- Black sea bass have dangerously sharp spines on their dorsal fin that can puncture human skin.
- The all-tackle world record for black sea bass is 9 pounds, 8 ounces.
- When hooked in deep water and brought quickly to the surface, a black sea bass will often regurgitate its stomach contents.
“It was a dark and stormy night …” Well, actually it wasn’t stormy, but it was pretty dark when this story begins. I was on board the 48-foot charter boat Wango Tango, until last year operated out of Freeport, Texas, by my friends Wimpy Lowe and his son, Hoyt. We were on an overnight “fun” trip for family and friends, anchored over a patch of large rocks 55 miles south of Freeport. While everyone else was either bottom-fishing for red snapper or drift-lining for king mackerel, I was dipping large live mullet from the live well and dropping them into the depths in hopes of connecting with a huge grouper.
I did hook what were probably a pair of big Warsaw groupers that got into the rocks and broke me off, but mostly what I got was brutal treatment at the hands—rather, fins—of bulky amberjack that grabbed the baits just off the bottom. Although I was fishing 50-pound line on an Alvey direct drive reel, which allowed me to exert some pretty good pressure on the fish, I never got one to the surface. Instead, my arms were nearly yanked from their sockets as I held on until the line or leader parted. After several identical occurrences, I ceased feeding mullet to the raiders of the reef, with the score at about fish five, Capt. Mike nothing. This had been my first real experience with what I now refer to as “full grown” amberjack!
The Jack Family
Amberjacks are commonly caught at over 50 pounds, as evidenced by this group's catch.
The largest members of the jack family found in the Gulf, amberjack differ from their smaller cousin the jack crevalle in many ways. First, the common yellow “jack” is an inshore species often found in the surf or behind culling shrimp boats within 10 miles of shore. Occasionally, jack crevalle will enter a bay system, almost always following huge schools of rafting mullet that move down the beachfront in the warmer months. Jack crevalle also seldom reach weights of over 25 pounds, although they fight so hard they feel much larger.
Amberjack, on the other hand, are a deep-water, structure-oriented fish, most commonly found over rocks, reefs, and wrecks—although deep-water oil production rigs will also attract them. Amberjacks reach weights of over 100 pounds, and individuals topping 50 pounds are fairly common. The coloration of amberjack is duller—almost a gray—than their yellow relatives. Unlike the bloody flesh of the crevalle, which is just about inedible, amberjack steaks and fillets are excellent table fare.
The things all jacks DO have in common is that they fight harder than just about any fish their size other than tuna, and they possess tremendous endurance. A big amberjack requires heavy tackle and a strong back, and maybe some time to kill, if the angler wants to have more success than I did on my first amberjack excursion.
Smaller amberjack can be found around oil rigs in 90 to 100 foot depths, but the larger fish will usually be over wrecks or rocks in 200 feet of water or more. A friend of mine got a 90-pound specimen on a billfish-trolling lure a few years ago, swinging around the Cerveza platform, 85 miles off Texas’ Gulfcoast, and just past the 100-fathom drop.
How To Hook ‘Em
Live or natural bait, such as pinfish, mullet and various grunts, accounts for a high percentage of monster amberjack. Circle hooks do an excellent job of setting themselves, especially when fishing the baits in extremely deep water.
When specifically targeting amberjack, most fishermen use live bait. Piggie perch—pinfish to some—are a very good bait, as are small blue runners, vermillion snapper and various species of grunt that can be caught on site. As mentioned earlier, live mullet brought from shore will also get their interest.
The terminal tackle for live-baiting AJs is fairly simple. Use a heavy mono leader—130# isn’t too much for the big boys—3 to 5 feet long. A large circle hook is tied to one end, and a strong swivel or loop knot to the other, with an egg sinker of appropriate weight for the depth and current sliding on the upper part of the leader. About midway, position a stop of some sort to keep the sinker away from the baited hook. A crimped leader sleeve, bead, lead-split shot, or a couple of overhand knots will do the trick.
Drop the live bait fairly slowly through the water column, especially if fishing at a rig. Amberjack might be feeding anywhere from the surface to just above the bottom. Since amberjack are aggressive feeders they will usually set the hook with their attack (and circle hooks are pretty much self-setting, at any rate). Some fishermen might choose to use braided cable for leader material instead of heavy mono, since a live bait fished in this manner could instead attract a shark, big king mackerel, or a wahoo.
Perhaps the most productive artificial lure is a large plastic grub fished vertically to allow the the tail to flutter down after a sharp ascent.
Amberjack will also hit a variety of artificial lures. The most productive offering in my home waters seems to be a huge version of the plastic “grubs” used for bass in freshwater. These twister-tailed bodies are fished on a heavy jighead with molded-in hooks, and pulled up and allowed to flutter down or retrieved slowly after a deep drop. Popular colors include white, yellow or chartreuse, or red and white. I mentioned amberjack hitting hooks baited for red snapper—usually with cut bait or whole fish like threadfin herring or cigar minnows—and I have also seen big AJs grab a hunk of bloody bonito meant for grouper.
Heavy fish require heavy tackle, and bruisers like amberjack will punish gear not up to the task. Standup rods in 50# class are probably the best choices for AJs, since the fast tip and strong butt allow maximum pressure to be exerted on the fish. A quality reel with either star or lever drag spooling a minimum of 300 yards of 50 to 80# mono will get the job done. (Big jacks tend to fight in close quarters and don't make long runs that would empty a reel.) A danger with standup gear is to choose a reel that is too heavy, which works to tire the angler as well as the fish. A standup harness and belt will be worth its weight in pre-collapse Enron stock when a heavy duty AJ takes the bait.
Right now the limits on amberjack in the Gulf of Mexico are one fish per angler, per day, with a 28-inch minimum length, measured from nose to the fork of the tail. Regardless of legal limits, it doesn’t take most anglers long to get all the big amberjack they want in one trip!