Thirty miles offshore and the fish are biting. It doesn't take much to get a school of amberjack feeding. These open-ocean predators will hit just about anything that moves once the frenzy begins. And pound for pound, you won't find a better fighting fish in the Gulf of Mexico.
You can catch one, two, maybe even three of these tackle busters before you are bent over on the deck gasping for air. A 60-pound "A.J." in deep water will bring even a 275-pound NFL lineman to his knees.
That's why veteran charter boat captain Dave Mistretta saves these fish for his particularly unruly customers.
"So you think you are in shape?" he asked as we pulled up over his secret fishing spot. "We'll see about that."
Open season now
The greater amberjack is the largest member of the jack family. Inshore anglers are familiar with its cousin, the jack crevalle, another voracious predator commonly found near the grass flats. But unlike the amberjack, the crevalle is generally not regarded as much of a food fish.
For years, amberjack were the mainstay of blue-water anglers during the summer months when other species, including grouper or snapper, were either hard to find or off limits.
The species is now considered "overfished," which is why federal officials shut down the recreational harvest from June 1 to July 31 this year. The fishery is managed by an annual quota system. Going into the 2011 season, recreational anglers were allotted 1,368,000 pounds while commercial fishermen could take 503,000 pounds.
Mistretta's livewell was packed with scaled sardines and a half-dozen blue runners. He wanted to use the smaller baits to get the fish "fired up" and then drop the larger blue runners over the side to attract the monster amberjack.
A 30-pound amberjack on 60-pound test will get your heart pumping. Hook a 60-pounder and you'll be wishing you spent more time on the Stairmaster. A fish that size will take some reel pumping. Once you venture beyond that weight … good luck. That's rod-snapping territory.
"The trick is to catch a few little ones and then big boys will swim by to see what is going on," Mistretta said.
It only took about five minutes before the reel started screaming. The amberjack dove straight to the bottom, and I stuck the butt of the rod in my stomach to try to get some leverage.
Mistretta laughed: "You are going to be black and blue tomorrow."
Amberjack love wrecks, artificial reefs and blue-water springs. The challenge for the angler is to turn the fish before it can break the line on the structure below. We had no problem hooking and landing the first two fish, but No. 3 was another story.
Recreational anglers are not the only predators in the ocean. Goliath grouper and big sharks also like to catch amberjack, especially ones that have already been hooked. About five minutes into the fight, I felt a big "bump" and the rod bent over another 20 degrees.
"This fish either just gained some weight or I've got something else on the line," I told Mistretta.
The fish pulled off line then it stopped. I tried to get it back, but it was like lifting dead weight. The mystery fish pulled off more line then stopped again. I fought to regain some line, but it was no use. Then the fish started pulling again, but this time it didn't stop. The line went slack. Shark? Grouper? Sea monster? We'll never know.
"Ready to cry uncle?" Mistretta asked.
I shook my head, "No."
He smiled. "Let's hook another one."