How to Fish for Surfperch (Gear, Bait and Techniques)

Are you tired of fishing the same lake for stocked trout?  Are you itching for a bit more fishing action?  If so, make your way to the west coast for a change of scenery and some of the most exciting fishing around.  

Redtail surfperch fishing is one of the most underutilized fisheries in the region and the competition with fellow anglers is low.  Redtails are aggressive feeders that fight with everything they’ve got.  At an average of 1 to 2 pounds, they make delicious table fair. 

Catching them is easy.  Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about surfperch fishing.

Required license

A fishing license is required to fish for surfperch along the Pacific coast.  Kids usually fish free or for a reduced cost.  Always check your local fishing regulations for legal seasons, catch limits and license fees before heading out.  

When and where

There are many species of surfperch.  The most common along the Pacific coast are redtails and these will be the focus of this article.  They range from as far south as Avila Beach, California, all the way north to Hope Island in B.C., Canada.  Washington and Oregon provide some of the best fishing access to prime surfperch beaches.  Check out my post on the 11 Best Beaches for Surfperch Fishing” to start catching fish near you. 

For those of you soaking up some California sunshine, look at our guide to the top 5 beaches for surfperch in northern California and 5 more beaches to try in southern California.

Surfperch are a year-round fishery when fished from shore, but spring and early summer brings arm-aching action during the spawn.  Large schools of redtail surfperch congregate on sandy stretches of beach and are often within 30 feet of shore.   

The best time to fish is a couple hours before and after high tide, but I have caught plenty of fish right at low tide too.  It all depends on the ocean conditions at the beach you fish.  Calm seas are a great time to get out and fish, regardless of the tide.  

Locating schools of fish in the surf will seem daunting at first.  You will quickly learn how to read the waves and spot areas that hold schooling fish.  Calm spots between breaking waves indicate troughs in the sand and areas that don’t have breakers could be a deep spot that hold schools.  Also, look for troughs and holes on the beach at low tide and come back to those areas during the high tide.  

When finding fish is extra hard, move to different spots often.  Fish an area for 10 to 15 minutes and if nothing bites, move down the beach and start casting again.  Surfperch are aggressive feeders.  Once you find them, you will start catching fish.

Rod, reel and tackle for surfperch

Opinions vary on the best gear for surf fishing.  Some anglers like using a heavy rod and reel with 20 pound test line to cast out big lead sinker rigs, while others prefer fishing with light tackle.  Both methods catch fish and it is really up to you to decide how you want to fish.  Each method has its advantages and I will share with you why I prefer fishing with light tackle.

Rod

Whether you choose to use a heavy rod or a lighter rod, it needs to be a long rod.  A long rod can cast further and it keeps your line above the waves which allows you to detect bites.  

I like fishing with salmon and steelhead style rods.  They combine all the best features for surf fishing.  Take a look at our list of the 7 best fishing rods for surfperch so you can pick one that works for you.

Length:  9’ – 11’ to keep your line above the waves. (Rods as short as 7′ work too.)

Action:  Medium-fast action for improved casting and ultimate sensitivity.  

Style:  Graphite spinning rods are best for casting. 

Weight:  A rod capable of throwing out a 3/4 – 1.5 ounce lead weight is ideal.

Reel

There are a few main considerations when choosing a quality surf fishing reel.

Salt water specific:  You can use any reel, but to extend the life of your gear, get one that is built with corrosion resistant material.  Conventional freshwater reels will rust quickly when exposed to saltwater conditions.  Always rinse your reel with freshwater and let it dry thoroughly when you are done fishing.

Line size:  If you are fishing with lighter tackle, you can use lighter line.  This will improve your casts and give you more control over your bait presentation.  A reel that can handle about 200 yards of 12-14 pound test mono is the sweet spot.  

Build quality:  You need a reel that can handle the grit and grind of sand and still work smoothly when fighting a big feisty perch.  Therefore, you need a reel with high quality, well-sealed parts.  As a general rule-of-thumb, higher bearing count corresponds to better build quality and smoother operation.

Surfperch tackle setup

The rig for catching surfperch is probably the easiest part to get right.  They are not picky eaters and as long as you get your bait in the strike zone you can catch fish.  However, using a setup that has a natural presentation leads to more strikes.  Below are a few of the common rigs to try out.  

Carolina style

The Carolina rig is by far my favorite setup.  It has the most natural presentation and produces more and bigger fish than the rest in my experience.  The setup is also super simple and I have it tweaked to perfection for surf fishing.  Here is what you need:

  • 12-14 pound mono main line
  • 1/2 to 1 ounce bullet or egg style sinker
  • a bead and barrel swivel
  • 2 to 3 feet of 10 pound mono or fluorocarbon leader
  • size 2 or 4 baitholder hook
  • bait

Tying it up is a cinch.  First, slip the weight on your main line, followed by a small bead.  The bead will protect the knot tied to the swivel from the weight.  Next tie the barrel swivel on the main line.  Cut a 2 to 3 foot piece of the fluorocarbon leader to tie on the other end of the swivel.  Lastly, add a hook and some bait and you’re ready to fish.

Three way swivel rig

Here is another simple and effective setup for surfperch.  It is easy to use and keeps your bait off the bottom and in the strike region.  The only down fall is that this rig can get tangled and the presentation of the bait is less natural.  You will need the following tackle to get setup:

  • 12-14 pound mono main line
  • three way swivel
  • 2 ounce pyramid sinker with snap swivel
  • 6-10 inches of 10 pound mono or fluorocarbon leader
  • size 2 or 4 baitholder hook
  • bait

Depending on the regulations where you are fishing, more than one hook may be allowed.  The three way swivel setup can be adapted for 2 or 3 hook rigs.  Take a look at the picture above to see how to tie it up.

Wire bottom rig

Similar to the three way swivel setup, the wire rig is a pre-made rig that ties to your main line.  All you need is a 2-3 ounce pyramid sinker and a couple of snelled hooks.  You can find the wire rig at most sporting goods store for less than a dollar.

Best baits for surfperch

Surfperch are not too picky and will aggressively eat a variety of baits.  Here are some of the most common baits:


  • Berkley Gulp sandworms 
  • Clam necks
  • Squid chunks
  • Pile worms
  • Sand shrimp
  • Nightcrawlers
  • Mole crabs

The best bait is one that is readily available to you.  My favorite bait, hands down, are the Berkley Gulp sandworms in the camo or bloody color.  The perch love them, they stay on the hook, and I can get them at most fishing stores.

Find Berkley Gulp sandworms at BassPro Shops or Amazon for the best price. 

Many anglers like to find their choice live baits on the beach during low tides to fish with later.  However, this is not always legal and some marine life is protected.  Before harvesting your own bait check the regulations.  

Keeping the bait on the hook is the biggest challenge when surfperch fishing.  Stiff baits like clam necks, and Berkley Gulp sandworms can take a beating while staying on the hook in rough surf.  

Other equipment needed

There is not really much you need to catch surfperch, but a few other essentials will make the task easier and more comfortable.

Boots or waders:  Ocean water in the Pacific Northwest is cold,  At the very least, wear a pair of barn style rubber boots.  You don’t need to be standing way out in the surf to catch fish and knee high boots will keep out most of the water.  

Waders are great for flatter beaches where getting farther out requires standing in deeper water.  They are not necessary by any means but I find that I am less likely to get wet with waders.  Just always wear a wader belt and life jacket if you plan on standing out in the surf. 

Backpack:  You are always going to have some gear with you.  Setting it on the beach while you fish is not a risk I recommend.  A large wave can roll in at any moment and soak your gear or take it out to sea.  I find wearing a pack makes moving spots easier and I never have to worry about it getting wet.  Add in a dry bag for even more protection.

Polarized glasses:  You are not going to sight fish for redtails in the surf, but the expanse of white foam breakers is hard on the eyes.  Even on cloudy days, it is too bright.  Save yourself the eyestrain and bring your shades.

Surfperch fishing techniques

The fun of surfperch fishing is the hunt.  They are well dispersed but they tend to school.  Don’t be afraid to move up and down the beach until you locate a school.  Once you find them, it is nearly guaranteed you will catch several.  

Steep sandy beaches or beaches with small pebbles are usually better fishing and most fish are found in the calm trough between the first and second breakers.  

Cast out your rig and let it settle on the bottom.  Reel up your slack line and keep it taught.  Slowly retrieve your bait a short ways then let it rest.  Work your bait in until you find a spot where fish are holding.  Perch tend to slam your bait hard and discerning a bite from the steady pulse of waves is not difficult.  

Repeat this process while you move along the beach.  When you see currents that move parallel to the shore, cast up current and let your bait drift with it.  Fishing where this current meets a deeper patch of water is a good bet.

There is really not much more to it than that.  As long as your bait is somewhere out in the surf where surfperch live, you stand a good chance of seeing some action.  Keep your bait in the water and have fun.

After the catch

Most coastal locations have generous limits on surfperch and you will probably keep a few to cook for dinner.  If so, you’re in for a treat!  Their flat, saucer shaped bodies yield nice pan-sized fillets that taste amazing!  

Whether fried, baked or grilled, getting the best flavor and freshness requires a little extra planning and preparation.  Just throwing the fish in a bucket and letting it sit can lead to soft mushy meat.  Follow these simple steps to get the most out of your catch.

  • Immediately bleed the perch.  When a fish dies, the blood stops moving and all the toxins and contaminants it carries begin to seep into the flesh.  This degrades the flavor and starts breaking down the meat, so get the blood out fast.  I find that cutting a couple gill rakes is the quickest and least traumatic way to remove the blood.  Speed up the bleeding by holding the fish in the water for about 30 seconds.  Then, I like to clean and gut the fish as well.  
  • Put it on ice.  After the fish is bled and cleaned, get it on ice.  The meat will stay firm and packed with flavor if it is chilled right away.  I bring a small soft sided cooler bag with ice to my fishing spot on the beach. When I catch a keeper, I can bleed it and chill it all within a minute or two.  Just make sure you set your cooler bag high up on the beach so it doesn’t get dragged into the ocean by any waves.

Nothing beats a meal of fresh caught redtail surfperch.  Put in a bit of extra effort and you will be rewarded with a delicious feast for the whole family.

The dangers of surf fishing

There is a phrase frequently mentioned by anyone who spends time on the coast.  “Don’t turn your back on the ocean.”  This especially rings true when surf fishing.  

Always remain aware of your surroundings and keep an ever watchful eye on the surf.  Large breakers can sneak up on you without warning and they move fast up steep beaches.  It is easy to get your feet pulled out from under you.  Getting pulled into the surf can quickly turn scary.  

Surf fishing for perch is a great family activity, but make sure kids understand the dangers as well and don’t let them stray into the water.  Avoid fishing during high surf warnings and put a life vest on young children.  

Just a few extra precautions will keep a fun fishing day from turning into a dangerous situation.