Jack Attack In Mobile Bay
September 28, 2010
Want to tangle with some big, tough fish near shore?
Then the jack crevalle of lower Mobile Bay are right up your alley this summer!
Though most anglers were looking for tarpon when they discovered the jack crevalle in lower Mobile Bay, the dependable action these fish provide soon made them primary targets.
No matter what level of saltwater angler you are, there is always that yearning to catch the big one, regardless of species. It is not always the trophy or fish dinner that you are after, but rather the excitement that comes with the strong pull of a big fish.
Visions of taking on a fish that tests your endurance call most folks to the deep blue waters in search of big-game species. But not every angler can afford to own or even charter the size boat that takes, not to mention the gear involved to make this vision a reality.
There is a fishery along the Bama coast that can provide the same excitement, thrills and challenge that even those of modest means can afford. It might not be as glamorous as taking on an offshore species like tuna or marlin, but taking on the jack crevalle of Mobile Bay will have you smiling, grunting and straining in a classic battle of man vs. beast.
Jack crevalle have a high angled blunt head with a prominent black spot on the gill cover. The back of the fish is bluish-black in color, with the lower half being a bright silvery-yellow. These jacks have a pronounced forked tail.
Jack crevalle run in schools, usually by size. The fish use a teamwork method of cornering food and attacking. This activity is often seen in slashing, vicious attacks that send prey airborne in their attempts to escape the jacks. After attacks, jacks often regroup for the next assault on their food fish.
Jack crevalle are abundant throughout the Gulf of Mexico. Not given high marks as table fare because of their bloody flesh, the jacks are mainly sought as catch-and-release sportfish.
While jack crevalle are plentiful in the 15- to 20-pound range, jacks do get quite a bit larger. In fact, the present Alabama state record is 39 pounds, 4 ounces.
In an effort to relieve pressure on other highly sought species, many saltwater tournaments on the Gulf Coast have instituted categories or jackpots specifically for jack crevalle. With the lure of cash and prizes for a winning jack, these fish are no longer thought of as trash.
HOW IT STARTED
One of the best methods of tangling with jacks in Mobile Bay during July is to employ chum. Although hardly a new technique, chumming the waters with chunks of fish or shrimp became more prevalent in Mobile Bay about 15 years ago. At the time, however, tarpon were the fish that started the craze.
As the word got out about how effective chumming for tarpon was in the bay, soon the lower southeastern portion of the bay got the nickname "Tarpon Alley."
As many as 30 boats could be seen on a typical weekend in Tarpon Alley chumming and searching for those silver kings. While the chum certainly worked in attracting tarpon, the slicks from 20 or more boats also attracted schools of jack crevalle.
Those tarpon anglers found themselves routinely fighting as many as 20 jack crevalle during a day of fishing. Some of the anglers paid the price the following day with sore arms and necks and even strained backs.
Noel Nelson of Mobile is one of the tarpon anglers who catch their share of jack crevalle. He discovered really quickly that tarpon and jacks are attracted by the smell of chum in the water.
"Many years ago, on a day too rough to venture out in the Gulf, we decided to anchor near a gas rig in Mobile Bay and do a little chumming for whatever would bite. When we hooked a tarpon while catching jacks, everything changed," said Nelson.
"We changed to heavy boat rods and reels spooled with at least 50-pound-test line. We also used 100-pound-test monofilament leaders 5 feet in length. For hooks, we used No. 16 circle hooks. And we used just enough weight to get to the bottom," explained Nelson.
Nelson and his friends starting fishing Tarpon Alley religiously in hopes of landing a tarpon. But they quickly found out how abundant jack crevalle were in the area.
"The first thing we discovered was that jack crevalle are not tackle-shy! The big hooks and line we used for tarpon didn't bother them at all. As long as we kept chum in the water, the jacks kept coming," Nelson continued.
For chum, Nelson uses frozen menhaden, locally called pogies. He buys them by the 50-pound box and can go through several boxes during a weekend.
"We use a large chum bag tied to the back of the boat, right at water level. We fill it with cut-up pieces of the pogies. In the boat we cut up more pogies to toss overboard every now and then, maintaining a steady flow of chum. We also put pieces in a bucket with water to make a chum stew that we pour into the water behind the boat periodically," Nelson added.
While Tarpon Alley is definitely a place in which to target jack crevalle, there are other spots that can pay off with jack action. The first is not actually a place, but a moving opportunity. Shrimp boats are working the waters of Mobile Bay in earnest during the month of July. The shrimpers mostly stick to a standard routine, mainly in search of brown shrimp at this time.
Brown shrimp are much more active at night than during daylight hours. Because of this, shrimp boats trawl all night and rest during the day.
Shrimp boats make their last drag right at daylight. At this time, they anchor and clean the boat before heading to bed. Before they can get to their bunks, the crew must shovel or wash any by-catch overboard from the decks. Opportunistic jacks are attracted by all these groceries in the water behind the boat.
Most shrimpers do not mind if you ease up behind their boat to fish. In fact, they sometimes will shovel up a 5-gallon bucketful of the by-catch for you to use for chum.
Now if someone is nice enough to do you a favor, like giving you a bucket of bait, it just stands to reason you should return the favor. Shrimpers are often out days at a time during the season. The simple gift of a morning newspaper or, better yet, a six-pack of malted beverages is a fair and much appreciated exchange.
Once you have m
ade friends with the crew, you can slip your anchor into one of the tires hanging off the back of the shrimp boat. The tires are used as bumpers, but also make excellent anchor holders.
Once safely tethered to the boat, you can commence jack fishing. Start by drifting out whatever bait you have on flat lines with no weight. Put out additional lines that are weighted. It does not take long to see which ones work best.
You typically encounter numerous fish species while fishing around the shrimp boats. Spanish mackerel, gafftopsail catfish, redfish and even cobia may show up. But the biggest, meanest fish and most plentiful fish are likely to be the crevalle.
Targeting anchored shrimp boats is not the only method that is successful in catching jack crevalle. By pulling up beside a shrimp boat during trawling, you can take advantage of the constant flow of by-catch being shoveled off the boat between drags.
The shrimpers dump their catch into large boxes to be culled. Anything besides legal shrimp is considered by-catch and is pushed right back overboard. Hundreds of pounds of small fish, undersized shrimp, crabs and other creatures make a giant chumline behind the moving boat.
Jack crevalle are among the many species ready to take advantage of the by-catch. The jacks often swim right along with the boat, chomping away on the easy pickings littered by the boat.
You can cast a cigar minnow or pogie right behind the boat and allow it to drift back in the current. Greedy jacks, in competition with others, do not hesitate to inhale such offerings if they drift by close enough.
David Hare is another South Alabama angler who relies on jack crevalle for action. Hare gets a kick out of the smiles and excitement on the faces of kids fishing on his boat when they hook up a fish.
"Jacks are a very reliable target, especially when you have bored or hot kids on the boat with you. July gets pretty hot, and if the winds die down it can be pretty tough. Chasing shrimp boats for jacks puts a little wind on the kids, and when you get a hookup it's just icing on the cake," Hare noted.
You might think that all the boats would be at anchor during the day, but Hare said there are always a few dragging the bay during the day in the summer.
"Most shrimp boats do work the bay at night, but there are plenty more that work the ship channel up into the day. Most of these will be pulling at or just below the northernmost boundary of the open shrimping area. So I would suggest folks head north for this type of action," Hare said.
Jack crevalle are not the only predators to enjoy the oily flesh of the pogies. Large flocks of pelicans roam Mobile Bay in search of schools of menhaden during summer. Once the menhaden are found by the pelicans, the huge birds start dive-bombing the bait school, plunging their long bills into the water in an attempt to scoop a few for dinner.
Because of the size of the big birds, they can be seen for quite a distance. The splashes the pelicans make also are quite visible signs of this feeding activity. In Mobile Bay during summer, pelicans chasing menhaden from above usually means there are jack crevalle beneath the bait.
John E. Tommey III of Mobile caught the Alabama state-record jack crevalle while fishing on Aug. 20, 1994. The jack weighed 39 pounds, 4 ounces.
By approaching from the upwind side of the pelican activity, you can let the breeze push your boat into the action without dispersing the jacks with engine noise. Once you're within casting range, lob a menhaden or cigar minnow into the fray for a chance at a hookup.
If your boat has a trolling motor, keeping up with the jacks is easier than counting on the wind to keep you in casting range. Try to establish the direction the fish are heading and then stay just ahead of them.
This type of action is also ideal for trying to hook some jacks on artificial lures. Some of the best artificials to entice jack crevalle are large silver spoons. Other effective lures are large Rapala jerkbaits and MirrOlure plugs. Move the baits quickly through the schools for the best success.
Once the school of fish scatters or dives, you can start looking for more pelican activity. When you're searching the bay, this is when carrying along a good pair of binoculars can pay off.
Most of the jacks you encounter are going to be brutes. With that in mind, it's best to rig heavy. If you are going to anchor for jacks, a good stout 6- or 7-foot rod with a tough reel is fine. Be sure to spool with at least 30-pound-test line and a 50-pound leader.
If you are going to be fishing for jacks where a lot of casting is required, you might try a 7 1/2-foot rod coupled with a spinning reel spooled with 25-pound-test line.
For hooks, you can get away with No. 12 or larger circle hooks.
Since jacks are not food fish, Noel Nelson has strong feelings about catch-and-release, even though the fish are plentiful.
"I wish everyone would use circle hooks when fishing for jacks. The fish slash after the baits so quickly that the circle hooks wind up right in the corner of the mouth, making for an easy release. Standard J-style hooks are often swallowed, ending up gut-hooking the fish. If you are not going to eat the fish, you should use circle hooks to keep mortality rates to a minimum," he argued.
If your favorite species lets you down, or you just want to do battle with a fish that can test your skill and endurance, the jack crevalle of Mobile Bay are waiting on you this month!