Larry Brown Notes

Yellowtail – The Jack on Steroids

A Complete Guide to Yellowtail Fishing Techniques


Larry Brown - 9/20/05

 California Yellowtail makes everybody’s list of the top 10 fish to catch.  It normally is at the top of the list for west coast anglers because it is as tough and mean as a junkyard pit bull, is great eating and is one of the most intelligent fish roaming our Southern California and Baja coast.    Pound for pound yellowtails are stronger than any of the pelagic tuna’s cruising though our coastal waters.  A 25 pound yellowtail fights harder than a 30 pound albacore, a 40 pound yellowfin tuna or a 50 pound white seabass or salmon!  Yellowtail would be disqualified from the Olympics for the steroids I know they must take.  Best of all they can be caught year round.

Yellowtail are also more intelligent than any of the above noted species.  Not only are they more wary, they will use any structure to break your line.  Primates are supposed to be the only animals that use tools – yellows utilize kelp, rocks, reefs, pilings and offshore oil platforms as tools for their escape artistry.  An albacore, hooked near a kelp paddy, will run deep and away from the kelp; most white seabass, hooked near thick kelp forests, will run to the open sea away from the obstacles that may help free them.  Yellowtail know the exact location of every strand of kelp, every sharp rock and any other obstacle within 100 yards of every meal and put every ounce of strength and heart into their struggle to reach it and regain their freedom.  They are noble and tough adversaries.

They are the perfect game fish for the west coast angler.  They are extraordinarily strong; they are very intelligent; they can be targeted all year round; they can be found in nearly all waters within reach of California anglers, they are delicious and they can be taken using nearly all popular techniques, including fly lining bait, surface iron, yo yo style iron, dropper loop and trolling.  The purpose of this article is to explain each of the techniques used to catch yellowtail and to increase your expertise and success targeting these predators.  Let’s review each of the techniques in detail.

This article focuses on the techniques used on party boats and long range boats.  Private boaters can use all of these techniques but also need to become expert at using their electronics and various chumming and trolling techniques, which are not critical skills for the passenger on a sport boat.


Although yellowtail can be caught on many different live and dead baits, live sardines, mackerels and squid are their favorite meals, which are also the baits most available for use.  They will also strike dead squid, slabbed filets and stripped bait as well. 

 When using live sardines or anchovies, bait selection is critical.  Baits should be very healthy, strong, brightly colored and fast.  The one you can’t catch in the bait well is the one you want on your hook.  Do not select baits with damaged scales, red noses or eyes or white spots or red spots anywhere.  Lighter colored, almost pastel green and light grey colors are the primo baits and will stand out from the darker bodied baits.  They will normally be swimming below the darker ones and freak out when they detect the shadow of your hand or bait scoop.  Try to scoop up only one or two baits, try to minimize the trauma to all baits, return the unused baits to the bait tank quickly and never leave the bait scoop in the bait well.  It acts just like a gillnet, damages the remaining baits and will piss off the captain and crew.

The objective is to select the best bait and get it in the water as gently and quickly as possible.  Before you touch a bait, dunk your hand in the bait well, to lubricate your palms.  This will reduce the friction of your skin against the bait’s scales and minimize damage to the bait.  Hold onto the bait very gently – do not squeeze.  If you drop the bait do not use it – just discard it or boot it over the side.  Quickly pin the bait on your hook, grab the line about 4 inches above the hook and let go of the bait.  Then quickly walk to the rail and gently cast the bait.  You should know where you are going to be casting before you pin on the bait so you can walk to that position without looking and without hesitation.

Match the hook size to your line test and size of the bait.  It’s always a good idea to ask the deckhand what size hook to use.  If you are going to deviate from this advice go slightly smaller, not larger.  For pin head anchovies and line under 30# test use a # 4 hook.  For larger anchovies and very small sardines you can use #2, #1 or #1/0 hooks.  Medium sized sardines can handle #1/0 or #2/0 hooks.  For large sardines and heavier line use #2/0 to #4/0 hooks. Mackerels and squids require #4/0 to #6/0 hooks depending again on the size of the bait and line test.  For smaller fin baits and lighter lines use the thinner wire live bait hooks.  Forty and fifty pound line can straighten light wire hooks, so use the heavy wire hooks. J-hooks or circle hooks are personal preference.  Circle hooks do less damage to the fish if you are going to release them due to size or good sportsmanship.  Lastly, small hooks are more stealth and get more bites, but large hooks grab more meat, have more holding power, and result in fewer pulled hooks and lost fish.  If the bite is very picky, scratchy or if the fish are “line or hook shy, use smaller hooks.  When they are stupid and chewing everything use bigger hooks.

Where to hook a bait is also an important subject.  Hooking a live bait through the nose is probably the most common tactic.  If you have a strong current, expect a long soaking time because the fish are boiling 100 yards from the boat or if you are using a weight of any kind, only nose hook your bait.  Gently insert the point of the hook sideways through the nostrils or the small white cartilage between the eyes and end of the nose.  Stay clear of the eyes.

You can also collar hook your anchovies or sardines.  Be extremely gentle and insert the hook just under the hard C-shaped material at the edge of the body just next to and under the gill plate.  The hook should cause no bleeding and the bait should freely dangle and freely swim.

Sardines and mackerels can also be butt hooked.    Gently pass the hook just under the surface cartilage just under the anal fins.  You should draw no blood.  Blood means you’ve gone too deep.  Butt hooking baits encourages them to swim straight down and away from the boat and is a good technique if there is no current.  Baits will not last as long when they are butt hooked, and never butt hook a bait when you are using a weight or need to soak the bait for a long time.  Whereas nose hooked baits may also get bit if retrieved slowly back to the boat, this advantage is lost with butt hooked baits.  Butt hooked baits require an even more gentle and lofty cast.  If you are not an expert at a gentle loft cast, a smooth underhand pendulous cast gets the bait headed in the right direction when it hits the water.  Butt hooked baits are easier to feel in the water.  Whenever they stop swimming sometimes back spooling and a slight twitch is just enough aggravation to get them to peel off another few yards of line, which frequently triggers a strike.

Squid is a favorite bait when in season.  This is very easy fishing.  Use a sliding sinker and hook to match the bait’s size and line test, pin the hook through the mantle of the squid and let it drift in the current.

Fly lining a bait means using no sinker, which is most effective if the fish are boiling on the surface.  Sometimes you’ll want to use a small sliding sinker.  In either case you’ll always want your bait to swim freely, and you should always be able to feel your bait swimming and taking line off your reel.  Do not tolerate bad baits.  If your bait swims back to the boat or does not get bit when other baits are getting bit, fire your bait and get one that works.

Slabs and strips of filleted mackerel or white fish can also be lethal baits.  Strips can be fished just like squid.  Cut ¾ inch by 3 inch strips, slightly tapered from a filet and pin one on a sliding sinker set up.  Slabs are also used on dropper loops and will be discussed in that section.

The hook set is critical for yellowtail.  They frequently grab a bait side ways and carry it for a few seconds before they swallow it.  A typical strike resembles a freight train picking up your hook and screaming towards the horizon.   For small baits let it run for just  2 seconds; for large sardines let it run for 4-5 seconds; for mackerels let it run for at least 6 seconds, which will seem like a lifetime.  When your bait is picked up, point the rod tip right at the fish.  After the required wait time, put the reel in gear and continue to point the rod tip at the fish.  Only when you feel the full weight of the “hooked fish” on your line and it is stripping line off under drag should you raise your rod.  With circle hooks just gently raise the rod and begin your fight.  With J-hooks give the fish a solid hookset to drive the point home.

The fight is not over until the fish is gently released or gaffed and in the boat.  The longer the fish is in the water the more likely it will be lost due to sharks, sea lions, tangles and hooks pulling out.  When the fish is straight up and down, tighten the drag to full strike on a lever drag or a couple ticks on a star drag and finish business.  And remember to keep the fish’s head in the water when your deckhand is trying to gaff it.

Iron Jigs

Using iron is one of the most productive and exciting ways to catch yellowtail.  Iron is most appropriate if there is a steady bite or if fishing is wide open.  The most popular colors are blue and white, tones of brown and yellow, called scrambled egg, sardine also known as “bird shit,” dorado, which has green and blue, green and white and chrome and blue. The first three are the best.

There are two types of iron and two methods for using them – surface and yo yo.  Only one requires much skill.  

“Yoyo-ing” is like iron for dummies, and I love it.  Yo yo irons are heavy.  The most common are the Salas 6X Jr, 6X, Tady 9, Sumo 105, and some of the new heavy jigs made by High Tide..  Just drop the jig straight down to the bottom or cast it out and let it sink to the bottom, put the reel in gear, point the rod down and at the “fish” and wind as fast as you possibly can.  This is where a strong, high speed reel is critical and a 6 or 7 foot stout rod is preferred. The Avet JX or HX are awesome reels for this use.  Use 40 or 50 pound line and a "stupid" tight drag to minimize line stretch and to assure you can muscle him away from structure.  You can not reel too fast!  To save energy wind it up a third to half way, stop, drop and do it again.  I’ve experienced 80% of the strikes in the  lower third of the water column.  You sometimes get bit on the sink, so be prepared to instantly put it in gear and reel like hell.  Do not set the hook; reel through the bite, with the rod pointed down towards the fish.  Most mistakes are made by trying to set the hook.  Think physics – a sharp hook traveling up at warp speed will penetrate – don’t set the hook.  Just reel, reel, reel.  When he starts to take line you can then, and only then, give him a quick left hook, but it’s more for ego than necessity.

You can also use these heavy jigs on top.  A long cast, a varied sink between 5 and 20 seconds and a fast retrieve can sometimes be lethal.  Remember to keep reeling through the strike!

Surface iron is not for dummies.  It really does take skill to master.  Most deckhands are masters and will likely be willing to coach you for several casts and retrieves so you “get it.”

Surface irons are the lighter models of jigs and require a finesse retrieve to make them flutter and behave correctly.  Popular models are the Salas 7X, Tady 45, Tady C and the new light jigs by High Tide.  Action seems much more critical than color.  Every surface iron may swim differently so you have to watch it and adjust your retrieve until you get the perfect wiggle, flutter and kick.  Polarized glasses are critical tools.  So is a long rod or jig stick of 8, 9 or even 10 feet and a smooth reel with great free spool for long casts.  You can use 40 or 50 # line here depending on the size of your likely quarry and how close you’ll be fishing to structure.

A long cast, hopefully towards feeding fish, and a varied sink of between 5 and 20 seconds starts this technique.  Point the rod towards the fish and begin your steady retrieve which gives you the perfect wiggle, flutter, kick that you perfected with your practice casts for that specific iron.  Sometimes you will actually see the yellowtail pushing towards the iron like a submarine on the surface and it’s nearly impossible to contain your excitement.  Keep calm and keep reeling.  Then a savage strike.  Keep reeling – do not set the hook.  Sound familiar.  Keep reeling through the strike, to make sure all of the line stretch is out of the mono.  Only consider setting the hook when your quarry is peeling off line heading for the horizon.

There is nothing more exciting, no adrenaline rush, no experience in the world like fishing iron.  Watching and feeling the surface iron getting inhaled by a big yellowtail or winding in a yo yo iron at Mach 3 speed and feeling the sudden thud of a strike takes your breath away.

Also, be sure to try the new Holy Mackerel Jigs by High Tide.  Drop them 2 boat lengths behind the boat as soon as the captains asks for a chum line.  These jigs drive yellowtail in the chum line crazy.  The Butterfly Jigs by Shimano are definitely worth trying too.  Buy several and be sure to read the Shimano brochure and/or watch the Shimano techniques CD at your favorite tackle shop.  I had a demo jig and used it at Cedros Island and had 4 straight fish before I lost it to a mean yellowtail that rocked me.  These jigs seem amazing and I’ll definitely be adding them to my regular arsenal.

Dropper Loops

Dropper loop fishing is one of the most productive ways to catch yellowtail, and my personal least favorite.  A heavy reel and rod lined with 80 to 100# test and a lead weight heavy enough to get you to the bottom and keep you there are the basic tools.  I suggest going all spectra with just a very short 10 foot dropper loop leader so there is zero stretch and minimum drag on your line in a strong current. Use a “stupid tight” drag.  Tie an 18 - 24 inch surgeon’s loop, or equivalent knot, about 3 feet from the tag end of the line upon which you will tie the hook with a strong knot.  Use a very large J-hook, 6/0 to 8/0 or circle hook depending on the size of your bait.  Put your weight at the very tag end using the weakest knot you know, just in case the weight gets caught in the rocks with a yellowtail on your hook.  Nose hook a sardine, mackerel, live or dead squid or a large slap from a filet of mackerel or white fish, drop it to the bottom, put it in gear and be ready to reel immediately to get the beast off the bottom and away from the sharp rocks.   Dropper loops are not glamorous but they are deadly. Big strong shorter rods and a strong reel are musts for this style of fishing.

Trolling and Private Boater Techniques

Trolling is another productive way to look for and catch yellowtail but the techniques for party boat trolling for tuna and yellowtail are the same and need no additional explanation here.

Private boat fishing for yellowtail is the same for all of the above techniques except for trolling and the additional specific skills you’ll need to master for optimally effective chumming and using your sonar.  Kayak and tube fishing are also becoming very popular and are lethal ways to target yellows and other fish close to structure.  All of these are important but not the scope of this article.


Now that you have caught the magnificent beast how do you prepare it.  Yellowtail is absolutely one of the most delicious fishes you will catch and eat.  First of all remember to bleed it and get it cold immediately.  Most of your long range boats take special care to deliver perfect product at the end of the trip.  Many half day to full day boats do not have the facilities to refrigerate your fish, so make sure you keep it in the shade and hose it down frequently so the evaporation helps cool the fish.  Bleed your fish by nicking the gills or ask your deckhand to do this for you. Have an ice chest with plenty of ice ready at your car.

Fresh yellowtail is great baked, pan fried, grilled and as sashimi and ceviche.  Any recipe works but none is required.  Just a little salt, pepper, garlic and olive oil and care not to overcook will create a culinary delight.  You can also follow any basic or exotic recipe for any “firm flesh fish” from  or any cookbook and you’ll please friends, family and your own taste buds with your own creation and fresh catch.

Now, go book a fishing trip, enjoy, fish responsibly and be safe.