Zen Fly Fishing: The Barred Surfperch.

Family, Genus and Species:

Embiotocidae (Surfperches), Amphistichus argenteus


Barred Surfperch Illustration from California DFG site
This is linked from the California DFG Web Site: http://www.dfg.ca.gov/marine/images/mspc121.gif.

Common Names:

barred surfperch; barred perch; silver perch; surfperch; sand perch; silver surfperch.

I prefer the name barred perch and use it on the other pages of this site.


The illustration shows a larger male Barred Surfperch. It has acquired the typical big perch characteristics with some angular variations to the oval-look of younger perch. The head of surfperch is blunt and the mouth is very small compared to other game fish like Striped Bass and Large Mouth Bass. You can see more pictures in the Perch Gallery to get an idea what range of colors they can have and the difference between younger smaller perch and larger older ones.

According to Reference (1) below: Males have a dark head; Females have a dark underside while mating; Males have a tubercular penis (small rounded projection) and modified anal fin. Almost all of the Barred Surfperch in the Spring/Summer 2002 photo gallery are females except the first double in the Spring/Summer 2002 Gallery. The Winter 2002/2003 Gallery shows several good examples of large males and shows females with a dark underside indicating that they are mating. Note the rounded shape of the males anal fins and that a few of the males are dripping milt. The winter mating ritual seems to bring more males into the surf zone.

Characteristics and Habits:

Successful techniques are born from an understanding of the characteristics and habits of the species that you are targeting.

Barred Surfperch have flatter bodies for greater ease in undulating and flexing their bodies. They can instantly orient their flat bodies with respect to wave currents in order to maneuver in the surf zone. When beached, perch remain still as if preserving energy until the next wave brings water. With the next wave, they swim on their sides patiently until the water is deep enough to swim normally. When hooked they use their full surface to resist your pull.

Imagine how life in the surf zone must be with the incessant periodic wave action. Visibility is usually limited because of the effect of strong turbulence and currents on sandy bottoms and water surface (suspended sediment and foam). As in most fishing, it is important to discern the structural edges within the surf zone. Fish use edges as references for movement in the surf zone. The important edges are those between sandy/foamy water and clear water, breaks in bottom contour on the edges of rips, troughs and cuts). Sandy high points at the water line also indicate high probability water. Fish work the turbulence on the side of sandy points. Bottom structure is discernable by watching wave height changes. Waves crest and break over shallow bottoms. Waves roll over deeper areas. You can use water color to supplement wave characteristics with darker colors indicating more depth.

Periodic wave action pushes water on to the beach and causes currents and water movement that persists beyond the individual waves. This water movement disturbs sandy bottoms and stirs up the organisms that live near it and carries them along in a stream-like flow. These are the high probability areas to find fish.

Most fish are near-sighted because most waters limit visibility over large ranges and perch are most likely near-sighted as well. In the surf zone, anything that resembles food is inhaled. In my experience, heavy surf is a one-strike game for perch. If they miss your fly the first time, they don't get a second chance because of limited visibility and strong currents and turbulence. Under milder conditions, perch seem to pursue flies and strike multiple times. You can catch fish in foamy turbulent water but it is less likely that a fish will see and strike your fly because of limited visibility. Ideally, find clear water near moving dirty water that produces steady flow of dislodged organisms.

Barred Surfperch are sociable creatures and are usually found in schools of like-sized fish. The number of fish in the school varies. At times, they will form small pods of a few to several fish and other times it seems like there are thousands of perch out there that stick to a particularly excellent cut. They seem to school with the same species, but at times, more than one species will share water. We frequently find Walleyes and Barreds in the same water. If you catch a large perch then chances are good that others are in the area.

More frequently, you get a few hits and catch a fish or two and then they disappear. In this mode of feeding, a small school seems to be moving all the time and they move with your range and then move on. It is typically difficult to follow them in this case.

At other times, given good conditions (with abundant feed in a nice cut), a small school will shift within an area adapting to the best conditions in the moment. If you pay attention to the turbulence/clear water edges and water movement in relation to the places that you get hit then you can track them over time. You may have to wait for several sets of waves to get similar conditions. In this situation, you find fish then lose them then find them again.

Occasionally, you will find stragglers, for example, when working along the inside edge of a trough. You find a fish and that is all. It seems under this condition that individual or small pods are working along an edge, and picking sandcrabs and other washed off feed as they move along.


You can find Barred Surfperch in most Pacific coastal waters with sandy beaches. Barred Surfperch feed in the surf zone. They also mate in the surf zone and return to the surf zone to give birth. I think that they give birth there so that the live young have immediate exposure to areas that are rich in food supplies so that they can start feeding immediately.

Reports indicate that Barred Surfperch are found as deep as 495 feet (151 meters per Reference 1). This might explain why on occasion you can find no signs of life in an area that held a lot of perch.

Tagging studies indicate that these perch occasionally move up to 35 miles but typically stay within a few miles.


According to the California DFG Web Site : The major portion of the barred surfperch diet is sand crabs, with other crustaceans, bean clams and small crabs comprising the remainder.

On Monterey Bay beaches the sand crab population is large and extensive. Every beach that I have fished has large populations. It is also called the Pacific mole crab (emerita analoga). They inhabit areas of the beach that have steady streams of microscopic organisms that are floating in the water. Food is collected on antennae extended from their bodies and scraped off and eaten when the antennae are pulled into their bodies. You can detect them by the V-shaped wake caused by their extended antenna as closest waves recede over sandy bottoms. The areas of richest organisms will be populated with hundreds of sand crabs.

Sand crabs live in the range from the lowest to highest reaches of the waves at any given time. While they are buried most of the time, they do get dislodged and also have to reposition as the tide changes. It is unusual that sand crabs walk, swim and dig into sand backwards.

In some locations on the beach, sand crabs are so abundant that you can feel them under your feet as you wade in knee-deep waters. During spring and summer in Monterey Bay, spawning sand crabs carry roe under their rear carapace. Just look for bright orange roe at one end. You can usually catch a few sand crabs by digging by hand at or near the water line. This is the color that many effective fly patterns use as bite triggers.

Ken Hanley shows an interesting photograph of a perch's crushers in his article, Ken Hanley's Surfperch Academy article at Dan Blanton's Web Site. It looks like they have a full set of upper and lower dentures! Read the section on how perch feed by oral winnowing (inhaling possible food rolling them around in their mouths then discarding non-food items). This feeding behavior explains why maintaining contact with your fly with effective line control is essential to bite detection. If you have slack then you will not feel grabs and your fly will be discarded.

Also, I believe that worms must comprise a significant part of barred surfperch diets just because of the effectiveness of the iridescent motor oil colored grubs and the presence of similarly colored surf worms on our beaches. See the photograph of a Clam Worm at the enature web site enature web site . The worms color is described to be: Iridescent greenish, bluish, or greenish-brown above, usually with fine red, gold, or white spots, paler beneath; appendages red, showing blood vessels. These are the colors that serve as bite triggers when used on grubs. I have not found worms on local beaches but a friend has and the worm that he describes is similar to the clam worm.

I have snagged grass shrimp in the surf zone. A friend found a grass shrimp that had burrowed into sand like sand crabs. These shrimp must comprise a portion of a surfperch's diet. Shrimp fly patterns are effective in the surf zone. I have caught perch on screaming shrimp and micro shrimp.

I have also caught perch on small blue/white clousers so perch must eat baitfish too including perch juvenile during spawning.


The California DFG Surfperch Report indicates that Barred Surfperch give birth to living young from March to July. As few as four and as many as 113 have been counted, but the average is 33 per female. They are about 2.5 inches long at birth, and mature when about 6.5 inches long and 1 or 2 years old.

According to information in Fishes of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Estuary and Adjacent Waters, California, female barred surfperch that are two years old carry embryos from January to June; 3-year-old fish carry them from December to May and 4-year-old fish carry them from November to April, giving birth from April to June (Triplett 1960). Female barred surfperch give birth from mid-March through July in Southern California (Carlisle et al. 1960). Mating has been reported in November and December (Feder et al. 1976). The gestation period is about 5 months (Triplett 1960). The number of embryos increases with age and size of the female parent. The number of embryos has been reported as 4-113 (Carlisle et al. 1960) and as ca. 20 for 2-year-old fish and 70 for 4-year-old fish (Triplett 1960). Click on the link above to see the references.

Our observations confirm that the larger perch spawn earlier and the smaller, younger perch later. We caught the largest spawning females (up to 3 1/4-lbs) in late June and July. Toward the end of July, spawners in the 1-lb range started showing up. Most of the spawners that we saw in August were in the 1-lb range.

I have heard from other fishermen that largest spawners start to come in over the winter. One reported spawners at Sunset State Beach in December and another reported large spawners (Redtail Surfperch) in October/November at Pescadero State Beach. It might vary from year to year and it seems to vary from beach to beach.

I've also heard that large mating males are most likely to show up over the winter months. They can be observed to be releasing white milt if caught while breeding.

The picture below shows a 1 1/2 lb perch ready to give birth. Note the swollen area behind its stomach and the protruding birth canal area. When perch are in this state, release them as quickly as possible because they will start to release their young (probably prematurely) if kept out of the water too long.

Perch ready to give birth

The next picture shows the related Striped Surfperch giving live birth. The young are autonomous from birth and can swim and find food themselves. This shows a normal birth (head first). I have seen Barred Surfperch give breach births (tail first).

Striped Surfperch giving birth
© Copyright 2001, Adam P. Summers of UCI


According to the latest studies in Reference 1, the geographic range of Barred Surfperch extends from north Washington down to central Baja California.

Based on our experience, the barred surfperch will be the most frequent surfperch that you catch in the Monterey Bay area. The second most frequent will be the Walleye Surfperch. You will occasionally see the smaller Shiner Surfperch and Silver Surfperch. We rarely see Redtail Surfperch. They look similar to the barred but are distinguished by their definite red or reddish color on their fins and tail. Redtails are more common the further north that you fish and above Bodega Bay is the Redtail's domain.


According to information in Fishes of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Estuary and Adjacent Waters, California , longevity of this species is reported to be up to nine years for females (length 326-350 mm SL 12.8444 inch to 13.7900 inch ) and six years for males (265 mm SL 10.4410 inch ) (Carlisle et al. 1960). Baxter (1966) reported a 9-year-old barred surfperch, which was 342 mm in length (13.4748 inch ) and weighed 1.8 kg (3.9683 pound ).

This information describes perch that do not have the length of the state record perch and the large perch shown in the Perch Gallery. The oldest perch are reported to be less than 14-inches while the state records reports a 17-inch perch and our longest in our 2002 season was about 16-inches.

Perch may have been fatter in those days and longevity may have increased since then.

Largest Known:

The California DFG Surfperch Report reports 17 inches; 4.5 pounds. A friend who fishes near Cambria, California area saw a post that indicated that the largest perch came from their local waters.

The California DFG Records show two Barred Surfperch weighing 4 lbs 2 oz. They were caught at Morro Bay and Oxnard respectively on November 8, 1995 and March 30, 1996.

The International Game Fish Association lists the March 30, 1996, Oxnard perch weighing 4 lbs 2 oz as the world record as of November 19, 2002. Fred Oakley holds it. It is not a line class eligible species so in order to submit a record, it must be larger than 4 lbs 2 oz. You have to be a member to access the full database but you can get specific records by email (see contact information on their web site).

The largest perch I saw in 2002 was Nozie I's 3 1/4-lb Barred Perch. My largest of 2003 is a 3 1/4-lb fat hog, barred perch caught on May 1, 2003. We see enough in the 2 to 3-lb range that is still seems reasonable to expect to eventually catch one that is larger than 4-lbs.


(1) Biological Characteristics of Nearshore Fishes of California, FINAL REPORT, A Review of Existing Knowledge and Proposed Additional Studies for the Pacific Ocean Interjurisdictional Fisheries Management Plan Coordination and Development Project
Submitted to Mr. Al Didier
Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission
August 31, 2000

This report compiles available research into a large Excel file. The web page below describes the report. The body of the research data in included in the Excel file that can be downloaded by clicking on a link in Section 2, Literature Survey. Information about the Barred Surfperch is available under the Excel tab, Embiotocidae (the Surfperch family).

(2) Fishes of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Estuary and Adjacent Waters, California: A Guide to the Early Life Histories
Johnson C. S. Wang
Technical Report 9
January 1986
Prepared for the Interagency Ecological Study Program for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Estuary
A Cooperative Study of Water Resource
California Department of Fish and Game
U. S. Bureau of Reclamation
U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service

For information about Barred Surfperch, see:

For the complete report, see:

(3) California Department of Fish and Game Web site provides information about Barred Surfperch in their fish identification section. Material published by the Department of Fish and Game is considered public domain, and is not copyrighted.


(4) California Department of Fish and Game Web site provides data about the state ocean gamefish records at:


You have to download an Adobe file to see the data.

Questions or Comments:

Glenn Yoshimoto
Los Gatos, California

zen fly fishing home

Revised: August 11, 2003: added links to grass shrimp and 3 1/4-lb photos.
Revised: February 24, 2003

This page © Copyright 2002 and 2003, Glenn Yoshimoto, excluding photos copyrighted by others