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Deep-water yellowtail: Chasing your own tail or scoring?

Written by Pat McDonell

WON Staff Writer

Published: Jun 08,2017

The season is going off on bigger fish at the islands well over 30 pounds, so here are some tackle tips for surface iron, trolling, yo-yoing the iron, and dropper loop rigs; with yellowtail, sometimes it’s a matter of just being in the right place with a lure or bait in the water


This past week saw the yellow­tail action go off at the south end and outside the Coronados, and with all the pictures and posts, it was a helluva way to kick start the Memorial Day weekend for fishermen. And pretty good timing for a feature on tips and tactics for the most popular member of the jack family.



EARLY BIRD GOT THE WORM — “Jackpot George” Morales holds his 48.7-pound yellowtail caught aboard the Shogun using a Makaira 20 and United Composite Centaur rod at Guadalupe Island May 14. He used a live mackerel on a 100-pound dropper loop set-up, an 8/0 Mustad 7631 hook while fishing all alone at 3:30 a.m. “Hey, they snooze, they lose,” said George.

Let’s see, over the years of writing for WON and hosting trips in Baja and SoCal, and fishing on sportfishers for fun as well as on my own skiff, I simply can’t count the number of places I’ve targeted yellows. They are a staple of our sportfishing existence. And I NEVER discount any offered method of catching them, because one way or another, everything works. I’ve seen it time and again. So, you might ask, where have you caught yellows?

Well, there was the Midriff islands chain on a mothership, off La Paz and San Jose and Espiritu Islands on pangas and my own boat, the El Bajo, when I owned that with former staffer Kit McNear. My earliest Baja yellowtail trip was to Loreto’s Coronado and Catalan islands, but more frequently I fish the Coronados and rockpile south of San Diego. Cerralvo Island, Cabo San Lucas in the winter, Benitos and Alijos Rocks, Cedros Island on sportfishers and pangas, San Quintin’s high spots and San Martin Island to the north, Isla Todos Santos off Ensenada, along the northern Baja coast under bird schools, on dozens of kelp paddies, the Channel Islands of Santa Barbara Island, Catalina and San Clemente, Box Canyon off Oceanside, and a bunch more spots I can’t even remember at the moment.


ONE MORE COMES over the rail.

The point is, a fishing world without yellows would be lacking a significant target.

I would be hard-pressed to even name a favorite method or tackle. But I know this: whether I am on a sportfisher off SoCal, a panga in Baja or my own 18-foot skiff, I’m always looking and prepared for something pretty exciting when it comes to targeting yellowtail. By far, the most fun is throwing iron, and these days, the advent of braided lines and how hybrid level-wind baitcasters cast rip out a light iron have allowed many folks to enjoy getting a jig slammed on the surface. Among my favorite experiences: Off Cedros Island, when the squid were around and being waylaid by schools of crashing yellows, the goal was not to hook one, but seeing how many times the fish could hit the jig before you stuck one. We played keep-a-away on 20 pounders. There were that many fish.

Except for seeing 100- to 200-pound bluefin boiling and crushing hoards of bait locally, nothing is as exciting as seeing schools of yellows slashing the surface, bait being mauled and birds diving into the maelstrom. That is cartoon fishing, and when such an opportunity comes, savor it.

Hands down, my favorite method of catching yellowtails is on surface iron, and these days the new line and equipment brings many more anglers into the action. The hybrid reels look like pregnant baitcasters, and the Shimano Tranx was the first, followed by the Daiwa Lexa 400. Others have tried to come into the market with theirs but they seem too small, too frail and fall short on size and durability. The Tranx and Lexa are worth the price tags, because they combine power and strength with smooth gearing and a drag that will handle bigger fish.

The hybrid reels enable the less experienced anglers to cast like a veteran, combining the finesse of a bass casting reel with the strength and durability of a heavy offshore reel.


CAPT. BRIAN WOOLLEY, of the Dana Wharf-based Sum Fun, having some fun on the yo-yo-iron for a hefty yellow.

“One of the classic scenarios in yellowtail fishing is casting surface iron to breezing fish, puddlers, boils and the many other ways yellowtail show themselves,” says Dave “Gundy” Gunderson, who can cast with the best of them. “It is a highly effective method because you are presenting a fleeing target to visibly active fish. The crucial dynamic when approaching fish that are “up,” is to not, through the approach of the boat, put down the fish. The way to consistently achieve this is by making long, accurate casts landing and retrieving the jig before the fish are spooked by the boat.”

The key to these reels, and we will get to them in a bit, is line development. Super braids. If you use these reels, I can only suggest that you fill them with 40- to 65-pound braid, and then add a mono topshot of the amount that equals a little more line than your longest possible cast. Mono casts far better and is easier deal with.

The Shimano Tranxs TRX-500 HG comes in 6.6:1 and 7:1 gear ratios and weighs just 20 ounces. The reel holds 270 yards of 60-pound braid.

Daiwa’s Lexa 400 is available in both a high speed 6.3:1 and blazing fast 7.1:1 gear ratio and can apply 25 pounds of drag pressure to a spool that holds 300 yards of 55-pound braid. That is an incredible amount of drag for a small reel, but it can handle it, again and again.

How do you pair these reels up? Walt Baily, owner of Pacific Coast Bait and Tackle in Oceanside, said his Lexa 400 with 65-pound braid can be cast a “country mile, and added, “Combined with a 9-foot rod, I have improved my casting range tremendously.”

I saw these reels in action, and concluded only that I needed one in my quiver. I have never felt better about a purchase that could improve my fishing experience for surface game fish.

* * *

So here are some quick tips for yellows on party boats and skiffs. All too often, yellows are not on the surface and so you search and scour a likely area with bait and terns, drifting while soaking a mackerel or sardine, or nose hook them and slow-troll in gear, at perhaps 1 to 2 mph.

Where to look: Deep-water structure spots are all along the coast. They are hardly secrets. I can’t blame you if you are new at this and you chase the crowd, but this is a great time to get in your licks, and before you go home, log in some coordinates of areas that are marked beautifully in 100 to 200 feet of water by lobster trap buoys. These are good rockfishing spots, too, and halibut options. You can’t have enough go-to spots in the machine. If a spot is productive, it’s because it has bait and birds are picking away as fish are underneath.

Making bait: Get sardines if you want. They are working great. But green macks are best. Get a half scoop of ’dines, tip the bait guy $5 and ask if any macks are for the taking outside. Birds will give it away. You can also make bait on the fishing grounds if mackerel are balling up. In making bait, avoid the tangle and ball-up on the catcher that looks like a limit of trout on a stringer. If the bait action is good, use an 8- to 12-ounce sinker to keep the bait rig straight. And, use ONLY new catchers. Old ones are dull, and they will get bait, but fewer. Get bait, and go.

Using your Bait: I nose-hook everything. And I use only the best, greenest baits. If mackerel is bright green, brighter than the rest. THAT is the one you want, either on your skiff or at your sportfisher’s livewell.

Rigs/dropper loop: The key here is simplicity, and fewer knots the better. The dropper loop three cranks off the bottom on the drift in 50 to 75 percent strike in the rod holder is best for most people and can be used on a skiff in concert with a yo-yo’d jig as you drift. The dropper loop is simple to tie. Check out YouTube if you don’t know how. On a sportfisher, the crew will show you how. To form the dropper loop, a single or double, the Surgeon Knot is easy. So is this knot, which is similar and has never failed me. The knot to form a loop is called the Hayward, or as I call it, the Figure Eight. Double your mono line into a loop and create an overhand loop, then go back through the loop five times, even it up and put some saliva on it, and it will “figure eight” before cinching up. Use that for your hook and nose-hooked ‘dine or mackerel. A six-inch loop is enough. Less line twisting.

For the hook, I use a standard live bait J-hook, 3/0 to 5/0. I use a Palomar knot when using the double line/loop. Never a failure. Key here is that the loop to your hook should be six inches. Longer than that and the line/bait twists on the way down. Some use a good quality AWS ball bearing swivel. (I like that idea, but it’s two more knots.) The single line of 4 or maybe 5 feet from the loop/hook to the torpedo sinker is best. I like a heavier 8- to 12-ounce sinker so it’s straight down and quick, so when I drop, it’s down there fast and directly below me at the rail. Others like as light as they can get away with, as the sinker’s weight will work against the hook in the fish.

Dropper loop, but single line to the hook option: And, if you trust me (and your knot) on this, near the Surgeon or Figure eight, clip the line and tie the now-single line to the hook for a more stealthy approach.

Dropping iron/Butterfly Jigs: On a sportfisher, when you drop is important. Theoretically, all lines all go down at the same time, and there would be less tangles. The problem on deep-water (100 to 300 feet) yellowtail trips is that people are getting baits at the tank, while some are using iron. Or Butterfly-style jigs, that have really been working great and drop faster than any candy bar style jig.

Whatever you use, going down too early as the boat slides might seem smart, but tangles are what I call the “big miss.” It’s a golf term. Miss big and get in a tangle and it takes you out of the game, and that game is get down to the fish quickly with your iron or dropper loop. I wait and look for the corner or a spot on the rail on the windward side, wind in my face. That’s basic sportboat fishing. On a crowded boat it’s tough, but after several stops, slots will open at the rail as the boat slides to a stop, and I’ll underhand flip (for safety) out the jig 20 feet and let it sink.

I use 40-pound mono, but braided line with a 20- to 30-foot top shot (or 5-foot fluoro leader) is faster with less water resistance. I watch for a hit on the drop, react quickly to the jig hitting, go into gear and crank fast and bring it up a third of the way, then drop again, then bring it up halfway, then bring it up all the way. Recast. That way you more effectively cover the water column.

I’ll also cast out 30 yards if it’s safe on the deck to do so, or I’m on my own boat and retrieve at a 30-degree angle if I don’t see fish on the meter but people are hooked up in the general area. What jigs? Salas or Tady or anything in blue/white, scrambled, dorado colors. Chrome always works. I like treble hooks, but for fish over 30, a beefy single ensures your biggest-ever yellow won’t get away.

Your drag: If in a skiff with a dropper loop, 50 to 75 percent drag. Put it on clicker if you are throwing iron at the same time. If you are using 40-pound line, a minimum because of seals, your drag should be tough to pull off the reel, at 20 pounds. So a quality reel is critical. These are often big fish, 20 to 30 pounds, and you need to get their head up. Their body will follow.

Options: Downriggers. A fantastic tool for skiff guys. One of a few advantages we have over party boats. I’ve installed an electric Scotty on my skiff. Using a mackerel or sardine, slowly trolling the offering away from the crowd or near the high spot seems to make sense. I take wide turns.That way the bait is usually not directly behind the ball.

Go mid-column with live bait: That said, while the dropper loop works great, and yo-yoing with great fervor, the red crabs have moved in and yellows are feeding on them mid-column. Cover your bases mid-water column with another outfit and drop in a lively mackerel or hardy no-hooked sardine with a 2-ounce sliding egg sinker. If you like, you can incorporate a fluoro section tied to the main line or via ball bearing swivel to halt the sliding sinker. If not yo-yoing iron, hold onto it and see if a yellowtail smashes the bait. Always remember, slowly bring up baits, either on the dropper loop or the egg sinker rigs if nose-hooked. I have been bit a few times on the first three cranks up when the bait speeds up.

The reverse dropper loop: Some captains don’t like ’em, but they have their uses when working more “mid-water column.” The issue is the twist, I guess. So, here is the rig. Main line of braid to a ball bearing swivel, a 5-foot fluoro section with the same dropper loop look, but the bait goes at the end, the sinker goes on (no knot, just run double line through one of the sinker eyes, drop it through the loop. You can easily change weights that way. That setup gives you one line to the hook, a fluoro section for stealth, and a ball bearing to eliminate twists on the bait.

Etiquette on your skiff: There’s a bunch out there these days. It’s great, but please approach other boats slowly, at low RPMs and stay upcurrent and outside of their drift before starting a drift. Give others space and move to the outside for a new drift. Don’t blast up the middle. You’re not helping your own cause with the higher RPMs. Do not chase after a sportboat or try to guess where he will stop.

One thing about sportfishers, if they are around, pay attention. But for heavens sake, give them plenty of room to complete their chum circle.

Reels: cranking Power and Retrieve Speed: Reels are so personal, and yes, older generation models will work, but they have a lot of downsides. The dinosaur reels might have a high gear ratio like the old Newells who were game-changers, but let’s face it, they are fishing’s flip phones. The old Senators and Newells have adequate high speed gear ratios, but they lack gear power to crank on a big fish once hooked. Drag systems are vastly improved, as is cranking power and smoothness with advances in gear alloys and machining, freespool and of course two-speed reels are a great price point. So, we asked some folks in the reel business who also fish. What’re your favorites?

According to Accurate’s Ben Secrest, a great angler who has whipped his share of big yellows on his skiff this winter out of Dana Point, the Fury 500N and the 600N are the go-to yellowtail yo-yo models to reach for in the Accurate line-up. “Either of these reels offers the high speed 6:1 gear ratio to make the jig swim right and plenty of power to land the fish in short order,” he said.

“Landing the fish quickly with a good reel with power and a rod with backbone has been important this season because of the large number of fish lost to seals.”

Ken Corwin of Ken’s Custom Reels in Oceanside always gives me some straight info. Torque and Fathom reels a deep dark secret. “The Torques are the reel deal and you just never hear about them, but they have the best freespool of any reel on the market. There’s just no friction because they’ve eliminated the pinion gear being part of the freespool. He also has a special place in his heart — and shop — for the Penn FTH40NLD2 Fathom Lever Drag 2-Speed. “It’s just a lot of things,” he said. “The quality, the shifting mechanisms that are on the crank where your hand is, the gearing.”

I asked him about Daiwa for yo-yoing, and he likes the Daiwa Saltist STTLD 30 reel, which has 40 and 50 brethren. The 30 is a great size, at a great price, $300 suggested retail. Daiwa’s Curt Arakawa said another great choice in their lineup is their new Proteus (7’6”; PRTB76HF) heavy action rod matched with a high speed 6.4:1 Saltist BG Star Drag (STTBG35H) reel. “That rig, matched up with 70-pound Saltiga Boat or Samurai Braid is the perfect match for deep-water yellowtail jigging,” said Arakawa. ” Good stuff indeed that is quality at a good price.


DAIWA’S 6.4:1 Saltist BG Star Drag (STTBG35H) reel.






SHIMANO’s Tranx baitcaster.

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