Wintertime Kayak Fishing for the Trifecta: Yellowtail, White Seabass, and Halibut

In every part of the world within each unique fishery there are several species that standout as prized gamefish to catch. On the east coast they refer to catching tarpon, bonefish, and permit in the same day as a “grand slam”, and in southern California, our “trifecta” consists of catching a yellowtail, white seabass, and halibut in the same day. This is no easy task, and requires a fair bit of luck, but these three species frequent the same fishing holes during the winter and can be targeted in similar ways. In this article I will offer some techniques that will increase your chances of completing the southern California trifecta. 

wintertime kayak halibut fishing

I can speak for my local fishery here in San Diego County, but with some tweaks, much of this info can be applied to areas where wintertime foraging occurs shallower or deeper. From November through early March, the deeper reefs from 90 to 150 feet of water are where I like to focus my time, unless there are squid spawning over the muddy bottom in shallower water, which usually occurs in 70 to 120 feet of water. Live bait is an obvious choice for many, but fishing artificial lures can prove just as effective, so I’m usually prepared with both. Let’s begin with live bait. 

A key accessory to rig on your kayak is a system for keeping bait alive and healthy. Depending on your kayak model, there are “ready to go” options such as the Hobie Livewell, or you can build your own live bait tank with a container (at least 5 Gal.), some tubing, and a pump powered by a 6- or 12-volt battery. Another great option is a bait tube that you can build with some plastic parts from Home Depot. There are plenty of videos on YouTube for building both. Once you have a place to keep your bait alive, you’ll need to catch it or buy it from a bait receiver. Most of the areas we fish are too far away from a bait receiver, so we catch our own bait using sabikis or squid catchers. I like a size 6 sabiki with the heaviest main and branch line you can find. The reason for this is a full stringer of 10-12” mackerel can pull hard and will snap light line easily, plus toothy bycatch is less likely to ruin your rig. The idea is to get your bait into your livewell as fast as possible after hooking it… we’re not here to have fun fighting and tiring our bait out, you can save that part for the fish on the end of your line that eats the live bait.  

Making mackerel for wintertime kayak fishing

The next important tool is a good fishfinder that will help you find live bait and the structure and fish you are going to be targeting. There are plenty of good options out there that won’t break the bank, and many kayak stores will install one for you if you don’t want to yourself. Bait fish will show up as red clouds and squid will show up as finer blue or black clouds with more separation (see image below). Either way, a fishfinder will increase your chances of catching bait faster and more efficiently, resulting in more time for you to fish for the trifecta. A fishfinder with GPS is also key, to see how you are drifting and to mark areas with structure, bait, and fish. 

Making bait on a fish finder from a kayak in the winter

You’ll need a stout setup for fishing your bait or lures because these fish pull hard. I recommend a 7-foot rod with a heavy action and a rating somewhere in that 20-50 pound range. Spool up a beefy reel like a Daiwa Saltist 35H with 65lb braid and attach a 40lb fluorocarbon leader to the end (usually 4-12ft). Now you’re ready to attach a live bait rig or a lure. For live baitfish, I’m a big fan of 3-way swivels when kayak fishing, they are strong, prevent line twists and keep your sinker and bait separated. My favorite is the SPRO power swivel combo in size 1 (rated for 230lbs). I use 2-3 feet of 20-40lb mono to my sinker, and 4-6 feet of 20-50lb fluorocarbon to my hook, depending on the conditions and the size of fish around. For fishing squid I prefer a knot, but I avoid the dropper loop knot at all costs because it’s weak and I’ve lost fish on it, so here is what I prefer to do. Using a triple surgeons loop, attach 4-6ft of 40lb mono to the end of a 12ft 40lb fluoro leader that you already have tied to your braid. Leave a long enough fluorocarbon tag end on your knot to attach your hook (about 12”). This knot isn’t the prettiest, but it’s very effective and strong. I snip the top mono tag end short and then tie to the 12” bottom fluorocarbon tag end. Attach your favorite J or circle hook and you’re in business. Generally, a 2/0 to 5/0 circle hook or a 6/0 to 8/0 long shank J hook for live or fresh dead squid. 

3-way swivel rig for wintertime kayak fishing
triple surgeon's rig for wintertime kayak fishing

Send your bait to the bottom and give it one to three cranks up. You want to do this because all three species of the trifecta will be feeding just above the bottom. A halibut will come up off the bottom to attack a bait, and seabass and yellows are usually cruising just off the bottom. Now you begin drifting in your kayak and the most important part of being successful comes in to play, keeping your bait in the bite zone. As you drift, the size of your bait, wind, and current will affect where you and your line end up. Using a heavy enough weight to keep a vertical presentation is important. If you drift deeper or shallower, make sure to adjust your line as needed. If your line is scoped out at a large angle, your bait is drifting up and out of the bite zone. When possible, fish with the reel in free spool, rod in hand, and wait for a hard thump or sudden slack line. Let the fish eat the bait, put your reel in gear, turn, and hang on. No need to set the hook, just crank. If fishing the rod in a rod holder, use the clicker and tighten the spool adjustment so line isn’t constantly pulling out. You can also fish the reel in gear with a loose drag. Rod leashes are a smart accessory for securing your setup to the kayak. 

You may be wondering how this style of fishing differs for each species of the trifecta… Well, when doing the above you are fishing for all three! In winter all three species will congregate in similar areas to feed and you have a shot at hooking into any of them. You might adjust baits, line size, depth or targeted structure, but the basic technique is the same. Hard reef, patchy reef/sand combos or reef edges over sand are what you want to look for. 

Lure fishing can be combined with live bait fishing by drifting the live bait in a rod holder and working a lure at the same time. I don’t recommend having more than 2 lines in the water at once when kayak fishing. You’re going to be working the bottom quarter of the water column with your lure. Heavy irons and jig heads with soft plastics are very effective. When working an iron, drop it to the bottom, jig it 2-3 times and then crank it 8-15 turns off the bottom. Use an iron suited for the water depth that has good flutter when falling and a nice swimming action on the way up. My favorites are the Salas 6x jr. and Salas 6x in blue and white, scrambled egg or mint. Use your fishfinder to spot fish and then drift through that zone working your lure, or better yet, drop it on their heads. Soft plastics on heavy jig heads or tube jigs can be very effective as well. Drop them to the bottom and jig them in the bite zone right off the bottom, letting them sink to contact the bottom every so often. Another technique that is growing in popularity is slow pitch jigging. These lures have great action and can be a lot of fun to fish. Lastly, a heavy knife jig, especially for yellowtail can be very effective fished in combination with your fishfinder. Pedal or paddle around, mark fish and drop the lure down fast, right on them. I like a knife jig in that 8-10oz range for this. 

wintertime kayak yellowtail fishing

These are the basic techniques for targeting the trifecta in wintertime and if you execute them correctly you will be successful. Catching one of the 3 species is always a treat from the kayak, and with a little luck, you’ll catch all three of the SoCal trifecta in a single fishing session. 

Morgan’s passion for kayak fishing began in 2000 when he purchased a kayak to fish the waters off San Diego: “I wanted to get beyond the shoreline and target the larger species that inhabited the local kelp beds and offshore reefs.” On his first trip out of La Jolla, CA, he bagged a 20-pound y...