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Casting against the surf

Bruce Ajari

Last week I took a bit of a road trip down to the San Luis Obispo region to watch my son compete in a swim meet. I made plans to get down a day early so I could take advantage of an opportunity to fly fish with one of my friends from the Lake Tahoe area who was also going to be in the area during the same timeframe.

My friend picked me up at 7 a.m. and we discussed his prior day’s event of fishing the surf near Morro Bay. Because there was a high surf advisory posted, he decided to fish with spin gear as many had recommended due to the conditions. He had caught barred surfperch, probably the most common species of fish caught along the California coastline.

The barred surfperch can reach up to 17 inches in length and up to around 4 and a half pounds. The large ones are typically females and are caught during the spawning season, which is typically around June. Most fish are much smaller.

My friend had checked in with San Luis Obispo fly shop owner Britt Phillips the day prior and picked up some of his favorites for us to use. Britt’s fly shop, the Hole in the Wall Fly Shop, is a pretty nice little shop that probably has more trout stuff than saltwater gear. I had known Britt for a number of years due to his association with the Federation of Fly Fishers annual event that was previously held in North Lake Tahoe. He ran the fly-tying section where I did some demonstration tying.

Britt had given my friend a tip on where the locals fly fish during the winter’s high surf season. We proceeded to take the 10 minute drive from my motel to the location. It was a beautiful spot and the surf was very manageable. In fact, my friend said that it looked flat compared to what he had been fishing the day before.

We proceeded to pull on our waders. What a difference from having to dress for Pyramid Lake during the winter. They don’t know how good they have it. One simple under layer and one pair of socks is about all that was necessary. A wading jacket worn outside of your waders is very helpful for keeping both the wind and the water out of your waders. I still managed to take a little water over the top about three times. My thought was that I’m not as nimble as when I used to do this in college on the north coast.

The gear for barred surfperch is pretty simple: a 9-foot-6- to 8- weight rod, a 250- to 350- grain fused line or shooting head, a short leader (3 to 6 feet or 10 to 15-pound fluorocarbon), a stripping basket to manage your line and a couple of flies. I used my Pyramid Lake 8-weight set-up and it worked just fine. The flies have bright patterns in shades of red and orange, as well as bait fish colors.

On my third cast, I felt a nice tug and set the hook on a nice little barred surf perch. This fish took a fly that I had tied the night before while driving down to San Luis Obispo. The rest I landed were caught on a red and black creation from the fly shop. We fished for about four hours and probably hooked about 20 fish between both of us. We only landed a small percentage, but we had fun.

Timing the casts between wave sets is the trickiest thing about surf fishing. You do not want to be wasting a lot of time false casting, so a shooting head system really helps. If you do it right you can roll the line up, take one haul and let it go. There is no wasted motion.

I visited the fly shop the next day to say ‘hello,’ prior to the first swimming events of the day. The one thing I found out about the shop was that the opening hours are pretty late. Expecting it to be open by at least 9 a.m., I made a run downtown to check it out. The shop is located in a group of stores called the Creamery, at 570 Higuera Street #115.

I stopped back in town about 10:15 and found Britt in the store. After exchanging ‘hellos’ and catching up, we started talking about the fishing in his region. The bottom line is that there are many great opportunities to fly fish in the ocean all along the coast. It is also becoming more popular.

The next time down, I plan to target halibut on a fly rod. That should be a great time. Britt tells me that when the water temperature reaches 58 or 59 degrees these fish really become active. The rigging is a little different, but that is another story.

If you are heading that direction, give Britt a call at his shop at (805) 595-3559.


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