Man, I’d like to catch some jacks this weekend.”
I wasn’t sure why my friend wanted to waste a whole day on amberjack fishing. Then he clarified, “I mean some big jacks,” and I could picture the smile on his face. Captain Matt McLeod followed that up during the next few days with phrases like, “I want to find some good’uns,” and, “I don’t mean some little punk jacks.” I chuckle at my friend when he says that, because I know two things: He’s dead serious about fishing, and he will find the fish he’s after.
Word on the docks was that offshore rocks to the southwest and the neighboring oil platforms MP255 and MP252 were holding monster jacks. Matt put the trip together with his girlfriend Renee Seuzeneau, her dad Sheldon, her brother Mark and his wife Lisa. Mark and Lisa were visiting from Tampa and this would be their first real offshore trip, but both are accomplished inshore anglers. Matt steered the 31-foot center console southwest out of Daybreak Marina to our destination about 70 miles away.
About 35 miles southwest, we stopped to bait up. Several of us put down two-drop rigs loaded with squid over a barge that sat in about 130 feet of water. We weren’t trigger fishing or snapper fishing, we were bait fishing. You’ve heard it before, but we knew we needed some monster baits to get the big jacks to bite and keep the “skeeters” as Matt might call them from eating all our livies. We caught some fine hardtails, or blue runners, in the 12- to 14-inch range, but that wouldn’t do. We loaded the livewell with porgies, or what the locals call white snapper, that were between 2 and 3 pounds each. We also had some fine football-size mingos, or vermilion snapper, and a mixture of other baits, too. We were ready to fire way.
As we finished our run to the rocks, there was only one other boat within sight and we basically had the place to ourselves. A quick circle over the spot and we had fish marking solid at about 125 feet, which left us another 100 feet or so to the bottom. We would rig a single rod at a time with one big bait and put it on the downrigger at, you guessed it, 125 feet. Our plan was to belt someone up and have them ready, slow-troll this bait right past their wheelhouse and hang on.
On our first pass, the fish didn’t disappoint as Matt tangled shortly with a “little” 30-pounder. Matt almost never takes the first fish, but this one hit the bait as he was lowering the downrigger. And honestly, I think everyone wanted to see what they were getting into before they stepped up to the plate.
Sheldon was up and ready on the next pass, and our eldest member of the crew (at 63) made it look easy. That is to say, he didn’t scream like a sissy each time the big fish would rip off 20 or 30 yards of line. (I won’t admit to the same behavior either, regardless of what the crew says). After about 10 to 12 minutes of anticipation, Sheldon’s fish graced the cockpit and would weigh 56.8 pounds back at the docks. High-fives and grins lit up the boat. We were in a groove now. Matt would load the rod with one of our bigger baits and I would slow-troll us over the rocks until one-by-one we all got a turn at the big fish below.
Mark would next tangle with his best-ever jack, grunting and sweating in the July heat until his fish, a modest 51-pounder, was finally aboard. My trash-talking while the guys fought their fish finally caught up with me. After several rounds of, “You know your sister would have had that one in the boat by now,” the crew decided it was my turn. Matt dropped the downrigger and turned us west and then northwest back over the rock, as I put on the gut-bucket. The rodtip bounced a couple of times as the line popped out of the downrigger. I picked up the rod, free-spooled it a bit and then threw it into gear after a few seconds of payout. The rod bent sharply and I could barely make it into the belt under the pressure of this fish.
I had watched Matt intently on the first few hookups. He let the fish eat for a few seconds before engaging the reel, allowing the circle hook to find the corner of each AJ’s mouth. We were using big baits and didn’t want to pull the bait away from the fish.
Everyone had their turn to mock me now and at one point I thought I would lose the fish because I was laughing so hard. These beasts are enormously strong, and I was very happy when my 53-pounder hit the deck.
Next up were the girls. And I say girls, but to be fair Mark ended up finishing the job. Renee was up first and she fought the fish for 5 or 6 minutes, but these fish are just brutal. If you’ve ever tangled with a 20-pounder, you might think you have an idea, but these fish get exponentially stronger as they get older. Renee handed the rod off to Lisa after we got a belt on her and she took her turn at the brute. With the fish wearing down, and Lisa, too, she handed the rod to her husband to finish him off. Mark did just that. When Matt gaffed the fish and hoisted him over the rail, we had one tired 44-pound fish and a boat full of exhausted anglers.
Regardless of what part of the state you live in, you can tangle with monsters, too, if you follow a few tips.
First, for big jacks, you want relief. We all wanted some relief after these battles, but I’m really talking about the height that the structure rises off the bottom. The more relief you have, the better the chance you’re in the neighborhood for jumbo jacks. Wrecks along the Florida Panhandle, like the Antares, Chevron, Angelina B, Tenneco and Avocet, range in relief from 35 to 82 feet. These are all well-known haunts for AJs. We fished rocks that had significant relief and you shouldn’t rule out areas along the Edge from east of Destin to southwest of Perdido; just keep a keen eye on your depthfinder.
Deep wrecks and reefs on Florida’s peninsular Gulf Coast—especially the sharper rises on the Florida Middle Ground—produce whopper AJs. Wrecks and reefs also hold big
AJs on the Atlantic side. The deep seamounts, or humps in the Florida Keys have long been famous for huge jacks, some topping 100 pounds. Push Button Hill, off St. Lucie Inlet, is another solid spot. And, of course, any wreck in 100 feet or deeper is liable to attract them. Spring, from February through April, is the prime season for AJ fishing, as members of the species gang up to spawn at that time.
When you have a game plan of where to go, make sure you have some exceptional baits, or you’ll end up getting tired catching keepers. We started catching 20- to 30-pound fish when we ran out of really big baits and I’m convinced if we had caught some 4- to 5-pound baitfish, we would have caught even bigger jacks. Don’t be afraid to experiment with bait, either. A rainbow runner or football-size vermilion snapper will work as well as a ladyfish or big mullet.
As for gear, I know folks who bottom-fish with gold anodized, high-end trolling reels, and that’s fine. But you don’t have to get fancy with these fish. A good ‘ol 6/0 or graphite-body lever drag will do just great. You don’t need a fast retrieve with these fish, just a good smooth drag. We used monofilament line for this trip, but we often have the reels spooled with braid for grouper fishing. Both work fine, but the thing to remember with braid is that it doesn’t stretch—and that works on both ends. The fish doesn’t have any stretch to help him get back down, but you don’t have a shock absorber, either. Hold on and brace yourself, or you’ll soon meet the gunnel and then your friends may laugh at you.
As for terminal tackle, I like leaders of 130- to 150-pound fluorocarbon like Sufix Invisiline or Seaguar. These fish aren’t generally leader-shy, so give yourself every advantage. If they don’t bite, you can always tackle down to 100- or 80-pound leader.
If you’re using a downrigger to get the baits down, don’t worry about using a weight, just crimp the circle hook to one end (16/0 Mustad is perfect if you get the right baits) and then crimp on a standard barrel swivel to the other. If you’re using weights to get them down to the fish, I’d use a Caribbean swivel, which is really two large barrel swivels, one attached around the other. You can tie a short dropper of lighter line to hold the weight, so it comes straight off the swivel attached to the main line. Your fluorocarbon leader is then crimped to the other swivel and this allows the bait to stay clear of the weight as it drops and you bring it up without tangling. This also puts the tension of the line on your weight and allows the bait to swim around freely and actively.
If you are not using a downrigger and you aren’t sure about how deep you’re dropping that bait, there are a couple of tricks. One is to take a Sharpie and make marks on your line every 25 or 50 feet and just count them off as you pay out the line. A less scientific way is to lower your rodtip with your thumb on the spool, release it and raise the tip, stopping at the top each time. If you have a 6-foot rod, you’re paying out about 10 feet of line each time. The key is to get the bait in front of the fish.
We thought we had done pretty well that day with three fish over 50 pounds, and we had. But, later that week a boat returned from the same area with a jack in the 90s, and one over 100 pounds. Our friends Capt. Matt Adams and Capt. Ken Meharg put some of their clients on several 70s and one that weighed 109 pounds recently. (Hindsight is 20/20; they used much larger baits than we did.) After doing battle with a “little 53” you guys can have all the hot-shot big jacks you want. Just call me to shoot photos and poke a little fun at you while you’re fighting ‘em. I’ll refer you to a good chiropractor after the trip.