I knew, somewhere in my mind, that I really should not be fishing right now. The wind was blowing the snow into drifts, then the drifts were being covered with sand and then snow, sand, snow. Creating this mesmerizing layer cake pattern as I punched holes into the drifts with my hip-wader boots. The slowly receding tide was freezing as it rolled out, the breaking ice caused crunching noises as I walked. But, I do not make it to the coast often, so I needed to take advantage of this surf perch fishing opportunity.
Why? Because I have never caught one. Like ever. Seriously, never. Embarrassing, right?
This boney little fish has become my nemesis in the Pacific Ocean. I wish it was a white whale, or a blue marlin or even a sail fish in Cabo San Lucas. But no, it’s a perch…but it’s not for a lack of trying.
Frankly, I am at a loss at why I cannot seem to land this bluegill of the sea. I watch people catch five gallon buckets full, tossing out little hunks of clam and sand shrimp that look no different from my bait. Fishing is one of my strong points as an outdoorsman; I know when to set the hook.
I have fished for surf perch during low tide, high tide, slack tide, hot weather, snow storms and rain storms. The one saving grace about my perch deficit is that I It seems that I can catch everything but surf perch. To date I have caught off the coast of Central Oregon and Northern California the following species – bream, grouper, mackerel, rockfish (like 10 types), lingcod, Dungeness crab, red crab, greenling and one ugly SOB I could not identify so I tossed it back.
Almost all of these species are great eating. The only one that is questionable is mackerel, this is a fishy-fish. Some say that all mackerel is good for is cat food. I disagree; it also makes wonderful bait and exceptional sushi.
Over the years of not catching surf perch I have come up with a 3 golden rules, if I follow these rules (I nearly compulsively do) I can almost guarantee myself a deficit of surf perch.
Rule #1 – Fish Near the Rocks
Being an inland fisherman I have a habit of looking for structure when I fish. The idea of simply casting off the sand out into the surf is hard for me to swallow. I assume that fish want something to hide behind or near or whatever. Just like my lake fish and river trout.
But, as I have learned, surf perch have no fascination with this structure. They instead live in that little trough that is formed by the waves digging a small hole in the sandy bottom. This trough stirs up all sorts of critters and sends them floating into the deep blue sea. The surf perch eat the little crabs and clams that the ocean stirs up. For a fisherman then the goal, or so I am told, is to cast a hunk of meat into the trough and hope that a perch strikes.
If you want to pretend to be perch fishing than you should fish near rock out cropping’s or off jetties. What I do is cast out into the surf, simply guessing where the trough is, and with every intention that a surf perch will bite. Then I slowly retrieve my line towards the rocks. I feel more comfortable this way, even if it is totally wrong. Fishing this way and will almost certainly land you something other than a perch.
Rule #2 – Don’t Poke Pole
In a fit of boredom during low tide I started dropping my bait into deep looking holes in the Newport Jetty. Craziest part…I caught a bunch of fish. Only later did I find out that this is a honest to goodness technique, a less refined version at least, of “poke-polling”. The basics of this fishing method are simple – shove bait into the face of an otherwise unbothered fish. The real key to success is constant movement and hole selection. Basically if something doesn’t bite in the first few seconds switch locations. Just keep bumping down the jetty or rocks looking for a fish to bite. One morning I caught 7 in under an hour. I tossed all but one back but it was a great way to kill a little time wishing a perch would bite.
For better success only drop the bait into deep holes, specifically ones where the bottom cannot be seen. As far as set up is concerned I use the typical surf perch rig, drop shot with two hooks coming off the main line. I use clam, squid, shrimp or artificial night crawler. At the Newport Jetty the most common species caught poke polling will be greenling. I hear that along the coast of northern California you catch monkey faced eels. Not bad options when the Surf Perch refuse to bite.
Rule #3 – Don’t Judge the Man Fishing a Bobber
Look, bobbers and jigs work. Just not on surf perch. What I do is set up a ½ ounce head on one of those big red bobbers from Kmart, maybe about 4 feet of line between the two. Then I’ll cast along the rocks and slowly retrieve. I have nailed the heck out of some rockfish this way before. I have never heard of a surf perch caught in this fashion.
A bobber and a sabiki rig (one of those multiple hook jig contraptions) cast into the surf is a total and complete loss. Never ever do that – you end up with a ball of string and hooks. I have caught a whole bunch of bream with a sabiki and a bobber along the rocks, however.
How to Cook Bait
Some days you win big fishing, some days you do not. This recipe is for a day when you are forced to eat what most others call bait. It’s not halibut, salmon or lingcod – but this recipe will give you crispy skinned fish with great garlic and mustard flavors.
8 ea small “Bream” or other bait fish, cleaned and descaled
¼ cup canola oil
1 cup flour
1 tablespoon mustard seed powder
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper, ground
1 tablespoon garlic powder
In a medium sized cast iron skillet (they hold heat better, but are not absolutely critical) add the oil and turn to “medium” heat. The goal is to get to about 350 degrees. Turn on the oven to “warm” or the lowest setting possible.
To check the temperature of the oil on the stove simply drop small clumps of batter into the oil filled pan. When the batter bubbles quickly and then floats the oil is close to the correct temperature. If the small scrap of batter browns or burns quickly than the oil is too hot.
Combine flour and all spices in a bowl. Wet the fish slightly and then dredge in flour. Wet again and re-dredge. This double batter will stick better than a single layer. Double batter all fish and reserve on a slightly flowered cookie sheet.
Fry the fish for 3-4 minutes on each side, or until the fish turns golden brown and delicious (GB&D). Transfer the cooked fish onto paper towel lined cookie sheet in the warmed oven.
The Green Stuff
To compensate for the fried food I always like a little sautéed super-food as accompaniment. Oh, and mustard greens taste great too.
1 tablespoon butter
1# Mustard Greens
4 cloves Garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon Sriracha
Salt and Pepper
In a medium sauté pan add the butter melt on medium heat. Next add the mustard greens and garlic cloves. Cook 2-3 minutes until wilted and tender. Taste – if to bitter add the sugar. If it has no flavor then add the Sriracha. Mustard greens vary from field to field and day to day on the spiciness level. Either way, season with salt and pepper.
Serve the greens over the top of the fried fish.