Tips for Targeting Floridas Infamous Reef Donkeys: Amberjack

Florida Reef Donkey
Captain Jake Rogers holds up a big “reef donkey.” Hook into one of these and it’s all about holding on and taking the ride!

AS WE PULLED UP OVER THE WRECK, the fish finder began to light up. We were a couple miles off Jupiter inlet in an area known as “the House of Pain” and we were about to find out why. I grabbed my heavy-duty jig stick and dropped a 300 gram metal jig down. It didn’t even get halfway down before it just stopped…

I knew, however, that I hadn’t reached the bottom yet and immediately slid the lever forward and came tight. My rod bent over double and I was quickly pinned to the rail. The fish began to take line, I moved the drag lever forward, depressing the small button allowing it to past strike. It kept pulling. 

At this point, the drag was set well past the point where I could pull line out by hand, and yet this fish was ripping it off the reel as if in freespool. I couldn’t get it turned and, within about 10 seconds, the feeling changed, more of “line rubbing over a jagged edge” kind of sensation. I knew what that meant, and within a few seconds, “bing!!!” — my rod and I bounced upward.

I reeled in the slack to find the last few feet well-serrated. Pretty obvious who that was and where they went. My bro looks at me and says, “Well, they don’t call it ‘House of Pain’ for nothin!”

Greater amberjack, scientifically known as Seriola dumerili, is a sought-after game fish found throughout the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico around Florida’s coasts. Also known as “reef donkeys” or “AJs,” these forked-tailed balls of muscle can grow over 100 pounds and are found in various habitats throughout the state.

These fish were highly targeted in the ’80s and ’90s as a replacement due to the regulations on red drum and, in 2001, the fishery was declared “overfished.” Since then, populations have made a come – back, and although they are abundant, both the Atlantic and Gulf stock of fish are still regulated with seasons and size lim – its. According to NOAA, it was reported: “In 2021, commercial landings of greater amberjack totaled 885,000 pounds and were valued at $1.7 million, and recreational anglers landed 1.6 million pounds.”

A plan to rebuild the stock to the target population level is in place, with an expected date of 2028.

Seasons vary year to year but, they are still phenomenal catch-and-release gamefish that some say is the most challenging fighting fish in Florida.

slow pitch jigging for Amberjack
Jose Chavez holds up a nice AJ caught jigging over a wreck.

If you’ve ever caught an AJ, whether 20 pounds or 80, you know these fish only have one speed — full throttle. They pull extremely hard from the second they eat a bait to the moment you get them to the surface and are pound-for-pound an all-around great fight on heavy or light tackle for even the most experienced anglers.

They are members of the jack family and are usually structure-oriented, spending the majority of their time near the bottom, ranging anywhere from 50 to 400 feet on shallow reefs to deep wrecks where small baitfish and squid congregate. They can be found anywhere from 30 feet to 100 feet above the structure and, in rare cases, on the surface.

In this article, we will highlight targeting amberjacks on Florida’s east and Gulf coasts and compare tactics and tackle for each.

On the east coast, AJs are rarely found on the surface and are primarily targeted on a deep structure using live bait, dead bait or vertical jigs. Common live baitfish used in this area include pinfish, blue runners or large mullet. Cut dead bait such as bonito, sardines or squid can also be used. Pinfish and blue runners are standard live bait options for amberjack for many reasons. Pinfish are hardy and can be easily found in grass flats to be caught individually, with sabikis or a cast net, and blue runners are tough, fast swimmers and can be caught using a sabiki rig or individual hooks.

 How to target amberjack
When the conditions allow it, AJs are a popular target for kayak anglers as they can generally be found in good numbers suspended over structure.

These live bait choices can be caught most of the year. An active, hardy live bait is essential to entice a bite from an AJ. Though not necessarily picky, they are semi-pressured depending on where they are targeted and can get a little weary of heavy tackle or non-active baits

Choosing the right gear to tackle these fish is critical whether you’re using live or dead bait. A favorite of many anglers is any kind of two-speed conventional reel filled with 50- to 80-pound braided line. The low gear is great for torquing these fish up, while the high gear is perfect for retrieving your bait if you don’t get a bite or break off. 25 pounds of drag or more is what you should be looking for.

Rod selection is all about preference. A shorter, stiffer rod may muscle them quickly while putting extreme pressure on the angler, while a longer rod is more forgiving and lessens the power of the fish on the angler. Because AJs are so tough, you should use a minimum of a 6-foot 80-pound leader, but if fish get picky, you may need to increase to a 12 to an 18-foot fluorocarbon leader. A popular method is a Carolina rig with a 7/0 to 10/0 circle hook, depending on the size of the bait. The pickier the fish, the smaller the hook size and the longer the leader. Depending on the current, use an 8- to 16-ounce egg sinker on the main line above a swivel, and then attach your leader to the bottom end of the swivel with your hook. Circle hooks are important to ensure a solid hookup in the corner of the mouth and to allow a quick, effortless removal after a few photos and a revival before sending these fish back to the deep. 

Whether you’re on the east or Gulf coast, vertical jigs are also a great option for targeting amberjacks. Slow pitch jigging, vertical jigging, speed jigging, butterfly jigging, whatever you call it, the most crucial aspect of this artificial method isn’t the color or style of the bait to ensure success; it’s the weight. If your jig is too light, you will have difficulty getting to the bottom or where the AJs are marking; and if it’s too heavy, you’ll end up fighting the weight of the jig the whole way back to the boat. Heavy wind and current also come into play. The lighter the wind and current, the lighter the jig you can get away with. The rule of thumb is to select a jig that is 1 gram per foot of depth you plan on fishing. Always use the lightest jig you can and then adjust for the conditions.

 How to catch Amberjack
The author Phil Hughes used a stud jig to catch this amberjack

Because AJs are usually above structure, you can locate them on your bottom machine hovering above the wreck or rock bottom and then precisely position your jig in the strike zone. Slow pitch jigs are a favorite because of their fluttering action on the fall that often leads to a strike on the way down. Bucktail jigs are also highly effective and can be tipped with a piece of cut bait ranging from sardines to squid to attract a bite.

A conventional or spinning setup filled with braided line and topped with a long 40- to 60-pound leader is what you’re going to need to jig for AJs. This is a light tackle setup compared to live baiting, but can be highly effective and often out-fishes the real stuff. The key to landing these powerful fish relies heavily on choosing a compact reel paired with a parabolic rod. This is a fancy way of saying a soft, springy-tipped, forgiving rod that enables the angler to put a lot of heat on a fish without hurting themselves while having the perfect action to work the jig properly

Reels should be adjusted to 30 percent of the strength of the main line. So, if your setup has a 50-pound braid, the reel should be 15-20 pounds of drag. Attach a 40- to 60-pound mono leader ranging from 5 to 15 feet from the braid’s main line. Attach the leader to the main line using your preferred line-to-line knot. Remember that you will want a knot that is not only strong but will seamlessly flow through the guides on deployment. Where a uni-to-uni knot may be quick to tie and strong, a knot like an FG or reverse blood would be the more optimal choice.

 Amberjack fishing tactics
AJs will happily slam a well-presented jig over a wreck or structure.

Now, on to the west coast of Florida. Although there are some overlapping methods of targeting amberjacks between the east and west, and yes, the same live bait and vertical setups and methods can be used, the west coast offers more unique light tackle situations than that of the eastern fisheries. In areas such as South Florida, where amberjacks can be found in deep water as close as 1 to 2 miles from shore, this equates to more fishing pressure because they’re easier to get to. On the west coast, anglers often have to run anywhere from 30 to even 100 miles offshore to get to their spots. This inherently increases the barrier to entry to fish, therefore decreasing fishing pressure. 

Remember when we said amberjacks are rarely found on the surface of the east coast fishery? That’s not the case on the Gulf coast. At certain times of the year, a net full of whatever live bait you can get your hands on can quickly turn into a feeding frenzy all around the boat with mature AJs crushing baits on top. Every angler can agree, whether you’re a bass fisherman or an offshore angler, topwater eats are straight up on another level of fun, and these big, strong fish are no exception.

Various topwater plugs, poppers or stick baits can be thrown on spinning setups to get a ferocious bite from fired-up schools of AJs, often involving multiple fish fighting over the lure before one finally hooks up.

Now that we’ve covered how to catch these critters just about every way under the sun lets address the elephant in the room. Worms. Amberjacks are notorious for having meat riddled with parasitic worms. These tapeworms aren’t like the worms you might find at your local freshwater tackle shop. Instead, they absorb carbs directly from their host and live as internal parasites in the muscular tissue of the host.

Florida Amberjack fishing
Jose Chavez with a nice topwater amberjack on the Gulf coast. These topwater AJs are ready to rock for those willing to make the run.

These worms begin their life cycle as little eggs inside the digestive system of many species of sharks found offshore. Once these are spread into the water column through shark feces, they hatch into a larva that crustaceans often feed on, where they lay dormant until they are consumed by small baitfish. Amberjacks then eat those baitfish and — boom! — here we are with why these fish have these creepy crawly creatures throughout their meat.

Anglers often tend to clean around these worms or remove them when filleting. Thoroughly cooking or freezing before consumption will kill any possible infectious tapeworms, rendering the fish safe to eat. It’s also important to note that the smaller, legal fish is known for having fewer worms.

Although grouper and snapper usually get all the table fare glory, when prepared correctly, amberjack is a very delicious fish that is semi-oily and has a similar texture to swordfish. These fish are great breaded and fried or grilled with a light seasoning or marinade, but a popular recipe is making them into smoked fish dip, using a charcoal or pellet smoker.

Whether you’re on the east or west coast of Florida looking for the fight of your life or a fish to fill the cooler, amberjacks should be at the top of your list for target species offshore. They can be targeted in various fashions using live bait or artificial and will test even the most experienced angler’s skills. If eating them isn’t on the agenda and you want to snap photos and release them, they often swim away happy and healthy. They are absolutely among the strongest and toughest fish we have available off the coast of this amazing peninsula we call home.