September 28, 2021
This article was originally titled "The Ghost of the Coast" in the Aug-Sept 2021 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.
I grew up fishing with my father for the once-plentiful barred surf-perch. While deploying our basket-like sand crab traps beneath a local pier, I occasionally saw ghostlike shapes in sudsy backwash that quickly disappeared with a swirl. Soaked to my waist, I remember asking my dad about those sleek, silvery fish.
All he could muster was a disgusted murmur hinting at their challenging demeanor: “Oh, those are corbinas,” he hissed, as though it was an off-limits topic. I think at the time he was trying to tell me something, a message that after almost a half century, I am only now beginning to understand.
Corbinas appear in the summertime along more than 200 miles of Southern California coastline. This fish of a thousand casts is without a doubt our most challenging surf species to catch. Since the pursuit is almost entirely visual, it’s extremely addictive, though rarely fruitful. It is a species with which only a small cadre of dedicated fly fishers find occasional success. And I do mean occasional.
Even when you find suitable feeding water, corbinas are often difficult to spot and follow. When you finally are in a position to make that all-important first—and probably only—cast, the presentation has to be pinpoint perfect. Even then, the corbina might spook at the sight of your artificial offering. On those rare occasions when you do entice a corbina into eating, you can only hope the hook stays pinned in its rubbery lip and the fish avoids the throngs of summertime swimmers as the silver cruise missile heads straight for Hawaii. Quite simply, corbinas offer outstanding sport for those willing to take on the challenge.
For fly fishers who have already had the opportunity to pursue other saltwater flats species, the transition is familiar. Corbinas are similar in profile and have a propensity to feed in the same types of shallow-water habitats as bonefish. But most anglers would agree that this is where their similarities end, because corbinas are much harder to find and fool than your average Caribbean bonefish. Most people who have caught both permit and corbinas agree that corbinas are at least their equals.
I caught my first corbina on the fly eight short seasons ago. In that first season, I made exactly 36 beach trips, walked hundreds of miles, and went home with mostly memories. I managed to spot dozens of fish and landed three of them. I was thrilled with my success and could not wait for the following summer. Since then, I’ve landed an additional 285 California corbinas and recorded three International Game Fish Association (IGFA) tippet world records in the 4-, 12-, and 16-pound-test categories.
The California corbina (Menticirrhus undulatus) is a member of the croaker family found mostly along sandy beaches and in shallow bays. Its most telling physical characteristic may be its downturned, toothless, vacuum-like mouth, which strongly suggests how and what it feeds upon. Its favorite meal is soft-shelled sand crabs.
The corbina’s sloping forehead, large pectoral fins, and slim, flat-bottomed fuselage allow it to take full advantage of shallow surf line conditions. It rides waves in toward the edge where sand meets surf, sometimes with its dorsal fin and back fully exposed, like a redfish “crawling” in the salt marshes of Louisiana or a Bahamas bonefish tailing in the mangroves.
Once they are in the shallow feeding zone where the turbulent waves are most likely to dislodge sand crabs, corbinas will often cruise parallel to the shore. Due to the surf’s microcurrents, the trajectory of a corbina can also be irregular, erratic, and difficult to predict. With smooth, gliding turns, they often ride in on a wave, grab a morsel, and recede along with the wash, then await their next opportunity to feed and venture back shoreward. Depending on the fish, corbinas may ride the wave back into that exact same patch of sand, or the length of a football field farther down the beach.
Corbinas also have an incredible sense of smell. Using scent and the single barbels on their chins, they can detect a bed of sand crabs well beneath the sand, as evidenced by the large divots they leave after burrowing half a foot into the hard-packed sand.
Corbinas have small, beady eyes, so it’s surprising how well they can see. I’ve seen them bolt from a stalking fly fisherman more than a cast away, or from a fish-hunting osprey floating high overhead.
They are also armed with an incredibly sensitive lateral line running almost the fish’s entire length that can quickly register your fly’s splashdown, even within the chaos of the surf zone. I’ve seen the worst of casts land well behind a corbina, and watched the fish turn to investigate what can only be described as a sixth sense. They are truly an amazing quarry.
Get a Tan
Though every season varies significantly depending on weather patterns, corbinas traditionally start showing up along Southern California beaches in early June and remain until fall storms cause a significant drop in water temperature, and then they are gone. Where they go is a mystery—there has been very little scientific research done on this species.
You may want to check your local beaches prior to the regular June start, as it is not at all unusual for periods of warm spring weather to bring them to the beaches early. For example, during 2015’s El Niño, the corbinas showed up on a beach near me in early March. They fed heavily for a few days, and then a storm caused them to vacate that stretch of coast overnight.
Not surprisingly, the water temperature was not adversely affected by the fast-moving front, but the fish-holding structure was completely eliminated. Though that situation would be considered an anomaly, it’s worth noting that it’s not just the temperature corbinas prefer, but also the troughs and ditches of summertime conditions.
Our peak season seems to be July and August, when the fish become comfortable in their routine as summer water temperatures stabilize and food sources become consistently available. In 2020, they were roaming the beaches well into September as coastal temperatures remained favorable. The fish were extremely skittish by then, having endured an entire summer’s worth of human exposure, whether from beachgoers, swimmers, surfers, or anglers. Although very few corbinas were caught, they were still around.
Not well known outside Southern California, corbinas generally range from Point Conception south, with tremendous opportunities available for those anglers willing to venture beyond the Mexican border and into Baja waters. Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego counties all offer fish-holding habitat and corbina potential. The fish tend to gather wherever their preferred food is most prevalent. Stomach sampling suggests that 90 percent of their diet is composed of sand crabs, with clams, ghost shrimp, and mussels making up the remainder. It is no wonder that mole crab flies work so well.
As their name suggests, sand crabs are found in sandy environments, moving up and down the beach with each tidal cycle, often changing their depth according to the size of the waves and the water temperature. When they are buried near the surface in large groups, their antennae leave noticeable “V” shapes in the wet sand as each wave recedes. I’ve seen groupings like this as small as a doormat and as large as a baseball field.
If you find these beds near fish-holding structure, it’s worth monitoring them during the proper tide to see if the corbinas have found them. Sand crabs make easy meals for shorebirds, and birds can reveal their locations as they race up and down the sand probing with their beaks.
Sand crabs are found in a variety of sizes throughout the season. Most often their color is matte gray, although molting or “soft-shell” sand crabs can take on an almost transparent beige appearance. Female sand crabs ripe with bright orange clutches of eggs offer attractive, nutritious meals to any surf zone predator, and their color is noticeable from a distance.
Sand crabs love to bury themselves near large jetty rocks, mussel-covered pier pilings, and concrete storm drain structures. Perhaps they seek the protection and feeding opportunities afforded by these large, immovable objects. In these areas, you may also see rays, leopard sharks, smoothnose guitarfish, and barred surfperch—all these fish also love sand crabs, and their presence is a good indication that prey is nearby.
Hunt for Structure
Assuming that you have the aforementioned food sources and proper water temperature—say in the mid-60s to mid-70s degree range—your success becomes completely dependent on finding fish-holding structures such as troughs, flats, pools, and rips.
The process for finding this structure is simple: Walk, walk, and walk some more. Your walking and scouting should be at low tide, and I often fully commit to these endeavors by leaving my fly rod at home so I can cover as much territory as possible.
Certain beaches can be observed best from high vantage points. A high cliff and a pair of binoculars can help expedite the data-gathering process, but most of the time you’ll need to hoof it.
Walking at low tide reveals all the subtleties of the sandy shore that can potentially hold fish. I specifically look for slightly deeper pathways leading into the beach from outside the surf, because corbinas use these lanes to arrive and depart from their feeding areas.
You will often hear veteran fly fishers use the term “keyhole” to describe a channel leading into a large, sandy depression. When they fill, these depressions form pools. These kinds of features can offer consistent sight-fishing opportunities. The channel might be only a few inches deep, but that can be enough to get corbinas into the pool.
Riptides or “rips” created by converging, retreating waves create more water depth and function in the same way a channel does. By providing more depth and therefore safety for corbinas, rips make the fish feel comfortable coming into the beach to feed.
Seemingly featureless, gradually tapering sand flats are among the best areas for pursuing corbinas. With waves breaking on an outside sand bar, and the remaining energy pushing in soft, rolling wavelets, these shallow expanses have the potential to hold large groups of feeding fish.
Such shallow stretches of beach might be a fly line’s length wide with one or two players, or they might be a mile wide, with schools of corbinas spread out on them.
Not all beach flats fish the same. Some are best on an incoming tide, while others are just the opposite. These differences may even occur from day to day for no specific reason that I can determine, though once you find a feeding pattern, it is likely to repeat itself the next day—only an hour later with the changing tide. This is especially true if there is consistent weather and no change in beach activity.
One time I found terrific action on a mostly empty beach, but when I came back the next morning anticipating a replay, I found an invasion of junior lifeguards numbering in the hundreds stampeding across the shallows ten abreast.
Flats, in and of themselves, are not spots. They also contain feeding areas such as edges and seams where converging waves gently collide, making dislodged sand crabs available to a feeding corbina. These areas are like foam lines in a trout stream—and indicate where the food might be concentrated—but instead of insects, the food source is dislodged crabs.
A big flat might also have gentle pools or depressions anywhere from a few inches to a foot deeper than the surrounding beach, which offer holding areas where corbinas can hover and expend the least amount of energy while awaiting the maximum amount of food. Sometimes a small shoreline lip is all you need to attract feeding corbinas. Like all fish, they are more willing to eat if they are comfortable, so key on those areas where food and security merge.
Keep it Simple
I love corbina fishing partly because it requires a minimal amount of tackle. A standard medium- to fast-action 9-foot 6- or 7-weight rod has enough flex to prevent hooks from pulling out during violent head shakes, but still has enough power to contend with afternoon winds. This is not a distance game, so being able to place your fly softly and accurately at a distance of 50 feet or closer is most important. I use an Orvis Helios 3F 6-weight. A lightweight, quality saltwater reel with a large arbor and smooth drag and capacity for at least 100 yards of backing is perfect. My reel of choice is a Galvan Torque 6.
Many of my peers use 7- and even 8-weight outfits. Your regular 9-foot 5-weight trout rod can work if you are just getting started corbina fishing, but you’ll find it’s a little light when it comes to propelling your average dumbbell-eyed corbina fly in the surf zone.
Your line is more important than the rod or reel. I’ve tried a number of fly lines over the past few summers, and the best one for sight fishing the surf is the Scientific Anglers Sonar Stillwater Seamless Density Sink 5/Sink 7 sinking line. This is a trout line, but it’s overweighted by two line weights. Unlike many other sinking-tip lines that have hinge points, this one sinks straight and “seamless,” giving you a straight-line connection to the fly—and it keeps your presentation on the bottom where it belongs. This fly line sinks and stays down below the swirling surge, allowing you to maintain a straight line and as much contact with your fly as possible. This is extremely important, as the subtle take of a corbina is easily missed if you have “S” curves in your line. To maximize every opportunity, I clean my fly line after every outing.
Leader construction is also simple. While you can buy 9- or 10-foot tapered fluorocarbon leaders and add tippet, I prefer to construct my own. Fluorocarbon has the abrasion resistance and sink rate you need for dragging your fly along the sandy bottom.
I always use 9-foot leaders. These keep the end of the fly line well enough away from the fish so as to not alert it, and that constant length gives me a much better idea of where my fly should be in case I lose sight of it—but can still see the corbina. If you can’t see your fly, at least you should be able to make an educated guess about where it is in relation to the fish.
The butt section of my leader is 5 feet of 15-pound test fluorocarbon with a perfection loop on the end of the fly line. I connect it to a 4-foot section of 10-pound-test fluorocarbon using back-to-back uni knots. I’m providing the pound-test ratings here—and not fluorocarbon diameter—because I buy 250-yard spools of Seaguar Tatsu. Over time, I save money and save myself the aggravation of running out of material from a 25-yard spool at the most inopportune time.
Fly fishing in the surf can be especially rough on leaders and flies. Periodically check your leader for frays and nicks. Rolling shells or stray backcasts can cause damage and cost you a fish, as will dull hooks or presentation-killing twisted dumbbell eyes. Do yourself a favor and check your terminal tackle often. The surf environment is harsh, so I replace my leader after every trip.
The most effective leader connection for any corbina fly pattern is a loop knot, which will allow your fly to move freely with each strip of line. There are a number of popular knots available—however, I prefer the nonslip loop knot because it is strong and quick to tie.
When it comes to corbinas, my approach to fly selection is to always keep it simple. Unlike trout, which feed on many different food sources, corbinas never lose their taste for sand crabs. Though there are literally dozens of different surf flies out there, I always find myself tying on a Surfin’ Merkin, created by fellow corbina addict Paul Cronin. I tie it with either silver gray or salmon pink Enrico Puglisi (EP) Fibers on a #6 Gamakatsu SL45 saltwater hook.
When I move it, I want that Surfin’ Merkin to create puffs of sand like an actively burrowing crab, so I use small to medium lead dumbbell eyes. I use small eyes in water less than a foot deep, and medium for deeper water or fast-moving tides.
I prefer the more natural-colored gray version, and use it most of the time. I switch to pink in low-visibility, silty conditions, or when I’m getting refusals. There are those occasions when a rolling or dislodged sand crab brings more strikes, so consider having a couple of Surfin’ Merkins with large beadchain eyes for the turbulent wash zones.
When a little more movement is required, I reach for my Bean Counter. Named after local slang for corbinas or “beans,” this pattern includes additional “triggers” that help entice aggressive strikes.
A stripping basket allows you to better manage your fly line by keeping it off the sand, out of the water, and away from your feet. I use one from Sondergaard ECOastal, and it is extremely lightweight, tends the line when it’s windy, and is soft to the touch when you bang your hand against it during a strip-strike.
While it looks great in photos, resist wearing brightly colored clothing—it will only magnify the fish’s ability to see you. I opt for dull colors such as gray, tan, or light blue because these serve to match sand and sky well. I wear sandals from the car to the sand, and walk the beach with bare feet. You will likely cover some distance, so wear what makes you feel most comfortable.
A quality pair of polarized sunglasses is absolutely essential. Fish-hiding glare must be neutralized in order to see and track your quarry, especially in the late afternoon as you face directly into the sun setting in the western sky. I’ve tried every lens color, and what works best for me this time of day are Smith Optics Guides Choice Techlite Ignitor lenses. These afford good glare reduction and excellent contrast between a silvery-gray corbina and a beige-gray sand bottom in low light or on cloudy days. On bright sunny days, I always reach for my Costa Caballito 580s with copper lenses. Spotting these fish is a major part of the equation. Get the best-quality polarized glasses you can afford.
Wash all your gear, flies included, with fresh water and let it air dry before you store it. Resist the temptation to use a harsh, blasting stream of fresh water, which often serves to drive salt into those small corners of your reel and reel seat. Given the opportunity, salt water will destroy your expensive equipment, so protect your investment.
Walk This Way
You’ve carefully selected your fishing location and assessed the conditions. Your fly gear is fully prepared, you are dressed for success, and are now ready for the stalk. So what do you look for? I begin by looking through the water with my eyes relaxed, trying not to fixate on any one thing. I then look for any kind of contrasting underwater movement, something that is different, an object that is out of place. Sometimes you might see an entire fish, at other times just a bit of dark gray pectoral fin or tail. I find that I spot fish best when I scan potential holding water using my peripheral vision, and then I pan back over that area if I think I saw a fish. Look where you can effectively hope to spot fish. You will cause frustration and eyestrain by looking too far forward.
Insufficient light early or late in the day—or especially in cloudy conditions—requires a change in strategy. Shift your approach to looking for surface pushes of cruising or tailing corbinas on shallow flats. They sometimes feed with their tails out of the water almost exactly like a bonefish, redfish, or the “fork-tailed devil.” In poor light, you may also need to walk a little closer to the flats and pools to see fish.
Seeing a fish is just a starting point. You need to be able to determine which way the fish is facing. If it’s facing you and moving toward you, you are already in position to make that all-important first cast. A corbina swimming away is only going to spook if you cast over it and strip your fly toward it.
If the fish is facing away from you, keep your eye on the prize, walk up the beach, and position yourself well ahead of the fish. Let it come to you, and try stay out of the water so as to avoid detection.
During the summer in Southern California, you will likely be sharing the sand with other folks. They might be surfers or swimmers, joggers or out-of-town visitors, shell collectors, or senior citizens on a walk. Always check your backcast zone before making a cast. On your local trout stream, you risk hooking a tree and losing your fly. On the beach you might hurt someone.
I prefer to present the fly ahead of the fish by about 4 feet to prevent spooking the fish and to allow the fly to sink into position. As the corbina approaches to within a couple feet of your fly, begin stripping with short, sharp strips to grab the fish’s attention. As they say, “Be the sand crab.”
Watch the attitude of the fish, and take note of any sharp or turning movements, which might indicate a strike. If you suspect a take, use a long, steady strip strike to drive the hook home. Don’t lift the rod, but be prepared to let line slip through your grip, as the fish may turn and rocket away. These are reaction bites, and as such, some will be aggressive and followed by a strong run. Resist the temptation to admire the bend in your fly rod or to watch the fish running off. Look down and clear your fly line, ensuring that it doesn’t leave your stripping basket in a tangled heap.
Every fish is different. Some of them eat the fly and swim directly toward you, creating slack and not allowing you to set the hook. Keep stripping until you feel the weight of the corbina.
Once you’ve cleared the line, you’ve got time to enjoy the moment and let that reel sing. Be ready to reel quickly. These fish can also surf toward you quickly at different periods of the fight. Corbinas have been known to charge right up the sand and beach themselves.
As the fish begins to tire, apply sideways pressure away from the ocean, and then quickly wind down. Keep the rod angle low to take advantage of the fly rod’s powerful lower section. To keep the fish off balance, always pull in the opposite direction. If the fish heads north, you pull to the south. The goal is always to land the fish quickly to minimize stress.
When it’s finally time to land the fish, don’t raise the rod to a high angle. I keep the rod low and walk backward up the sand, away from the ocean. Try to use the push of an incoming wave to propel the corbina farther up the sand, and grab the tail of the fish before the suction of the receding wave takes it away. It can be tricky.
We all like to record our catches, especially when it’s a challenging fish like a corbina. Corbinas, though built for the harsh surf environment, are especially delicate after a tiring battle. To minimize stress on the fish, I try to apply the same general rules as when photographing other species. Keep your fish out of the water for less than the length of time you can hold your breath. Make it quick. Have your camera equipment ready so that it can be deployed in a few seconds.
My Orvis sling pack contains a point-and-shoot camera and folding monopod that can be fully deployed in less than 30 seconds. With the timer feature already set before I leave the house, I can have that wonderful fish posing for selfies with me, and then release it quickly back into the water. Revive the fish by facing it upright into gentle incoming waves until it kicks and swims away under its own power.
No one really knows what the status of the corbina population is, but old-timers will tell you there aren’t as many now as there were 20 years ago. The ocean is immense, but it’s not an inexhaustible resource. We should do everything possible to preserve this marvelous nearshore fishery.
Glenn Ueda lives in Huntington Beach with his wife Mona and their two dogs. He guides more than 200 days a year, fishing for everything from carp and corbina to peacock bass and roosterfish.