Yellowtail Show Off San Diego County

Rampaging yellowtail off San Diego mark the beginning of Southern California’s pelagic season

San Diego Yellowtail

San Diego Yellowtail

Jim Hendricks

A burgeoning yellowtail bite ignited off San Diego County this week, a sign that the Southern California pelagic season is about to lift off. These members of the amberjack family are on the move, chasing schools of sardines up the La Jolla Canyon and on to the coastal plateaus around Black’s Beach and in the newly created San Diego-Scripps Coastal marine protected area, where the fishing for pelagic species such as yellowtail is allowed.

The fish in this area right now are hefty, ranging from 20 to 40 pounds. The tip-off to the location of the yellowtail schools is flocks of birds, particularly terns. This is a run-and-gun fishery, as the ’tails might pop up anywhere, and the first boat to reach the “bird school” is usually quick to hook up.

While fish might appear on the surface, the key to success sounds counter-intuitive—fish deep. As the boat slides under the birds, drop a heavy metal jig such as a Salas 6X Jr. or Tady 9. Let the jig sink about 100 feet, then put the reel in gear and retrieve the lure vertically as fast as you can reel. Once a yellow grabs the lure – usually within the first 10 to 15 cranks – resist the temptation to set the hook. Instead, just grind in to the fish until he starts pulling line off the reel, then settle in for a brutal fight.

The yellowtail seem to be biting fairly consistently throughout the morning, but some of the best action often takes place at first light, as the yellows stage a morning attack on the sardine schools.

With the size of these fish, 30-pound-test line is minimum, with many anglers using 40-pound-test mono or 40-pound fluorocarbon top shots on 65-pound-test braid. A seven-foot stick with lever drag reel works best, and two-speed reels help tremendously with these brutes.