Sportfishing trips San Diego
Sportfishing trips San Diego

Yellowtail Tips - How to Catch Yellowtail

Yellowtail Fish Species, Yellowtail Jig Choice, Best Yellowtail Season, Yellowtail Bait and Lure Selection

Yellowtail San Diego Hot Bite Alert - Feb. 25, 2015 - Yellowtail continue to be caught off San Diego and Coronado Islands in El Nino-like fishing condtions. Get out and fish for Yellowtail in one of the best season's San Diego and much of Southern California on record.

Yellowtail are the most popular target fish for the Southern California sportfishing fleet from San Diego on down the Baja Penninsula and North to Channel Islands at Channel Islands Sportfishing. Although Yellowtail typically run 10 to 20 pounds, they can reach an enormous 79 lbs as was caught in 1991 at Alijos Rocks, Baja a popular fishing destination of San Diego's charter fleet.

Yellowtail are a favorite target game fish to catch and eat for many anglers. This article contains tips and how-to's I have put together from my years of fishing all over San Diego and Baja, Mexico. My goal is to help fisherman of all levels and ages coming to fish San Diego or Southern California party boats land more of these explosive and legendary fish while conserving the fishery by not taking small fish.

Yellowtail or "Mossbacks" as some fisherman call the lunkers are epic fighters and pound for pound one of the best fighting local game fish. Yellowtail on a line are explosive fighters making them a favorite target for local skippers. This is hands down my favorite fish when eaten fresh (best within the first three days of being caught) otherwise it can turn "gamey" imo. They are also excellent when served fresh as Hamachi (Sashimi with a cocktail sauce).

Book a Yellowtail Fishing Trip or ask a question

Contrary to popular belief the California Yellowtail is in the Jack family of fish and is NOT a tuna

A common mistake is confusing Yellowtail with Yellowfin Tuna. The East Coast and Gulf of Mexico Amber Jack is a close cousin.

Most years the Yellowtail fish caught in Baja are more plentiful and they are not as smart. They are bigger, easier to catch and you can use chunk bait (strips of bait) for bait or heavy iron jigs (local name "iron") and yo-yo deep. Baja fishing is done in about 80 to 300 feet of water with heavy as 14-ounce sinkers on the bottom and heavy tackle rigged with about 80-pound line. That isn't overkill because big yellows hang around structure and the heavier tackle makes it easier to "turn" the fish and keep it away from or power through structure thus less chance of breaking a fisherman off.

Southern California Yellowtail are more seasonal and require more technique and can be elusive and more finicky or line-shy to get to bite. Most Yellowtail fishing locally is done by fly lining (live bait fishing with little or no sinker Carolina rigged or similar) using small hooks and light line.  Another popular local technique is throwing light surface iron lures or if the fish are deeper, heavy iron "yo-yo'd" (dropped deep and retrieved ultra fast stopping every so often and letting the iron fall repeating this technique like a yo-yo).

Yellowtail fish season in Southern California is April to September. However, a "second" season develops during the winter when larger fish are found within areas of spawning squid and at the Clam Beds near Coronado Islands. Southern California sportfishing landings and boats target Yellowtail year round but peak season is from Spring through Fall.

November 2006 (and now 2015 another great year for Yellow's) brought some of the biggest fish and best YT fishing since the 1950's some old timers say. The Yellowtail in the pic below is from 2015 summer while fishing 6-pack San Diego Prime Time.
Yellowtail from San Diego El Nino 2015

One week later, according to San Diego's popular local newspaper, "The Log" and even bigger - using only 30lb. test line, Patrick Mitchell landed a 61-lb. mossback yellow at South Island at the Coronado's.

Both of these lunkers were taken on Salas 6x jigs on "yo-yo".  I wrote a article all about how to fish for Yellowtail using Yo-Yo jigs. No matter where you fish for Yellowtail, they can be tricky. They can be amazingly easy too at times during a hot or wide open bite. When they are biting, it seems anything dropped in the water they hit in a frenzy. When they're not biting, nothing seems to work and the real challenge of the hunt comes in to play.

Figuring out big game "mossback" Yellowtail often comes down to experience, and no one's more experienced than the veteran skippers and their crew who guide both long-range and local anglers to fish, year in and year out. If in doubt ask your deckhand how to best rig for the conditions. They are out nearly every day of the year and know best at a given moment what is biting and how to rig.

Fishing the Right Conditions

Current ranks as a major consideration when Yellowtail fishing. Yellowtail have a reputation of being fussy eaters, and the most successful anglers have a good understanding of the species' environment and know what signs to look for when they are close or feeding. I have had great success constantly scanning the water for signs of feeding such as working birds (birds feeding on the surface) from bait being pushed up to the surface often by Yellowtail. Water movement and current trigger fish naturally to feed.

Current is one of the main factors that coincides with biting fish 

most often over the years I have noticed that the most successful days out are when the current is running strong around the changing tides - most fisherman including myself agree that without a good current and clean water the bite usually shuts down or the fish that do bite are more fussy. As far as moon phase and bite success, I lean more on the current and changing tide as more important factors for biting 'tails. I've caught Yellowtail in all moon phases. Sometimes its easier to catch bait when it's not so bright. Other species however do get caught more on full moon periods such as White Sea bass and Bluefin Tuna. You may notice a particular boat's schedule to be full during full moon nights during Spring through Fall. To recap countless trips I have taken of the past 35 years best success comes when all of these factors are combined - good current, warm water (above 65 degrees most anglers agree), good water clarity and as I mentioned visual signs like working birds suggests there may be Yellowtail in the area pushing the bait up and are feeding are all signs conditions are right for a great day of catching.

Tackle and Techniques

You can't fish Yellowtail with one rod, On a slow bite most fisherman prefer to use small anchovies for bait, go as light as 12 to 15 pound line on a small conventional reel with a light rod as the fish can be fussy or "line-shy". 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 ( I like and use a Cal Star 870 Fiberglass medium action rod with a lot of "butt" for turning the bigger fish). 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. My favorite new reels are Accurate's "Boss" Series. They are a bit pricey for some people but if you want the best catch success for deep Yo-Yo Jigging Amazon is trusted and secure and prices are competative. If you want the best I highly suggest purchase an Accurate BX-400X BX Boss E-Series Reel - You need this heavier gear when fishing Yellowtail using the yo-yo technique to force fish away from bottom structure where they can quickly cut you off. You will not regret the purchase Accurate makes some beautifully engineered fishing reels perfect for Southern California year-round Yellowtail fishing.

Live Bait and Lures

I also love fishing surface iron because you can see the fish charging the lure. Some days on a hot or wide open bite lure color may not seem to make much difference. Other days I start with my favorite colors and switch if I see other anglers landing more fish when I'm not or take advice from the deckhands who are out fishing every day and know what is working best on a particular day. Tady 45 or A1 and Salas 6x in Scrambled Egg or Mint and Chrome or Mackeral are colors over the years I've had most success and most popular off San Diego. Any 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.

I like working a surface "light" jig when fish are under diving birds when Yellow's may be feeding.  Action is most important and most local jig fisherman will agree a fast retrieve with and occasional kick is a popular and effective technique when the surface bite is on.

The deep-jigging or yo-yo technique with heavy metal jigs out produces lighter surface jigs on a daily basis, especially farther south along the Baja Coast. Salas 6x Junior, Ironman 3 and 5's and Tady AA or 9, among bottom jigs that works well when the bite is deep as a lot of times off Southern California early season and Baja. 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.

Most local half and three-quarter day trips out, I like and have had best results time after time on live bait cast in the area of working birds. The fun of Yellowtail fishing for me is the challenge of the hunt and the flavor of these excellent eating fish. The most high tech and fancy electronics in my opinion can never replace the most important aspect of fishing for Yellowtail - visual signs on the water as mentioned earlier like working birds from fish pushing the bait up or into a bait ball, a good current and just keeping your eyes open for anything on the surface out of the ordinary. This kind of fishing can take a lot of patience and local knowledge which is where I hope I have provided some helpful information to help land that first or next Yellowtail

Well I hope you all learned something from this article. Feel free to Email me anytime for more info, tips, recommended tackle or boats I like. I'm here to give local advice for fisherman planning a San Diego sportfishing trip. Good luck and tight lines.

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