The game fish 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 Sportfishing. This article contains Yellowtail fishing tips and how-to's for this incredible fish species I have put together from my decades of fishing all over San Diego and Baja, Mexico. My goal is to help anglers of all experience levels and ages fishing San Diego or Southern California land more of these explosive and legendary fighting Yellowtail fish. Feel free to ask Rob questions or comments at the end of this article.
Yellowtail are a favorite target game fish to catch and eat for many anglers. Larger, local variety Yellowtail fish called "mossback's are caught year-round reaching 30-40#'s while school-size fish more common during the warmer water summer months reach about 12-20#'s you may hear a local call a "firecracker". I highly suggest consider releasing these smaller fish to grow and breed. Yellowtail species of fish are explosive fighters making them a favorite target for local skippers so populations are always at risk of being over-fished. All Yellowtail are hands down my favorite fish when eaten fresh (best within the first three days of being caught) otherwise it can turn "gamey". They are also excellent when served fresh as Hamachi (Sashimi with a cocktail sauce).
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 as are Hawaii's smaller Papio and larger U'lua or Jack Trevalle.
Yellowtail caught further South in Mexico and South of Coronado Island's at popular spots where tuna crab and clam beds reside are more plentiful and they are not as elusive as yellow's caught off San Diego and the rest of So Cal. 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, Mex. 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 using a Reverse Dropper Loop. Mossback yellow's hang around structure and the heavier tackle makes it easier to "turn" the fish and keep it away from structure thus less chance of breaking an angler off. This applies to fishing Coronado Island's, popular even during Winter an Spring months as water temp nears about 64.5'F drifting over or near Clam Beds and small Red "Tuna" crabs using bait or heavy iron "yo-yo" fishing.
Southern California's smaller, seasonal fish require more skill and can be very elusive and finicky or line-shy to get to bite. The most common way of fishing for "Yellow's" when live bait is available is fly lining live Anchovy, Sardine or even small Mackerel with little or no sinker Carolina rigged or similar using small hooks and light line or a couple feet of flurocarbon leader tied to braid or common monofilament line. Another popular local technique is throwing (casting) light surface iron jigs. Deeper fish are caught using heavy iron jigs "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). This is such a popular and effective skill I wrote and entire article on fishing iron (jigs).
Fly lining and Dropper Loop live Sardine, Anchovy or small Mackerel are how deep sea fishing trips in SoCal fish. If the fish are biting on the surface usually evident by a lot of bird activity diving the surface feeding on bait being pushed up by fish below feeding then fly-lining using just a small #2 - #4/0 live bait hook with little or no weight is best. A small cramp-on split shot, rubber core or sliding egg Carolina style works. Here's the most common knot for fishing on the anchor off San Diego/SoCal. This is a Dropper Loop (Note: Typically the upper loop is pinched and threaded through the hook eye, passed over the hook then pulled tight):
For deeper fish a Dropper Loop is most common or San Diego knot with the weight on the bottom and hook looped through the upper loop. Select the liveliest bait in the well - the bait that is hardest to catch. Avoid bloody or red-nose bait and if you see a small brownish-colored bait called "Brown Bait" or a small Mackerel and the deeper Yellow's are biting try those baits. Avoid Sardines on the surface if Seals or Sea Lions are present. It's an invitation you will regret and will shut the bite down typically. Listen to the deckhands what to use. Watch what other anglers are fishing and what fish are being caught.
For weights on a Dropper Loop if the current is strong a 6 - 8 ounce Torpedo should be used otherwise a 3 - 4 ounce Torpedo should do. Just make sure you are holding bottom. Give the pole a short lift you should feel th weight hit the bottom and line go slack. Change bait every few minutes or sooner for surface fishing. Make sure the bait swims away from the boat and fish with the wind to your face on anchor and to the back of the head when drifting.
How to "Yo-Yo" heavy iron is one of my favorite techniques to catch Yellowtail when they are deep feeding on clam beds, spawning squid or whatever else they eat year round and are holding in deeper water.
Must have knowledge in any fisherman's skill arsenal is knowing how to fish the iron, both the light surface and heavy deep water varieties. My favorite colors are in the photo's above. Scrambled Egg, Green variations, Blue and White, Blue and Chrome and Mackerel/Chrome are a few favorites although the chrome variation can attract too many Barracuda when they are thick and Yellowtail are in the mix or lurking below the schooling Barracuda in a chum-line feeding frenzy. All white for when White Sea bass are on the chew can be effective or lately home-colored or new tuna-crab pattern varieties are available have been used.
The deep jigging or yo-yo technique with heavy metal lures generally out produces lighter surface jigs on a daily basis when "Yellows" are in deeper water many times feeding at local clam beds or deeper water structure. Year round Yellowtail especially farther south along the Baja Coast are caught in good numbers using the yo yo technique as well.
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 Baja or early spring at the Coronado Islands, La Jolla or other popular Yellowtail spots fished by sport boats out of San Diego Landings. Tady 45's in every color if you can afford it are my all time favorite for how they swim and attract fish year after year.
A fast ratio reel and a rod with a good butt section for turning big fish near structure in deep water is a good setup for yo yo. A graphite rod in the 8 to 9 foot lengths are great for casting way out to where a big Yellowtail may be pushing a bait ball to the surface evident by working birds on the surface. I always throw on birds working the surface which sometimes takes a really long cast.
For yo-yoing deeper fish basically just drop your lure over the side straight down and let it drop fast until it hits the bottom. Then engage the reel and retrieve as fast as you can about half way to even all the way up then stop and let it drop to the bottom again and repeat, hence the name like a "yo-yo". Just keep up this technique using various retrieve speeds and depths when reeling in the iron before letting it drop again and take note of the depth you are in when hooked up or bit so next time you can concentrate more on fishing that zone. Generally local Yellow's like a fast retrieve but if one way doesn't work after being exhausted, try something different.
Iron jigs made for surface fishing is the other type of iron available. Light iron jigs (locally called "lights") are great for when Yellow's are either metered by the fish finder or visual signs of working birds feed on surface bait fish are spotted or any conditions when fish are feeding on the surface.
I 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 Mackerel 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.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.
Color I start by matching the bait and/or water color in the area being fished. Anything scrambled egg, green or chrome/mackerel I personally like and start with but everyone has their own advice here. Tady, Salas, Sumo are all popular brand iron that work great for yo-yo fishing deep water fish.
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. If you want the best I highly suggest purchase an Accurate BX-400X BX Boss E-Series Reel but really any of the big name reels with a high gear ratio for fast retrieve and even two-speed for larger fish will work. I still really like my old Daiwa Sealine Series reels for superior casting and high gear ratio. My Daiwa's have never failed me nor a trusty and still best bang for the buck Penn Jigmaster 500 for about 65 bucks. You need heavier gear when fishing the yo-yo to force fish away from bottom structure and turn the fish 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.
.I don't get too involved in line whether braided, mono, fluro or p-line. Personal preference here again. I'm old school and still like a good mono 20 - 30# with a fluorocarbon leader with my Daiwa Sealine 30X and my Cal Star Graphighter 800M, lot of butt for turning bigger fish and 8ft for great casting the "lights" or live bait with a fast action tip on an often crowded boat. The Daiwa Sealine has a smoking fast retrieve and casts for miles as I say. Anything similar is adequate - I learned on a Cal Star 870 with a Penn Jigmaster 500 because I figure learn on a basic setup like that and the nicer gear will be effortless to hone skills. Learn to cast a Penn jigmaster 500 and you can cast anything out there.
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. Any time the sea surface temps near 64 -65 degrees it's light turning a switch on expect them to start biting.
Yellowtail can be amazingly easy to catch 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.
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
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 anglers 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.
During 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.
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.