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FISHING - Forktail Fever

Forktail Fever
by Tom Gatch
Veteran Baja Angler, Jay Johnson (left), and Capt. Beto Zamora display
proof that Baja’s quality grade yellowtail are still available just off the
coast of Ensenada.
If I had to name a particular species of gamefish that can be successfully targeted at sometime during the year in almost every region of Baja California, it would have to be the yellowtail. And, over the years, perhaps no place has drawn more anglers to the peninsula to pursue yellowtail than has Ensenada on the Pacific Coast of Baja Norte.

Known as "jurel" to Baja’s pangeros and commercial fishermen, this hard fighting cousin of the amberjack gave Ensenada its reputation during the 1940s and '50’s of being “the yellowtail capital of the world.” Even though they may no longer be present in their previous numbers, this spirited and tenacious jack (Seriola dorsalls) still offers an extremely valuable contribution to the area’s fishery.

Over the following decades, however, commercial development and a rapidly increasing population took their toll. But perhaps the most deleterious practice to negatively impact Ensenada’s yellowtail fishery was the mass, over-harvesting of baitfish stocks for the purpose of making fishmeal. Without the proliferation of forage fish, the once large schools of yellowtail that originally made the region famous gradually faded into memory.

Although not as voracious as the commercial harvesters a half century ago, the large tuna farms that are presently operating off of Baja Norte’s Pacific Coast continue to net massive quantities of baitfish such as sardines and anchovies. In the process, they impose a negative impact upon the very same bait resources that normally draw migrating yellowtail and other pelagic species into our area as the season progresses. But in spite of this fact, Bahia de Todos Santos still remains a productive venue for pursuing this popular gamester.

Nonetheless, yellowtail fishing off of Ensenada remains good in the spring and early summer, and often reaches its peak during late summer and early fall. The fish are generally found in areas ranging up to 60 miles from shore, and can be also be located near offshore banks or islands either electronically or by using more traditional methods, which include looking for surface disturbances as well as flocks of circling, diving birds.

While most anglers end up fishing for the migratory school-sized yellowtail that invade our waters between spring and fall, the real diehards fish for them practically year round by targeting the big, resident "homeguard" fish that can be taken between the southern tip of Islas Todos Santos, and the rocky promontories and pinnacles that thrust above the water’s surface just off the end of the Punta Banda peninsula. Many of these bruisers "forktails" can weigh over 30 pounds. Actually hooking and landing one of these bad boys can be a hit or miss proposition during the off season, but if you are lucky enough to do so, you are in for a fight of a lifetime.

Homeguard "mossbacks," which are often even targeted during winter months, can be particularly frustrating because of their incredible strength and stamina. Once hooked, they will usually begin a powerful, long run toward any type of structure, and have an unnerving ability to wrap your line around whatever is available. When this occurs, it almost always results in a lost fish.

It is essential that your tackle be in top condition and, ideally, you should have a separate rod set up for each specifically different situation; one for live bait, one for iron and one for trolling. Large, mackerel-patterned Rapala-style hard baits work well on the troll, while light surface iron is most effective for casting to boiling fish.

Hungry homeguard yellowtail are rarely able to resist a well-presented live sardine or small mackerel that is dropped right in front of their nose. Baits can sometimes be cajoled to swim to greater depths by simply hooking them through the flesh near the anal fin. When yellowtail are observed crashing schools of baitfish, one of the most effective artificial baits is a surface iron jig in chrome, pewter or a blue/white combination. Cast directly at the activity, let the lure sink for a few seconds, then retrieve at a moderate speed and prepare yourself for a jarring strike.

But, when yellowtail are holding deeper in the water column, heavier bottom iron can be deadly when allowed to fully descend to the bottom, and is then cranked up rapidly. Needless to say, fresh line is always a must when targeting homeguard yellowtail, as are premium hooks that will not bend or break under the pressure. In recent years, the advent of high-quality fluorocarbon leaders that are virtually invisible have made fishing for these sometimes line-shy fish a bit easier.

As table fare, unless it is properly handled and prepared, yellowtail can tend to have a somewhat gamey flavor. That is why it is important to bleed and chill the ones you intend to keep to maintain optimum quality, and then carefully remove all of the dark reddish meat during the filleting process. If that is done, you will then be able to treat friends and family to world-class hamachi sashimi as well as thick, tasty fillets of grilled yellowtail cooked over mesquite. And smoked yellowtail is considered a gourmet delicacy.

Now that the season has finally arrived, it will probably be just a matter of time before schools of yellowtail begin showing up around the Baja coast. And, hopefully, with careful stewardship and responsible commercial and recreational harvesting practices now and in the future, the yellowtail will remain one of Baja’s most valuable native resources for many years to come.
Tom Gatch is the author of Hooked on Baja and has built a solid reputation as one of the foremost authors and photographers focusing on outdoor and recreational topics in Southern California and the Baja California peninusula.
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