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Spring Time Kayak Fishing For Yellowtail

A Kayaker's Tactical Approach to Springtime Yellowtail
by Andy Allen

I'm really not certain if the term "sleigh ride"; was coined when recounting the adventurous event shortly after the first kayak angler hooked into a yellowtail, but that's where I would lay my money. What other SoCal 20-lb. class game fish is capable of quickly diminishing your spool of line? This relentless adversary then tows you and your "sled" over great distances, only to be finalized with a vertical slug-out. The California yellowtail is the brute of all inshore species.

Many variables affect when these pelagics will arrive in our waters, as well as in what numbers and where they will set up shop. Most of these schools winter in the waters off central Baja, traveling several hundred miles. Warming water, water quality and an abundance of forage will bring them to the areas surrounding our inshore kelp beds and hold them there through the summer.

Springtime pursuit of these stubborn, fighting jacks usually consists of slow-trolling live bait while searching for visible signs of surfacing fish. This commences by making bait. Mackerel, both greenbacks and Spanish, sardines and even smelt will do. The Pacific greenback is a prime yellowtail bait and remember, there is no bait too large for that big game fish. Schools of fish can run anywhere between 5 and 40 lbs. with 20-lb. fish a good year's average. Once baited up, stalk close to the kelp line, or work your way along the deep bluewater drop-offs, constantly scanning the waters for signs of activity.

When fish are holding very tight to the kelp, the use of spectra with a short top-shot of mono has turned many potential heartbreakers into stories of success. The strength and rougher texture of braid will cut through the kelp strands, pulling the fish - likely lost otherwise - out of harm's way.
Trolling a single, fly-lined bait keeps it simple. If two lines are trolled, running one long and one short will avoid tangles. Instead of nose-hooking the longer run bait, try hooking it through the back of the head. Doing so forces the mackerel's head down, causing it to swim deeper. This further aids in avoiding lines getting crossed, as well as putting one bait farther down in the water column. This also keeps your connections simple with one knot to the hook and no added weight.

The shorter line can be run very close to the stern. It's hard to believe how close it will get bit by these sometimes skittish, yet always curious fish. Keeping this bait close, combined with rigging it on a longer 8-foot rod, makes it possible to be retrieved and pitched when encountering visible fish.
There are three basic types of visible surface fish: puddlers, breezers and boiling fish.
Puddlers are game fish lazily milling just below the surface, slowly kicking their tails. From a distance, these can easily be mistaken for surface-feeding baitfish. The very tips of their dorsal fins and tails intermittently breaking the swirling surface is usually all that is seen. The stealth of the kayak can put you within easy casting range of puddling fish. Sneaking in and lobbing a nose-hooked bait in front of a yellowtail has to compare to the yacht sliding up and baiting a tailing marlin. Sometimes that one or two fish you thought you saw can turn out to be a whole lot more.

Just as your bait hits the water and turns to run, the water explodes, as this hungry school vies for breakfast. The only real winner here is just above the surface with a bent rod and a racing heart, although the crafty yellow may turn the tables and break you off. Swimbaits can be very effective on puddlers, as well as most plugs used for trolling. Surface irons can spook these fish as the iron hits the water. Long casts well beyond the fish quickly retrieved just in front of the puddling fish should evoke the right response.
Breezers are fish that are on the move. Schools swim shoulder to shoulder, so close to the surface that faster-moving fish push the water in such a way they create a wake. Slower-moving fish cause a rippling, as their tails stir the water. Sometimes the fish themselves, below the water, are all that is seen.

These fish can be the source of great frustration, for as quickly as they are seen they can be gone. Usually there is only the opportunity for a single cast. Many times, the side-to-side swimming action of even the most perfectly cast surface iron seems to go unanswered. This is when that short bait on the long rod can earn its keep.
Boiling fish are pushing bait to the surface in a feeding frenzy. Birds fly overhead, reeling and diving, capitalizing on the distracted forage below. There is a common characteristic that makes these bird schools easily identifiable. Yellows seem to attack baitballs so ravenously that the bait is quickly scattered and then regrouped. The birds above tell the story of what is going on below.

These are the ideal fish to throw that surface iron at. A designated, long, 8- to 9-foot rod will give noticeable casting distance over shorter rods. This rig can also double for trolling duty, as most surface irons create great action at the kayak trolling speed. Casting this one or more times prior to seeing any fish will wet the line allowing better distance and accuracy when it counts.
Occasionally, hitting these fish on the head will put an immediate bend in your rod, but the ideal cast lands beyond the fish and is brought back, right through the mayhem. Where you put the jig is far more important than what you choose to throw. If you are making perfect casts and they are going untouched with fish following your jig back to the boat, it's time to throw something else. A smaller profile jig or swimbait may be what they want, or dropping down to deeper fish below may find you a willing biter. Chasing forming bird schools or running and gunning on your small-caliber fishing platform can provide an extreme adrenaline-filled workout.

Typically, early arrivals of these fish can be all show and no go, but as they settle in, the odds of getting bit just keep going up. The kelp beds that line the southern coast are prime fishing grounds to go in search of this fork-tailed fighter, and many are ideal kayak destinations with very little fishing pressure.
Get out there in search of your fish, but don't forget to eat your Wheaties. You will likely need them for chasing these fast-moving fish and hopefully bringing one to the kayak and home for dinner.