“Raise Your Flag”
There’s no tastier food fish than a whole fried Yellowtail Snapper. And there’s no better time of year to catch them than right now. Flags, as larger 3-5lb. yellowtails are called, are prime targets for most angers in the Keys. I got my experience yellowtailing on many trips on the Caloosa Party Boat with Capt. Dave Jensen when he was out of Whale Harbor Marina. He specialized in a technique used specifically for these fish called “sandballing”.
Although yellowtails are common in shallow water, larger ones are found in deeper water from 40-90’ of water. I usually fish deeper during the daytime and shallower at night. Although yellowtails are easier targets at night, I prefer to fish daylight where I can see the schools feeding on my chum. I use 12lb. test pink Ande line with a 1/0 short shanked live bait hook tied directly to my line. I usually slip a small ¼ oz sinker directly in front of the hook (classic Caloosa rig). My bait of choice is a small strip (1”) of ballyhoo with some skin on it. Silversides are excellent baits as well and are a natural food fish for them.
Many charts available in tackle stores will give areas where these fish concentrate but most any bottom where corals and rocks are found will be productive. A nice current is extremely important to get your chum out and attract the ‘tails to your boat. Mix up regular blood or menhaden chum with glass minnows and oatmeal. The oatmeal will help in keeping your chum as close to the surface as possible and bring the fish up from the depths. The yellowtails should start feeding within 15-30 minutes of chumming if there is a good current.
The toughest part of yellowtailing is learning to feel the bite. You must freeline your bait into the chumline and make it appear as if it were part of the chum. To achieve this we can’t use a heavy weight so your line will feel very limp as you pay it out into the current. Eventually the current will cause it leave your reel with more pressure. You must keep your finger on the line while freelining it slowly. Here’s where we separate the pros from the amateurs; you must learn how to keep just enough pressure on your line to sense a bite while allowing it to run freely with the current. When a fish hits you will immediately notice your line leaving quicker; a lot quicker. Yellowtails don’t peck on a bait, they swallow it and run. You will notice your line running out. At this point you must engage the reel and fight the fish. I love my Shimano Baitrunner reels for this type of fishing ‘cause I freeline with my rear drag and engage the fish with the front drag when I know the fish is on. Sometimes the fish are way back behind your boat and you must pay out a lot of line. Once you get the first fish you will be able to determine exactly how far back they are. Don’t pay out line and stop the bait and wait for a bite. Keep freelining until you get a bite or have paid out a considerable amount of line.
Sometimes the bigger fish will be just behind the small fish and getting your bait beyond the small fish is difficult. “Sandballing” takes care of this problem in a big way. Sand is mixed with the chum in a bucket and made into 3” balls much like a meatball is made. You insert your baited hook into the middle of the sandball and pack it up tightly. Then you simply wrap your line a few times around the ball and release it into the water. It’s a bit of mess and you must keep a small container with water to clean your hands before you touch your reel. This method always brings up big fish. I‘ve caught my biggest Mutton Snappers using this technique.
Keeper yellowtails must be at least 12” overall but in deeper waters 18” flags are not uncommon. Although you can keep 10 per person for dinner you must count any other snapper you catch as part of your total. Check your regulations because they are constantly changing.
Cooking has never been my forte, but I’ll give you a “recipe” for a good yellowtail snapper meal. Filet a nice flag and season it with salt, lemon, and butter; sometimes I’l even pour a little white wine. Put it in an oven and broil it for a few minutes in 350 degrees on melted butter; try not to overcook the fish. Dice a piece of onion into tiny pieces and put them on top of the filet just before taking it out of the oven and let them cook briefly. Add some French fries and serve while nice and hot. You can always add more lemon, slat, butter or even olive oil to your preference when served. OK, now I’ve really got to go fishing ‘cause my mouth is watering for some broiled yellowtail.
Tightlines and Happy 4th of July from
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