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Fly Fishing the Southern California Surf

Fly Fishing the surf along Southern California’s sandy beaches is a fascinating year-round pastime. With proper attire and equipment, it can be pleasant and productive in almost any weather. All of the species that frequent the surf feed heavily on sand/mole crabs. The list includes Barred Surf Perch, Walleye Perch, Shovel Nose Skates, Leopard Sharks, and Corbina. Halibut can also be found during the summer. They enter the surf to spawn and to feed on smaller fish like grunion and baby perch.
During the winter months, large female perch (12-15 inches) come into the surf to give live birth to their baby perch. They provide great sport but please handle and release with care.

Chest-high waders and water proof jacket help the angler to stay dry. Remember to bring eye protection and a hat.  Normal gear includes a stripping basket, a 6-8 weight rod, a fast sink shooting head with an intermediate running line to match the rod, a 5-8 foot 8-12 lb. leader, and a few surf flies. I really like the integrated shooting head/running lines such as the SA Streamer Express and Orvis Depth charge.  A 150 or 200 gr. Will work with a 6 wt.; a 200|250 with a 7 wt.; or a 250|300 with an 8 wt.

A simple plastic bin that is 8-12 inches deep and roughly 12 inches square makes a good stripping basket.  Drill a few ½ inch or larger holes in the bottom and sides; strap it around your waist with a bungee cord and your all set.  This can be had for around $10 at a hardware or home goods store. Of course there are a number of commercial baskets available for $$$. Most experience with the soft collapsible  baskets has been less than satisfactory.

The most consistent flies are about 1.5 inches long on size 6 salt water hooks. Red and orange are usually good colors. All of our target species feed on sand crabs. I find that sand crab patterns catch fish, but are often not as effective as a simple red/orange fly. There are millions of real crabs and the artificial crabs just get lost.

To prepare, practice your casting. A 30-40 foot cast can catch fish, but 50-80 feet will catch more and often bigger fish. With the heavy lines, airialize the shooting head, keep your rod canted a bit to the side, let that back cast snap straight and give a firm high stop to your rod on the forward cast. You’ll soon be shooting 20 to 40 feet of running line. Practice, practice, practice!

When fishing, make your cast. Let the fly sink. I usually count about 10 seconds. Sometimes you can get away with less, sometimes you need more. Vary your count around 10 until you find the day’s pattern. During the retrieve, keep your rod tip low to give the straightest possible line path to your fly. Usually the slowest retrieve the moves the fly and keeps you in contact with the fly is best. Sometimes you need a very fast retrieve. Vary your retrieve to discover the right cadence (strip-strip-pause, strip- strip-strip-pause, …). When you feel a bite, use a strip set (make a long and fast strip to set the hook then raise your rod to fight the fish).  If the fish didn’t get the point, you often get another shot because you didn’t rip the fly away.

Keep moving if the beach isn’t too crowded. Observe the current. The prevailing current is North to South (right to left), but there may be “rip currents” that run out from the beach. To the left of the rip, the current will run left to right. At the rip it will appear neutral. When you find a neutral current, fan cast to edges. Fish often school up on the edges of a rip. Also look for darker water that indicates a hole or depression in the bottom. These also draw fish. Keep moving and be observant.

Be safe. Watch behind you when casting. Beach people are often unaware of what you’re doing. It ruins your day when you hook a kid or a dog. Watch the waves. They come in sets. Occasionally a wave will jump up and whack you. Be ready. If you are knocked down, don’t panic. Get to your hands and knees with your head towards the beach. Let the wave recede and then stand up.

Have fun and be patient. The surf is very dynamic and the more times you fish it the more successful you’ll be.



Bates Road:  Take the Bates Road exit off of the US 101. Turn towards the ocean and go right into the Rincon County Park.  The park has good rest rooms and a picnic area on the bluff overlooking the beach.  You can use either the gentle ramp or stairs to get to the beach.
Santa Clause:  Take the Santa Clause Lane exit from the US 101 freeway just North of Carpentaria.  Santa Clause Lane runs South on the ocean side of the freeway.  Park on the generous shoulders on either side of the road. There is a porta-potty at each end of the beach access.  There is often good structure beyond the point at the South end of the beach. Be careful not to get caught down there by the rising tide.

Here are some pictures of what's involved with local surf fishing ...

Member Glen Short shows an "atypical" barred surf perch.

Essential equipment for surf fishing includes the proper rod, reel, and line weights, and a stripper basket worn at the waist to keep your line off the sand and out from under your feet. Seaweed is optional.

Member Paul Riegart has long been fishing the surf and has built an extensive array of flies for this type of fishing. Like flies for freshwater fish, these typically represent the type of forage found in the natural habitat.

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