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Big Game Yellowtailin'

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

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.

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 techn

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.“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 ther

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, 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 live bait 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!