It is my belief that ‘shy’ should not be used to describe members of the snapper clan. Least of all yellowtail snapper, reputed by some to be especially wary. No indeed. In various waters I have observed foot-long yellowtail assault 8-inch ballyhoo skipping behind a trolling boat. I have also witnessed them body slam MirrOlures in 30 feet of water, just out of sight of the Miami skyline. That’s pretty bold, as far as fish go. After all, when’s the last time you caught a kingfish on a 4-foot plug?
But, like many schooling fish, yellowtail seem to operate on some kind of collective brain (ever wonder why a pod of mangrove snapper suddenly quits biting, or how the dadgum jacks all decide to bite at once?). Moreover, yellowtail seem to be able to learn. At least that’s what a veteran Islamorada charter captain explained when I asked about all the buckets of oats and chum piled up in his 23-foot open fisherman.
“It’s a consensus among the top yellowtail fishermen in this area that you can make your own yellowtail spot, simply by going out there and chumming an area that’s never been chummed before,” said Capt. Ron Green. “It’s a known fact that when David Jensen was running the Caloosa partyboat out of Whale Harbor, when they pulled up on a spot, the fish were conditioned enough that before the first chumbag was in the water, they would hear the motors and come up to investigate.”
Listening to the skipper’s monologue of marine mojo, I couldn’t help picturing aquarium fish rising to attention at the flip of a lid.
“See, if you set up a feeding station, and drop your anchor there every day, when those fish hear the motor, they know one thing: It’s feeding time. It’s a food fight!”
So we were about to be treated to an education in Pavlovian snapper fishing. Green guaranteed that with enough chumming, on just the right section of reef, he would be able to paint the surface of the water yellow behind his boat, the Daytripper III. I’d done a bit of yellowtail fishing myself, but most of the ’tails I’d caught were hanging far back in the chumline, where they flashed here and there and grabbed bits of shrimp or ballyhoo drifting freely on light line and light hooks.
The kind of fishing Green promised was in-your-face action, a sort of snapper sight casting that intrigued me, almost as much as the whole training fish to feed out of your hand thing.
With the skipper’s quiver of moderately stiff, 12- and 20-pound rods and an industrial quantity of chum (30 blocks!) and horse feed, we were off to the reef.
For our part, we’d brought a secret weapon: A lady angler, namely Jennie Simmons, Florida Sportsman advertising assistant. I think it’s still P.C. to say that the fair sex has better luck with the kind of finesse involved in light-tackle snapper fishing.
Jennie paid close attention to Capt. Green’s instructions to strip line off the rod in 6-foot increments (bail open, of course) by pointing the rodtip low to the water and pulling back sharply. The idea was to give a piece of peeled shrimp a drag-free drift in the current, allowing it to sink like the bits of chum streaming behind us.
“I try to tell people not to strip line by pulling it off the reel—it gets bunched up before it gets through the guides,” said Green. “There’s always one or two guys who figure that out, and they catch all the fish.”
Make that one gal. It was actually quite some time before Jennie got to show off her angling prowess. After anchoring on a steep dropoff outside Alligator Reef, Green insisted we first wait for the fish to show. He put out a frozen chumblock in a large-mesh bag tied off at the stern, then set to mixing the oats and the chum.
The oats are purchased in 50-pound bags at the local feed store. The night before a trip, Green fills a couple of 5-gallon buckets three-quarters of the way with oats, then tops them off with water. By the next day, it’s a mushy mess, as are the several blocks of chum set out to thaw (some, obviously, are reserved in frozen state for thawing in the mesh bag offshore).
On the water, Green stirs a half-and-half mix of the two ingredients in a separate bucket with the bent handle of an old gaff. He uses an ice scoop to toss the rich, semi-buoyant attractant into the chumslick every now and then. The fish go crazy, and yes, on good days they do bunch up in a seething mass of yellow right behind the boat.
With a moderately slow current, it took awhile for the fish to tune in to the chum. But they soon arrived, flipping bright yellow fins at the surface like a school of thermonuclear bonefish. Green says on days with no current at all, the ’tails simply hang deep beneath the boat, waiting for their breakfast of cereal and fish goop to sink to their level. When that’s the case, the skipper grabs a heaping handful of the chum, packs it into a ball around the bait (shrimp, ballyhoo sliver, glass minnow, etc.), wraps the fishing line around it a dozen times, and sends it shooting comet-like for the depths. The chumball dissolves in the water, attracting yellowtail to the candy center. Some yellowtailers add masonry sand to the chumball mix, making the ever-popular sandball.
Seriously fast current means Green might pinch a splitshot near the eye of the hook; usually, though, chumming for yellowtails means freelining baits. Going back to the concept of educated fish, the snappers learn right away to pattern the assortment of goodies drifting over the reef. Those which move like the bits of oatmeal and chum get eaten. Those which sink too fast, remain still, or appear to swim, are generally ignored. Of course, you could leave out the chum altogether and simply drop a shrimp or cut pilchard on a jig or sliding sinker rig. In the right water, that will certainly nab a few yellowtail—just not in the quantity Green and other pros seek for their customers.
Jennie and her fiancé Jeff Glassgold picked up 12-pound spinning rods baited with peeled shrimp. Green insisted on using peeled shrimp, and took great pains to ensure each piece looked clean enough to serve at your daughter’s wedding. Why? “It makes a difference. All I can tell you is that these fish are spoiled; they’re
among the most well-fed fish in the world,” he said.
Fishing lines were tied directly to No. 2, bronze Mustad 9174 hooks with a Palomar knot—no double line, no shock leader, just a low-profile, strong connection. “After I toss out a scoop of chum, wait about five seconds before throwing the bait in,” Green advised the two anglers. “Even though it’s only a small hook, that hook and bait tends to sink faster than the chum; we want everything to sink at the same time.”
A yellowtail has a distinctive strike. The line is flowing slowly into the wake, then it just speeds up. You give the snapper a few seconds to eat, then turn the bail over, tighten the line and git ’em.
Jennie started gittin’ ’em right away. For Jeff, it took a few tries, but soon he, too, was swinging aboard modest-sized ’tails. Our fishbox began to take on a colorful look to it; in various stages of chilling, the yellowtail turn a neon pink.
I sat back and watched for a while, then put out a bait of my own and promptly hooked a bonito, a species I could not evade if I were to slow-troll hot dogs on Lake Okeechobee.
Groupers, typically blacks around the coral ridges, are also among the hungry visitors to yellowtail food fights. But unlike the roving bonito, which happily grab tidbits of shrimp or ballyhoo, groupers prefer large meals served on the bottom. Drop a plump live baitfish (a 12-inch, legal-size yellowtail is dynamite) on a 30- or 50-pound conventional rod and you could wind up with a substantial addition to your dinner plans—that or you might get rocked up and broken off. Either way, it’s a fun change of pace to the yellowtailin’.
Of course chumming and rod handling are only part of the yellowtail game. You first have to find the critters. Start by looking at your depthfinder. Green still counts on an old Si-Tex paper graph machine. I’ve long been satisfied with the newer liquid crystal displays, but will admit I kind of enjoyed looking at the black scribbles on paper. It brought me back about fifteen years to a place where snappers grew big, red and mean, and you could catch all you wanted with a hunk of freezer-burned cigar minnow. The Islamorada skipper said he likes to keep records of what he marks. He also feels he can more easily distinguish the vertical spike of a yellowtail school on paper—the tell-’tail sign, in other words.
“The fish hang on the edge of the wall,” Green explained, pointing to an obvious dip in the line. “What we’re fishing is a solid coral ledge that runs from Fowey Light off Miami all the way to the Dry Tortugas; in some places it drops from 50 to 100 feet, others 60 to 90.” The steeper drops, it seems, hold more fish—as do those subject to daily showers of chum. Next to your depthfinder, you’ll want to quickly save the numbers on your GPS or loran. Green keeps meticulous records of good bites; he scrawls them on his console and dares his passengers to write them down.
Once you’re in the zone, you can toss over a marker buoy (an empty detergent bottle, mono or nylon line and a sash weight or two), or just sort of “feel” your way upcurrent of the area to be fished before anchoring your boat. Keep in mind the current along the Florida Keys reefline is influenced by the Gulf Stream, localized tides and major wind fields—which means it is highly unpredictable. The important thing is to be far enough upcurrent of the yellowtail school to get your chum, and baits, to the fish.
The common Danforth-style anchor holds bottom by means of a pair of triangular flukes that dig into the sand. It does a pretty good job in the rocky stuff, too. Trouble is, it tends to stick in hard structure, sometimes so tight that nothing short of a battleship could pull it free. To prevent hangups and the inevitable loss of anchors and gear, Green drills a hole in the square-shaped crown of the Danforth and shackles the chain to the bottom of the anchor. At the top of the anchor, he secures the chain to the stock with a piece of 40- or 50-pound-test monofilament.
When it’s time to move, Green clips an anchor float to the line, motors upcurrent and out to one side of the anchor position, and revs up the engine. If the anchor is stuck, the mono tether breaks, and the anchor is pulled out backwards. Sold in some boating supply shops and catalogs, an anchor float is an air-filled polyurethane ball tethered to a gate clip by a short length of nylon rope. A stainless ring fits around your anchor line, and the clip holds it closed. When the boat moves upcurrent and away from the anchor, the ring slides down the anchor line, catches the anchor, and the float lifts it to the surface. No sore backs!
Simplifying the anchoring chores is important, as you’ll find that yellowtail fishing produces its own set of labors. One is washing off errant blobs of chum and oat mush before they dry into a permanent crust on your boat and tackle. Another is filleting and skinning all those fish.
Capt. Green made fast work of our yellowtail catch, and he even told us his secret for the firmest, best-tasting fillets: Bring back a 5-gallon bucket half full of clean ocean water (NOT canal water), top with ice, and deposit freshly cleaned fillets in the cold brine. When you’re finished cleaning, avoid rinsing the fillets in fresh water; just take ’em out of the bucket, put in a Zip-Loc bag and refrigerate until ready to cook. Yellowtail are terrific panfish, especially those farm-raised Islamorada fish fed on a grain diet of oatmeal.