A FOOT IN THE PACIFIC SURF.
ASK MOST FLY FISHERS what comes to mind when they think of fishing the West, and many will say trout, steelhead, and salmon. Sure, there are great fisheries for those species, but few anglers know about the untapped world of opportunity in the Pacific Ocean's surf.
With thousands of miles of fishable water, the Pacific surf offers wading anglers a variety of fly-eating species, including striped bass, croaker, surfperch, mackerel, corbina, ling cod, and halibut, to name a few.
Perhaps the toughest challenge for surf-zone newcomers is knowing where to start. The Pacific coast is one of the longest in the world, and many of its beaches are hard to reach and dangerous to fish because of their rugged physical environment. However, that environment produces healthy fisheries, and some of them can be reached safely from beaches that offer diverse fishing experiences and some of the world's most breathtaking scenery.
The West Coast's shores are ripe with life. Surf-zone algae, plankton, and countless microscopic creatures provide building blocks for a prolific food chain and a healthy sport fishery. The turbulent seaboard keeps surface water on the move, filtering the deep nutrient-rich waters from the bottom. This activity supports a significant bloom of microscopic plants--considered the most important item in the ocean's food chain--that provide food for forage fish, which in turn provide food for predatory gamefish.
Pacific mole crabs, marine worms, soft-shelled clams, and numerous baitfish (herring, anchovy, sardines, smelt, and gamefish fry) are the most important food items for surf-zone gamefish. These foods get caught in the surf's breakers and rips, where you will find a variety of lurking predators.
The Best Beaches
THE BEACHES (OR BEACH AREAS) listed below meet several requirements. Each has a consistent and productive history, a promising future, relatively easy access, and wadeable conditions. And, of course, each is fly-rod friendly. Some of the Pacific's beaches are too dangerous to negotiate with fly gear. Strong rip currents are nasty and will carry you away if you are not careful. You must be mindful of the conditions. You don't have to wade deep to achieve success in the surf.
Narrowing the list of beaches to just a few wasn't easy, but here they are. From southern California to Washington, these provide a look at different gamefish and habitats. Think of them as a gateway to one of the planet's most extensive shorelines. It's just a start.
Mattole River Beach Surfperch. Though much of the Northwest's productive coastline is remote and tough to reach, places like Mattole River Beach are worth the effort. Situated near the hamlet of Petrolia, just north of Punta Gorda and south of Eureka, this expansive beach is known for its great redtail surfperch action. In fact, Petrolia was established as a commercial fishing village because of the prolific surfperch. Commercial practices have long since stopped, and now sport anglers enjoy fantastic days working the local surf line for red-tails in the 1/2 to 2-pound range, with some up to 3 pounds. Redtails are feisty critters that when hooked exhibit short, powerful bursts of energy against the breaking surf
The Mattole River Beach is also the northernmost access point for the "Lost Coast," a 25-mile stretch of pristine wilderness that I suspect looks much like it did when explorers on Spanish and Portuguese galleons first saw it hundreds of years ago. The river mouth creates a perfect estuary environment with calm waters and easy wading. The redtail surfperch feed on crabs in the surf or hunt for shrimp and other edibles in the estuary
The prime perch season is from June through October. Big, incoming tides whip the action into high gear, and fish are taken in one to four feet of water generally. Wading can be tricky, but anglers don't need to wade deeper than knee height. Generic shad-style and steelhead streamers (#2-#6) take fish year-round, as do the Surfpercher Red, Rusty Squirrel Clouser, and the Surf Grub.
Access to the Mattole River Beach is by Highway 101. Take the Bull Creek Flat Road exit toward Honeydew (which is along the main artery of the lush Humboldt Redwoods State Park). The route turns into Mattole Road and continues to Petrolia. From there, take the west exit onto Lighthouse Road and continue until it ends at Mattole River Beach. Anglers traveling south from Eureka should take the Ferndale exit off Highway 101 and drive directly to Cape Mendocino, then continue south on the coastline into Petrolia. Petrolia has supplies and lodging, including a county park campground south of town.
Pacifica Area Stripers. San Francisco is just a heartbeat away from the striped bass capital of the Pacific--San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta. When it comes to surf-zone striper action, however, the waters around Pacifica are arguably the place to be. Pacifica, just south of San Francisco on the Pacific side and home to Linda Mar Bay and the San Pedro Beach Rest Area, provides easy access to the best fly-rod water.
Two major outcroppings combine to define a protected cove that houses the crescent beachfront. San Pedro Point is the massive headland found at the southern end. The cove is a small area, and you can work the entire beach during a single tide. With rocky outcroppings on either side of the beach, the tide and currents create massive eddies that trap prey and provide easy forage for the stripers.
Other productive beaches in the area include Rockaway and Sharp parks. These have steeper profiles, strong winds, and a strong surf that make them less fly-rod friendly.
In summer, large populations of feeding anchovies enter the Pacifica breakers. This draws in the aggressive bass, and by July and August the fishing heats up. The stripers range from 6 to 12 pounds, with a few 15-pounders in the mix. Last season's best striper on a fly (that I know of) was a hefty 22pounder. It's no secret when the bass are in. The beachfront quickly fills with commercial and private boats, not to mention every sand-caster in the county, but there is plenty of room for all. I've caught stripers within an arm's reach of lure anglers on either side of me. It's a wild scene when the bite is on. Mid-week adventures offer the best solitude. Though the Pacifica striper fishing peaks in the summer, fish can be found into October.
Good striper flies include Combs's Sea Habits, Howe's ALFs, Blanton's SarMul-Macs, and Lefty's Deceivers, all #1/0 to #3/0. Smaller patterns like #2 and #1/0 Clousers also work. To reach Pacifica's striper water, follow Highway 1 south out of San Francisco. Access to the San Pedro Beach Rest Area is between Crespi Drive and Linda Mar Boulevard.
Palm Beach Stripers and Barred Surfperch. Not too far south on Highway 1 from Pacifica is Santa Cruz County, where Palm Beach, just south of Santa Cruz, provides productive fishing for stripers and 1/2 to 1 1/2-pound barred surfperch. This area's bass are smaller, ranging from 2 to 10 pounds, with some in the 15-pound class. The area provides a good view of classic Pacific beach topography: large pools, expansive shifting sandbars, and clearly defined troughs and rip lines. There's no direct commercial boating impact in the area, and there is plenty of room for anglers.
Striper populations are thriving in this area and the nearby Monterey region. Positive factors include the Pajaro River, which provides a sanctuary from the heavy surf conditions, and the proximity of the great Monterey Bay Abyss, an underwater canyon that causes an upwelling, resulting in a massive proliferation of plankton and baitfish. Also important to this fishery is the variety. Diverse structure provides many around-the-clock feeding zones for predators. Extensive sandbars create wonderful access for wading the various-sized pools.
Although bass often show in late May and early June, Santa Cruz County's best action typically begins in July and carries through into September. Over the last two years, anglers took bass sporadically as late as November. The barred surfperch (1/4 to 2 pounds) fishing is year-round, with the best times from May through September. The peak months coincide with the spawning cycle and early morning tides. Other species found along the beach include silver and walleye surfperch (both 1/2 to 1 pounds).
Palm Beach is located near Watsonville. Take Highway 1 to the 129/Watsonville exit (heading west). Continue west along Beach Road until it ends at the Pajaro Dunes Beach Resort Complex.
Santa Ana River Mouth. Southern California offers a departure from the north's turbulent waters. Gentle sloping beaches and consistent breaking surf provide a theater for light-tackle enthusiasts. The southern region is home to the surf-zone croaker. Southern California and Baja waters offer eight different croaker species, including the yellowfin, white, spotfin, and California corbina. Yellowfins typically weigh from 1 to 3 pounds and the spotfin and California corbina reach up to 6 pounds. All croaker are strong fighters and can take you for a ride.
One of the best croaker fishing locations is the Santa Ana River Mouth near the northern end of Orange County (about a half-hour to an hour's drive from Los Angeles). The fishing for corbina peaks at the river mouth in July and August and for yellowfin croaker in early fall. At these times, barred surf-perch are also present.
The river's north bank provides wading access via a large flat. The south bank generally has a deep pool-the result of a strong backeddy created by the combined impact of the river's outflow and a north/south ocean current pushing down the coast. The stronger the outside current, the deeper the carved pool. Whichever side you approach, be aware of the river's strength and the impact of a rising tide.
Year-round, the shallow beach, consistent surf, broad sandy flats, and river channel support both resident and transient gamefish populations.
Bill Calhoun, a local Santa Ana guru, uses simple Bunny Leech and Clouser Minnow patterns (#4-#6). An orange leech is perfect for the yellowfin and a red version is the choice for corbina and perch. Chartreuse and white Clousers are deadly on all species.
Highway 1 provides easy access to the Santa Ana River environs, and there are plenty of places to stay in Los Angeles and the nearby towns of Newport Beach and Huntington Beach.
Belmont Shores, 30 minutes north of the Santa Ana River, near the city of Long Beach, has a wonderful surf-zone halibut fishery. The area is near halibut spawning grounds and the fish come into the surf to feed during an incoming tide. Fish range from 4 to 10 pounds.
Halibut aren't long runners; it's more of a "dog and tug" game. The best fishing starts at the Belmont Pier and runs south to the Alamitos Peninsula. Ocean Boulevard parallels the beach and provides access for wading anglers. The beach's position benefits from the gamefish that frequent Alamitos Bay and the Long Beach Harbor area. Spawning halibut, resident croaker, and surfperch abound in the region. The bay's jetties and the Long Beach Breakwater create favorable beach conditions for wading anglers.
The best time for halibut is January and February, during the fish's winter spawning cycle. Anglers concentrate on the ledges and flats, where the fish hold during an incoming tide. Fly selection is simple: olive/white #2 Clouser Deep Minnows get the job done.
Lincoln County Surfperch. Oregon's classic coastline is an untapped Northwest paradise. Lincoln County (central coast) in particular is noted for its beautiful white sands and hearty surfperch. The stretch from Newport south to Ona Beach--which encompasses three beaches at South Beach State Park, Lost Creek State Park, and Ona Beach State Park-is a contiguous stretch of land from the south jetty of Newport and Yaquina Bay. The total distance is about eight miles.
The best beach fly fishing is at Ona Beach State Park, which is reached easily from Highway 101. This area's water is clean, with little debris--a prerequisite for the surfperch--and allows for maximum control during retrieves.
Beaver Creek creates a beautiful delta habitat at the north end of Ona Beach. A moderate slope is characteristic of the entire beach, making it easy to wade. Farther south, the beach has sporadic rock structure. It's a perfect showcase for the transition zone between sandy beaches and rocky shoreline habitat. The transition is complete with the presence of Seal Rock, a large pinnacle-like structure that creates eddies, pools, and surge channels around its base, in just a mile and a half, Ona Beach presents an array of habitat to explore. May through September is the prime time to work this area.
Redtail surfperch are the target species around the sandy environs. If you negotiate the rocky niches, you're likely to find striped surfperch, greenling, and other critters added to the mix. For flies, a Surfpercher Red or Surf Grub work best.
The Hood Canal is not on the Pacific's outer coast; it connects to Puget Sound (which connects to the Pacific). But it's an awesome saltwater salmon fishery worth mentioning.
A delightful chum salmon adventure-- aided by a local hatchery--awaits anyone venturing to Hoodsport in the fall. The Finch Creek oyster flats are good for fly rodders. Wading is always easy on these flats and it's perfect for float-tubes. The popular Chum Candy pattern--with a thinly wrapped body of floss or silk, a short tail of the same material, and a few strands of accent flash for the wing--is a killer pattern in chartreuse or hot pink tied on a #4 hook.
Surf Zone Gear
Surfperch. Seven- and 8-weight rods that can cast into the wind are perfect for perch. For most Pacific surf fishing, I use sinking shooting-taper lines (200 to 350 grains; or 400+ for heavy surf conditions) with short- to medium-length leaders (5 to 8 feet). The Teeny TS series is a good choice, as are similar lines--Rio Density Compensated or Deep Sea, Scientific Anglers Wet Tip, Cortland Quick Descent, and Orvis Depth Charge. Many Northwestern anglers favor untapered 8- to 12-pound leaders from 5 to 8 feet long. Lighter material is often an advantage during clear water and calm surf.
Stripers. Nine- to 10-weight rods with reserve power in the butt sections are needed to tussle with the Pacific's striped bass. I use an intermediate (slowsinking) sinking line for top water or shallow streamer applications. New striper lines from Scientific Anglers (intermediate and floating) and Orvis (floating), for example, are ideal for this fishing. For deeper presentations, shooting-tapers, like Cortland LC-13 or equivalent, get the fly down to the feeding zone. Leaders consist of a 3-foot butt section of 30-pound-test mono, looped to a 3-foot, 16- or 20- pound tippet.
Croaker. Six- to 8-weight ouffits are the standard for most croaker fishing. A variety of sinking shooting-tapers will put you in the necessary strike zone. Some anglers prefer floating or intermediate lines for shallow-running corbina. In either case, a 9-foot, 6- to 12-poundtest tapered leader is all you need.
Halibut and Chum Salmon. For halibut, an 8-weight rod and floating or intermediate lines will get the job done. For the stronger chum salmon, a strong 9-weight is the best all-around outfit with floating or intermediate lines.
Reading the Surf Zone
SUCCESS IN THE SURF ZONE is no different than on a trout stream. You need both technical and interpretive skills to fish it effectively. Once you examine a beachfront to determine the "fishy" spots, you are ready to cast with confidence. Here are a few keys to reading the water.
When prospecting a beach, look for the edges (also called breaking zones) where changes occur: light to dark, deep to shallow, open water to thick cover, warm to cold, etc. Fish use these zones for movement, feeding, and cover. Look for rip currents, areas where surface foam rafts in a narrow corridor and runs perpendicular to the shore. These rips, or channels, provide entry and exit lanes for larger predators as they travel from one trough to the other. Rips also provide good concentrations of food and baitfish.
Watch wave forms to identify underwater structure. If you see a change in wave height, it usually means that it's traveling over an underwater obstacle, which creates pockets and cuts, where fish hold. Also, look for pools--standing water, usually between two sandy points. Surf that scours a pool's walls creates a feeding zone for the fish.
Finally, take a tip from the saltwater fly rodders on the East Coast. Watch for birds over the water. When gamefish crash a school of baitfish, birds hover above and dive for the leftovers.
Atlas & Gazetteer, DeLorme Mapping Company, (800) 227-1656, ext. 6500; Tidelog 2000, (Puget Sound, Northern California, and Southern California series), Pacific Publishers, (888) 843-3564; Fly Fishing Afoot in the SurfZone, by Ken Hanley (access points from WA to Baja), Frank Amato Publications, 1999, (530) 653-8108; Northwest Fly Fishing, Trout and Beyond, by John Shewey, Frank Amato Publications, 1997; N.O.A.A. Charts, "Catalog #2," Pacific Coastal Access (WA-CA), (800) 638-8972.
California, Washington, and Oregon require saltwater fishing licenses. Contact the California Department of Fish and Game, (916) 653-7664, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, (503) 872-5275, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, (360) 902-2200.
KEN HANLEY is a fly-fishing instructor and author of Fly Fishing Afoot in the Surf Zone (Frank Amato Publications, 1999). He lives in Fremont, California.
PACIFIC SURF BEACHES
1 Hood Canal, WA
2 Ona Beach State Park, OR
South Beach State Park, OR
Lost Creek State Park, OR
3 Mattole River Beach, CA
4 Pacifica Area, CA
5 Palm Beach, CA
6 Belmont Shores, CA
7 Santa Anna River Mouth, CA
log on: For an article on surf-zone habitat and reading-the-water techniques (by Ken Hanley), visit the Virtual Flyhop's (www.flyshop.com) Northwest Regional Center/Feature Articles/West Coast surf Tactics