In the Fishing Northern California Style section there is an entire section on surf fish – everything you need to know about catching perch in the surf is detailed. But there are a lot of other places where surfperch or saltwater panfish can be caught, like in bays and harbors. And the fishing is great because the tackle is light, the waters are relatively calm, and the action fast and furious. So if you want to catch and eat saltwater perch, which are very tasty, but don’t want to surf fish, here’s the place for you.
Variety is the name of the game. Pile perch are the largest and best fighters. They weigh up to several pounds and are 14-16 inches in length. There are also perch with names like rubberlip, walleye, white, black, silver, etc. What these fish have in common is that they all bear their young alive, and they can be found around structures like wharfs, piers, docks, pilings, boat slips, sunken barges, rock retaining walls and rocky banks, especially in wintertime.
Current and structure are the keys to finding saltwater perch. Try to think of structure in the same way freshwater black bass anglers do. This is where the perch congregate for protection and food. Most experts agree that a fairly substantial incoming tide is the best time to fish. A 3 to 4 foot difference between low tide and high tide is good. Remember, much of saltwater perch fishing takes place in bays, harbors and coves where tidal movements can make or break fishing success. Days with less wind are also best. Wind-driven waves can muddy up the shallows. In coastal areas, some experts say that fishing is best just after a minus low tide. The perch go on a feeding binge as the incoming tide starts.
Some savvy perch chasers enhance their chances of success by chumming. At low tide, anglers use a hatchet or strong knife to gather soft-shelled mussels from beneath boat slips, docks and wharf pilings. The large mussels are saved for bait, and the smaller ones are crushed under foot and tossed into the current. Often in 5 minutes or less, an entire school of perch is biting baited hooks at a furious pace.
Saltwater perch angling can be done from a boat or shore. But most perch fishing is probably done from shore, and with excellent success.
Tackle Rigging and Bait
Tackle for saltwater perch is easy. Most anglers use freshwater trout gear. It is perfect from boat, dock or pier. Sometimes a longer stick, like a 9 foot steelhead rod, is better from piers and rocky walls.
Two types of rigs are used. The first is the traditional surf rig with #6 hooks. Use enough sinker at the end to take it down where the perch are feeding. If you want, fish it at mid-depth under a float or straight-line right down from the rod tip. another good setup is to tie a #6 hook right onto the main line. Put a small split shot or two about 18 inches above the hook. Bait can then be drifted with the current to perch hangouts under piers or along pilings, etc. Of course, this rig can also be fished under a bobber.
Sand crabs, mussels, clams, pile worms, squid strips, grass shrimp and cut anchovy pieces are all used successfully as perch bait. Take at least two different baits on each trip. Sand crabs are probably the premier perch bait along the coast, and grass shrimp and fresh mussels are tops in the bays.
Some anglers take along an extra outfit rigged with a favorite crappie jig or small Kastmaster spoon. When a school of perch are hitting, you can “get back into the water faster when fishing artificials.