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Coastal Yellowtail Tactics

The yellowtail fishing we’ve had along our coast this year has been off the charts and the bite isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. If we’re lucky enough to have another mild winter, there is no reason that these fish shouldn’t continue biting. So let’s take a look at a few tips that private boaters can use to get in on the action.

The first tip really isn’t a tip at all; it’s actually a question that private boaters should ask themselves before they even decide on where to go fishing. That question is, “How do I want to fish?” For some, the simple answer will be, “I don’t care how I fish, I just want to catch something.” but for others it can be more involved. Let me use myself as an example. I really like catching yellowtail on the surface iron and I’m not all that concerned about whether or not I catch anything on any given day. As a result, I’m not really interested in fishing a mackerel on a dropper loop in 200-feet of water.

Once you’ve decided on how you want to fish, it’s time to take a look at what’s biting and decide where to go.

One easy way is to check out, an easy one-stop shop for that information. If you aren’t a member you’ll need to piece things together from both sport and private boat reports to figure out where to go.

Regardless of where you’re fishing along the coast, all of the scenarios you’ll encounter can be covered with two basic rod and reel combos. Your first combo will be your surface iron / fly-line bait rod. I fish a Rainshadow RCLB80M matched with a Penn Fathom 25N full of 65-pound spectra and a 40-pound fluorocarbon leader. This eight-foot medium heavy rod will throw a Tady 45 with ease and also work well for fly-lining sardines and mackerel. My other combo is a Rainshadow RCJB 84H matched with a Penn Torque 30 full of 80-pound spectra and a 60-pound fluorocarbon leader. This seven-foot heavy action rod is a good match for yo-yo jigs like a Tady 9 or a Tady 4/0 and will double as a dropper-loop rod.

Once you’re geared up and have decided where to fish, it’s time to look how to go about getting bit. The fish are biting slightly differently at each spot along the coast and those differences can vary day by day, so it’s important to remain flexible when you’re on the water. Let’s take a look at the basic situations you’ll encounter.

If you’re heading out to an area that’s been biting, the first thing you’re going to find is a few sport boats with a bunch of skiffs clustered around them. Rather than pulling up and drifting with the rest of the boats, I’d suggest taking a moment to figure out what story the other boats are telling. Are the sport boats chumming? Are the skiffs slow trolling? Can you see people actively fishing or are they all fishing straight up and down?

The answers to these questions will tell you a lot about what’s happening.

If the sport boats are chumming they are likely targeting fish that are in the top part of the water column. If you can’t tell take a look at the passengers. If they’re casting jigs and bait, the fish are probably up. If they’re all standing there looking at the water they’re probably fishing the dropper loop. The same holds true for the skiffs. If they are slow trolling they’re targeting fish on or near the surface.

Once you’ve figured out how everyone is fishing, my advice would be to get away from the fleet a bit and look for some fish of your own. It may sound counterintuitive to drive away from biting fish, but you’ll have much more success if you find some fish that haven’t been trampled by a bunch of other boats.

As an example, I fished the Horseshoe Kelp on a recent afternoon and found thirty or forty boats all piled on top of one another. I metered some yellows near the fleet, but they were deep and not interested in biting, so I ran about a mile above the fleet and found a foamer of big yellows that were more than happy to bite the surface iron.

If the yellows are biting in the lower part of the water column, you’re going to need to rely on your electronics to find them. These fish don’t seem to be associating with structure as much as they are following bait schools, so rather than running to a particular spot, you’re going to want to find the bait. Once in a while you’ll mark a bunch of yellowtail next to a bait school on the meter, but for the most part you’ll just meter the bait. When you do find a bait school, try dropping a yo-yo jig or mackerel down and see if you get bit. If you do get bit, take a close look at how that bait school looks on the meter so that you can go and find similar looking schools. Bait schools with yellowtail feeding on them tend to meter differently than unmolested bait schools.

If the yellows are biting on or near the surface, birds can often tell you a much better story than your electronics will. But to find birds that you can trust you’re going to need to find ones that aren’t keyed in on the chumlines of other boats and that means getting away from the fleet. When watching the birds, you’re going to be looking for those that are focused rather than the ones that are flying around randomly. This includes birds that are looking hard in an area, groups of birds that are sitting on the water, then popping up and flying a few yards before landing again, and any groups of birds that appear to be hauling ass in a particular direction. All of these birds are doing the same thing you’re doing and that is looking for bait schools that have yellowtail feeding on them.

If you find an area with focused birds but no signs of fish, you can make a drift and fan cast the surface iron or try slow trolling a mackerel or sardine around the zone. This can be hit and miss, so keep an eye on your meter while you’re fishing and pay attention to what’s happening at the moment you get bit. Hopefully you’ll be able to translate that information into getting more bites.

The final part of the puzzle is catching fish off bird schools. Your best bet at connecting with bird school fish is to get far enough away from the fleet that you’ll have a shot at being the first boat on the fish. The birds that are flying hard in a particular direction can often indicate where bird school activity is going to happen and a good pair of binoculars will help you see things come together in the distance.

Once you’ve found a bird school, it’s important to figure out which way the fish are heading and get in front of them without running them over. I’ll usually run alongside a bird school and once I’m well ahead of it, turn into their path and pull the boat out of gear. This allows me to cast my jig into the school and retrieve it in the same direction as the baitfish are swimming. While retrieve direction may seem unimportant, I’ve been in situations where I’ve cast to bird school fish from behind and not gotten bit. I believe this is because a jig swimming in the opposite direction of the fleeing bait fish can seem unnatural.

Erik Landesfeind
Erik Landesfeind is BD's Southern California Editor and has over 30 years of experience saltwater fishing for a range of species in both California an...