How to Catch Yellowtail

Another happy angler hoisting up a big Baja yellowtail caught off of Bahia San Quintin, BCN.

A close cousin of the amberjack, the California yellowtail (Seriola lalandi dorsalis) is just one of three yellowtail species, which also include the larger Southern Hemisphere variety commonly referred to by locals as ‘kingfish’ and the Asian yellowtail. They also remain one of the most popular pelagic species pursued by Pacific coast anglers because they are such great fighters once they are hooked.

Yellowtail fishing off of southern California is usually good between late spring and early summer but often reaches its peak during late summer and early fall. The fish are generally found in areas ranging up to 60 miles from shore and can be also be located near offshore banks or islands either electronically or by using more traditional methods, which include looking for surface disturbances as well as flocks of circling, diving birds. It’s difficult for these fish to resist a well-presented live sardine or small mackerel. To incite baits to swim a bit deeper in the water column without attaching an additional weight, simply hook them through the flesh near the anal fin. When active, most yellowtail can be most effectively targeted by flylining live bait.

When yellowtail are observed crashing schools of baitfish, one of the most deadly artificial baits is a surface iron jig in chrome, pewter or a blue/white combination. Cast directly at the activity, let the lure sink for a few seconds, then retrieve at a moderate speed and prepare yourself for a jarring strike. Later in summer, anglers may also find success near floating kelp paddies, or on the warmer side of current breaks. But it is more likely at this time of year that big resident or ‘home guard’ yellowtail will be caught closer to the coast. Further south, in Baja California, one of the best ways to connect with one of these chunky brutes is by fishing from a panga or private boat just off the rocky tip of one of the many volcanic outcroppings found along the peninsula’s rugged coast.

Although they are technically the same species, their behavior pattern differs somewhat from their northern brethren. Capt. Frank LoPreste, the famed owner of the popular Royal Polaris of the San Diego long range sportfishing fleet offers, “There are more fish in Baja and they are not as educated. They are bigger, easier to catch and you can use chunks of bait to catch them. Baja fishing is done in 90 to 300 feet of water with 14-ounce sinkers on the bottom and heavy tackle rigged with 80-pound line. That isn't overkilled because these big yellows usually hang around the structure.”

Otherwise, depending upon the water temperature, current direction, and availability of suitable forage, yellowtail can be a bit picky from time to time and often require having a few different rigs on hand in order to match the need of the moment.

As veteran west coast sports boat captain, Joe Chait, says, “You can't play golf effectively with one club, and you can't fish yellowtail with one rod," he says. For example, on a slow bite with small anchovies for bait, go as light as 12- to the 15-pound line on a small conventional reel with a light rod. As the bite comes on a little more aggressively, go to the 20-pound line on a medium reel, similar in size to a Penn Jigmaster and a medium-action rod. When using bigger baits like mackerel and sardines, go to 25-, 40- or even 50-pound line, depending on the conditions.”

From a gastronomic standpoint, a yellowtail can be a bit gamey unless you take care of it properly after it is caught. If possible, bleed your fish out soon after it hits the deck, and then ice it down. When filleting it, be sure to cut out the long reddish line of ‘blood meat’ that runs down the center of each fillet. After doing this, one of my favorite ways to cook it is to marinate chunks of boneless fillet in a decent quality Italian salad dressing for about an hour or two before tossing them on the grill over glowing coals. It also makes fantastic ​sashimi and is a favorite selection at Japanese sushi bars referred to as ​Hamachi.