By Larry Ellis

Pilot staff writer

Rare surfperch caught in the Brookings surf

If China can call 2008 the Year of the Rat, I don't see any reason why we Oregonians can't call our new year, the Year of the Surfperch.

I don't think anyone is going to call this year the Year of the Salmon, unless you were springer fishing on the Columbia. One of the Columbia's crackerjack guides, Martin Thurber from Willakenzie Guide Service, just called me and said he's had one of the best springer years he's ever experienced. The fishery was so good that it apparently attracted a lot of guides from the Brookings area as well.

Keeping up with the Columbia River regulations is like chasing a hummingbird. Just about the time you see one, it disappears.

Columbia regulations are like that too. Just when the fishing starts to get good, a new regulation shuts it down and it's gone like a hummingbird, which is exactly what happened to the Columbia springers this year.

Just when everyone was making hay with the springers, the fishery was suddenly shut down between the mouth and Bonneville Dam on April 21. Not only are there ever-changing regulations for springers, one must constantly keep abreast for continually changing regulations for coho, upriver brights, fall Chinook and the June hawgs.

On the bright side, the Columbia's got more smallmouth and largemouth bass than Carter's got pills. It also has a tremendous walleye fishery. There is definitely a world record walleye swimming in the Mighty C, and many smallmouth aficionados believe there is a record bronzeback doing the backstroke somewhere between the mouth and the other end of the state as well.

Factor in some nice size black and white crappie, carp the size of humans, channel cats, bullheads, and yellow perch galore, and you've got yourself a tremendous warmwater fishery. Those regulations hardly ever change.

This may have gotten a little off topic, but the point is, if the powers that be are not going to allow us to catch a salmon in the ocean, we might as well take advantage of the other fishing opportunities that abound in the state of Oregon.

Which is exactly why surfperch is this week's hot topic. The flat-siders are one of this vicinity's local species that are going to save our bacon this year.

Varieties of all shapes and sizes have been coming to the fillet tables this week. On one day I saw some very large redtails being filleted, averaging between 2 and 3 pounds. There were also a lot of striped surfperch being filleted at the tables as well.

But the most unusual surfperch that I had the pleasure of taking a picture of was a large 16-inch pile surfperch.

Pile surfperch are common in one respect and rare in another. It is common to see these giants swimming close to wooden and cement bridge or pier pilings, a behavior that gives them their name.

The rare part was finding a willing biter. We used to watch these huge pile perch moving to and fro amidst the surface of pier pilings in Southern California. No matter what we would do, we could not get these things to bite. Most ended up being snagged.

People used to try all kinds of tricks to get them to engulf their offerings. Many used to take a dowel and wrap it with mussels. Around this device a leader was wound containing size 6 hooks.

A guy would lower this device down to one of the larger pile perch haunts. The pile perch would become attracted to this new artificial piling and soon would become entangled in the hooks. Ingenious to say the least.

But find them out in the surf away from pilings, pile surfperch will gobble ordinary surf rigs. That's exactly what happened to Dean and Dawn Ferguson from Grants Pass last week, who spent a few days in Brookings just to go surfperch fishing.

Linda ZumBrunnen, a top-notch marine biologist who works for ODFW, helped confirm the fish's identity. The deeply forked tail and its large size gave it away.

Generally, these critters also have a couple of black vertical bars along their mid-section, but this one had been out of the water long enough that it lost a few of those identifying colors.

A spot underneath its eye and slightly forward is another way of identifying pile perch.

Although there were some rockfish and lingcod caught this week, Mother Ocean was a little nasty and kept most of the boats at bay. That's the great thing about surfperch fishing.

The weather and seas can be flat-out nasty, but surfperch will almost always go on the bite. You have to remember that they're used to getting banged around in the surf, so a little inclement weather isn't going to stop them from feeding.

Perchology 101

Another interesting fact about the surfperches, belonging to the family called Embiotocidae, is that they all give live birth to quarter-size miniatures that look exactly like the adults.

The good thing about this year's batch of perch is that the young are still very underdeveloped, meaning that the fishing should keep getting better in the next few months as their spawning ritual is delayed.

I have heard one rumor floating around the fillet tables that needs to be quelled about the surfperch family. Some folks are under the mistaken impression that the surfperches change gender in their life cycle. That is not true.

Many fish do begin their lives as females, then develop into males later in life, a process called protogyny. One example is a sheephead. The reverse is also true. Some fish start out as males and then change to females, a phenomenon called protandry.

Surfperches are neither protogynous, nor protandrous. They remain either males or females their entire lives. And that's their story and they're stickin' to it.

Out of all the surfperch fishermen I've interviewed at the cleaning station, and I've spoken with hundreds, most visit our beaches from the Rogue Valley and Klamath Falls.

That's where we need to concentrate our efforts this year as a fishing community, focusing on other species to make up for the ocean salmon season crisis.

There are other fish to fry out in Davey Jones' Locker as well. Pacific sanddabs immediately come to mind. We'll talk more about that topic next week.

Tight Lines!