Fishing for Surf Perch in California, Oregon, or Washington State provides a great gateway to get into surf casting on the West Coast, and we love helping people of all ages and abilities to catch these super-fun (and tasty) fish!
In this guide, we're going to share lots of secrets and tips on the best tackle, rigs, baits, set-ups and locations for catching lots of surf perch from the beach, pier or jetty.
Surf Perch Fishing Ultimate Guide: The Best Surf Perch Rigs, Set-ups, Baits, Lures, Tips and Tackle page index:
All members of the Embiotocidae family, redtaill, calico, shiner, walleye, rainbow, striped, black, rubberlip, pile, silver, white and barred surf perch all bite most of the year round and can be caught on some pretty simple fishing tackle and basic rigs on lots of West Coast surf beaches.
They're a bit like a saltwater crappie or panfish.
The following information is what I’ve learned over several seasons of professional guiding for surf perch, and it’s everything I know that’ll help you catch more surf perch on your next fishing session.
1) Surf perch Fishing: How to identify ID Surf Perch species in California, Oregon and Washington State
First, let's have a brief look at surf perch ID. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife produce this handy sheet (below) which covers many of the commonly caught surf and sea perch species on the West Coast; California, Oregon, and Washington State.
These range from the most common, barred surf perch, which are found in many areas across California, to the rarer species that occupy specific areas, like rocky outcrops.
Save this page on your smartphone and refer back to the diagram below for reference next time you catch a mystery surf perch.
2) Surf Perch Fishing: Choosing the Best Rigs, Sinkers, Setups and Leaders for Surf Perch Fishing
Next, let's look at the best kinds of tackle and rigs you need to get started surf perch fishing in California, Oregon, or Washington State.
For most roving-style surf perch fishing, which means you're moving along a beach to find structure and fish holding areas, rather than standing in one place, the best set-up is a Carolina Rig on a light to medium-rated surf fishing spinning combo.
Ideally, the best surf perch setup consists of, from hook to reel:
Size size 1, 2, 4, 6 or 8 Tanago or Grub hook (size dependent on bait or location)
Sandworm grub bait (2in), curlytail lure, sand worm, sand crab, mussel meat or shrimp bait
About 30 to 40 inches of 6-pound fluorocarbon
A 4mm red or orange faceted sighter bead above the hook running freely if using a grub lure
A small 30-pound stainless steel swivel
Clear 4mm rigging bead between the sinker and swivel
An egg sinker (¾ to 2-ounces)
2 to 12-feet of 6-, 8- or 10-pound mono or fluorocarbon casting and abrasion leader
8- to 10-foot surf fishing rod rated for 4 to 10, or 6- or 12-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 serious surf anglers
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, sand camou egg sinkers up to 2 ounces, hook removers / disgorgers and a spool of fluorcarbon leader line (the best on the market for this type of fishing).
These are the exact items we employ on guided sessions for surf perch - they’re tried and tested to be the best available. Just add a main line, rod and reel, and you’re ready to hit the beach with a professional guide-level rig and set-up.
A quick note on choosing the best sinkers for surf perch fishing...
For roving perch fishing, I opt for either a plain or sand camo coated egg sinker usually in the ¾- to 2-ounce range rigged Carolina-style, and the main difference between rigging for SoCal surfperch and Central or Northern California fish, is that I use a bigger sinker (up to 2 ounces) and a whole or part of a grub on size 1 or 2 J hook.
I may also opt for a slightly heavier rod rated to cast a sinker up to 2 ounces. More on this later.
But, generally, my technique for surf perch sinker selection is that I’m aiming to employ a sinker that’s light enough to be slowly washed down with the current with a little encouragement such as a turn of the reel handle – I don’t want the rig and bait to be sat static, or barely touching bottom before it gets washed up the beach.
Choosing the right sinker for surf fishing is critical, and this graphic below will help you work out the best size to pick from the wave height and swell size (horizontal axis) to the type of tackle you're using (vertical axis)...
For example: if the waves were 2-3ft and I was using a Light outfit with 6-pound line, a 3/4oz to 1oz egg sinker is the best choice. This is a typical scenario in Southern California.
If the waves were 4-5ft and I was using a heaver 10 to 15-pound-rated combo, a 1.5oz to 2oz sinker will be a good choice. This is a typical scenario in Central and Northern California, Oregon and Washington State.
My aim with my surf perch sinker choice is this: I want to replicate the natural movement of a deceased worm, shrimp or crab getting gently washed around with the current whilst keeping a tight line to the sinker at all times.
Slack line will get picked up by the waves, resulting in the rig getting dragged up the beach in double-quick time, and fewer bites thanks to an unnatural presentation.
And what dead crab or worm moves faster than the current? Not one the perch wants to eat.
With the surf perch often living in stony, rocky places or pebble-laden beaches, maintaining a good degree of hook sharpness is really important.
It’s worth checking visually and on your thumbnail (if it scores the nail easily, it’s still pretty sharp…) every few casts to see if the hook point has been turned over on a small stone or shell.
If it’s anything less than sticky sharp, cut and retie. Surf perch have evolved to have pretty tough, bony mouths and getting a good hook hold is aided by a super-sharp hook.
3) Surf Perch Fishing: The Best Four Baits for Surf Perch that will Catch them all year round on any beach in California, Oregon, or Washington State
Now we know what tackle to use, let's look at the best baits for surf perch fishing.
On our guided sessions, we use just four different baits for surf perch fishing: sand crabs, artificial sandworm grubs, bloodworm (also called pile worms, sand worms etc, they're the worms with legs like a centipede) and Fishbites bloodworm scented strips.
In summer, when beds of sand crabs (also called sand fleas or mole crabs) are common, we use these for bait for surf perch bait most of the time because this is what the fish are feeding on. Match the hatch, as the old saying goes.
Tip: If sand crabs and how to find them are something you'd like to know more about, check out this artcicle - Best Baits for Surf Fishing: How to Find, Use and Rig Sand Crabs (Sand Fleas) for Surf Fishing Bait
Anyway, one medium-sized sand crab, or three to four small ones, on a size 4 or 6 hook fished on a simple Carolina rig (as detailed earlier in this article) is a fun and effective way of catching lots of surf perch and other species in warmer months.
In winter, when sand crabs are less common, we find the Berkley Gulp! Sandworm in 2-inch camo color, a curlytail grub or real live sand worms, to be the most effective baits.
Starting with the Gulp! Sandworms: Fished on a light Carolina rig, these soft artificial grubs are threaded up the hook with the point exiting about two-thirds of the way down the bait.
They cast well and are irresistible to many surf species; perch, croaker, even rays and small sharks.
To be honest, the Gulp! Sandworms are a killer bait and we could fish all year with these. Awesome baits.
However, when we need something with a bit more movement to catch a predatory perch's eye in turbulent water, a small curlytail grub in motor oil, watermelon, root beer or similar shades is an even better option.
That little tail kicks out tons of movement and visual stimuli, triggering those hungry perch every time.
Rig the curlytail grub for surf perch as pictured above) with the hook protruding at the base of the tail, and use a 25-30-inch leader with a red bead on the line just above the hook for added visual enticement (This works, trust me...)
Slowly and steadily retrieve after a nice long cast to cover all the water, and only set the hook when the fish is 100% "ON!" Ignore bangs and little taps.
The chunky barred surf perch below couldn't resist a curytail grub from the Light Line Surf Fishing Kit below the image.
But, as always, a good live bait is a great option for surf perch baits and many local tackle shops will stock live sand worms, also called bloodworm, pile worms, or rag worms.
Fished in two to three inch sections on the same rig and set up as sand crabs (same leader, sinker, hook etc), these are deadly when the going is a little tough, in winter for example, or on the Central Coast and up when fresh bait like sand crabs may not be so easily accesible.
Thread that worm section up the hook so the hook point is nicely exposed but the shank of the hook is covered by the worm.
Don't be tempted to overload the hook with bait or mask the hook point, or you'll miss bites. A size 4 Tanago hook with a 2 to 3-inch section of fresh cut worm works great.
Let it bounce around the shorebreak and nearby structure as you would a sand crab, and let that blood leak out so the perch can find it.
Set the hook on the second or third hit, resisting the temptation to go for a big hook set on the first sign of interst. Give them time to eat it; a second or two.
4) Surf Perch Fishing: The Best Bait and Wait Rig, Sinkers, Bait Elastic (magic thread) and Baits
Another way to catch surf perch is to use a fresh bait like mussel meat, shrimp, sandworm, bloodworm, lugworm or clam on a static bait and wait rig in one spot.
This allows you to stay in one spot and with a rod holder doing the hard work, it can be a more relaxing way to fish for families and beginners.
The best rig for bait and wait surf perch fishing is an ASF Single or Double Dropper Loop paired with a wired sputnik surf sinker in the 2- to 4-ounce range.
Try small grape-size baits and attach soft baits like fresh mussel meat (see above), clam meat, ghost shrimp, worms and market shrimp with a few turns of ASF Bait Elastic in light grade.
Thread half a bloodworm or lugworm, or a scented artificial bait like Berkley Gulp! Sandworm or Fishbites Bloodworm.
All are great baits for surf perch with worm baits better for sandy areas, and shellfish better for rockier fishing spots.
Location is easy: Target the same deeper areas - holes, troughs and channels - but use a sand spike / rod holder to hold the rod upright whilst waiting for a bite, rather than holding and slowly retrieving as you do with a grub or curlytail lure.
Rebait frequently and get the best, freshest most local bait you can get your hands on. This makes a big difference.
5) Surf Perch Fishing: Fluorocarbon vs Mono Leaders, what is the Best Type of Line to use?
A good quality fluorocarbon leader line around 4 to 6-pound breaking strain seems to be the sweet spot for tying Carolina Rigs for surf perch fishing where conditions aren’t too extreme in Southern California.
This is what I’ve used extensively in guided and personal fishing sessions with great success.
Varivas in 4.4lb and Opsin Fluorocarbon in 6 pound has been a great performer for us in our guiding services and we recommend you use this or a similar high-quality brand.
However, when we head to rockier beaches, or venues further north - Central Coast California and upwards – we opt for a 10-pound mono leader, with Izorline XXX Co-Polymer a firm favorite.
The larger waves, heavier tackle required, bigger sinkers and possibility of larger fish, including striped bass, make 8, 10 or 15-pound mono the best choice of leader and main line for surf perch fishing in Oregon and Washington State, especially.
6) Surf perch Fshing: How to find the best Structure and Water for Surf Perch on any Beach in California, Oregon and Washington State
Now we've worked out the best bait and tackle to use for surf perch fishing, let's look at finding surf perch once you hit the beach.
Do you know what the biggest, most obvious feature on a beach is? The one that’s holding 90% of the food and a majority of the surfperch?
It’s staring you in the face, literally, or you’re treading on it.
I’m talking about the shore break lip – that first little ridge of broken shells and detritus that sits just off the wet sand in a foot or two of water where that last breaker turns over and churns up the bottom.
There’s often a subtle ditch-type structure running parallel to this ridge too.
Most beaches have this kind of feature and this is where a majority of the perch will be feeding, assuming the tide is some way up from a low, probably an hour or two either side of the high tide.
This is my preferred state of tide for surfperch, by the way, and if it coincides with dawn or dusk, then even better. The fat barred surf perch below was caught right on dusk on an ebbing tide - a great to time fish for surf perch.
Big barred surf perch in particular will move up the beach to feast using this change in light, moving water and availability of fresh food turned over by the high tide.
When I describe this quirk of surfperch fishing to a newbie (that they can be caught almost under your feet), I can understand their mild disbelief: “You want me to fish there?”
To our human eye, living and feeding in the churn of the shore break doesn’t compute. Fishing there seems insane, but it’s really not.
I promise you that on a standard flat sandy beach, that first ridge structure is surf perch city and they will come so close that you won’t believe your senses when you get a bite.
I have a GoPro video of myself hooking a perch in just such a shallow water scenario, with the fish feeding so close to the beach that the act of setting the hook was enough to beach it. This happens frequently.
I love it when a client hooks a fish this close in because it proves to them that the fish are feeding there, which means that on their next session they’ll be able to take advantage of this quirk to catch more, too.
This inside ridge feature becomes increasingly important as the winter draws in and the California sand crab population disappears.
I promise that your ability to effectively ID and fish this kind of feature will pay increasing dividends as the season progresses.
Of course, explore the surrounding structure (rocks, troughs, gullies, holes etc) via a few longer casts, but working that churned-up area closest to shore and especially that little ridge is key.
When you find a group of fish working that shore break area, it’s easy to string together several perch on the bounce.
The second best fish-holding area outside of the first lip structure on the beach, will be any sort of deeper hole, trough or channel you can identify.
Look for where the waves aren’t breaking and where the water appears to be darker, and thus deeper, than its immediate surroundings.
Fish into this darker water and the edges around it where the sandier, foamier water meets the deeper water. Keep moving and targeting these likely areas until you find fish.
The best surf perch fishing tip for locating them is this: Hunt them down – don't sit in one place all day!
7) Surf Perch Fishing: One Surprising thing that made a Big Difference when Locating Surf Perch
Remember that shore break ridge feature we talked about earlier?
It’s home to lots of food items but key to winter surfperch fishing is the presence of sand clams – those little bean-shaped, fingernail-size shells that litter beaches up and down the West Coast.
Mostly, they’re members of the Donax family of bean clams and you’ll find a stack of them in the average shore break, with certain areas displaying greater concentrations of the shells both alive and dead.
You’ll probably have mistaken the live ones (and their subtle movements in the sand as they filter water for food) for a large sandcrab or two.
So, here’s the game-changer: In the winter, the surfperch eat these clams in large numbers.
They may seem like little rocks with no nutrition but when you cut open a barred surfperch for bait or fileting during the winter, their gut is stacked with these shells like a kid’s stocking at Christmas.
I have a video of a big barred surfperch being gutted and dozens of shells spilling out of its digestive system – this happens every time I’ve cut open a decent sized perch in winter. Clearly, they are able to gain enough nutrition from the live clams to make them worth eating.
When I first realized this and was able to target beds of live clams during the winter, my surfperch catch rate went up dramatically.
It went up further still when I got into the habit of identifying concentrated beds of sand clams at low tide, and then returning to target these beds when they had water over them using basic C-rigged grubs.
This was a very successful format for running surfperch trips with clients and resulted in numerous PBs and busy days as we tapped into the perch’s little-known love of these tiny shellfish.
I suggest you do the same!
8) Surf Perch Fishing: Tips for Catching BIG Surf Perch
Perch love a visual element to any bait, and if using any sort of artificial bait, I use a small orange or red faceted 4mm attractor bead just above the hook.
Big surf perch are clearly visual hunters with eyes at the front on each side — like a freshwater panfish — giving them great binocular vision for spotting prey.
Giving them something extra to spot and home in one definitely picks up a few extra fish over a session, and small faceted beads catch the light perfectly as they tumble around in the surf.
Yellowfin croaker also love a bit of visual attraction like this, less so spotfin and corbina.
It’s not exactly breaking news that the Gulp! Sandworm in 2-inch camo format is a great bait.
But I now chop a half inch or so off the thicker end of the grub to leave a more slender bait that fits perfectly on a size 4 or 2 Tanago or Grub hook. I started doing this after noticing lots of short bites on the full-size grub.
In winter, I want to catch everything in front of me — small and large — and I’ve found that a slightly smaller grub hooks a lot more fish, and still attracts the larger specimens.
I use the small half-inch ends to tip bait-and-wait rigs or on the hook when there’s a bunch of smaller fish around.
Just nip a little section off the head end with your fingernail and thread onto the hook as normal with the hook exiting two thirds of the way down the body on the dark side.
On this subject, a tip that I believe makes a difference is purposely engineering the side of the bait that likely appears to the fish first.
With particular reference to the camo nereis sandworms; one side is basically dark red, the other is a dark greeny-brown.
Check out the contrast between the wet sand and each side – the dark red side really stands out, whilst the green-brown side blends into the average wet sandy beach a little too well for my liking.
So, I ensure the hook is rigged so the point exits on the green side, thus weighting the bait so it swims with the most visible red side more in the fish’s eyeline.
For two-tone baits, apply the same logic: what color is going to be most visible given what you’re fishing over?
Surf anglers looking to selectively target big surf perch should look at the curlytail grubs as mentioned earlier, or hard bait options like the Lucky Craft and Calissa diving crankbaits.
These are highly selective and hard to cast any distance for the less experienced angler. Small grubs are better for beginners, by far.
It’s also impossible to hold a lure in position in the bite zone as you can with a Carolina-rigged bait.
Thus, in my opinion, you are more likely to have a busy multi-fish day on a grub bait rather than a hard bait.
But, if all you care about is catching the giants and you don’t mind casting a lot, a diving crankbait is a good option and will trigger a response from big aggressive perch in the same zones.
On some central and NorCal beaches, a 110-size diving crankbait is the best option due to the larger numbers of big perch feeding close to shore.
So, by switching to a decent size artificial lure, you will be more selective size-wise wherever you fish.
Our top option for big surf perch is still the grub-or curlytail-type bait, though.
9) Surf Perch Fishing: Tips, Information and Techniques for Catching More Surf Perch (limits!)
For Gulp! Sandworms; technique-wise, cast as far as you can to cover lots of territory, and begin a very slow retrieve while staying in direct contact with the sinker so you can feel it bouncing on the bottom, stopping occasionally between wave sets. Imagine it’s a dead sandworm being washed around surf. It’s not zipping from A to B in a straight line. It’s stopping, starting, twitching, bumping and moving around. A curly-tail grub or similar soft plastic bait lends itself to a more consistent, steady retrieve with the built-in action and movement.
The worst thing you can do when surf perch fishing is to stand in one spot for a couple of hours. I’ve found schools of surf perch to be pretty mobile once the summer-level concentrations of sand crabs have gone. They’re actively hunting in the shore break area in small groups and will quickly move to the next food-laden bit of structure. So, keep moving. If you don’t get a bite in half a dozen casts, head to the next likely hole, trough, channel, rockpile or jetty. Hunt the fish down if you want to rack up some good numbers — don’t expect them to stay put or come to you.
Target the first lip and inner trough with a small hook and half a grub if you want to catch lots of smaller models (great fun fishing with kids and beginners) and the outer structure in deeper water for the eater-grade perch if you’re a little more experienced. Either way, every retrieve ends up with a long soak in the shore break to maximize bites.
Walleye surfperch are one of the smaller surfperch species and I’ve been asked to target them specifically a few times by species hunter anglers. The quirk with walleye surfperch is that they love rocks, and I’ve never caught one more than a few meters away from a jetty or rockpile.
Barred surfperch and their cousins, the redtail and calico, seem less fussed about this and will roam any sort of beach-type habitat freely. Not so with the walleye. So, if you want one of those weird little critters to add to your life list, find some rocks, use a small one-inch section of a sandworm (real or fake) and a size 6 or 8 hook.
Although common, lots of surf perch populations are under pressure because they’re tasty and pretty easy to catch once you find them and know a few basic tactics. I highly recommend taking only male surf perch for this reason, also because large females are often pregnant and prone to spilling out baby perch in the shore break as fast as you can return them.
Surf perch have a 20-fish limit in California (with no more than ten of one species) and if the large female you’ve just taken spills out 10 babies in your bag just before the game warden checks your kit, you’re in big trouble. It’s just not worth the risk.
You can determine the sex of a barred surf perch easily by looking at the anal fin (the fin on the underside between the anal vent and tail) — if it’s one clean unbroken line, it’s a female. If the fin has a small break or notch, it’s likely a male.
10) Surf Perch Fishing: Six Common Surf Perch Fishing Mistakes and How to Rectify Them
Perch will tolerate relatively heavy leaders and big hooks, but tackle that tips over onto the cruder end of the scale will cost you fish. Assuming we’re talking about Carolina-rigged grub baits, the maximum strength leader I like to fish with is 10-pound fluorocarbon as I find that going heavier will slow down the action, but I only rig up with 10-pound if fishing with beginner clients as I find the extra stiffness helps eliminates tangles, or fishing rocky beaches for bigger fish. A 4 or 6-pound fluorocarbon is my go-to surf perch leader most of the time.
Common mistakes with a C-rig include using a large, cheap swivel that’s not engineered to turn and take out twist from the line on tackle that light, using too short a leader between the hook and sinker (30 inches is the sweet spot), and using big rigging beads that look unnatural. Use fly fishing swivels and clear 4mm beads.
Trying to use heavy mono main line and casting leader that gets picked up by the current too much and impedes casting distances. Using light mono or braid main lines in the 6- to 10-pound category.
Using too light a sinker, that then gets picked up by the current too easily, resulting in every cast washing down the beach in double-quick time and out of the bite zone. Up the sinker size until you can feel the sinker on the bottom and can control the rig.
A short trout rod and reel loaded with wiry old mono is also a burden rather than a help. Get just one of these things wrong and your catch rate will suffer; a short rod will make it harder to keep the control the line in the surf and detect bites, for example. Use an 8ft-plus rod and decent spinning reel.
Pay attention to the leader line and any damage. Anything beyond a mild kink should be rectified with a cut and re-tie, and most damage occurs around the sinker and swivel areas. Keeping things aerodynamic and small in this area will help reduce tangles and damage. Don’t be lazy about this; I’ve seen some heart-breaking loses occur when an angler has been using the same leader all day and the light line has become damaged, resulting in a breakage from a potential fish-of-the-day that always seems to hit late on. Just spend 30 seconds on a re-tie if you’re unsure.
Thank you for reading this guide to surf perch fishing on the West Coast.
I run guided trips all year round for surf perch in Southern California, so if you'd like to learn more or to set up a session, email me on email@example.com or click here for information on guided surf fishing trips in California.