Each year a huge biomass of pelagic fish follows warm water currents up the West Coast of the US. During this migration tens of thousands of game fish migrate within fishing distance of Southern California. The excitement starts when the fish hit the Coronado Islands, just off the San Diego coast and about 10 miles south of the US-Mexico border. Some years fish begin arriving as early as February. This year reports have been spotty all the way until late May. That’s why when the sport boat San Diego nailed 100 yellowtail last Tuesday, I was on a boat first thing last Wednesday morning.
The migration typically begins with yellowtail, then continues with some combination of bluefin, yellowfin, and albacore tuna. During some incredible years, the currents are just right that dorado and wahoo make an appearance. The rare and nifty angler has even been known to hook an opah.
The Coronados are within day boat range of San Diego Bay. Last year anglers were getting 50 lb yellowtail at the islands as early as February. This year fishing has been late to turn on. My fishing buddy at work keeps me updated on the reports. In February everything was dead. By April I was getting anxious and the reports from down south indicated a good year was headed our way. By May I was positively chomping at the bit. I had my gear out and cleaned and my line and tackle checked; I was ready to go.
Last week my buddy popped into my office, “The San Diego has 100 yellowtail to the boat today, we gotta hit it up in the next few weeks.” That wasn’t good enough. I made a few calls and we were in for a boat ride the next day.
I wish I could really capture the experience of ocean fishing for those who have never tried it; especially for people who think fishing is boring and/or relaxing. Open sea fishing is an up at dawn, finished at midnight, all day thrill ride. You spend most of the day delicately pinching the line between your thumb and forefinger as your bait (hopefully) swims past hungry predators. Each moment is exhilarating with the anticipation that you might hook a huge fish.
When the fish does hit your bait you suddenly feel the line rushing out through your fingers. You concentrate, count to 3, 5, or if really patient 10, then close the bail. The hook is set and the fight is on. The next 10-20 minutes is spent anxiously reeling in line, then having it rush back out to the fish. All the while the boat captain yells at you to get the fish in.
Once you have the fish in, if you’re so lucky, your hands are shaking with excitement and exhaustion. The fish lies gasping for air on the deck and you are overcome with both joy and remorse. You want to sit down and rest but you also feel compelled to tie a new hook on, get a new bait, and start fishing again.
At least that’s my experience. With 3 anglers we managed 6 bites, 5 fish on, and only 2 to the boat; including my 20+ pounder. One thing I know for sure, you’ve got to fish while the bite is on.
Yellowtail have a red fatty layer just under the skin (and some poking through the meat) which is oily and very fishy tasting. I didn’t used to like eating it, but then I discovered that meticulously cleaning (read cutting) resulted in deliciousness. You really have to cut out anything red from the meat. Once you’ve done that, it is a delicious, firm, flakey white meat that has just the right amount of fish essence to it.
For best results store in a large bowl in the fridge, covered with ice. The fish will keep this way for several days and will stay super fresh. Freeze whatever you will not eat within 3 days, and eat that within a few weeks. After that it should really go to the smoker (that’s another story). I use a Food Saver before freezing, which buys you a little extra time.
The first night I was too tired to eat anything (got home at 10 pm). The second night I made crudo and simple pan-fried fish. The crudo is an Italian form of sushi. Make very thin slices of fish while it is still firm from being on ice. Drizzle a few drops of lemon juice on a plate and then arrange the fish on top (lemon juice will “cook” the fish, therefore the lemon juice should be beneath to hide the discoloration). Drizzle with a nice olive oil and sprinkle with kosher salt and pepper. Soy sauce is another local favorite, but I find it overpowers the delicacy of the fish.
The second night I made kebabs out of all the trimmings. There are invariably 1-2″ bits at the end of each fillet and around the gaff hole that are too small for a portion but are great on a skewer. I made a quick marinade based on a Moroccan recipe I like: olive oil, lots of paprika, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and cilantro. The kebabs go on a super hot grill, again 1-2 minutes on a side; it’s just delicious.
Yellowtail should be hitting off and on until September. And it wont be long before the tuna start moving through. Get your rod and go!