Photo by Polly Dean
When it comes to deep-water fishing in the northern Gulf of Mexico, the gorgeous crimson-hued red snapper and the bottom-hugging grouper get a lot of attention. However, if you are looking for the fish in these waters with the nastiest reputation as a battler, it is the greater amberjack that should be sought.
Amberjacks are extremely powerful fish and are noted for their ability to leave anglers worn down and arm weary after just one encounter. In the Gulf of Mexico, most concentrations of amberjacks occur in 120 to 130 feet of water. Amberjacks can be found suspended above wrecks, salt domes, and bottom breaks like cliffs or ledges, and they love to concentrate around oil and gas rigs or other towers. These deep-water structure-oriented fish seem to relish prowling in the mid-depths, and once hooked they let it be known that they do not want to be removed from their watery abodes.
Although greater amberjacks in the Gulf normally run in the 25- to 40-pound class, good numbers reach 60 to 70 pounds and can attain weights well over the 100-pound mark. Such hefty fish require tackle, rigging, baits and lures suited to their immense power.
BEEF UP THE TACKLE
Since amberjacks have the reputation of being one of the toughest species in the northern Gulf of Mexico, most die-hard amberjack pursuers opt for heavy tackle for forcing these bullies up from the depths. For example, a high-speed 6/0 reel loaded with 80-pound-test and seated on a 6- to 6 1/2-foot medium/heavy-action rod is an ideal setup.
Amberjacks have the power and speed to quickly cut your line on nearby underwater structure. Especially when amberjacks are holding close to the barnacle-encrusted legs of oil or gas rigs, many anglers even use their boats to quickly back away from the structure once a fish is hooked. This method puts added pressure on the fish, enabling you to turn the fish’s head away from the underwater structure.
If you’re serious about catching amberjacks, especially the biggest of the hordes that patrol the Gulf of Mexico, then you had better stock your livewell with plenty of blue runners, commonly called “hardtails.” Also, gather some bluefish when they’re available. Especially around the Gulf’s numerous platforms and towers, these two species are quite plentiful, and amberjacks are accustomed to feasting on them on a regular basis.
As the old saying goes, “The bigger the bait, the bigger the fish.” When it comes to amberjack fishing, no truer words have been spoken. In order to deter the smallest fish in the school from striking first, go with the biggest bait possible. An amberjack weighing 40 pounds or better does not have any problem engulfing a 2- to 4-pound hardtail or bluefish. Amberjacks also dine on lively croakers, spots, pinfish, grunts and mullet.
RIGGING FOR AMBERJACKS
For amberjacks, a sliding sinker rig, which is nothing more than a beefed-up freshwater Carolina rig, suffices. First, slip an egg sinker ranging anywhere from 8 to 16 ounces onto the main line and then tie on a dull-finish No. 1 swivel. Next add four to five feet of 90- to 130-pound-test fluorocarbon leader material and finish off with a 9/0 to 11/0 circle hook.
When using the large live baits, insert the circle hook inside the corner of the bait’s mouth and back out through the side. You want the hook’s tip exposed so that it can properly rotate and find its mark in the corner of the amberjack’s hard jaw. Then drop the baited hook down to the level where the fish are holding and put the reel in lock. Next, patiently wait for the marauding predator below to hunt down and gulp in the bait.
As your line tightens and your rod begins to bow, don’t set the hook, but slowly lift the rod and reel and begin to bring in line at a fast rate. The circle hook needs time to rotate and take hold somewhere in the amberjack’s jaw. From this point on, you had best be wearing a fighting belt, and have your feet and knees firmly planted in the boat’s cockpit, because the amberjack is about to test your strength and stamina.
Although the use of live bait is extremely effective on amberjacks, there are a number of large heavyweight jigs that these fish are also quick to take. These are particularly handy when you run out of live offerings or just were not able to catch any.
Thus, it is always wise to keep a number of proven amberjack jigs in your fishing tackle arsenal. An assortment of these in 7- to 10-ounce weights in colors like silver, chrome, white, chartreuse or combinations of these hues works well.
To rig a jig, tie a quality dull-colored No. 1 barrel swivel to the main line. Next, attach three to four feet of 90- to 130-pound-test fluorocarbon leader material and finish off with the jig. To fish a jig, put the reel in free spool and drop the lure down to or near the bottom.
Once the jig is in position, begin to retrieve the lure upwards with a swift lifting and then lowering motion of the rod tip. On the lowering of the rod tip, crank up the slack extremely fast. Repeat this nonstop motion all the way up through the water column. Unlike the more subtle downward pull of a bite on live bait, the strike on the jig causes an abrupt and forceful bow in the rod, followed by a downward plunge of the rod tip.
Be aware, however, that amberjacks sometimes smack a jig as it is free-falling, so keep a little tension on the line and watch for a sudden slowing as the
line spools out. Since most jig strikes from amberjacks occur at depths of 40 feet or more, you should set the hook hard a couple of times to ensure a good connection.
Anytime an amberjack is hooked — whether the fish pulls you away from the structure or not — you should immediately drop another line down. Other jacks are prone to follow their hooked schoolmate. In fact, at times amberjacks follow hooked fish of any species to the surface.
USE A FISH FINDER
Amberjacks do not always spend their time hanging close around their underwater haunts. At times they may be upcurrent or downcurrent of the structure and as far away as 50 to 100 yards. To save fishing time, it is wise to first make a few passes around or over the structure to see if concentrations of fish can be pinpointed. If masses of fish are detected on the recorder, you quickly know where and how deep you should begin fishing.