“Learning the Fine Points of This West Coast Jigging Technique Can Help You Take Game Fish in Any Ocean”
“In the middle of the night I heard ‘thumping’ on the deck of the Excel riding the anchor at Alijos Rocks,” says Dennis Braid of Braid Products International. “I got up to see some 40-pound-class yellowtail scattered around a handful of fishermen. They were gaffing their own fish as the crew caught up on their sleep.
“The wide-open bite came on the iron, as we hooked big yellows on nearly every drop. The trick was to free-spool a chrome jig to the bottom and retrieve it ‘yo-yo’ style, but more slowly than a daytime fast-retrieve would warrant.
“The yellows would follow the lures’ action and grab them halfway up. It was fun to use lighter 30- to 40-pound line for a change, since these fish would have rubbed us off on the rocks if we’d use this tackle during the day. After landing a few more trophy fish, we started releasing them at boatside,” says Braid.
One of the oldest methods for fishing artificials in deep water — the “yo-yo” — triggered and sustained this hot action. Understanding both the basics and the fine points of this technique adds a valuable weapon to most offshore anglers arsenals.
DO IT YO-YO STYLE
“We used old Dodger jigs back in the 1930s,” recalls historian and author of fishing history Ed Ries. “They were made with bronze and plated with what was called German silver, really a zinc-copper alloy or nickel. The heavy 4-inch lure had a scooped-out midsection, which made it flutter real good on the drop.
“After World War II, bronze was scarce, so chrome-plated pot metal was used. By the 1950’s the ‘candy-bar’ jigs similar to the jig shapes today became popular on the West Coast,” says Ries, referring to modern jigs such as Salas, Tady and Ironman (formerly UFO). These jigs typically measure 4 to 6 inches long and weigh from 4 to 8 ounces. (Jigs lighter than this are intended for surface work, not yo-yoing.) They’re somewhat tapered at the ends, bulging slightly toward the center, with one side flat and the other more rounded. This asymmetrical design creates an enticing side-to-side motion with a discernible “kick” upon retrieve, plus an erratic motion on the drop.
The yo-yo technique can be effective for many kinds of game fish in deep water or mid-depths, and that means the same basic technique may be used in many locations worldwide. Knowing two fundamental approaches to the technique is a good starting point; from there, experimentation will help determine the most effective presentation in differing circumstances.
DROP-AND-JIG OR DROP-AND-CRANK
One method involves free spooling the lure from an anchored or drifting boat until it hits bottom. Quickly reel in a few feet to clear any rock snags. With the reel in gear, work the lure up and down by raising and dropping the rod tip. This makes the jig “swim” up and flutter down enticingly, mimicking the action of spawning squid — one of the top forage species for yellowtail and many other game fish.
From a drifting boat, the depth of the lure must be checked constantly to keep clear of bottom structure yet kept low in the strike zone. This method is particularly effective for species such as amberjack, grouper, snapper and white seabass, which tend to stay deep and wait to ambush their food.
Aggressive game fish like California yellowtail, on the other hand, are genetically designed to chase down fast-moving prey. So method No. 2 takes advantage of that: After yo-yoing the bottom, you reel the lure back to the surface as fast as you can, cranking the handle like crazy until you see the lure (or get struck — whichever comes first). Drop it back and repeat the process until you get a strike.
Some species may hit right on the bottom or nail a jig as it comes up on a fast retrieve. When the skipper marks game fish on the sounder screen and yells out the depth, Braid advises anglers to drop their jigs at least 20 feet below that depth and, after yo-yoing up and down a few times, crank them in as fast as possible. “You can’t crank too fast for a yellowtail,” says Braid, and the same certainly applies to tuna, wahoo and other fast-moving species.
FINE POINTS OF TECHNIQUE
Jig fishermen, like experienced anglers everywhere, vary their techniques. Most anglers try the vertical drop first. On a vertical drop from an anchored boat, you can yo-yo at your own pace with less concern about snagging.
Casting out, on the other hand, can be a high-risk proposition, with more lures lost to rocks. Those who do cast, pitch their jigs out in a methodical fan pattern and yo-yo at an angle rather than vertically. With the line at an angle, the rod needs to be worked faster to keep the lure suspended and snag-free.
Casting makes most sense when at anchor; from a drifting boat there’s less need to cast since you’ll be covering new bottom as the wind and current move you. On a fast drift, jiggers commonly lose lures even with a quick, vertical drop and retrieve.
When yo-yoing, some anglers prefer short, abrupt and erratic jig motions produced by using short, heavy-action rods and quick arm motions. Others find that long, smooth, upward sweeps followed by a prolonged, fluttering descent produces more strikes on the drop. A longer rod of at least 8 feet in length works best for this approach because if offers a greater arc distance to pull the lure upward.
A good variation of the fast-retrieve method requires working the lure with an action similar to the standard straight-up-and-down motion, but with the angler reeling fast after each drop of the rod tip so the lure progresses toward the surface each time. This is also a good way to probe deep for fish under surface debris or kelp paddies when fish aren’t showing near the surface.
The amount of retrieve versus spacing of drops is another variable. One good pattern is to crank the reel handle 10 times. Stop with the rod tip pointed high, drop it and allow the lure to sink backward. Then resume another 10 cranks combined with an upward sweep of the rod as soon as the lure bottoms out and tugs on the line.
Some fishermen put small pieces of bait on their jigs. For example, along the Baja coastline where jigging is particularly popular, jigs may be tossed out with a strip of squid, mackerel or other bait. That added attractant can increase hookups with a great variety of game fish that feed near bottom. Faster predators such as wahoo and yellowtail that feed more by sight than scent respond better to non-baited jigs because bait can slow or hamper a jig’s action.
YO-YO TACKLE AND GEAR
Most yo-yo jiggers fish 25- to 50-pound line, tying an 80- to 100-pound leader directly to their line with an Albright, surgeon or Roddy Hays knot to help shield from abrasion against rocks. Lighter lines can be doubled with a bimini twist to provide a 2- to 4-foot shock section above the leader. Heavier line and gear are called for when yo-yoing because you’re often working deeper, darker depths and you may need to pull fish away from structure.
Some prefer to yo-yo with a 12-inch single-strand wire leader connected to a split or welded ring by a haywire twist, particularly when targeting wahoo or other toothy species. The running or main line is then tied to the ring while the lure is attached with a snap swivel on the opposite end.
Popular bottom jigs in Southern California include the Salas 6X and 6X Junior, Ironman 5 and Tady A-1 or 9. Most long-range boat crews recommend single over treble hooks because single hooks hold better during prolonged battles with tough fish such as yellowtail. Lure color might be important to some anglers but not as much with the pros. Still, it’s no secret that blue/white, blue/chrome, green/yellow, all-white and all-chrome are the best sellers.
For big fish around structure you need somewhat heavier tackle with a good drag system. Shimano has been the long-range fleet standard among jiggers; other brands with reels of comparable quality also do the job well. Lever-drag reels can be used right out of the box, without customization. A good combination I use is a Shimano TLD 20 or 30 two-speed spooled with 40- or 50-pound line, matched with a Calstar 6465 or 6460 rod.
According to Capt. Art Taylor of the Searcher, the new breed of two-speed reels is a big factor in landing fish. “They’ve made big yellowtail fishing much more productive — probably two to one over a single-speed reel,” says Taylor, largely because the low gear makes a big difference if you need to power a big fish away from rocks.
However, when it comes to minimal jigging and maximum retrieving, many Baja regulars have opted for the lighter Penn 545 or 113 HL (4/0) with fast gear ratios and spooled with 25- to 40-pound line. A popular customized jigging reel is the Yellowtail Special, a Penn 4/0 converted with a narrow Accurate Conversion Kit. These can be purchased in their converted form in most San Diego tackle shops.
Whatever tackle you choose, if you can get one of these long, narrow metal jigs in front of fish and get it moving, the odds are good you’ll find out why yo-yo fishing endures. It’s truly universal; I travel the world to fish and always pack a half-dozen heavy jigs whether heading to Panama, Alaska or Australia.
Deep-jigging the seaward edges of coral reefs, seamounts and rocky headlands is a great way to explore habitat while catching just about every good-size predator from bottom to top that can’t resist a yo-yo’d jig.
WHEN/WHERE TO TARGET BIG YELLOWTAIL ON JIGS
Perhaps no game fish in the world attracts so much attention from anglers tossing big metal jigs as California yellowtail. These coastal, schooling fish are fast, powerful swimmers, and their feeding habits make them ideal game fish for yo-yo enthusiasts. A temperate-water species, yellowtail prefer a 56- to 72-degree temperature band.
Most yellowtail spawn during the summer months from June to September. Adults move offshore to form spawning aggregations, which can be located in association with free-floating kelp paddies or by using sonar in open water. Divers have reported California yellowtail estimated at over 100 pounds at Alijos Rocks off the central Pacific Coast of Baja where several 70-pound class fish have been landed, including the 79-pound, 4-ounce IGFA all-tackle record caught on July 2,1991, by Robert I. Welker. The average central Baja yellowtail, of course, weighs much less, but even average fish are tough enough to test an angler's skills.
With charter and long-range boats from 50 feet to over 120 feet in length, San Diego's sport-fishing fleet can offer opportunities to work jigs on trips varying from half-day local boats to 23-day long-range expeditions. For yellowtail action, anglers generally choose one- to 12-day trips because these work the Baja coastline and offshore islands that yellowtail prefer. Trips of longer duration usually locus on yellowfin tuna and wahoo.
Four fleets operate from San Diego Bay:
Fisherman's Landing, 619-221-8500
H&M Landing, 619-222-1144
Point Loma Sportfishing, 619-223-1626
Lee Palms' Sportfishers, 619-224-3857
Each landing offers open party trips (buy a ticket and board) and charter trips (reserved in advance and usually with a limited number of passengers). Any landing will send brochures, tackle lists and all of the information you need, such as landing location maps, reservation deposit requirements, permits and licenses to fish for yellowtail in California or Mexican waters.
Also, you can make reservations directly with several boats:
Royal Star, 619-224-4764
Royal Polaris, 619-226-8030
The fleets share the same waterfront at Point Loma along Scott Street between Emerson Street and North Harbor Drive, about a 10-minute drive from San Diego's Lindbergh International Airport.
Among many charter and specialty trips in these fleets' annual schedules, a trip that promises plenty of opportunity to yo-yo jigs is scheduled for June 27 to July 5 with Dennis Braid hosting a "Yellowtail Special" aboard Capt. Pat Cavanaugh's 123-foot Excel. They'll tap most of the hot spots of mid-Baja. Reservations and information can be obtained by calling 805-266-9792 or faxing 805-266-9849.
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The Roving Angler