Summertime Yellowtail on the Kayak

It’s June and water temps are starting to rise. Time to head out to your favorite local summertime yellowtail hole and switch tactics from that winter/spring pattern. My favorite spot to kayak fish for yellowtail is La Jolla. I’ve been fishing it from the yak for a long time, and while most years are predictable for when it’s time to stop fishing deep and transition to trolling fly lined baits and scouring the surface for fish, the past 10 years have been a bit of a whirlwind. Over the past 3 years I’ve caught most of my surface iron fish in December when they’re supposed to be eating yo-yo irons and live squid in the depths. Things have changed off our coast with the kelp beds dramatically thinning and giant bluefin tuna infiltrating our offshore waters, but one thing’s for sure, yellows will always be cruising the coast looking for a tasty snack. 

When I’m heading out for a day of yellowtail fishing I like to cover all the bases, but there are times where you get a bite dialed in and can take just one or two setups to target these fish. My general quiver consists of a live bait setup, a surface iron or stickbait setup, a yo-yo iron rig, and a backup rod that I use to catch bait on the sabiki. I’ll dive into these setups and techniques below, but first let’s talk about the two main tools I believe you need rigged on your kayak to increase your chances. 

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A fishfinder is a must. I use my Lowrance Elite 7TI to mark bait first thing in the morning and load up on mackerel. I store them in a livewell fed by a 500gph pump and powered by a 6-volt battery which cuts the flow in half and increases pump run time. I use the fishfinder GPS to locate areas where I’ve caught fish before and cover those general zones. I’m always paying attention to water temp changes as I cross current breaks and the sonar returns in case I run over a school of fish. If I see fish underneath me or on the surface, I’ll work that area thoroughly back and forth before moving off. If I’m drifting in an area, I’ll use the GPS feature to see which way the current or wind are taking me to understand how the fish might be moving. The Lowrance is also essential for staying on top of an area that the fish are passing through. A fishfinder is well worth the investment and will increase your chances of catching yellows, especially after you’ve spent some time on the water interpreting what you’re seeing and getting familiar with the unit. If you’re not someone who wants to install a fishfinder on your own, contact a local kayak shop such as Fastlane Sailing and Kayaking to get one professionally installed. 

Now that we have the two main tools covered for seeing underneath the surface and keeping bait fish alive, let’s talk tackle and tactics.  

Live baiting 

My setup of choice is a 7’ or 7’6” heavy or extra heavy rod. I like the Daiwa Proteus rods and have both heavy and extra heavy setups. I prefer the heavy setup when fishing open water and the extra heavy when fishing close to the kelp or in shallow over rocky structure. The extra heavy comes in handy when pulling fish through kelp stringers, trying to keep them out of the rocks, or when a sea lion is on your tail and you’re trying to wrestle the fish to the kayak. I use a minimum 7ft length rod so I can maneuver it around the nose of the kayak without contacting the bow. My favorite reel to pair with either rod is a Daiwa Saltist 35H spooled full of 65lb Power-Pro braid in dark green color. I like this reel because it offers a narrow spool, plenty of drag and enough line capacity to handle big fish. They’re also super durable for those times your rig gets doused by waves during a surf launch or landing. I attach a short 4ft leader of 30lb fluorocarbon when fishing in open water, and I use 40lb minimum if fishing near structure. My favorite hook is an Owner Gorilla 2/0 that I’ll attach through the nostrils of a feisty mackerel. I’ve never pulled a hook using this size and style, and I also prefer it over a circle hook so it doesn’t fowl up the bait.  

Now that you have your livebait rigged up, deploy it 50-100 feet behind the kayak and slow troll it at medium speed to keep it in the top 6 feet of the water column. Troll only one rod unless you’re super experienced and can keep two baits from tangling. A good way to do this is to attach a Carolina rigged 4oz egg sinker to your second setup. With that said, double hookups are fun, but also tough to control, and the last thing you want is to have both your lines tangle… it’s a dangerous mess. For that reason, I stick to trolling one bait, plus it makes things easier if you decide to cast a lure while trolling and hook into a fish. I try to keep the rod and reel in hand when slow trolling with the reel in free spool, but if you get tired you can always set it in a rod holder in free spool with the clicker on and the spool adjustment knob set tight enough to keep the bait from pulling out line. Once you get a bite, loosen the spool adjustment, and disengage the clicker while lightly thumbing the spool. Let the fish run for five to ten seconds, put the reel in gear and reel into the fish. Use the rod to pull in the opposite direction you want the kayak to turn until the fish is in front of you where you can fight it in front of you. Once the fish is yakside you can grab it by the tail or gill plate to unhook and release, or you can use a gaff to hook the fish and immediately get it onto a metal fish stringer to secure it. Bleed your fish in the kayak and store it in a fish bag. Leaving it over the side is risky with hungry sea lions around that will flip your kayak in an instant.    

Casting and cranking surface irons and yo-yo irons 

Any time I’m heading out yellowtail fishing at any time of the year I take a surface iron setup and a yo-yo setup. You can fish other lures on these rigs, but irons are tried and proven, and yellows love to eat them. I fish an 8 ft Daiwa Proteus H casting rod for my surface irons and a Dawia Lexa 400 baitcasting reel. The 8ft rod is long enough from a kayak to get the distance you need, it’s not like you need to use a 10ft rod off the bow of a sport boat to reach those fish just outside the chum line. Yellows are a lot less finicky around the yak because we’re low to the water and quiet, and sometimes I feel like the fish are almost inquisitive of the kayak.  

I cast 3 surface irons, a Salas 7x, Tady 45 or a JRI 7. The Salas and Tady are lighter and similar to the size of a sardine and the JRI is a little heavier and larger imitating a mackerel and provides some extra casting distance. My favorite colors are mint or mint and white. The Daiwa Lexa is easy to cast spooled up with 65lb braid and has all the drag you need from a kayak. I attach a 4ft 40lb leader to the braid for abrasion and so the fish don’t see the braid. Cast the lure out, let it sink a few seconds and start a nice steady retrieve all the way back to the kayak. Don’t ever stop your retrieve because a yellowtail that’s tracking the lure and getting ready to eat will turn off it if it stops. You want a nice side to side kicking action from your lure, keeping it just under the surface. Experiment with your retrieval speed to see what draws bites or gets your lure to swim the best. When a fish eats your lure, don’t strike, just reel into it and wait to feel the weight of the fish. Once the fish is hooked it’s game on with some blistering runs and a sleigh ride. 

When fishing stickbaits, I’ll bring an extra setup. A 7’6” Daiwa Proteus H spinning rod and a Daiwa Saltist 5000 sized spinning reel. I spool it up with 65lb braided line. My two favorite stickbaits are the medium sized Savage Gear 3D Mackstick in green or blue mackerel and the Shimano Coltsniper Jerbait 17F on blue sardine.  I like to casting the Mackstick in front of breezing schools of yellowtail and work it with a fast-sweeping motion. It also works well on a constant retrieve with some pops added to trigger a strike. When fish are less active, the pause and sweep motion can draw a strike. The Shimano Coltsniper Jerkbait is a straight cast and retrieve lure that you can burn as fast as you can. Both get smashed and have landed some of the largest surface-dwelling yellows I’ve caught. For fishing stickbaits, it really helps to have a wide and stable kayak that you can stand on that allows you to fish with your rod tip down. This will give you added visibility watching the bait and how the fish are reacting to it, and it allows you to work the lure with more control. 

My yo-yo setup is a 7ft Extra heavy Daiwa Proteus with a Daiwa Saltist 35H spooled with straight 40lb monofilament. The 7ft rod provides great leverage and works well for the kayak and the reel has a perfect gear ratio for cranking. I tie straight to the monofilament which provides some stretch which I personally believe adds some pulsating action to the jig that draws more strikes. If I am yo-yoing around kelp, I might switch to a braided line, but the mono is mch more forgiving on the fingers than braid when guiding line back onto your reel. 

Two of my favorite heavy irons are the Salas 6x JR and the Salas 6x. I’ll use the 6x JR when fishing shallow or when I want a slower fall and more flutter, and the 6x when fishing deeper open water or when I’m in a rush to get my lure in front of the fishes faces. Blue and white, scrambled egg and mint are my favorite colors, with scrambled egg being my all-time La Jolla favorite for deep cranking. The past few years I’ve been using the JRI DW1 and it’s an awesome inbetweener jig that has brought me lots of recent success. The technique for fishing a yo-yo iron is basically dropping it down to the desired depth and then retrieving it at a medium to fast speed. Bites occur on the fall when the jig is fluttering down or on the retrieve. Either way, reel into the fish and hang on. You can drop a yo-yo jig straight down or cast it out and work it at an angle back to the boat. The name of the game here is to cover water and have that lure in the strike zone when the yellows swim through.  

Good luck this summer and I hope this article helps you to land a few nice yellows from the kayak this year. 

Morgan’s passion for kayak fishing began in 2000 when he purchased a kayak to fish the waters off San Diego: “I wanted to get beyond the shoreline and target the larger species that inhabited the local kelp beds and offshore reefs.” On his first trip out of La Jolla, CA, he bagged a 20-pound y...