Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Jack is back on the card

Pound for pound, you won't find a better fighting fish in the Gulf of Mexico than the greater amberjack. These offshore brutes can be found from Key West to Pensacola and have long been the mainstay of charter boat captains and recreational anglers during the notoriously slow summer months.

But for the second year now, anglers have had to sit out June and July to give this highly prized sport fish a chance to recover from years of overfishing. Amberjack are managed by a quota system. Recreational anglers take about three quarters of the amberjack caught in the Gulf of Mexico. 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.

The thinking was that anglers would rather stop fishing for amberjack during June and July when they can target species such as red snapper and grouper, and minimize the economic impact on tackle shops and marinas.

Now that snapper season is over, anglers can again target these tackle busters through the end of the year.

Rod benders

There are more than 140 members of the carangidae family. About a dozen of these species — jacks, pompanos, permits and scads — are well known to Florida fishermen.

While amberjack may technically be considered a "reef fish," they are more often found around deep-water structures such as wrecks, as well as open-ocean springs or sinkholes.

The challenge for the angler is not hooking the fish, but rather pulling it from the structure without getting the line ripped to shreds. Once a jack is dragged to open water, the battle has just begun. The fight can last for 15 or 20 minutes but sometimes longer. Which brings up another problem. Recreational anglers are not the only apex predators. Bull sharks and even goliath grouper like to feed on amberjack, especially those that are hooked.

That's why fishermen usually catch two or three jacks on an offshore trip before switching to a more docile species such as grouper.

Other jacks

The Gulf of Mexico is also home to the crevalle, a well-known bait-stealer found inshore, sometimes even up rivers and creeks. The typical crevalle jack weighs 3 to 5 pounds, but some have reached more than 50 pounds.

Another member of the jack family, the blue runner, is also a favorite of offshore fishermen. They use it to catch king mackerel, barracuda and a variety of sharks. Blue runners can reach 22 inches in length, but most are usually about half that size.

Blue runners travel in small schools and are usually found higher in the water column than their tackle-busting brethren, the greater amberjack. Local anglers sometimes refer to this popular baitfish as a "hardtail."

Reef rules

When fishing for amberjack and other reef fish in the Gulf of Mexico, federal law requires that you have certain types of gear aboard to help ensure the survival of fish released.

A circle hooks are more likely to hook a fish in the mouth instead of the throat or stomach. Nonstainless steel hooks are preferred because they rust out in a matter of days if they have to be left in a fish. Cut the line as close to the hook as possible.

Dehooking devices are also required. These are defined as any tool designed to remove a hook embedded in a fish. Acceptable "tools" include blunt-nosed pliers, alligator pliers and dehooking forceps. Don't use knives, screwdrivers or sharp-nosed wire cutters.

A venting tool is a must for every tackle box. When reef fish are brought from the depths, the gas in the swim bladder can expand and cause serious injury to the fish. In general, fish caught in 50 feet of water or deeper may need to be "vented," but some species are more susceptible to gas overexpansion than others. A vent ing tool can be any sharpened, hollow instrument, such as a hypodermic syringe with the plunger removed or a 16-gauge needle attached to a hollow, wooden dowel. Large needles or tools, such as knives or ice picks, cannot be used.

. If you go

Greater amberjack

Size limit: 30 inches, fork length

Bag limit: one fish per day (zero bag limit for captain/crew of for-hire vessels)

Closed season: June 1 through July 31


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