Big Game Yellowtailin’

A surprising twist on catching the best of the snapper schools.

By Joe Suroviec

Cast that hard-body plug way-back in the chumline where the bigger fish tend to feed. (Photo by Sam Root)

Normally when someone invites you to go yellowtailing, you envision a gentle ocean current lined up with the wind and the smell of sweet chum drifting behind your boat in 60 to 90 feet of water. Speedos, Bermuda chubs and other fish are darting through the chum, when suddenly you see a patch of yellow some 35 feet back: The yellowtail snapper have arrived.

Next you break out light spinning rods, very small hooks, light leaders, and tiny chunks of shrimp or cut bait.
But that picture is changing, as pros in the Keys—by far the mainstay of yellowtail fishing in Florida—are now dropping 7-pounders in the cooler using surprisingly heavy tackle and a complete strategy shift.
After 10 years of inspecting chumlines along the Keys chain, the bigger “flag” yellowtail are hard as heck to fool. They have sharp vision and instantly spot baits that drift slower or faster than the chum. The secret to fooling these Harvard chumline summa cum laude grads?

Try using a strategic mix of live chum, heavy standup spinning outfits, braided line and artificial lures.
The approach brings to mind standup fishing techniques perfected by California anglers on their long-range trips out of San Diego into Mexican waters for huge yellowfin tuna, wahoo, and Pacific yellowtails. Those yellowtails, for the record, are unrelated to the snapper we enjoy here in South Florida. Pacific yellowtail are in the jack family, and one might say they are “amberjackish” in stature and strength. They’re a super-charged gamefish requiring heavier gear and maximum muscle power to get to the boat once hooked.
On a recent trip to the Keys, however, I discovered that the two yellowtails, the Florida snapper and Pacific jack, indeed have more in common than just a name.

A well-known captain—who in this case wishes to remain nameless—introduced me to big-game yellowtailing on the reef.

Let me point out that I really enjoy yellowtailing, and have for many, many years. The sheer dedication to techniques of light line and small, almost tiny hooks, to fool these chumslick veterans is cause for Keys legend material around the docks. The yellowtail’s ability to refuse an offering is maddening. Been there, designed the t-shirt … you might say.

So after we got to the spot, set up a nice chumslick, and noticed that for once the current was cooperating (wind and current in the same direction is best). I was set to break out the ’tailing gear. “Hold on,” the captain said, “those are not the rods and reels to use here.”

I was reaching for the lighter gear he had stowed below the gunnels in the stern. “Here,” the captain directed. “This is what we are going to need here.”

I was handed a huge spinning reel with 80-pound-test braided line, a 4-foot section of 60-pound leader and about 18 inches of No. 9 wire that had nothing on the end. Was he kidding?

Is anybody out there feeling me right about now? Ah, yeah. That is what I was thinking, too. He hands me a 52M green and chrome MirrOlure and says to haywire twist that on to the end of the wire and to adjust the drag to none. I am still on board, but losing faith fast as I am no rookie to yellowtailing in the Keys; using the “traditional” gear I’ve iced my share of limits in tough conditions.

On my first cast to a swarming school of yellowtails, everything I ever thought was sacred and true about huge yellowtails went out the window. The second the lure hit the water, I had not one but two huge ’tails hooked and pumping for the bottom.


The author with a flag yellowtail in hand caught on a plug.

“Put your head down and reel like you are in a reeling contest and are way behind,” the captain yelled. In about 20 seconds, one of the two monsters I’d hooked was lying on the deck, gleaming like a gasping miniature yellow- and blue-spotted Jenny Craig version of a mutton snapper. Unbelievable!

But, I was there and it was happening and it continued to happen until we got our limit of 10 each and we were done, literally spent from the hyperactivity this sort of technique demands.

What was the method behind this madness?

We had a livewell full of pilchards, and once the frozen block chum had the initial party going, we ladled over pilchards a few at a time. We kept the baits in top shape; no smacking on the transom. Dazing the livies, we’ve found, only feeds the birds and the little fish. Once the birds get there and are circled up in earnest the big yellowtail descend, wary of the shapes and sounds of the swarming birds. Also, they’re less willing to chase surface baits as a whole.

So we let the pick of the livewell go to their doom as once they cleared the smaller fish at the front of the line, they faced a gauntlet of huge, educated veteran ‘tails that had no trouble at all catching these frisky baits. Importantly, these super snappers were now focused on small groups of live baits coming back in regular amounts. Therein lies the key to this sort of fishing: Establish a feeding frenzy that rewards the few of the many. Once your lure hits a mass of foaming yellowtail super fish it is history and many multiple hookups occur. I saw it, and this has happened most every time I’ve repeated this procedure. So it is no fluke.

Several issues here spell doom or success and they are: Rod and reels need to be of good working order and sturdy enough to overpower a 5-pound-plus yellowtail on its initial burn to the bottom. Flag ’tails are a real handful on their initial rush to the coral below. And, there is also the reality of the hooked snappers acting as lunch for the waiting groupers, amberjacks, barracuda, sharks and kingfish.


Tackle up with a heavy spinner when the yellowtails come to play. Bowed up, this snapper is headed for the bottom.

Remember how undergunned you felt when you hooked a large snapper on light tackle and a big fish took it below? Guess what? You are now armed with a rod-and-reel combo that allows you to land these guys now: wire bite leader; heavy mono shock leader; no-stretch Dacron or polyethylene braided line. This is a big step up from the straight 12-pound test we normally fish for yellowtail. Select a plug with strong hooks, and you’re ready to land not only super-size yellowtail, but also the smaller sharks that feed in the chumslick, as well as groupers, kings and amberjacks. Maybe you consider these fish nuisances, but from an entertainment aspect, it’s a rush pulling on a big, unexpected fish. Now instead of re-rigging after snapped lines, you’re catching fish.

I love this sort of fishing and the stares at the dock are well worth the effort. On the yellowtail grounds of South Florida and the Keys, it’s been a secret of sorts. Now it’s out. Next time the yellowtail are giving you fits and you have a good supply of wigglers in the well, give it a try.

And remember that light tackle I reached for when the ’tails showed up in the slick? My anonymous friend said it was there only to act as a decoy. The real rods and reels used were in plain sight, and nobody ever associates the fish with that gear. Nobody except me, of course. I know and now you know what that gear is for. Cast with caution.

Handling Plugs on a Snapper Boat

Cast the plug right into the middle of the fish or in front of them, and pull it into the surface activity. Twitch the lure when it’s near the fish at the surface, and then retrieve it fast when you’re out of the area where the fish were feeding. Sometimes blind casts work when not chumming, as it seems there are cruisers that are up in the top column waiting for more to show.

Cockpit safety is vital here, as you’re dealing with heavy lures loaded with sharp hooks. These multiple hooks are instrumental in hooking the fish as they slash and crash into your lure. They can also hook you and boat cushions as well.

To minimize the possibility of a 6-pound yellowtail shaking a hook into a hand or worse, handle fish with terrycloth boat rags (torn up beach towel variety) or heavy duty gloves. If the lure is really deep in a fish, we immerse the fish into a saltwater ice bath after cutting the lure off as close to the fish as possible, then retrieve the hook during a break in the action.

If there is an inexperienced caster on board, the place for them to learn is up front, away from other anglers.
As skipper, gently remind your crew to keep their act together.

Load Up on Pilchards

Often mutton snapper will feed in the same chumlines as fair-size yellowtail snapper. The stouter tackle described in the story, along with a frisky pilchard, helped Victor Suroviec, right, bring this mutton aboard.

Medium pilchards (3 inches or so) work best as live chum on the reef, if only for the simple reason that you can hold more of them in your livewell. The larger ones, of course, are dynamite for sailfish, dolphin and mutton snapper!

The pilchard, in case you’re wondering, is a common name for the scaled sardine. It’s a small, silvery plankton feeder that forms immense schools.

Look for pilchards near the beaches where herons are wading or where diving pelicans or terns pinpoint the location. Early in the morning, pilchards “flip” at the surface now and then. As the sun comes up, you’ll want to scan below the surface with polarizing sunglasses, watching for the distinctive flash of the schools. To fill your own livewell most efficiently, you’ll want a castnet with 3⁄8-inch bar mesh, at least 10 feet radius.
Most Keys marinas and tackle shops can suggest local contacts for livebait suppliers.

A rounded livewell (no sharp corners) of at least 17 gallons (preferably 30 or more) is necessary to keep these baits kicking.

The biggest yellowtail snapper are way too leery for traditional chum-and-drift techniques. But invite a few thousand frisky pilchards to the party and see who comes to crash it!