Perch in the surf
GOLD BEACH — For someone who loves to fish, Cindy Mindrup has perhaps the worst affliction for someone who wants to be on the water: Motion sickness.
“Not only can I not go on a boat, I can’t even go on a dock,” says Mindrup, 62, of Wimer.
But for the past 45 years Mindrup has been an ocean angler thanks to the most accommodating fish along Oregon’s Pacific shore: surfperch.
The most sought-after and most-caught species of fish along Oregon beaches are the perfect target for anglers like Mindrup who can cast from the beach with ample reason to expect to catch these tasty morsels whenever conditions accommodate.
“It’s fishing, I love fishing, and this is something I can do from the shore,” Mindrup says. “If the fish are there, we get our limits, always.”
From spots like the mouth of the Elk River to vast sandy beaches or slots behind rocks slapped by waves, the favorite haunts of surfperch can take longer to find than it takes to catch a limit of 15 of these slim, saucer-like swimmers of the surf.
Almost always, that means fishing around high tide on open beaches. That also usually means finding little dips or depressions in the near-shore sand where redtails lay in great schools waiting to mug any piece of marine food churned in the surf.
Schools often congregate within 30 feet of the shoreline, darting in an out of the surf surge.
Perhaps the easiest and best time to find those spots is in early summer, when larger female redtails congregate around coastal estuaries where they will give live birth.
So fishing near the mouths of rivers like the Winchuck, Elk, Rogue and Umpqua rivers can bring fantastic hours of catching this species of whitefish prized more for its taste than its tug.
“You can pick pretty much any beach and you can find surfperch,” says Trevor Bennett, a Gold Beach resident who fishes surfperch twice a week or more.
But perch are in the surf year-round, and Oregon beaches sport nine species of surfperch. The lion’s share of the catch are redtails, which are easily identified by their red or pink fins.
They can live up to 14 years and can eclipse 4 pounds, but most of the catch are 3 to 5 years old and weigh 1 1/2 to 2 pounds. Females are larger than males, so they are three times more likely to be kept by anglers filling out their 15-fish daily limit.
Not only are there lots of redtails, they are highly mobile.
Tagging studies done in the 1990s by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife showed that redtails are highly migratory. Fish tagged near Cape Blanco were caught later as far south as Orick, California, south of the Klamath River.
Cape Arago south of Charleston seems to be a major barrier, with fish south of it staying south and those north doing the same.
Either side of Cape Arago, fishing tactics are the same.
Steelhead-sized spinning rods are rigged with a 2- to 4-ounce sinker on the bottom of a stout leader with up to three single-point hooks separated by a foot of leader. Coastal tackle shops sell pre-tied surfperch rigs, or anglers can tie their own for less than a dollar apiece.
Common baits are mussels, sandshrimp, chunks of prawn or small sand crabs. The onset of scented plastic Berkly baits such as sand worms and shrimp are popular alternatives because they are easy to use and can stay on hooks through multiple catches.
Waders are recommended, because some beaches require wading. And always keep an eye on the surf.
Windrup is old-school, preferring small sand crabs that she and her husband, Ken, collect themselves at Myers Beach south of Gold Beach. They get 100, enough for their normal three-day foray on beaches around Gold Beach.
Most beaches sport striped surfperch and the smaller silver surfperch. Larger pile perch are mostly found in bays hovering around their namesakes. But the prize of the beach are redtails.
But what to cast is less important than where to cast.
The Great Surfperch Search usually begins a few hours before high tide, when a small group of anglers will fan out across a beach like Nesika or Kissing Rock near Gold Beach.
Waves and topography provide giveaways to likely redtail spots. Waves that break closest to shore often mean there’s a deep depression there that could be surfperch-worthy.
Also, when the shoreline turns inward, that usually indicates a hole in the sand likely loaded with redtails. Boulders within the breakers allow for sand scouring behind them, making for fine feeding territory.
“Make a few casts, and if you don’t get one, move down the beach,” Bennett says. “These surfperch really move in schools.”
Once the redtails are found, anglers often end up fishing close enough for conversation interrupted by dancing rod-tips and flopping perch.
The easiest way to find good redtail water is to visit the beach at low tide. Look below the high-tide mark for dips in the sand, then come back close to high tide and cast into them when they are submerged.
The sand spit off the Rogue River’s South Jetty is a surfperch magnet and a favorite of Mindrup, especially in August and September as fall chinook salmon are moving into the bay.
Occasionally, a surfpercher will hook a chinook.
“That could happen, so you always want to have your salmon tag with you,” she says.
When planning trips to Gold Beach, Mindrup looks for a string of days with light waves and the lightest winds Gold Beach can offer.
“The wind is not a friend,” Mindrup says.