Targeting monster Surf Perch

Whether you’re new to surf fishing on the west coast or you’ve been around it for a while, you probably know about barred surfperch. They’re the dinks you catch as bycatch when you’re fishing for corbina, right? I mean, yes, if you only fish in the summertime. The truth is, there are some trophy surfperch out there. You just need to know where to fish, when to fish, and what to use for bait.

For the longest time, I couldn’t quite figure out why surfperch (specifically barred surfperch) got so much attention from the surf fishing community. Nonetheless, I was under the impression that the size of your average catch was going to be between nine and eleven inches… no matter where you fished and no matter what you used for bait. I think that’s the impression many local anglers are still under.

That changed for me when I started fishing year-round. I had a handful of trusted summertime surf fishing spots but most of them seemed to turn off come wintertime. Why was that? I was pretty much a Carolina rig and sand crabs only kinda guy at the time. Was it the bait or was it just the seasonality of the spot?

There are a few little-known secrets to landing those 15 to 17-inch surfperch that you’ll see posted across social media just a handful of times a year. What are they? Let’s talk about them.

Author Nick, with a trophy-sized barred surf perch in winter.

Fishing Through Winter and Spring

Surfperch are a huge reason why Southern California’s shoreline is a year-round fishery. The other species that helps out in that category is the California halibut. We’ll touch on how these two species relate to each other a bit later. But the bottom line, when corbina and croaker seem to disappear for the winter, the larger model surfperch are just beginning to feed as well as halibut.

I’ve never caught a surfperch over 13 inches on sand crabs. I’m not saying it can’t be done. Nor am I saying it hasn’t been done; I’d bet it has. What I am saying, is that maybe there’s a reason it hasn’t happened to me.

The reason isn’t that big surfperch don’t eat sand crabs, it’s that big surfperch feed more often and more aggressively during the winter and spring. These fish have a gestational period of between 5 and 6 months that typically begins around November.

That means from November through April, the big females are eating for two. Sorry, I meant they’re eating for between 4 and 113 as they give birth to live young in those numbers. And, since females grow larger than males on average, spawning season is the time to catch quality and quantity.

Structure, sand and surf makes for ideal conditions when targeting larger model Barred Surf Perch.

Selecting the Right Beach

The next thing to consider is your fishing zone. And sometimes, this might just mean you need to move a few hundred yards down the beach. Maybe you catch lots of corbina and croaker in the sandy section of your favorite beach, but there’s some interesting permanent structure just down the beach. That might just be your newfound surfperch spot.

In Southern California, the larger model barred surfperch prefers areas with hard structure and soft structure intermixed. Things like rock piles or intermittent rocks with barnacles and mussels growing on them, jetties, and even pier pillars make for good surfperch zones.

Reefs are another good resource, but some reefs are better than others for surfperch. Look for smaller reefs that are made up of rocks scattered about rather than the classic fingers of porous, rocky structure with eelgrass. You won’t find surfperch in those areas too often. More sand than reef is good for surfperch.

Examples of “soft structure” include troughs, holes, sand bars with drop-offs in and around them and other similar structures.

Basically, if you find a spot where you can catch corbina, and croaker nearby in the sandy areas and you can catch halibut closer to the hard structure, you’re in a perfect surfperch zone.

Using the Right Bait

Lastly, using the right bait is a game-changer. Most commonly used are Gulp sandworms, locally made soft plastics like paddle tails, curly tails, and similar grubs. Other options include mussels and hard plastic jerk baits like the Lucky Craft FM 110.

What do I use to catch the larger model surfperch? The latter two, are mussel meat and jerk baits.

My go-to bait in the wintertime is mussel meat. Specifically, store-bought, frozen, cooked, and salted mussel meat from a local fish market. I’ve provided an image of what it should look like after you cut one mussel in half. That’s about the size you should be using.

Remember, this stuff will be more delicate than Gulp sandworms and most other bait options including sand crabs, but it’s well worth it and you’ll get used to it after a few sessions. It holds better frozen, so bring a cooler and keep it on ice.

The next bait option I use is actually the Lucky Craft FM 110. It’s a hard plastic jerk bait and it’ll work well for both surfperch and halibut. Fishing in the winter and spring for surfperch allows you to catch their spawning season. They start spawning around late February and continue through May. That being said, good surfperch spots are often teeming with their “fry” (offspring) around this time.

Lucky Craft and Halibut an ongoing love affair.

This is where halibut come back into the mix. All that bait in the water means that a good surfperch spot is a great halibut spot! When you fish with a lure for surfperch in the early spring, you’ve basically made halibut your bycatch… Now, how cool is that?

I hope this helps some of you guys get on a PB surfperch this year or next and be sure to practice catch and release with these preggo females!