- 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.
A faded picture on the wall of my loft preserves the following event in my mind.
By mid-afternoon—frustrated, aggravated, and not a little sore—I’d just about had enough. There wasn’t a suitable-sized sinker left on board, hooks had dwindled to a precious few, and not one of the 50-pound class outfits we’d been using still held its full allotment of line. And between the five of us, only two rather small specimens—20-pounders or thereabouts—had been boated, neither by me!
I had been invited to be a member of an amberjack quest led by a charter boat skipper/buddy who had a day off and wanted to fish. Our destination was a small group of petroleum platforms in about 240 feet of water, and upon reaching them we tied off to one and began “making bait.”
That was supposed to be accomplished by sending a small squid to bottom on a boat rod and catching a white trout, which in turn would be deployed on the heavier gear at a point roughly halfway down the water column. Problem was, throughout most of the day we were able to get only a few white trout to the surface before an AJ ate it, then dove into the platform’s complex of legs and crossbeams and shredded the line. And with the two exceptions, the same thing would happen on the occasions when we were able to send down a whole white trout on the heavy gear!
In most cases, AJ's aren't finicky feeders. The problem with catching them is not making them bite; it's what comes afterward.
I finally made my way into the cabin, searching for a toolbox that hopefully held some old spark plugs we could use as sinkers, when I noticed a pair of 130-pound class trolling outfits cradled in a ceiling rack. Uh HUH! After receiving permission to use one in my intended and somewhat demeaning role, I rigged it, baited it with a frozen mullet which was then sent south, and placed it in a rod-holder on a gunwale with the reel’s drag set on “Stop!”
I then took a seat in the fighting chair—to await what I was pretty sure would soon happen—while the skipper fired up the engines and a crew-member stood by to cast off the bow-line. And it wasn’t long before that pool-cue rod slowly, almost gracefully took on the semblance of a horseshoe! The boat was then quickly freed from the platform, both engines were slammed into reverse, and I discovered there was no way I could remove the rod from its holder!
Once we had backed a short distance away from the platform I was able to retrieve the rod and return to the fighting chair with it. Everything held together, and after a hump-and-pump ordeal the likes of which I had never even come close to experiencing before, the fish was gaffed aboard. At 56 pounds the skipper said it was a “fair one.” Whatever, even then—27 years ago and with me in pretty good shape at the time—I immediately decided I didn’t want anything to do with a bigger one!
An Ornery Species
Amberjacks are bad! I have no clue as to what makes them so. Perhaps they are really no tougher than a similar-sized yellowfin tuna, and it’s just a mental thing some of us have been conditioned to through years of media hype. Nah, AJ’s are just basically bad, and that makes them just the thing for young, brash, well-conditioned macho-types. Me? These days I get my AJ-induced jollies by just watching such contests—a spectator sport, thank you very much.
Like all reef-fish, amberjacks are structure-oriented, holding to hard bottom, humps, reefs, and wrecks as well as petroleum platforms. When they are found around the former two—and when they inhabit areas where they can be chummed to the surface—they are not nearly as likely to remove your terminal assembly as they are when they are holding to the latter three. Indeed, when chummed up over the less-severe types of structure they can even be fly-fished—one guy fishing out from the Keys has a 104-pounder taken thusly to his credit. Man, I’m sure glad it was he and not I!
Even relatively small AJ's are best taken on fairly stout tackle, especially when they're found around abrasive structure.
Fishing for AJ’s over humps and hard bottom is pretty basic: locate the structure with your depth recorder, send down a big jig like a Duralure, or an appropriate-sized jig-head dressed with a 6-inch curly-tail grub, or a live bait, and if any are present, you will shortly get bitten. When AJ’s are found around reefs and wrecks, the same tactics are effective, but it is often better to anchor a short distance up-current of the structure and chum them up—small chunks of fresh menhaden dispensed frugally work well. Then, once you hook one, you have a much better chance of preventing it from diving into the line-shredding stuff on bottom.
Oh if fishing for them around the platforms was all that easy!
Battle Tactics & Gear
In by-gone years when there were no possession limits on AJ’s, using wire-line when platform fishing was a common practice. It’s still an effective means, but it has its drawbacks—cost and difficulty in handling, for instance. These days a much more common practice is to fish unattached to the platform and with the motors running. Here’s the drill:
The boat is backed to within 10 to 15 feet or so of the up-current side of the platform and held there. If artificial lures are being used, they are then dropped and allowed to sink to different depths—platform-inhabiting AJ’s often suspend well up the water column. Then they are jigged by rapidly reeling in a few feet of line while quickly raising the rod, then dropping the rod to a point where a full upward lift can be repeated. After four or five of these sequences the reel is free-spooled to allow the jig to sink a little further, and then the procedure begins anew. At the strike—and I avow you will not need anyone to tell you that you just got a bite!—one of the unoccupied crew-members grabs the lucky angler by the belt to prevent him from being pulled overboard while the helmsman rapidly moves the boat a couple of hundred feet or so from the structure.
Live-baiting is often more effective, if possibly a little less entertaining, than jigging, since the reel’s drag can be advanced closer to “Stop!” than it should be set for jigging. Upon having backed up to the platform, the bait is lowered to a hopeful depth, the reel is then engaged, and the rod is placed in a holder. Then, after it has taken on its signature semblance of a horseshoe, the boat is hastily moved away from the structure. The designated angler then removes the rod from the holder and goes to work.
Heavy jig-heads dressed with large curly-tails (above) are traditional favorites, but live blue runners make an excellent enticer for AJ's, and they can often be caught around the same platform.
Blue runners (a.k.a. “hardtails”) some 6 to 7 inches long make great enticers and can often be caught shallow on Sabiki rigs at the same platform you intend to fish for AJ’s. Hook them through the bottom jaw and out the top of the nose with a size 8/0 circle hook.
An effective terminal assembly is a fish-finder rig with an egg sinker heavy enough to prevent the rig from being blown away by the current, a black barrel swivel, and about 4 feet of 200-pound mono. As always, when using a circle hook, DO NOT try to set it yourself! Keep the line tight—the act accomplished here by moving the boat to safe water —and the fish will set it for you. A final note on gear: If you are quick enough to get away from the platform and somehow manage to avoid hooking a real brute, a 50-pound stand-up trolling outfit and 80-pound line make a good combo.
AJ’s are found across the entire Gulf. In Texas waters they are targeted around areas of hard bottom and petroleum platforms standing in 100 feet or more of water. Off Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama the best bets are usually the platforms—here in 150-foot depths or more, though Alabama has an extensive artificial reef system, and those fish-magnets located in appropriate depths provide great action with these fish. Florida—especially around the Keys—offers good fishing for them around reefs and wrecks.
AJ fillets taste pretty good when skinned, cut into small chunks with any red meat removed, and fast-fried in a beer batter. However, especially in eastern-Gulf waters, they have been known on rare occasions to carry ciguatera. To lessen your chances even more of ingesting this poison, eat only fish near the minimum size restriction and trim away the fatty meat along the ribcage. And resist the urge to eat AJ sushi!
While amberjacks can be caught year-round throughout their Gulf range, late winter into early spring is an especially good time to fish for them. That is in part because a lot of young, brash, well-conditioned macho-types haven’t been getting much lately—wrestling with fish, that is—and AJ’s are more than willing to oblige. But even for those guys, I recommend they don’t take ‘em in too big a dose. Like I said earlier, AJ’s are bad!