2011 Species Hunt: Surfscapades 1

Part I: Wintertime bounty for the angler

The sun shines bright in Southern California, but it is scattered by rooftops and reflected by windows before it warms my soul. I catch a glimpse of it in the mornings as its weak rays penetrate my room, then hopefully another glimpse as it slides under the mountains and sets the horizon on fire. My life is lit under the cold flash of fluorescent lights, my ears are filled with a constant stream of didactic lectures, my nostrils inhale the sticky smell of formaldehyde impregnated flesh, and my hands only feel the cold carbonized steel of my instruments.

A man whose blood flows to the tides of the ocean can only take so much. In between measurements of aptitude and endless skills assessments, there is a pause. It is an almost imperceptible pause in the flood of education as my grades are processed and my instructors prepare for the next part of the quarter. One day, but one glorious day it will be for me.

I had been following reports of fishing through an assortment of avenues and was still very eager to explore the varied fisheries found throughout Southern California. However, with the biting cold of winter just barely giving away to a warm spell reminiscent of springtime, the water temperature was still too low to rouse most species of fish to actively feed.

Despite less than ideal circumstances, one ubiquitous fish consistently showed it’s pretty little face to the people willing to brave the cold surf to pursue it. A fish that can be found by the dozens to those who know how to tempt it, and yet a fish that can be just as elusive to those who do not know it’s preferences.

Barred surfperch: a fish that has developed an almost cult like following in certain southern California fishing circles due to it’s willingness to bite, tendency to school, and even it’s size, attaining a hefty 17 inches; quite a handful considering the fish is almost a circle in shape. Another great trait of BSP are their readiness to strike at artificial lures, ranging from grubs to plastic worms to even hardbaits and jerkbaits.

Having found good success in the surf with jerkbaits and halibut last year, I became somewhat familiar with a few locations in Southern California for hunting the flat predatory fish, but had not scouted any good perch habitats yet. Eventually, I decided upon fishing a beach that was relatively close to the metropolitan areas of the OC, and got ready for a long day of hunting fish in the surf.

Now, I have fished in a variety of environments across the world, but I am far from a proficient fisherman. I am constantly learning, adapting, and finding out how to best pursue the various species on my lists. Surf fishing has been one of the types of fishing that I have purposely shied away for a long time now. Something about fishing in shallow water that is constantly pounded with relentless waves and abraded by gritty sand just makes me feel like little could thrive in such a place. Sure, I have had some success as a child fishing cut market shrimp on a dropper loop for a variety of surfperch species in Northern California, from walleye to calico and redtail, but my success was never consistent nor planned.

This day would be different. The plan was to find fishy water, try to learn and read the surf, and catch fish with my favorite method of fishing: lures. True, the GCSW that usually produced in the surf was not a classic “lure” due to it’s scent impregnated biodegradable nature, but it was fished as a lure so that is what it is in my book.

Part II: Underwater trains

Daybreak saw me at the surf, finding ideal swells of 1-2 feet, little salad, and just slight gusts of wind. Textbook surf fishing conditions, although we will see what the fish think of textbooks. I waded into the surf in swimming trunks and immediately wondered whether my budget would allow for a pair of chest waders… The cool water lapping up my thighs immediately chilled me and I was happy to be wearing a thick sweater despite the sunny and hot conditions forecasted for the rest of the day.

I was rigged up with a standard perch surf fishing outfit, CR with a length of 6 lb fluorocarbon leader to a small mosquito hook. I had chosen to start the day with a small plastic shrimp lure that I had bought in Japan, hoping that maybe thinking outside of the “GCSW box” would yield a successful outing.

I had seen various videos and read plenty of articles and reports about how to read the surf, but once you are in the middle of the roaring ocean watching the waves crash into each other, merging, splitting, disappearing, and then forming again, it was almost like trying to understand a foreign language. And I was utterly lost in translation.

I knew from my childhood experiences of fishing the surf, there were almost always a set of outer breakers and a set of inner breakers, both indicating the presence of depth change. I decided that a good place to start would be to cast just outside of the outer breakers and try to fish that drop, since the inner breakers did not seem to yield a significant depth change. Wading parallel to the beach, I continually casted my lure out past the breakers and retrieved slowly back through them. Although it is frustrating trying to work a light lure slowly in a surf that is intent on sweeping it back towards you as fast as it can, eventually I found a rhythm that allowed the lure to flow through the waves while slowing dragging along the bottom.

An hour went by and there was no sign of life. I continued casting down the beach until my rig was abruptly stopped dead at the beginning of a retrieve. I snapped back instinctively but there was no reason to strike: the rod bent down furiously and my drag began to sing. I felt something shake hard on the other end of the line, then take off for the horizon. I saw a splash as a tail or fin broke the surface of the distant surf and I began to wonder: Corbina? Halibut? Shark? Guitarfish? The rod tip suddenly bounced back up as the fish changed directions and charged me. I reeled furiously to keep up, but suddenly it changes its mind again and heads back out towards the sea. Line begins to disappear from my spool at an alarming rate. Alas, my excitement had gotten the best of me and although I had plenty of line capacity, I decided to try to tighten down my drag a notch or two. Ping! 6 lb fluorocarbon only takes so much pressure.

Disappointed but excited at the action, I went back to the sand to retie a new rig. Again, I followed the same pattern, casting out past the second set of breakers from as far as I could wade towards them. Another hour later, my retrieve is stopped again. I set the hook and this time I have the drag on a more modest setting. This fish is not a speed demon like the last, but instead heads away from me at a steady persistent speed. ZZZZZZ line peels off the line. A few minutes later, the line is still peeling off, with no signs of stopping. I begin to worry about line capacity now, and try to work the animal at the end of the line in, while chasing it down the beach. I am steadily moving parallel to the beach trying to gain line back, but it is steadily swimming away at the same velocity. We are at a stalemate. This continues for 20 minutes and my finger is starting to blister from holding the reel stem. Sunbathers stare as I jog along the beach, rod bent over, chasing an invisible beast.

Suddenly the rod tip relaxes. I reel furiously, has it started to run back towards me? Alas, my rig bounces it’s way back onto the beach, and I see that the hook has pulled out of the fish. I’m glad that I have not decorated another animal with a painful piercing, but am disappointed not to have landed a fish after such a long battle. Based on recent reports, my best guess is that I managed to hook one of the large leopard sharks that have been sighted in the vicinity recently, or foul hooked one of the smaller ones.

With my feet sore and legs tired from chasing the monster down the beach, I decide to take a breather and watch the ocean. The waves are hypnotic, but they are still not revealing their secrets to me; I see no telltale structure signs of nervous water, sudden wave crests, smooth areas, or rips. Further down the beach, I see a group of fly fishermen surf fishing. I hate it when other fishermen crowd me on an open beach, so I make note not to get too close to them. The tide has peaked and is starting to drop rapidly now.

Part III: When its good, its great

OK, time to get my fish on. Deciding that I have had enough with experimenting lures today, I switch to the GCSW and continue casting out towards the outside breakers, but am fruitless for the next few hours. Suddenly, as I make my way slowly down towards the group of fishermen in the distance, something strikes my lure only a few meters from the shore and puts a bend in my rod. I feel the frenzied thrashing of a fish on the line and I reel in against very little resistance to find attached on the end of my line a tiny Barred surfperch! Excellent! My first new species of fish for 2011!

OK so perhaps its size is lacking, but after putting in the effort to find a new species and successfully seeing it’s little face, I am ecstatic. But we are just getting started here…

I realize that between the two breaks, there may be some structure that I had not noticed before. I never realized that the fish could use the calmer eddy between breaks as a staging position from where they could feed. I step back further towards the beach instead of wading in the deeper surf, and begin strategically casting between the breakers. The bites are coming faster now, but I am having a hard time positively connecting with the fish. After a dozen or so missed strikes, I strike into a fish and it gives me a slightly better fight than the last one.

I continued my strategy while making my way down the beach, and watching the tide drop lower and lower. I am able to pick up a baker’s dozen more fish, all between 8-10 inches long, in between the dozens of missed strikes and pulled hooks. Most of the fish are lip hooked, which is precisely why I love lure fishing so much.

Suddenly, one of my strikes is met with solid resistance and I feel a fish shaking it’s head on the end of the line. Was it the mystery monster fish from before? No, this fish does not make a hard run, but stubbornly resists my attempts to bring it to color. Eventually, I get it up to shore and find a nicely sized BSP at around 12 inches. Utterly stoked with the size, I release it and watch it jet off into the surf. At this point, the day has become a wholly success, and I would be happy to leave it as is.

However, my very next cast is again met with solid resistance. This time, there are a few runs up and down the beach but nothing compared to the sheer strength of the monsters from the morning. As I slide the thing onto the shore a few minutes later, I chuckle to myself as I see a small mud marlin flapping away. Darn thing must have followed me down to socal from norcal. The bat ray probably weighed around 10 lbs, and was a pretty hefty catch on 6 lb line… Yet, it gave a fight that paled in comparison to the ones from the morning, begging the question what DID I hook? Ah, the constant mysteries of fishing never ceases to capture my imagination.

A few fruitless casts later pointed to the fact that the tide had dropped to a level that probably pushed the fish out from in between the breakers. However, just as I had resigned myself to that thought, again my lure was taken savagely. A spirited fight and up onto the beach slid a lively fish that was darkening with breeding colors. A handsome fish that pushed my PB just slightly over 13 inches!

At this point, I could probably have continued fishing, but the sun was setting, and the tide was getting too low. However, in between the sets, I realized that I could see some structure and was absolutely amazed. The section of beach that had yielded most of my perch was pocketed with holes and ridges that sent the waves scattering in all directions. Meanwhile, along my walk back to the car, I realized that the places where I had no luck with any fish was completely flat and featureless, gently sloping and incredibly shallow out for at least 30 yards.

Lesson learned: read structure or fail at surf fishing. Fishing without the ability to read the water is like driving blindfolded and hoping not to hit something… It’s possible, but unlikely. My next fishing session may not be for a long time, but when it comes I will have just a little bit more experience under my belt, and hopefully that will lead to my next target species of the Southern Californian surf.

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