Blue­wa­ter Yel­lows


Saltwater Sportsman - - Table Of Contents / Features - By Jim Hen­dricks


The off­shore sea­son started for me last year in early June as I steamed to­ward Santa Catalina Is­land, 30 miles off the coast, to tar­get rock­fish. Half­way there, we spot­ted a patch of float­ing kelp about the size of a garage door, so I al­tered course to idle by and peer un­der­neath.

“Hold on!” I barked as I caught sight of a squadron of the big jacks. “Get a bait out! Now!” We cast live sar­dines to­ward the weeds, and the yel­lows im­me­di­ately launched an at­tack. We found our­selves with a triple hookup, pass­ing bent rods over and un­der to avoid tan­gles, and tak­ing turns gaffing each other’s fish. Soon a trio of 20- to 25-pounders lay on the deck.


It’s all about find­ing the right patch of kelp. Torn loose from forests of gi­ant kelp by waves, clumps of these weeds — called pad­dies — cre­ate an oa­sis in a desert of blue. With the on­set of sum­mer, schools of Cal­i­for­nia yel­low­tails haunt these shad­owy out­posts, fol­low­ing the bait­fish seek­ing shel­ter in the kelp.

Food might not be the only fac­tor at­tract­ing yel­low­tails to pad­dies; some be­lieve they gather here to spawn. Large ag­gre­ga­tions have been spot­ted un­der kelp, and while only some are will­ing to bite, there usu­ally are enough tak­ers to mo­ti­vate an­glers to go paddy-hop­ping.


Be­fore you can fish for yel­lows un­der a paddy, you need to find a paddy. It’s not al­ways easy, es­pe­cially when over­cast skies fade the ocean’s sur­face to a monochro­matic gray.

As­tute an­glers cruise at no more than 15 mph, or troll at about 8 mph, while search­ing for a paddy. Hav­ing the whole crew scan­ning the water max­i­mizes cov­er­age, and a tower also helps spot kelp at a dis­tance. Gy­rosta­bi­lized binoc­u­lars ex­tend the search ra­dius out to a mile or more.

Other cues can also lead you to pro­duc­tive kelp. Gulls and terns rest­ing atop the float­ing mass are of­ten vis­i­ble be­fore you see the paddy it­self. This might be a sign that there are fish un­der­neath. Terns flit­ting above the paddy are a sure sign that preda­tors lie be­low.


Cer­tain pad­dies tend to at­tract more fish than oth­ers. A few stringers of kelp sel­dom hold fish, but a paddy the size of a trash-can lid may be worth a stop, es­pe­cially if it has stringers drap­ing be­low the main canopy, which at­tract bait. A paddy the size of

a mat­tress or garage door prom­ises a com­mu­nity of ma­rine life. This is the dream paddy. I’ve found as many as 100 yel­low­tails school­ing be­low such patches.

Water color also plays a role. A paddy in green water, close to shore, doesn’t at­tract yel­low­tails as well as one in clear, blue water. Due to up­wellings, which at­tract bait­fish and cre­ate the ed­dies that con­cen­trate the kelp, pad­dies float­ing above un­der­wa­ter ridges or seamounts, such as the 14-mile bank, 209, 277 and 182, pro­duce more fish than those found drift­ing over a fea­ture­less bot­tom.


In the ex­cite­ment of find­ing a paddy, re­sist the urge to rush in and start fish­ing. There are days when yel­low­tails will rush out to greet you. But a stealthy ap­proach pays off, es­pe­cially when the fish are more reclu­sive.

I like to shut down about 50 feet up­wind, then drift by about 25 feet from the kelp, on the sunny side, to spot fish hang­ing un­der­neath the paddy.

Ag­gres­sive yel­low­tails will bite a lively sar­dine, Pa­cific

mack­erel or jack mack­erel read­ily; on week­ends and hol­i­days, when boat pres­sure is high, they play hard to get. But there's a few tricks to get them in the right mood.

Throw­ing out some live baits as chum whets their ap­petite. Some­times they show lit­tle in­ter­est un­til a hook­less livey mov­ing swiftly mo­ti­vates them. That’s when you want to get a hooked bait in the water. Reel­ing a live bait quickly back to the boat will some­times earn you a bite.

The same holds true of yel­low­tails that re­treat to the depths as you ap­proach. In this case, drop­ping a heavy metal jig (known as a yo-yo iron) such as a Tady 9/0 or Salas 6X Jr. (blue-and-white pat­terns seem to work best) 200 feet down, then re­triev­ing it as fast as you can might trig­ger a strike. With this tech­nique, it’s im­por­tant not to swing the rod when you’re bit. In­stead, keep reel­ing un­til the hooks set and line pours off the reel, then raise the rod to bat­tle the fish.


Some­times a yel­low­tail or two will hover di­rectly un­der the paddy, backs brush­ing the fronds, re­fus­ing to budge or bite. In this case, a change-up might draw a strike. If you’re free-lin­ing live sar­dines, switch to a frisky Pa­cific mack­erel.

Cast the bait to the edge of the paddy to get the oth­er­wise dis­in­ter­ested yel­low ex­cited enough to strike, or cast the mack­erel on top of the paddy, then pull it off like pulling a frog off a lily pad. This of­ten pro­vokes an ex­plo­sive strike.

If you don’t catch any yel­lows un­der a paddy within 10 or 15 min­utes, move on and search for an­other. You might want to cir­cle back later in the day. Yel­low­tails are known to roam, and it’s not un­usual to find fish in the af­ter­noon un­der a paddy that was dry in the morn­ing.


Cal­i­for­nia yel­low­tails know kelp means safety, so a hooked fish im­me­di­ately turns to­ward the paddy. A big, pow­er­ful yel­low­tail is dif­fi­cult to stop on the first run, and many are lost when the fish plunges into the weeds. Kelp looks soft, but the fronds are stud­ded with sharp-shelled crit­ters that chafe and cut monofil­a­ment.

Opt for 50- to 65-pound coated braid with a short trace of flu­oro leader. As the yel­low­tail swims through the kelp, the braid acts like a saw, cut­ting through the fronds. If you’re crav­ing an earl­y­sea­son blue­wa­ter trip off the coast of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, get out there and hunt up some weeds. You just might find a gang of bruiser yel­low­tails ready to bite.

GAME OVER: An­other big open­wa­ter yel­low­tail comes boat­side for land­ing.

THE PRIZE: Oversize yel­low­tails kick off the sea­son for an­glers will­ing to hunt for kelp.

STAG­ING: Yel­low­tails find cover and for­age be­neath kelp pad­dies float­ing in open, blue water.

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