Successful yellowtail fishing is not as easy as everyone makes it seem. Sure, any boater can drop anchor over just about any reef or wreck around the state and deploy a chum bag and a few lines. After long enough, a short ’tail will eventually jump on the hook. However, consistently scoring these tasty denizens requires the right preparation, proper execution and most importantly, the right spot.
All of us can certainly learn something from our fishing friends in The Florida Keys. Collectively, charter boat captains from Key Largo to Key West are the most experienced and skilled yellowtail snapper fishermen on earth. Day in and day out these dedicated reef junkies fish Florida’s richest waters recognized globally as the yellowtail fishing capital of the world.
Experienced captains up and down the island chain agree that if you’re serious about catching ’tails you have to ring the dinner bell nice and loud...
When the topic of reef fishing is brought up in conversation with any of these seasoned salts, you’ll soon realize chumming is a universal practice. Experienced captains up and down the island chain agree that if you’re serious about catching ’tails, you have to ring the dinner bell nice and loud in the form of a steady flowing chum slick. While homemade concoctions consisting of cat food, oats, sand and menhaden milk certainly attract attention, so does the frozen chum found at your local tackle shop. The only trick is having plenty of it. As a rule, expect to burn through one seven-pound box of chum per hour. You’ll need even more if the current is ripping. And don’t use one of those white chum bags with tiny holes. A third of your chum will never make it out of the bag.
Chunking is an option and can be done alone or to spice up steady flowing ground chum. Silversides are the most popular enticements, but unless you net these shimmering baitfish yourself, chunking efforts could get expensive. Productive alternatives include freshly cut slivers of bonito, sardine, herring or other scaly baits. Cut the offerings small, as the idea is to throw just enough to keep the fish interested. You do not want to overfeed them.
Of course, chumming or chunking would be useless if your efforts weren’t focused in the right location. You can’t just stop the boat anywhere and start bailing yellowtail. That is a gross misconception. These frisky fish are structure oriented. Wrecks or reefs, natural or man-made, it doesn’t matter. The bottom line is that there needs to be some sort of habitat that will provide shelter and forage.
While structure is important, so is depth. If you go ’tailing enough times you’ll eventually encounter a solid snapper bite on everything from 30-foot patch reefs to rocky ledges over 200 feet deep. And deeper does not generally mean better as flags approaching five pounds are regularly taken across the spectrum.
Tackle is next and depends on precise depth and exactly where in the water column you are reading life. On my Furuno sounder yellowtail snapper come across as boxy, irregular lines suspended at particular depths. While the readings may be different on your unit, you should be able to clearly decipher where in the water column feeding activity is taking place.
In preparation of a yellowtail hunt, rig at least two rods. The first should be a lightweight spinner. Really, any sensitive medium-action rod matched to a size 4000 reel loaded with 20 lb. braid will get the job done. Use this outfit for free lining bait back into the slick. By allowing a hooked offering to drift at the same pace as the free morsels, you’ll achieve an extremely subtle presentation with no excess terminal tackle. I join about 8 feet of 20 lb. fluorocarbon directly to my Diamond Braid with a simple surgeon’s knot. I finish things off with a small loop knot to a 3/0 short shank bait hook. With 8 feet of leader, as the trip progresses I can quickly snip off small intervals as the leader becomes chafed. If I need a little weight, I pinch on a split shot.
Next is a slightly heavier conventional outfit with a little more backbone. This rod is used to fish baits throughout the water column by way of a knocker rig. The weight of the sinker may vary from a ¼ oz. to 2 oz. depending on the velocity of current. A knocker rig is the same as the aforementioned rig with the addition of a sliding egg sinker. Subtle, but effective at presenting bait throughout the water column as you slowly pay out a few feet of line at a time. If you have newcomers on the boat, rig them up with a two-hook chicken rig and instruct them to drop the baited rig directly to the bottom.
Now that you’re in the right place rigged and ready with chum flowing, it’s time to fish. Yellowtail snapper in a feeding frenzy are not picky and devour anything they can fit in their mouth. However, ’tails can at times be super finicky and under this situation only tiny live baits or peeled shrimp will coerce them to strike. If at all possible, head out with a few bait options and make sure you keep a sabiki rod rigged and ready. A variety of forage species will eventually infiltrate your chum slick.
Current is key because moving water coerces these fish to feed and spreads your chum over a wide area. If your chum isn’t drifting away from the boat it will be in your best interest to pick up and move.
While yellowtail snapper don’t break any records for size or stamina, they are scrappy fighters that are best appreciated on light tackle. However, what they lack in strength they certainly make up for on the dinner table. Fresh yellowtail is a favorite among seafood aficionados who appreciate a quality fillet.