Yellowtail are the most popular targeted fish year-round for San Diego anglers also known as jack and close cousin of the Amberjack. This article contains Yellowtail fishing tips and how-to's for this incredible fish species I have put together from my decades of fishing and working sportfishing boats all over San Diego, Baja, Mexico and Hawaii. My goal is to help anglers of all experience levels and ages land more Yellowtail.
Yellowtail are a popular favorite target game fish for Southern California anglers. Larger, local variety Yellowtail fish called "mossback's" or "home-guard" are caught year-round reaching 30-40#'s while school-size fish more common during the warmer water summer months reach about 12-20#'s you may hear a local call a "firecracker". I highly suggest consider releasing these smaller fish to grow, breed and catch another day. Yellowtail species of fish are explosive fighters making them a popular target for local skippers so populations are always at risk of being over-fished. Yellowtail are hands down my favorite fish for eating when fresh (best consumed within the first three days of being caught) otherwise the fish can taste "gamey". They are also excellent when served fresh as Hamachi (Sashimi with a cocktail sauce). Yellowtail are great prepared and eaten just about any way - grilled over the BBQ, baked in the oven wrapped in foil with your favorite peppers, onions, tomatoe & vegetables (this is my personal favorite because it can be eaten right from the foil - or
Contrary to popular belief the California Yellowtail is a Jack NOT a Tuna.
A common mistake is confusing Yellowtail with Yellow fin Tuna. Yellowtail are caught all over Southern California. Fish caught further South in Mexico and South of Coronado Island's at popular spots where tuna crab and clam beds reside are more plentiful and they are not as elusive as yellow's caught off San Diego and the rest of So Cal. They are bigger, easier to catch and you can use chunk bait (strips of bait) for bait or heavy iron jigs (local name "iron") and yo-yo deep. Baja, Mex. fishing is done in about 80 to 300 feet of water with heavy as 14-ounce sinkers on the bottom and heavy tackle rigged with about 80-pound line using a Reverse-Dropper Loop. Mossback yellow's hang around structure and the heavier tackle makes it easier to "turn" the fish and keep it away from structure thus less chance of breaking an angler off. This applies to fishing Coronado Island's, popular even during Winter an Spring months as water temp nears about 64.5'F drifting over or near Clam Beds and small Red "Tuna" crabs using bait or heavy iron "yo-yo" fishing.
Southern California's smaller, seasonal fish require more skill and can be very elusive and finicky or line-shy to get to bite.
The most common way of fishing for "Yellow's" when live bait is available is fly-lining live Anchovy, Sardine or even small Mackerel with little or no sinker, carolina-rigged or similar using small hooks and light line or a couple feet of fluorocarbon leader tied to braid or common mono-filament line. Personally I prefer straight mono instead of all the various braid line and fluro combos being used. I'm old school and love my Daiwa Sealine-X Fishing Reels I keep filled with fresh 20# and 30# mono. This reel is very affordable at just under $150 and by far out casts any reel currently made and I'm confident whoever you ask who has fished this reel will say the same! Also it's high ratio cranking in line fast perfect for yo-yo or fast retrieve surface iron casting. A easier to use and better casting star drag makes the Sealine Series the best bang-or-the-buck low maintenance reel made for Southern California-style stand-up jig fishing. Put this reel on a CalStar Graphighter 800M or L (medium or light) and you have a premium tackle setup for under $450. This rod/reel combo is perfect for throwing (casting) light surface iron jigs for when the fish are closer to the surface. I use this setup for both styles of fishing taught in this how-to. Find links to buy my favorite tackle on Amazon and a big thanks for supporting this website with any purchase. Deeper fish are caught using heavy iron jigs "yo-yo'd" (dropped deep and retrieved ultra fast stopping every so often and letting the iron fall repeating this technique like a yo-yo). This is such a popular and effective skill I wrote and entire article on fishing iron (jigs).
Fly lining and Dropper Loop live Sardine, Anchovy or small Mackerel are how deep sea fishing trips in SoCal fish. If the fish are biting on the surface usually evident by a lot of bird activity diving the surface feeding on bait being pushed up by fish below feeding then fly-lining using just a small #2 - #4/0 live bait hook with little or no weight is best. A small cramp-on split shot, rubber core or sliding egg Carolina style works.
For deeper fish a Dropper Loop is most common or San Diego knot with the weight on the bottom and hook looped through the upper loop. Select the liveliest bait in the well - the bait that is hardest to catch. Avoid bloody or red-nose bait and if you see a small brownish-colored bait called "Brown Bait" or a small Mackerel and the deeper Yellow's are biting try those baits. Avoid Sardines on the surface if Seals or Sea Lions are present. It's an invitation you will regret and will shut the bite down losing fish time. Listen to the deckhands what to use. Watch what other anglers are fishing and what fish are being caught. You'd be surprised sometimes it's the smallest lively pinhead Anchovies that the biggest fish are eating. If you are new to casting conventional reels, don't get tempted to use big Sardine just so you have some weight for better casting - instead go with the smaller Anchovies, Brown Bait or Small Mackerel and pinch a small split-shot to the line about a foot above the bait. If Barracuda and Mackerel are thick and you notice everyone catching only these fish and you are targeting a nice Yellow, the extra weight sometimes helps drag the bait a little deeper past the thick Mackerel schools where the Yellow's are hangin'.
For weights on a Dropper Loop when bottom fishing bait if the current is strong a 6 - 8 ounce Torpedo should be used otherwise a 3 - 4 ounce Torpedo should do. Just make sure you are holding bottom. Give the pole a short lift you should feel th weight hit the bottom and line go slack. Change bait every few minutes or sooner for surface fishing. Make sure the bait swims away from the boat and fish with the wind to your face on anchor and to the back of the head when drifting.
How to "Yo-Yo" heavy iron is one of my favorite techniques to catch Yellowtail when they are deep feeding on clam beds, spawning squid or whatever else they eat year round and are holding in deeper water.
Must have knowledge in any fisherman's skill arsenal is knowing how to fish the iron, both the light surface and heavy deep water varieties. My favorite colors are in the photo's above. Scrambled Egg, Green variations, Blue and White, Blue and Chrome and Mackerel/Chrome are a few favorites although the chrome variation can attract too many Barracuda when they are thick and Yellowtail are in the mix or lurking below the schooling Barracuda in a chum-line feeding frenzy. All white for when White Sea bass are on the chew can be effective or lately home-colored or new tuna-crab pattern varieties are available have been used.
The deep jigging or yo-yo technique with heavy metal lures generally out produces lighter surface jigs on a daily basis when "Yellows" are in deeper water many times feeding at local clam beds or deeper water structure. Year round Yellowtail especially farther south along the Baja Coast are caught in good numbers using the yo yo technique as well.
Salas 6x Junior, Iron man 3 and 5's and Tady AA or 9, among bottom jigs that works well when the bite is deep
as a lot of times off Baja or early spring at the Coronado Islands, La Jolla or other popular Yellowtail spots fished by sport boats out of San Diego Landings. Tady 45's in every color if you can afford it are my all time favorite for how they swim and attract fish year after year.
A fast ratio reel like my personal favorite and popular for fishing the iron due to high ratio cranking and undoubtedly the best casting is Daiwa Sealine-X Fishing Reels and a rod with a good butt section for turning big fish near structure in deep water is a good setup for yo yo. A graphite rod in the 8 to 9 foot lengths are great for casting way out to where a big Yellowtail may be pushing a bait ball to the surface evident by working birds on the surface. I always throw on birds working the surface which sometimes takes a really long cast.
For yo-yoing deeper fish basically just drop your lure over the side straight down and let it drop fast until it hits the bottom. Then engage the reel and retrieve as fast as you can about half way to even all the way up then stop and let it drop to the bottom again and repeat, hence the name like a "yo-yo". Just keep up this technique using various retrieve speeds and depths when reeling in the iron before letting it drop again and take note of the depth you are in when hooked up or bit so next time you can concentrate more on fishing that zone. Generally local Yellow's like a fast retrieve but if one way doesn't work after being exhausted, try something different.
Iron jigs made for surface fishing is the other type of iron available. Light iron jigs (locally called "lights") are great for when Yellow's are either metered by the fish finder or visual signs of working birds feed on surface bait fish are spotted or any conditions when fish are feeding on the surface.
I love fishing surface iron because you can see the fish charging the lure. Some days on a hot or wide open bite lure color may not seem to make much difference. Other days I start with my favorite colors and switch if I see other anglers landing more fish when I'm not or take advice from the deckhands who are out fishing every day and know what is working best on a particular day. Tady 45 or A1 and Salas 6x in Scrambled Egg or Mint and Chrome or Mackerel are colors over the years I've had most success and most popular off San Diego. Any dull lead color is good. The jig in your tackle box that's been there for years with all the paint rubbed off could be hot, and it's probably the last one most anglers would pick up.
I like working a surface "light" jig when fish are under diving birds when Yellow's may be feeding. Action is most important and most local jig fisherman will agree a fast retrieve with and occasional kick is a popular and effective technique when the surface bite is on. Trolling swimming plugs, like the Rapala CD 18, is effective during the spring near the Coronado Islands when the yellows are "breezing" and haven't settled around structure. When working offshore kelp paddies, most skippers troll.
Color I start by matching the bait and/or water color in the area being fished. Anything scrambled egg, green or chrome/mackerel I personally like and start with but everyone has their own advice here. Tady, Salas, Sumo are all popular brand iron that work great for yo-yo fishing deep water fish.
You can't fish Yellowtail with one rod, On a slow bite most fisherman prefer to use small anchovies for bait, go as light as 12 to 15 pound line on a small conventional reel like my personal favorite and most bang for the buck reel the older Daiwa Sealine SX 20 is a fun and very sturdy little reel with star drag and Daiwa's separate roller-bearing free-spool makes casting the lightest of pinhead-size anchovies a breeze. Match with a Seeker or CalStar basic rent rod model type or I spent some money on a beautiful 15-30# G-Loomis one piece all graphite Saltwater Series or Phoenix has become a popular Southern California choice rod for plastic swim bait and light Anchovie casting long a breeze in combo with the Daiwa Sealine 20x or similar. As the bite comes on a little more aggressively, go to 20 pound line on a medium reel like Penn 500 Jigmaster you can never go wrong and should be part of any anglers tackle, similar in size to a Penn Jig master or another favorite for throwing iron on my Cal Star Graphighter 800L (light) or a shorter "rent-rod" size pole like a Cal Star 870 Fiberglass medium action rod with a lot of "butt" for turning the bigger fish) with a Daiwa Sealine X 30 Sha. My favorite for it's insane long casting ability and high gear ratio for Yo-Yo fishing for Yellowtail the Daiwa Sealine Series. Out since the late 90's this fishing reel is one of the best bang for the buck deals for So Cal anglers fishing the very popular daily 3/4 day fishing trips to the Coronado Islands for a day of Yo-Yo or Surface jigging for Yellowtail Daiwa Sealine Series reels for superior casting and high gear ratio. When using bigger baits like mackerel and sardines, go to 25, 40 or even 50 pound line, depending on the conditions.Purchase Daiwa Sealine 30 from Amazon - Superior reel for "yo-yo" and casting distance iron
Use a "jig stick" or rod of at least 8 feet to throw surface iron (metal lures). For yo-yo-ing (deep jigging heavy lures), the standard is a 4/0-size reel on a 7 to 7-1/2 foot rod with a fast taper and 40 to 50 pound line for abrasion resistance. Any reel from a inexpensive Penn Jigmaster 500 to my favorite new reels Accurate's "Boss" Series. They are a bit pricey for some people but if you want the best catch success for deep Yo-Yo Jigging. If you want the best I highly suggest purchase an Accurate BX-400X BX Boss E-Series Reel with a line capacity of 300 yrd./20# mono is perfect but really any of the big name reels with a high gear ratio for fast retrieve and even two-speed for larger fish will work. My Daiwa's have never failed me nor a trusty and still best bang for the buck Penn Jig master 500 for about 65 bucks but my Accurate Boss BX400 E Series is my favorite and worth every penny. You need heavier gear when fishing the yo-yo to force fish (turn them so their head is pointing to the surface and your lunch) away from bottom structure and turn the fish where they can quickly cut you off. You will not regret the purchase Accurate makes some beautifully engineered fishing reels perfect for Southern California year-round Yellowtail fishing.
.I don't get too involved in line whether braided, mono, fluro or p-line. Personal preference here again. I'm old school and still like a good mono 20 - 30# with a fluorocarbon leader with my Daiwa Sealine 30X and my Cal Star Graphighter 800M, lot of butt for turning bigger fish and 8ft for great casting the "lights" or live bait with a fast action tip on an often crowded boat. If you have casting a live bait or surface iron like the popular Tady 45 line even a Cal Star Graphighter 9' pole or similar works best. Most often the anglers catching the most fish are those who can cast a bait far distances. The Daiwa Sealine has a smoking fast retrieve and casts for miles as I say. Anything similar is adequate - I learned on a Cal Star 870 rent rod with a Penn Jig master 500 because my dad said learn on a basic setup like that and the nicer gear will be effortless to hone skills. Learn to cast a Penn jig master 500 and you can cast anything out there.
Yellowtail fish season in Southern California is April to September. However, a "second" season develops during the winter when larger fish are found within areas of spawning squid and at the Clam Beds near Coronado Islands. Southern California sportfishing landings and boats target Yellowtail year round but peak season is from Spring through Fall. Any time the sea surface temps near 64 -65 degrees it's light turning a switch on expect them to start biting.
Yellowtail can be amazingly easy to catch at times during a hot or wide open bite. When they are biting, it seems anything dropped in the water they hit in a frenzy. When they're not biting, nothing seems to work and the real challenge of the hunt comes in to play.
Figuring out big game "mossback" Yellowtail often comes down to experience, and no one's more experienced than the veteran skippers and their crew who guide both long-range and local anglers to fish, year in and year out. If in doubt ask your deckhand how to best rig for the conditions. They are out nearly every day of the year and know best at a given moment what is biting and how to rig.
This kind of fishing can take a lot of patience and local knowledge which is where I hope I have provided some helpful information to help land that first or next Yellowtail
Current ranks as a major consideration when Yellowtail fishing. Yellowtail have a reputation of being fussy eaters, and the most successful anglers have a good understanding of the species' environment and know what signs to look for when they are close or feeding. I have had great success constantly scanning the water for signs of feeding such as working birds (birds feeding on the surface) from bait being pushed up to the surface often by Yellowtail. Water movement and current trigger fish naturally to feed. Current is one of the main factors that coincides with biting fish most often over the years I have noticed that the most successful days out are when the current is running strong around the changing tides - most anglers including myself agree that without a good current and clean water the bite usually shuts down or the fish that do bite are more fussy.
As far as moon phase and bite success, I lean more on the current and changing tide as more important factors for biting 'tails. I've caught Yellowtail in all moon phases. Sometimes its easier to catch bait when it's not so bright. Other species however do get caught more on full moon periods such as White Sea bass and Bluefin Tuna. You may notice a particular boat's schedule to be full during full moon nights during Spring through Fall.
During countless trips I have taken of the past 35 years best success comes when all of these factors are combined - good current, warm water (above 65 degrees most anglers agree), good water clarity and as I mentioned visual signs like working birds suggests there may be Yellowtail in the area pushing the bait up and are feeding are all signs conditions are right for a great day of catching.
Well I hope you all learned something from this article. Feel free to Email me anytime for more info, tips, recommended tackle or boats I like. I'm here to give local advice for fisherman planning a San Diego sportfishing trip. Good luck and tight lines.
Big events happen fast and unforgiving when tuna fishing - the key is to be ready seconds after you hear the angler or deckhand yell hook-up! - If you can have multiple rod/reel fishing combos you can be ready for any change in conditions or fish target when that precious moment hits on troll when an angler yells, "HOOKUUUPPPP!" The boat then does what's called "slide" into nuetral and immediately the Captain calls out to the deckhand how much live bait to pitch to keep the tuna on the surface and biting angler lines who should already have a bait or jig in the water. Timing and teamwork is essential in successfull tuna fishing Southern California stand-up hook and line style. When the Captain calls out on com what size fish are being marked under the boat, the listening angler then picks up and casts the saltwater fishing rod/reel combo right for the bite. Having multiple setups all ready to go is awesome and can mean the difference between that bucket list 150# class Bluefin Tuna I mentioned earlier just five miles from San Diego ending up in proud pics and on the plate that night over a beer telling the story how glad you are you invested in all this top-quality saltwater fishing tackle this guy Rob at SportfishSanDiego.com suggested he get! lol jk of course again I just love helping fellow anglers land those hard to get once in a lifetime fish.
On the same 5am to 5pm offshore trip you can hook up a 20-30# class Yellowtail on the Yo-Yo Iron Jig, a bucket-list San Diego 2016! 150# Bluefin Tuna on a light Tady 45 surface iron, a 50# White Sea Bass or a 50# class Halibut on live squid or a personal favorite of mine (Rob Mailly Owner SportfishSanDiego.com), a old timer slow-growth lunker elusive Calico Bass while flippin' 3-6' plastics using either my Shimano Calcutta 400
or for lower price and unbelievable casting distance my Daiwa Sealine X SLH20! I sell all fishing tackle I mentioned here and truly part of my personal tackle (I chose fishing tackle over a snappy car and wife, lol jk of course) Here's the best deals on Amazon I found for the Boss Valiant BV-300, Daiwa Sealine Series, Avet and Shimano...I haven't left out the first and very best most trusted fishing reel ever made - Penn's Jigmaster 500. My father taught me as a little kid fishing local 3/4 day Coronado Island's trips to learn how to cast a conventional (bait casting) reel using a Penn Jigmaster 500 and a rent rod. He said "son if you can learn to cast a inexpensive old die-hard like a Penn 500, every saltwater fishing reel you cast from now on no matter how expensive and full of features will be a piece of cake and envy of other anglers. It's all about picturing a pendulum and not how hard you cast but proper technique that takes years to perfect for most. Also thumb pressure and controlling backlash which newer high-end saltwater fishing reels like Accurate and Avet have engineered into their respective products. That's another article I will cover.
I love this old school reel! Although demands more frequent cleaning and maintenance, it's well worth the relatively good bang for the buck solid live bait or plastics flippin' reel I personally used my Calcutta 400. If you like throwing the plastics (plastic swim baits) this is a solid reel for the job and smooth as silk drag for burning Yellowtail.