All About Yellowtail
In these fish-specific pages, I’ll try to give you all sorts of insights into the specific fish we’re discussing to increase your chances of being successful in catching them.
Few Southern California anglers would disagree that except for the far offshore species like billfish and tuna, Yellowtail is the premier game fish of Southern California. The combination of power and aggressive fight along with the excellent table fare of the Yellowtail makes it the most desired fish in these waters.
Yellowtail (Seriola lalandei) are members of the Jack family and are sometimes also called Amberjacks, though that name actually belongs to another member of the jacks. In Australia and New Zealand, the term kingfish is used for these fish. Along the Pacific coast, Yellowtail range from Southern California all the way south to Chile and on the other side of the Pacific, from New Zealand north to Japan. They can grow to 80 pounds (100 lbs. on the other side of the Pacific – like the one on the left from New Zealand) but are very rare over about 40 lbs. In the 1960’s an annual Yellowtail Derby was held by the main sportfishing landings in San Diego. The biggest fish of the season could win the lucky angler a new car. Typically, the grand prize for the season was a fish in the 40 to 45 lb. class.
Yellowtail are truly handsome, fast, and powerful. After herding bait into tight balls, they sweep through schools of squid, mackerel, or anchovies with ferocity, gorging themselves on their prey. When they strike a fly or lure, the angler knows it instantly and they follow the first vicious strike with punishing, deep diving runs, only yielding when exhausted. The angler’s gear and technique needs to be in top form to land these wily creatures. The first yellowtail I’d ever seen hooked on a fly, about an eight pounder, hit a blue and white streamer fly on a 10-weight graphite rod with 30 lb. tippet (some say enough stick for sail fish). The angler, the editor of a fly fishing magazine and no slouch at fly fishing for big fish, had no chance in stopping the fish’s first run. That ‘tail ran immediately for the kelp paddy we were fishing near, balled the line around the kelp strands and snapped the line like it wasn’t even there.
The Yellowtail populations went into serious decline throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s. This was due, in no small part, to the decline in the kelp forests from over harvesting. In addition, commercial gill net fishermen followed the kelp cutter ships and set their nets directly into the recently cleared waters killing all of the fish, juvenile and adult alike. In the 1980’s, Yellowtail fishing in California was an unpredictable affair, restricted to San Clemente Island, far offshore, and the Coronado Islands, just across the Mexican Border and off limits to American commercial fishermen.
With the banning of gill nets, the cessation of kelp harvesting and some early and strong El Nino years (years when the water temperature is warmer than usual), Yellowtail have staged a remarkable comeback in the 1990’s. Sport fishing harvests in the late 90’s have been the highest in 30 years and this magnificent predator is now a staple of the sport fishing industry.
Typically, in early spring when the water temperature rises above about 62 degrees, Yellowtail arrive in Southern California from Mexico in search of schools of squid. They winter far down the Baja coast in deep reefs. They feed throughout the summer as far North as the Santa Barbara coastline but seem to prefer the offshore islands. By October, they begin working themselves South and usually seem to disappear during the winter. However, there are home guard Yellowtail who chose to spend the entire year in California, presumably to take advantage of the winter squid spawn, as evidenced by catches all winter.
Yellowtail take just about any type of bait or lure. You can catch on trolling feathers while trolling past kelp beds or floating paddies that break loose from the main body of kelp. You can catch them with blue & white, green & yellow, squid purple, or “pissed off squid” mottled black bone jigs. They’ll strike a rubber swim bait, especially when fished deep, in brown herring, blue shad, green sparkle or root beer colors. They’ll hit an anchovy, a sardine or perhaps their favorite food, live squid. I’ve even caught one on a piece of cut squid when fly-lining for calico bass near the kelp beds. In addition, any fly imitating any of these bait fish can be used to fool yellowtail, particularly when frenziedly feeding on chum.
Yellowtail may be prepared in a variety of ways. Filleting is probably the best, though some like to steak the fish. The collar is one of the finest eating parts of the fish, as are the bellies. On a six pack trip a few years ago, I had the deck hand save all the collars and bellies from all the yellowtail we caught (several dozen), then took them home and smoked them and had a big party for the people from the boat and their spouses. Everyone raved at how good the parts they normally threw away were. The roe of Yellowtail are also very good eating as are the heads, if you like that sort of thing.
One of the reasons Yellowtail are so esteemed by fishermen is partly for their fight and partly for their delicious flavor. Yellowtail are an oily white meat fish that may be grilled, broiled, baked, sauted poached, or smoked, all with exceptional results. It’s not ideal for frying, though, since it tends to trap in the fish’s own oil. As with most fish, yellowtail are best when very fresh. Very fresh Yellowtail make excellent sashimi, also. so don’t miss out on this taste sensation if you’re a raw fish fan. Just ice it down and slice it up for some melt-in-your-mouth flavor. Yellowtail keep well frozen, too, especially when vacuum packed.