As winter nears & the first snow begins to fall most people start gearing up for ski season in the local mountains. I, on the other hand, pack the flip flops & board shorts, & drive south of the border to Baja Mexico for a few weeks to thaw out & escape winter’s cold grasp. My home in Central California is located at 8,500’ elevation, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, & as you can imagine I do a fair amount of snow removal just to keep my driveway clear. For many years Baja has been a favorite winter destination of mine & this year I hope will be no different.
Driving through Baja is much like traveling through the set of an old western film. Although the roads have been improved in recent years, much of Baja is dirt, dust, potholes & weathered small towns with a slow pace of life. Some towns have city power & some run off generators & solar panels. Clocks aren’t of much use & the sunrise on the sea’s horizon is your walk-up call. When I drive through the desert my cell phone is offline as I’m transported to a simpler time. I experience a peace & quiet that many struggle to find in this day and age.
Most of my summer is spent chasing various species of wild trout, often small in size but gorgeous with vibrant colorations. For this winter desert trip, however, we are targeting Yellowtail. A species of the Jack family, Yellowtail are pound for pound one of the hardest pulling fish, absolute drag screamers! This will be a big change of pace for me because most trout I catch would be the size of bait for these aggressive Yellowtail.
What exactly are Yellowtail?
Yellowtail are found in many parts of the world’s oceans & are a popular game fish in our local waters off California’s coast. They’re commonly referred to as Kingfish in Australia & New Zealand, yet they’re also referred to as Yellowtail Amberjack, Hamachi or Buri in other countries. They grow quite large, up to 80lbs on record, but here in Northern Baja, they average 10-20lbs in the winter season. Yellowtail stick close to structure; kelp, patties, reefs & other high points, but will push baitfish to the surface from deep water. Hooking & landing one of these Yellows on a fly rod is much easier said than done & many variables need to align to find success.
Baja Boating for Yellowtail
Whether you’re aboard someone else’s boat or you’re skippering your own, like any inshore or offshore operation, you must be very disciplined in having the right safety gear on board & knowing just how capable your vessel is. Out here, in the unpredictable Sea of Cortez, no one is coming to the rescue if you run into a problem…No Coast Guard or Vessel Assist like we have back in the States. Fortunately for me, I have a few friends down there with boats so finding a ride isn’t that difficult. Having 2 or more boats in a similar area of water is also a safety plus, it allows for radio communication if there is a problem. I also have a 20’ aluminum Baja Bayrunner, which is great for running around the inner islands on calmer days. And if no options are available, the local ponga guys are always a great resource & can be hired for a fun day of fishing.
Wind, Tide, and Current are 3 very important variables when fly fishing for Yellowtail on the Sea of Cortez. Don’t take these lightly as they can easily make or break your trip.
1) Wind – Can be a nightmare & will often hold you, hostage, onshore for many days, especially in the winter season. Unlike the Pacific Ocean, there’s no swell in the Sea of Cortez & when it gets windy, it gets very choppy & dangerous. Not to mention, who likes to cast flies in high winds?! Be sure to check the daily forecast religiously & don’t overstay your calm morning if winds are to pick up in the afternoon.
2) Tide – Baja has some incredible tide swings, upwards of 20’ on the new & full moon phases. We either launch our vessels from a sandy beach or when we can, launch from a very small & short boat ramp if the tides allow. Many times we have fished much longer in the day than planned & upon our return we find the tide down 15’, making it difficult to put the boat back on the trailer. If that is the case we’re forced to drop anchor a safe distance from the beach, swim to shore, & await the next high tide.
3) Current – If the Yellowtail aren’t on the surface & the current is ripping fast, getting a fly deep enough to find the strike zone is nearly impossible, even with the heaviest sinking lines & flies. In this case, either reach for a cold beer and get comfortable or grab a conventional rod with a fast sinking iron, because this is a fly angler’s worst nightmare when fishing offshore.
Gear for Yellowtail Fly Fishing
Now, when all 3 of these variables align perfectly…flat seas, calm winds & just enough current to get the fish pushing towards the surface, it’s a fly anglers dream-outing. I usually pack a few different rated sinking lines, just to make sure I can adapt to most situations. I pair those lines with 9wt-12wt Sage Salt HD Rods & Sage Spectrum Max Reels. My favorite is when the fish are on the surface & I can make longer casts with the lighter 9wt; a hookup with that rod makes for one hell of a fight! Swinging those heavier 12wts all day will surely beat you up, but when the fish are deep you’ll need some of the heaviest Leviathan sinking lines by Rio.
Hooking Yellowtail at 100’ down is no simple task & so you’ll need every advantage you can get. There is no need to get too fancy with your fly patterns so I’ll whip up sardine or mackerel imitations. Be sure to always bring a stripping basket of some sort to keep your line organized, because these fish will go from 0 to 60 in a split second. I’ve always wondered if anyone has ever lost a finger from getting tangled up in their fly line mess while a fish is tearing out the fly line!? I’ve been close.
Most fly anglers these days practice catch & release, which is encouraged, but these Yellowtail are some of the best-tasting fish & we often keep enough for dinner & some for the freezer. We make sure to release the rest, especially the smaller fish. Yellowtail make for some delicious sushi & we usually enjoy it fresh on the boat or that evening with a little soy sauce. Fish tacos is another favorite of mine; add a little pico de gallo, mayo, lime, with a cold beer, & you’re living & eating well in Baja!
Chasing winter Yellowtail on the fly has many challenges. Just like targeting any new species on the fly, there will be bite-less days…that’s why I also encourage you to pack some cold beer, just in case. Fair warning guys & gals, after pulling on a few drag screamin’ Yellows fishing for bait-sized trout may seem a bit uneventful. But either way, winter in Baja sure does beat shoveling snow for a few weeks on the cold mountain.
Cheers everyone & have a safe winter season wherever your travels may bring you!
Article from Seth Blackamore, you can follow along with Seth on Instagram at @seth.blackamore.