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Home / Fishing / Articles

ArticlesFeatured Columnist : Georges Corner

Southern Cal Yellowtail
by George Van Zant

We all agree. The yellowtail is the most revered sportfish in our local waters. Southern California anglers will chase them anywhere in any watercraft available including float tubes. Trolling fishermen have been seen in fragile 14 foot aluminum boats 8-10 miles  off shore in pursuit of the "yellows". Sportboats up and down the coast go out of their way both
fuel wise and time wise to locate a suspected or reported school of "tails". Yellowtail counts in the local newspapers increases business for the sportfishing landings in southern California harbors. Yes! When the tails make their showing in the southland the charisma they bring is absolute craziness to the fishing scene.

Yellowtail (seriola lalandi) are cousins of the famous amberjacks which roam in all the southern seas. They are handsome torpedo shaped animals so prolific they can grow 18 inches in a year. "Tails" normally spawn off central Baja from May-October. They customarily  migrate in the spring time to our southland waters as the water warms and range from Santa Barbara southward into Mexico. Normally in the winter as the water cools, they head back south. But not the winter of 1998. Santa Monica bay and Long Beach anglers chased large schools of "tails" over most of the local waters. With the El Nino influence the water never cooled so they stuck around. Mostly they were 5lb to 10lb "firecrackers" with an occasional 15 pounder caught. The last time a year round yellowtail bite happened was during  the  El Nino of 1983-84.

 Massive schools of sardines swarmed our coast, and the the yellows hung around all winter chasing them with reckless abandon. The traditional northern anchovy schools were completely absent  all winter much to the disbelief of the veterans. We all think that since the water never reached itsı traditional winter cold it chased the anchovies north. El Nino didn't bother the sardines though, some of the schools were so large they swam in water over 100  feet deep for swimming space. Of course the yellows followed them snacking at their leisure.

Fishing techniques for the 1998 winter "bite" was very simple. As the schools of sardines were chased to the top by the marauding yellows, they were swarmed on by hundreds of sea birds. Itıs wasn't difficult to see this phenomenon from afar. The birds were so thick over the water, they looked like a tornado cloud  plummeting into the frothy water. The technique to catching them  was to charge your boat full speed ahead and try to arrive at the frenzy while the fish were on top. Before the boat stopped you cast your jig at the white water. If you were there soon enough a "tail" will swallow your jig before it could sink two inches. Normally though, most anglers got there just as the yellows went down, and the birds were separating. You threw the jig into the area anyway and let it sink all the way to the bottom, pointed the rod at the water and cranked your  reel handle as fast as you could. Re-cast and repeated these actions for at least 15 minutes. It was a very tiresome process but not half as tiring as it was to hook a "tail" and land him from sometimes 150 feet down. This procedure is a technique called "yo yoing"! It was developed in Mexican waters where it is used over the deep reefs in the Sea Of Cortez and offshore in reach of the long range boats. For the "Yo-Yo",  jigs should be the heavy type; Tady #9 or AA, Salas #6X, Fire Iron #3 or #5 and Iron Man #3 or #5. The best winter colors are scrambled egg, green and yellow or blue and white. These colors all represent the sardine at some stage of its existence. Since that winter though, the yellows have migrated like theyıre supposed to and the "Yo-Yo" technique has not been necessary in our waters.

 Most anglers use larger type jig casting reels, filled with at least 25lb test line. Those kind that retrieve from 5 to 6 revolutions of the spool to one handle turn. They can be Daiwa SL30, Shimano TLD 15-30 or 15-40, a Shimano Speedmaster (like mine), Newell 338-5 or a Penn 500 with a high speed gear inserted. The most widely used jig rods in our area is CalStar 8' #6480 or an 8' Seeker #6480. I use a heavy 9'  Loomis. A word of admonishment  from sad experience......on the retrieve GRIP THE ROD with gusto! Those "tails" hit that 6-1 retrieved jig so hard they can deep six the rod out of your hands before you can blink. Keep a rag in your pocket to wipe and keep your hands and the rod grips dry.

Yellowtail are usually found in association with some kind of structure such as rocky reefs, kelp beds and oil platforms. Usually, the only open water tactics they might employ is the gathering of the schools  en masse under floating kelp paddies in wide open ocean areas far from any structure. At times when the word gets out anglers drive their boats all over the ocean in search of "paddies". It's very much easier to fight a "tail" in the open ocean rather than around an oil platform or a rocky reef where they are notorious for diving into the structure to cut off the line.

The biggest mistake that many anglers make in fishing a paddy is that they donıt take the time to thoroughly fish the paddy and the vicinity around the paddy. The ³tails² are not necessarily in close proximity to the kelp. They can be 50 to a hundred yards away and they might  be over 100 feet deep. The best techniques to follow is to very slowly approach the paddy and cast jigs from at least 40 yards then if no strikes or visual  fish contact is made move the boat closer and chum the area. Flyline a live bait into the area of the paddy and wait for a strike. Finally, if nothing has happened add a sinker and drop a bait down pausing at varying depths until the bait gets to at least 150 feet. The latest technique is to troll anchovy or mackerel colored  plugs by the  paddies at a speed of 10 knots or more. For this method don't run the boat near the paddy. Circle around, then straighten the
boat so the plug runs near the paddy. A word of caution! Donıt use freshwater plugs, youıll end up with the plastic lip.

A yellowtail story can't be complete without  the vaunted saga of the "moss-backs". A lot of anglers call them "The Trolls". They hang out all year around Catalina and San Clemente islands in close to the  razor sharp pinnacles of rocks. They donıt migrate south as their smaller offsprings.  They are individual, 50 pound plus scarred veterans of  many hook-ups. Their appearance around a boat causes frantic reactions among the anglers. They are curious creatures and can be seen "puddling" slowly in a hot calico bass bite ignoring any food around them and passively evade all attempts to catch them. The tales of the "moss-backs" run rampantly through the Southland fishing community. Some say "they swim with their hands in front".  When the conditions are right they "puddle" around the boat dimpling and furrowing the water, they stop now and then to  roll smoothly creating a gentile circle of water. They are impossible to catch, but that doesnıt stop anglers from trying, including me. Once I got lucky hooked one that was close to five feet long and over 50 lbs. My tackle was meant to stop any "moss-back" that tried. A 8 inch hot Spanish mackerel hooked to 50 lb line on a 6/0 bait hook got bit. The drag on my Shimano TLD two speed was hammered down closed. The "moss-back" took the bait with my heavy rod in the boat rod holder. The reel was on clicker and the bait had been in the water at least 15 minutes. The fish ran off 50 yards of line before I could get the rod out of the holder. After I set the hook it was nick and tuck as to whether I went over or the tackle went over the side. I was literally "pinned" to the rail of my boat. Just at the moment of crisis the "moss-back" made it to the rocks and thank goodness cut the line.

Bait for the "tails" usually has to be live and fast swimming, the only exception would be fresh dead squid. Of course live squid is the number one bait as it is for all the predators of the rocky kelp areas.

You should carry a tank of smaller mackerel or sardines any time you fish the Los Angeles areas. Most veterans have a double bait tank set-up, one for small anchovies the other for the larger mackerel, sardines or squid. Most of the time the bait receivers don't carry small mackerel so you have to hopefully catch your own. The finest bait possible can be caught on bait catchers under the kelp paddies, yes the same ones that many times hold the yellowtail....thatıs why theyıre there. Mackerel can be caught in sparse times around the deep water oil platforms up close to the pilings and very deep, sometimes 150 feet.

Yes, yellowtail are very important to Southern California anglers. They are the number one targets for us all. Beware though, the new Fish and game regulations have new restrictions. The limit is still 10 fish,  but new for this year is that you may keep  only 5 fish less than 24 inches, "fork length". Fork length is a measurement  from the tip of the nose, mouth closed, to the fork of the tail. Not to the end of the tail. Filets must be a minimum of 17 inches in length except not more than 10 filets may be less than 17 inches. Itıs a good regulation. Hopefully there will be some "tails" left in the future to burn up my grandkids' reels. 


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