Picking the best rigs and setups to use for each species when Surf Fishing in California, Oregon, and Washington State (or anywhere) can be a complex decision-making process, and it's easy to get it wrong...
From basic dropper loops to heavy-duty shark leaders, the range of options available to the angler can be bewildering and there's nothing worse than getting skunked because you didn't know how to choose the best rig for that species or surf fishing situation
We hate that "Have I got this right, or....?" feeling, too, which is why we made this detailed guide on how to choose the best rigs for catching lots of surf perch, croaker, corbina, California halibut, leopard sharks, and other common species from the beach.
A lot of this information is derived from years of catching, guiding and writing about fishing for these species.
When we're paid to catch fish for someone, these are the methods we employ...
Best Surf Fishing California Tips: Baits, Rigs, Setups, Rods and Tackle for every species in California, Oregon, Washington State, West Coast index:
1) Best Surf Fishing Rigs: Rigs, Tackle and Setups for Surf Perch fishing
Surf perch fishing rigs and setups for the West Coast (California, Oregon, and Washington State) can be broken down into three main techniques or styles, each with a different combination of equipment needed.
The first style - and probably most popular and successful - of surf perch fishing rig or setup is to use a Carolina Rig.
This consists of an egg sinker running freely on the main line, then a small bead and a swivel, and then a 25- to 35-inch fluorocarbon leader line and a Tanago J hook rigged with a small grub, curly tail-type plastic bait, sand crabs, sandworm, ghost shrimp or similar fresh local bait.
This type of rig is usually fished on a light spinning combo with Southern California anglers favoring lighter setups consisting of 8- or 10-foot rods rated for 4- to 10-pound line combined with a 2500 or 3000-size spinning reel loaded with 6- to 10-pound mono or braid main line.
Central Coast and NorCal anglers go a little heavier; 10 to 20-pound main lines, 8, 10 or 15-pound leaders.
Tip for beginners: Try 6- to 10-pound mono main line if you’re starting out, it's easier to manage and more forgiving on big fish and rogue casts. Go for 10- to 20-pound braid main line if you’re an experienced angler and user of braid main lines already.
To be precise, the rig we use for most of our surf perch fishing on a guided surf fishing session is as follows, from hook upwards:
Size size 2, 4 or 6 Tanago J-style hook tied with a Palomar knot
Curlytail lure, a Berkley Gulp! Sandworm 2in, sand worms or sand crabs
25-30 inches of 4, 6 or 8-pound fluorocarbon (preferred) or mono
A 4mm red or orange faceted sighter bead above the hook running freely
A small 30-pound stainless steel swivel
Clear 4mm rigging bead between the sinker and swivel
An egg sinker (½- to 2-ounces)
3 to 12-feet of 6, 8 or 10-pound mono or fluorocarbon casting and abrasion leader depending on personal preferences and rockiness of venue
8 to 10-foot surf fishing rod rated for 4, 6 or 10-pound line
2500- to 4500-size spinning reel loaded with 10- to 15-pound braid. You can also use a mono main line in the 6- to 10-pound range, but braid is thinner and offers more feel so it’s the preferred option for many, although mono is easier for beginners to manage.
For Central and Northern California, plus Oregon and Washington State, where the ocean is generally more powerful with larger swells and more current, a slightly heavier combo is often required for surf perch fishing with a Carolina Rig to enable use of a larger sinker, in the 1 to 2-ounce bracket sometimes.
A move to a rod rated more in the 10- to 20-pound range suitable for casting sinkers up to 2 or 3 ounces is a good bet, along with a 3000- or 4000-size spinning reel loaded with 10 or 20-pound mono or braid main line.
By the way, The easiest and cheapest way to get everything you need for surf perch fishing (apart from the rod and reel) is to get this complete Light Line Carolina Rig kit.
It contains the right size hooks, swivels, rigging beads, attractor beads, egg sinkers, hook removers (disgorgers) and a spool of 100% fluorocarbon leader line - the best leader line for this type of surf perch fishing.
These are the exact items we employ on guided sessions for surf perch on the West Coast - they’re tried and tested to be the best available.
Just add a rod and reel, and you’re ready to hit the beach with a professional guide-level surf perch rig and set-up.
The second style of surf perch fishing that works well almost everywhere is to use a small jerkbait or swimbait.
The combinations of rod and reel are pretty similar to the first style (using a light Carolina Rig) but the end tackle is different.
Here’s what we use for casting small jerkbaits for surf perch and small bass species, from the bait upwards:
A Lucky Craft LC 110 or equivalent Yo-Zuri or Calissa jerkbait in bait fish, glow, pink or white colors
A 30-pound rated stainless steel clip between lure and leader
3 to 4 feet of 20-pound fluorocarbon or mono leader attached to mainline with FG knot or Crazy Alberto or similar
15 or 20-pound 8-strand braid main line in moss green color
8 to 10-foot surf spinning rated about 8 to 20-pound line and around 1/2 to 2-ounce casting weight, fast action, medium weight
3000 to 4000-size spinning reel loaded with 20-pound braid main line or 8 to 10-pound mono
Using a small jerkbait, crankbait or swimbait for surf perch fishing can be more selective and is especially popular where big barred and redtail surf perch dominate catches.
Just make sure you can cast the bait a decent distance so you can access the hole, trough or gully the surf perch are hanging out in. Consider waders or wetsuit bottoms.
The third style of surf perch fishing – again with a different rig and combo required – is commonly known as bait and wait.
This consists of a single or two-hook rig fished on a longer rod with a heavy sinker to anchor the bait in place whilst the rod sits in a sand spike, waiting for a bite.
This is great for less mobile anglers or anyone who wants to catch a mix of species, with this method tending to be a little less selective but higher on the species count. You can use multiple rods, too.
The best rig for bait and wait surf perch fishing anywhere is without doubt a dropper loop.
This rig consists of a swivel at the top of the rig, one or two branches of line with hooks on, and a sinker clip at the bottom of the rig.
The best setup for bait and wait surf perch fishing is as follows, from sinker to rod and reel:
2, 3, 3.5 4 or 5-ounce Sputnik wired surf sinker depending on waves and current
Single or double dropper loop rig
20-pound mono casting leader (2 to 12-feet) tied to rig with a Palomar knot
10 to 12-foot surf spinning rod
4000 to 6000-size spinning reel loaded with 15 to 30 pound braid main line, connected to mono casting leader with an FG, PR, Crazy Alberto or back-to-back uni leader knot, or 10 to 20-pound mono
Consider also that this rig is being cast out and left for some time, and often uses soft baits like shrimp, mussel meat and bloodworm.
A good tip is to use some light bait elastic to secure the bait on the hook so it doesn’t come off on the cast or when a small fish pecks at it.
2) Best Surf Fishing rigs: Rigs, Tackle And Setups for Croaker (Spotfin and Yellowfin) fishing in California
Croaker are pretty common catches when surf fishing in Southern and Central California, especially during the summer months, when we love targeting them on our guided sessions for a tasty fish taco lunch.
Over the years, we’ve found the best way to catch yellowfin (and occasionally white, and spotfin) croaker is to fish with a double dropper loop Croaker Rig, bait-and-wait-style, with small but highly visual baits.
The best baits for croaker fishing are as follows: medium-size sand crabs, fingernail-size strips of Fishbites Sand Flea, Sandworm and Bloodworm, small bloodworm sections, small chunks of shrimp, squid strips and Berkley Gulp! Sandworm sections.
Small circle hooks are particularly effective at catching croaker species, especially yellowfin croaker.
A combination of bean-size sand crab and small strip of Fishbites on a Double Dropper Loop or Croaker Rig our number one setup for catching tons of tasty yellowfin croaker on Ventura, Malibu, Santa Barbara, LA, Orange and San Diego county beaches.
Spotfin croaker are a slightly different beast and we’ve found them to be much more catchable on lighter leaders and smaller, more subtle rigs...
The Single Dropper Loop is by some margin the best spotfin croaker rig out there, and has won contests with big spotfin caught on small baits like sandworms, sand crabs and Fishbites Bloodworm strips.
Our best spotfin or yellowfin croaker surf fishing setup, from hook to reel, is as follows:
2, 3 or 3.5-ounce wired surf sinker (use the smallest you can get away with)
Single Dropper Loop for spotfin croaker, Croaker Rig double dropper loop for yellowfin
Small strips of Fishbites Bloodworm or Sand Flea, sand crabs, real bloodworm, or mussel meat
10 to 20-pound braid or mono main line (we prefer 20-pound braid with a 20-pound mono casting leader)
10 to 12-foot surf spinning rated for 1 to 3-ounce sinkers and about 10 to 20-pound line
4000 to 5000-size spinning reel
3) Best Surf Fishing rigs: Rigs, tackle and setups for California Corbina fishing
Surf fishing for Calfornia Corbina requires some subtle tackle and rigs – they’re not as tolerant of big hooks and heavier rigs as surf perch and croaker often are!
A stealthy approach and light lines win the day when it comes to targeting the poor man's bonefish in summer, fall and spring months when the sand crab beds are thick.
We specialize in catching corbina in the summer months on guided sessions in Southern California using sand crabs for bait.
The following is what we’ve arrived at as our best rig and setup for corbina surf fishing around Ventura, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties in California, from hook to reel:
Size size 6 or 8 Tanago J hook tied with a Palomar knot
Single medium-size softshell sand crab, or bunch of 3 to 4 small sand crabs
30 to 40 inches of 4 or 6-pound fluorocarbon
A tiny 30-pound stainless steel swivel
Clear 4mm rigging bead between the sinker and swivel
Egg sinker (½ to 1-ounces)
4 to 10-feet of 6-pound fluorocarbon or mono casting and abrasion leader
8 to 10-foot surf fishing rod rated for 4 to 10-pound line or 6 to 12-pounds
2500 to 4500-size spinning reel loaded with 10-pound braid or 6-pound mono main line
The money-saving kit below was developed to target big corbina, so check that out if you're looking for a convenient way to get the best setup for this style of fishing.
The giant corbina pictured at the start of this section was caught on the tackle in this comprehensive kit... need we say any more. It works every time.
A less selective way of fishing for corbina is also using a Single Dropper Loop rig with sand crabs or bloodworms for bait, fished in the same sort of holes and gullies close to shore as you would if targeting them with sand crabs and Carolina Rigs.
This is similar to the way to fish for any sort of surf perch or other croakers, but the best tip is to use a couple of medium-sized crabs, preferably one of which is of the soft shell variety, rather than one big one.
Bunches of two to five small ones work well, too.
The rig below is the one we use on our guided sessions, by the way - it works so well for picking off decent size corbina from that first trough or gulley in the surf where they love to patrol.
4) Best Surf Fishing rigs: Rigs, tackle and setups for California Halibut fishing
Surf fishing for California halibut on the West Coast is mainly based around a live bait or lure approach with small jerkbaits, swimbaits, jigs, bucktails, A-rigs and spoons an option, as well as live bait fish like smelt, sardines or small mackerel .
Basically, anything that imitates the small baitfish and fry the halibut are likely feeding on in the shallows; smelt, anchovy, surf perch and so on. They'll eat sand crabs, too.
But, with reference to artificials - the best way to target big halibut in California - there are two ways of rigging lures for halibut; the first is tied to the main line via a small clip, and preferably with a short 3 to 4-foot fluorocarbon topshot between main line and clip.
The lure is attached to the clip. It’s not really a rig as you’re just running a lure on the end of the main line. Easy.
One of the best surf fishing rigs for halibut is a weedless swimbait setup or swimbait on a jig head with an underspin.
The first option is constructed Texas Rig-style with the bait mounted on a special weedless-specific wide gape 3/0 to 6/0 hook, and a small (¼ to 1-ounce) bullet or flipping weight running on the top shot / leader line so it nestles snug against the nose of the bait.
A pair of small rubber bobber stoppers prevent the sinker from flying up the line away from the bait on the cast.
The hook is hidden inside a special slot inside the bait, with the point being exposed only when a fish bites down on the lure. It can’t easily snag on weeds, rock or structure.
This is a great rig for fishing around rocks and heavy structure – where halibut love to hunt – because the hook won’t catch and snag.
A swimbait mounted on a jig head, preferably with an underspin, is also a good way of fishing for halibut away from weed or heavy structure.
Try a white Fishbites Buttkicker in 4" with a 3/4 or 1-ounce jig head.
The second main way of rigging halibut baits is dropshot-style.
The main difference between this and the other style, is that the sinker goes on the bottom of the rig with the hook on the fluorocarbon leader 20 to 30 inches above the sinker (either a specialist dropshot weight if under an ounce is required, or a ringed torpedo sinker if 1 to 3 ounces is needed)
The bait is lightly nose-hooked, which results in the bait being suspended just above the bottom when retrieved in a twitchy, stop-start fashion with the rod in the air to make the bait dance and jiggle in the water like a dying baitfish.
Small plastic fluke and shad-style baits (3 to 5 inches) in white or chartreuse – like Fishbites Fight Club baits, Zoom Super Flukes or Berkley Power Minnows – are the best options for this style.
This is a great option for fishing open sandy beaches, harbors, jetty systems and marinas.
Our go-to California halibut surf fishing rig and setup is as follows, from bottom of the rig to the reel:
Small swimbait rigged weedless-style or on a 3/4 to 1-ounce underspin jig head, small jerkbait, or dropshot-rigged shad / fluke
20-pound fluorocarbon leader / top shot (3 to 4-feet) for all styles with 1 to 3-ounce weight for dropshot
9 to 10-foot medium or medium-light surf spinning rod rated for 1 to 4-ounce sinkers
3000 to 5000-size spinning reel loaded with 15, 20 or 30-pound braid (try 20 for a good all round option)
The best livebait rig for California halibut is called a Stinger Rig and consists of a similar set-up to the dropper loop, but the branch of line with the hook on has a small J hook to pin through the livebait's nose, and then a treble hook that hooks into the bait's flank about half-way down.
This is required because halibut often grab the bait halfway down before committing - they're notorious short biters - so the extra hook helps in getting hookups.
Fish this type of rig on the same style of tackle as listed above.
The best live baits for California halibut are: sardines, small mackerel, anchovy, surf smelt, top smelt and live squid.
A small live smelt is the best for surf fishing as this is what the halibut closest to the shore will likely be eating.
5) Best Surf Fishing rigs: Rigs, tackle and setups for Leopard Shark fishing
The best rigs for leopard shark fishing in California are constructed from a wire leader and two circle hooks.
Fished on heavy spinning gear with fresh cut bait and a wired surf sinker, this is a great way of targeting big leopard sharks from the open sandy beaches of Southern and Central California.
The easiest rig you can use for leopard shark fishing and all-round sharking in California is a Carolina Rig (C-Rig) with a 6/0, 8/0 or 10/0 Mutsu circle hook, a short length of 130-pound wire leader, a ball bearing swivel, and a wired surf sinker running free on the heavy mono rubbing / abrasion leader.
This is baited with a chunk of fresh mackerel, or a head section, chunk of croaker, surf perch cut bait or similar fresh local offering and secured on the hook with heavy bait elastic.
The rig below is a great option for all-round shark fishing and it's one we use for sliding from piers, casting from a beach, drone deployments or kayak drops.
The next type of surf fishing rig for sharks to consider is the pulley rig.
A pulley-style surf fishing rig works by utilizing a heavy mono section of leader followed by the wire section and hooks, with the swivel tied to the casting leader running on the mono.
As the diagram below shows, a special clip sits just above the sinker to pin the bait in place behind the sinker (1) when casting, releasing when the rig hits the water (2). When a fish hooks up, the heavy mono section is pulled tight and the sinker sits away from the fish during the fight (3).
The advantages of using a pulley rig for surf fishing are that it allows you to cast a large bait further, and with fewer tangles, than other similar rigs.
The heavy mono section also absorbs a lot of abrasion from snags, structure and rough skins, giving you an even better chance of landing a trophy fish.
When guiding for surf sharks in California, like leopard sharks, we use the pulley rig a majority of the time and it works perfectly for leopard sharks, soupfin and all sorts of other sharks and rays caught on the same tactics.
By the way, the version below is tied to our exact specifications and is a proven design that’s been perfected for surf fishing for very large leopard sharks and bat rays in California.
You will notice that the pulley rig has two circle hooks.
This is because the leopard shark has a tendency to grab baits by the middle or end and swim off, leading to missed takes when they don’t have the section of bait with the hook in their mouth.
To be honest, when I was using single hook rigs for leopard sharks, I lost the first half dozen that picked up the bait because of this quirk.
Maybe this has happened to you when leopard shark fishing in SoCal too?
A switch to a two-hook led to me landing the next dozen leopard sharks.
Now, years later, we’ve perfected the small details like the distance between the hooks and hook sizes. It works so well...
The best rods and reels for leopard shark fishing are spinning reels in the 6000 and 8000 sizes; models from Penn and Okuma in the $150 – 300 price range work great for this type of fishing, especially if they have some sort of sealing rating like IPX6 or above.
This helps keep saltwater from getting into the reel.
The best line for leopard shark fishing is a braided main line in the 40 to 60–pound range. We recommend a good quality 4 or 8-strand braid like Izorline’s range of braid main lines.
We always use an 80-pound mono casting leader tied to the braid main line with a Crazy Alberto knot and a rizzuto finish, too.
This leader is just long enough for the knot to be sitting on the reel spool (so your finger is holding the mono when casting) and the rig hanging in line with about the point where the lower third and the middle third of the rod (measured from the butt) meet.
We highly recommend you do not try and use a braid mainline all the way down to the rig as this will result in fish losses, this is something we’ve seen with beginner shark anglers a lot. Don't risk it.
The shark gets wrapped up in the line in the surf or early in the right, and the abrasive skin or sharp tail slices through the lighter mono or braid easily.
This mono leader is tied, using a palomar knot, to the appropriate swivel on the Carolina or Pulley Rig.
The best rods for leopard shark surf fishing are medium/fast-action, heavy-rated spinning rods in the 10 to 13-foot range rated to cast up to 8 ounce sinkers and for 30 to 60-pound line.
This is because the heavy currents and big waves associated with many of the best leopard shark fishing spots in Central and Southern California require a large sinker to anchor the rig and bait in place, and you need to be able to cast the sinker and bait far enough to get it into the deeper water where leopards hunt.
So, from hook to reel, our go-to, tried-and-tested best setup for leopard and soupfin shark fishing is as follows:
Best leopard shark bait is medium-size fresh mackerel, bonito or yellowfin croaker / surf perch cut bait
Heavy bait elastic to secure the bait on the rig
Wired Sputnik surf sinker (usually 6 to 8 ounces)
Leopard Shark Pulley Rig or Surf Shark Pulley Rig or similar double circle hook wire leader
80-pound mono casting leader
40 to 60-pound braided main line
12 to 13-foot spinning rod
6000 to 8000-size spinning reel
Thank you for reading this article on the best Surf Fishing Rigs and Setups for those awesome California species.
If you'd like to learn more, why not book a guided surf fishing session in Southern California with us and catch some awesome fish like the shark below?