Yellowtail fishing like back in the good old days

Jim Matthews
In ocean fishing, there is a thing called the “outdoor writer jinx,” which roughly means that if you are fishing with an outdoor writer, it’s the equivalent of having a whole boat-load of bananas on your sportboat.

Can I tell you the writer-jinx thing (or the bad-luck-banana thing) is a myth? Well, I’ve been on a lot of really bad trips. Trips when the fishing was wide open the day before I was there and wide open again the day after I was there. That middle day, the fishing stunk. Anglers want to blame something or someone for bad luck, and I have been blamed more than once. 

But if the fishing is good, great even, all jinxes are off. No one even brings up the writer curse. Even I forget about it.

So when I got on board Malinhini out of H&M Landing in San Diego with my wife’s cousin Tom Kanaly from Oklahoma on March 27, we were just two guys going fishing like we do on family vacations in Colorado. No outdoor writers here, just a couple of regular anglers. But fellow angler Tim Hardin of Riverside recognized me in the galley (what are the odds?), and I could see that pang of fear in his eyes: “Oh no, we’ve got an outdoor writer on board.” I winced.

Everyone was hopeful this was going to be a good yellowtail fishing day. Malihini skipper Mike Schmidt had found biting yellowtail at the Coronado Islands every trip since Feb. 7, and just three days before my trip, the 28 anglers on board reeled in 101 yellowtail. The counts had dropped to about a half-fish-per-rod in the two intervening days, and I was worried it might be a downward trend my presence would send into the tank. The fact only 24 of us had signed up for the Friday trip worried me a little.

Let me just say we ended the day with 120 yellowtail on the boat. All of them from 16 or 17 pounds up to 25 pounds, with a couple that might have been pushing 30 pounds. That’s full Mexican limits — Malihini’s best fishing day of the year, so far.

Whatever reservations Hardin might have had in those few minutes going out to the islands ended during the first stop. By the end of the day, he even shared his elk steak sandwich with me. What writer jinx?

The truth may be simply that the fishing for yellowtail is so good off the Southern California coast that even a Red Sox-like jinx couldn’t compete with fishing this good. Simply put, it has been decades since the yellowtail fishing off our coast has matched this. In fact, it is almost unprecedented.

Whether it is an increase in the population of yellowtail or the unusually warm waters have simply attracted and kept the yellowtail here all winter is a question the scientists who monitor yellowtail can’t completely answer. Yet.

The only real comprehensive study done on yellowtail in this part of the world was conducted by the Department of Fish and Game (now Fish and Wildlife) in the late 1950s and published in 1960. One of the key features of the work was a tagging effort (over 15,000 yellowtail were marked, and over 500 recaptured) off Southern California and all the way down the Baja coast. The research showed that the Cedros and Benitos islands region off central Baja “is probably the center of abundance for yellowtail.” The fish were seasonal visitors to Southern California. 

“At the southern extremity of the California sport fishery (including the Coronado Islands) yellowtail are generally caught from April through September with catches reaching their peak most often in May. The beginning of the fishery and peak months of the catch are slightly later to the north,” wrote John Baxter in the 1960 paper entitled, “A Study of The Yellowtail.”

Having fish at the Coronados and other locations in this region was an anomaly during the cooler months, and when it happened, it was associated with warm water conditions. In the past two decades or more, having them here at all in any significant numbers didn’t happen spring, summer, fall, or winter.

Yet, during the past 18 months there probably hasn’t been a single week when yellowtail were not caught at the Coronados, and as the water temperatures have continued to climb this spring (there are already pockets of 70-degree water in the Southern California bite), the numbers of yellowtail have continued to increase throughout the region. Something is happening.

Noah Ben-Aderet, a researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, is in the beginning stages of a new study that picks up where the research conducted in the 1950s left off (see more at California Yellowtail Tagging Project on Facebook). Ben-Aderet said he thinks it is “elevated water temperatures that are driving up the number of fish around the Coronados.”

“We’re trying to find out if these are Colonet fish that have shifted north,” said Ben-Aderet.

According to the 1950s work, the Colonet region was about as far north as yellowtail wintered, and sportfishing boats out of San Diego have typically made overnight to 2 1/2-day trips to this region to fish for yellowtail from November through March and April. Quite frankly, the last few weeks, the fishing had been better in the Coronado Islands than around Colonet.

The 1950s research also brought up some interesting questions about impact of sportfishing on local yellowtail populations.

“The tag recoveries indicate that [sport] fishing in California takes a high toll of the available fish. Sixty of the 167 tagged yellowtail released in southern California waters were recovered. There was a 35.8 percent return within southern California of fish tagged at the Coronado Islands. From some small tagging lots released at the Coronado Islands, there was a 100 percent return. This shows rather decisively that a high percentage of the fish migrating into the area fished by California-based party boats are destined to be caught,” wrote Baxer all those years ago.

Ben-Aderet says more research is needed to make sure we’re not impacting juvenile yellowtail numbers. Increasingly in recent years, sportboats have targeted these smaller yellowtail in the summer months, fish under five pounds that are less three years old. Yellowtail spawn when they reach three years, and the older the fish, the more productive it becomes. Young spawning females carry 400,000 to 500,000 eggs, according to the 1950s research, while older fish can have up to nearly 4 million eggs.

He also said he wants to do more research to see if there are indeed older “homeguard” fish at all of the local islands and banks that don’t migrate. Baxter’s work 70 years ago suggested that might be the case. Most juvenile fish move less than 50 miles before reaching maturity, while the majority (60-plus percent) of mature fish migrated at least 200 to 300 miles and as far as 400 miles (we get a lot of Cedros Island fish at the Coronados). Old, bigger fish, however, also didn’t migrate far from where they were initially captured. But more data is needed to confirm and understand this phenomenon. Ben-Aderet is looking for boat-owning anglers to help with his tagging efforts in local waters. He can be reached at socalyellowtail@gmail.com.

More accurate knowledge of the population and its movements might help assure we have more yellowtail fishing years like this one with better management. 

For anglers, the news for this season is as good as it gets. The best catch rate recorded by sport anglers during Baxter’s study in the 1950s was 1.8-fish-per angler-per-day during the peak months of April through June. Between March 24 and April 2, the Malihini was at 1.6-yellowtail-per angler-per-day, and the best fishing season is yet to come. San Diego out of Seaforth Sportfishing has averaged 1.75-yellowtail-per-angler the first four days of April.

The bite is also starting to get better and better along the coast in near-shore waters and at Catalina and San Clemente islands north of the Coronados. Thunderbird out of Davey’s Locker in Newport Beach had been at San Clemente on overnight trips several times last week, including 21 anglers on board April 2 who landed 67 yellowtail and 26 anglers catching 32 yellowtail on an overnight trip April 3. There were 32 anglers aboard an overnight trip April 4 on Freedom out of 22nd Street Landing in San Pedro and caught 57 yellowtail at Clemente.

The yellowtail fishing might get pushed out of the fishing headlines this spring by another season of excellent yellowfin tuna fishing in our local waters, or it could lose out of news about all the exotics like wahoo and dorado showing up here as we move into spring and summer. There have already been bluefin tuna caught on a three-quarter day boat out of San Diego.

Remember this: These are the good ol’ days for yellowtail fishing in Southern California.

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