When winter rolls around most fishermen put away their long-range gear (although this year may be the exception) and stay high and dry until spring. But for surf fishermen the season is just beginning as they gear up for the “slabs” of winter. Up and down the coast surfperch gather to begin their spawning cycle and monster fish that hide between rocks and structure in summer make their way onto the beach.
Along the Pacific coast we have twenty-three species of surfperch with nineteen of those in California alone! The most commonly targeted surfperch include barred, redtail, walleye, calico, buttermouth and opaleye surfperch. The current record for barred surfperch is an impressive four pounds two ounces caught in Ventura by Fred Oakley.
FISH FOR SLAB surfperch near rock structure in winter.
Combining the right tackle and rigging is important if you want to have luck in the surf. I like to use a nine-foot spinning rod with a four to twelve pound test line test rating and a lure or sinker rating of 5/8 ounce. Having a limber tip is important for hooking and fighting fish and using an ultra light rod allows me to move up and down the sand with ease. Match your rod with a 2000 or 3000 series spinning reel loaded with fresh mono and you’re ready for the beach.
For presenting bait I use the Carolina rig. This is a simple rig made up of a 1/4 to 3/4 sliding sinker, 6mm red or orange bead, black swivel, eight to twenty inches of six-pound fluorocarbon leader and a hook. For hooks I like to use octopus style hooks for small baits and a sproat bait holder hook for longer baits like ghost shrimp or worms.
Perch are generally not picky eaters but they do like to forage on foods that occur seasonally along the beach. Sand crabs, worms, mussel, clams, ghost shrimp, Gulp! sandworms, grubs and hardbaits all work well to attract perch. But the true secret to catching the biggest perch is to use, when the time is right, sidewinder crabs.
“Sidewinder” or lined shore crabs are found in any marine environment where you find rocks and moving water. These are the crabs you see scurrying across the rocks and into a crevice as you make you way out onto the jetty. Considering sidewinders were used to catch the last two record barred surfperch it’s easy to see they work!
Catching sidewinders can be a bit tricky so here are some tips. I like to use three methods to catch crabs. First, find a harbor or jetty and approach the rocks while watching for crabs. Keep an eye on at least one crab and as you move closer follow it to the crevice it runs to hide in. Use a butter knife or screwdriver to pry it out and then place it in your bucket or bait belt. So that’s the hard way.
Another way to catch sidewinders is to attach a coffee can to twenty feet of string. Place hardware cloth inside the can and cover it with a bit of anchovy, mussel, cat food, etc. Walk out on the rocks and lower it down between the boulders. Come back in twenty minutes and pull up the can to catch your crabs.
But by far the easiest way for agility challenged fishermen like myself is to find areas where rocks are about the size of a shoebox. Go here at low tide and just roll over the rocks and viola, there they are, ripe and fast moving for the picking. For protection, be sure to wear gloves when working near rocks as they many times have broken glass around them and the barnacles that collect on the bottom of rocks are extremely sharp. Lastly, let’s not forget to mention the agony of a crab claw pinch. So watch out!
To keep sidewinders alive and ready to fish be sure to keep them in a lightly moistened plastic tub (don’t forget the lid or they’ll be in the living room before you know it). Keep the tub in a room or ice chest whose temperature is between sixty to seventy degrees. Because sidewinders are hearty they will live for up to two weeks provided they are rinsed with salt water and fed a mussel, anchovy, etc. every few days. Don’t be surprised when you go out to check on them and one is missing. This means they are hungry.
SIDEWINDER CRABS WORK great for catching huge surfperch.
Hooking sidewinders crabs is easy. Lined shore crabs have a distinct egg flap on their underside. The flap is found near their backside and may be a half round or triangle shape. Using a #2 octopus hook (Gamakatsu split shot/drop shot, Owner mosquito or Ultra Point Mustad) insert the hook into the egg flap and all the way though the body. Your hook and barb will now be exposed and provide a great hookset.
And here’s the most important tip about using sidewinders: Time of year is very important. Surfperch search for shore crabs in the winter months from November through April. So they work best during times where the water is it’s coldest. Another important tip is to remember that most surf fish don’t nibble bait. They actually inhale their food, crush it in their throat and then spit it out and eat the pieces. So as soon as you feel a pull or nibble reel down, lift your rod and set the hook. If not, the hook that was just in their mouth is now floating away as they eat the pieces of crushed bait around it.
Why do sidewinders work so well? The answer is very simple and logical — if you think like a fish. First, surf fish move away from the open beach as winter comes to find a place to hide and feed, away from the winter surf and surge. Most bait, like sand crabs, move away from the open beach making foraging for food difficult. The biggest perch hunker down in areas where rock meets sand. Here they find safety and a great place to search for food — especially when the storm surf of winter knocks sidewinders from the rocks and into their mouths.
Although surfperch are everywhere along the coast many of the biggest fish call rock structure like jetties and reefs their home. In summer you can look just about everywhere for perch but when winter comes the biggest fish are always near structure. Look for areas where rock meets sand; Jetties or groups of rocks just offshore. Fish your bait here near the rock/sand edge. Downsize your sinker and shorten your leader as this will help reduce your snags. If your bait moves away from the rocks reel in and recast being sure to fish right on the sand/rock edge.
As with any other fish in the sea proper management is important to keeping surfperch healthy. Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research estimates that as many as one million surfperch are caught each year. So in order to keep the perch biomass healthy we recommend that you release pregnant females immediately back into the ocean.
Jason Scribner from scsurffishing.com has written a great article on how to release fish back into the surf. Jason offers great tips on why this is important and how to properly catch, photo and release pregnant female perch. Check out his surf fishing forum www.scsurffishing.com for more information.
* * *
Bill Varney is a fourth generation Californian whose passion for surf fishing is detailed in his book: Surf Fishing, The Light-Line Revolution. Check out his Cousins surf rod series at surffishtackle.com along with all the other surf tackle he uses every day. Find out more about his seminars at fishthesurf.com and be sure to visit his forum socalsurfrats.com where you can read and post surf fishing reports and listen to his PFOradio.com fish report each Thursday.