Picture this: The skipper’s best friend, George Johnson, comes down from Atlanta to see if they have anything in Panama City waters that will tear up wooden plugs as fast as the peacock bass they fought in Brazil. Capt. Chris Parker takes him offshore to a Hathaway Bridge span.
They cast 2-ounce white jigs with 8-inch curly-tails, let them bottom out, then jig them furiously back to the surface. None makes it. Amberjacks strike instantly. Everyone is hooked up and fighting. They get up the 15-pounders, make fast releases and go down for more.
The fish wouldn’t wait. They come up looking for action. Soon an acre of water churns with hungry fish. The AJs grab jigs as soon as they hit the water. If the school dives, jigging brings them up fast, slamming jigs right at the boat.
Johnson brought some big topwater lures they used in Brazil. They try bait and switch. Two pump jigs to keep the action high while Johnson and Parker pitch 9-inch propbaits into the frenzy.
Everyone has fish on. The jiggers switch to the long wood lures. They get whacked—in fact, whacked so often and with such violence on the 30-pound spinning rigs that after a few dozen catch and releases, those still standing and able to work a rod, remove the plugs’ hooks to enjoy just the strikes.
“Bam! They not only struck those 9-inch hookless plugs,” laughed Chris, “but the fish knocked the things out of the water in their eagerness. Three of us were casting topwaters with no hooks. We got the jacks so stirred up, we could actually do figure eights with the rods at the side of the boat and everyone was getting soaked from all the explosions. You could throw your plug out about 10 feet, rip it one time and not touch it again and the amberjacks would repeatedly maul it. They’d suck it down a few feet and continue to hit it. It’d float back up and get hit into the air again. We caught several fish with the hookless plugs wedged crosswise in their mouths!”
When I heard this I thought, what an idea for bait and switch using spinners and fly rods. I asked Chris to call me when conditions were right.
Early last May, he called to say the time was right for AJs. So I phoned Jack Montague in Punta Gorda and told him to load some fly rods in his van and hit the highway as soon as possible. I figured anyone who starts fly fishing at five years of age should know something about it.
We met at St. Andrews State Recreation Area where I set up camp and tied several 5-inch Lefty’s Deceivers for the encounter. This recreational area is an ideal location for the area’s fishing action. Even locals move their motor homes into the park when spring and fall fishing starts. St. Andrews Recreation Area didn’t get it’s gold medal best-of-parks award for nothing. Tree-shaded sites separate the bay from the Gulf of Mexico and offer a choice of dock, jetty, marina and pier fishing facilities so visitors can sample both bay and Gulf angling at it’s best. Springtime triggers the action.
At 8:30, Chris and Bill Fowler picked us up at the bay pier. Instead of his usual high-powered flats boat for remote bay fishing, our guide was using his 22-foot inboard sportfisher with hardtop, cobia tower and new electronics. When Parker doesn’t fish far offshore he favors this combo capable of fishing up to four anglers with 8 to 10 rods, and almost a dozen rodholders; five on top, two on the tower and four on the gunnels. A compact nearshore action boat.
Over the years I’ve caught many a fish and crab off St. Andrew Bay’s old Hathaway Bridge. Jewfish the size of 55-gallon drums were once taken from the bridge on ropes tied off to heavy tire innertubes. I caught the occasional cobia and shark from her spans. Today, those same spans still provide fish as inshore reefs within a 15-mile radius of the park.
As we powered out, Chris—who has worked in the seafood business—brought me up to date on the amberjack situation. In a nutshell, about 15 years ago Paul Prudhomme, the famous Louisiana chef, came up with a mix of spices for his specialty, blackened redfish. It swept the country. Demand was so great for the fish that airplanes were used to spot and direct netters to the schools of mature brood fish. That lasted a couple years and suddenly there were no more mature redfish in the Gulf of Mexico. Then young reds trying to survive in the bay were wiped out when bay gill netters took them. The fishery was depleted.
“So they banned the nets and stopped the commercial fishing for redfish in the Gulf of Mexico. Sportfishermen were limited to one redfish between 18 and 27 inches per day per person.
“But the country’s appetite for blackened redfish was still there,” said Parker. “Commercial fishers soon filled the demand with blackened amberjack, which with the powerful seasoning turned out to be just about as tasty. Soon, the same thing happened to the amberjacks. The fishery was depleted down to where only little ones were left. So, those in the know stepped in and put an end to the amberjack fishing and put higher size limits on them. Today, it’s one fish per person with a 28-inch minimum to the fork which makes it at least a 15-pound fish.
That’s the basic history,” yelled Chris over the roar of the engine. “Thanks to these restrictions, Gulf amberjacks are now coming back stronger in numbers than anyone has seen for 15 or 20 years! It started three years ago. Now we’ve got a fantastic AJ fishery close to shore that lasts six to seven months a year. No need to run offshore to the deepwater wrecks during that time. They’re right here in our own front yard. Every year they’re getting bigger. Finally, after three years we’re getting more keeper-size fish again. Last July on a downrigger I caught a 51-pounder. Best part is that they will hit jigs. Jigging the jacks, it’s an old story but we haven’t done it recently in the numbers we’re doing now!”
Once we were a ways off a bridge span in 100 feet of water, we anchored so we were in a good position to work the fish. Chris put out some menhaden oil chum and by the time the jiggers were down and doing their thing, one after the other—often all of us at the same time—fought arched rods that felt as though we were hooked to something more than a 15-pound amberjack. But then, I had forgotten just how hard those babies fight. These 15-pounders fought more like jet-propelled 30-pound groupers.
During a break in the action, Chris told me to look at the fishfinder. It was a solid smudge of amberjacks 30 feet down. Amidst the action, Chris switched to a long red-and-white propeller lure. He ripped it halfway in when an explosion took him and his bowed rod halfway over the side.
me in and were quickly released. Then Fowler yelped as something heavier than our usual fare took him and his rod low over the port side. When he couldn’t fight it in, it was a tossup of whether he’d fed a nice grouper or a cobia.
Long, back-breaking moments later we glimpsed the dark shape in the blue green depths. A cobia. As usual the catch went wild at boatside but eventually came over the gunwale. It was a nice 45- to 50-pounder, scattering our crew in these tight confines the way a runaway pile driver might.
After that action we used Chris’ plug casts to do the bait and switch with Jack and his fly rod. He had no sink-tip or full-sink line, hoping that the eager ambers would feed on top. Eventually, one grabbed the weighted Deceiver and barreled full bore back to the bridge span.
Jack fought him just long enough to lose him on a cutoff.
Re-rigging he tried it again. And again he set the hook into an amber he swore was larger than any we had been catching. This one again showed him no mercy, plunging back down to the span and cutting him off.
We dropped the idea of the fly rod and went back to catching them by jig. Later, Parker told me that last November, Allan Sosnow of Fort Lauderdale booked him to fly-fish for AJs over the bridge spans. Chris took him to one that was in 70 feet of water. The top of the span was only 30 feet below them.
“We caught about 50 AJs in 4 hours,” he said. “All on fly rods.”
I contacted Sosnow to get the details. Here’s what he told me:
“To say that it was a great day fishing is an understatement. I landed over 20 AJs, Chris also caught many on the other fly rod. We even had several doubles. It wore this old body out but it was worth it.”
The night before Allan tied some poppers with green Edgewater 3⁄4-inch heads, silver Krystal flash and yellow bucktails. He also made some synthetic 5-inch bucktail Clousers: smoke over white and gray, and smoke over white, both on 1/0 and 2/0 Mustad 34007 shortshank hooks. And here, Sosnow did an important thing — something that probably made the difference—he put three extra lead eyes on each fly—“enough,” he said, “to get it down to over 30 feet.” Amazingly, he never got caught in the span. His leaders were 6 feet of 15-pound test on a 40-pound-test butt section on his 9-weight and 20-pound on his 10-weight. He used an intermediate line on both outfits.
Sosnow added that after four hours of back-breaking action with the AJs, “I faded out just as we were visited by a school of jacks in the 30- to 50-pound range. After this day’s fishing I had no interest in those bad guys at all.”
By the time the four of us had eight hours of catch and release with the AJs, some grouper, snapper and another 20-pound cobia that showed up, about the only way Jack or I wanted to see another amberjack at close range again was as a blackened fillet on a dinner plate. The one amber I caught that we kept nicely filled that picture for us all.
Here’s Parker’s tips on AJ action out of Panama City. Inshore amberjack action starts around the bottom structures about the time water temperature approaches 70 degrees. That means spring and fall action. “I start getting into good topwater action when the temperatures seem to be between 65 and 72 degrees,” said Parker. “Start looking for the fish anywhere from 6 miles out to 15 miles. If some of the bridge spans produce only 10-pound ambers, move to another span and you will probably start catching the keeper size. (Local tackle shops, as well as fishing charts, can provide the numbers for these bridge spans and other artificial reefs in the area.)
“As the water warms, all the fish on these structures will move out to at least 130 or 150 feet of water around wrecks about 45 miles offshore. They will stay there until next fall when temperatures start cooling again. Then the AJs will show up on these inshore spans again sometime around Thanksgiving give or take a few weeks. They stay here all winter in shallower water and don’t move out again until it gets too warm for them and they move to the deepwater wrecks for the cooler depths they require.”
Suggested terminal tackle: leader tippet is 40-pound mono. Over the bridge spans you’ve got to stop them. You put the brakes on them, otherwise you’ll lose your line on cutoffs. Anywhere else but over the spans you can get away with 30-pound test because there is less likelihood of a cutoff.