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Fly Tackle Terminators

Get the big sticks ready to tangle with giant Treasure Coast jack crevalle on fly.

This is just an average beachfront jack. Expect some fish to surpass the 35- to 40-pound class.

Pop, Crackle, Snap!

What originated as the sweet music of a 30-pound-plus jack crevalle sucking in a foam popper quickly transformed into the moan of graphite when a loop of fly line snagged on the reel handle. Mercifully, it was the 20-pound tippet that snapped, not the rod.

Given the usual set of circumstances, losing a fish of substance is a trying moment, one where the angler spends the next few days in retrospect, reliving each second from presentation to failure in an attempt to rescind any error. On this day, there was no need to reminisce, since there were three other pods of 20- to 40-pound jacks daisy chaining within plain view. So we had other shots, if I could keep my hands still enough to tie up another leader.

I leaned hard on the troller in an attempt to intercept one of the approaching schools, ideally ahead of and to the ocean side of the fish, where I could milk the onshore breeze for all its worth when making my fly cast. Tossing a big popper is no easy task, even with a 10-weight rod, and it becomes tougher when you know you need a little distance. The wind over my right shoulder was what I needed.

Everything fell into place and I shot the popper 10 feet ahead of the milling school. I waited for the group to close the gap, then gave the thing two sharp tugs. The lead fish effortlessly closed the distance with a single swipe of its tail, crunching down on the chartreuse noisemaker with reckless abandon. Fly line then backing burned off the reel

as the husky jack kept pace with the scampering school. I outlasted the beast, and exactly 43 trying minutes later, released the jumbo jack at the side of the boat.

Jack crevalle have always been the target of flyfishers seeking a little salvation to an otherwise unproductive day on the water. The jack represents a chance to make a cast, bend the rod, and fight a strong-running fish on fly tackle. A nice day-saver, nothing else. That is, until they exceed 10 pounds. Then, these brutes make the transformation from second-class day-savers to serious gamefish with the ability to break rods, strip reels and wear you out. And they’re willing participants, happy to clobber a fly, making them more desirable targets.

For years, I waited for spring to bring the yearly migration of jumbo jacks into the Indian River and seawalls adjacent to the St. Lucie Inlet. When I first took up fly fishing, these fish were among my favorite targets. This game required a second angler to tease the fish into striking, and then to run the boat as we chased the hooked jack around obstructions. It wasn’t until late one winter that I found a different group of fish, big jacks that were even more concentrated and so willing to jump on a fly that I could even go it alone on days when I couldn’t scare up a fishing partner.

The jacks arrived in Martin and St. Lucie counties in February that year, a bit ahead of their normal arrival time, likely due to unseasonably warm weather. The calm that reigned through the spring months was ideal for skiff anglers wanting to venture outside the inlets. Treasure Coast flyfishers had weeks at a time to fish the jacks—plenty of time to learn the patterns of these big ocean fish.

The fish travel in pods along the beaches well into May, gradually becoming less abundant, but not totally absent. By June, the majority of guides don’t count on finding the big jacks anymore, but do keep an eye peeled for the telltale wakes on the mornings when the tarpon aren’t moving. Many a tarpon trip has been salvaged by the jack schools, even though most of the late-season fish are under 15 or 20 pounds, still a serious jack on fly.

Mid March is when the fish really come on strong, although last year, the first trickles of fish, mostly 10- to 15-pounders, showed in Jan-uary, and became more dependable by February. Schools of 200 or more 25- to 40-pound jacks may be so common that most recreational anglers will turn their attention back to table species after tiring of tus-sling with jack crevalle, leaving them to the fly crowd. Let’s face it, big fish are not a daily occurrence in most areas, and the opportunities to battle big fish shouldn’t be passed up. Not that most folks would pass up huge jacks running up and down the coastline in multiple pods consisting of 50 to 500 fish.

To make the hunting part easier, jacks push massive surface wakes that can be seen for hundreds of yards. Many fish fin on top, daisy chaining like big tarpon. Tarpon daisy chaining in shallow water is a sight no angler can forget, and the big jacks are no different. In fact, they may do it more dramatically, with their bright yellow dorsal and tail fins completely out of the water. The trick is keeping your cool when you spot them. Hookup or not, it’s not something you’ll soon forget.

There’s no telling when the big jacks might daisy chain. One minute, they’re bunched up and pushing a V-wake the size of a flock of ducks, and the next, they’re packed in a tight ball, doing a surface dance. I’ve witnessed the finning and daisy chaining at all times of day, although they do it most early in the morning when glass-calm conditions prevail.

These beachfront jacks are world-class fish, and it isn’t prudent to go armed for rabbits when you’re hunting bears. Broken rods are part of the big jack game. In fact, one local flyfisher, Curly Phillips, broke three rods on separate occasions. Phillips is an excellent angler in his own right, but the stress put on a rod by trying to stop or slow a run, or horsing one of the big fish to the boat can make short work of most graphite rods. Most rods break at the side of the boat due to angler error, like putting a too-severe bend in the rod. A simple tail-kick at the side of the boat was responsible for retiring more than a few rods last spring. I broke mine by grabbing the leader and trying to lift the fish into the boat. The wet monofilament slid right through my fingers, pulling the rodtip down. It failed about eight inches down the blank. The lesson was a hard one, but sometimes it takes a broken rod to make a point stick. This is a two-man job. Should you have to land one yourself, get a grip on the leader to control the fish, then put your rod down, out of harm’s way, and grab the tail with your other hand. Be sure to wear gloves, since the little spiny fins just ahead of the tail are rigid and razor-sharp on a mature jack crevalle.

Most of the time, the jacks are aggressive, and will chase anything big, be it a foam popper or a large mullet pattern. I prefer t he Sar-Mul-Mac, a standard big baitfish streamer, although a chartreuse popper draws the more explosive, and thus visually exciting, surface strikes. Captain Rich DeVito of Southern Angler Fly Shop in Stuart is among the local guides who take customers on the search for the “yellow bombers.” His favorite jack flies are all-white, chartreuse, red-and-white or yellow. Yellow poppers are especially effective, and he fishes 9- or 10-weight rods rigged with 20-pound fluorocarbon tippets and 60-pound shock tippets. On good days, five or six jacks landed is the norm. There’s nothing like an hour-long jack fight to hone a beginner’s fish-fighting skills.

DeVito’s biggest boated fish to date is a 46-pounder, a fish that would have given his angler a fly tackle world record had the bite tippet not exceeded 12 inches. I was on lifeguard duty that day and watched DeVito pull up to Stuart Beach, follow the school to the north end, hook up, and disappear over the horizon. The fight lasted two and a half hours on a 10-weight rod. Brutal. Good reason to scale up to an 11-weight, or even a 12-weight when the fish are especially big.

Although it was the case many mornings last spring, you can’t just head out of St. Lucie Inlet and expect the jacks to be right there. Run to the inlet, then head either north or south, running parallel to land about 500 yards from the beach. The schools typically ran along the beaches between 100 and 400 yards out. By positioning your boat outside a spotted school, you’ll get the rising sun at your back, eliminating the glare that could prevent you from keeping tabs on their position. Watch for flashes of sunlight off their wet fins. They can be seen from a surprising distance. In most cases, the jacks are visible for hundreds of yards, but when the wind picks up and the ocean becomes choppy, the schools are more difficult to spot. On an average spring morning, you can expect to see anywhere from 3 to 10 schools while searching a 2-mile stretch outside the inlets.

Once the fish are located, a bent rod is as easy as running 100 yards or so ahead of the school, dropping over the trolling motor, and maneuvering to intercept them, giving a fly caster a decent shot. Early in the jack run, anglers don’t bother to shut down their engines, instead keeping pace with the school while under power. Meanwhile, the angler on the bow casts at the lead fish. By late spring, engine noise usually spooks the jacks, pushing them deeper or in another direction. Trolling motors are then a necessity.

Understandably, the fish become more finicky, chasing the fly and then turning away at the last minute when they catch a glimpse of the boat. Then, turn to teasing to draw an aggressive strike. With fly caster at the ready, a second angler simply casts a hookless surface plug like a Zara Spook or Rebel Jumping Minnow to the school. Once the fish lock on, the plug is retrieved to a popper, already cast and at rest. Then, the plug is pulled from the water at the last second, as the fly caster gets the popper or fly in gear in front of the curious jacks. After a week on the teaser program, your plugs have no original paint left.

About the time the fish turn skittish, they start to become abundant in the afternoons, and move farther from the inlets, forcing boats to run 10 miles or more to locate the schools. The trip is usually worth the extra effort, although some battles last into the darkness.

By May, the fish move off the beaches and into the inlet tide lines, color changes and rips, where they swim up and down the edge searching for baitfish schools that congregate along the same gradients. Jacks in this situation move at a faster pace than the milling schools, but a well-placed cast gets the same results.

By early summer, most local anglers have had their fill of the big jacks and target tarpon, bonito and dolphin.

By August, those species move on, and talk turns back to the big jacks. If the past repeats itself, there will be some smaller jacks around by December. So make your plans. Get your fly tackle ready. Here’s hoping that by February, we’ll see signs of another banner year for giant jacks—the fly tackle terminators.


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