The waves lapping up against my leg while I was trying to cast were spinning me into a dimension of frustration I haven’t been in since I first picked up a fly rod. The coastal wind was howling, the sea spray was covering me with moisture, and the waves were deafening, silencing any positive emotion or sight, despite being on a beach.
I put on my waders and wading boots, just like I would if I were in the mountains chasing trout, swinging flies for steelhead, or crawling into a drift boat to float the local river. I put on a top layer to keep warm. A hat to prevent sunburn, and polarized sunglasses to help with the glare. The two only differences from my usual daily fishing pattern were the waves continuing to pelt me, doing their best to erode my ego, and the stripping basket that I have been relentlessly peeling line into with nothing but seaweed and sand to show for it.
I don’t know what I am doing, I don’t know what the tide is doing, and I don’t know why I am putting all this effort into trying to catch a fish the size of my palm. But the allure to add yet another species under my belt was too tempting, and the beach that I grew up at has had these fish my entire life. Not once in the 23 years since picking up a fly rod, have I even tried a cast into their waters.
Researching these fish, they can be caught all year along the coast from Mexico to Canada. Anywhere a sandy beach resides, these fish swim and feed off of the crashing waves and moving tides spilling anything from its shores and into their tiny voracious mouths. From minnows and shrimp, to their favorite, sand crabs. As a kid I have caught these fish with spinners and live sand crabs in the gullies in between low and high tide. Now at the age of 34, at the local beach I grew up surfing and catching those early surf perch, imitating the live specimen with a tied fly from a local fly shop, my luck isn’t like my childhood memories.
Surprisingly, with more research, I found many anglers target these fish with extremely heavy rod, reel, and line setups. For a fish that some trout could arguably bully in a local lake or river because of their size, require a rod a full third larger. Anywhere from 6 to 8 weight rods with sinking lines are the norm for both the hectic winds that can ravage the west coast, and most importantly, the crashing waves that come from both the North and South Pacific.
Being a fly fisherman, despite growing up in cookie cutter Southern California, I didn’t come from the money that the TV shows inaccurately painted for most of the residents that call the area home. So my semi-retired spey setup from steelheading this past winter has been the chosen weapon for the battle. Two handed rods have become increasingly popular by coastal anglers for their sheer ease of casting both for over head and two handed casts, and with the extra rod length to get the distance or stealth needed given the conditions.
So with the waves stewing me into a pot of sand, salt, and seaweed, my surfperch patience has worn for the day, and I return to hit the internet hard to find answers for my frustrations.
Turns out, perch are very similar to trout in the regard that fishing mid day during bright sunlight hardly brings the success of the early morning or late afternoon hours. Also, unlike trout but similar, the flow of water is very important. During spring, trout anglers deal with high and discolored water making fishing possible but more difficult than late summer when the water has receded. The same to be said for perch when the waves are large, the bite and cast, more importantly, your safety in large surf, is hardly worth it. While contrarily, the smaller the surf the more likely your health and bite situation.
Tide also plays a role depending on your beach steepness and depth. Beaches south of Point Conception in Southern California typically have a more shallow beach and smaller waves making for easier casting for low tide conditions. Where north of Point Conception up to British Columbia, the beaches are much deeper with far more consistency to larger ocean waves for a higher to medium tide success rate.
The weather can also dictate your day as mentioned with the lower light conditions being favorable, but also with rainy or overcast days perhaps producing more fish than sunny and bright days.
All of this I am reading while still stewing from my unsuccessful day on the water, but now armed with hopefully the knowledge to hit the waves early with a lower tide and small surf to see what I can come up with.
With an early morning fog, I stumbled down the bluff and onto one of the many state beaches that riddle the California Coast. The swell is small with a buoy reading just offshore at 1.4 feet @ 7 seconds. The tide is slowly going out and the coffee is giving me a pep in my step to start flying that sand crab and hoping my luck changes from sand and seaweed to something more lively.
I started to find rhythm in the waves for the first time since attempting to cast in surf. I grew up as a surfer and thought I was fairly good at reading the ocean. But it is a very different perspective sitting on your belly as a surfer opposed to standing on the beach just taking the crashing waves on your legs. But figuring out the slowly crashing waves towards me, I found that if I timed my cast to shortly after the wave broke, the fly would sit in the green water for a little longer and the wave wouldn’t bring my line towards me without stripping. A few times the day before and during this session, I did cast directly into the crashing wave and found no tension on my line from the momentum of the wave bringing the fly towards me. But during a lull in the waves, it was the best opportunity to get the fly out there with the recession of the latest wave crashing on shore and momentum heading back out to sea.
With the water moving away from me, the tension on the line was good and I was able to put my rod under my arm pit and do the quick two handed retrieve. I am still very much a novice with this type of stripping and practicing in crashing waves is very difficult. But a few casts like this, timed with the receding water in between waves, the first strike occurred.
I was blown away. It felt like a fish of much larger scale smacked my fly. But upon reeling in the little barred surfperch, it sat gently in my palm with water washing over it in the crashing waves. The name is appropriate with the bars of yellow going down its side and a sharp dorsal fin should you hold it the wring way. The tiny sand crab would have barely fit in its mouth but it struck it anyway and the two-day effort of curse words, the sunrise, and some internet research guided me to my first surf perch.
The rest of the morning, that drum beat continued of casting between the waves and timing them to always focus on maintaining tension with your line. I reeled in a few more perch then called it a day to sit on the beach and reflect on another specie to add to my list. I noticed on the beach that if you pay attention, there are eddies in between certain beaches with deeper water that these fish congregate in. There is timing in the waves and like trout and steelhead anglers that watch depth gauges on a river, coastal anglers too, pay attention to buoy readings and swell charts.
I did a few more trips up and down the coast and found success up at different beaches in southern California and even a few in the Pacific Northwest. With varying conditions and more focus than I thought it required, more perch came to hand with a few showing potential to break the palm scale.
Simply put, unless this is the fish of your dreams, it is hardly a species to fly all over the west coast to target. What I think is great about surf perch is that it’s always there. For the steelheader in the PNW, if the rivers are blown out or if it’s the off season, perch are a great option to go and get your line wet and try for a few. If it is a family day at the beach and the kids are occupied throwing sand at each other, perhaps you could sneak away form your loved one and cast for a few. Or if you’re like me, a die hard surfer that knows that the waves don’t always come up, it is another fun way to get out into the water, while also itching that scratch for another specie on the list.
The beaches are beautiful, the sunrises are unreal. The sunsets are worth it to watch for the green flash, and yes, the perch are small. But the effort is worth it to spend the day at the beach and admire another surreal location that a fly angler can partake in. And quite possibly the best part about targeting surf perch, is that perch aren’t always what you get on the end of your line. It’s the ocean, and perch aren’t the only specie targeting the sand crabs, shrimp, and minnows. And trust me, the two handed, heavier weighted rod and reel, will be worth it once you set the hook.
Article written by Sean Jansen @jansen_journals. Sean Jansen is a freelance writer for Flylords Magazine, and spends his time in Bozeman, Montana where he guides tours through Yellowstone National Park.