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Ultimate Surf Perch Fishing Guide - Rigs, Baits, Tips and Setups

Updated: Feb 20

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 – based on the successful setups and tactics I use in our guiding service and tournament fishing – we're going to share lots of secrets and tips on the best tackle, rigs, rods, sinkers, baits, set-ups and locations for catching surf perch from the beach, pier or jetty.


Surf perch are pretty easy and fun to catch, and abundant all year round, and a great place to start your surf fishing season or career. Plus, any species hunter will be fascinated by the wide variety of surf perch species available to catch. Here's how to catch them all...

 

Surf Perch Fishing Ultimate Guide page index


 

Surf Perch Fishing Basics

All members of the Embiotocidae family, redtail, calico, shiner, walleye, rainbow, striped, black, rubberlip, pile, silver, white and barred surf perch 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 fishing beaches.


They're a bit like a saltwater crappie or panfish - they're fun, abundant, make great fish tacos and are accessible for lots of people, too.


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 beach fishing session.

Calico surf perch caught fishing in Oregon
Fishing for Surf Perch in California, Oregon, or Washington State: A Calico Surf Perch caught from a beach in Oregon using a sandworm grub and Carolina rig
 

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 (often the sea perch) that occupy specific areas, like rocky outcrops.


For the ultimate ID guide to surf perch, save or favorite this page on your smartphone and refer back to the diagram below for reference next time you catch a mystery one.


 

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.


The best all-round surf perch fishing setup consists of, from hook to reel:


  • Size size 1, 2, 4, 6 or 8 Tanago or Grub J hook (size dependent on bait, lure or location)

  • Sandworm grub bait (2in), curlytail lure, sand worm, sand crab, mussel meat or shrimp bait

  • About 25 to 40 inches of 6-pound fluorocarbon or mono leader

  • 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.

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 Surf Perch Fishing Kit.


It contains the right size hooks, baits, swivels, rigging beads, red attractor beads, egg sinkers, hook remover / disgorger and a spool of premium leader line - all are tournament-quality items of tackle as used in our guiding service by professional surf anglers.


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 (like the one in the photo below) and the main difference between rigging for SoCal surf perch 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 to 6 J-style hook.

I may also opt for a slightly heavier rod rated to cast a sinker up to 2 ounces for more northerly spots. 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.

SURF PERCH FISHING: How to choose the best sinker for surf perch fishing
SURF PERCH FISHING: Choosing the right sinker for surf fishing is critical, and this graphic will help you work out the best size to pick form 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.

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.

 

The Best Four Baits for Surf Perch that will Catch 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: fresh sand crabs, artificial sandworm grubs (curlytail-style or straight worm shape), live bloodworms / sandworms (various localized names - 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.


If sand crabs and how to find them are something you'd like to know more about, check out this article: Best Baits for Surf Fishing: How to Find, Use and Rig Sand Crabs (Sand Fleas) for Surf Fishing Bait


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.

The best summer surf perch fishing bait
SURF PERCH FISHING: A medium-size sand crab fished on a light Carolina rig is a great way to target surf perch in the summer and fall months on many beaches in California

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.


surf perch fishing baits for winter
SURF PERCH FISHING: The best bait for winter surf perch fishing is the Berkley Gulp! Sandworm in 2-inch format, the camou color is a proven surf perch bait

To be honest, the Gulp! Sandworms are a killer bait and we could fish all year with these. Awesome baits.


Best Lures for Surf Perch Fishing


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 for surf perch baits, especially in colder conditions.


That little tail kicks out tons of movement and visual stimuli, triggering those hungry perch every time.

Surf perch fishing bait grub Carolina rig
SURF PERCH FISHING: A curly tail grub on a simple Carolina Rig is a great bait for surf perch fishing

Rig the curlytail grub for surf perch as pictured above) with the baitholder 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 Surf Perch Fishing Kit below the image.

Barred surf perch fishing grub bait
SURF PERCH FISHING: A nice barred surf perch on a curlytail grub

But, as always, a good fresh / live bait is a great option for surf perch baits and many local coastal tackle shops will stock live sand worms - also called bloodworm, pile worms, or rag worms.


Fished in one to three inch sections on the same rig and set up as sand crabs (same leader, sinker, hook etc), worm baits are deadly for surf perch 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 accessible.


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 interest. Give them time to eat it; a second or two. Then set the hook with a firm but controlled upward sweep and keep tight to the fish until it's on the sand.


surf perch fishing bait sand worm
SURF PERCH FISHING: Live sand worms (also called pileworms, lugworms, bloodworms or similar) are a great bait when the going is tough, water is cloudy or when you can't find sand crabs. You can see the 3-inch section of worm on the right of the photo.
 

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 (sand spike) 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.

The best bait for surf perch fishing bait and wait dropper loop
A mussel meat bait for surf perch tied on with bait elastic (magic thread) and fished on a single dropper loop attached to a 3-ounce sputnik surf sinker

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 on half a bloodworm or lugworm, or a scented artificial bait like Berkley Gulp! Sandworm or a small strip of 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 (every 15 minutes) and get the best, freshest most local bait you can get your hands on. This makes a big difference.

 

Fluorocarbon vs Mono Leaders, what is the Best Type of Line to use for surf perch fishing?


A good quality fluorocarbon or mono leader line around 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, and Izorline XXX Super Co-Polymer in 6-pound have been a great performer for us in our guiding services and we recommend you use these or a similar high-quality brand for light line surf fishing.


best leader line for surf perch fishing
The best type of leader line for surf perch fishing in California is around 4 to 6-pound fluorocarbon or mono for general perch fishing on sandy beaches, going heavier for rockier areas and beaches further north

When we head to rockier beaches, or venues further north - Central Coast California and upwards – we opt for an 8 or 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.


 

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 the 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 surf perch?


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 inner ridge too. Can you see it below starting in the top left?


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.


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 surf perch 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 inner ridge / shorebreak 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.


How to find the surf perch structure fishing
An overhead shot of a beach where you can see some great fish holding structure - a nice hole in this case - right in the middle where the waves aren't breaking because of the deeper, darker water.

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! If you don't get a bite in the first five casts, move to next likely area.


 

One 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.


best way to find surf perch fishing clams
Surf perch eat lots of small sand clams in winter, so finding concentrated beads of clams is a good way of finding the fish too.

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 surf perch 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


Barred surf perch location tips
A guided client with a nice barred surf perch caught fishing over a bed of sand clams identified earlier at low tide