King of the Pacific Surf


When it comes to fishing the surf along the coast of southern California and Baja, most anglers will place the spotfin croaker near the top of their list of target species. Growing up to 10 pounds, this high backed bruiser will attack a variety of baits and occasionally artificials, and can be a definite challenge to land from the churning surf. Spotfin croaker (Roncador stearnsii) occur from Point Conception on the California coast all the way south to the tip of Baja California and on into the Sea of Cortez. They are exclusive to this territorial range, however, and are rarely found north of Point Conception or south of Mazatlan, Mexico.

What It Looks Like

The upper body of the spotfin is elevated, with a pronounced drop to its curved nose and down to the mouth, which is situated directly beneath the head in order to facilitate easy access to the numerous invertebrates and crustaceans upon which they feed. The most prominent point in the identification of this croaker species is the single, coin-sized black spot located at the base of the pectoral fin that fostered its common name.

Natural Habitat

While they can certainly be caught in the suds close to the beach, larger spotfin tend to hang out in the depressions and holes just beyond the surf line; which are likely to require a long cast of 100 yards or more. Spotfin croaker are big fans of burrowing pencil clams, fat innkeeper worms and ghost shrimp, but will also devour mussels, bloodworms, sandworms and other similar fare. As far as terminal tackle is concerned, a standard 1 or 2 hook dropper loop rig will usually get the job done.

Best Ways to Catch Them

Over time, I have found that, depending upon the tides, spotfin tend to bite better at night. Optimum conditions generally occur during minus tides that bottom out between 1 and 2pm, and then reach their peak around 10:00 pm. During the low ebb, anglers have access to areas that are otherwise submerged and can gather fresh, natural baits by collecting mussels, digging for clams or pumping up ghost shrimp.

If an abundance of mussels are available, many veteran croaker anglers will gather a small pile, place them in a burlap sack and then tie the chum bag to a rope. As the tide rises, they will crush up the mussels and toss the bag in the water so that there oily essence can leach out and drift off as the water reaches its peak. Often, this will draw in a variety of fish, including quality grade spotfin croaker.

In highly populated areas that see a lot of fishing pressure, it is more likely that the spotfin croaker being caught by local anglers will weigh in at about 2 pounds, although the longer you can cast the better chance you have of hooking up with a more impressive catch. Those who seek out more isolated stretches of county and state beaches often have their efforts rewarded with spotfin action that is more reminiscent of the way fishing was over a decade ago. Anglers who are willing to venture down to the sandy beaches of Baja California have the very best chance of landing a trophy sized spotfin croaker.

But one thing is certain; whether fishing for them with natural baits, or artificials like small chrome spoons or Carolina rigged plastic worms, the spotfin croaker offers yet another attractive and highly accessible option for the enjoyment of south coast surf anglers.

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