California Yellowtail

With all the discussion these days about small yellowtail being caught and kept I though I would do my best to research the subject and weigh in my feelings.  I really thought I would find facts proving that these “rat” yellows spawn at a young age and grow really fast, to support my belief that keeping these smaller fish was justifiable.  Turns out there is little known about California Yellowtail compared to other fish we love to target in our area, and what is available is not exactly what I expected.

These fish grow fast at a young age and are 3-4lbs at year one, but their growth slows considerably as they age and at 5 years old the average yellowtail is approximately 16lbs.  Most spawn in their 2nd year while all spawn in their third year.  This means that all of these small yellowtail caught on kelps have not yet spawned, something that surprises me and changes my opinion more than a little.  Yellowtail broadcast spawn meaning that they gather in groups and males release sperm in the water with the eggs from the females.  Spawning occurs from May through September, right when we are targeting them.  Armed with this information I am now puzzled with the apparent health of our yellowtail biomass.  On all fronts the scientific community rates the California Yellowtail population as “healthy”.

Another thing that got my attention is the amount of eggs deposited by smaller yellows in comparison to the larger ones.  3 to 5 year old yellowtail spawn just once per year, releasing about 458,000 eggs while their larger cousins spawn multiple times per year and its more like 4 million eggs!  Obviously the large yellows are carrying the weight of the responsibility for the species.  Good when you think of how smart the big boys are, and its healthy that the next generation gets the genes of wise yellowtail.

California yellowtail populations live primarily in Mexican waters most of their lives, and a low percentage migrates above the border during warm water seasons.  The record large yellowtail caught in California was 80lbs (caught in 2001) and the record in Mexico was a whopping 92.1lbs (caught in 1960).  While a ten year old fish will typically be around 35lbs, no California yellowtail has ever been aged at over 12 years.  So how old were the record fish, and how old do they get?  I found no answers.

Interestingly, these fish grow decidedly faster in warmer water, so a resident Catalina yellowtail at 25lbs may be 10 years old!  On years such as this one where a large volume of small yellowtail migrate into US waters there is some that stay at our local islands and coastline for the rest of their lives.  Tagging studies have shown that these fish migrate very little once they get here, staying local and living the rest of their lives within miles of one area.  At least 3 different species of the yellowtail family exist in the Pacific, and scientists agree that more may be discovered if more research is done.  No data was available on the Southern California resident population and its spawning habits.

In past years (1954) yellowtail had a high commercial market value for canning but that is ancient history.  Today recreational catches far exceed commercial catches, another fact that caught me by surprise.  Drift nets (gill nets) account for the bulk of the total commercial amount of yellowtail caught each year, and those nets are set to target white seabass and barracuda (thats what it says!).  Commercial rod and reel catches are surprisingly high actually, but don’t even touch the amount captured by nets.  No real shocker there.

I never have had a problem admitting I was wrong, and this is just another case of that.  What I wanted to find was facts leading to me preaching from my soap box about how catching and keeping small yellowtail is legal and the fishery sustainable.  While the latter seems to be true with the information I found, and obviously the legal aspect is accurate, I have no soap box to stand on anymore.  These small fish should be released whenever possible, and I will make an effort to do so.

Now if I was running a boat that had traveled long distance on substantial amounts of fuel I might change my way of thinking when that first “rat” comes to color.  But the mass destruction of “limits for all” is something I have changed my mind on.  I still believe in peoples right to do their own thinking and certain freedoms for all (within the limits of the law).  I will change my ways based on the data I found this evening, and let you decide for yourself.  These fish gather offshore in groups to spawn this time of year, and we are taking advantage of that and disrupting the cycle of life.  They are fun to catch, and while fishing for these small California yellowtail we have the opportunity to catch something worth really getting excited about.  They taste good too.

What will you do the next time you find a kelp loaded with “rat” yellows?

 

Kelp Paddy Fishing from a A Private Boat

That’s close enough!! Too close and you spook most of what you’re trying to catch. Don’t worry, the fish know your bait is there, trust me.

If you have read this far I applaud you, because there have been kelp paddy articles written over and over, each and every year.  The information here will sound redundant, but the idea is to pound some basic information into the heads of those who just don’t seem to grasp the concept.  Some guys piss others off so bad, that verbal battles on VHF channel 72 near the point of death threats.  Others simply can’t buy a bite.  Maybe they never read any kelp paddy articles.

If you’ve ever fished on a long range boat out of San Diego, you know how they fish kelps.  The captain or a crew member spots a kelp and word gets spread around the boat.  30 anglers, awakened from their naps, froth with anticipation as the charter boat approaches the “salad”.  Most armed with long jig sticks adorned with heavy metal jigs.  The bow of the boat passes the kelp first, and those up front cast at the flotsam as if to be trying to sink it with missiles.   A few guys hook up, but the boat is still sliding (and turning at the same time).  As the anglers in the stern pitch a live bait towards the kelp, the hooked up guys from the bow come barreling down the rail and either saw off freshly hooked baitfish or get tangled.   Some land their fish while causing some, less assertive passengers to throw in the towel.  If the kelp is holding some tonnage, then the boat drifts off while the bite gets really going.  A more organized, steady pick continues as the kelp disappears from sight.

I can see why long range boat skippers fish a kelp this way.  They have a boat full of paying clients, and a responsibility to give each angler the chance to hook a fish.  I also know first hand, that if (as a captain) I do not position the charter boat close enough for passengers to actually HIT the kelp, I will have old timers givinging me a piece of their mind.   If I repeatedly begin a drift far upwind from a kelp, I do believe a mutiny may begin at some point.  I have done this and the passengers simply waited until the boat was close enough to the kelp for them to be able to hit it with a well casted bait, and hit it they did!  Insanity.

That’s about as close as you’ll ever see me on a kelp. On this day, the fish were smaller and biting heavy line, so distance was not as much if a factor.

On a private boat we do things quite differently.  I like to set the boat upwind of the kelp, and begin a drift that will allow the stern to pass the kelp and leave a distance further than a long jig cast.  There are reasons for this.  First off, we do not have the chumming capabilities of a long range boat loaded with 100 scoops of bait, so I don’t want to spook the fish we’re trying to catch.  Secondly, private boats can fish lighter line that gets bit better, because we are not battling 29 other anglers lines to land a fish.  By being further away from the kelp, the chances of landing a yellowtail or tuna is far better if hooked away from the structure on lighter line.

Small fish on kelps can be a blast on light line, especially when hooked from far enough away (from the kelp) that you still have a chance to land them.

I keep fishing long after we’ve passed the kelp, as history has shown that some of the best bites I’ve ever seen, started after drifting a ways past.  While running the charter boat “RailTime”, I had become used to the Furuno CH250 Sonar, and could give a play-by-play for anglers as fish followed the boat far off the kelps they tried to sink with jigs.   Sometimes the fish simply won’t leave the kelp, and I will re-set for another drift when the bite stops and meter marks go away.

If there are fish still on the paddy and the bite has either tapered off, or stopped altogether, I will begin to slow troll live baits past the kelp.  3 anglers max to avoid tangles, I have clients nose hook a live bait and then motor past the kelp as slow as the boat will go.  Again, NOT TOO CLOSE!  A tuna or yellowtail can swim from under the paddy to your bait 50 yards away, in a matter of seconds.

Once the bite tapers off, it’s time to get back to looking. Trolling while looking for paddies saves on fuel, and blind jig strikes add to your score. These albies were caught after we’d drifted far off the kelp, and were enticed to the boat with rubber core sinkers.

If there are other boats in the area, it’d be best if all followed the same routine.  That will never be the case.  Start your drift closer to the paddy when other boats threaten to try and share your find.  You’ll need to be more selective about which kelps to fish hard, because you’ll have to throw more chum to keep the fish at your boat, and not go to the poachers rig.  If there is a paddy holding and biting for 3 or 4 boats, I will watch the birds and fish them instead of the paddy itself.  Back to when I had a sonar at my disposal, the fish were under the birds and I could see that on the meter.  Boats fishing the paddy would trip out when I got the bite going 1/2 mile away from where they were.  Birds are key, especially when it’s dorado we’re targeting.

To summarize, please resist the urge to drive right up to a paddy and cast your baits (or jigs) right into the salad.  You ABSOLUTELY WILL catch more fish off kelps if you stay away from them.  That is, unless you are actually fishing for the kelp itself. ( I hear it makes an excellent hair care product.)   I personally steer clear of paddies with boats on them, or one that has a boat just leaving it.   A fresh kelp, that has not been fished by another boat that day produces much better than one that has been hit hard, even if you heard on the VHF how wide open is “was”.