Psst … hey, buddy. Wanna go for a donkey ride? No, not a donkey show — a donkey ride. Specifically, a reef donkey. What’s a reef donkey? It’s an amberjack. Why is it called a reef donkey? Because once you get a hook into one, it pulls like the world’s most stubborn mule. Why is that fun? Well, if you’re asking that, maybe you’re not really a fisherman.
Amberjack are the largest of the jack clan in our local waters. Pretty much every fish in this family is known for pulling hard. As the biggest of the group, amberjack are at the top of the “pulls really hard” pile. Most fishermen are a little awestruck by their first AJ encounter. Imagine if a weightlifter’s thigh muscle were wrapped in fish skin and you were trying to pull it out of the water. It’s kind of like that.
AJs are not inshore fish. I have seen many photos of jack crevalle that are labeled amberjack, probably because of the yellow tint that these fish often have. If you’re fishing in the Harbor or within sight of the beaches, you didn’t catch an amberjack. To target them, you have to go out to deepwater reefs.
The minimum depth I’d think about looking is about 60 feet, but water that’s 80 to 110 feet deep is much more likely to hold good keeper fish. You’ll be fishing on reefs, wrecks and ledges — basically, the same places you’d look for grouper or snapper. However, the more relief (the higher the structure comes of the bottom), the better.
There are three lookalike species you may catch: Greater amberjack, lesser amberjack and banded rudderfish. They’re really hard to tell apart — really, really hard. So hard, in fact, that I don’t even try.
I don’t keep any of the little ones, even though they may be legal, because I don’t trust my ability to tell them apart and I don’t want to get caught on the wrong side of the law. Instead, I just keep my one big AJ and call it done. The minimum keeper size is 34 inches to the fork, but since you can keep only one per harvester, I rarely take a fish less than 40 inches.
You might be thinking that such large, powerful fish call for serious heavy-duty tackle. Duh. I prefer conventional gear in the 30- or 50-pound class, which gives you more leverage to heave-ho those fish to the boat.
However, you can put some pretty serious heat on them with spinning gear, now that there are strong and light jigging rods on the market at reasonable prices. For a reel, I’d use the big Penn Battle from my tarpon outfit, but you can use any quality 6000 size or bigger spinning reel. Be sure the drag is smooth, because a big amber will test it.
As for what to tie on the business end, start with a 10-foot length of 60-pound fluorocarbon. Long leaders are always good when the fish may be able to see your main line. Then add a stout reef fish-legal circle hook and bait up with — well, almost anything. Squid, live or dead fish, and anything else that a grouper might eat will be eagerly inhaled by an AJ. The trick is to drop it about two-thirds of the way down. Amberjack rarely eat off the bottom, so keep your baits suspended.
If you like artificials, butterfly jigs and big bucktails are fantastic choices for targeting amberjack. Wanna have some real fun? Chum them up, get a feeding frenzy going near the surface, and throw big poppers or other loud topwater lures.
This technique doesn’t always work, but when it does — hoo boy, that’s a helluva time. You’ve got to be patient with your chumming, and don’t skimp either. The more fishy smell you put out, the more likely it is to get them fired up and ready to eat anything.
Many anglers hold AJs in high regard as a world-class sportfish but cringe at the idea of eating them. I don’t know why that is, because they’re actually a fantastic table fish. I’m not a big fish eater, but properly prepared amberjack is one of my favorites. In my opinion, they’re one of the most underrated food fish in the Gulf — but you’ve got to do it right.
Preparation begins with bleeding and then icing. Any fish destined for the table should be placed in an ice/water slush as soon as possible after being caught. When you clean the fish, take care to carve out every bit of red meat. Even a small amount left behind will affect the flavor of your finished product. Be merciless. If you don’t want to waste anything, the red meat can be smoked for fish dip (or saved to mix in with chum for the next trip).
I cook it simply, using a recipe I learned from Capt. Cayle Wills — sautéed in butter and lemon pepper marinade in the skillet, then sprinkled with Kraft Parmesan cheese (don’t use the good stuff; it actually changes the flavor for the worse). Others prefer to blacken, smoke or even deep fry their fillets. Whatever your favored method of cooking fish, it will probably work just fine with amberjack.
So what’s not to love here? Amberjack are usually willing to strike, they offer an incredibly spirited fight, and they’re a treat on your plate. But we only have until May 31 to bring one home. After that, they’ll be closed until Aug. 1. So go get ‘em while the getting’s good.
Robert Lugiewicz is the longtime manager of Fishin’ Frank’s (4200 Tamiami Trail Unit P, Charlotte Harbor) and a co-host of Radio WaterLine every Saturday from 7 to 9 a.m. on KIX 92.9 FM. Contact him at 941-625-3888.