How to Land a Yellowtail from your Kayak

Landing a yellowtail from your kayak is the undoubted pinnacle of Southern California saltwater kayak fishing.  You’ve done your research, prepped your tackle, and connected with your target species.  That’s all necessary, but are you ready for that single defining moment?  You’ve got the fish boatside. Now it’s time to put your skill to the test and secure your trophy.  A lot of preparing for the gaff shot comes down to visualization and scenario playing before you even hit the water. You’ve got to know what your plan is ahead of time.  Following these tips will help you understand everything you need to know to stick it where it counts, and get that fish in your lap for a photo.  

Author Howie Strech with a beautiful California Yellowtail caught from the Kayak. Image courtesy of Kevin Nakada.

Fish Fighting Technique 

You won’t get a shot at securing the goods with poor fish fighting technique, so it’s important you play a solid game here.  Depending on what type of structure I’m fishing and how deep of water I’m in, the fight looks a little different.  For example, if you’re fishing a kelp line, the fight will be faster and furious, and ideally done with heavier tackle (a 50-60lb setup).  The goal in shallow water is to keep the fish out of structure, so be ready to pull hard with the appropriate tackle – I like 65 pound spectra to a 4 foot piece of AFTCO Saiko Pro fluorocarbon leader.  

When I’m fishing in open water, the fight is a little more relaxed.  In open water, you have the luxury of letting the fish take more line.  You can fish lighter tackle (25-40lb) and a lighter drag, especially in the beginning of the fight.  Letting the fish run line out in the first couple minutes of the fight makes for a more tame fish boatside.  A tired fish typically gives you a more clear gaff shot.  This is the perfect scenario, but you don’t always get what you wish for.   

fighting a yellowtail from a kayak

Proper rod positioning is essential when fighting big yellows from your kayak. Image courtesy of Jeffrey Fortuna.

The key to an effective fight is always keeping pressure on the fish.  This means that your rod angle stays between 1:30 and 3 o’clock, or no higher than 45 degrees.  Short pumps is the name of the game, especially in a kayak.  A kayak has so little drag in the water, you’re essentially winding the kayak to the fish, which is the complete opposite of fighting a fish from a larger boat.  You’ll find you get up-and-down on a fish much quicker in the kayak than on a boat.  This is where short pumps really hurt a fish.   

Read Next: Kayak Fish Finders 101

Using Kayak Positioning to your Advantage 

When you get the fish to color, be sure to breathe easy.  The most common mistake I see inexperienced anglers make when they get a fish to color is they start to panic.  Take your time. Assess the fish’s attitude and make smart decisions.  You want the fish laid out nicely, and just barely under the surface of the water so that you have a clear shot with the gaff.   

When you know the fish is nearing the surface, start to give your pedal drive some kicks and generate a bit of forward momentum.  This helps in a couple ways: 1) it helps keep pressure on the fish, and 2) it keeps the fish’s head pointed forward.   

hooking a yellowtail from a kayak

Pedaling the fish into position for the perfect gaff shot. Image courtesy of Jeffrey Fortuna.

How to Hold your Rod When the Fish is at Color 

Once you have momentum going and the fish’s head is pointed forward, it’s time to prepare for a gaff shot.  Since you’re a one-man show, this is where it gets tough.  Fighting and gaffing your own fish is sort of like patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time, but once you get the hang of it, it’s not so difficult.  Proper posture with your rod helps a ton.  If you’re right handed, I recommend tucking your rod butt under your left armpit and finishing the fight like that.   

What to do with your Gaff 

At some point you’ll need to stage your gaff so you can easily reach it with your right hand* just as the fish lays out on top. With the rod butt levered under your left armpit, reach in behind the leader with the gaff hook and take a shot at either the head/shoulder area or the ventral fin area.  I like to reach over the top of the fish, and in one pulling motion, stick the fish and pull it straight onto the deck of the kayak.  This gives the fish very little opportunity to shake off the gaff hook. My kayak gaff of choice is a 4’ fiberglass AFTCO gaff with a 3” hook.  It’s light enough to handle with one hand, and it’s the perfect length for stashing safely on the kayak.   

*If you’re a left-handed angler, simply reverse this to accommodate your dominant hand.  

Attempt to gaff your fish and bring it into the boat in one motion. Image courtesy of Kevin Nakada.

Securing your Catch 

Don’t take the gaff hook out of the fish until you get a game clip under the fish’s gill plate, through the mouth, latched and tied off to the kayak.  At this point, you can remove the gaff hook, rinse any blood off of the fish and take a killer photo.  The game clip I like to use is a Rogue Endeavor Ultra Duty game clip.  

gaffing a yellowtail from a kayak

How to Take a Good Fish Photo 

Remember, it’s about the fish, not the angler.  Look at the fish instead of the camera.  As a kayak angler, it’s always a good idea to fish with a buddy.  Radio your buddy in, and ask them to snap a photo while the fish is still fresh.  Hold the fish horizontally and make sure it’s well supported.  Try to hide your hands as best as possible and hold either the head slightly closer to the camera or the tail slightly closer to the camera.  

Now high-five and crack a beer! 

Howie has been fishing in Southern California salt and freshwater since he was three years old. After working under some legendary SoCal owner/operators in the charter industry, he ventured into the corporate side of the industry. As a Product Manager for Hobie, he helped develop and launch some of ...