Once the holidays roll around most of us have packed up our offshore rods and put away our long-range equipment for the season. But things are different in the surf where conditions are lining up perfectly for yet another great winter of shore fishing. In fact, some of the biggest fish I’ve ever caught in the surf have been during this time so here are a few tips on what to look for and how to prepare to take winter surf fishing by storm…
Although most corbina by this time of year have found their way back into the warmer waters of local estuaries, many other fish roam the surf hungry and ready for a fight. Croaker such as the spotfin and yellowfin use winter surf and surge to load up on food and prepare for their spawn. The same can be held true for the barred and walleye surfperch that forage along the coast, grow to record size, and seize the opportunity to spawn and bring a new generation of fighters to the beach.
Spotfin croaker grow to about thirty inches and range in weight from one to about fifteen pounds. The largest spotfin I’ve caught in California waters was around eleven pounds but I’ve seen a few in central Baja that weighed in at an amazing twenty pounds.
Yellowfin are not usually so large but they do grow to five or six pounds and provide one of the best fights in the surf. Most croaker roam near the outer break and work their way back and forth into the inner surf to look for food.
Spotfin and yellowfin croaker have two distinct looks. Yellowfin are long and slender and are known for their shoulders and pulling power. They boast a brilliant silver body with a bright yellow tail, pectoral and anal fins.
Spotfin are like the chameleon and change colors as their spawn approaches. In summer months spotfin have silver sides but once they begin to spawn in late fall and early spring their sides reveal beautiful brassy markings or stripes and dark fins.
Unlike croaker, perch tend to find their way into the inner surf and stay there for it’s relative safety and abundance of food. Perch hug the coast for the entire year but the biggest fish, female spawners, can be found along the shore building a home for their young and bulking up on forage in the dead of winter.
Barred surfperch are characterized by their silver bluish skin and olive green striped and spotted alternating sides. They range in size from just a few inches long to about 18” in length. Many perch over 13” are female and when pregnant are filled to the brim with fry. When you catch one of these pregnant females be sure to set it free, paying special attention to placing it in the water gently—that way you can be sure the big one will be there the next time you go fishing!
Walleye perch are the cousins of the barred surfperch. Although much smaller in size they pack one of the best fights in the perch family. Walleye are also found in the inside wave trough and range in size from a few inches to about 13”. Look for walleye to mass in schools and go on a feeding frenzy, especially during warm weather periods caused by Santa Ana winds.
Baits that are effective in winter are different than those that work so well in summer. As seasons change at the beach so does the food fish forage. Late spring and summer bring huge numbers of sand crabs to the surface and fish key in on this bait for food. But when the water cools, sand crabs disappear and fish begin to prefer other baits. To be successful at winter surf fishing, you must adapt your approach.
Think of it this way. If you always eat watermelon in July you would expect to find watermelon in the store then. But if you went to the store in January and found watermelon you might be a bit skeptical about how good it is because it’s out of season. That’s how fish are. If they see a certain food at a specific time of year they won’t generally eat it when it appears at an unexpected time of year. That’s how big fish get big. They’re not stupid!
So when winter rolls around it is time to try the baits that fish expect to find at that time of year. Here are a few of my favorites: Ghost shrimp, sidewinder crabs, clams, and mussels.
Ghost Shrimp, Sidewinder Crabs, and Littleneck Clams
Ghost shrimp work well almost any time of year. But they are especially effective at the beginning and at the end of winter. Fish move from the cooling waters of the beach up tributaries and into the warm, calm, and safe waters of estuaries. As they move from the beach this is their first encounter with ghost shrimp that thrive in the moving waters near the entrance to a back bay. Once inside bays, harbors, and estuaries for the winter most surf fish feed on clams, mussels, sidewinder crabs, and shrimp.
Both clams and mussels work great throughout winter and both are the preferred bait of spotfin croaker. Clams can be found in bays and inshore inlets where sand and rock meet. They are usually below and beside rocks no more than 1” to 5” under the sand. To be safe, be sure to wear gloves when lifting rocks and use a trowel to turn over the sand.
Mussels can be found on rocks, pilings, and other structure in bays, harbors, and jetties along the open beach. Both can be kept for a week or more in the refrigerator inside a tightly sealed plastic container. You may also want to separate them from their shells in preparation for fishing but be sure to keep them in their natural juices for both flavor and elasticity.
In the heart of winter, December through February, sidewinder crabs are your best bait. These are the olive and brown crabs you see running across the rock and scurrying away. Commonly known as lined shore crabs, they make great bait and come in sizes varying from the size of a dime to that of a half dollar. You’ll find them on just about every rock in the bay, harbor, or beach. Because of their hard shell, they will discourage all but the largest fish to bite—Proof: twice setting the state record for the largest California barred surfperch.
When it comes to rigging for winter surf fishing I like to use two simple methods. The first is the Carolina Rig. This rig is nothing more than a sliding sinker ( 1/4 to 3/4 oz), a bead, a swivel, an 18’-36” leader, and a hook. I use thin wire split shot/drop shot hooks in sizes 1, 2, and 4. The second rig is used when fishing with lures such as Lucky Craft Flash Minnows, Krocodiles, or Kastmasters. With these lures just tie them directly to your line. 3/4 oz and 1 oz are my favorite weights for these lures.
Besides bait and rigging the next most important question might be where to fish in winter. Because the location of bait and bottom conditions change so much from summer to winter there are a few subtle changes that make the difference in catching fish or not.
First, remember the holes, troughs, and structure on the open beach will change more frequently during winter. I like to go to the beach at low tide after a storm and find the new holes and troughs that were recently created. I line these “structure” areas up with something permanent on shore and come back at high tide and fish them.
Another important place to find fish in early and late winter is along the estuary entrances that lead from the relatively calm inner bay to the ocean. Fish migrate from the beach in early winter into the back bays and out during late winter into the open ocean. Many times they feed right along these edges on the baits that live upon the rocks—so pay special attention to what lives there as it may make great bait.
Whether you are on the beach or upon the rocks this winter keep a wary eye for swirling, bubbling, off-colored water created by rip currents. This is where you will find fish as it provides both a great place to hide and an even better place to find food. Fish the edges of these currents with the baits and rigging for winter and you’re sure to find biting fish. Remember, winter surf fishing can be the best of the year if you remember a few subtle differences that make for productive fishing that allows you to take winter by storm…
Bill Varney’s passion for surf fishing is detailed in his how-to book: Surf Fishing, The Light-Line Revolution, 2nd Edition available at most tackle shops and on line @ www.fishthesurf.com