Captain Frank LoPreste, owner of the Royal Polaris, and LoPreste’s first Captain; Steve Loomis, divide yellowtail into two distinct groups: Baja and Southern California . “There are more fish in Baja waters and they are bigger, stronger, easier to hook, but harder to land than local fish,” says LoPreste. “Down south we routinely fish in 90 to 300 feet of water with 80-pound line and yo-yo heavy jigs, or soak live bait or chunk bait to get bit. In Southern California , the fish are more seasonal and require more light-tackle techniques, such as flylining (live bait fishing with no sinker) with small hooks and light line to get bit because the fish are so touchy.”
Captain Loomis recommends the mid-range, 10-day charter trips that work prime areas, such as Alijos Rocks, to find trophy yellowtail. “But be prepared to fish the bottom because that’s where the fish will be. Yo-yoing iron (metal) jigs is a proven fish-getter,” says Loomis.
According to saltwater fishing historian Ed Ries, the term “yo-yo” originated from the motion associated with the old yo-yo toy that would spin up and down on a string wound tightly between two wooden discs about the size of a hockey puck. By flipping the toy downward from a finger loop of string, with proper hand movement, a skilled player could make the toy perform for hours. Imagine a metal lure gyrating near the sea bottom from a rod being jerked up and down and you’ll get the picture.
“We used old Dodger jigs back in the 1930s,” says Ries. “They were made with bronze and plated with what was called German silver, which was really a zinc-copper alloy or nickel. The heavy, 4-inch lure had a scooped out mid-section which made it flutter real good on the drop. After World War II, bronze was scarce, so chromeplated pot metal was used. By the 1950s, the “candybar” type jigs similar to the jig shapes today became popular.”
The yo-yo technique is relatively simple, involving two methods and many subtle variations. Anglers need to experiment to determine the most effective presentation at the moment. One method is to free-spool 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. The jig will “swim” up and flutter down enticingly, with the motion of the rod which mimics the action of spawning squid, one of the top forage species for yellowtail. When fishing from a drifting boat, it’s important to adjust lure depth so the lure stays clear of the bottom structure, yet is kept low in the strike zone.
Since the strike zone can vary depending on where the fish are suspending in the water column, the second method comes into play. After yo-yoing the bottom, reel the lure back to the surface as fast as you can crank the handle, until you see the lure. Drop it back and start over, until you get a strike. Yellowtail may hit right on the bottom or on the retrieve. For both methods, pressure the fish to the max, after the hookup, to reduce cutoffs from bottom structure.
Experienced anglers vary their techniques. Some will cast away from the boat in a methodical fan pattern and yo-yo at an angle, rather than vertically. Most anglers will try the vertical drop first, before casting outward, since the latter is a higher-risk proposition, with more lures lost to the rocks. With the line at an angle, the rod needs to be worked faster to keep the lure suspended and snag-free. On a vertical drop from an anchored boat, you can yo-yo at your own pace with less concern about the bottom. From a drifting boat, there is little need to cast, since you will be covering new bottom wherever the wind and current takes you. On a fast drift, it is especially common to lose more lures even on a quick, vertical drop and retrieve.
When yo-yoing, some anglers prefer short, abrupt and erratic jig motions which are produced by using shorter, heavy-action rods and quicker arm motions. Others find that long, smooth, upward sweeps followed by a prolonged, fluttering descent produces more strikes on the “drop”. A longer rod exceeding 8 feet in length is best for this style, because it will have a greater arc distance to pull the lure upward than a short rod.
A good variation of the yo-yo fast retrieve method is to “sweep” the lure back to the boat, rather than using a straight retrieve. This is also a good way to probe deep for fish under local kelp paddies, when fish aren’t showing near the surface. This is basically a continuation of the standard up and down motion, but with the angler reeling fast after each drop of the rod tip so that the lure progresses toward the -surface each time. The amount of retrieve vs. spacing of drops is another variable. A good pattern is to crank the reel handle 10 times, stop with the rod tip pointed high, drop the rod tip, allowing the lure to sink backward, and resume another 10 cranks combined with an upward sweep of the rod as I soon as the lure tugs on the line, as the lure bottoms out.
Live and cut bait are standards on boats fishing the Baja coastline and islands. Lure and bait fishermen will often share the rail and switch methods, depending on what is working best. Some anglers choose to add squid, mackerel or other bait strips to a jig hook for added attraction, how-ever, the lure will lose much of its good 2 action and more hookups will occur with whitefish, sheephead and other bottom dwellers, as they are attracted by the scent.
Rigging a lure is as simple as tying it to the end of 40- to 80-pound line. Lighter lines can be doubled with a Bimim twist to provide a 2- to 4 foot shock section to help withstand the cutting edges of rocks. An 80- to 100 pound leader can also be easily tied directly to 40-pound class line with an Albright, Surgeons or Roddy Hays knot. Some anglers prefer a 12-inch, single-strand wire leader connected via a Haywire Twist to an action ring. The main line is then tied to the ring while the lure is also attached with a Haywire Twist on the opposite end.
You can use heavier line and gear when yo-yoing, because you are working deeper, darker depths and you need to pull fish away from structure. The Salas 6X Junior, and Tady AA or 9 are good bottom jigs. Most Baja crews will recommend single over treble hooks, because the single hooks have better holding qualities during battle. Lure color might be important to anglers, but not so with skippers. According to Captain Loomis, lure color doesn’t seem to make much difference.
“Just a dull lead color is good,” says Loomis. “The one in your tackle box that’s been there for years with all the paint rubbed off, could be hot and it’s probably the last one most anglers would pick up.” Even so, popular colors among many fishermen are blue/white, chrome, and blue/chrome for yo-yoing.
According to Captain Art Taylor of the Searcher, the new breed of two-speed reels is a big factor in landing fish. “They have made big yellowtail fishing much more productive, probably two to one over a single-speed reel,” says Taylor .
Most Baja skippers concur that it’s important to get the rod fitted to your body dimensions, especially height and arm length, because all of the fighting is done “stand-up style.” You won’t find a fighting chair on a boat around here so it’s very important to have the reelseat in a location that’s easy to reach when propped in a fighting belt and optional harness. Shorter, 5-foot 6-inch, to 6-foot rods, with powerful tips, are favored when fishing for big yellowtail. “The stiff action is needed to set the hook in a big yellowtail. With a lighter outfit and a soft tip, it’s harder to get the hook into the fish,” explains Taylor .
Observing yellowtail behavior and knowing their preferred habitat pays off for hard working captains such as Taylor .
“Yellowtail are ‘structure’ fish and that’s where the focus is among skippers,” says Taylor . “Yellowtail are usually caught in good numbers in only a few spots. In heavily-fished waters, it’s a very competitive sport. It’s hard. You could be somewhere at the wrong time of day. We usually go where we have gotten them before, but you may not know what time of day they’ll bite every time. Operating a boat, day in and day out, you learn the location of structure like ledges, rocks and subsurface kelp. Knowing your fathometer is very important in being able to tell what you are seeing, whether looking for yellowtail or some other kind of fish. We drift a lot over structure while chumming, because we do not want to waste time anchoring until we know if the spot is OK.
“Yellowtail have a reputation of being fussy eaters, but that’s because most people don’t understand the environment,” Taylor continues. “Yellowtail and a lot of other fish that live around structure, an island or sea mount need some sort of water movement to get the bite going. Water conditions do make a difference. Current is probably the main thing that coincides with biting fish. With no current, no bite. Current speed does not really matter, just have some movement. Fishermen get to a spot with no current and get frustrated by the big yellows they can see, but won’t bite. In certain spots there may be a certain current direction that is best. Experience pays off then, because the skipper can try something that worked before to see if it will work again.”
As for the full moon, Taylor says, “the biggest impact is that some anglers won’t book a full moon trip,” based mostly on superstition.
When pressed, most skippers will opt for a good current, warm water (above 65 degrees is the consensus), good water clarity and bird/bait activity that may indicate that yellowtail are in the area.
Regardless of crew experiences the individual angler lands the fish. Beginners and old-hands alike make mistakes and the skippers have seen them all. Captain Taylor views lack of communication with the crew as a common thread to most problems.
Says Taylor : “Sometimes, people who think they fish a lot stop asking questions about what went on yesterday, or a new technique that’s working. Beginners need to ask about knots and drag settings. There’s no better resource than the crew.” Among the mistakes that anglers make, these are high on the list: trying to stop a fish’s run by clamping down on the reel spool with your thumb; not knowing where your line is; poor knots; improperly set drag; old or inadequate line; anglers not following their fish and letting a yellowtail go under the boat or into the rudders; over-aggressiveness; not knowing the location of your bait; improper tackle; lack of flexibility (such as being unwilling to switch from lures to bait or whatever style is working), and not being aware of what’s going on around you.
The farther south you venture along the Baja Coast, the more deep jigging or yo-yo fishing with heavy metal lures out-produces the lighter surface jigs. Beef up on your rods and reels, tie strong knots and take a good supply of lures, because you’ll lose many to big fish in a bad environment.
However, as Captain Steve Loomis says, “No matter what the theory is or the mistakes you make, I’d say just keep on trying and don’t give up.