Amber Alert

Statewide Tips For Surviving Brutal Encounters With Masked Marauders

FSF Staff October 10, 2013

Imagine a predator so strong and determined that even the most seasoned anglers are often brought to their knees after an intense battle. The culprit is actually a favored target for anglers across the Panhandle, The Florida Keys, and all points in between. The broad shouldered powerhouses known as reef donkeys are prominent around the state and without a doubt some of the most impressive predators in the entire ocean. While they will never gain the trophy recognition of billfish or tuna, amberjack are punishing fighters with impressive stamina that will test the limits of even the sturdiest tackle.

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Photo: Adrian Gray

Sure, amberjack meat isn’t as succulent as fresh grouper, but these fish pull hard and are often the only things worth catching. Amberjack can be found throughout tropical seas worldwide and are particularly prevalent around Florida’s offshore structures. Closely associated with fertile bottom facets in 50- to 300-feet, amberjack are incredibly capable fish that can at times display odd behaviors. Just when you thought you have them figured out they throw you a loop and the bite will shut-off completely, adding to their allure and intrigue. When you do hook up, tenacious headshakes and runs that will pin you to the gunnel are to be expected. While amberjack don’t require as much effort and education as is required when targeting temperamental mutton snapper, the following tactics will greatly help in your conquest against one of the most fearsome game fish known to mankind.

With experience targeting amberjack you’ll soon realize that you won’t win every battle. Sharks, terminal tackle failures, angler fatigue and overzealous AJ all account for an approximate 50 percent success ratio.

With the advancement of today’s powerful electronic suites, anglers have the ability to find fish like never before. This is important because amberjack are structure-oriented, which means you’ll need to find and focus your efforts in the vicinity of jagged bottom with high relief. Many deep water artificial wrecks exist within relatively easy reach of ports around the entire state and provide prime habitat for schooling AJs. It’s important to note that amberjack aren’t always right on top of the structure and may be prowling upwards of 100 yards away from the debris.

If you’re new at this or just need a refresher course, here is the deal. Locate a deep wreck on a nautical chart and input the coordinates into your multifunction display. When approaching the wreck it’s best to first scout out the vicinity before making a drift and deploying baits. Make an initial pass directly over the structure and determine how the wind and current influence your drift in relation to the wreck. While doing so, keep one eye glued to your sounder so you can get a good idea of the orientation of the relief below. You can also create waypoints on the outermost edges of the wreck so you know when you are in the zone. On your initial pass you should also look for concentrations of life swarming on top or around the wreck. From here you can dial in the fish with down-scan, side imaging and traditional sonar units. The detailed returns are so informative and now capable of displaying individual fish that you really couldn’t get a more detailed picture of what lies beneath even if you jumped in the water! Heck, the latest technology from Furuno even displays actual fish length on the screen with exclusive Accu-Fish.

Now that you’ve found a promising structure you need an approach that will provide the ideal presentation. While fishing on anchor is a great way to wreck fish, when specifically targeting amberjack it’s not always the best approach. Depending on the prevalent wind, wave action, current, depth of water and fish habits, anchoring might even be completely out of the question. Another thing about bottom fishing on anchor is that you must position yourself perfectly or else your offerings might never see the strike zone. With power drifting the captain can keep the vessel over promising bottom facets long enough for anglers to present baits and lures. Drifting is also beneficial because once an angler hooks up the captain can quickly maneuver the boat off the wreck so the angler can fight the fish in open water away from both hungry sharks and unforgiving structure.

It’s also important to note that certain species of fish typically prefer a particular area on the wreck that conforms to their preference in forage, depth and current. If you choose to anchor you might limit yourself. In general, grouper tend to hold very close to structure, while snapper prefer to hang just off the wreck where they can rest from the current. Cobia, amberjack and African pompano often relate to the top and around the perimeter of the same structures.

Amberjack respond best to live bait, but can also be fooled by flashy vertical jigs and large bucktails. Depending on your location around the state, the best live bait will be the ones present on the wreck you are fishing. This could range from vermillion snapper, goggle eye, hardtail, menhaden, grunt, squirrelfish or pilchard. If you can catch bait with a sabiki off the wreck, you are in good shape. Rigging needs to be flawless, with 50 to 100 lb. test leader and 50 lb. mainline necessary to slam the brakes on big brutes. A rod belt will also make the situation more comfortable.

As far as terminal tackle is concerned, a fish finder rig with up to 8 ounces of lead may be necessary depending on the depth and prevalent conditions. While you’ll want to use as little weight as possible to reach the zone, you’ll always need enough lead to overcome large live baits and swift currents. Unlike grouper and snapper, amberjack prefer to feed off the bottom so it’s not a good idea to present baits directly on the seafloor.

While a deep presentation is the preferred approach in most destinations, there are certain spots along the coast where AJs rise to the surface and can be enticed with topwater poppers and plugs. If you want to gain an edge over demanding amberjack you’ll need to match brute force with brute force. Thumb the spool, rear back and do anything and everything you can to turn the fish’s head. In order to apply such great pressure you’ll need to make certain your connections and rigging techniques are absolutely bulletproof and able to maintain maximum breaking strength.

For the most part, amberjack are targeted strictly for sport. It is a grueling sport, as hefty reef donkeys bring even the most athletic anglers to their knees. Thankfully, there’s no shortage of deep wrecks or big amberjack around, so you should have plenty of shots. Especially considering these ferocious game fish hardly ever let a lure or helpless bait pass them en route to the bottom. With experience targeting amberjack you’ll soon realize that you won’t win every battle. Sharks, terminal tackle failures, angler fatigue and overzealous AJ all account for an approximate 50 percent success ratio. You’ll win some battles and you’ll lose some, but keep your chin up and don’t ever give up! Good luck and don’t hesitate to fight dirty!

You Don’t Know Jack

It’s critical anglers know the differences between lesser and greater amberjack, because misidentification can lead to fisheries violations. The biggest difference is size, with lesser amberjack rarely exceeding 10 pounds. If you are dealing with juveniles, you’ll want to look at the dark band on the shoulder. If you notice the band stops at the eye, then you have caught a lesser amberjack. Although both species have olive green, brownish backs with silvery sides, lesser amberjack have proportionately larger eyes than that of greater amberjack.

Wreck Fishing Etiquette

While Florida’s near-shore waters are full of fishy structures, it’s important you practice friendly fishing and share the waters with those around you. Because they hold copious amounts of life, wrecks are frequent stopping points for anglers looking for reliable action. If you approach a wreck with a boat already present, survey the situation. Is the wreck big enough to accommodate multiple boats fishing simultaneously? If not, jockey into position and simply wait your turn. With a little courtesy and clear line of communication everyone can fish in harmony.

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