This is a basic blog about my fishing adventures in California. Be sure to also check out my Yellowtail specific article here.

How to Catch Yellowtail in California

Yellowtail are one of the best game fish along the Southern California ( also known as SoCal ) coast. They are often confused with the Yellowfin Tuna, but the Yellowtail are actually from the Jack family. In California they rarely get larger than 50 lbs with most in the 15-30 pound range. The summer around Catalina typically brings in a lot of 8 to 15 lb fish as well. This saltwater fish is great table fare if kept fresh, often found in sushi restaurants by the name of Hamachi.

yellowtail fish in kelp

The Range of Yellowtail in California

The fish rarely make it above Point Conception north of Santa Barbara, but they do occasionally. Most of the fish are found between the northern Channel Islands such as Anacapa and Santa Cruz, down through Catalina and the California coast to San Diego and San Clemente. Of course the fish also extend down into Mexico waters, but that's a whole extra topic.

Where to Find Yellowtail in California - Water Features

The Yellowtail is typically a coastal fish. The fish will be found from 10-20 fathoms typically. In the winter, fishing deeper over rocky hard bottoms is common between 20-50 fathoms. Common winter haunts are Box Canyon between Dana Point and Oceanside. The fish will typically and almost always inhabit reef areas, often where there are giant kelp forests. During summer months, Yellowtail can be found offshore from the coastal areas under large floating kelp paddies. A lot of times hundreds of 'rat' Yellowtail (another term for baby Yellowtail) will occupy the paddy with some larger specimens slightly deeper.  This offshore fishing is a completely different tactic than the coastal fishing.

Yellowtail Structure

In coastal and island fishing, Yellowtail will relate to structure - reefs, ledges, kelp, etc. The fish will be found on the up-current side of the reef, facing into the current, waiting for food to drift down. It can be helpful to anchor just outside the reef and allow the bait / lures to drift back into the feeding fish. While anchored, chumming is very effective.

Motoring around a known good area while slow trolling and watching the meter will reveal specific spots that are holding fish as well. Keeping an eye out for birds and bait, water clarity and current will all be key to finding Yellowtail.

Yellowtail Water Temperature

Yellowtail often like water a little warmer, but not quite as warm as some of the exotic species like Dorado. Yellowtail can live in water into the high 50s, but typically they prefer 64-72 degree water. This is more common during the summer months off the coast of California. As the water warms, the fish become more active and come up in the water column from their deep winter haunts. Yellowtail also migrate with the water temperatures, spending a lot of the winter south of the Mexico border and traveling up into California during the late spring and early summer. Some Yellowtail, referred to as 'homeguards', don't migrate and instead live year-round off the California coast, often times at the coastal islands. These homeguards are often tougher and larger as they have survived many seasons and stick around through the sometimes harsh winter. 

Yellowtail Water Clarity and Current

Yellowtail often prefer clean water. It doesn't have to be crystal clear, but dirty winter water is not preferred. More important than water clarity is the water temperature, as mentioned above, and water movement, or current. Current is probably the single most important thing to find when looking for coastal Yellowtail. If there is no current, there will be no fish. Find some solid and strong current and fish will be around. Current creates more water movement, which brings up food from the depths when it runs into underwater reefs and pinnacles. This in turn attracts bait fish which attract Yellowtail. Think about it, the more current, the more 'fresh' water that is being circulated creating a better environment for the fish (rather than stale stagnant water). Reading current is an art in itself, but sometimes it is obvious.
  • Look at the direction the kelp is laying / being pulled. The stronger the current, the more the kelp will be pulled down and sideways. 
  • Try anchoring the boat and then observe which way the current pushes the boat. Typically, the current is like the wind, and the bow of the boat will be pointing in the direction the current is coming from. The strength of the current can be determined by the amount of wake coming off the boat while anchored. True 'water speed' can be measured at this point with the boat engines off as the moving water going under the boat creates the illusion that the boat is moving.
  • Put a piece of squid on a dropper loop and lower it slightly underwater. View which way the squid is being pulled.

Yellowtail at the Squid Grounds

Yellowtail love squid! The common market squid in California is a major staple of food for many fish. Squid build nests on muddy/sandy bottoms in roughly 60 to 200 feet. When this nest is built and the squid spawn happens, the fish come around and gorge themselves on spawned out squid. These areas can be a few thousand square feet in area and even larger. Finding these nests / squid areas can be a sure way to find fish. Squid will usually appear as 'blue fuzz' on most sonars. Another common sign is if big light boats have been in the area indicating a squid nest is nearby. It is unfortunate when the commercial squid boats come through and wipe out most of the squid, meaning the fish will move on. Fishing the squid grounds for Yellowtail is typically done on the anchor, being conscious to stay over the nest. Some fishermen like to anchor on the edge of the nest to present their baits as the first ones as fish move into the area. Common techniques to fishing squid grounds are the dropper loop and flylining. Heavy irons in a squid color can also work well. 

Yellowtail Seasons

  • Winter - The Yellowtail migrate south into warmer Mexico waters. Some fish can be found in California, usually in deep water between 180-280 feet deep. This will require a dropper loop approach or YoYo iron.
  • Spring - Yellowtail are typically still deeper and caught on the dropper loop or YoYo iron. Fish are feeding on squid where available. Fish slowly will start to come up as the water warms to 65+.
  • Summer - The squid is gone and the fin bait has moved in. Fish are feeding more aggressively in the upper water column on mackerel and sardines. Fish can be found in water from 60 to 120 feet deep near the island. Fish are common under bird flocks at the Coronado Islands. 
  • Fall - Typically same tactics as summer but the fish will start to retreat in late fall as the water temperatures drop.

Yellowtail on the Sonar / Meter / Fishfinder

There are two ways to find Yellowtail
  1. Looking at the sonar when the fish are deeper
  2. Looking for boils on the surface of the water along with dipping birds (terns)
Because Yellowtail travel in schools, they are observed looking almost like a pack of 'worms' on the fish finder. See some example screenshots below:

Yellowtail Fishing Tactics and Rigs

The Yellowtail can be caught with many different tactics and rigs. However, each rig has a time and a place and will be more effective than the others based on the conditions.
  • Dropper Loop 
  • Flylining Bait
  • Surface Iron
  • Yo-Yo Iron
  • Trolling 

Bait for Yellowtail Fishing 

Yellowtail love squid which can also be referred to as squish and candy bait. Once the waters really warm, the squid will disappear and fin bait will move in. Fin bait includes all the baitfish like anchovy, sardines and mackerel. Fin bait can be fished either fly lining or on the dropper loop. It is common to see commotion on the surface, baitfish breaking the water, being chased by Yellowtail. This attracts the interest of birds in the area, which are typically a sure sign there is some feeding Yellowtail in the area. Mackerel seem to be the favored fin bait by Yellowtail, don't be afraid to pin on a big 12" mac and hang on!

The Dropper Loop Bait Rig

This rig is the easiest and most common way to fish Yellowtail in the lower water column (typically in winter and early spring). Squid and fin bait can be used. Squid and live mackerel or sardines is the most common. This rig consists of a 6 to 12 oz torpedo sinker tied to the bottom of the line with a hook connected to a loop roughly 4 to 6 feet above. The typical dropper loop knot is not considered strong enough so the spider hitch knot is recommended. Some people use 3 way swivels. Lower the rig down to the bottom and wait.  Often people may fish with these rods in the rod holders.

The Author with a 20+ class Yellowtail caught on the Coast of California with a Live Mackerel on a Dropper Loop in roughly 65 feet of water. The fish was found on the meter and the area had recently been producing.

Flyline Bait Rig

This rig is the easiest and most common way to fish Yellowtail in the upper water column (typically in summer and fall). Fin bait is the most popular over squid because that is the bait available in the summer and fall. The best fin bait will be mackerel with sardines a close second. With sardines a lot of by-catch, or fish you are not targeting, will bite your bait, such as barracuda, bonito, calicos and more.

The terminal tackle used should be adjusted to the conditions.

  • Hooks - Adjust to the size of the bait. Small sardines use a smaller hook (such as #1 or 1/0), large mackerel use a larger hook (such as a 4/0)
  • Line - If known smaller fish are in the area, use 15 or 20lb fluoro. When using bigger mackerel for bait and bigger yellowtail are in the area, use 25-40lb fluoro. At times when baits are not getting bit, downsizing the line rating may help.
  • Weight - At times sliding egg singers are used above the hook to bring the bait down in the water column. Common sizes are 1/4 to 3/4oz.  An alternative when using squid is to use a leadhead instead of an egg sinker.
Let the bait run free, continuing to take line off the reel as you flyline. Keep in constant contact with the bait. A lot of slack line is bad. When the line speeds up and a fish has the bait, count slowly to 3 while letting the fish run before setting the hook. To set the hook, click the reel into gear and wind tight.

Slow Trolling Live Bait

This is considered to be a very effective tactic to cover a lot of ground. While trolling, it is important to watch the sonar / meter / fishfinder for heavy concentrations of fish. Also keep an eye out for bird activity. If a specific spot has any of these signs, it may be worth stopping and fishing stationary.

Slow trolling is typically effective in the summer and fall when the fish are in the upper water column. Slow trolling means slow, .5 to 1.5mph. Go as slow as the boat will go, typically just a bump out of gear. The live bait, either a mackerel or sardine, should be nose hooked crosswise because they will be following the boat. Let the line out a decent distance from the boat. Be sure to keep the drag set just tight enough to hold the bait but allow a fish to take line. This is best done with a lever drag reel. If the fish are slightly deeper, an egg sinker can be used in front of a swivel and a 3 foot leader to bring the bait down in the water column. Line diameter can come into play if the fish are picky. Try dropping one rod down to 20lb fluoro and see if that rod gets bit more than the others.

Best areas for slow trolling are going to be along rocky points, kelp lines and reefs often found at the local islands. Slow trolling at the 150 spot near Long Beach has been very effective as well.

Yellowtail Fishing Lures

The theory is that a large majority of Yellowtail would rather eat a live natural bait such as a squid or sardine. However, if the fish are aggressively feeding and the bite is wide open, the fish will also hit lures. 

Surface Iron Fishing for Yellowtail

Fishing a surface iron such as the Tady 45 in the middle of birds diving on crashing fish is considered one of the most exciting and favorite ways to fish by most southern California fishermen. Favorite colors include mint/white, blue/white and scrambled egg. Cast out past or into the crash fish and use a steady retrieve of the surface iron. Good surface irons will 'swim' with an attractive motion, often with a little kick. Choosing a good swimming surface iron could be the difference between catching and not catching. Ask the tackle shop to help select a probable good swimming iron if you aren't sure. This technique is typically used in the summer and fall months when the water is warmer (64F and higher) and the fish are up near the surface chasing bait. Often this is called 'running and gunning', driving the boat around from bird flock to bird flock, chasing the fish.

The Author with a Yellowtail caught at the Channel Islands with a Scrambled Egg Tady 45 surface iron. A steady retrieve was used.

Yo-Yo Iron Fishing for Yellowtail

Fishing a heavy iron, typically 4-6 ounces, near the bottom is a technique referred to as Yo-Yo'ing. Drop the heavy iron to the bottom in the area where fish have shown up on the sonar. Once the bottom has been reached, start retrieving the iron as fast as possible. The iron swimming / shooting up in the water column is sure to attract the attention of a Yellowtail that is quick to strike. Typically most of the bites occur in the lower section of the water column so some anglers choose not to retrieve all the way to the surface before dropping the iron back down. This retrieving and dropping is where the name Yo-Yo came from. This technique is typically most effective in the late fall / early spring when the fish have moved deeper.

The most common irons for this are the Salas 6x Jr and Salas 6x. Popular colors are Scrambled Egg, Blue/White and anything orange/red during Red Tuna Crab years. Adjust the size based on the current and depth.

Trolling Lures for Yellowtail

This is similar to slow trolling live bait but with a lure resembling a bait instead. The common lure is a Rapala Magnum XRAP 30 in mackerel pattern. These are the biggest ones out there and dive to 30 feet. The XRAP 15 can also be used for a shallower approach. Speeds vary, try between 2-6 knots, checking the lure alongside the boat for the best action.

It isn't typically common to troll conventional tuna feathers or cedar plugs for Yellowtail, although occasionally fish are caught on these. 

Known Yellowtail Spots

There are some well known spots that yellowtail seem to congregate. A lot of these spots are seasonal and hold more fish during certain periods of the year.
  • Northern Channel Islands - Santa Cruz and Anacapa can have good Yellowtail bites at times.
  • Malibu Coast - A few spots near Point Dume can be active when there is squid around.
  • Long Beach - The 150 spot near the oil rigs has some rocky areas the fish like to congregate. This spot was active for many months during the El Nino of 2015.
  • Catalina - Fish will typically be all around the island, with the best fishing in the summer and fall. Follow the 15 fathom line around the island.
  • Box Canyon - South of Dana Point, this area can produce well in the winter and spring when the fish are deeper
  • La Jolla - There are always some yellowtail hanging around here with the deep canyon nearby.
  • Coronado Islands - One of the better known spots where lots of yellows can be caught when the bite is on.
  • San Clemente Island - Another popular island, however, 60 miles offshore.

Preparing Yellowtail for Eating

The single most important thing to do once a Yellowtail is caught is to bleed the fish. Letting all the blood out will not allow it to get into the meat. To bleed the fish, take a knife or pliers and cut a couple gill plates on each side of the fish immediately after catching. Point the fish head down inside of a bucket filled with fresh saltwater while it bleeds. The water helps draw out the blood.

The second most important thing is to put the fish on ice. Bringing at least 75lbs of ice on a trip in a kill bag is required.

Yellowtail is often served raw as sushi. Others may like to lightly BBQ it. The collar is favored by many.

Yellowtail Conservation

The Yellowtail are some of the best fighting fish in California pound for pound. Future generations will surely want to catch these fish. California currently has a 10 fish limit, with only 5 of the fish allowed to be below 24 inches.

A lot of sport boats keep 'rats', another name for small 1-5lb Yellowtail. In order to ensure a solid fishery for years to come, think about releasing smaller Yellowtail to let them grow up to be a 40lb fish that everyone wants to catch.


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