Most of you have probably caught a jack at some point. Jack crevalle are common catches around Charlotte Harbor. Most local anglers hold them in fairly low esteem, probably because they aren’t a favorite food fish (although they’re fantastic smoked, and really not at all bad fresh if you cut out all the red meat before cooking). But even the most jaded fish snobs will have to agree that these fish can really pull. Even a little 14-incher can put a deep bend in your rod.
Now, imagine a fish with the same power and bulldog tenacity, but let’s lengthen the body to about 3 feet and bump up the weight to 25 pounds. As a bonus, we’ll make the flesh more palatable. Suddenly you’re not looking down your nose at this opponent.
What we’ve imagined is an average-size amberjack, locally often called AJs or reef donkeys. Depending who you ask, catching them is either huge fun or a painful experience. Once hooked, an amberjack doesn’t make a long run like a kingfish. It doesn’t try to dive into cover like a grouper. It turns sideways and uses its broad body to resist you pulling it to the surface.
Sometimes they resist hard enough that you think it might pull you overboard. Sometimes they’ll rest briefly, allowing you to think you’re winning, then resurge and take back every inch of line. Mostly, they don’t give up easily. This is a fish you have to fight all the way to the end.
Fighters like this are known as tackle-busters. If you want to understand that term fully, go after them with cheap gear. Many budget-minded fishermen have come back with seized drags, shattered gears and snapped rods. You don’t have to get the priciest stuff, but to go into this battle you do need to arm yourself with quality equipment (and that includes line and hooks).
To target ambers, I prefer medium-heavy conventional gear. That means reels that can hold at least a couple hundred yards of 80-pound braid or 40-pound mono and rods that are rated for 50- to 100-pound line. This is a brute force fight, and spinning reels just don’t have the torque. Sure, you’ll whip the fish eventually. But when that 80-pounder slurps your bait, you’re going to be at the rail for a long time. An hour or two is possible. That’s a battle that will leave scars on both of you, and that’s why I’d much rather use a modern lever-drag reel.
While they sometimes show up within a few miles of shore, you normally don’t expect to catch amberjack until you’re in 80 or 100 feet of water. Most amberjack are caught on high-relief structure. That means wrecks for the majority of us. These fish like to patrol vertically, so hard bottom and small ledges aren’t very attractive. They really like sinkholes, but to get to a sinkhole off our coast, you’re going to travel a pretty good distance. It’s not really a trip for flats or bay boats, even on a calm day — and calm days seem to be in short supply.
AJs will take many different baits, but they prefer to be predators rather than scavengers. A live bait (or lively looking lure) is usually much better than frozen baits. Top choices include blue runners, big Spanish sardines and medium-size grunts or porgies. A live squid is killer if you know the tricks for catching your own.
If you like artificials, you can’t go wrong with a heavy diamond jig bounced energetically in the lower half of the water column. Butterfly jigs and big bucktails also work. Just don’t wear yourself out before you even hook a fish. If you choose this method, you’re going to get in a cardio workout whether or not the amberjack cooperate.
Jumbo topwater poppers are also a lot of fun, but be sure the fish are near the surface. Heavy chumming with lots of menhaden oil can make that happen for you. The surface strikes of these huge and aggressive fish are incredible.
Many local anglers believe amberjack are not great eating. They couldn’t be more wrong. However, to get the best flavor from the fish, take a moment to cut the throat and bleed the fish out before chucking it on ice. That’s a good trick to make any fish milder.
Don’t try to cook a whole fillet at once or you’ll dry it out. Instead, slice the fish more thinly and take care to keep the meat moist. As with any fish that has some red flesh, take your time to cut it out completely before cooking or freezing and your dinner will be a lot better. Give it a chance — if you like fish, you’re sure to like amberjack.
Amberjack are open this month but will be closed again starting June 1. If you miss out in May, you’ll have to wait for the regular three-month season that starts Aug. 1. Minimum size is 34 inches to the fork, and you’re only allowed one per harvester.
As the Fish Coach, Capt. Josh Olive offers personalized instruction on how and where to fish in Southwest Florida. Whether you’re a complete beginner or just looking to refine your techniques, he can help you get past the frustration and start catching more fish. Lessons can be held on your boat, on local piers or even in your backyard. To book your session or for more information, go to FishCoach.net, email Josh@FishCoach.net or call 941-276-9657.