A nice morning’s catch of Baja yellowtail aboard Capt. Igor Galvan’s 29-foot panga, Igor’s II, at Bahia de los Angeles.
BAJA CALIFORNIA: FISHING FOR YELLOWTAIL
Jan. 7, 2005, by Gene Kira, Western Outdoor News:
When you read Baja California’s winter fishing reports--anytime between about Christmas and Valentine’s Day--there are two dominant themes that always seem to go hand-in-hand: “wind” and “yellowtail.”
Baja’s punishing “norte” winds blow down the Sea of Cortez from November through March, and during that same period, prevailing north winds also build on the Pacific coast, frequently making it tough to chase the classic offshore big game fish: marlin, sailfish, dorado, wahoo, and yellowfin tuna.
On the Sea of Cortez coast, which faces right into the teeth of the nortes, there are many winter days when both pangas and cruisers are pinned to the beach, or if they do get out at all, they are forced to fish near shore in the semi-sheltered lee of islands and points.
It must be admitted, Baja can be pretty tough sledding during the winter months. But luckily, most of its 2,000-mile inshore coastline is also home to an alternate winter quarry for anglers confined to fishing in wind-sheltered waters--the magnificent, hard-charging, very strong fighting California yellowtail, Seriola lalandi dorsalis.
Beautiful and smoothly streamlined, the yellowtail, referred to as “jurel” (hoo-rel) in Spanish, is the savior of Baja’s winter sportfishing industry. It’s no exaggeration to say that without yellowtail, there would be very little realistic winter sportfishing business in much of Baja, except for bread-and-butter bottom fishing and the miraculous offshore big game fishery at Cabo San Lucas.
As an ideal, middleweight winter quarry, the yellowtail possesses so many excellent characteristics, it seems almost custom-designed for the job.
To begin with, yellowtail are the best eating of the larger jacks, always a welcome addition to any angler’s ice chest, for sashimi, smoking, frying, soups, stews, teriyaki, or just about any fish dish you’d care to name. Unlike its darker-meat cousins--the amberjack and especially the roosterfish and jack crevalle--the great tasting yellowtail is terrific dinner fare (for some reason, yellowtail fillets are especially good when slightly over-salted).
Next, although yellowtail have become relatively scarce in U.S. waters, south to Ensenada, they are still quite abundant in most of Baja. Despite being ravaged commercially for half a century, they have proven to be very hard to wipe out. In winter, along most of Baja’s coasts, you can fish for yellowtail with relative confidence. The mile-long surface schools of the 1950s may be gone, but with just average luck and decent tactics, you should be able to land at least a couple of nice ones on any given morning. With a little more luck, you can find your limit (five per day).
Finally, yellowtail are a truly magnificent game fish, one of the toughest fighting opponents of the sea, pound-for-pound, with a very powerful strike, and short but very, very powerful runs that can have you “rocked” faster than you can say “ranchero.”
But you don’t need to be an “expert” with yellowtail. Another important reason they are so popular is that they are really quite easy to hook (that is “hook,” not necessarily “land”). In fact, yellowtail are one of the most predictable and cooperative of the major Baja quarries. Yellowtail mean to please, whether you’re trolling plugs or feathers, flylining live bait or sinking it deep on dropper loops, chunking, casting chrome, or jigging and yoyo-ing iron in the rocks. These sportfishing guide’s pets will usually hit just about anything offered to them.
As with virtually all types of fishing, water temperature is a key factor in doing well on winter yellowtail, and here again, they seem ideally suited to our Baja fishery, for they can be caught in water temperatures ranging from the low-60s found off Ensenada and San Quintin, up to the mid-60s in the Midriff area, and into the low-70s off Bahia Magdalena and La Paz. (In an earlier era, massive hordes of yellowtail were also found in water temperatures as high as the low-80s off Los Cabos and East Cape, but alas, that population is virtually gone.)
All other things being equal, yellowtail seem to prefer surface water temperatures centered on about 65 degrees on Baja’s Pacific side, and a few degrees warmer in the Sea of Cortez, and the “hot action” range can be fairly wide, about 5 degrees in either direction. Perfect for Baja’s winter water temperatures.
Honestly, how big are Baja’s yellowtail? Well, there’s a brand-new IGFA all-tackle record submission for a 91.6-pound fish caught on the Pacific side at Isla Guadalupe this past November, and the weights “guestimated” by Baja anglers on both coasts often range into the 40-pound class and even into the low-50s. However, even though yellowtail can grow to over 100 pounds in the southern hemisphere, in today’s Baja you have to figure a true 25 pounder is a nice fish, a true 35 pounder is a trophy, and a true 45 pounder is a rarity. The median yellowtail in today’s Baja, including the many small “firecrackers” caught, weighs somewhere around 12 to 15 pounds.
Where can you catch Baja’s winter yellowtail? Because of this fish’s very wide distribution range, the easy answer is “damn near anywhere.” In winter, Baja’s yellowtail populations are at the southern ends of their ranges, but there are multiple, overlapping populations, so one population or another can be found in just about every location.
The formerly rich yellowtail fishery at the extreme south end of Baja has been fairly wiped out, and likewise for the Cortez population north of Puertecitos. Beyond that, you can catch winter yellowtail virtually anywhere you chose. On the Pacific side, winter yellowtail are most commonly caught from Ensenada south to Magdalena Bay, and on the Cortez side, from Gonzaga Bay south to La Paz.
Yellowtail are structure-oriented fish found from the surface down to about 300 feet, so you will have the best success around floating kelp paddies (“surface structure”) and deep off rocky points and reefs. On the surface, you could also look for working birds, but in winter, most yellowtail are caught quite deep, and the trick is to get your bait or lure down to them, especially when tidal currents are running strong from Loreto north to the Midriff area.
Annually, you can envision a depth cycle in which the fish rise to the surface for the spring spawn about March or April, and then go deeper and deeper, bottoming out about January. For general purposes, you can consider a depth of about 150 to 250 feet to be your typical winter target zone.
Tackle for winter yellowtail is relatively simple. You can do fine with a 7 to 8-foot rod rated for 50-pound line, and a stiff 6-foot rod rated for 80 to 100-pound line. Use the lighter rod for casting iron, and the heavy one for dropping iron or bait to the bottom, where you will need to horse your fish up very strongly for the first 20 feet or so, to avoid that dreaded, empty-handed “I got rocked” feeling.
For bait, take sinkers up to about 1 pound (but mostly about 8 ounces), and J-hooks of about 5/0 to 7/0 size. Squid, cut bait, or live mackerel, jurelito, caballito, or other live bait, is lowered on dropper loops until you get hit.
For live bait fishing, tie on a large, single dropper loop, about eight inches long, about two feet up from your sinker. The hook may be tied to the end of the dropper loop with a palomar knot, or less securely but perhaps more enticingly, it may be allowed to slide free on the loop.
Jigs up to about 1 pound (but mostly about 6 to 8 ounces) can be bounced just off the bottom, or reeled up as fast as possible. The classic tools for this work are the Salas 6X and 6X Jrs. Light aluminum jigs of similar shape are also excellent on and near the surface. Take a wide selection of colors, as long as they are all blue-and-white or blue-and-chrome.
Yellowtail usually hit better with a current, and the trick is to get down to them when it’s really running hard. Take at least one Bridgeport Diamond Jig in the 16-ounce size for this purpose.
Trolling plugs should be shallow-running Rapala CD 14s and CD18s in green-gold, or deep-diving MirrOLure 111MRs in purple-black or hot pink. For hot action on smaller yellowtail, take some Rebel Jointed Fastracs in orange-gold. (But for winter, deep jigs and bait are best.)
Baja’s world famous fishing reputation--and it’s enormous tourism industry as well--are founded on warm water big game fish, but during winter those species can be hard to reach. For most of Baja’s popular sportfishing destinations, such as Ensenada, San Quintin, and Magdalena Bay on the Pacific side, and La Paz, Loreto, Mulege, and Bahía de los Angeles on the Sea of Cortez, winter is instead the season of the beautiful, medium-weight yellowtail, and that ain’t bad.
(Related Baja California, Mexico, articles and reports may be found at Mexfish.com's main Baja California information page. See weekly fishing news, photos, and reports from the major sportfishing vacation areas of Mexico including the Baja California area in "Mexico Fishing News.")