Based on sheer numbers, yellowtail snapper are by far the most popular of all snapper species. Prized for their flaky, white flesh and cooperative demeanor, these brilliantly colored, frisky fighters are specifically targeted by anglers of all ages and skill levels more so than any other reef dweller. Sadly, many newcomers searching out fine fillets often utilize tackle that is too heavy for the task at hand, deterring a large percentage of strikes from the wariest of fish and diminishing the scrappy swimmer’s sporting qualities.
While yellowtail snapper occur along both coasts of Florida, it’s really the Atlantic side of the Florida Keys island chain that is synonymous with fantastic yellowtail fishing. Along with the local charter fleet that caters to visiting anglers from far and wide, countless boat owners from all over Florida head south with trailer in tow for the sole purpose of bagging limit catches of quality ‘tails, commonly called flags.
Vital to cashing in is location, with structure and depth both playing key roles in the outcome of any successful yellowtail snapper hunt. While impressive numbers of yellowtail ball up on and are regularly captured over shallow patch reefs all along Hawk’s Channel in depths as shallow as 15 feet, where keepers in the 12- to 16-inch range are taken during both day and night, anchoring and chumming farther from shore on the edge of the reef line in 60- to 90-feet of water will greatly enhance your odds of encountering a higher grade of fish. And with structure being so important to the species’ preferred habitat, it should be obvious by now that success only comes when fishing in the vicinity of exposed coral heads, pronounced reef patches and/or high profile artificial wrecks. Fortunately for all of us, there are countless productive spots paralleling the coast from Key Largo to Key West and beyond. As a matter of fact, those solely focused on the fat flags that have made the Florida Keys famous usually leave the tropical archipelago in their wake and head west over the horizon to the fertile Dry Tortugas where monster yellowtail longer than your forearm roam the depths. In any case, limit catches of quality fish require a special approach.
When fishing the shallower side of the spectrum from Key Largo to Marathon, think chum and plenty of it. Regardless if it is some sort of secret concoction stirred up in a 5-gallon bucket or the store bought ground menhaden variety spiced with silversides or pilchard, seasoned salts commonly blow through 50 to 70 pounds of frozen chum in a single tide cycle, especially when favorable conditions are present with wind and current both flowing in the same direction. Anything less than ideal conditions and you may find yourself swinging on the anchor and your chum and hook baits flowing into the wind and under the boat. Either of these scenarios is a serious obstacle worth running away from in search of more optimal conditions in a different depth somewhere else along the coast.
With yellowtail snapper the primary target and often visually present on shallow patch reefs as they swarm your steadily flowing chum slick, it’s time to whip out the light to medium action spinning outfits loaded with fresh 12 or 15 lb. line. Anything heavier will prevent your hook baits from drifting in a natural fashion. My go-to outfit when yellowtail fishing in this venue is a Chaos 7’0″ graphite spinning rod rated for 12 to 20 lb. line, matched to a Daiwa Isla 4000 loaded with 10 lb. Diamond Braid.
Leader material ranges from 12 lb. Diamond Presentation fluorocarbon in clear water conditions to 30 lb. fluorocarbon in murky conditions, with just enough lead or a heavy enough jighead to keep a juvenile pilchard, peeled shrimp or piece of fresh cut bait flowing steadily with the remaining tidbits. The method to mayhem is to open the bail and continue to pay out line, only locking up when line starts peeling through fingers as a scrappy ’tail races off with the offering.
Out in the Dry Tortugas, where flags are regularly encountered in up to 200 feet of water, the approach consists of a heavier duty fish finder rig with 4 or 6 oz. egg sinker and 30 to 50 lb. fluorocarbon leader, or a two-hook chicken rig tied with the same material. Either is deployed off a 7’0″ or 8’0″, 30 lb. class conventional outfit. The reason for the step up in tackle has as much to do with the increase in the average size fish and deeper water requiring heavier weight as it does with the high probability for exciting encounters with porgy, margate or mutton snapper snatching your yellowtail bait.
Of vital importance is fresh bait. With an abundance of forage inhabiting the rich Tortugas, enticing large flags requires fresh ballyhoo plugs or cut goggle eye. Finally, you didn’t hear me mention chum, and that is because the shark population this far west can be relentless. The last thing you want to do is send the fish-stealing thieves a personal invite to your private party.
Facts of Life: Yellowtail Snapper
Similar Species: Lane Snapper
Spawning Period: April–August
Min. Size: Atlantic & Gulf – 12 in.
Bag Limit: Atlantic & Gulf – 10 per day
Florida State Record: 8 lb. 9 oz. (Florida Keys)
All Tackle World Record: 11 lb. (Bermuda)