Doubling Up On the Northern Gulf

A trip out to a wreck or artificial reef doesn't have to be one-dimensional fishing. Join the author in learning how to multiply the fun! (April 2007)

Big amberjacks like this one Dennis Schmidt boated can give you a battle even before you reach your main destinations in the Gulf!
Photo by Polly Dean

When you're on the Gulf of Mexico -- en route to your favorite offshore reef for some deep-water table fare such as snapper, triggerfish and grouper -- why not increase your angling fun by dropping a line for some other saltwater dwellers? Adding fun by targeting hefty amberjack really livens up a day on the water.

Mid-April brings the opening of red snapper season in the Gulf. As a result, local fishermen aboard their own boats vie with other anglers fishing from chartered craft to catch a limit of snapper. On April visits to the northern Gulf in search of a limit of red snapper, I have benefited more than once from the skills of charter captains who provided a day of "doubling up" on the water.

An example of a highly successful day of this bonus angling was aboard the 55-foot Lively One II, chartered by our group of approximately 20 anglers. We arrived at the pier with coolers, lunches and expectations in tow. We were scheduled to depart at what I thought was an uncivilized early hour before the sun had even thought of showing itself. But before long, those of us not inside napping realized it was well worth the early wake-up to watch the sun splash its changing palette of yellows, oranges and turquoises across the sky and waters of the Gulf.

After being under way for a while, the engine ground to a halt. Our mate rigged up several lightweight rods with Sabiki rigs -- a Japanese term for bait rig. This setup consists of a main line with a series of short dropper lines with small, very sharp hooks extending off of it. A weight is attached at the bottom of the rig. The hooks are outfitted with a flashy red material or fish skin.

By jigging the Sabiki amid a school of baitfish, we began our fun catching menhaden two, three or five at a time! Thus we quickly filled the livewells with the shiny, slippery bait.

During the process, Capt. Lively cautioned us about having sunscreen on our hands. Getting it on the baitfish or in the baitwell water will quickly kill the bait.

As we resumed our run to the artificial reef where we hoped to catch plenty of snapper, the captain again slowed the boat. But this time the mate brought out large boat rods on which we placed live menhaden.

Peering down into the crystal water, we saw a number of large shimmering fish swimming just behind and below our boat. Capt. Lively had spotted this school from the bridge, prompting the pause in our run to the reef.

Soon a couple of live baits were on their way down to the fish.

What the captain had put us on was a large school of amberjack. These fish were in the 20- to 40-pound range and promised a challenge.

For most of us, the circle hooks attached to these lines took some getting used to. Rather than sharply setting the hook, we had to learn to give the fish some line when we felt a tug.

By dropping the rod tip toward the water and waiting to feel the fish again, we let the AJs hook themselves. But when one of these brutes felt the hook, BAM! The rod would quickly bend, and the fish was off and running.

The greater amberjack can grow to weigh more than 100 pounds. The record AJ for the northern Gulf of Mexico weighed 130.5 pounds and was caught from a boat out of a Louisiana port. Obviously, with fish this size, we put out only two lines at a time and rotated anglers on them. Any more rods out and attached to big jacks would have led to massive tangles of line.

Since amberjack filets are dense meat and often more than an inch thick, they are good for grilling. Marinated or just brushed with Italian dressing as they cook, they make for excellent eating!

Our day of saltwater fishing could already be called a success, but we still had our target destination ahead of us. The captain's artificial reef site did not disappoint! Again using circle hooks, but now with cut bait, we had no trouble catching a number of red snapper. Our group of anglers pulled in a number of fish in various sizes.

Along with red snapper, we were also catching a variety of other species. Lane snapper and vermilion snapper are smaller cousins of the red snapper. Vermilion snapper are colored an even brighter red, and might pass for small red snapper. They are found in the same locations and caught with the same bait as the red snapper. But the vermilions have a narrower body shape and are smaller -- a 4-pounder is considered large for this species.

Red snapper are regularly caught in the 10- to 20-pound range. The largest one caught in the northern Gulf tipped the scales at more than 46 pounds!

Lane snapper are quite distinct from the vermilion and red snappers. These fish have a reddish tint, but have eight to 10 yellow stripes running horizontal on their bodies and a black spot below the dorsal fin. They are generally small, with the Gulf record right at 8 pounds.

All of these species of snapper are quite edible and when it comes to good eating, some locals even prefer the smaller varieties.

Another species of fish quite commonly found mixed in the snappers is triggerfish. For years, many considered triggers bait-stealers and a nuisance and rarely kept the ones they caught. But more recently, anglers have discovered just how tasty they are. I have spoken to Gulf residents who readily prefer them even to red snapper!

The fish get their name from the two dorsal spines that contract when the second, smaller spine is "pulled" like a trigger. Triggerfish are not attractive and are brownish gray with indistinct black markings. Smaller ones in the 1- to 2-pound range are common, but the Gulf record exceeds 13 pounds.

All of these smaller species can be caught on cut pieces of menhaden or other baitfish. But they are also susceptible to pieces of squid that are harder for them to steal off the hook.

Amid all this action, a couple of bites led to quick hard runs by the fish, which left the unlucky angler firmly attached to debris on the bottom. The mate was quick to recognize what was happening and switched some rods from circle hooks to standard J-hooks.

He suggested that rather than let

ting the fish run, as with a circle hook, it was now time to jerk at the first bite and to reel up a few cranks on the line, to raise the fish off the bottom as soon as possible.

We quickly began having some bone-wearying battles with good-sized black grouper, which tend to dart out of a hiding place, grab the bait and head for cover. If you let them run, they'll tangle the line on rocks or other objects. A number of times, the grouper did get the best of us, and once they got under a rock, it was time to re-rig.

Next time you're headed to a wreck for some bottom fishing, don't forget to "double up." In addition to loading up on tasty red snapper and grouper, you can earn some sore muscles battling a large amberjack!

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