Heavyweights of the jack family are roaming waters near you.
I watched as my angler made consistent casts at a school of permit with his crab fly, only to be denied, repeatedly. We were sitting over a wreck in 30 feet of water with a school of around 200 permit circling the boat, regularly coming within casting range and never posturing as if our presence bothered them, yet the big fish wouldn’t eat.
It was time to change tactics, so I tied on a brown Clouser Deep Minnow and had the angler cast to the school, and instead of letting the fly sink like a diving crab, I asked him to strip the fly in quickly. “Hop it along. Bring the jack out of them,” I said.
The first cast got a follow and turn-off, and on the second retrieve a fish zipped out of the school and lunched the fly.
“That’s it, that’s what they wanted. They wanted to be a jack,” I shouted, as the fish headed for the wreck.
Because permit are so revered as a light tackle catch, most anglers don’t think of them as a member of the jack family, so it’s not a standard action to target the “Holy Grail” of fly fishing like a stinkin’ jack. Then again, there’s a lot of days when we frown on jacks taking our lures or baits, that is, until the fishing is slow and we’re happy to have something pulling on the line.
For all their strength, speed and voraciousness, jacks just don’t get the attention of some of the other premier light tackle gamefish, either because they don’t jump, or don’t often end up on the table, or a combination of both. But get one good one, one fish that’s proportional enough to pretzel your rod and pump the blood into your wrists as it leaves town, and you’ll quickly change that attitude.
As a fishing guide, I spend a lot of time chasing jacks, whether that’s the big migrating crevalles on the beach or Intracoastal seawalls, permit on the reefs, inlets or wrecks or amberjacks on the artificial reefs, and of all the great gamefish I pursue, it’s the jack species that break the majority of rods and hearts. I’m not alone in that philosophy. Around the state, guides and fishermen seek these three hard-nosed battlers with passion and sometimes get surprising results.
Here’s your primer on how to catch big jacks.
Max: 56 lbs. 2 oz. Florida record (Ft. Lauderdale)
60 lbs. All-Tackle World Record (Brazil)
From the Florida Keys all the way up the East Coast to Cape Canaveral and the West Coast to Sarasota, permit can be caught on the flats, reefs and offshore structure. The largest of the flats fish can be found in the Florida Keys and Key Biscayne, where live crabs are freelined on a 2/0 circle hook and either drifted into the current to popping fish or cast just ahead of a moving single, pair or group.
All the way up to Fort Pierce the juvenile permit will enter the Intracoastal and Indian River in winter and late spring, traveling with the pompano schools, and these fish can be targeted by breaking the tail off a small shrimp and pinning the hook of a 1/8-ounce jighead to the first joint. Work the bait in the cuts along the sandbars close to the inlet, and you’ll catch fish up to 8 pounds through May.
Those same juvenile fish are also regularly caught by surf anglers targeting pompano with sand fleas. The long polers catch stud permit from May through December, when the fish are either migrating up or down the Florida peninsula, respectively.
In spring and early summer, the big breeder permit head to the wrecks to spawn, and can be caught from Key West to Cape Canaveral on the east coast and throughout Southwest Florida as well. There’s a contingent of anglers out of Naples and Fort Myers who target these fish with live crabs, either freelining the fish back to the wreck or adding a ¼- or 3/8-ounce jighead to the crab to allow for longer casts and so the crab sinks or “dives” as it would naturally when encountered by a fish that’ll cracker its carapace.
While permit are on the wrecks in huge aggregations to spawn, don’t think they’ve let down their guard. They can be wily critters. On days when you’re seeing fish and can’t get them to eat, the first move is to drop down in leader size. In kingfish green water—that water color that has a light green hue that you can see down three or four feet—a 40-pound fluorocarbon leader may work when targeting permit, but when the deep blue or electric blue water pushes in on the wrecks, it might take 25-pound fluoro to elicit a bite. You’ll know immediately, as a group of fish that hadn’t looked at your live crab in 20 casts suddenly change posture and move in for the kill.
When crabs aren’t readily available, jumbo live shrimp will do the trick, and I almost always fish them on a jighead for better casting distance. There are times when permit will eat your bait right next to the boat, but the majority of bites, particularly on the west coast, come from long casts well upcurrent and ahead of the path of traveling fish.
Max: 57 lbs. Florida record (Jupiter)
66 lbs. 2 oz. All-Tackle World Record (Angola)
The most common jacks—crevalles—don’t get the respect from anglers they deserve until they reach about 10 pounds. That seems to be the demarcation for when a jack goes from being a pain to creating some pain, and when it comes to crevalles, nothing beats their explosive topwater bite.
The attack of a jack crevalle is different from a lot of gamefish. First off, they hump the water as they charge the lure or bait, ready to pinball the object either off a wall or into open air. Then it’s a full-speed kill.
For all their zealousness, a big jack can grab a live mullet and swim 30 yards with it without getting the hook in its mouth. For that reason, longtime fishing guides like Mark Krowka who cut his teeth catching the big jacks of Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach will fish a stinger rig on live mullet, placing the front hook through the lips and a second hook through the back two thirds of the way to the tail.
At about 25 pounds, jacks turn into a different animal—one that shuns the small stuff over a substantial meal, and you need a mullet at least 8 inches long to draw their attention (and the jumbo jacks like 15-inchers), and it’s best to get that bait up on the surface by constantly moving forward with either with the trolling motor or outboard. When the mullet cuts a wake, you know it’s sending out vibrations for a long way that the big jacks just can’t seem to resist.
On Florida’s west coast it seems the bigger water gets the jumbos, with areas like Tampa Bay with plenty of deepwater seawalls drawing the big fish inside in May and June. These fish feed most actively at dawn and dusk (low light), a habit you’d expect more from wizened snook and tarpon.
These fish stretch all the way up the Gulf Coast and into Alabama waters, with the Panhandle seeing schools of 15- to 25-pound jacks in tight to the beach during the spring cobia season. As a rule, the big jacks are closer to shore than the cobia, and typically in a trough or over a bar. Pensacola Bay sees jacks to 40 pounds in the summer months when the menhaden schools move inside, and these fish follow a set pattern of eating at a regular time of the day so that you can run to the bait pods at that time knowing there’s going to be action galore to be had at the store.
Starting in December, the Keys see a push of those jumbo jacks oceanside, with the fish traveling in massive schools of 1,000 or more fish, all heading north. Those ocean-going jacks can exceed 40 pounds. They blast their way up the coast, spending most of the time off Dade and Broward counties offshore in deeper water where anglers targeting big kings with live blue runners hook the fish of a lifetime, a fish that completely dumps the reel, only to find it turned into a big jack at the boat.
Somewhere off Palm Beach County where the land mass juts out towards the Gulf Stream, those fish move in closer to shore, possibly to avoid predators, and they stay shallow as they push northward. From Palm Beach to Cape Canaveral, schools of jacks in the 15- to 40-pound range finned out within 1,000 yards of shore are commonplace at times. The migration pattern seems to put the fish off Palm Beach from December though March, off Martin and St. Lucie Counties from then through June, and from Sebastian to Canaveral through July and some years even into August. Smaller aggregations of the big jacks will push farther up the coast and even into Georgia waters in the warmer months.
When the big crevalles get off the beach, topwater is the way to go, and your lures better have sturdy hooks and the reels plenty of line. I’ve seen double hookups where fish went in different directions and completely stripped a reel, and instances when anglers couldn’t decide on which fish to chase so they put the heat on them and both straightened out the trebles and no one scored. The thing to remember with the big jacks is that they’re just too powerful to stop, so you need to let them burn off calories before applying the heat.
Schools of big jacks are usually easy to locate—look for hundreds of 3- to 6-inch yellow fins sticking out of the water. On windy days when there’s a chop on top the fish don’t fin out as much, and you have to watch for the telltale flat spots they create on the surface as the schools swim in a counterclockwise circle creating a vortex. When you cross a perfect circle of glass calm water when as far as you can see in any direction it’s choppy, it’s time to stop and check things out.
Max: 142 lbs. Florida record (Islamorada)
155 lbs. 12 oz. All-Tackle World Record (Bermuda)
Jacks don’t only give their love to inshore anglers. There’s a host of bluewater jack species that can be encountered off either Florida coast, but the most common, largest and hardest fighting of them all is the greater amberjack, a fish that welcomes you to the house of pain. There’s a reason anglers have nicknamed them “reef donkeys,” and it’s not because they can be a stubborn lot. You can spend a morning catching 10- to 20-pound AJs for fun, but the first time a 60-pounder comes along, the experienced anglers are quick to tell the new guy to cast at the fish.
Amberjacks run the gamut of the Florida coastline, stretching all the way up the Gulf Coast through Panama City, where anglers target the fish on the artificial reefs and steel structures from nearby Alabama waters in anywhere from 70 to 400 feet of water. As a rule, the deeper the water, the larger the AJs.
Captain Pat Dineen of Panama City likes to target amberjacks with 10- to 20-ounce jigging spoons, marking the fish above the wrecks then drifting and jigging the bottom third of the water column. While the fish like jigging spoons, they love live baits, particularly more active baits like a big blue runner. The largest fish will sit in 200 feet of water over a 400-foot deep structure, so Dineen rigs with the standard slip sinker rig, up to a pound of lead and long (15-foot) leaders on 9/0 to 12/0 circle hooks. Once a fish from the school eats, the rest of the school gets turned on, much like dolphin, so the trick is to keep a hooked fish in the water at all times.
Off St. Augustine, amberjacks to 40 pounds or more can be found on the wrecks in water as shallow as 75 feet, where they’ll regularly come to the surface to eat a big popper or topwater plug, particularly on the calm summer mornings. Chumming with small menhaden (pogies) will really get the fish hot and on top, where you can target them with fly or spinning gear and test the warranty on your fishing rod.
While the southern range of Florida has a trio of jacks to choose from, the entire state offers access to at least two of the largest members of the jack family, and that’s a pair you’ll be glad to open with on any fishing trip. That is, if you’re arms are tough, your hooks strong and your mental approach caters to a bit of pain.
First published in Florida Sportsman Magazine, May, 2011 edition.