Captain Hook’s Gallery: Searching the Surf for Baja Perch
During the first few months of each calendar year, when the cold rain from northern storms batters Baja’s upper Pacific Coast near Ensenada, the surf remains churned up into a heavy froth and water temperatures tend to plummet into the low to mid 50s. It is a season when many anglers have already turned their attention toward the highly anticipated spring action, which is only a few months away.
Yet, it is also a particularly good time of year to hit the beach with light tackle in pursuit of barred surfperch. This particular species of perch, Amphistichus argenteus, is found from Baja’s Pacific Coast in the south to Bodega Bay on the coast of Northern California. Barred surfperch are common in the surf zone along sandy beaches where they seem to congregate in depressions on the bottom.
How do you find prime conditions for catching large surfperch along the sandy Pacific shores of Baja Norte? It’s easy: Just wait for the early winter storms to stir up the Baja surf, and a few of the high tides between Playas Tijuana and San Quintin that immediately follow to creep further up the beach than normal.
For those stalwart anglers who are willing to roll up their pant legs and wade into the crisp shore break with light tackle in hand, these periods also create prime conditions for catching barred surfperch. The Rosarito Beach sportfishing pier is an excellent place to find them, as are jetties and rocky structure adjacent to the surf zone. But, generally speaking, surfperch are usually targeted by those casting from a sandy beach.
In the off-season, the Baja Norte’s Pacific Coast experiences very little pressure from shore anglers. Since some of the most productive surfperch spots are found several miles from the city and are a bit primitive, don’t be surprised if you happen to get lucky and end up taking home a nice stringer of these popular, pan-sized fish.
Sizable schools of barred surfperch can usually be found in the surf zone along most sandy beaches, where they tend to congregate in depressions or troughs along the soft bottom. In colder months, larger adults weighing up to 3 pounds come close to shore during their winter spawning cycle, allowing a better grade of the species to be available to those fishing the surf.
The most popular natural bait for perch is the soft-shelled sand crab, but local mussels and small pieces of cut anchovy can also be productive. When sand crabs are present, groupings of their small, filament like antenna can be seen protruding from the wet sand left behind by the tidal ebb. Digging beneath them immediately after a wave recedes will often produce several of these small, oval shaped crustaceans. The ones that carry an orange egg sack under their carapace tend to catch more fish.
Those who prefer fishing with bait should either use a standard, two-tiered surf fishing set up or a Carolina-rig, which is constructed by attaching a #4 or #6 treble hook to the end of a 4 to 6 pound test, fluorocarbon leader about 20 inches in length. Then tie a barrel swivel to the opposite end of the leader, pass the line from your reel through a half to ¾ to 1 ounce egg sinker, and tie the line to the other eye of the swivel so that the sinker sits positioned above the leader. Beware, however, because these fish are masterful bait thieves.
This same type of rig is also extremely deadly when using appropriately colored plastic grubs, which mimic the appearance of small crustaceans like ghost shrimp and sand crabs. Watch the waves, and cast your lure just past the suds in the last swell of each incoming set immediately after it breaks.
One on my favorite techniques is to fish near a place where a sandy beach abruptly ends near rocky outcroppings or tide pools. Look for places where you can safely make your way out onto the structure and position yourself a few hundred yards away from the shoreline. You can then cast parallel to the breakers and work your lure or bait along the surf line for a better shot at foraging fish. These areas can also provide an occasional opportunity to hook up with larger inshore species like halibut, bass, corbina or even a white sea bass.
Some of the best locations to fish for surfperch in Baja that can be found within a few hundred miles of southern California are the sandy beaches between Rosarito, La Mission and the beach south of the La Salina Marina jetties. The shorelines adjoining the outer mouth of Ensenada’s Punta Banda Estero and the small patch of sandy beach south of La Bufadora at Puerto Escondido are also good, as are similar areas further south that punctuate the coast to points well past Bahia San Quintin.
Although mature perch may only weigh up to 3 pounds at their maximum size, these compact fish are still prized as table fare by many of the anglers who pursue them, and are perhaps the most likely species to end up over a beach campfire in Baja. They can be filleted or gutted, scaled and cooked whole. Whichever way you chose to dress them out, they are usually best when either pan-fried or steamed. Once their cooked, snowy-white meat is flaked away from the bones, you are left with mild, delicate and tender morsels that will receive a unanimous ‘thumbs up’ from the hungry guests around your dinner table.
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