Tips on how to hook up with yellowtail as the season kicks into gear
BY RICH HOLLAND
SAN CLEMENTE — There was the post no one “safe at home” wants to see: huge local yellowtail on the deck and the report that all the fish were caught on surface iron.
“We can’t run any charters now, but we’re looking forward to a great season!”
Aren’t we all!
Swordfish and giant bluefin tuna have set an extremely high bar as far as local fishing accomplishments go, yet the number one pelagic species along the coast of the Californias continues to be the yellowtail, Seriola lalandi.
Whether firecrackers pulled off a kelp paddy to blood a boatload of purported tuna chasers or remote island or coastal homeguards found blasting holes in the surface while chasing bait, yellowtail hit hard and pull harder.
There are three basic ways to fish yellowtail — on bait, jigs or the troll. Fishing the iron jigs is my favorite method, but all three can outshine the others depending on the conditions.
One thing to remember when considering the above techniques is when yellows show on the surface chasing bait or are up near a kelp paddy, they are often the tip of the iceberg, with the bulk of the school found in deeper water.
Or maybe they are a remnant wolf pack intent on spawning or feeding up after the spawn. Respect the resource, take only what you need and let others catch their own. (See sidebar)
Yellowtail love bait. Yellows grow rapidly – those tiny yellows the size of big greenback mackerel found on kelp paddies in the fall are YOY (young of the year) pups making the most of the pelagic food chain while doing their best to avoid becoming part of it.
Wherever they start their lives, yellowtail school up and head out in search of bait schools and other food concentrations such as squid. The survivors tend to settle out in prime feeding locations, often moving from shallow to deeper offshore reefs as water conditions change, rather than coastwise.
The only time yellowtail become difficult to catch is when they are either in a straight spawning mode or locked in on a single type of feed.
Otherwise, casting a live bait is the best way to connect with yellowtail when you find them. A yellowtail sees a sardine, mackerel or squid and races to eat it.
This writer has noticed a particular feeding phenomenon, verified by separate observations of veteran anglers, that shows yellowtail live their lives on the move.
A midsummer trip on the Rail Time a few summers back was settled into back in a Catalina cove picking away at small calico bass on the live squid. It was fun, but seabass were the target.
Just as the anchor was about to come up, a school of yellowtail was spotted on the surface headed straight for the cove. A couple netfuls of squid smacked the water and the yellows found them, but the swirls looked different somehow. You could see the schoolie yellows darting around, acting like perch chasing a bait back to the boat.
And at first the yellowtail bit like perch too, grabbing and dropping the squid with almost zero commitment. It seemed like this was the first time the school had ever tasted squid.
Unlike the huge yellows the evening before that wanted a fly-lined squid let back in the current then twitched with the rod tip or a few quick winds of the handle. That bite was a ripper.
A yellowtail can’t resist a fleeing bait.
When the yellows are up showing on the surface or right next to the boat under a kelp paddy, a lively fly-lined (no weight) bait that swims eagerly towards its destiny is the best way to get bit.
Big baits get big yellowtail. Don’t be afraid to pin on a big mackerel and toss it out there on a big hook on
gear that will get the job done.
Otherwise, when the yellows aren’t staying up or, really, anytime, a sinker ups the chances of getting bit. A sinker keeps a bait on the move.
Plus, you need to put the bait where the fish are.
A sinker will inexorably drag a bait through the water column all the way to the bottom, if there is one.
And if there is rocky, kelp overgrown, hard bottom reef where you are fishing, that’s where the yellowtail is going to want to stay!
How much weight you use depends on what kind of bait you’re using. A 1/8- to 1/4-ounce sliding sinker can be right for live squid when the fish are up top, while a 2-ounce sinker is the call for a sardine and a 4-ounce slider is best for a Spanish mackerel or small greenie.
When going right to the bottom with a dropper loop setup, the point is to get there fast and be able to stay there, so 8 to 12-ounces is the minimum and a pound is better.
There are times on the anchor when you need to fish with 15-pound test line in order for a bait to get far away enough from the boat, and there are times when you need 80- to 100-pound to get that big forktail far enough away from the bottom.
Usually, 20-pound test leader (to braid) or main line should be the minimum on local trips and at least 30-pound in places where there are lots of yellows. No doubt 25- or 50-pound can be the sweet spot. Dropper loop fishing calls for heavy line, a minimum of 40 locally and 60-pound and up in more exotic waters.
Yellowtail are made for the iron and the iron is made for yellowtail. Whether you like to throw a surface jig or crank like crazy on the yo-yo iron, you have a great chance of connecting whenever the yellows are around.
Which style of jig to choose is pretty simple.
When you can see yellowtail pushing water up top, fire the lightweight aluminum jig on your 8, 9 or 10-foot jig stick right at the target. Put the reel in gear and start a steady retrieve.
If you can throw the surface iron where and as far as you want, by now you have learned how fast to wind to get the best action out of the particularly jig you are using.
Sometimes it’s a faster wind, sometimes a slower, that brings the humping mossback of a huge yellowtail right into the wake of your lure. Don’t stop now! Wind tight when the ‘tail engulfs the jig and lift the rod about 15 degrees to set the hook. Then keep winding.
If the yellowtail are mainly subsurface and showing best on the sonar, toss out a 5 or 6-ounce chunk of zinc and lead, letting the jig get to the bottom (or count it down if the skipper has given you a depth) before winding the lure back to the boat as fast as you can.
You can even throw in some Baja-style rod ripping action if you like. More recent jig models other than the traditional yo-yo iron flutter on the way down and need rod tip action on the way up to work.
You might feel like your arm is going to wear out, but there’s a payoff — no matter how many times you’ve experienced it, there’s nothing like the pure surprise and joy of the oh-so-sudden moment a yellowtail slams the jig.
Maybe the jig stops falling. Did the boat slide into 20 feet of water? No. Wind tight, you’re on.
Proven isn’t a strong enough word for the efficacy of trolling for yellowtail when the fish are scattered and the schools popping up and down.
For the bigger sportboats trolling a Rapala, Yo-Zuri or Nomad fish fraud is way to connect with fish while scanning the sonar for concentrations or eyeballing 360 degrees for surface activity.
For skiff anglers, slow trolling live bait is an excellent way to hook yellowtail, and sometimes the only way.
Hook a sardine sideways through the nose or a smallish greenback mackerel through the top of the back between the head and dorsal fin, let out a lot of line and slow troll the offering through the area where the birds and the pushes of water up top have shown you the yellows live. Or troll topography like kelp edges or underwater reefs and mounts.
Take a tip from other waters and put a skirt and some lead ahead of the live bait. Import some ballyhoo and learn how to rig them, live large! Or, if you want to be traditional, troll a deep diving minnow lure.
Try to treat other boats like you would like to be treated.
There are some of us who prefer one method over all the rest: running and gunning, chasing popping schools of yellowtail and getting the surface iron right in the midst of the turmoil.
Do that and the jig doesn’t get bit? Tie on a different one.
Kingfish or yellowtail? Try yellowtail kingfish
Fairly recent genetic studies* have shown there are three regional populations of Seriola lalandi – South Pacific (South Australia, New South Wales, Chile), Northwest Pacific (Japan) and Northeast Pacific (California, Mexico).
There is not enough genetic difference between the groups of “yellowtail kingfish” to separate them into separate species, so the study supports the “traditional” viewpoint of one species. There is also evidence the group below the equator separated from the northern hemisphere groups 3.4 million years ago.
On the other hand, there are certain genetics not shared between the three groups. This was something the researchers were looking for, as subtle differences can cause big problems when sub-populations are comingled.
How would a fish from one group get to another? Not on their own. Yellowtail kingfish aquaculture efforts have spread as far as the Netherlands. Chilean yellowtail kingfish fingerlings have been taken to Mexico and Australian yellowtail kingfish to Japan.
The concern? “These exchanges or movements of potentially different breeding material have the potential to impact not only local natural wild populations adapted to local regions but also have the potential to produce genetic incompatibilities from aquaculture crosses. Indeed, a significant reduction of fitness and viability in F2 generation as a consequences of hybrid breakdown of cichlid fish was reported by Stelkens et al.”
Not exactly what you were hoping for from a hybrid, right? I was hoping for a 200-pound yellowtail. Well, maybe not!
*Premachandra, H.K.A., la Cruz, F.L., Takeuchi, Y. et al. Genomic DNA variation confirmed Seriola lalandi comprises three different populations in the Pacific, but with recent divergence. Sci Rep 7, 9386 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-07419-x