GULF OF MEXICO — Some anglers prize grouper for their delicate flesh. Others praise king mackerel for their long, fast runs. But when it comes to on-the-water entertainment, the great amberjack just can't be beat.
Pound for pound, you won't find a better fighting fish in the gulf. After a two-month closure, the season for these offshore brutes — which can be found from Key West to Pensacola — reopens today.
Once the catch of choice for local charter captains and recreational anglers during the dog days of summer, this species has been off limits during June and July in order to give these highly prized sport fish a chance to rebuild.
Amberjack, like many reef fish and pelagic species in the gulf, are managed by a quota system. While the numbers vary from year to year, recreational anglers generally take about three-quarters of the jacks caught while commercial fishermen take the rest.
After a series of regulatory maneuvers that began several years ago, federal officials implemented the current two-month closure after it was determined recreational anglers took more fish than they had been allotted. Fishery managers adopted this measure with input from recreational fishermen and charter boat captains so there would be no emergency shutdowns at the end of each calendar year.
While technically considered a "reef fish," amberjack are generally found in deep water (at least 20 miles offshore) over wrecks and freshwater springs. While there are more than 140 members of the jack family, about a dozen of these species, including jack crevalle, pompano and permit, are familiar to Florida fishermen.
With amberjack, the challenge for most anglers is not hooking the fish. These monsters will eat just about anything. The hard part is getting these bruisers off the bottom. Once hooked, amberjack love to swim into a wreck and rip an angler's line to shreds.
If you are lucky enough to get the jack to open water, that is when the real battle begins. There, the fight might last only 15 or 20 minutes. But be prepared for a longer bout. Sometimes, especially when using lighter tackle, AJs will just not give up.
And the longer you have an amberjack on the line, the less likely you are to land it. As much as we like to think so, recreational anglers are not the apex predators. Bull sharks love to snack on battle-weary amberjack. And on one recent fishing expedition, a 250-pound Goliath grouper rose up off the ocean floor more than 100 feet below to swallow a 40-pound AJ whole.
If you do head out for amberjack this weekend, you'll be hard-pressed to catch more than two or three before yelling "uncle." Most fisherman catch two or three on an offshore trip before switching to a more docile species such as grouper.
A big amberjack will provide plenty of meat. Smoked, the fillets make for a great spread. You also can cook amberjack on the grill. The minimum size limit for amberjack is 30 inches (fork length). The bag limit is one fish per person per day, but that's all you need.
These fish are commonly 40 pounds while isolated specimens have tipped the scale at more than 100. In case you are wondering, the state record is 142 pounds set off Islamorada in the Florida Keys.
While you are out there, you might run into some of the AJ's cousins. Another member of the jack family, the blue runner, is the favorite bait of offshore fishermen. It is one of the best king mackerel baits, but barracuda and a variety of sharks can't turn them down either.
Blue runners can get big, too. In deep water, you might find "runners" that measure more than 20 inches, but most are usually about half that size. Blue runners usually travel in small schools. You'll find them higher in the water column than their tackle-busting brethren, the AJ.
But if you have kids aboard, rig up some light-spinning rods after you have stowed the amberjack gear and hold your own blue runner tournament. Ounce for ounce, they are almost as fun as amberjack.