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Catching Yellowtail Snapper

Catching these tasty snapper is fun and easy if you know a few tricks…


Yellowtail Snapper
Karhyn Pope/Contributor/Moment Mobile/flickr Editorial/Getty Images
As I was growing up and fishing on the Florida Keys, yellowtail snapper were one of my favorite fish to catch. If we fished for yellowtail, it meant being out in the pristine, clear water of the keys, over a reef. There was no telling what else we might see or catch.

Captain’s Friend

Over the years I came to realize that the yellowtail was usually a sure bet for the charter captains and guides. Lots of times when a guide did not have a paying angler for the day, he and a friend or two would head out over the reef and fish for yellowtail. As a commercial fisherman he was able to legally sell his catch and make some money on an otherwise dead day.

So, the yellowtail took on a special importance for me. Not only were they easy to catch, they were great to eat! And, for the commercial guys, they brought a good price at the dock.

What Tackle Do I Need?

Yellowtail can get up to five or six pounds, although in recent years, a five pounder – we called them “flags” - have been hard to come by. The world record is just over 8 pounds. So, light tackle is usually the order of the day. I like to use 15 pound spinning tackle with monofilament line and a fluorocarbon leader.

Terminal Tackle

The terminal tackle I use is really simple. It consists of a small circle hook on the end of the fluorocarbon leader. I will occasionally use a small sinker – more often a split shot, but usually I need only a hook. This is free-line fishing at its finest.

Locate the Fish

Yellowtail are a reef fish – pure reef fish. They are a schooling fish and if you find one, you usually will have located the entire school. These fish like to locate and sit over a bottom structure that sticks up from the bottom. That usually means a hump or big reef formation.

Along the outer edge of the Atlantic reef line from Key West to as far north as North Carolina, natural reef formations can rise off the ocean floor as much as 30 or 40 feet. These formations are easy to locate on a chart and easy to find with a good GPS/Fish Finder.

I have quite a number of locations marked already in my GPS and getting to them is a straight shot. When I look for a new location I will run the edge of the reef looking for two things. First I want to find a ledge, a drop off or a hump. Once I find one of these structures, I look for fish on the fish finder. Yellowtail will school and they show up as a big mass on the fish finer. If they are the larger sized fish they will individually mark as isolated fish move about on the edge of the school. They may be on the bottom, but usually they will be up off the bottom in the water column. Once you have located a few schools, you will be able to know by looking at the fish finder that what you are seeing is a school of yellowtail.

Boat Position

This is where you will have to be careful and know where you are. There are so many no anchor zones on the keys. In general you can anchor on hard bottom, but not on top of a reef. Drifting is a possibility, but if you really want to get into the yellowtail, you need to be able to anchor. So, assuming the fish you found are in an area where anchoring is allowed, you will need to judge the wind and the current and move upwind and up current to anchor. You want the boat to be positioned up current from the structure over which you will be fishing. That’s because you are going to free line your bait in the current back to the fish. You can see why drifting would make things a lot more difficult.

Break Out the Chum

To really catch yellowtail snapper, you are going to want to have a chum bag and some blocks of frozen chum. We call these frozen blocks blood chum, but any chum that melts and disperses pieces of fish will do. I always like to have another block of frozen glass minnows thawing in a bucket on deck as well.

The chum will drift back away from the boat and down into the water. If the current is too strong, the chum may drift over the fish. In that case, simply re-anchor farther up current. After about ten minutes of chum flow, I take a hook, bait it and put it in the water right at the boat. I allow it to go down naturally as it drifts away from the boat. Using that circle hook means I need only start reeling when a fish takes my bait.

Adjusting Your Bait

Yellowtail are smart, and the water is usually gin clear. That means that heavy line can be seen and will usually spook the larger fish. That’s why I use light monofilament and that fluorocarbon leader. The small circle hook is easier to hide in the piece of bait, and it makes for a quicker bite from the yellowtail.

If I’m not getting a bite but I know the fish are down there, I may b3e drifting my bait back to shallow or too deep. That’s where I may put a split shot on the line up from the bait. That will take my bait a bit deeper. That’s also where my glass minnows come in. Occasionally when and if the bite slows, I grab a handful of glass minnows and throw them back behind the boat. They are a magnet for the yellowtail and they will really get the bite going again. I use them sparingly, because the fish can grow accustomed to them and not touch your \bait.

Bait – What Bait to Use

I have used live shrimp to get the bite started and then switched to frozen dead shrimp when the chum slick is working and the fish are in a feeding frenzy. I have also switched to small pieces of frozen squid and sometimes even cut mullet. It just depends on what bait is available and how good the bite is.

Bottom Line

Yellowtail snapper are really easy to catch if you get the chum going and your bait is hidden well and drifting back into the school like a piece of chum. If the bite does not come, adjusting the boat position, the speed of you bait’s drop or the size and depth of your bait will usually start the fish feeding. Then it’s a matter of hauling in the fish! In Florida, yellowtail snapper must be a minimum of 12 inches long and they are a part of the 10 snapper per person aggregate bag limit.
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