Big jack attack: thugs of the sea test anglers' mettle.
They won't jump, they won't tail-walk and they won't make long runs. These bullies just roll up their sleeves and bring a stubborn, arm-stretching, back-straining street fight that sends many an angler to the chiropractor.
No joke, an amberjack of 40 pounds or better will yank your heavy rod to the gunwale and keep it there unless you master the technique of besting these brutes.
Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic waters off Florida actually offer a bevy of tough jacks, including bar jacks, lesser amber-jack, banded rudderfish, and yes, plain old jack crevalle.
Hands down, the big boy of the bunch is Seriola dumerili--the greater amberjack. The largest on record is a 155-pound, 10-ounce beast, but after decades of commercial fishing pressure, a big one today is somewhere around 50 pounds. That said, even a 20-pounder can test your stamina. Add a high yield of firm, mild meat to this sport value and you have one popular fish.
Summer typically brings calm seas and that makes it easy to reach deepwater sites where the giant jacks still swim. However, the action is usually best during cooler months of spring and fall. Off the central Gulf coast, anglers find AJs around wrecks, springs, bigger ledges. rockpiles and mitigation sites along the Gulf Stream Natural Gas Pipeline. Spots in 200-plus feet hold the monster jacks, but the 80- to 160-foot range produces plenty of quality size fish.
Farther south, Capt. Chris Walter runs out of Hawk's Cay Resort on Duck Key. With the ocean side offering quick access to deep water, he can have baits falling to the AJs within 10 miles of his slip. Wrecks in 200 to 300 feet are Walter's first targets, while calmer days may find him working offshore humps in 400 to 600.
Pinellas County captain Sam Maisano usually drifts to "clover leaf" a spot and see who's home before committing to it. "If they're eating good on a drift, I might anchor right in front of them and fish the spot," he said, "especially if I want to get some grouper and snapper on the bottom while we jack fish."
Dropping big pinfish, grunts or blue runners will tempt AJs every time. Trolling runners, mullet or bar jacks on down-riggers works good when thick bands of 'cudas patrol above the structure and intercept falling baits--or when the day's target list includes kings and wahoo. The fleeing vibe of a downrigger bait can also stimulate the right segment of the jack community.
"Sometimes, trolling big baits will draw out the biggest one of the group," Maisano said.
For standard AJ duty, Maisano uses 7-foot heavy rods with flexible tips and 4/0 reels packing 60- to 80-pound monofilament with 60-pound fluorocarbon leader. He's caught AJs while grouper fishing with 10 ounces of lead, but Maisano prefers to go as light as possible when dropping baits to amberjack. In light current, he goes with 1/2- to 1 -ounce weights, but strong water may necessitate 3 ounces. Circle hooks in the 4/0 to 6/0 range are used. (For very large baits such as 12-inch blue runners, many captains use larger hooks sewn to the baitfish with rigging floss, to maximize hook exposure.)
Savvy jack seekers keep diamond jigs and slender metal speed jigs handy to complement live bait. The same outfits used for live baiting will work for jigging, although short standup rods are ideal. Drop the jig to the bottom, crank up about 10 feet and start working the metal through the water column with snappy side-to-side sweeps. Mimicking wounded baitfish, jigs will often fool quality AJs and offer a fine alternative when you run out of livies.
For Walter, AJ fishing is a simple drop-deep-and-hang-on kinda deal. Favoring blue runners and goggle-eyes caught with sabiki rigs over shallow patch reefs or around lighthouses and buoys, he uses a 3-way swivel rig on 50-pound main line. Five feet of 100-to 150-pound fluorocarbon leader tied to the bottom swivel ring holds 1 to 3 pounds of lead depending on depth, current and wind. The middle ring holds a 20-foot leader tied to a 12/0 or 14/0 circle hook.
Walter said this rig allows him to reach deep spots with optimal bait mobility, while allowing him to easily handle fish at boatside. "With this rig, the weight stays dangling in the water so someone can hand line the fish the rest of the way and no one's getting hit in the head and the boat's not getting beat up."
AJs are great on the grill or in the smoker, but the real attraction is the fight.
When a jack bites, let them eat the bait, put the tip down in the water, start cranking and lift the rod to apply maximum pressure. Fighting belts help with leverage but so does good form. Short upward strokes with rapid reeling on the down stroke gains line quicker and burns less energy than long, exaggerated tug-of-war tactics. Another effective option, if you aren't gunning for IGFA acclaim: Brace the rod on the gunwale, or put your foot on the gunwale and brace the rod on your thigh, and see-saw up and down with short, controlled strokes.
"That works well so you're not wearing out your upper body," Maisano said. "People often say they caught one jack and they're done. That's usually because they have the drag set too tight and they wear themselves out. Sometimes you have to back off the drag a little and let the rod take the brunt of the fight.
"You have to monitor how much drag he's taking because you don't want him to run you into the structure, but it has to be a give-and-take. The guys who just sit there and crank, crank, crank end up losing the fish when it turns and runs because they have too much pressure on the fish."
Walter adds: "Hold on tight, try to use your legs and body leverage, rather than trying to curl them up with your arms. Otherwise, they'll beat you."
ALMACO JACKS ON TOP
Patches of Whitewater violence emanate from scattered sargassum drifting past the anchored boat. Eventually, one of these hot spots passes close enough for inspection, and the mystery is revealed--jacks, little almacos literally bumping and shaking the grass to loosen every clinging crab and flush out every hiding fish.
With a little coaxing, you can create just such a frenzy. Almacos will rise to the scent of a frozen chum block, but adding chunks of sardine and a few live whitebaits will whip them into a frenzy. The little brown toughies often gather within a rod length of the bag, and this makes for some interesting sight-casting opportunities.
Use medium-heavy spinning gear and 30-pound line to throw small sardines, cutbait, bucktail jigs and suspending plugs like the MirrOlure MirrOdine to almacos and small amber-jack. For a surface blast, whip out a popping plug and watch the Whitewater explosions. Jacks of all size will streak across the surface with frothy torpedo trails to chase down the fleeing faux prey.--D.B.
The October 2009 closure of recreational harvest for greater amberjack in the Gulf foretells the likelihood of more knee-jerk management measures by the feds in 2010. According to federal figures, the Gulf recreational quota of 1.368 million pounds had been met as of August 31, 2009. The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act requires the National Marine Fisheries Service to close a fishery when the quota is met or projected to be met, so recreational anglers saw their season close on October 24.
If 2009 recreational landings exceed the quota, the feds will likely reduce this year's season by the amount necessary to recover last year's overage. This stems from new regulations, including a recreational quota that went into effect on August 4, 2008. Notably, the recreational quota was not met in 2008, so the season remained open.
Here's where it gets frustrating. The Magnuson Act allows the feds to calculate a fishery's overages and underages in the following year's harvest limits. This is not mandatory, but the feds seem bent on using this tool only to punish, but never to reward. Bottom line, the 2008 underage was not applied to the 2009 season; however, any overage from 2009 will surely limit the 2010 recreational season.
The real rub reaches back to 2007 when the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council--NMFS' regional arm--declared that Gulf greater amberjack were overfished and decided that a good solution would be to reduce the recreational bag limit to one fish and increase the minimum size to 30 inches, while increasing the commercial take. Essentially, recreationals saw their percentage drop from 84 percent to 71.
Many in the recreational sector believe that rampant overfishing by commercial boats has caused the dramatic decline of greater amberjack in the Gulf. Dr. Russsell Nelson, Gulf Fisheries Consultant for the Coastal Conservation Association, takes the argument a step farther by pointing out the ill effects of the unjustifiable allocation shift.
"If the Council had left the allocation where it was in 2007, and where it rightfully should have been, recreational anglers would not have been over their quota as of the end of August (2009), and likely would not have gone over even by year's end," Nelson said. "This is a case where an unwarranted allocation shift from recreational to commercial two years ago (has shut down) our season, even though we are not the root cause of the problem."
In light of other recent management blunders (i.e. Gulf grouper) and the looming specter of a shortened red snapper season, recreational anglers are furious over federal actions that fail to account for the direct economic impacts of closing fisheries. In coastal communities throughout the Gulf, bait shops, charter operators, restaurants, hotels and grocery stores depend on folks that come for the fishing.
Destin Mayor Craig Barker sees this firsthand. Barker works with anglers throughout the Panhandle to represent their interests before state and federal agencies. The concerns he hears typify the sentiments of recreational anglers throughout the Gulf.
"If allowed to go forward these closures will further devastate the economies of coastal fishing communities all across the Gulf of Mexico and shatter the lives of the men and women who work so hard to earn their living from the sea," Barker said.--D.B.