Yellowtail are the glamour fish of Southern California and Baja. Although yellows typically run 10 to 20 pounds, the IGFA all-tackle record for California yellowtail (Seriola lalandi dorsalis) is a 79-pound, 4-ounce monster taken in 1991 at Alijos Rocks, Baja, a favorite destination of San Diego’s charter fleet.
Unpredictable, powerful and great fighters, yellowtail on a line never fail to excite anglers and skippers. Their appeal continues at the boat, with the species’ handsome good looks – sporting a bright lemon-yellow stripe running midway down the body from eye to brilliant yellow tail, separating its metallic green dorsal from a white underbelly. To top off its appeal, the yellowtail offers mild, pinkish fillets, making it popular as a sashimi dish or when cooked traditionally.
The California yellowtail is but one of three species. The group includes the much larger southern yellowtail and Asian yellowtail, and the greater amberjack is a close cousin. All are among the largest members of the diverse, worldwide family of jacks (Carangidae).
North or South – Experience Counts
Capt. Frank Lo Preste, owner of the Royal Polaris and his first captain, Steve Loomis, divide yellowtail into two groups: those in Southern California and those in Baja. They prefer to head south where they can target big fish.
“[The two areas] are different fisheries altogether,” Lo Preste says. “There are more fish in Baja and they are not as educated. They are bigger, easier to catch and you can use chunks (cut bait). Baja fishing is done in 90 to 300 feet of water with 14-ounce sinkers on the bottom and heavy tackle rigged with 80-pound line. That isn’t overkill because big yellows hang around structure.”
Southern California fish are more seasonal and require more technique and finesse. “Ninety-nine percent of yellowtail fishing locally is fly lining [live bait fishing with no sinker] using small hooks and light line to get bit because the fish are so touchy,” says Lo Preste. Yellowtail season in Southern California is usually April to September. However, a “second” season develops during the winter when larger fish are found within areas of spawning squid.
But no matter where you fish for yellowtail, they can be tricky. At times, they can be amazingly easy too: “When they are biting, everything works. When they’re not, nothing seems to work,” Loomis says.
Figuring out big “mossback” yellowtail often comes down to experience, and no one’s more experienced than the top-dog skippers who guide both long-range and local anglers to fish, year in and year out, skippers like Lo Preste, Loomis, Art Taylor (on the Searcher), Joe Chait (on the Conquest) and Ray Sobieck (on the Producer). Even the best keep learning, Sobieck points out, explaining, “It’s hard to understand all there is to know. I learn something every year.”
Fish the Right Conditions
Certainly, current ranks as a major consideration. Yellowtail have a reputation of being fussy eaters, Taylor maintains, but that’s because many anglers don’t understand the species’ environment. “Yellowtail and a lot of other fish that live around structure such as islands or seamounts need some sort of water movement to get the bite going. Current is probably the main thing that coincides with biting fish: no current, no bite,” he explains.
A current moving from the north or west or in between is best, in Loomis’ experience. But while current is a factor, Loomis says the widely regarded moon phase seems to be less significant. “We’ve caught yellowtail in all moon phases. Sometimes its easier to catch bait when it’s not so bright.” But that isn’t always true either. Ultimately, all the skippers opt for a good current, warm water (above 65 degrees is the consensus), good water clarity and bird/bait activity that may indicate yellowtail in the area.
Tackle and Techniques
Joe Chait has spent a lot of time teaching yellowtail fishing basics. “You can’t play golf effectively with one club, and you can’t fish yellowtail with one rod,” he says. For example, on a slow bite with small anchovies for bait, go as light as 12- to 15-pound line on a small conventional reel with a light rod. As the bite comes on a little more aggressively, go to 20-pound line on a medium reel, similar in size to a Penn Jigmaster and a medium-action rod. When using bigger baits like mackerel and sardines, go to 25-, 40- or even 50-pound line, depending on the conditions.
Use a “jig stick” or rod of at least 8 feet to throw surface iron (metal lures). For yoyo-ing (deep jigging heavy lures), the standard is a 4/0-size reel on a 7- to 7 1/2-foot rod with a fast taper and 40- to 50-pound line for abrasion resistance. You need this heavier gear when yoyo-ing to force fish away from bottom structure where they can quickly cut you off.
Live Bait and Lures
“I love fishing surface iron because you can see the fish – sometimes three or more – charging the lure,” says Lo Preste. According to Loomis, lure color doesn’t seem to make much difference. “Just a dull lead color is good. The jig in your tackle box that’s been there for years with all the paint rubbed off could be hot, and it’s probably the last one most anglers would pick up.”
Sobieck, who for the most part skippers one-day trips, recommends working a surface jig when fish are under diving birds. The Tady 45 seems to be the popular choice and, again, color doesn’t matter. “The action is most important,” says Sobieck. “You want a seductive side-to-side motion with an occasional kick.”
The deep-jigging or yoyo technique with heavy metal lures outproduces lighter surface jigs on a daily basis, especially farther south along the Baja Coast. Skippers generally favor the Salas 6x Junior, Ironman 3 and 5’s (formerly UFO) and Tady AA or 9, among bottom jigs. Trolling swimming plugs, like the Rapala CD 18, is effective during the spring near the Coronado Islands when the yellows are “breezing” and haven’t settled around structure. When working offshore kelp paddies, most skippers troll.
But the bottom line is still bait. “Live bait is usually best,” in Loomis’ words. “For example, you can take squid anywhere and catch fish. They (yellowtail) just know what it is. For whatever reason, squid seem to break the rule of matching bait to whatever the fish are feeding on. Squid makes anyone a good fisherman,” he adds.
Big Yellows: Structure and the “Little Places”
Yellowtail qualify as structure fish and that’s where skippers put most of their focus. They generally catch good numbers of yellowtail in only a few spots. In heavily fished waters such as those near San Diego, the sport becomes very competitive. That makes everything trickier, including timing.
Taylor says, “Operating a boat day in and day out, you learn the location of structure like ledges, rocks and subsurface kelp. Knowing your fathometer is very important to what you are seeing, whether it’s yellowtail or some other kind of fish. We drift a lot over structure while chumming because we do not want to waste time anchoring until we know if the spot is OK.”
One boat, anchored with its stern 20 feet from a reef, may load up, while others nearby won’t get a bite no matter how much they chum. That’s how difficult it can be to pull yellows away from where they hold over structure. “Yellowtail swim up-current to the end of the reef,” Chait says. “Put the transom right on the spot. I’ll spend 45 minutes anchoring on a spot in the dark to make sure its right, and no one can come in and hurt me in the morning.”