They are among a handful of people diagnosed with “light tackle surf fishing fever,” and I’ve even got it myself, as does our son Ryan. The disease can be easily identified by the following symptoms.
- An insatiable craving to stand barefoot in saltwater that can come at any time, day or night:
- Hunched shoulders attributed to frequent bending and digging for sand crabs;
- An appetite for the filets of white-fleshed fish that are as good and clean tasting as any fish that can be found;
- Unique grins and smiles that victims of this condition are unable to wipe from their faces.
And finally, there is this – not only is there no cure, but the afflicted do not want one and it is easy for me to understand why. Light tackle surf fishing is in my opinion the simplest, most accessible, least expensive and most enjoyable form of fishing available to Southern California anglers – bar none.
“I used to think,” said Baker, “that in order to go surf fishing you needed a 14 foot rod strong enough to cast four ounces of weight and your bait as far as you could beyond the breakers, because it seemed that was how everyone was fishing the surf.”
That method still works and is still productive, but light tackle surf fishing is entirely different. All that is required is the same rod and reel combo used to catch planted trout at local lakes. Devereaux prefers a spinning outfit while Baker alternates between spinning and baitcasting. Four pound test line and leader is pretty standard, though some prefer six pound test. The preferred terminal tackle is pretty much the same – a light weight followed by a #4 or #6 hook depending on the size of the bait and species targeted, although most light tackle surf anglers aim for corbina and offer sand crabs for bait.
In Baker and Devereaux’s experience everything eats them, and the list of species they’ve caught on sand crabs includes spotfin and yellowfin croaker, sargo, halibut, barred and spotted sandbass, shortfin corvina, four species of perch dominated by barred surfperch, mackerel, various rays, guitarfish and leopard sharks. As long as that list is, there may be others, but the main target is always the same, with the others considered a bonus or inconvenience depending on species.
The California corbina (Menticirrhus undulatus) is listed as generally occurring along sandy beaches from Point Conception to the Gulf of California, although some sources identify the range as extending to Peru. According to McClane’s New Standard Fishing Encyclopedia, they are members of the Sciaenidae family also known as drums or croakers which are found worldwide and most of which boast one or more barbels on the lower jaw. Lacking air bladders, they are one member of the croaker group that does not croak.
Locally, they are sometimes referred to as the “gray ghosts” of the surf because so few people realize they are present as they swim between the legs of bathers in search of sandcrabs which constitute 90% of their diet. They come into water so shallow in the surf zone that at times they become briefly stranded when they miss the receding wave they rode in on. It is not uncommon, but always unsettling to have one brush against your legs while concentrating on the water in front of rather than behind you when wading knee deep. SDFish members often refer to them simply as “beans.”
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife lists the maximum size observed as 28 inches in length and weighing 8.5 pounds while the all-tackle record recognized by the International Game Fish Association lists a 7 pound, 15 ounce specimen caught by Scott Matthews in Mission Bay on May 9, 2004.
Corbina are present and caught year-round, but are most available during the summer months when they spawn. Males reach sexual maturity at the age of two years when they are at a length of roughly 10 inches. Females are sexually mature at the age of three years at which time they are about 13 inches long.
Corbina have long been valued as food fish and it seems logical that Native Americans took advantage of them for centuries before Juan Rodrigues Cabrillo stepped onto Ballast Point and into an Indian village in 1542. By the early 1900’s they were of such value as food fish and so easily caught by inshore nets that in 1916 they became the first fish in California to be protected from commercial harvest, thus eliminating a popular item from restaurant menus.
Corbina are reserved just for you. If you have caught corbina before and have your own preferred method, stick with it and read no further. If not and you have an interest in catching this hard-charging and great tasting fish – read on.
If you have a light freshwater spinning outfit, spool it with some fresh four or six pound test monofilament, fill an empty pill container with 1/8 and ¼ ounce sliding egg sinkers, some size 12 swivels and mosquito hooks in both size 4 and 6, put the container in the pocket of your a swimsuit and head to the beach – any sandy beach in the county will do just fine. Don’t forget your polarized sunglasses which beyond protecting your eyes from glare will provide your best chance of seeing fish, short of a mask and snorkel.
Tom Baker admits that it took him just 32 years to come to this conclusion. “In the past, I used to try to fish only incoming tides, but earlier this year I happened to fish an outgoing tide and did really well, so now I just try to fish when I can, but we do prefer being on the water early around sunrise before others start showing up and decide to swim or surf right where we’re fishing.”
When it comes to rigging up, take a look at the surf once you get there. If it is heavy or with short intervals choose the ¼ ounce egg sinker and slide it up your line before tying on a swivel. Now add a section of four pound test leader in a length ranging from 12 to 24 inches and tie on a size four or six hook. If the tide is incoming, make sure to place any belongs high enough on the beach so that you won’t have see them go past you on a receding wave.
Scan the beach and look for a hole or trough as these are usually marked by an unusual break or lack of break in the waves which is particularly true when there is a rip current. These are often thoughtfully marked with a red flag by lifeguards. Holes and troughs are a form of moving as opposed to permanent structure and will tend to congregate most species of surf fish. A current running perpendicular or even somewhat parallel to the beach, even a minor one, represents a conveyor belt of food for hungry fish. For a better description and explanation, see the great post by Craig Smith on the subject of flyfishing the surf which I believe can be found in the Masochism [fly fishing] Forum.
Even if you don’t see anything resembling a hole (as opposed to an a-hole who needs to swim in front of you when the beach is wide open), trough or current, don’t sweat it because if the beach has sand crabs, it has fish in water from a few inches to a few feet deep either digging or waiting for some crabs to come tumbling by. Stand at the edge of the water and as the waves recede, look for the telltale little “V’s” left behind that are caused by the protruding feelers of the sandcrabs which live in colonies along the beach. According to Baker, this is the best season in years for sandcrabs.
Reach down with your hands, dig where you find the “V’s” and you will most likely find a few wriggling suspects in the wet sand that is cupped in your palm. Not all suspects are the same. If too small you may have to put several on your hook or change to a smaller hook. If too large which is rare, on light line they are like casting a bolo. Plus a large sand crab will often did down into the sand and bury itself and the hook. The characteristics you are looking for are a medium size, a female with a gob of tiny orange eggs under the tail or a soft shell, as crabs molt their old shell. The very rare and ideal candidate among sandcrabs is the medium-sized and egg-laden female with a somewhat softer than normal shell.
Put a handful of sandcrabs in your pocket, impale one or more on your hook depending on size and make a cast, but not too far as most of the corbina, spotfin croaker and barred surf perch are going to be feeding in water less than four feet deep and often closer to two feet. An underhand lob of your cast will work just fine. Draw your line taut, set your drag for what should work to prevent four pound test from breaking and hold your rod tip up. This will allow you to monitor the position of your offering which is going to move considerably with any current. If in a significant rip, open your bail and let your bait go with the current because ideally there are going to be fish hanging at the end of that food conveyor. Often you will find a slight current running down (south) and in along the beach or up (north) and out, and again this is ideal. If your bait is not moving and giving you good coverage, you can go to a lighter weight (Devereaux prefers split shot) or in the absence of any current you can try fan casting and working the bait back slowly.
Not all bites are equal. Barred surf perch which are the most numerous fish at times on many beaches tend to be “peckers” that reveal their identity with a tap-tap-tap nibble. If you see the eggs and often the tails are missing from your bait, you have probably been victimized by perch.
If the biting fish is a runner, keep your fingers crossed for a corbina or maybe a spotfin croaker both of which in my experience will often run along the beach at an angle toward deeper water. They may also head straight out to sea but if the fish is unusually strong and heading for Hawaii, it could be a guitarfish or leopard shark, both of which fit in the category of being an inconvenience when you are hoping the run belongs to a record corbina.
Once you hook and manage to land a nice sized (three pounds and up) corbina on light tackle it is my guess you will be hooked, but beware because there is no cure for the fever once you’ve got it.
Just look at what it has done to Tom Baker and Bob Devereaux!