How to catch yellowtail in Cape Town

Ryan Nienaber behind the scenes fishing stories our passion western cape

The Fundamental Sign For A “Tail” Of A Time In Cape Town

 As another early morning dawns and the sun begins to creep up over the horizon, it feels like the first time all over again. Just before you turn the corner around Cape Point, your heart beats a little faster and the level of anticipation reaches an all-time high: All you want to see around the bend is birds dropping out of the sky and onto the bait fish that has been smashed on the surface by masses of yellow tail.  You spread your lines, and the next words out of your mouth are, “we vas”, as you pull in the first yellowtail of the morning.  Your heart races as the tails are boiling around the boat in every direction, and you arm yourself with a spinning rod, aim and throw…one, two turns and its game on…


It always amazes me that no matter how many times you have caught yellowtail, going out to sea for them is just as exciting every time. On occasion ,they can be the easiest of fish to catch – like when they are feeding on anything they can get hold of, and smashing about near the surface of the water. But there are also those that have frustrated anglers to a state of near senselessness - at times when we can see thousands and thousands of them every where, swimming behind our lures the entire day, and yet we’re unable to entice them for even a little pull.


I am by no means a master of catching yellowtail, and I am sure there are many people out there who have caught yellowtail for longer than I have been alive. However, I’ve been doing it for just short of two decades, and I’d like to  share some of the techniques I’ve learned for catching yellowtail in and around the Cape Town area (article relevance to Cape Point) so they too can share the special privilege of catching one of Cape Town’s strongest fighting fish, pound-for-pound, and have the experience embedded in their memories, just like I do. I caught my first yellowtail against the kelp in Buffels Bay, Cape Point, and I’ve been reeling them in with great success ever since. Here’s how.

Top areas in which to fish for yellowtail at Cape Point

 Those who live in the Cape Town area are very fortunate to have rich yellowtail grounds, and, whichever part of the peninsula they live in, a wealth of plentiful fishing areas at their fingertips.

 The False Bay side boasts some of the best spots in Cape Town in which to catch a yellowtail, including Cape Point, Buffels Bay, Anvil Rock, SW Reefs, Rocky Bank, and the famous Bellows Rock, which always seems to lure in a couple of ‘tail, even on the days when you think nothing will be happening. Inside the bay Whittal Rock, Black Rocks, Smits Winkel Bay, Simons Town Bull Nose, Fish Hoek Beach and Seal Island are all very good areas to try.

The Current Line about 15 miles off-shore often hosts tail, and most pieces of debris found in the deep, tuna grounds off Cape Point will attract a couple of these sought-after fish.

Up the West Coast, Robben Island, Dassen Island, and Bratania Reef at St. Helena Bay also produce yellowtail but not with the same ease, availability and abundance as Cape Point.

Season and Sign of tail

My general rule of thumb for trying for yellowtail at Cape Point would be the summer months, with the “season” being from November through to May. During the winter months, the waters are generally inundated with Cape snoek,

As yellowtail is a pelagic species and migrates in winter, knowing how to identify the sign of fish becomes a necessity. This is even more important than recognising a little mark on a reef that you may have on your plotter, identifying where you caught yellowtail in previous years.  Thus, being in the right area will prove to be more advantageous to you than trolling the seas blind.  Later, I will discuss some fundamental points that will aid you in a fruitful search for yellowtail.


Wind direction, pattern and occurrence are critical to your success in catching yellowtail. Generally, after a good few days of strong south-easterly winds, one wants a day or two of south-westerly wind to push the warmer, bluer water against the shore.  If this type of wind pattern has occurred, it would be my number one reason to go looking for tail.  One must also pay special attention to change in wind direction during a day’s fishing, as often this can turn the fish on or off the bite.  A low or dropping atmospheric pressure can often affect whether the tail will feed or not, and one should monitor it for any patterns that may occur.

 Water Temperature

Yellowtail prefer warmer water, so regions where the temperature is 17° or higher  are a great place to start looking – particularly if it is one of the prime yellowtail areas mentioned above. Of course, if you happen to find water that is one or two degrees warmer, chances are the fish will be there.

Water Colour

As the wind blows and currents change so does the colour of the water. A light-blue or greenish blue-coloured water is good for catching yellowtail. You may see them in brown water but they might not be feeding.

 Birds and Bait Fish

Yellowtail feed on bait fish, namely anchovies, sardine, garfish, maasbunker and anything else that might naturally be in its path.  One should monitor the echo (fish finder) for any signs of bait balls that you may drive over, as often you may just need to circle this area a couple times to lure the fish to the surface to entice a bite.  Where there are bait balls that have been pushed to the surface by yellowtail, birds will often be diving into the water.  A very good sign of yellowtail is finding birds working on the water. My favorite bird indication is when a couple of “sterretjies” – the terns – are just dipping on the water and skimming the bait from the surface, as usually yellowtail have pushed small bait balls up to feed on them.  Unfortunately, this is not a failsafe method. Often, you might see birds working in the sky, but when you move to the water beneath them, you may find that penguins or kommerants, rather than tail, pushed the bait up.


The most common methods of catching yellowtail in Cape Town are trolling, spinning and baiting. I’m sure that jigging would work too, but the water in which we catch the majority of these fish is often very shallow – between 10 and 30 meters – and the fish are feeding on the surface.


As with most fishing, their is no right or wrong way to do it, and everybody has their own favourite tricks.  When it comes to trolling, there are three things that I like to use, namely:

  • diving lures
  • soft plastics and feathers
  • spinners and plugs

Which to use

I am a great fan of pulling small plastic squids, primarily because they don’t tangle your lines or jump out of the water, and you can always go really fast without having to take them out of the water if you see some action in the distance.  In all likelihood though, you’ll probably find that you use a combination of all three.


A good starting pattern would be two or three skirts, two diving lures and one spinner that I like to keep in the upright rod holder, so that if I see any action I can quickly reel it in and cast towards a shoal of fish.  I like to keep my lures very close to the boat, just behind or in the wash of the motors.  I also keep all my lures in a straight line, as this may provoke a multiple strike.  Some anglers pull there lines in a W or V formation and run their lines a bit longer. All of these techniques will work, and it will just boil down to on the day and what works best for your vessel.


You can pull your lines anywhere between 5 to 7 knots.  Make sure that this speed is vessel over water speed and not vessel over land speed as the currents may play havoc on your lines.  A good judgment of speed is to familiarise oneself with how a certain lure swims at a good speed. I often look at my lures, as opposed to the speed on the clock in, order to determine if it is the right speed for the day.

Colours and size of lures

You could sum up the colours of lures in two categories

  • natural
  • bright

There is no hard and fast rule for selecting colours. I tend to put out one of each, see what is working on the day, and change accordingly.

 One can however look at the water colour and sunlight availability.  I tend to use brighter colours in dirty water, or on days that are overcast, and more natural colours in clear water or on sunny days.  You will however find your favourites, and will end up pulling these time after time.  Smaller lures tend to work well, as they represent the size of the bait the tail are feeding on. Anything in the 6-8inch size for the plastics are good; however, a yellowtail can jump onto something the size of a large coner.

 Where to troll?

Yellowtail swim in big schools or you may find one or two solitary fish together. As they are oceanic dwellers that come into False Bay to spawn, it would be best to start your trolling where you find the relevant signs, particularly the bird life.  Over reefs where there may be sheltering bait fish, just off kelp beds, or rocky shores, along a current line, and especially under a piece of floating debris. 


While trolling for yellowtail, it is not uncommon to pick up skippies, katonkel, snoek, small longfin or young yellowfin, especially around Bellows Rock.

Spinners and Plugs

Spinning for yellowtail is probably one of the most exciting forms of catching them, and will definitely test the maturity of every angler. A bit of the “fever” sets in when the fish are smashing around the boat, and one throws an overwind as a result of being too eager!

Spinners are made from?

Generally this can be broken down into the two most common types of spinners:

  • chrome            (ridged)
  • tin                    (can be bent by hand)

I prefer a tin spinner as you can bend it to any shape that you feel works best for you. I tend to keep mine as straight and flat as possible, but this is just a personal preference. The snake and keel spinners are my preferred spinners for Cape Point. 

When to spin?

Spinning is best done when you see fish activity on the surface, when the fish are most likely feeding on bait fish, and this is what the spinner resembles. Another optimal time is when you’ve got a strike on the back lines and are fighting a fish, because other yellowtail will follow and investigate the hooked fish. Thus, casting in that direction often turns a one-up strike into two or three on the boat.

Approach, Cast and Retrieve.

As we all share water and it is surrounded by many other boats, so it is important to be aware of the vessels around you. Moreover, it’s especially important to consider how to approach a school of feeding tail on the surface, because at the end of the day it’s no fun if one or two thoughtless anglers spoil the school for everyone.

 In the excitement of the moment, it’s not uncommon to see a novice yellowtail fisherman rushing into the middle of a school of fish – promptly followed by the anglers in the surrounding boats throwing up their arms and shouting a few choice words! This is because many beginners make the mistake of going directly into the middle of the school to be where the action is, in the hope of catching a fish. However, this generally has the opposite effect and pushes the fish down, making them shy of the lures and spinners.  A better way to approach the school, if you want to spin in for them, is to go around the edge of the school, slightly upwind so that when you cast your spinner it gets that extra bit of distance, and pull your spoon through the feeding fish. This technique will give you a much better result.  The same applies for trolling around the edge of a school as opposed to through the middle of it.

 Upon casting your spinner into the action, when the fish are in a feeding frenzy, you may have heard some anglers saying, “The more your spinner is out of the water than in it, the better”.  Over time, you will find out exactly how they like it. Some days you need to skim it over the surface, some days just below the surface, but you will need to play around until you find what works best for you.  

Baiting, Rig and Trace

A simple handline with a baited 10/0 hook and small lead weight will do the trick.

 What types of bait work?

The three main baits to use are

  • pilchard
  • pike
  • chokka

 Fresh chokka is by far the most favoured bait to use for tail at the Point, and can be caught in Buffels Bay, Simons Town Harbour and off Fish Hoek Beach.  A light rod with two jigs works best: One sinking jig and one floating jig.  Catching these chokka is a day’s excitement on its own and they make for excellent eating when fresh.

 You will find that using a combination of a strip or two chokka and half a pike or sardine will work best.  I usually fish an 8-10 o hook on a drift line, pitched 8 to 10 fathoms from the boat, and if there is a strong current I will use a small sliding sinker just above my hook.

As yellowtail have no sharp teeth, I normally join a slightly thicker piece of line (about 28kg) to my main line (10kg) with a swivel if you using a rod. 

Then hold on tightly! The fish on the bait are generally very strong and will fight dirty and try to reef you on the bottom or in the kelp, so it might be best to tighten your drag a touch.

 Enjoying Your Catch

 Yellowtail is an excellent eating line fish, and is very versatile in the way in which it can be prepared. It goes down well, fried, grilled or braaied, and is a very good as sashimi.


Licensed linefish rights holders may catch and sell yellowtail legally, and pay levieys and record catch date and report this to the department of fisheries. 

Recreational anglers are allowed to catch ten yellowtail per fishing permit per day.  There is also no size limit on this specie, and on a good day one can catch far more than the quota. Therefore, it is a good idea to have a tagging kit on board so you can tag and release these marvellous fish, and some understanding and information can be gathered on them so educated decisions can be made to manage this resource.

 I hope this will help you catch your first yellowtail and share the memories with our family and friends around a great yellowtail braai.


Good luck and tight lines. 

and if this all feels like to much effort for you , simply click on our online deli and we will deliver it fresh to your door.


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  • Dale Hartog on

    Thanks to whoever wrote this article, I’m moving to cpt end fo the year and look forward to targeting these critters. Maybe drop me a mail and we could hook up for session👌

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