Tactics for taming yellowtail in KZN

By Craig Stubbs

[Originally published in the September 2022 issue of SKI-BOAT magazine]

THE Cape yellowtail (Seriola Lalandi) is one of three Seriola species found in South African waters, with the other two being colloquially referred to as the greater amberjack and tropical amberjack. However, unlike the greater and tropical ambers which prefer warmer waters, yellowtail prefer colder water and are most abundant in the chilly Atlantic waters of the Cape where they are one of the Cape anglers’ most abundant and prime target species.
There is, however, a northward push of these fish, where mainly large adults in the 10kg-plus range make their way up past the Kei and into KwaZulu-Natal waters. Once here, they stamp their passports, hit the gym hard and give us a proper hiding due to their incredible strength and fighting endurance.
This push of fish appears to coincide with the annual Sardine Run, but I’ve caught them pretty much all year round, with the exclusion of the hottest months of the year in local waters. This tells me that some of the fish that push up with the sards perhaps set up residence in local waters or stay for a few months at least.
For the purposes of this article, I’ll try to impart some knowledge about the way we target them KZN style.
Firstly, the where. Although the KZN north coast does see a few ’tail from time to time, the KZN south coast is the most prolific producer of these fish. I put this down to the fact that our water temps are very marginal for them, and the further north they push, the more uncomfortable they become.
Yellowtail are a structure orientated species, seldom moving away from bigger pinnacles and hard bottom, but strangely enough, often willing to move vertically. They can be caught close to the surface, and many KZN anglers can attest to picking up a surprise ’tail on trolling lures or a ’cuda bait, running only a few metres subsurface when targeting traditional gamefish species.
However, the majority of my ’tail have been caught on, or close to the bottom, so if you want to tick a KZN yellowtail off your list, getting down deep is where you should focus your efforts. By “deep”, I would consider depths ranging from 30 metres down to around 70 metres, although I have heard of them being caught both shallower and deeper if the correct structure exists.
If you want to go out there and target a ’tail, you have two choices, either vertical jigging or live bait bottomfishing. In my experience, live baiting is the more effective method, but vertical jigging has its days, and can be both fun and effective.
If you are going to be jigging, don’t go out to play with little toys, or you will quickly be licking your wounds. Much like vertical jigging for greater amberjack, you need quality tackle, 80- to 100 lb braid and a 1- to 1.2mm leader which allows strong knots and ups the odds in your favour. You’ll also need to get that drag nice and tight and be prepared to hold on for all you are worth.
Jig weights are dependent on water depth, but the adage of 100g of jig for every 30m of water depth is a good rule of thumb, current dependent. Don’t go cheap on hooks and rigging either, or again you are probably only going to come home with sad stories.

Craig Stubbs with a strong yellowtail he managed to tame off KZN.

If you plan on bottomfishing with traditional KZN bottom gear consisting of a slow action bottom stick and a KP reel, pack away the little 8 inch KP, and get a 9- or 10 inch version.
If you are going to get serious about it, KP even makes a special yellowtail reel, which is widened and reinforced to deal with the pressure these fish can exert. This reel is favoured by a few expert ’tail anglers, particularly when targeting big ’tail around big structure or wrecks at the shallower end of the depth spectrum where you have no option but to hit and hold with all your might. Once that ’tail turns and sees something to cut you off on, he’s virtually impossible to stop.
The Cape yellowtail is the only bottom fish I have ever caught that will fight you all the way to the boat, only to turn and run again when he sees the boat. Most bottoms fight you hard near the bottom, but once you have turned them they are pretty much beat. Not Mr Tail; he makes you work all the way and more.
I’ll share a quick story with you to reinforce just how strong these fish can be. A mate and I were ’cuda fishing on a local reef with live bait when we hooked an incredibly strong yet unfamiliar fighter. After a few deep runs, it cut us off on the reef below.
I was thinking it must have been a big GT, but then a boat pulling lures next to us went away and eventually landed a medium sized ’tail, thanks to the heavy tackle trolling gear they were using. We instantly put two and two together and sounded around until we found a big showing of the school of ’tail.
We had bottomfishing gear on board, and hastily pinned live mackerel and sent them down where they were met with an instant bite.
What followed was a bit of a circus. We managed to get a fish or two in the hatch, but for around an hour these fish gave us an absolute hiding.
We were fishing shallow in approximately 20 metes of water, and those fish never lost sight of the reef below. Even when they were right under the boat and seemingly ready to be gaffed, they would turn around and, with a Mike Tyson left hook kick of the tail, disappear back down in an unstoppable run before cutting us off on the reef below.
There was swearing, screaming, laughing, battered bodies and a lot of hastily tied leaders and knots, along with a smidgen of rejoicing. Even thought we got taught a lesson, we had a lot of fun competing with these bruisers of the deep.
An important piece of advice I’ll give at this stage, is to learn how to “backwind” properly when using a centre pin-style, unbraked reel. Slipping your grip off your KP handle when a fish takes off will most likely result in some seriously damaged fingers and inevitably a lost fish. Fishing for large bottomfish without knowing the principles of backwinding can be downright dangerous and many anglers have broken and bruised hands and fingers as well as damaged boat gunnels which attest to this.
You need to learn what the limit of your tackle is and how, when your tackle is stressed to its absolute maximum, you can control the fight and pressure with some quick reverse winding of the handle. If executed correctly, you can give a fish some head under extreme pressure, but still remain in some form of control through quick manipulation of your reel. This is where a KP reel comes into its own. You are in full control, and once you have mastered one, they are totally unmatched in terms of performance and the pressure you can exert on a fish.
Trace wise, those guys fishing around structure such as wrecks fish extra heavy and try not to give an inch when they hook up, but in general a hook snoot of 1 to 1.2mm leader will suffice.
The king of ’tail baits remains a frisky live mackerel, but I’ve also caught them on live maasbankers as well as smaller shad. It really is worth spending that extra time on the bait reefs to get a few macks if you seriously want your ’tail.
Depending on the current, fishing on anchor or on a slow drift is your choice, but regardless of how you decide to fish, you need to make sure you are hitting your pinnacles and getting your baits in the right areas. With this strategy, you are not only targeting ’tail, but are also giving yourself a good chance of connecting with any one of the large bottomfish species ranging from a cracker to a copper steenbras or anything in between.
Don’t lose faith if a morning is passing without any big bites, as persevering often brings spectacular rewards.
The bite of a Cape yellowtail is much like that of most large bottoms, and is felt as a series of hard jolts on the line. Don’t reel straight into a fish at the first sign of an enquiry. Use your rod tip and reel to keep in gentle and sensitive contact with your bait, and wait until you are properly pulled down before reeling into — and hopefully connecting with — your target.
Nothing beats the feeling of what follows — a proper bend in a bottomfishing rod that can be felt all the way down into the rod grip and beyond. There’s direct “man vs foe” contact to a denizen of the deep where you can feel every shake of the head directly through the braid while your forearms burn and you grunt expletives under the pressure you are facing and where every turn of the reel feels like a small victory. That feeling makes it all worthwhile.
For some anglers it’s the scream of a ratchet as a gamefish tears off that keeps them coming back for more. Believe me, I love that sound and it’s music to the ears, but for me, it’s the scenario I’ve explained above that keeps me up at night, plotting and planning.
Next time you are contorted and keeled over, bracing against the gunnel with a red face and a shortness of breath, I hope you are not seriously seasick, and are rather connected to a big one, enjoying the Tail Dance as you try to tame the beast.

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