The morning brought a minus 0.2 feet low tide while gentle breezes rustled tall beach grass outside the front window. A dozen large mussels, harvested from barnacle-crusted rocks the night before, nestled in the pocket of my rain jacket. My goal for the day is to catch a stringer of surfperch and maybe a kelp greenling. I’ll cast into rolling surf until wave splash chases me off the rocks, then test my luck over the last two hours of flood tide where a local river meets the sea.
Several species of surfperch or “seaperch” are found along the Oregon Coast, including pile, while, walleye, silver, calico, striped, and redtail. Of this important group of nearshore fishes, the latter two species are more favored by anglers.
Tagging studies show that redtail surfperch, so called because of the reddish blush to their fins, migrate long distances up and down the coast. Schools may enter a protected bay or shoreline trough to feed one day and be gone the next. More than once I have returned to the same location and at the same tidal stage where I caught a stringer full the day before, and been skunked. In other words, have a backup plan if you don’t get a bite in an hour or so.
The more colorful striped surfperch also move in and out with the tide, but tend to be more solitary. I most often catch them in nearshore tidal pools and along shallow rocky outcrops.
Surfperch have relatively small mouths and attack your bait with a quick “rat tat tat,” followed by a sharp grab. They rarely hook themselves. You must maintain tight line, remain alert, and set the hook like you mean it. Admittedly, doing so is a challenge when strong wind billows your line.
Surfperch are livebearers – what scientists call viviparous – meaning their fertilized eggs develop in a pouch and young are released when fully developed. Both redtail and striped surfperch mature at three years of age when they are approximately 10 inches long. Spawning occurs in late summer. Imagine hooking a giant bluegill in converging current and you have an idea of how sporting a tussle with a three-pound surfperch can be.
Another favorite subtidal fish of mine is the kelp greenling. Kelp greenling have relatively large mouths with powerful jaws. They don’t mess around when it comes to grabbing your bait. Once hooked, they will attempt to swim to the safety of rocks and kelp.
Mature male kelp greenling are dark gray in color with brilliant sky blue spots. Females are dull brown and freckled with reddish brown spots. Males show a high degree of site fidelity and become territorial around spawning time. I have found individuals inhabit the same “hole in the rock” year after year.
The meat of kelp greenling is blue-green in color and firm in texture, much like that of lingcod. The color vanishes when cooked. I’ve pulled greenling up to 4 pounds from a hiding place among rocks and kelp. Their succulent filets are rarely shared.
Reading the Water
Most locations along the Oregon coast where rocks jut out into the ocean and you can cast without taking wave splash provide opportunity for surfperch. Also locations where there’s access to a jetty or a sandy spit. In larger rivers, surfperch move long distances into the estuary and can be caught from jetties and sandy spits.
My favorite casting areas are where rivers and small streams meet the sea. Redtail surfperch often move into these mixing zones with the incoming tide. Nearshore troughs along sandy beaches are also favored by redtail surfperch. As a general rule, striped seaperch prefer rock edges and tidal pools. Kelp greenling are most often found where kelp beds, jetties, and rocky reefs provide cover at low tide.
Surf fishing is like searching for where trout in a turbulent stream, except the ocean is every-changing. Water current races back-and-forth, swirls and back-eddies in constant motion. I study divergent flow for clues where fish reside and ponder how I might deliver an offering to their strike zone. Changing the size and type of sinker and positioning to control the position of your bait relative to potential snags is one key to success.
Hidden deep within journals of Pacific Northwest history is mention of the meat of a crow as “the most unique bait.’ As one early angler described, “This flesh combines redness and a rank smell with its proverbial toughness-all important desiderata…”
Two centuries later I gather California mussels from the rocks for the same reason: attractive scent, bright color, and durability. Because some beaches are protected Marine Sanctuaries, I consult maps included in the latest ODFW regulations before venturing out to harvest.
It takes practice to extract the bright orange meat hidden inside the blue-black shell of a California mussel. Insert a stiff-blade knife into the flat side of the bivalve shell, sever the tenacious adductor muscle, open the shell, and use the tip of your knife to separate the tough mantle tissue from the outer rim. Heart and striated white muscle can also be used. Mussels can “clam up” and go without oxygen for up to a day so don’t expect them to open up on their own unless dead, which detracts from value as bait.
Sand shrimp, wrapped tight to your hook with Magic Thread, also attract the bite of hungry surfperch. Sand worms, nightcrawlers, clam necks, and uncooked shrimp are also used. I have not had good luck with scented soft baits, but others report success on days when large schools compete for their offering.
Small mussels provide a tasty meal high in Vitamin A when combined with a savory broth of white wine, olive oil, garlic, and tossed over a bowl of linguine. However, my druthers generally lean toward a plate of fresh fish, lightly breaded and fried hot and crisp.
My favorite casting outfit is a medium-weight 8-foot 6-inch “Whuppin’ Stick” fiberglass rod and spinning reel spooled with 15-pound test monofilament. Line strength should be strong enough to not shred on rough-surface rock, but not so strong you can’t break off and start over after a hang up. I rig a terminal weight and tie a pair of no. 4 bait hooks affixed with loop-to-loop knots approximately 12 and 24 inches, respectively, up the line. For light tackle fun, cast with a lightweight spinning rod and a slinky. A no. 3 silver Vibrax spinner will sometimes yield an aggressive strike when schools of surfperch enter the estuary to spawn.
More weight provides longer casting distance and more stability in strong current. I use old spark plugs when the risk of getting hung up on rocks is high and a 2- to 3-ounce lead pyramid sinker over sandy bottom when I want my bait to stay in one place. No matter what type or size of weight tossed to crashing surf, be prepared to donate several rigs over the course of a day.
Walk the shoreline at low tide, taking note of locations where waves gouge out deep troughs, locations of rocks, size of kelp beds, and other bottom features. Returning at high tide, take note of where you might safely cast. I never venture onto the rocks without first consulting a tide table. The direction and magnitude of wind, in addition to phase of the moon, affects wave height and the high tide mark.
Favor sturdy shoes with a felt sole to prevent slipping. Rain pants and jacket help protect from wind, rain, and splashing surf. Sunglasses and sunscreen are essential on blue-sky days. Chest waders protect from the elements when casting from a sandy beach, but are not recommended when casting from rocks. Like the old nursery rhyme, “Jack be nimble.”
Last but not least, always keep a watchful eye on the surf. Move to a higher location if a wave crests at your feet. A favorite casting location of mine is less than 50 yards from a bronze plaque inscribed with the names of two beachcombers who perished after a “sneaker” wave carried them off. I am also reminded of a relatively calm spring day when an angler friend got washed off a nearby rock by a giant wave. Luckily, he fell backwards into a crevasse and we retrieved him with minor injury
The Rest of the Story
A recent trip to the central Oregon coast led to a much needed “fish fix.” My first, much anticipated, low tide adventure put two striped surfperch on a stringer. A second outing, further up the coast, led to three large redtail surfperch in the two-pound range. On day three I cast where a river met the sea at flood tide and caught seven medium-size redtails while the wind howled 20 mph from the northeast. The afternoon ended with a rare double, after which I gave up my rock to another angler.
Unfortunately, all favorite kelp greenling holes had filled with a fresh load of sand. However, my harvest of surfperch yielded enough white-meat filets for a Saturday night fish fry and several more to be enjoyed later.