Along the Pacific coast, we have twenty-three species of surfperch with nineteen of those in California alone! The most commonly targeted include barred, redtail, walleye, calico, buttermouth, pile, and opaleye surfperch. During the winter, by knowing the right spots, you can target some of the biggest surfperch of the entire year.
While many summer surf fish go on vacation during winter, surfperch are still hard at work looking for a safe place to feed and spawn. Most of the largest perch I’ve ever seen have come in winter when cold water and big surf forces most surf fish off the beach. Unlike corbina and spotfin croaker who move into bays and estuaries, perch hunker down near structure and fatten up in cold water just before the spawn.
A slab of a surfperch caught by Colonel Kurtz in the Surf Fishing Forum!
There are a great many places to fish in Southern California for perch during winter. Almost every beach has something to offer. Here are a couple of beaches that have been traditionally great during winter.
To the north, Leo Carrillo State Beach offers some of the best calico surfperch fishing while Bolsa Chica State Beach jetties have always offered some plump slabs for those anglers looking for big barred, walleye, and pile surfperch.
Leo Carrillo State Beach
Combining the right tackle and rigging is important if you want to have luck in the surf. I like to use a nine-foot spinning rod with a four to twelve-pound test line test rating and a lure or sinker rating of 5/8 ounce. Having a limber tip is important for hooking and fighting fish and using an ultra-light rod allows me to move up and down the sand with ease. Match your rod with a 2000 or 3000 series spinning reel loaded with fresh mono and you’re ready for the beach.
For presenting bait I use the Carolina rig. This is a simple rig made up of a 1/4th to 3/4th sliding sinker, 6mm red or orange bead, black swivel, eight to twenty inches of six-pound fluorocarbon leader and a hook. For hooks, I like to use octopus-style hooks for small baits and a sproat bait holder hook for longer baits like ghost shrimp or worms.
Although surfperch are everywhere along the coast many of the biggest fish call rock structure like jetties and reefs their home. In summer you can look just about everywhere along the open beach for perch but when winter comes the biggest fish are always near structure. Look for areas where rock meets sand; Jetties or groups of rocks just offshore. Fish your bait here near the rock/sand edge. Downsize your sinker and shorten your leader as this will help reduce snags. If your bait moves away from the rocks reel in and recast being sure to fish right on the sand/rock edge.
When applying the technique above to perch fishing at Leo Carrillo State Beach start by walking the sand and looking for rock clusters just offshore. Big perch congregate on the inside (shoreside) of these rocks for both protection and a food source. There are many structure combinations here so continue up the beach and fish the front edge of each one. This is where you’ll find the big calico and barred surfperch ready to pounce on your bait.
For fishing the Bolsa jetties you’ll be casting from the rocks with a slightly different approach. After shortening your leader and using the lightest egg sinker possible cast your bait where rock meets water—that is, not more than five feet out. Allow the surge and current to carry your bait in and out of the rocks, as this is where the biggest fish wait—sandwiched between rocks waiting for food. Always stay tight to your sinker and the second your rod begins to bend, pull up, and set the hook. The biggest fish here will inhale your bait and slither back between the rocks if you’re too slow.
Perch are generally not picky eaters but they do like to forage on foods that occur seasonally along the beach. Sand crabs, worms, mussels, clams, ghost shrimp, Gulp! sandworms, grubs, and hardbaits all work well to attract perch. But the true secret to catching the biggest perch is to use sidewinder crabs when the time is right.
“Sidewinder” or lined shore crabs are found in any marine environment where you find rocks and moving water. The easiest place to find them is inside harbors where you can turn over “shoe-box” sized rocks and find them hiding beneath. While searching here, always be sure to wear gloves to help prevent cuts from barnacles and glass.
To keep sidewinders alive and ready to fish keep them in a lightly moistened plastic tub (don’t forget the lid or they’ll be in the living room before you know it). Keep the tub in a room or ice chest whose temperature is between sixty to seventy degrees. Because sidewinders are hearty they will live for up to two weeks provided they are rinsed with salt water and fed a mussel, anchovy, etc. every few days. Don’t be surprised when you go out to check on them and one is missing. This means they are hungry!
Hooking sidewinders crabs is easy. Lined shore crabs have a distinct egg flap on their underside. The flap is found near their backside and may be a half-round or triangle shape. Using a #2 octopus hook (Gamakatsu split shot/drop shot or Owner Mosquito Light ) insert the hook into the egg flap and all the way through the body. Your hook and barb will now be exposed and provide for a great hookset.
Here are a couple of important tips about using sidewinders: Time of year is very important. Surfperch search for shore crabs in the winter months from November through April. So they work best during times when the water is at its coldest. Another important tip is to remember that most surf fish don’t nibble bait. They actually inhale their food, crush it in their throat and then spit it out and eat the pieces. So as soon as you feel a pull or nibble reel down, lift your rod and set the hook. If not, the hook that was just in their mouth is now floating away as they eat the pieces of crushed bait around it.
With the use of a few time-tested techniques, the right time, tide, bait, and location you’re sure to find perch this winter. Don’t wait until summer to hit the beach. Now is the time to fish these spots and catch big winter surf perch. Take a day or two and try Leo Carrillo and the Bolsa jetties to see if you have what it takes to catch the slabs of winter!