We were about 36 miles south of the mouth of the Empire Canal. The water around the oil platform at Mississippi Canyon Block 310 was gin clear as the bright vapor lights illuminated our surroundings.
As the boat approached the rig for hookup, a large cluster of fish displayed on the screen of the fishfinder at the depth of 100 ft. From the surface to the 100 ft. mark there seemed to be nothing else in between.
Previous fishing reports had said amberjack were being taken in this area,and we were prepared with heavy tackle and plenty of cut bait and lures to find out for ourselves.
Chunks of cut porgies were chummed overboard followed by baited lines that were jigged right at the depth of the fish showing on the screen. Solid action started to develop as a hard strike had one deep-sea pole bent in almost half.
Amberjacks, sometimes called AJ’s by locals, are one fish that has not yet seen the fate of being overfished. In fact, they abound off Louisiana’s coast near reefs, wrecks, rigs and near the outer edge of the continental shelf. The smaller ones, under 8 lbs., will congregate in tight schools, while the older ones form loose groups. The really big fellows, 100 lbs.or more, are generally loners.
The Mississippi Canyon rigs where we were fishing is one such place you may encounter a monstrous size fish. The depth in this area is between 360-500 ft.and you don’t have to travel much further for the depth to drop to over a thousand feet. This is indeed big-fish country for deep-sea quarry.
Frequently, AJ’s are incidentally caught while fishing for other species like tuna, sharks or barracuda.You’ll not have many anglers in Louisiana tell you they went specifically on an amberjack fishing trip, since many anglers know little about the species.
My first experience with AJ’s came when our jigging for blackfin tuna went sour. Nonetheless, while fishing we began to get hard strikes with powerful runs and initially thought it to be blackfin, but the line would run toward the rig,a dead give away that it wasn’t tuna; they run away from structure. Besides that, the fights were short-lived when compared to blackfin skirmishes.
Thenceforth, settling for AJ became a welcoming event. After years of becoming familiar with AJ’s, many anglers can recognize, sight unseen, what’s on the other end the line, even when they rudely interrupt other species dominating the water.
You’d be surprised the looks you can get when you tell someone fishing next to you what kind of fish he’s hooked even before he gets it in view.
At the Mississippi Canyon rig, that night, action on cut bait was too good,so a decision to try jigging with jig-type lures went into action-to make it more of a challenge!
To accommodate, terminal tackle basically consist of a Carolina style rig,where you slide an egg sinker between 5-12 oz. up the fishing line, depending on current, and tie a swivel to the end of the line. A leader section of two or three feet, made of clear mono, is then tied to the other end of the swivel. On the other end of the leader is tied a jig head in the 1/2-2 oz. weight size(hook size 2/0-4/0) and over the hook shank place either a standard or queen sized lure of either a sparkle beetle, cocahoe minnow, shrimp tail or curly-tail grub. Proven colors are smoke, yellow, or chartreuse.
This sliding sinker/lure method allows for the use of smaller, less expensive lures to be used such as those employed for speck and redfishing They have proven to be even more effective at times than the larger, heavier sized lures used freeline.
The reason for this is because the smaller lures when jigged will dart upward through the water faster and with less drag making it more enticing. The large egg sinker ahead of the lure will further cause an aerating effect and noise that also incites strikes.
AJ’s have no sharp teeth and 25 lb. mono is all that’s needed for leader material. Longer and heavier mono may be needed if fishing abrasive structure.
AJ’s are powerful fish and seem to know what to do when an unwary angler hooks up with them- like running straight into the nearest barnacle-infested structure. For Louisiana offshore fishermen,that’s usually a rig with a lot of twisted cables and pipe-leg structures below. That’s why even with the use of heavy mono and tackle it can be a futile game.You can thus appreciate the method of using heavier tackle and less expensive lures when tackling these beasts in their favorite territory.
Fortunately, that night we never hooked one that was strong enough to overcome our tackle to the point that we were unable to turn them from the line-severing rig legs. However, it does take a bit of fast acting skill to maneuver the fish away from the structure as soon as he strikes. If medium tackle was used we would have no doubt lost some fish even though they many were under 20 lbs. each.
I remember one of the toughest battles with one AJ that I have ever had while night fishing at S.P. Block 93. Soon after casting out a rather unorthodox combo-a small Tuna Clone baited with a large live cocahoe minnow-the 30 lb. mono erupted from the large spinning reel with reckless abandonment.At first I didn’t know what the heck I had hooked. After giving it my best shot,I decided to give the pole up to someone of more youthful vigor. After he finished battling it, the 60 lb. AJ was heaved aboard with much effort.
Steve Shook, a notable professional guide fisherman of Fourchon, Louisiana,caught on to AJ’s and their habits some years back when speckled trout charter trips didn’t fair well. On calm spring days he would head his fishing boat south of Belle Pass until he reached Gulf water 200 or more feet in depth. Using his fishfinder he would circle the rigs until he located a large cluster of fish,usually 75-100 ft.below the surface.
He then equipped his crew with medium-action fishing gear, rigged with 15-30 lb. mono, and shrimptail jigs rigged Carolina style or feather jigs in the 16 oz. size, and the action was on.
AJ’s don’t usually venture into water less than 100 feet in depth and the largest ones stay exclusively in deeper water, sometimes over 600 ft. Here’s a species that is either at a specific spot schooling or they are not there at all. That’s why a number of different boat crews can be fishing the same structure, with the same bait, at the same depth, but only one of them experiencing consistent action. Their schooling habits sometimes are so tight they concentrate in one cluster- and they’ll show up on the graph the same way.
The amberjack is no doubt a powerful fish; not so much as a fast, long distance runner, but more like a powerful short sprinter who runs straight down before heading into cover.
AJ’s may at times be coerced to the near surface from deeper depths with lures and chumming. Once brought there, a hooked fish left in the water will keep others in the vicinity for easier pickin’s.
Going after a big AJ takes a little more patience than it does seeking the more abundant smaller specimens. The bigger ones are frequently below their schooling smaller cousins and live baits are required with the use of a deep-sea rod and reel.
AJ’s off the Louisiana coast are more abundant than in other Gulf coast waters, possibly due to the fact that they don’t have as much fishing pressure here as in other places that have commercialized them. Another drawing factor might be the structural habitat that the many oil platforms provide for the species.
The amberjack is not to be confused with the jack crevalle, even though it,too, is in the family of jack fish. One noticeable difference is that the crevalle’s body is distinctly blunter than the amberjack. However, the coloring seems to cause the name confusion because the crevalle has yellow coloring throughout its lower body and tail section-something not present in the amberjack. Hence, one may misapply the name AMBERjack to the jack crevalle. A sure clue for identifying to the jack crevalle is the dark spot at the upper edge of the gill cover; the amberjack has none.
Even though an experienced angler who has caught both species can clearly distinguish between the two, there’s usually a problem when it comes to distinguishing the subtle difference between the greater amberjack and the lesser amberjack.
The main difference between the two amberjacks is the greater amberjack is longer than the lesser amberjack. In fact, the greater amberjack is four times longer than it is deep (side height); while the lesser amberjack is only about 3-1/2 times longer than deep, not counting the fins. If a ruler and calculator aren’t handy and you really want to know, lift up the gill and count the finger shaped projections from the first gill. If it’s a greater amberjack there are about 20 of these; in the lesser amberjack there are about 25.
The amberjack, unlike its cousin the jack crevalle, is a very tasty fish of firm white meat. This makes for excellent grilling,especially if marinated first. Some local restaurants in the New Orleans area have recently begun to offer AJ on the menu and one such restaurant even uses the name of the fish as its trade mark.
As more and more anglers begin to find out about this exciting fish, they’ll take much more delight when having to settle for AJ.