Kinematic and electromyographic analyses of prey capture in two species of surfperch (Embiotocidae) reveal differing abilities to modulate strike activity in response to different prey types. Both the black perch, Embiotoca jacksoni, and the shiner perch, Cymatogaster aggregata, demonstrate stereotyped and conserved neuromuscular and kinematic activity in suction feeding. A distinguishing anatomical trait in this family, the interopercular shelf, enhances the coupling of hyoid movement with mandibular depression. Analyses of variance suggest a preprogrammed motor output that is ballistically launched for suction generation, with the possibility of more plasticity in latter phases of the strike. While the trophically limited shiner perch displays a stereotyped repertoire of this one strike pattern, very small prey, larger conglomerates of these, and large distinct prey elicit three modulated patterns in the black perch. Functional characteristics that enable the ecologically generalized black perch to exploit a variety of prey types include energy–conserving modulatory ability, behavioural flexibility in utilizing a conserved suction–generating programme, and the addition of specialized winnowing and spitting activity.