Conventional wisdom asserts that surf fishing is one of the least productive angling approaches you can choose. It is said that when you divide the number of hours saltwater bank anglers spend fishing by the number of fish caught, you find that surf anglers land less then a quarter fish per hour!
For some folks these assertions and statistics might hold true, but not in my experience. I’ve been bank fishing the Pacific coast for decades and I’ve enjoyed really good action over the years for both saltwater “panfish” like surfperch and rockfish, as well as for big game species such as lingcod, cabezon and even halibut.
For me success has always come down to location and presentation. If I make the correct presentation in the right location, I catch fish!
Before I get into specifics, let me start off with a short rant. I’m not fond of the term surf fishing, because the iconic image of an angler standing on the sand tossing baits into the surf zone using a long heavy rod only represents a small portion of the fishing available.
I much prefer the term “coastal bank fishing.’ Sure at certain times and when targeting certain species you’ll do fine when working the sand and surf zone, but truth be told often times the best fishing takes place around rocks, along jetties and in coastal bays.
Now there are a lot of different ways to approach the subject of coastal bank fishing from the perspective of location, tackle and even seasonally. Yet the approach that makes the most sense to me is in terms of size and species. Let’s warm up with a discussion saltwater panfish, namely fishing for perch and rockfish before wading into the big game arena…
Surfperch encompass a long list of species. To be exact 23 different varieties of surfperch can be found along the Pacific coast from Baja to Alaska. Despite variations in maximum size and coloration, all surfperch share some common characteristics. They all have the requisite round and thin bodies of panfish and large eyes. One of the interesting and unique things about the surfperch family is that they don’t lay eggs like most fish do.
Instead they give birth to live offspring. These fish look like miniature versions of their parents. Surfperch give birth in the spring and early summer and this is key intel when it comes to catching them, but we’ll talk more about that in a moment.
Despite the fact that there is a long list of different perch species fining about in coastal waters, for anglers in California, Oregon and Washington rubberlip, redtail shiner and striped perch make up the lion’s share of the catch.
The fish caught by anglers generally average about a pound, but fish in the 2 to 3 pound class are common and larger “trophy” perch that range up to 5 pounds show occasionally.
As their name implies, for much of the year surfperch can be found in the surf zone where they make a living gobbling up items like shrimp, marine worms, sand fleas, tiny crabs, fish eggs, smaller fish and even vegetable matter in the form of seaweed and algae.
In the late winter months the urge to spawn prods the perch to move out of the surf zone and into bays, lagoons, harbors and even coastal sloughs and creeks. These areas provide great spring action for knowledgeable anglers.
Traditionally surfperch fishing was done with stout tackle paired with a “Hi-Lo” two hook surf leader armed with natural baits such as shrimp, pile worms or clams.
Perch fishing has changed in recent years with the increasing popularity of plastic grubs and Berkley Gulp! baits, ranging in size from 1.5 to 3 inches, fished on sliding sinker (think Carolina style rig) rigs.
When it comes to colors, motor oil, copper and smoke are the most popular.
Casts don’t have to be long and you may be surprised at how close to dry land perch will strike. A retrieve isn’t considered finished until you pull your grub out of the water. Look for irregularities in the wave pattern and fish these areas; otherwise, just walk the beach, fan casting as you go along. A smooth steady retrieve will get more action than a twitchy retrieve, as well as giving a better read on the bottom.
You still see anglers working the beaches with old school surf rods in the 10 to 12 foot range, but more and more guys are going light. When working the beach I go with an 8 to 9 foot graphite steelhead style spinning rod that will handle a one-ounce sinker. I team the rod with a medium size reel loaded with 15 to 30 pound braid, although 15 to 17 pound mono will get the job done too.
When it comes to presentation surfperch fishing is really simple. If you opt to soak natural baits all you need to do is cast your Hi-Lo rig into a likely area, keep the line semi-tight and wait for the hard tugs that announce the arrival of a customer.
When fishing with soft artificial baits on a Carolina rig, cast the rig out as far as you can, let it sink to the bottom and bring it back in with a slow steady retrieving keeping it moving right along the bottom. Work each cast all the way back to your feet.
Rockfish are great! Not only are they plentiful and easy to catch, but they eat great too!
The name rockfish points you to the areas that you should be fishing. Rockfish inhabit rocky structure be it a big coastal rock formation, a smallish isolated boulder, a rock strewn bottom or a man made jetty.
Rockfish are ready strikers that can be caught on lures, but for overall productivity I recommend that you go with natural bait. My hands down favorite bait is squid. The rockfish love it and it stays on the hook.
When using a Hi-Lo rig 3 to 4 inch strips of squid are the way to go. Water movement really makes the stripped squid dance and that turns on the fish.
All of the cabezon I’ve caught from the bank have come on this rig. Rumor has it if you can get your hands on some abalone guts you’ve got the best bait there is for cabezon. I’ve never been lucky enough to try them.
I typically use a 4/0 hook for rockfish Hi-Lo rigs. They aren’t so big that they kill the movement of the bait, but they are stout enough should I luck out and blunder into a 15-pound lingcod or a halibut.
Rockfish live in snaggy areas and you are going to lose gear. You’ll do fine with an 8 to 9 foot spinning rod that can handle sinkers up to 3 ounces. Spool up with 30 to 50 pound braid and run a 20 foot 20 to 25 pound test monofilament topshot. If you use straight mono, you’ll continually lose more and more line each time you snag. With the top shot method you’ll only lose the topshot or a portion of it and your reel won’t be half empty at the end of the day. Be sure to carry a spool of mono with you for replacing the topshot.
At most coastal tackle shops you’ll find small cloth “sinker sacks”. These are little cloth bags that you fill with sand or pebbles for use as sinkers. When fishing Hi-Lo rigs sinkers are lost continually. The sinker sacks save you a ton of money over traditional lead sinkers and they are easy to carry since the sacks are filled as needed. Another benefit is that they readily tear off the line. This way if you have a hooked fish on the line when the snag occurs there is a good chance the sinker will tear away and you’ll be able to land the fish.
Lingcod are found mainly in and around rocky structure, but you can find them cruising over areas of hard gravel bottom too. They are particularly fond of big coastal rocks and jetties constructed from boulders.
Coastal lingcod are plentiful from central California all the way to Alaska. The average bank caught lingcod in most areas goes 20 to 30 inches while fish up to and beyond 20 pounds aren’t uncommon.
In terms of artificial baits soft plastic swimbaits and curly tail grubs in the 5 to 8 inch size range are the preferred offering when paired with a 1 to 2 ounce jig head. Some guys like light colored baits others like browns and purples.
You’ll want to slow roll these baits just off the structure. If you do much bottom bouncing you’ll lose a lot of tackle.