- 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.
Each time fishermen take to the water it's a gamble: You're wagering your time, effort and resources in hopes of cashing in with a positive angling experience. Sometimes you win all the nickels, other times it seems a productive day just isn't in the cards.
Could it be, however, that in the latter scenario, we're banking too heavily on the aces and faces to recognize a winning hand well within our reach? Truth be told, a lot of poker games are won with unassuming combinations such as three fives, or a full house of twos and eights.
When Florida's Gulf Coast anglers are dealt a losing hand with snook, trout and redfish—seemingly as elusive as an inside straight—some of them fold; others play their wild card: the brash, brazen bullies known as jack crevalle. Often a day-saver for guides and casual anglers alike, jacks make up for their lack of looks and table fare with a stubborn fight and a willingness to eat when other fish suffer lockjaw. Live bait or artificials, it matters not. When jacks abound, rods will bend.
Gear And Grub
Almost any live baitfish will get jacks hooked, but pilchards (a.k.a. "whitebait") seem to have special appeal.
Standard jack tackle consists of 7-foot, medium-action spinning rods and matching reels loaded with 8-pound monofilament. To shorten battles with jumbo jacks, you can increase to 10- or 12-pound line, but you'll sacrifice casting distance with the heavier stuff and impede live bait mobility as well as artificial lure action. Some anglers find that small-diameter braided lines provide a good blend of strength, castability and action.
Jack crevalle will gobble most any live bait, but if you can toss a cast net, pilchards ("whitebait") top the menu. The ravenous jack is hardly hook-shy, but for maximum stealth, hide a 2/0 to 3/0 live bait hook under the bait by running it through the soft tissue just behind the pectoral fin.
Other good live bait options include jumbo shrimp, pinfish, menhaden and glass minnows. For artificial productivity, try -ounce jigs with chartreuse, gold or pearl tails, soft-plastic jerkbaits and diving or sinking plugs (preferably with rattles). Topwater lures also work, but only when the fish are focusing at or near the surface. (Feeding jacks move quickly and often miss lures that don't fall right on their noses.)
Now about the only time a jack won't eat an available meal is when he's not aware it exists. Anglers can help these voracious predators locate waiting entrees by chumming with handfuls of live baitfish or cut bait. This creates a sudden aggregation of food to stimulate appetites, while the sound of all that chow hitting the surface is enough to turn any jack's head. When the fish locate the freebies, their frantic wakes and surface explosions are like neon "Cast Here" signs.
To enhance the auditory signals, fish live baits under popping corks, or premade cork rigs with brass and glass beads. Suspend baits a foot or two below the cork, which chugs and splashes when tugged. Simulating feeding sounds, this action jolts otherwise complacent jacks into the food mood.
Look for jack crevalle along mangrove shorelines and the drop-off edges of grassy flats located near a deep cut or channel. These areas hold plenty of the jack's preferred food sources, while providing the security and convenience of quick access to deep water. You'll also find these fish around oyster bars, the mouths of coastal creeks and rivers, as well as residential canals. During winter months, jacks crowd into the warm water outflows of coastal power plants.
Mangrove shorelines (above) and grass beds (below) are both loaded with forage species. Looks like snook country, but you can bet the more cooperative jacks will be there too.
Good thing about jack crevalle is when they decide to eat, there's no debate, delay or indecision. Expect a solid thump, followed by a furious run. Anglers often confuse the initial moments of a jack encounter with that of a snook. The fish match up well in strength and stamina, but jacks don't jump, whereas a snook will leap several times when hooked. Jacks put all their theatrical abilities into their favorite pastime: eating.
Example: During a past snook mission in the Tampa Bay area, my boatmates and I had positioned next to a steep drop along a rocky shoreline known for hefty specimens. The linesiders played hard-to-get for the first 10 minutes, so I surveyed surrounding waters for signs of opportunity.
About 50 yards west of our position, a shallow area rose from surrounding depths of about 6 feet to 2 feet—an ideal scenario for spotting the wakes of predators pushing onto the flat. Now, lest I sound completely novice, I have, like most inshore anglers, seen plenty of jacks frothing the surface as they attack schools of tiny baitfish. Sporadic pops, a few seconds of splashing and it's over. But when a surging wake rose and intensified, I knew we'd hit the angling jackpot.
Mouth agape and pointing like a kid at his first parade, I watched in amazement as an enormous school of large jack crevalle turned the flat into a briny buffet. The massive herd of several hundred fish pushed a solid foot of wake across the shallow plateau as they plowed the water in an unmistakable feeding craze. Suddenly, the wake erupted with a shower of silver shards. Ballyhoo, pilchards, even sizeable menhaden leapt in rapid succession, as blunt, silver heads with snapping jaws bore down on them.
The first wave lasted a good 5 seconds, lessening only as the drama spilled into the deep water of an adjacent boating channel. Five minutes later, the jacks had again corralled the baitfish and moved in to munch. Just like before, only longer and further, hundreds of terrified baitfish exploded in frantic bursts ahead of their pursuers.
We pulled anchor and headed toward the action, but the frenzy vanished into deep water. As we idled toward the spot of last visual contact, sporadic boils and surface pops told us the fish had scattered, but were nearby—probably regrouping for another assault. After a little cat-and-mouse searching, we caught up with the school and wrestled several hefty jacks to the boat.
Rules Of Engagement
Large or small, jacks will give you all the fight they have, which is usually plenty.
When presenting baits to jack crevalle, it's best to position ahead of the moving school, and toss right in front of the surge. Live baits won't be long for this world. With artificials, the tactic is simple—crank like you're trying to start a fire. Suffice to say, jacks are used to seeing anything edible run like crazy when they arrive. Lures that mimic this flight get plenty of attention.
When jacks conceal their location, fan cast artificials and vary your retrieve to determine the fish's aggression level. Give live baits about 5 minutes in a spot, and then reposition. Any jack with a breath in its body will smack a live bait whether it's hungry or not, so no need for patience.
When you spot a school of feeding jacks, you'll be tempted to just toss your bait right in the middle of the pack. With such intense feeding competition, a hookup is a foregone conclusion. However, each school has a ranking system, with the biggest and most aggressive fish up front and the younger, weaker ones in the backseat. Aiming for center mass means you'll probably miss the big boys and instead connect with a mid-range to smaller fish. They all fight valiantly, but for maximum jack attack, lead the school and duke it out with a high-stakes player.
On the strike, jacks will hook themselves, so forget the ego-charged hook set. Just give the fish a quick snap of the rod tip and then come tight with steady reeling. Keep the rod tip high and let the fish run, but stop reeling when your opponent takes line, as this only causes twisting. When the jack slows down, a smooth cadence of pumping up and reeling down will bring the contest to a close.
Typically, jacks of any size will give you all the fight they have, which is usually all the fight you want. Therefore, their survival depends on giving them time to recharge their batteries at boatside before releasing. Avoid gripping by the mouth, as a jack's short, sharp choppers can mangle a thumb. For a convenient and secure grip, place your hand over the fish's forehead or under the chin and squeeze the dark spots on either cheek. It's like a saltwater sleeper hold and you'll have no trouble removing the hook and getting your fish back in the water with minimal thrashing.
Jacks will amaze, entertain and provide a hardy angling challenge. But these brawlers aren't likely to satisfy your palate. Therefore, live releasing these double-tough dealers helps ensure your winning hand remains on the table.