Crevalle jacks are one of the most underrated fish we have here. If they would jump, I think they’d achieve the same highly coveted gamefish status we give to tarpon. But since they don’t jump (or at least jump very rarely), too often they don’t get the respect they deserve.
Jacks will test your best tackle, knots and hooks. They run hard and fast, and they use their broad flanks to resist being pulled in. A foot-long jack fights like a five-pound bass. It’s very common for anglers who are tugging on small jacks to believe there’s something much larger on the other end of the line.
You will frequently hear these fish referred to as amberjacks. It’s simple confusion: They are jacks, and they usually have an amber-yellow coloration on their bellies and tails that may extend over the whole fish. But amberjacks are an entirely different fish that won’t be found in the Harbor — they live on the reefs, usually in water deeper than 50 feet.
Up to just a few years ago, we rarely saw large jacks here, and the overall numbers had dipped down quite low. They have a commercial value (some people, mostly from the Caribbean, eat them), and many of them were caught. A five-pounder was a big one.
But over the last two or three years, there has been less commercial pressure, and we are seeing more fish and larger sizes. This past month we have seen some very big ones, 15 to 20 pounds. Fish that size are serious battlers and will often strip all the line off light tackle without even slowing down. For these bruisers, break out the tarpon gear.
Jacks are a bit hard to target because they have only two speeds: Haul butt and disappear. They prefer open water at least a few feet deep. The canals of Punta Gorda Isles are very good right now, and there are also fish upriver from Harbor Heights to the Nav-A-Gator and the Shell Creek dam. We’ve also seen some cruising the outside edges of the east and west side bars in 4 to 8 feet of water, and they might show up almost anywhere that bait is schooling.
Since jacks are constantly on the move, trolling is one of the best ways to catch them. A half-ounce spoon is a great choice. Remember to use a ball-bearing swivel with it so your line doesn’t get all twisted up (no, not a regular cheap swivel — a ball bearing swivel, which will actually rotate under tension). A lipped plug from 3 to 5 inches, such as a Rapala X-Rap or a Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnow, will also troll very well. And Rat-L-Traps are incredible for trolling and yet seldom-used.
You don’t need wire for jacks, but you might choose to use a short wire leader anyway. Common bycatch while trolling for jacks includes bluefish and mackerel, both of which have very sharp teeth. Wire will reduce the number of fish that hit your lure, but it will also reduce your chances of getting cut off. Personally, I skip it and use 40-pound fluorocarbon.
Live bait is a very good way to get them also. Jacks are not picky and will eat shrimp or any small fish they can catch (which is just about all of them — these are fast fish). I’m not a huge fan of chumming with live whitebait, but there’s no denying it can make a canal mouth come to life with jacks exploding on the surface.
I’ve got a neat trick that can work almost as well. Anchor in a canal mouth and take your fishing rod and swirl it and splash it in the water. If you have a raw water hose, you can also spray the water with it. The disturbance simulates a feeding frenzy and will sometimes bring jacks in. Topwaters are my favorite way to catch them, and these lures work especially well when the jacks are in a feeding frenzy. When they hear the sound of feeding fish, they come in hot — be ready!
Jacks are not a favorite table fish for most people. The meat is dark and richly flavored; most people would find it too fishy. If you enjoy strong fish and would like to try eating a jack, you can reduce the amount of blood in the meat by either bleeding the fish or putting it into a slush bath as soon as it’s been caught. They fillet easily. With smaller fish, taking just the loins (the part above the backbone) is the normal practice.
While people may object to eating jacks, larger predatory fish do not. Small jacks of about a pound make excellent live baits for amberjack, kingfish and sharks. We use whole dead ones for Goliath grouper and really big sharks. Cut pieces can be used for anything that eats cutbait, from redfish to red snapper.
Jacks are one of the most spirited fighters you can set a hook on, but they’re also a fish that far too many people look down on. As far as I’m concerned, they’re an amazing species that we are damn lucky to have here. They are worthy of respect, and I always take care in releasing them so they can battle another day.
Robert Lugiewicz is the manager of Fishin’ Frank’s Bait & Tackle, located at 4425-D Tamiami Trail in Charlotte Harbor and at 14531 N. Cleveland Ave. in North Fort Myers. Call 941-625-3888 for more information about the shop or for local fishing info, or visit them online at FishinFranks.com.