Targeting Redtail Surfperch on the Fly

 

Redtail Surfperch may not get much credit as a premier saltwater species, but they certainly make a worthy and enjoyable adversary for flyfishermen in the Pacific Northwest. Redtails are present in the surf zone from central California to Vancouver Island, feeding on a variety of invertebrates and small fish that make them ideal targets for fly anglers looking for a change of pace compared to many of the region’s more well known species. 

 

A quality NorCal redtail

 

Finding the Right Zone: Many of the beaches of the Pacific Northwest have steep slopes and coarse sediment, making them difficult for fly fishermen to effectively fish. Beaches with more gentle slopes and finer sand are typically easier to fish, with the surf breaking on the sandbars offshore and creating a relatively calm wash zone. Flatter beaches are usually found adjacent to river mouths and bays, and can be identified by wide intertidal zones and surf crashing a hundred yards or more offshore. Once you’ve found a beach you can effectively fish, the next step will be identifying an area fish are feeding. The first thing to look for would be a food source, usually in the form of a bed of sandcrabs or bay shrimp. These invertebrates can be seen as the waves recede, creating small divots where they’ve burrowed in the sand. Another likely area to look for would be converging longshore currents caused by a depression in the sand. Loose invertebrates and small fish will be flushed into these holes, creating a good holding zone for hungry schools of surfperch. Every beach is different, but generally speaking ideal perch conditions are the top half of the incoming tide, swells under 5 feet, and thick cloud cover. 

 

A smooth bay shrimp and a sandcrab, redtail favorites

 

Gearing Up: My ideal setup for chasing redtail surfperch would be a 10 foot 7 weight with a heavy sinktip fly line like the SA Sonar Surf Line. Perch are not leader shy, so a short five foot section of 16lb Saltwater monofilament or Fluorocarbon between your fly line and fly is sufficient. Perch are indiscriminate feeders, so numerous crab, shrimp, and baitfish flies work well for them. A clouser minnow or sandcrab imitation (Like a Surfin Merkin) tied on a size 1 hook is a good choice. The surf of the Pacific Northwest is usually pretty frigid, so waders and a wading jacket are strongly recommended to keep you warm and dry. Another important piece of equipment is a stripping basket to keep your fly line out of the surf and help improve your casting distance. Check out the Ahrex Flexistripper or the Sondergaard’s ECOastal Stripping Basket.

 

A healthy female redtail

 

Presenting the Fly: Fortunately, redtail surfperch are not sticklers for a perfect presentation like a trout or corbina. The biggest challenge is successfully putting your fly in a place where a school of perch might find it, which can be more difficult than it sounds in the sweeping currents and crashing waves of the Northwestern surf. The key is to watch the waves coming in and properly time your cast and retrieve with the wave. Surfperch feed as waves advance up the beach, and quickly turn and flee to deeper water as the waves recede, so it is important to anticipate their advance and have your fly in the right place at the right time. A good tactic is to land your cast just a few feet in front of the leading edge of the swell, and allow your fly to sink as the wave advances. After allowing your fly to sink for a few seconds, retrieve your line just slightly faster than the advancing waves, making sure you keep your line tight so you can detect strikes. It is not uncommon to receive a few short strikes on your fly before you hook a fish, so rather than setting the hook when you feel a bump, keep stripping until you feel tension and the quick headshakes of a hooked perch. Redtails have soft mouths, so it can be easy to pull the hook on them if you're over zealous when retrieving a hooked fish. Take your time with an even, slow strip until you can bring the fish to hand. Smaller perch around 10” typically don’t fight too hard but bigger models, around 15” and up, can pull some serious drag and use the current to their advantage to make things difficult. 

 

My favorite redtail surfperch pattern. Size one with medium brass eyes

 

Final Thoughts: Redtail are not only fun to catch on the fly, but also make decent table fare as well. When the action is good putting together a ten fish limit is an easy task. One odd note about redtail surfperch is that they are viviparous, meaning they give birth to live young. It’s not uncommon to land pregnant females in the spring and summer months and if mishandled, they will drop their young prematurely. For that reason it is important to handle any particularly large perch with care, especially in the summertime. Males and females can be distinguished by the pronounced notch in the anal fin of male surfperch, but it is a safe assumption that any surfperch over 14” is most likely a female. The ideal keeper is a 12” male, and when the fishing is good they shouldn’t be hard to find. Surfperch can be prepared a variety of ways but my personal favorite is substituting them in a Maryland crab cake recipe.

 

The perfect keeper redtail surfperch. Note the pronounced notch in the anal fin, indicative that this is a male.