The surface of Santa Monica Bay lay as flat as a pancake on this clear and quiet morning in late November. As the autumn sun rose, sea birds began to flitter and swoop, and 50 yards ahead of our boat, a raucous school of California yellowtail exploded in a spray of white water and sardines.
We raced to the scene, slid to a stop and dropped heavy metal jigs below the birds, letting the lures sink 100 feet before putting the reels in gear. All three of us aboard began to wind furiously, and within seconds we all hooked up, rods bent double, arms straining, line melting off the reels, each of us whooping in the delight of a triple on yellows.
Up and Down
This is “yo-yo iron” fishing at its best. Off Southern California in fall, it is often the most effective method for hooking yellowtail — powerful, prized, delicious and beautifully marked members of the amberjack family that reach 30 to 40 pounds along this coast and around the offshore islands.
Yo-yo fishing is so named because you simply drop the jig straight down and reel it back up — like a yo-yo. Surprisingly, it works particularly well when you see yellows feeding at the surface. Most of time it works better than any other method. For reasons not clearly understood, the surface feeders are often less likely to respond to a surface lure or fly-lined live bait, leaving uninformed anglers frustrated and fishless.
Observations of captive yellowtail might offer clues as to why a vertically retrieved jig works well. Once yellows begin feeding, they swim up and down the water column, charging up from below, then returning to depth before rocketing back to the surface to attack again. For anglers who know these secrets, the bite can prove, in the words of young California anglers, “stupid good.”
Bird’s the Word
Wheeling, diving terns are the tipoff to rampaging yellowtail, so 7x50 binoculars are helpful to scan for birds. The bite doesn’t always develop at the same time every day, so sometimes you need to hang in an area, anticipating the incoming fish. Some anglers troll deep-diving plugs while scanning the depths with fish finders and looking for feeding birds above the water.
While reading your fish finder, look for schools of bait, and if these have larger fish patrolling underneath, stop and drop a jig. You might have just found yellowtail without the aid of the birds. Don’t dismiss one or two terns flittering high above the water. This indicates the birds have spotted a school of bait being driven to the surface by yellows, and are waiting for them to ascend within striking distance. If the birds are suddenly joined by several others, it’s a sure sign the yellows are poised to erupt.
You also might see the yellowtail themselves, or at least the result of their thunderous feeding behavior. Yellows tear into schools of baitfish from below, then turn and dive, their powerful forked tails pounding the surface to a froth.