile bait that works in most situations, but the Big Hammer perch grubs are another proven artificial bait. You don’t always get the same number of bites with these, but you usually seem to get a better grade of fish when fishing with these. And if all else fails, live bait will usually do the trick… if you can find it. In the warmer waters of summer and fall, sand crabs are usually plentiful along our beaches. They can be a little trickier to find during the winter but if you can get them, they make a great perch bait. In addition to sand crabs; mussels, ghost shrimp, sidewinder crabs, and various types of worms and grubs will get you bit as well.

Sport Chalet’s Ben Naranjo with a lit-up Barred Surf Perch

When using bait, Gulp or grubs, I like to cast out and slowly work the bait back towards me with the occasional twitch. It’s important to keep your line tight so you can feel any bites; if a wave pushes your bait closer to you, be sure to reel up any slack. You’ll get lots of short bites and nibbles, especially when smaller perch are in the area. When I start getting these short bites I like to pause the retrieve and keep the bait in that zone until I hook a fish or the bait gets pushed out of the zone by the surge or current. Be sure to fish your bait all the way to the sand, as you’ll catch lots of fish in just inches of water.

If you’re more into throwing artificial baits, small Krocodiles work well as does the proven Lucky Craft 110. With these, you’ll usually want to work some sort of stop and go retrieve, but be sure to experiment with the speed to see what the fish want that particular day. These lures are also a great way to weed out the smaller perch and focus on the bigger ones. You’ll also greatly increase your odds of picking up a stray halibut.

While fishing during the colder months, barred surf perch will be the main catch, but there are plenty of other opportunities as well. Don’t be surprised to hook into various sharks and rays (especially when using natural bait), halibut, corbina, croaker and other types of perch.

Aaron Gorman of Sport Chalet with a nice surprise Buttermouth Perch

When I first started fishing the surf I was amazed at how close to the sand you could catch fish.

So many anglers huck their rigs out there as far as they can and go right over what could be the fishiest water around. I’ve caught fish in inches of water, almost right next to me, so be sure to work that bait all the way back into the beach. When you get bites, take note of where your bait/lure is so you can try to put together a pattern of where the fish are holding and how they’re biting.

The above is a basic guide to get you onto some fish. If you’re looking for more detailed information, or if you’re a seasoned surf fishing veteran looking to take your game to the next level, check out Bill Varney‘s Book, aka the surf fishing bible, at

Dave Knecht
Dave Knecht has grown up fishing the inshore and offshore waters of Southern California. He spends most of his time fishing on his kayak or on private...