July 31, 2012
When a line pops from an outrigger, it sounds like someone dropped a thick book on a table. When that sound occurs over a Gulf of Mexico wreck, it's usually a safe bet you've enticed a wahoo, tuna, dolphin or a big kingfish.
That's what Capt. Dane Karcher and I thought when the first of a double header popped over a wreck in 150 feet. At the helm of his 36-foot Yellowfin, "Caliente," tournament pro Arik Bergerman had planned to troll ballyhoo around the wreck for pelagics before anchoring and going to work on the hordes of amberjack below.
Apparently, the resident wreck bullies were impatient this day because about five minutes after Capt. Bill Miller and Capt. Jesse Mayer grabbed twin trolling rods, they were holding chunky AJ's in the 25-pound range. One more trolling pass netted another AJ, so Bergerman canned the pelagic pursuit and set us up for an amberjack rally of epic proportions.
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Put it this way: Had we not taken the requisite time for all the important filming angles, still photos and interviews, a 50-fish day would have been no problem. Karcher spent about 15 minutes in a wet suit, filming the swarm of AJs subsurface – that is, until what he described as "a wall of sharks" hastened him back aboard.
Get 'Em Going
As our trolling efforts showed, amberjack need no coaxing to swim 25 fathoms for a meal. However, if you want to bring the entire gang topside, drop the hook, toss out a few handfuls of live sardines and just watch the water. Slight glimmers in the water column gradually take shape and those shapes quickly turn into ravenous beasts driven by a perpetual hunger.
"Chum and keep chumming – you don't want to lose their interest," Mayer said. "A lot of the fish are getting a bait with no hook in their mouth, so they stick around."
The payoff, Mayer said, more than merits the effort: "Once you get into them, you get into a bunch of them. Especially with the grouper closure right now, they're a good fish to target. They fight hard, they pull a lot of drag and they eat just about anything."
After the first trolling pass nabbed a pair of AJ's, Bergerman pulled the 'hoos back across the wreck. Heading the opposite direction, he was not happy with the presentation.
"It's hard to make them bite against the current – it doesn't look natural," Bergerman said.
Ten minutes later, when our third AJ smacked a trolled bait, the captain grinned: "See, this time we were going with the current."
Once we had transitioned to the chumming phase, Miller broke out his 10-weight fly rod and used a simple roll cast to present a chartreuse streamer fly about 30 feet behind the boat. AJ's were dialed in on the live chum, but on Miller's third cast, the fish noticed his fly and he would have had an easy hook up, had two gluttons not bumped into one another at the surface. The next cast drew a clean connection – a 20-pounder that looked a lot like the one Mayer would catch an hour later on the skinny rod.
Next up was a stumpy popping plug. As Mayer seeded the water with livies, Miller flung the plug off the stern and worked it with short, sharp strokes. The fish took awhile to warm up to this noisy presentation, but once they decided it was on the menu, two violent pops preceded the kinda surface strike you talk about for years. No kidding, this AJ was so amped for that plug, he literally surfed a good six feet – back out of the water – to crush the popper.
Mayer would later add a couple of AJ's on the butterfly jig. The dynamics of a heavy jig with a dangling hook harness give head-shaking jacks plenty of opportunity to throw the bait. However, each time he lost a hooked fish, Mayer kept the bait in play and found another willing player within seconds.
Live blue runners, tomtates and sardines would also produce amberjack action. Though our methods varied, one thing remained consistent – a hooked amberjack is a handful-plus. Karcher offered some good advice on winning one of the sea's toughest battles.
"The key to fighting an amberjack is to use finesse – don't try to muscle them," he said. "Try to lead them up by their head. When they run away from you, let them run and when they stop, you try to get their head coming your way.
"I like to use a good amount of drag and keep the line as tight as you can. When you feel them stop running, that's when you want to start using short pumps. You'll only gain an inch or two at a time, but you'll gain a little more each time. Eventually, you'll lead them right to you. It's kind of like leading a horse."
Gulf AJ Season
Greater amberjack (Seriola dumerili) opens for recreational harvest in Gulf of Mexico state and federal waters Aug. 1. The season closes annually June 1-July 31.The minimum size limit for greater amberjack in the Gulf of Mexico is 30 inches fork length (28 in Atlantic state waters). Daily bag limit is one fish per person, per day. In accordance with federal regulations for Gulf of Mexico reef fish pursuits, anglers fishing for amberjack must use non-stainless steel circle hooks and have a dehooking device and a venting tool on their vessel.