An underutilized fly angling fishery exists right under all of our noses, in places most of us have already recreated. The Oregon coast has hundreds of miles of shoreline, which provide habitat for several species of surf perch. The most abundant species of surf perch in Oregon also happens to be one the largest: the red tail surf perch. Surf perch are broad-sided fish that vary in size, but most of the larger species top out at about 16 inches and can weigh in at over 3 pounds. A unique feature about them is that the females give live birth after carrying their babies 8 months. Sexing the fish is important for this fishery so you do not to take a pregnant female. Due to their reproductive life strategy, their populations don’t grow the quickest, so being responsible if you choose to harvest is important. They mainly inhabit sandy beaches diving in and out of the breaking waves eating food as it is stirred up. Surf perch offer a year round fishery, which is a bonus if you end up enjoying it.
You may have more of the gear necessary to start fishing in the surf on our coast than you think. I make do with a 9 foot single hand rod. You can use rod weights 6-8 to target surf perch. The strength an 8 weight provides is less about fighting the fish, and more about punching through the wind and getting your fly out far enough. I use a Scott Wave 9” 8wt, and am happy with how it fishes in the surf. Having saltwater safe components is a bonus.
Shooting head style lines are preferred while fishing in the surf because they can deliver your fly quickly as you do not always have time to false cast. I use a Rio Outbound Short 8I/S5/S7. This line features an intermediate running line, and transitions into sink 5 then Sink 7. A shooting head with sink rates between 3-7 ips is plenty. If you don’t want to use a shooting head, a 5-10 foot Polyleader with a sink rate of 3-8ips added to a standard floating line is appropriate to get your fly in the zone.
A saltwater fluorocarbon leader of 10-12lbs is plenty to handle these fish. Waders can be helpful when its cold and a good shell will keep you dry as it starts to cool off soon here. Lastly, a stripping basket is extremely helpful in the surf. I use the Ahrex Flexistripper. While you are wading into the waves, there is a lot going on. Keeping your line at your side is especially helpful for when you need to deliver your fly into the zone quickly. This is even more important with an intermediate line which will sink under the surface and come and go with the waves.
A variety of flies will work in the surf and we have several options in the shop that will produce fish. Surf perch feed on a diverse range of foods such as: mole crabs, shrimp, small fish, sand eels, and sand worms. Generally, I like flies with small lead eyes to get deep, however having a variety of weights can help with the changing tides. Here are some flies that work great on our coast: Mayem Mole Crab ,EP Mantis Shrimp #6, Squimp #6-8, Beck’s Sili Legs #6-8, Flexo Crab #6, Feczko’s Cheeseburger, or a small Clouser Minnow #6-8.
Surf perch are a lot like trout, they hold and feed in areas that provide shelter, food, and don’t require much energy to hold in. This is a lot like how trout will hold on seams close to food, but don’t have to work hard against the current. Surf perch are often schooled up and I’ve found perch congregating in the troughs that form between the sandbar and the actual beach. These troughs funnel water out to the spaces between sandbars called cuts. The perch will hold in here and face up current like trout and feed on food that is dislodged when waves break as it is carried out to the cut. When looking for favorable conditions, I am looking at what tide is most conducive for me to be able to reach that trough in front of the sandbar. Every beach is different, but in my experience tides on the higher side make it difficult to present a fly in the zone. This may be a situation where a two handed surf rod might be advantageous over a single hand rod. I also look at the weather, and ensure the wind is not so high that casting becomes extremely difficult.
Wading in the surf can be dangerous so making sure you have your footing and that you dont go too deep is important. Certain sections of the beach have rip currents where troughs drain water to cuts which dump water out quickly to the ocean. If you cant see these areas, you will feel the current pull as you approach the area wading. Sometimes several waves “stack up” and a surge of water comes in. Although, these surges churn up a lot of food and bring fish in closer, you should be aware that the water is very powerful and you should be careful. Be aware of sneaker waves too and never turn your back on the ocean.
Sometimes a change of pace is fun and challenging yourself by targeting a new species in an entirely different ecosystem can be a beneficial experience. The surf offers a great fishery to give trout a break during the hot conditions of summer. Because these fish school up, you will do a lot of walking and casting to find where fish are congregating that day. Feel free to give the shop a call or stop in if you have any questions; we’re happy to help with gear, fly selection, or advice.