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Winter's Big Game - Kayak Fishing for Yellowtail at La Jolla, California

by Andy Allen

Around this time last year, the north end of La Jolla was the place to be if you wanted winter, island style fishing for yellowtail, white seabass, and halibut at a level few locals had ever seen before.  The squid were spawning in 20 fathoms in an area that had been coined “the spot” When word had spread, with consistent daily catches, the crowds grew to over 100 vessels comprised of power boaters and kayakers from all over So Cal.

If you were capable with a squid jig, you were able to load some live squirts into your bait tank. There was quite a crowd long before first light, dropping squid jigs to the bottom, hoping for that dull thud of a market squid latching onto your series of small egg sack imitators. Although the candy bait certainly filled you with confidence, it was not the only way to take home one of these winter slugs. Many fish were taken on yoyo jigs; these are heavy, three to seven ounce “irons”. Simplicity has always made this one of my favorite means of fishing. There is just something spectacular about imparting action and getting the reaction you came looking for, fooling that big wily fish into thinking that lifeless hunk of metal is an easy meal.

Good spots to fish the heavy iron are areas where squid are known to be spawning. If squid are in abundance anywhere along the coast the commercial lighboats will be aware and lighting up the water in hopes of drawing the massive schools of squid to the surface to be netted. Predator fish will also be close by and ready to gorge on the post spawned dying squid.

Other areas that offer a shot at home guard fish are areas with deep water adjacent to shallows. These bigger resident fish become more opportunistic feeders and rely on ambushing prey as they lack the schools ability to crowd bait schools. This time of year any area with hard bottom structure will have lobster buoys on it. I like to work from one buoy to the next, spending around fifteen minutes on each. Keep in mind that because of ocean current these buoys are usually not directly above the pots and the line is weighted to keep excess off the surface. Keep your distance to avoid snagging these lines and traps.

Although any twenty to fifty pound setup would suffice, a reel with a higher gear ratio will make the task far more enjoyable. I use a reel with a six to one ratio; meaning with every full turn of the handle the spool revolves six times. I like this gearing because it allows ample speed when I want to “burn it up” but also because it allows a comfortable “cruising speed” I don’t want to go home sore, unless a big fish has put the hurt on me. I also prefer a rubber handle to a hard plastic one. Nothing worse than having your wet hand slip off the handle as something bumps your jig, leaving you wondering if that was the fish of a lifetime you just missed the hook set on.

Four of my biggest yellowtail have been during the winter and on the heavy iron. These all weighed between thirty-five and forty-one pounds. This is why I fish forty-pound monofilament line on my yoyo setup. You often hook these fish mere feet off the bottom. Once they see any structure, they move with intent, in taking you there, weather it is a rock, kelp or lobster pot. You want to get their head turned and make them earn every inch of line they take. If they are not taking line you should be lifting and winding down getting them up to the surface. I don’t use super braided lines because I have found that I like catching with it more than I like fishing with it, and yoyo fishing is typically a lot of fishing in hopes of catching.

The rod’s designation is derived from the fighting of the fish more than of any kind of action being applied to the lure. Otherwise a lighter tipped seven-foot rod would make more sense. As I just said, you want to be able to pull hard to get the upper hand and with one or more points of a treble hook lodged, pull hard, you can. The perfect rod is six and a half feet and rated thirty to fifty pounds.

Yoyo fishing is usually described as dropping the iron straight down, letting it flutter to the bottom, then lifting the rod tip, “jigging” it up and down a few times then winding it up as fast as possible, all the way to the top. Although you can’t wind so fast that you’ll outrun a yellowtail, you can wind too fast, causing the jig to spin rather than swim side to side. This technique is the essence of yoyo fishing, but there are numerous techniques and variety is often the key to success when things are much less than wide open.

I’ve always thought of these heavy jigs as fish calls, sending out vibration to be intercepted by a nearby fish’s lateral line. To cover more area I like to cast out and wind in at a forty-five degree angle a few times, then drop down and let the jig thump the hard bottom a few times. This is the calling part, and then I’ll let the jig hang deadsticked like an easy meal. More than once I have found success in this way. After letting the jig move only with the roll of the sea for a while, I’d start winding in and get hit immediately. Like a dog has to chase a cat, it is a reaction strike.

Casting a heavy jig out and letting it settle to the bottom and winding it all the way in mimics fin bait such as mackerel or sardine. In trying to entice fish with squid-like movement, I work the lower water column. More jigging close to the bottom with short, slower runs up, and back down. When picked up on the fall, I quickly lift the rod as high as possible with my thumb firmly holding the spool and simultaneously put the reel in gear and wind down until the drags start to slip. When hit on the retrieve, I’ll just keep winding until the rod loads and line slips out, this is all the hook set you need.

There are a lot of jig manufacturers and confidence in brands and colors can be found on your own or through others success. My personal favorites that have brought me consistent results are Ironman Lures in number three and five and Salas Six X Jrs. Colors that have worked for me are blue and white, this color was all I used for the first few years I fished, and produced a lot of fish and confidence in this color like no other. I have also caught a lot of fish on brown, yellow and white jigs referred to as scrambled egg. This color best imitates squid. A few other colors I’d recommend would be glow-in-the-dark, all white, bleeding mackerel and purple and black.

There are plenty of deep dwelling by catch that will be caught in pursuit of the big one. Bring them up slow if you plan on a release. Otherwise, when in season, dinner can be saved with rockfish, as well as bass and sculpin. Every once in a while that strike you think is nothing of size will wake up and surprise you as it takes off across the bottom. Wind em up!