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The Yellowtail

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

" The pleasantest angling is to see the fish cut with her golden oars the silver stream and greedily devour the treacherous bait."


When the green tones of Southern California merge into gray, and the islands alongshore rest like emeralds in settings of azure, the yellowtail, the gayest cavalier of these summer seas, often tints the ocean a golden hue as the vast schools tarry in the shadows of the island mountains following their short migration. The yellowtail is the fish of the people. It is willing to try conclusions with the veriest tyro when it is in the biting humor, and can be caught with almost anything; but when not excited, when in its normal condition, with a bold and unaffected camaraderie it disdains the arts of the cleverest wielder of the rod and literally defies him to his face, often at mere arm's length.

I have taken the yellowtail nearly every month in the year in the Santa Catalina channel and at Santa Catalina and San Clemente islands, but this is exceptional, as the months of January and February, as a rule, know it not, at least in shallow water, and the angler who would take a yellowtail at this time must search the deep San Clemente channel, six hundred feet down, or the Cortez Bank south of Santa Catalina, where there is every reason to believe the yellowtails, or a certain percentage of the schools, lie not far from the sardine and smelt schools, which also mysteriously move out at this time. In March a few yellowtails appear at the islands, and in or about the first of April, sometimes sooner, some-times later, what is known as the first run comes, and the bay of Avalon is often alive with fishes and boats, and the shouts of laughter and disappointment as the fish play havoc with the rods and lines of the tenderfoot. Not many years ago I was at Avalon when this spring " rush " occurred. Without warning a large school of yellowtails ran a small school of smelts in on to the beach, then out again, breaking them up in a masterly manner until the entire charming bit of water was a mass of foam. The yellow-tails averaged twenty-five pounds at least, and a cyclone appeared to have struck the quiet bay.

Men, women, and children were seized with that mad contagion, the desire to fish, and hurried to the beach with lines which were cast with shouts and laughter, and in a short time the shore was a beating, leaping mass of yellow, green, and turquoise. Then the excitement grew fiercer. The man with the rod determined to be a sports-man under all circumstances, and cast over the hand-lines. The fish of one angler ran around the lines of both and into the field of a third, and in a moment the line of fishermen and fisherwomen were engaged in a war of words. Every available boat was soon rowing about the bay in every direction, many of which would have one or two fishes on at the same time, presenting a most animated spectacle.

The feature of this unusual and remarkable scene, which found its prototype in the " jack beat " of a following chapter, which impressed me most, was the strength and game qualities of this particular school of yellowtails. Nine-tenths of the people were fishing with hand-lines, and so numerous were the boats on the little bay that it seemed impossible to use rods. The lines were of the codfish variety, ropes more or less, yet I doubt if a single member of this fishing babel failed to lose from one to five fish from broken lines. The heavy line would be broken fairly by the lunges of the fish, which jerked small boats about and turned them with incredible ease. For half an hour this commotion lasted, and when the counting came the fishermen, who had strikes as soon as the bait struck the water, found that some had secured four or five yellow-tails ; but the average fisherman had landed one or two and lost from five to six hooks and as many fish. This incident is introduced to give some idea of the yellowtail when at its best, and pound for pound it is one of, if not the best fighter in the Western seas; if it could be taken in shallow water, it would put the salmon to blush, as a past master in the finesse peculiar to game fishes. This was some years ago ; to-day the splendid fish is rarely taken with a hand-line. I suggested the Tuna Club and its rules for rod-fishing with the lightest lines as a measure of protection to this fish as well as others of these waters, and to the example of the members of this organization is due the high standard of sport which now holds.

We have seen that the first run of yellowtails comes in April. This may last, so far as the angler is concerned, two or three weeks, then will come a cessation of biting, though this is by no means a hard and fast rule, rather a general average in my experience. In May, and from then on, the yellowtails are about the islands north to Santa Barbara in vast numbers, and have come for the season, which is of about nine months' duration. They apparently come in small schools, then break up and are found in bands of greater or less size all summer ; in the spawning time in pairs at the surface, refusing the daintiest lure. The fishes sweep up the entire coast, reaching offshore to San Clemente thirty-five miles, and occasionally are caught as far north as Monterey ; but the approximate northern limit, so far as the angler is concerned, may be considered to be Santa Barbara, the fishing ranging far to the south being particularly fine in the vicinity of Ensenada and the shallow bays of Lower California.

As the yellowtail enters the Santa Catalina channel the charms of the island of that name and San Clemente with their abundant food supply capture it, and the actual rod-fishing of Southern California may be said to focus about the region of which these two islands, twenty miles apart, are the centre, giving about one hundred miles of coast-line, bays, and coves for the angler, one-half of which will be found smooth water — that rarity on the Pacific coast. The yellowtail follows up the mainland coast-line and can often be taken two or three miles off the beaches from Coronado north; and at ports like Redondo, where deep water cuts inshore, it is sometimes taken from the high piers. At the islands offshore the north or east coast is the lee, and does not experience the heavy trade-winds ; and here is the home of the yellowtail, the waters in which the angler finds conditions far out to sea which call to mind some inland lakes. A large percentage of the visitors to these angling islands try conclusions with the gamy yellowtail, and as a consequence, boats and boatmen peculiar to the place have developed. The typical fishing boat is a sixteen or twenty foot yawl or launch with a two or four horse-power engine run by the boatman, who is also gaffer and an expert in his calling. The boat has two chair seats at, and facing, the stern. Attached to the seat is a cup of leather to receive the butt of the rod when a large fish is being played, while overhead is an awning, lifted when the strikes come by the boatman, or if the angler desires he can stand and play his fish.

The shore of the islands is remarkably abrupt, rocky cliffs, rising sheer from the sea, and almost anywhere a ship would strike the rocks with her bowsprit before she would ground. To this is due the close inshore fishing, as it is all within from ten to two hundred feet of the shore. The island is skirted by a fringe of kelp at various points, and just beyond this is the yellowtail highway where the splendid fish sails up and down to the delectation or confusion of the angler. The equipment for yellowtail is one more or less of fancy. I give my preference, and can only say in defence that it has been eminently successful, owing perhaps to the proverbial fisherman's luck. The rod of noib wood, greenheart, or split bamboo is from seven to eight feet in length and weighs not over twenty-six ounces, pliable, yet sufficiently stiff to lift a sulker of thirty pounds if perchance the occasion demands. The line is a twelve or fifteen strand cuttyhunk, or some equally good make, and there should be three hundred feet of it ; the hook, a 7/0 O'Shaughnessy, though a larger size is more popular, with a six or eight inch piano, bronze, or copper wire leader in two links. The leader should be fastened to the line with a double swivel. The bait is either smelt or sardine four to six inches in length. The hook enters the mouth, coming out at the gill ; then turned, is embedded in the belly of the fish, so that the entire hook, except the upper shank, is concealed. The mouth of the sardine is now wound or closed with a five-inch, very fine silver wire which is attached to the shank of the hook. This is an important feature, as it prevents the bait from whirling too rapidly, which often results in ruining the line by unwinding it. I have never been able to take the fish with a spoon. At times, when the fish are fickle, I have found a large flying-fish very effective as bait, trolling slowly with a light pipe sinker sufficient to take the bait down twenty or thirty feet. This is an extraordinary bait for the fish, being ten inches in length, but it frequently results in the capture of exceptionally large yellowtails that seemingly find it irresistible.

Thus equipped the lines are unreeled for fifty or sixty feet and the launch, or rowboat, moves slowly along the line of kelp with a rod out on either side. The fishing is best in the morning, from sunrise to midday, on the flood-tide, and, as a rule, the angler finds smooth water, with ripples here and there breaking the surface, telling of vagrant schools of yellowtails or sea-bass. The water itself is a revelation ; it has a splendid tint, dotted with living constellations of marvellous shapes and design : crystal chalices, jellies with fluted cometlike tails of maroon and deep lavender, while scattered about with a lavish hand are the gems of the sea, Sapphirinee, flashing the tints of mimic rubies, emeralds, topazes, diamonds, and other gems. The angler must be callous indeed who is not charmed with this divertissement, captivated with these beauties which, like sirens, claim his attention until arrested by the loud zeee-zeee ! of the reel as it gives tongue behind the rush of his first yellowtail. A shrill staccato, and fifty, one hundred feet of line have perhaps gone before the novice presses the leather pad, with which all reels are equipped, and essays to arrest the fierce outward rush. At the first click the boatman stops the engine, and the yellowtail now tows the boat around, as it rushes here and there making battle so desperately that the angler is easily wearied.

There is something so startling about the first rush of the fish that the nervous holder of the rod is sometimes stampeded. A fisherman is perhaps seized with " buck fever," under its influence, and drops the rod utterly demoralized. Others cannot take in the fish, and lose fish, rod, and line. The yellowtail makes a number of desperate lunges, so vigorous that there is really nothing to do but to give line. If the angler can with-stand it, then the rod is too stiff for the code which holds and is most in favor. The line is kept taut and reeled when opportunity offers, but if the fish is a normal one and full of .vigor the angler will find the latter impossible to reel in as one would a bass or lake-trout, and it is here that vertical or lateral "pumping" comes into play ; and that it is absolutely necessary every one who has tried conclusions with the fish will acknowledge. I have seen a novice work upon a seventeen-pound fish for nearly an hour attempting to reel it in out-of-hand. At the end of half an hour the man was weary, while the fish appeared to be gaining in vigor if the click was a true prophet. Pumping, it may be explained to the uninitiated, is the invention of some unknown patron of the sport, which enables one to lift a deep-sulking fish, accomplished in the following way : The tip of the rod is lowered to the surface, then, pressing the thumb upon the leather pad, the fish is lifted with all the strength the line will bear, the angler always watching for the rush which invariably follows, and when the tip is raised three or four feet, it is suddenly dropped, the slack so gained being reeled in as rapidly as possible ; then the fish is again lifted and the operation of " pumping " repeated indefinitely, or until the sulker is brought into sight. With experience or practice this becomes an easy by-play, and the fish can readily be brought up. The angler gazing over the side now sees a dazzling object of silver careening across the line of vision deep in the azure heart of the ocean. Up it comes, now dashing along, causing the boatman to row the boat around in desperate attempt to keep the stern to the fish. As it comes higher, or nearer, making gallant play, the old hand prepares for what is perhaps the most desperate rush of all, and it comes with a loud barcarole from the reel.

Ten minutes have slipped away before the boatman begins to finger his gaff, then the angler reels the fish " in short," passes his tip forward as the fish turns, protesting, ready for another rush, its heart still strong, the cruel gaff slips beneath it, is jerked into the silver throat, and the struggling fish lifted in. Such a moment is an epoch in some men's lives. Thirty-five pounds is the gaffer's report, and the fish he holds up to the admiring angler for inspection is a magnificent specimen, the type of a game fish, nearly four feet in length, well proportioned, with lines like those of a privateer, a large head, yet not too large for the body, a radiant and large eye. Along its back is a long dorsal fin; the tail is forked, powerful, and a vivid yellow which is carried out in a stripe along the median line. The upper body color is an olive-brown in the water, changing in the sunlight to the most brilliant blue iridescence, the belly silver. Such is the general appearance of this prince of game fishes that dominates the quiet seas along the isles of summer.

Like other popular fishes the yellowtail rejoices in a number of names, among which is the white salmon, a sad misnomer, the amber-fish, which has some significance, and cavasina, while its generic name, Seriola, is euphonious. Its nearest relative is the little pilot-fish, Naucrates, which bears a strong resemblance to the young Seriola. Seriola dorsalis (Gill.) is the large Pacific species. The fish attains a length of over four feet, and I have seen a specimen which weighed eighty pounds dressed, which suggests a one-hundred-pound fish as the maximum ; but this is very rare, at least in the Santa Catalina fishing-grounds, where the yellowtail is best known. The average rod catch is from seven-teen to twenty-five pounds, though I have seen a sixty-three-pound fish taken from the wharf.

The yellowtail spawns in August, that is, fish with spawn are seen and caught at this time ; but the smallest yellowtail I have observed in these waters in sixteen years weighed about seven pounds, the very young never being observed there. I understand they are caught in the bay of San Diego and farther south. On one occasion only have I seen a school of young yellow-tails, and these must have averaged ten pounds each. The very young yellowtail bears a strong resemblance to the little pilot-fish, and is banded with ten dark, more or less cloudy stripes. The fact that the young are not seen at the islands is by no means evidence that the fish do not spawn here, as a similar instance is seen in the black sea-bass. Almost every bass taken bears enormous masses of ripe spawn ; but the very young have never been observed, at least by me or by any professional fisherman known to me.

Like others of their kind the yellowtail is fickle, and at times the sea will be fairly tinted with them, and vast schools divide as the boat moves along, yet the choicest bait is viewed with scorn. At such times the resources of the angler are tested. Bait is changed, pipe sinkers of various weight tried, the speed of the boat varied. The yellowtail will perhaps swim up to within a foot of the boat, following in the bait, then turn, saluting the angler with a blaze of color. A conscientious " chumming " may now be tried and, if the school is swimming about slowly, the boat may be rowed or steamed slowly in a circle, the boatman throwing over small sardines on either side, six feet apart. By the time the circle is completed a chain of yellowtails has been established, all feeding, as they will take " chum "; and if the angler is patient, he can in many instances break the charm, and once biting, sport is assured.

It is a theory among some boatmen at the islands that the yellowtail fishing is best from May to August on the south end of the island and trolling in order, and from then on, at the north end with casting or still fishing. In the latter the boat is allowed to drift and the yellow-tails kept alongside by chum, short casts being made of thirty feet. In this way at the grounds off Ship Rock I have seen yellowtails hooked almost as soon as the line struck the water. Perhaps the most satisfactory method of yellow-tail fishing I have observed was from the beach at the Isthmus, the shallow bay preventing sulking, the rushes and by-play being confined to lateral movements.

The yellowtails are omnivorous feeders, taking sardines, flying-fishes, smelt, anchovies, and squid as occasion offers, and in this way they are often " chummed " up and caught by casting, the boat being allowed to drift. The remarkable cleverness of fishes has often been noticed. Certain individuals will attach themselves to the wharf at Avalon at times, and one of the morning pastimes is to feed them by tossing over bait. A handful of sardines will sometimes attract a number which rush at them, picking up the fishes with avidity, invariably not noticing the hook which has been skilfully introduced into one sardine. It is only the extremely patient fisherman who can catch such fish. One veteran of the wharf was hooked to my knowledge five or six times, bearing two hooks proudly in its jaw, and trailed three feet of line. I hooked the same fish twice within two hours, and each time it broke the line by clever tactics. Its first rush was away, then, feeling the line, it invariably turned and came for the wharf like a race-horse, dashing about the piles and severing the line, almost immediately reappearing in its accustomed place by the side of the pier, up and down which it slowly swam in full view of the assembled anglers.

That some fishes have an attachment for one another I am confident. A hooked yellowtail, in its attempts to escape, after exhausting all methods dashed down and squeezed under a hawser in twenty feet of water, so completely fouling itself that it could not move. I could see the unfortunate fish distinctly, and close beside it poised its mate or comrade of the same size, apparently endeavoring to aid it in escaping ; and during the long time I watched the two fishes, the free yellowtail remained by its entangled mate.

Singularly enough, the yellowtail, the commonest fish in the Pacific, is not in great demand as a food-fish, and few are eaten, owing to some unreasonable prejudice, as when properly cooked, especially boiled, it is excellent, and in any other section of the country would have a decided economic value.

The genus is well represented on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of America by several fine game fishes. One, the amberjack, Seriola lalandi, deserves especial mention. I have landed but a single specimen, which weighed forty or more pounds, taken at Long Key, outer Florida reef, since, I understand, washed away by a hurricane. The fish attains a weight of one hundred pounds and a length of six feet, and is a vigorous fighter. An acquaintance who caught one of these fishes weighing eighty pounds, at Palm Beach, informed me that he fought the fish two hours before it was brought to gaff. The amber-jack ranges from the region of the equator to New York, but is most common from Cape Florida to Key West, at least most available to the angler. Many are caught with hand-lines and mullet bait.

A smaller yellowtail, also called amber-jack, is found along the Gulf coast of Florida and down the keys, frequenting deeper water, and is occasionally taken when grouper fishing. There is another yellowtail, not to be confused with the above, yet essentially the yellowtail of the reef, known to science as Ocyurus chrysurus, and at Porto Rico as colirubia. It is adainty, radiant creature, one of the most attractive of all fishes, nor only with yellow tail, which color constitutes the base from which radiate rays of golden -line§, splashing and blotching it with color. Its eye, like that of the large Seriola, is an object of beauty, clear, bright, black, and vivid red. I have taken it off the great fringing reef of- Garden Key by casting in among the waving gorgonias --a fitting home for so beautiful a creature, and can commend the fish, which attains a weight of eight or even ten pounds, to the angler with an eight or ten ounce rod, the lightest line, with a number three O'Shaughnessy hook with a three-ply twisted gut leader and no sinker. Such an equipment with fresh crayfish bait will afford the angler much delightful sport.

The relative game qualities of the same fishes of different size is an interesting subject. The yellowtails of all sizes are good fighters, and by varying the size of the rod and tackle the angler can obtain full enjoyment from all. In my experience the yellowtail of seventeen or twenty pounds is as a rule the hardest fighter, many very large fishes not possessing the agility and activity; and except in rare instances this holds good among all fishes, the fish of medium size being the gamiest. In fishing for yellowtails one is impressed with the truism that the act of capture is a very small part of the angler's pleasure. In the one case, he has in the California islands cool days, smooth and beautiful water, attractive surroundings, rugged cliffs, and the many beauties of nature as solace if luck is poor. On the other hand, when trolling, following the amberjack along the Florida keys, he is floating over veritable gardens of the sea, which flash every color of the rainbow, along sands which form the settings for growing keys which, like pearls, are strung along the Mexican Gulf.

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