Tips for tackling Florida Gulf Coast yellowtail snapper.
Most yellowtail snapper landings come from the Keys coral reef tract, but scattered populations range as far north as Jacksonville on the Atlantic coast and St. Petersburg in the Gulf of Mexico. When they show up, savvy anglers enjoy fast action on a great-eating, beautiful fish.
Fishing off Marco Island, I’ve reliably targeted ’tails year-round. The bite here peaks March through August, as it does at roughly the same latitude on the Atlantic coast.
Yellowtail fishing in my area is typically best in 60 feet of water or more, which around here means that you are about 25 miles offshore. While we occasionally catch keeper-size ’tails—at least 12 inches total length–in 25 to 45 feet, the bite is not reliable. We catch some nice fish over hard bottom, but not in great quantities. The best action is on deep wrecks and ledges, and the most dependable technique is anchoring and chumming, same as it is in the Keys.
Yellowtail typically hold just off the structure, suspending over surrounding sand bottom. Studies of their stomach contents show that they are equal opportunity feeders, eating small fish, crabs and shrimp alike. Through proper chumming, you can attract their attention, but it’s vital that you anchor sufficiently upcurrent of the structure. The stronger the current, the farther upcurrent you need to be. Yellowtail have a relatively small mouth, so baits and hooks must be of commensurate size. Ideally, you want bait and chum to drift back toward the fish at the same rate and roughly the same level.
A successful outing always begins with setting up the chumslick. It can be as simple as a couple of blocks of frozen chum hung from the transom, but I like to step it up a couple of notches.
I begin with one chumbag off the stern. If the current is especially strong I’ll add a second bag off the bow. For a chumbag I prefer to use landing net replacement netting rigged with 1/8-inch line. It’s better than the conventional bags sold at most tackle shops for a couple of reasons. First, the net and line are stronger and hold more chum. Secondly, the larger mesh really lets the chum flow freely.
Freelining is the method of choice, which means freespooling your bait into the chumslick until a yellowtail picks it up. The trick is determining where in the chumslick the yellowtail are feeding. Experiment with different size jigheads or splitshot until your bait is flowing with the chum. Sometimes fish will be higher or lower in the water column than the chumslick would dictate, so don’t be afraid to experiment with weight size.
Over the years I’ve favored a small jighead over hook and splitshot combo. I always carried a selection of 1/8-, ¼-, 3/8- and ½-ounce jigheads. The National Marine Fisheries Service now requires a circle hook with any natural bait combo, meaning you’ll have to go out of your way to find a jig molded on a circle hook. Scented synthetic baits such as Gulp! may be fished on traditional J-hook jigs, and seem to catch plenty of fish. This season a small circle hook with splitshot or perhaps a tiny egg sinker may be the call. For the record, I’ve found that we gut-hook more snappers on circle hooks than we did on J-hooks.
One little trick we use to keep the bait flowing with the chum is to make sure to have plenty of slack line in the water. Do not let the current pull the line off the reel. This will prevent your bait from sinking properly and that little bit of extra tension will also cause a wary flag yellowtail to drop the bait before you can get the hook into it. This is especially true with circle hooks because the fish have to hold onto the bait long enough for the circle hook to do its thing.
I like to keep the tackle as light as conditions allow. A saltwater grade spinning reel holding a few hundred yards of high-visibility braided line in 20-pound-test is fine. Why high vis? Being able to see where your line enters the water will tip you off to a strike well before you feel it. This allows you to get into a position to close the bail before the line is whipping off the reel.
Any good 7-foot medium weight rod will work fine. To prevent pulled hooks on braided line, we use a slower action rod such as an Ugly Stik SP1170. I add a long fluorocarbon leader using a uni-to-uni knot, but you can use any knot that you can tie with confidence. We start with a 25-pound-test leader and may lighten up to as little as 10-pound until we get a consistent bite. Finish the setup with a circle hook in the 1/0 to 3/0 size with a splitshot or two pinched on the leader. – FS
Home Brew Chum Mix
I use commercial block chum in the bags, but to augment things, I make some of my own for ladling over the side periodically. Some of the mixture I’ll freeze in plastic bags, as well.
I start by thawing out three or four blocks of frozen menhaden or sardine chum in a couple of 5-gallon buckets. To this I add loaves of stale bread or oats tothicken it up and add some starch. Although it is a more expensive option, I have found that using instant mashed potatoes for a thickening agent gets the best response from the snapper. I use a little sand sometimes, but not much. Next, in goes some menhaden oil and sea water to achieve the proper consistency, somewhat like leftover grits.
The next ingredients are the most important because they dictate what baits you use. If you intend to use shrimp for bait, liberally mix shrimp into the slurry, reserving some for the bait and further chumming. The next possible ingredient is pilchards, left over from past trips, saved and frozen for later use. No need to cut them up as they will soften up after thawing and basically fall apart when mixed into your chum buckets. Glass minnows are another option.
As for bait, shrimp and both whole and cut pilchards will work. Depending on how finicky the fish are, you may have to experiment with the bait size and type. I like shrimp because it is easier to hide the hook inside their body. I pinch off the tail and run the entire hook up into the shrimp. I also use small to medium size pilchards, inserting the hook into the gill opening and sliding it into the body just under the skin. Cutting the tail off just forward of the caudal peduncle will stop the bait from spinning and help the bait flow better with the chum as well as release more scent.
All this may seem like a lot of work, but it pays off. Big yellowtail are wary fish and for good reason. Not only are we trying to catch them, but they have the added worry of being consumed by sharks, barracuda, kingfish and the omnipresent goliath grouper. The heavy chumming is necessary to make the yellowtail overcome their innate reticence and come up to feed with abandon.
By Joe Cacaro
First Published Florida Sportsman Aug. 2010