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Surf Fishing California - Six Common Beginner Mistakes Fixed

Updated: Feb 1

Surf Fishing in California, or anywhere from the beach, is a wonderful way to spend a few hours – you don’t need to be able to afford a boat or fees for an offshore trip, and you get to spend time on a beautiful beach where the fishing is often better than on any party boat.

Surf Fishing California
Follow the tips in this in-depth guide, written by a professional angler, and you'll soon be on fish like this nice corbina

Quality fish such as surf perch, corbina, croaker, drum, bass and halibut can be caught in abundance, too. Hello fish tacos.

But, especially if you're starting out, its really important to have the best information on tackle, baits, tides, and tactics for surf fishing in California, Oregon and Washington State (or anywhere on the West Coast) if you want to have a successful action-filled session, which is where this detailed article comes in.

This guide is all about how to get started catching lots of fish from the beach on the West Coast if you've had a few goes but little success so far, answering lots of common queries and rectifying common mistakes that will be costing you bites and fish.


Everything that beginner Surf Anglers get wrong (Tides, Structure, Rigs, Baits) guide index


Recently, we’ve noticed a significant increase in new anglers looking for basic tuition-type surf fishing sessions to help get them started.

A typical story I hear from new guiding clients looking for this sort of service is of experiencing a couple of boring, disheartening sessions and realizing they’re missing a few pieces of the puzzle to help them consistently catch fish.

Most have plenty of freshwater experience but the challenges of waves, currents, tide cycles, finding beach structure, choosing the right rig, picking the best bait, and locating their target species are a little out of their comfort zone.

So, let’s have a look at what most people struggle with when it comes to surf fishing, and how to fix each issue to catch lots of fish...

Surf Fishing California corbina
Follow these tips and you'll soon be catching fish like this California corbina caught by my young client on his first trip

Knowing the Best Tides And Times for Surf Fishing in California

Understanding the tide cycle is important if you’re fishing any sort of open beach.

Anyone looking for a successful day on the beach should start here.

You could write a whole book on this subject and still not cover every subtlety relating to how the moon and tide interact, but we can boil the subject down to a few key learnings based on decades of experience and a fondness for data.

First, most surf species like moving water - and water moves in saltwater primarily via the tidal cycle.

Tides are primarily caused by the gravitational pull of the moon on the earth's oceans, resulting in the regular rise and fall of sea levels.

The point is this: If you can time a session to coincide with peak outgoing or incoming tide times – say one to two hours after a low tide as the water comes in (a flooding tide) or after a high tide as the water retreats (an ebbing tide) – then you’re likely to find some feeding fish.

California Surf Fishing Best Tides for Surf Fishing
Knowing the Best Tides for Surf Fishing is essential for maximum action. Copyright: American Sea Fishing 2023

Ebb tide refers to the period when the tide is receding or going out, while flood tide is when the tide is rising or coming in.

Ebbing tide and flooding tide are some of the best times for fishing because they create strong water movement, which often leads to increased fish activity and feeding as they follow the changing currents for prey or seek out food brought in by the tide.

Scent from cut baits also travels further and disperses widely with more current, leading to more fish finding it.

I’ve experienced countless sessions when nothing much happens for an hour or two whilst the tide switches or picks up pace from a low or high mark – then the fish turn up in numbers as we hit that peak window of an ebbing and flooding tide.

Tip: Of the two, an outgoing tide movement (ebbing) is considered by many to be the slightly better option between ebbing and flooding tides. I agree with this, mostly.

Find a day when the peak outgoing tide coincides with dawn or dusk, and you'll likely find this to be one of the best days to go surf fishing.

Best tides for surf fishing california
Make sure you're fishing during periods when the water is moving the most, often midway between the high and low points.

This is because most species use moving water to travel, hunt and find prey with minimum effort.

An outgoing tide, for example, will transport prey items like sand crabs, clams and worms from their surf zone home out to waiting mouths sat just behind the breakers or in an adjacent piece of structure.

The fish stage like a trout in a stream, waiting in a deeper glide or hole for an easy meal to drift their way.

With specific reference to West Coast species, I’ve found the moving water theory relevant to any sort of shark, croaker (spotfin, yellowfin and corbina), bass or surf perch.

The only exception being sight fishing for corbina, which is best done on an early-morning minus tide or low water if sight fishing.

Best minus tides for surf fishing for corbina california
A sequence of early morning minus tides that are perfect for corbina fishing

On the flip side, the slack water periods (particularly around high tide) when not a lot of water is moving in or out, is preferred by the ray species that enjoy an easy life and tend to feed by grazing like a cow rather than hunting down specific food sources. Bat, butterfly, rough tail, diamond and round rays all fall into this category.

To fully get your head around this subject, first download a good tide forecasting app on your smartphone – one with a visual chart showing the peaks and lows is really useful.

Look at these peaks and troughs as periods when the water isn’t moving so much, but when the tide is either ebbing (flowing out) or flooding (flowing in) water is obviously moving more to generate the next low or high tide.

The image below is from the surf forecasting app Epic, and shows tides, swell height and wind - all essential information for surf fishing.

surf fishing california
Surf Fishing Tips: Knowing how to find the best tides and times for Surf Fishing is easy with this info and a tide app showing the highs, lows, times and heights. This image shows a peak outgoing tidal movement coinciding with dawn - one of the best days and times to go surf fishing anywhere!

Next, understand that the moon is the primary driver of this tidal cycle.

The moon’s gravity is a force that pulls on the earth and its surface water. As the earth rotates, this force is either pulling the water towards the moon (generating a high tide) or letting it fall away (for a low tide) depending on where the moon is in relation to the earth.

This gets really complicated when you factor in land masses and different distances from the moon to the earth and their impact on tides, but in general the rule of fishing when the water is moving most will serve you well.

An additional factor to consider is that, at certain times of the cycle, the moon’s gravity will exert even more force on the water movement during the full or new moon periods.

Often, these will be labeled as spring tides – this describes when the sun, moon and earth line up for maximum gravitational pull on the earth’s water.

Grunion Run surf fishing California
Big tides, during the summer months, are often when the grunion runs occur and will generate the most moving water in terms of tidal shifts.

These big tides, during the summer months, are often when the grunion runs occur and will generate the most moving water in terms of tidal shifts.

Overall, a big outgoing tide a few days before or after a spring tide high water event is a great time to fish.


Understanding Swell Height and Power for Surf Fishing

I’m a bit of a surf forecasting app nerd. Several times a day, I’ll check the forecast for a range of different spots to get a gauge on where I’ll be fishing next.

I have spots that are fishable when the waves are small (0 – 1ft), medium (2–3ft) or large (3ft-plus); spots that’ll work when there’s a ripping current or when it’s calm, and every combination of these conditions.

The best indicator of real-life surf fishing conditions – what the surf and conditions are actually going to be like to fish – I’ve found is the Kilo Joule (KJ) rating.

This is usually a function of wave height and period (the bigger the wave, the longer the period, and the higher the rating) expressed as a number between about 30 and 1200.

Lots of surf forecasting apps, like the one from the screengrab below, offer this rating and I rely on this number more than any other data point to tell me how fishable the surf is going to be ahead of time.

Best tide and swell for surf fishing california
A typical surf forecast app with – top to bottom – the swell height expressed visually, the swell height in feet, the wave power in KJ (kilo joules), wind direction and strength, plus tide data (high, lows etc) sunrise and sunset times. From this data set, you’ll be able to plan an optimal surf fishing session several days ahead.

Therein lies the key to planning a surf fishing session – knowing ahead of time.

As I mentioned, I’ll track the swell pattern in the day or two leading up to a session so I know exactly what I’m dealing with when I turn up at beach.

Anyone starting surf fishing should follow the same strategy.

As a general rule, when I see a KJ rating of under 200 on an app like Epic, I know that conditions are going to be favorable for all types of surf fishing with small waves and manageable current. I’ll get away with a ½- or 3/4 -ounce sinker on light line set-ups, for example.

A rating of 200 to 400 will provide some challenges with stronger waves and current, and a need for larger sinkers or a spot that isn’t impact by heavy currents and shorebreak.

For example, a shallow sandy beach will see a lot of water moving in and out with heavy current and big waves – say it has a KJ rating of around 400 – whereas a deeper area or beach with a jetty or breakwater to block the swell and current will be less impacted by this and thus easier to fish in these conditions.

Update: The Surfline app and website have introduced a Kj rating for waves in their recent update. They tend to track the figure a little lower than Epic, with anything under 50 KJ likely OK for surf fishing, and under 30 KJ preferable. Over 100 KJ on Surfline tends to be big and messy with lots of current.

Anything more than 500 or 600Kj on Epic will be very uncomfortable anywhere apart from a beach surrounded by a jetty or breakwater structure.

For example, an Epic (app) KJ rating of above 500 will likely render an open beach unfishable apart from tackling surf perch close to shore with a large sinker...check before you go!

I’ve seen KJ ratings up to 6000, often associated with big winter swells, and the result is a spectacular mess of whitewater and giant waves.

Stay at home, unless you’re fishing a harbor.

best times for surf fishing california
Not a day to go surf fishing thanks to the big swell and stormy conditions. Plan ahead for maximum success and avoid conditions like these

Conclusion: get a good surf app that shows the wave power in KJ and the wave height. Check this daily and see what each scenario looks like in real life via a beach visit or surf cam viewing.

You’ll soon get your head around what are fishable conditions local to you, enabling you to plan a family or friends summer session knowing that conditions are going to be acceptable to fish and anglers.


Finding The Best Fish-holding Structure on the Beach

Spotting likely holding areas – holes, troughs, channels and so on – is another element that often goes overlooked.

I’m surprised at the number of people who will just pitch up to the nearest spot and set their stall out for the day, regardless of what’s in front of them.

Think of this part of the process as though you are on a hunt...

If you were seeking a land animal like a deer or turkey to shoot, you’d be very unlikely to sit in one spot near the car park all day, hoping your target wanders into view.

You’d be out searching for clues and signs, exploring likely areas until you find your quarry.

Treat surf species in the same way - with a hunting mindset - and your success rate will improve.

Surf fishing california oregon washington structure example
The darker, white-free section in the middle is an example of a hole that probably holds a few fish, with shallower, foamy water surrounding it

Walk the beach until you see that calmer, flatter, bluer water indicative of a deeper hole.

Maybe a wave stops breaking halfway through the surf zone when it hits a deeper trough a little way out. That first or second deeper trough will hold fish.

There's usually a small gulley parallel to the shore just where the shore break hits, too.

Find where that lip drops off into a nice depth of water where that wave turns over close in after not breaking for a while.

All are go-to areas for a fun surf-fishing session.

If you don’t get a bite in first half-dozen casts, move to the next area and repeat until you find fish.

Then, remember where and how you caught the fish (what piece of structure was it associated with? Did it hit the sand crab close in or further out? Static bait or slow retrieve?) so you can replicate this.

Keep hunting, moving and looking for structured water, and if you can find bait (sand crabs, bait fish, clam beds etc) nearby, even better.

Think like a hunter working out the location of their quarry through a series of clues, rather than relying on guesswork or luck.

Tip: For summer surf fishing in California, make sure you're fishing right over the biggest bed of sand crabs you can find on the beach!

If this bed of crabs is associated with structure like a gulley, hole, deeper section, trough, jetty rocks, reef or similar, then even better.

In winter, apply the same strategy to fishing over beds of small sand clams (find them at low tide first...) rather than sand crab beds.

Sand crab beds how to find sand crabs surf fishing california
Find a bed of sand crabs like this associated with structure on a beach, and you'll likely be in a great spot

How to Choose the Best Rigs for Surf Fishing in California, Oregon & Washington

When it comes to choosing the best end tackle (rigs, hooks, setups, sinkers etc) for basic surf fishing, keeping everything simple and effective is a good strategy if you're fishing a light combo and roving.

Common mistakes when surf fishing in California include using clunky and over-rated tackle like big hooks, large swivels, clunky connectors and terminal tackle the fish can easily see is unnatural. If you're surf fishing using 10lb main line, that 200lb-rated swivel and offshore HD livebait hook is likely overkill.

Surf Fishing California Tips Best rigs and setups
Surf Fishing California Tips: Common mistakes when it comes to picking the best rigs include using big swivels, beads and connectors that are totally out of sync with the gear needed for the target species.

So, what is the best surf fishing bet for maximum action and fun?

Answer: A basic Carolina rig with a ½- to 2-ounce sinker, 4mm bead, small barrel swivel (not one of those big brass-colored ones or a snap swivel) and 25- to 40-inches of 4 to 10-pound leader (mono or fluorocarbon) will tackle almost every non-shark surf species in SoCal, corbina, bass and spotfin croaker included.

Best surf fishing bait for california
BEST SURF FISHING BAIT IN CALIFORNIA - A medium-size sand crab (or two to four small ones), a size 8 fine wire hook, 6-pound fluorocarbon, ¾-ounce egg sinker and 4mm clear rigging bead is my go-to surf set-up for light line species. It’s catch everything from the smallest perch to big spotfin and corbina.

A size 6 or 8 Tanago Match hook baited with two, three or four small pea-sized sand crabs scooped out of the shore break with a small pasta strainer completes the set-up that I use for all my guided light line surf session in summer in Southern California.

I switch to a 1 to 2-inch sandworm grub, curlytail grub lure, or bloodworm bait in winter, such as a whole or halved 2-inch Gulp! Sandworm in camo neris or new penny shades.

Best winter surf fishing bait for california
BEST WINTER SURF FISHING BAIT - A trimmed down Berkley Gulp sandworm grub bait works well in winter for all surf species

So, from hook to reel, here's an easy list of the best way to set up a light combo for surf fishing in California:

  • Size size 2, 4, 6 or 8 J-style hook tied with a Palomar knot

  • Curlytail lure, a Berkley Gulp! Sandworm 2in, sand worms or sand crabs

  • 25-35 inches of 4 to 10-pound fluorocarbon or mono

  • 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, or mono main line in the 6- to 10-pound range

If you're looking for an easy way to get kitted out with the best tackle for surf fishing, this Light Line Surf Fishing Kit below is a great one-stop answer to the issue of rigs and getting the right components that all work together.

It's been developed by a professional Surf Fishing Guide to contain all the components you need to catch lots of fish from the beach on the West Coast and make lots of Carolina rigs - the best rig and setup for surf perch, corbina, bass and croaker.

Want an easier option for surf fishing in California?

A Single Dropper Loop bait-and-wait rig is also a good option for a more sedate style of fishing or if you don't want to be casting a lot.

single dropper loop rig bait sand crab for surf fishing in california
A Dropper Loop bait-and-wait rig is also a good option for a more sedate style of fishing or if you don't want to be casting a lot.

With this rig, you just attach a wired surf sinker (3oz or 3.5oz are good all-rounders) and your bait, cast and out and sit the rod in a rest or surf spike. The fish hooks itself and you reel it in.

These bait and rig combos are easy to use with anglers of all ages and abilities – a short cast into the first trough or hole, and you’re in Surf Perch or Croaker territory. Easy fishing.

The rigs below are used by professional guides in California to catch lots of Surf Perch, Corbina and Croaker on guided sessions and are highly recommended for the best bait and wait rigs for these species. Use with a surf sinker.


Setting the Hook and Casting

So you’ve planned a session around the tides (maybe fishing a nice flooding tide as the sun comes up a handful of days after a full moon, for example) and you know the swell (waves) are a mellow 1-2ft that day.

You've found a likely holding area in front of you, tied a neat Carolina Rig, hooked on some Gulp! Sandworm or a sand crab, cast out and got a bite...

When it comes to surf perch, they can be a little tricky to hook for the inexperienced angler. Smaller ones, like the barred surf perch below, are notorious for being hard to set the hook on!

barred surf perch caught surf fishing in california
A barred surf perch caught surf fishing in California

They tend to pluck and grab at baits, resulting in those tap-tap bites, especially when you’re on top of smaller fish that can’t inhale the whole bait.

The solution is this: don’t set the hook on the first tap or bang you feel.

Give them a second to eat the bait, before waving "hello" to the fish.

When I say "waving hello" this is what I mean:

An inexperienced angler will often go for the full-swing-for-the-fences big bass pro hookset, whereas a swift-but-not-violent raising of the arm – just as though you were waving "hello" to someone across you knew across the street, but with a rod in your hand – is a much smoother, more efficient way of setting the hook.

This action also brings the rod up and sets the hook nicely. The video below illustrates this action perfectly. Feel the hit, set the hook.

So, wave "hello" to the fish - don't go for the big swing.

The last piece of the puzzle, for lots of surf anglers starting out, is the ability to cast a relatively light set-up a decent distance without tangling.

I’m consistently surprised at the anglers who claim lots of experience yet can’t really cast a basic light spinning outfit properly, with all sorts of weird and wonderful techniques employed.

Barred surf perch caught surf fishing in California
A chunky barred surf perch for my client, who could cast well but had never fished the surf before. We planned and executed a successful multi-fish session using the exact techniques set out in this article.

It’s hard to put into words a physical action as specialized as casting a ¾-ounce sinker on a 9-foot light surf combo, but I highly recommend an hour in an empty park or field with your surf combo of choice to get your technique and timing dialed in.

YouTube is awash with beginner casting videos - see the one we made below - so get your basic grip, stance, drop (the distance from the sinker to the rod tip) and timing right before hitting the beach. See below for a how-to on this.

The ability to smoothly cast a good distance, exactly where you want without tangling, will put you onto a ton of extra fish and is one of the main factors in a successful surf session once you have the baits, rigs, location, and conditions worked out.

I hope this guide to some surf fishing basics has helped dispel a few misunderstandings or myths about this awesome branch of sport fishing and will put a few nice fish on the sand for you next time out.

Let me know how you get on!

Last tip: My company runs regular lessons and tuitions covering more of this material in-depth in Southern California, so if you're interested in booking a guided surf fishing trip with me (fully licensed and bonded guide), or have any other questions, just email or click the link below.


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