Surf Perch Fishing: Everything You Need To Know

Surfperch Fishing
Barred Surfperch

Along our beautiful coastline, a multitude of surf perch species call the coastal waters their home. To name a few, we have the barred surfperch, the walleye surfperch, black, zebra, and redtail surfperch. The list goes on. If you’re like I was, and you’re a little skeptical of what all the hype surrounding surf perch fishing is about, this article is for you.

In this overview, we’ll talk about walleye and barred surf perch, some key identifying characteristics, their range, habitat, size, favorite baits and more.

Back when I began surf fishing, I would only ever catch 7 to 9 inch dinks with a few rare 10’ers here and there. I began surf fishing in the summertime and I fished using sand crabs with a Carolina rig. These two factors are what I believe to have been the cause of my quickly-formed opinion of surf perch fishing. Before we get into what this all means, here’s a quick overview of the barred surfperch (species local to Southern California).

Common NamesPerch, Surfperch, Barred Surfperch, surf perch
Legal Limit (#)10 Bag Limit per species of perch (no more than 20 total surfperch)
Legal Size (in)N/A
Record Size (in/lb)17-inches/4.5-pounds
Typical Size (in)7 to 13-inches
Fighting Strength (-/10)6/10
RangePlaza Maria Bay, Baja California – Bodega Bay, California
Habitatflat/sandy | rocks and other structure with sandy flats intermixed
Baitsand crabs, mussel meat, clam meat, blood worms, other crabs
Peak SeasonNovember – April
All information within this chart and this page is unofficial. Refer to the Department of Fish and Wildlife for official numbers and regulations.

Facts About Surf Perch

  • The largest recorded barred surf perch was 17-inches in length and just under 4.5 pounds in weight.
  • The most common catch-size: 7-11 inches in length.
  • The maximum lifespan is almost 10 years with females outliving males by 2-3 years.
  • They are nonmigratory and according to Snow, they usually spend their entire lives within a 2-mile radius (2020).
  • Females (17″) grow much larger than males (12″) (Snow, 2020).
  • Barred surf perch give birth to 4 – 113 live young after a 5-6 month gestational period beginning in November (Snow, 2020).
  • Barred surf perch can be found at depths down to 260 feet but spend most of their lives in the surf zone (Snow, 2020).

Identification

The barred surf perch is tall and thin in shape and consists of a silver coloration with gold-brown vertical bars running vertically on either side of its body. The walleye surfperch is a similar shape but usually smaller, with bigger eyes and less defined bars running in the same manner as the barred surfperch.

Range

Surfperch in general can be found up and down the west coast, but barred surfperch are typically found from Plaza Maria Bay, Baja California, to Bodega Bay, California. Typically, Southern California houses the majority of walleye and barred surfperch while Northern California is known for its redtail surfperch.

Habitat for Surfperch

The preferred habitat of surfperch is listed on government site as flat and sandy. While it is true that surfperch like habitats that are flat and sandy, most of the bigger surfperch I’ve caught have been where the sand meets the rocks. In other words, where you find halibut, you’ll find and catch bigger surfperch.

Surf Perch Fishing

In San Diego (and really all of Southern California), the two main species of surf perch local to the area are the barred surf perch and the walleye surf perch; the more abundant of the two being the barred surf perch. They both share a similar shape as they are taller and skinnier than most other surf species. The barred surf perch grows to be slightly bigger (which is why it will be the focus of this article) and the walleye’s eyes are noticeably bigger. I can describe the differences in words as much as I want, but an image comparison might be a better way to go about the descriptions.

Walleye Surf Perch
Walleye Surf Perch

While the images above aren’t perfect (nor are they “side-by-side”), they should give a clear depiction of each species and help you to tell them apart. The barred surfperch is the main species that So Cal anglers are referring to when they say “surfperch fishing”. The major differences are as follows: The barred surfperch will grow larger, it will have more coloration and defined vertical “bars”. The walleye surfperch will have large eyes and a more sleek white/silver appearance. It’s colors will appear more “faded” in comparison to those of the barred surfperch.

Best Time of Year for Surf Perch Fishing

The best time of year to target barred surf perch is during the late fall through early Spring. In my experience, January and February have been the best producing months. The timing of peak season can be accredited to the fact that mating begins in November and that typically means good things for fishing.

This brings us to an important aspect about surfperch fishing and targeting bigger models. Take a look at the image below and you’ll see something coming out of the underside of the fish.

Barred Surf Perch Giving Birth

That right there is actually a baby perch that is being birthed prematurely. When pregnant barred surfperch are caught, it seems to be an instinctive reaction to birth their babies in an effort to give them a chance to survive. It took a few winter sessions for me to realize this phenomenon. So, after realizing this, I don’t ever do these two things: I never keep (for eating) perch in the winter if I think there’s even a slight chance they’re pregnant. And, I never handle them longer than I need to. If it’s one for the books and a photo is necessary, I still recommend being efficient and getting the fish back into the water ASAP.

Pregnant Perch: A Downside to Surfperch Fishing

Now, I know the photo above was somewhat “PG”, but I’ll have you know that I’ve gained a better understanding of these fish and learned better tactics in handling them and getting them back in the water safely with minimal stress. With that being said, below (not a proud moment) is a photo of exactly what I stated earlier that I will NEVER do again.

Pregnant Barred Surf Perch
Pregnant Barred Surf Perch

When it comes to keeping fish, I don’t like the notion of 6 or 7 dinks for dinner. I release about 97% of the fish that I catch and when I do keep a fish, it’s got to be worth it in terms of meat. This was one of my first 15 inchers and I probably won’t be keeping many perch in the future. They’re actually quite tasty, but they don’t provide much meat in general and when they do, there’s a good chance they’re pregnant.

Both of these photos were taken in mid to late winter. While they aren’t pretty sights to see, they provided a learning moment for me. I hope many of you can take a similar lesson away from these images without having to “experience” it for yourselves.

Gear and Tackle for Surfperch Fishing

Best Bait For Surfperch

So, keep in mind that peak season is November through April. That’s 50% of the secret to targeting big surfperch. The other 50% is in the bait selection.

If you read up on surfperch diet tendencies, sand crabs are depicted as the best bait for surf perch. While that statement might be true in general, there are a couple things to keep in mind. 1.) As fish get bigger (in some species) they become more inclined to alter their diets and eat bigger things. 2.) Sand crabs just about vanish during the peak season for surf perch fishing. If you just want to catch lots of perch, mussel and clam meat are great.

The best bait to catch big barred surf perch is a hard plastic lure. Most of my success for the bigger models has come on the Lucky Craft FM 110. This is a hard plastic bait that mimics bait fish… and big barred surf perch really like baitfish. Since beginning to use LCs for surfperch fishing, the average size perch has been about 11-12 inches and my largest was 15.5″.

I’ll always be experimenting more, but in years past, the three most productive colors were Metallic Sardine, and Zebra Sardine. Pearl White has been terrific for halibut and a few others like “sexy smelt”, “anchovy”, and some of the other versions of sardines have worked well for both perch and halibut.

I’ll also be trying more swimbaits out as mentioned in one of my recent articles: “Catching Massive Fish From The Surf: Is It Possible?

Where to Catch Barred Surf Perch

When I’m targeting barred surfperch, I’m actually simultaneously targeting halibut. So, all the same features and techniques apply. I like to find sandy areas that are adjacent to big structure like rocks, reefs, jetties, or other similar structure. There’s no doubt that surf perch will also congregate in areas that are purely sand. But, if you target areas of structure, I think your odds go up for both halibut and perch.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, “run your lure where you think you might lose it”. If these fish are going for live bait (other fish), they’re likely planning to surprise their prey in some manner. Structure works both ways. It provides a sense of protection for bait fish but it also provides that perfect opportunity for ambush. Here’s my write-up on halibut fishing and selecting types of beaches as a lot of the same applies. And while we’re on the topic of perch, check out my custom designed barred surf perch UPF face shield.

Thanks for reading and if you have any questions at all, don’t hesitate to drop them in the comments. If you haven’t already, don’t forget to subscribe below.

Subscribe to our newsletter!

References:

  • Snow, J. (2020, August 15). Barred Surfperch. Retrieved October 25, 2020, from https://mexican-fish.com/barred-surfperch/
  • Heid, N. (2020) Surf Fishing In So Cal. retrieved from my brain

23 Comments

Leave a Reply