July 18, 2012
These dependable tod-benders take the St. John's River by storm.
An armada of mad jacks appeared to be devouring everything in its aquatic path. Fish chopped and slapped the water as they approached the boat. I cast a popping plug in front of the savage whitewater bustle, made one little twitch and the vicious crevalle were all over it. They were 6- to 10-pound fish and you could catch all you wanted. After two hours of continuous action my forearms began to ache and my poor plug was completely mangled; half the paint was chipped off and the treble hooks were bent in every direction.
My tackle and I had taken enough punishment. With supper time approaching I decided to leave the jacks biting in search of more desirable table fare with a little less stamina.
Jack crevalle invade the St. Johns River and its connecting tributaries sometime in April and stay around terrorizing our baitfish throughout the spring, summer and fall seasons. To baitfish in the river like finger mullet, menhaden, shrimp or even small gamefish, passing jacks are kind of like an outlaw motorcycle gang flexing their muscles in a small innocent town.
We have more crevalle than we know what to do with here in Jacksonville. Sometimes anglers have trouble shunning off the malicious feeders. There are huge schools of fish in the St. Johns that stay throughout the warmer months. The Avondale, San Marco and Chaseville areas consistently hold large numbers of ferocious fish; Blount Island and the Little Jetties can also be hotspots. The tributaries to the river sometimes give up fish in the 20-pound class. Mill Cove, Dunn Creek, Drummond Creek, Brown's Creek, Trout River and Broward River frequently yield jumbo jacks.
More and more fly fishermen are taking advantage of this fabulous fishery. They frequently work the schools in the Avondale area between the Ortega River Bridge and Fuller Warren Bridge. Here, jacks go wild over shrimp, mullet and menhaden moving in and out of the Ortega River with the tide. Fish crash the bulkheads when mullet are passing through, and they also like to hang out on the edge of the shallow shoal between Sadler Point and Winter Point.
The musclebound jacks can always be found around white sand shoals in the river. They also hug the bulkheads, particularly in the downtown sector of the St. Johns. Bridges are another one of their favorite structures and often produce many of the larger fish. The Napoleon Bonaparte, Trout River and Matthews bridges are three favorites for targeting big crevalle.
I'll never forget my first encounter with an extra large jack. It took place in Mill Cove, which is a tributary of the St. Johns River that extends from Fulton Cut to Reddie Point. Dad and I had just caught a tarpon in the cove the day before. I had fished the bridge where we caught the tarpon hundreds of times without ever encountering this species, so I got to thinking. Maybe tarpon were around the bridge all along; what if I were to put out a larger bait? I had a live yellowmouth trout in the live well, so I freelined it with my lightweight trout rod. I really didn't expect a bite. I was amazed ten minutes later when the line started peeling off my reel. We pulled anchor to chase down the fish. Thirty minutes later our boat was on top of a 20-pound jack that wouldn't budge. For a full hour my rod was doubled with that classic bobbing action. That stubborn crevalle stayed right beneath the boat; she had her flat body at just the right angle to maximize her strength and there was no way for me to bring her to the surface. I was outmatched with frail 10-pound-test line, and an approaching lightning storm eventually forced me to break the fish off and seek shelter. Since this experience I have learned to target the larger fish with heavier tackle. Big baits seem to be the recipe for frequent bites.
Catching a 20-pound fish inshore is quite an accomplishment here in Jacksonville, especially if it's a jack crevalle which fights like a fish three times its size. Anybody can hook one—they're eager to strike most anything put in front of their blunt heads—but get ready for an adventure once you're latched on. Fish are commonly landed a good distance from where they're first hooked. When the chase is on you have to weave through an obstacle course of crab traps, bridge pilings and channel markers. They will wear you out and test your tackle to its maximum capacity. If you have a flimsy hook, weak line or inferior rod the jack will exploit the weakness.
Jack crevalle from 15 to 25 pounds are abundant in our inshore waters and they are spread out all over. A lot of local anglers don't realize how common these big fish are. Most of the fish hooked are never landed, simply because the majority of inshore anglers aren't equipped for fish in this weight class. A lot of fisherman haven't the slightest idea that jacks are the species running off with their lines. Giant jacks were periodically spooling my reels for years before I figured out what they were. My imagination was running wild as I speculated what these mystery fish might have been.
Big jacks crave big, active baits, like 7- to 10-inch mullet or hand-size pogies. The harder the bait is to catch the more the crazy crevalles want them. It doesn't seem to matter what level the bait is presented in the water column; the colossal crevalle will somehow locate it. Jacks have kind of a reckless disposition. If you've ever observed jacks in captivity you might have noticed how they can't sit still; they're constantly all over the tank. In less than a minute each fish will travel every inch of the water column up and down the aquarium while other species remain cool, calm and collected. Jacks in the wild seem to follow this same pattern of restless behavior.
When targeting larger fish I prefer to place live baits on the bottom if the water is deeper than 10 feet. I thread an egg sinker followed by a bead and swivel on either 15- or 20-pound-test line, then I attach a 2-foot, 30-pound-test leader with a 5/0 or 6/0 wide gap bait hook.
On the shallow flats, particularly in the river's tributaries where oyster mounds are prevalent, I use a Florida Flats Equalizer to float my baits. The clicking float drives the crevalle into a frenzy. Again I use 15- or 20-pound line; I thread on a bead, tie on the float and attach 36 inches of 30-pound-test leader with the wide gap hook. I lip-hook my baits for bottom fishing and tail-hook the floating baits. Tail-hooked baits swim more erratically, which entices the larger jacks. A reel with a large line capacity is recommended when targeting fish in the 15- to 20-pound class.
Anglers who like to fish artificial lures will be pleased to learn that jack crevalle areamong the easiest species to hook up with inshore. They're almost suicidal when it comes to their feeding habits. Since the smaller fish travel in such large schools they're forced to race one another to the next available forage. The competition allows no time to study the menu. Once the plentiful scrappers are located, keeping a rod bent is rather elementary.
Jacks aren't highly regarded as table fare. Most anglers simply land 'em and release 'em.
When selecting a plug, it's just a matter of picking out the lure you prefer to catch a fish on. Most anglers prefer noisy top waters; the MirrOlure Top Dog, Rhoden's Johnny Rattler, Smithwick's Devil's Horse, the Storm Chug Bug and Luhr Jensen's Peacock Bass lure are all local favorites for jack crevalle. It's just a fun way to catch them because they are such vicious attackers on the surface. Throwing top waters to hungry jacks is also a good way to brush up on your topwater skills, since the fish are so abundant it's easy to get in a lot of practice.
You can catch jacks with surface lures in deep water as well. Jacks will come to the surface and feed in water as deep as 30 feet. However, sometimes a jig is a better choice, particularly when the fish are holding deep. When the fish aren't telegraphing their presence by cutting up the surface, they can be found around bridge pilings and close to bulkheads in deep water. Most any type of soft plastic tail paired with a jig head and bounced on the bottom will produce fish. The fish seem to prefer 15- to 20-foot depths when they're holding in deeper water.
Jacks are not the most popular species targeted here in Jacksonville, but they just may be the most dependable. The population is overwhelmingly healthy in this area. Most anglers release jack crevalle since the fish are considered poor table fare; commercial fisherman classify crevalle simply as crab bait. Jacks are the ultimate inshore rod-benders. Catch them, enjoy them and put them back.
First Published in Florida Sportsman Magazine, March, 2001.
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