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Perch Time

by: George Van Zant
For me the November flood tides that wash our shores never fails to kick my mind into the beach atmosphere and the winter perch mode. This is the time of the year when the water is cooling rapidly and the tides are pounding the beaches into a froth. I can envision those fighting fools ripping through the white water of the first trench along the edge of the beach picking off sand crabs and other food bits tumbling around in the soup. Most surf perch spawn in the early spring to around the end of June but they become active at the end of the summer as the water cools and the big high and minus low tides arrive. Actually, many of the surf perch mate in the winter season and then spawn later. So with the cold water and flood tides, lookout! Itıs time for the perch, all the way to July.

Time for the perch anglers to break out the surf tackle and start patrolling likely beach spots for the pesky marauding barred perch and the wall eye perch. There are other kinds of perch also that frequent the same areas but the barred and wall eyeıs are the prime targets for most experienced Southern California anglers. Some of the others that may jump on the hook are the calico perch, the black perch, (sometimes called the "rubberlip" (but it isn't) pile perch, and shiner perch. The calico perch resembles the barred perch so closely that it can be mistaken by the most experienced anglers. Barred perch can reach 17 inches in length while calicos are always much smaller. Barred perch like to patrol very open facing beaches where the surf can build to a maximum versus beaches like the Long Beach strand which has most of its wave action reduced by the breakwater. Black perch prefer rock, shelves along some reef structures in spots of rocky areas along San Onofre beach. In fact, if you catch black perch or opal eye perch it is a virtual guarantee you are fishing on a rock shelf.

Barred perch are viviparous and sometimes give birth to over 100 young. These speedsters are often found graveling in waters only 4 inches deep. They swim up the beach slope onto shallow areas riding incoming waves where they nab every sand crab in their reach and ride the water back as it returns. If you look closely at the contours of the breaking waves you can identify a longshore trench that traverses for miles along the beach. The trench can be 4 feet deep, especially when the surf is high but itıs usually about 2 feet deep and 5 feet wide. Many unsuspecting anglers accidentally fall into the trench to discover that winter time water temperatures are in the icy 50's. The trench is definitely the home for the barred perch.

Wall eye surf perch hang out a little deeper (but not much) and can also be caught inside the trench with the barred perch but they are usually in the water just behind the trench. Wall eye also are viviparous and bear their young alive. They are smaller than the barred rarely growing over 7 inches.

If you are new at the surf perch fishing game you have some tackle choices. These choices are ones that relate to fishing in the pounding surf. There are two ways to fish the surf and both are dependant on sinkers and surge.
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1. Traditionally surf fishermen cast multiple bait leaders with 3 to 6 ounce sinkers or any amount of weight that will hold the bait where it lands on the cast. How much weight is dependant on the strength of the undercurrent associated with the rolling wave action and how much line drag there is from the tip of the rod to the sinker. The idea is to get the rod tip as high in the air as possible to hold the line up over the waves. After the cast, the rod is placed in a sand spike that elevates the rod further up over the surge. The native Hawaiians use 13 1/2 foot rods in the surf and place the rod in a spike that elevates them another 3 feet in the air. Long bellies' of line caused by line drag can hide the telegraphing of a biting fish. Reels have to be medium sized and hold at least 250 yards of 15 pound test line. Some surf fishermen can cast a sinker out over 100 yards which is their main objective. The second way to fish the surf is much different than this one..

2. I have spent countless hours fishing the surf with the above method from the Mexican coast surf all the way to Malibu Beach. The toughest trips were the trips to San Onofre State Park where I carried 100 pound sacks of bay mussels down the cliffs to the beach. I really donıt miss that experience, especially with the advent of the second way to fish the surf. The idea of this method is to let the sinker drift in the current at varying rates of speed depending on the situation. This method is somewhat young and came about when the small rubber tails came onto the scene about ten years ago (I think!) The sinker bounces along the bottom with the bait drifting in a natural movement which the fish love. Organic bait like ghost shrimp, mussels, clams, sand crabs etc. all work much better on the drift than sitting stationary in one spot. But the most fun way is to use artificials like bright flyıs, rubber tails or very small spinners or spoons on the drift.

This method is the best way to catch perch and even though their mouths are very small and the lures almost miniature, they find a way to get on the hook and put up the strongest fight of all the surf fish. It is the near perfect way to fish for perch. Four pound line on long limber rods are the most fun. A 9 foot 7-8 weight fly rod blank wrapped for spinning really does the job. My rod is a 9 foot Pac Bay graphite and it really fishes nicely. But they are difficult to come by unless you wrap it yourself. The 4 pound line lets you "rocket" casts out to 200 feet or more with 3/4 to one ounce sinkers. Perch fishermen tie a leader behind a torpedo sinker or a slip egg sinker. Attached to the leader at one foot intervals are 3 bait holder type hooks with small 1 1/2 inch small rubber tails impaled onto them. Yes, many times they catch 3 at a time. Some perch anglers tie the hooks above the sinker and do just as well as long as they are in the perch area. This of course is the answer for any type of fishing, that being, whether you are around a group of biting fish or not. So no matter which of the 2 methods are used the answer is to find the fish. It's true they are scattered up and down the beach along the entire coastline but like all fish they will be more abundant in one place over another. The great thing about the drifting light tackle approach is that you can walk forever up or down the beach casting along the way and randomly catching fish over hundreds of yards of beach. But donıt forget where you left your car. Time and distance tend to get away from you especially when you're fishing.

There are some things you can read about the surf that will give you a place to fish. I looked for these physical features when I used the heavy surf rods and sand spikes. A wave surges to a break when the bottom slopes up to the shallow area. If you see swells surge to shore and break closer to the beach than others along itsı sides, it means the bottom is deeper than the surrounding area. This condition identifies a deeper channel through the area and a perfect highway for the perch. During heavy surf conditions there is always a place where the outgoing water collects and roars to sea. This is called a "riptide" and a great place to loft a sinker. Perch love "riptides" and will be located somewhere in it where they can feed the best. Of course donıt forget the "long shore rip" trench mentioned earlier. It can be the answer to the location of fish at any time especially when they are on a feeding frenzy. The feeding times fluctuate slightly but always start about half way to the high tide and stop later at the ebb of the next low tide. Most perch anglers look for a rising tide early in the morning. If you have to fish a low tide the best way is to wade out as far as possible and cast as far as possible. Sometimes that really works for other surf fish especially spotfin croaker. The best information you can get though will come from the local tackle store. Most all anglers go first to the tackle store for camaraderie with other fishermen and to purchase their bait. You will most always be directed to where the fishing is.

Wading is almost mandatory for perch fishing. The further you can get into the surf, the wider the arc of your swinging sinker and bait. And it means the bait is covering a wider area of bottom than if you were standing on the beach. By wading out you can actually fish sideways to the swells and the longshore trench. But the water is very cold so protection is necessary. Farmer John waders or wet suits are absolute necessities for most anglers; especially, at that point in time of the high tide. You can be standing in knee deep water and suddenly be swept off your feet on a bulge of water over your head. One last bit of protective advice. Most surf rods are long and made with graphite. In the last ten years we have had at least 4 anglers get struck with lightning while surf fishing. I do not recommend surf fishing during predicted lightning storms. However, I do recommend perch fishing at the peak of a flood tide during a rainy morning, there is not a better time to catch them.

So with the November tides washing our shores, the water at 60 degrees and dropping, it's time to break out the surf tackle. The fishing techniques are not complicated and the beach isn't far away. I'll see you later, somewhere in that first trench on Bolsa Chico State Beach.

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Added: Thu Sep 25 2008

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