Fallback Flags

Mention yellowtail snapper and the image of delectable culinary creations surely come to mind. Blackened, grilled, broiled or baked, one can’t go wrong. And while these relatively small snapper do indeed strike with ferocity and at times feed with no regard, their limited stature inhibits their fighting ability. One thing is for sure—you won’t be brought to your knees from the strain of an arduous battle with a flag yellowtail. While they are not prized fighters, these highly sought after snapper will get the best of you in another way. Just when you think you have their feeding habits and routines dialed in, they’ll throw you a serious curve ball.


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Light tackle is the name of the yellowtail game. Photo: Steve Dougherty

Around Florida yellowtail snapper are abundant near almost any and every submerged structure, although we all know these schooling sensations are most prevalent in the Atlantic south of the Treasure Coast. The largest concentrations of keeper ‘tails can be found staged on reefs in 30 to 130-feet, but don’t be surprised if you find consistent action in deeper water, too. The 200-plus foot depths of the Dry Tortugas are famed for yielding monster yellowtail unrivaled in any other waters.

Understanding when to make subtle adjustments in your technique and presentation is what makes the difference between limiting out and heading home with an empty fishbox.

It’s important to remember that like most other snapper species yellowtail are opportunistic feeders. This means while most comfortable closely related to bottom structure, yellowtail readily leave their comfort zone to investigate the upper portions of the water column. Depending upon where you ply your craft yellowtail will behave differently under varying conditions while responding to a variety of tactics. Understanding when to make subtle adjustments in your technique and presentation is what makes the difference between limiting out and heading home with an empty fishbox.

When searching for ‘fishy’ venues a quality plotter/sounder combo is a must. Look for any type of reef structure—coral heads, rocky outcroppings, and suspended marks along the reef edge are all worthy of investigation. Once you’ve found a stretch of bottom that appears promising, it should come as no surprise that you want to anchor up current from the structure. Miss your target by even 20-feet and you can expect an uneventful outing. Depending on your experience it may take more than one attempt to anchor properly, so don’t be afraid to deploy a floating buoy marker as a guide. Proper positioning is not only important; it is crucial to your success.

An equally important factor when targeting yellowtail snapper is chumming. Anyone with experience targeting yellowtail will tell you that chumming is essential. However, there are as many different theories and secret recipes as there are anglers who target these tasty denizens. One thing you can count on is that if you chum feverishly you will surely satiate their appetites, and if you chum too sparingly it will be difficult to keep their interest. The trick of the trade is to deploy just enough chum to keep the fish interested, while making sure not to overfeed them. A tough task that’s difficult to master and one that only comes with experience.

As a rule, it’s a good idea to be prepared with chum bags with varying mesh holes (¼” and ½”). From here you need to select your chum of choice. Depending on who you speak with you will surely receive plenty of suggestions. It’s best to start your endeavors with a frozen fine ground menhaden or sardine chum and a ¼” mesh bag. Fine ground chum is great at getting the bite started in a hurry. These chums are generally made with a concoction of menhaden milk or menhaden oil and as the chum thaws, the tidbits dissipate rapidly. As a general rule of thumb one block of frozen chum will last approximately one hour.

Once the tails are actively feeding you need to change up your chumming routine. Grab a ½” chum bag and a box of single ground chum. This selection will disperse much slower and effectively eliminate the possibility of overfeeding your quarry. Contrary to popular belief, sporadically shaking your chum bag is not an effective technique, as it will only push the ‘tails further behind the boat.

You’ve probably seen TV shows or magazine articles with schooling yellowtail frenzying on the surface only feet from the transom. While this is often the case in The Bahamas or fertile Florida Keys, yellowtail typically prefer to stage deeper in the water column and well behind the boat. This is where your chumming dispersal rate deserves ultimate consideration. If you find that the fish are holding too far behind the boat and are challenging to coerce, you need to slow down or temporarily stop chumming altogether. As the handouts disappear the fish will be drawn closer to the source of the chum.

While frozen chum works wonders, under certain scenarios you will need a trick up your sleeve. If you’ve ever targeted these lightweight bruisers it should come as no surprise that yellowtail have excellent eyesight. Under flat calm conditions with crystal clear water they will be super wary. This is when anglers scale down their terminal tackle for the ultimate stealth. Besides light fluorocarbon leaders, most yellowtail pros concoct a secret mix of chum utilizing a mixture of menhaden oil, glass minnows, oats, and sand. This secret recipe is scooped over the side and effectively clouds the water while turning on the bite.

Current is also a hot topic and another reason why it’s important you’re prepared to alter your chumming techniques. With too much current present your chum will be spread out and become ineffective at congregating the ‘tails, so in my opinion its best to use a small mesh chum bag with a slow dispersal rate that keeps the ‘tails focused on the slick. With little to no current your chum will sink directly beneath the boat. It’s now when I use a chum bag with larger mesh holes.

Even with the right amount and type of chum flowing beyond your transom, you will still need to occasionally pull a rabbit out of your hat to consistently bag flag ‘tails. Sure, a shrimp or small pilchard rigged on a jighead, sliding sinker rig or chicken rig will bag your fair share of keeper ‘tails, however, if you’re after true flags you’ll have to adopt some stealthier techniques. Light tackle outfits with ultra-light leaders are what the doctor ordered and many experienced ‘tailers choose pink or smoke color line to help camouflage even more. When it comes to terminal tackle there is one thing you should know—leave it at home! Swivels, heavy leaders, large hooks and bulky sinkers are all a big no-no under most scenarios.

The best yellowtail action awaits anglers who free-line baits into their chum slick. Whether it’s a small ballyhoo plug, a pair of glass minnows threaded on the hook, a peeled shrimp, squid strip or fresh goggle-eye chunk, it’s important to remember that these sneaky snapper are keen hunters. Offerings that sink too fast or appear unnatural will likely be ignored. This is why it’s essential you always keep a bit of slack in your line while deploying your offering. Here is a popular technique…

When free-lining place your rod in a rod holder and open the bail. Grab the line above the tip and begin stripping line from the spool. This technique enables you to deploy your bait without any resistance, offering a natural presentation. When faced with a swift current free-lining baits may prove futile, as it will be next to impossible to get your offering below the surface into the strike zone. Here you will want to add a small split-shot or two above the hook, but don’t go too heavy or your bait will sink too fast.

When scouting deep water or investigating new territory a two-hook dropper loop rig is yet another option. This rig will quickly identify the location of any reef inhabitants including lane, mangrove, mutton, as well as prized yellowtail snapper. Once you’ve found where the yellowtails are staging you can then switch to a more stealthy approach.

Under most scenarios, medium-action spinners or conventional outfits spooled with 15lb. to 20lb. monofilament will do the trick, with a sensitive tip essential. A 20lb. fluorocarbon leader will offer the ultimate in stealth, with seasoned anglers opting for 12lb. test leaders when the fish are finicky. While light leaders are great for concealing your rig, they won’t offer much help when a grouper or barracuda steals your struggling snapper.

Any angler can catch a mess of 12″ yellowtail when they’re biting, but it takes knowledge, skill and finesse to continuously come out on top against the largest ‘tails when these sensational snapper are in the uncooperative mode. It’s the well-prepared angler who isn’t afraid to experiment and go the extra mile that consistently walks away a winner. On a final note, don’t forget that yellowtail fishing can be very rewarding both day and night on almost any day of the year, so if the bite shuts down, don’t hesitate moving. Often a slight adjustment in depth is all that is necessary to relight the fire.

Rules & Regs

Size Limit: 12″ (pinched tail)
Bag Limit: Included within 10 per harvester per day snapper aggregate
Closed Season: None
Tackle: Circle-hooks required in Gulf