With the warm glow of the sunset slowly fading away into blackness, the captain comes over the loudspeaker and says he’d like to have a chat with all of us in the galley. We had finished up the first full day of fishing during a 3 day voyage last August, and the goal had been to target trophy bluefin. We worked all day and night chasing breezers, foamers, and sonar marks just for the fish to clamp their mouths and only show us their fins. I was over it. We were behind San Clemente with the rest of the fleet and were blessed to be out during a prime weather window. With the darkness setting in, it felt no different than sitting at the dock in Point Loma. With this in mind, the captain told us about an option to head out from the tuna grounds and spend the next day anchored up on the Cortez Bank fishing for yellows and hopefully putting some numbers on deck. He said it’s a risk since no one has been out there for a while, but I was already on board with the plan before he had even finished speaking. Everyone else agreed and off we went.
We started the next morning in the gray light, and anchored near the high spot in only about 75 feet of water. The deckhand went up on the tank and started chumming a few baits at a time over the side. It didn’t take long to get picked up. Seeing a big swirl on the surface out of the corner of my eye, I turned in time to see a vibrant yellow fork shooting back into the depths to confirm my hope. Right as I go to grab my jigstick, I watch two anglers next to each other with dropper loops start hollering when both of their rods load up and double over no less than ten seconds apart. I pause to think if sticking to surface techniques is the right move? I look back to the stern to see how the flyline bite was doing and judging by the cluster of humanity already piling up in each of the corners, I’d say it was pretty full speed. My live bait rigs were still set up for tuna, so I ran up to the bow to stay away from the pack and tried to recover some of my lost time with the iron. Fish were all round the boat and every cast would get followers and maybe a bump but never a full commitment. By lunch, I had two while most others had their limit.
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Looking back on this, there are things that I missed here that would have allowed me to do much better. Effectively fishing on a sportboat requires you to have multiple options ready and be willing to adjust when you notice trends coming on. In this case, the fish were keyed into the live bait and were not as interested in the artificial presentations. Realizing that and making the proper adjustment, I could have rigged a bait rod and not missed out. Through this article I’ll be going over the main ways to target yellowtail from a sportboat so you can capitalize on the next time you find yourself in a wide open bite, or even a picky scratch bite.
(Left) Brandon Mayo with a nice collection of island yellows.
The first thing to acknowledge about fishing for yellowtail with live bait is that it can be much different than flylining for tuna. Even though the same techniques are involved, the sensation of getting a bite is not the same because in most cases, it lacks the violence and speed of a tuna bite. Unless the yellowtail are foaming wide open, getting picked up on flyline usually feels like a dull thump or unusual heaviness of your line moving against the current. For this reason, its essential to keep the slack out of your line and pay close attention to the movements and actions of your bait. Something that I feel is overlooked when flylining is paying attention to the direction your bait takes once it lands in the water. If the sardine runs straight out from the boat, it signals to me that it’s heading right into the bite zone and I should soak it for a little longer. If a bait looks perfect but takes an immediate left or right turn after landing, it’s time to wind up and try another. Because yellowtail lack any sharp teeth, my hook of choice is a simple Mustad O’Shaughnessy live bait hook in a size that correlates to the bait and size that’s available. I tend to stay on the smaller side, and either a size 1 or 1/0 are my most commonly used sizes. For mackerel, the smaller Spanish can require a 3/0 or 4/0 and I have used 7/0 or larger on greenies. The best place to hook your bait is always up for debate but I can comfortably say that at least 80 percent of the yellowtail I’ve caught on flyline have been on nose-hooked baits. The other 20 percent came on a butt hook when the fish were suspended deeper in the water column. I go with the nose hook because not only does it cause minimal damage to your bait, but it also allows you to slow-wind it back to the boat which always provides a chance at a bite on the retrieve. I typically nose hook bigger mackerel baits as well, but lightly pinning a larger bait in front of the dorsal fin (shoulder hook) often makes them run straight out.
The bigger yellows often are suspended in the water column and targeting them can be challenging. Something to try is adding a (.5-1oz or more) egg sinker above your hook and slowly dropping down until you hit the right zone. It took watching an underwater video of this rig to understand that if you have a good running bait, it takes off like normal while the sinker stays in the same spot pulling it deeper and deeper. This rig requires extra attention as a bite will be even more subtle to detect through the sinker. However, it seems like the jackpot fish is always caught doing this. If live squid is ever in the tank, using a beefy 2oz leadhead and with the same technique of slowly descending it through the column can prove deadly.
Before we get into the details of lure color and shape, it is important to address the fundamentals of surface iron fishing and what it takes to be successful time and time again. The first and most important aspect is the cast. The quality and distance of your cast will have more to do with getting bit than anything else when you look at surface iron fishing as a whole. As your casting distance improves, the amount of time that the lure spends in the water increases, and will inevitably lead to more bites. The second part of the cast is establishing a good stance with the rod underneath your arm and the tip pointed straight at the lure. Ideally, you can watch your lure right below the surface and make adjustments to your retrieve speed as necessary. Unless you’re using a Tranx 500, the typical surface iron reel does not have a level wind and coordinating your hands to retrieve while guiding the line back on will take practice. A great way to do this is either heading to the harbor and casting off the docks or punching two holes in a tennis ball and going to any open space. If you practice and understand the fundamentals, you can count on yourself to perform when the moment comes.
(Right) A long cast is essential for surface iron fishing. Image courtesy of OneCoolTuna.com
Lure retrieve speed is largely dependent on the mood of the fish and the design of the jig. I can’t help but get super excited when there’s fish around and I’m throwing the iron, so I tend to wind on the faster side. With that in mind, I look for jigs with a pointier nose and flatter sides. They will have a tendency to stay under the surface even at higher speeds. The Salas 7X and the Tady Starman are my two favorites for when I want a fast retrieve rate. That being said, some of the most legendary surface iron fisherman in San Diego will only use a medium to slow retrieve. This maximizes the time that the lure is in the water and your ability to speed up and slow down mimics a fleeing baitfish perfectly. Again however, this takes lots of practice.
As for color, I have heard some say that it does not matter. I’d say not exactly. There’s been many times when the fish are dialed into a blue or green colored lure and would not touch anything with brown. This has made my go-to lure color as Dorado, and white- based jig with blue, yellow, and green on the sides. It may not look exactly like a sardine or anchovy on the deck, but the blend of natural colors will mimic a fleeing baitfish once the lure is moving. Some swear by mint for probably the same reason. However, when the fish are up on Spanish mackerel or squid around the islands, I’ve smoked ‘em on a scrambled egg pattern. Once in a while, the ultra-realistic jigs with the crazy wraps on them will get bit, but I tend to think they are designed to attract the fisherman more than the fish. The yellows are responding to the action of the lure first and the color pattern second.
Catching a fish on the iron is undoubtedly one of the most rewarding parts of yellowtail fishing, but it’s a technique that looks much easier than it actually is. Take your time, ask questions and listen to those more knowledgeable. Soon you’ll figure out why an entire subculture has been built around this one unique style of fishing.
When the fish are balled up on baits in the mid-water column, sending down a heavy yoyo jig and working for a reaction bite can be an excellent way to connect with a larger model if the grade of fish is varied. I’ll be honest and admit that this isn’t always my favorite way to catch yellowtail, but sometimes conditions or location can make this technique my go-to. For example, you can expect to fish the yoyo almost exclusively in deep spots off like Punta Colonet where the fish rarely leave the bottom. The first thing to acknowledge is that the outfit you choose is going to play a large role in your overall success. As I mentioned in my rod and reel checklist, a short, stiff rod with a taller frame reel is going to be the best option to fish the yoyo effectively. I use heavy line and set myself up to always be prepared for a bite. The butt of the rod goes underneath my armpit and I get a good stance with the foregrip supported on the rail. Once I hit bottom I wind as fast as I can for 15 seconds before flipping into freespool and repeating the process. The reason behind getting into a fighting stance before you hook up is because most fish are lost immediately following the bite. Being prepared to continue winding ensures you drive those hooks in and sets you up for success.
I have found that with some certain yoyo jigs, it’s possible to wind too fast and have the lure spin in circles in a useless manner. I have found that the Tady 4/0 and the JRI 66 brass jigs will maintain their true kick even when you’re burning it up from the depths. Straight red and scrambled egg are my two favorite color patterns but I’ve seen dorado, green and yellow, and mint all work with similar levels of success. In the end it all comes down to your own personal experiences and what gives you the most confidence.
The beauty of dropper loop fishing is in its simplicity. Oftentimes when my arms are too tired to yoyo anymore I’ll switch to the dropper loop which targets the same deep fish without all the extra work. Being near the bottom, heavy line is important and usually I won’t use anything less than 40lb and usually 60 if there are some bigger yellows in the area. The most consistent way I’ve found to create this rig is to first tie the appropriately sized sinker onto the bottom of your line, then step on it with your right boot and stand with your legs shoulder-width apart. Follow the line up from your boot to your knee then form a loop that spans the distance of your legs. Tie that loop with either a spider hitch or surgeon’s loop and then remember to tie on your hook and not just loop it.
The reason I do it this way is to ensure that I’ll be slightly above the bottom and my loop is big enough to allow my bait to swim around in a natural manner. Since I’m usually using a larger bait, my hook of choice will be a larger 3/0 or 4/0 J hook in the same style that I flyline with. It’s important to hook your baits from the bottom of the chin and up through the nose to keep their mouth shut and prevent unnecessary damage on the drop down. I’ve also gotten bit plenty of times by dropping my reel into low gear and working my bait up slowly on the wind up.
My next article will be taking an in-depth look into wahoo fishing and the various ways you can prepare for the next time you’re down South looking for these toothy fish.