The Art of Amberjacking
I didn't think I would ever see the day when regular snapper closings were a way of life for offshore bottom fishing. I definitely didn't expect an amberjack closing, but on October 23, 2009, that very closing happened. The feds proclaimed that the recreational anglers had reached their quota, and for the first time in history, harvesting amberjack came to a close for the rest of the year. With a closed harvest on red snapper in federal waters, amberjack would usually fill the difference in the cooler when offshore anglers ventured far out for deep-water groupers. Though they won't be filling the hole this winter, amberjack fishing will reopen in the spring. In preparation for that opening, I would like to share a certain art to this sport that will land you a delicious meal.
When fishing for these rig donkeys, make sure you eat your Wheaties because landing one isn't for the faint of heart or muscle. Since amberjack fight so well and hang out by some kind of structure, such as wrecks, oil rigs/pipe stands, and rocks, I would suggest a compact two-speed reel for the job. The low gear works well for torque, and the high gear is great for retrieving live bait rigs or lures from the deep. Many brands, such as Shimano (Tiagra 16, TLD 20 and 30 2-speed and the new Talica 16 and 12), are now available that fit the bill for this job. Also, Daiwa offers the new Saltist two-speed line, and Avet has the popular LX and HXW two-speed models. A reel that can achieve a drag setting over 25 pounds or better is a good start. Heavy mono line of 60-80# tests is a must, and if you choose spectra line, go with 80-150#. The rod should be a stand up or heavy jigging type that is six feet or less in order to apply maximum leverage on the fish. This keeps their heads from barreling down, so they can't power into a structure and break the line.
Once you have the right rod and reel, you need to choose a bait. There are many options, although live baiting and jigging make the top of the list as the most popular ways to pursue these fish. When it comes to using live bait for amberjack, bigger and livelier is better depending the size of amberjack you are targeting. A basic list of baits from small to large includes piggy perch, croakers, b-liners, blue runners, bluefish, bonito, and rainbow runners. Many of the live baits that are good for amberjack can be caught using sabiki rigs; others just need a small hook on the end of your main line with a dead squid or a fresh sardine. A standard amberjack live-bait rig consists of an egg sinker (which varies in weight due to the live bait size and the water current) that rides on top of a barrel swivel with about 3-5 feet of heavy mono leader material (100-250#). You can use a variety of hooks with this setup, including the circle hook, O'Shaughnessy hook, live bait hook, or the 4x strong Octopus hook. Make sure you hook your live baits closer to the head rather than the tail because fish go for the head of the bait, so you will set the hook deeper than if you hook the bait near the tail.
Now, if live bait isn't your cup of tea, or you just have trouble catching live bait, another option is to use a buck-tail jig and a metal jig to entice strikes. I would suggest different sizes to compensate for the current; you never know if it is flowing hard or slack, so be prepared for either. A 3-6oz buck-tail jig from Spro, in any of the various colors, works well when tipped with a Spanish sardine. Metal jigs do not need any bait on them. If you put bait on them, they usually don't swim very well when you retrieve. Buck-tail jigs are used in slower presentations; just let the lure fall slowly and flutter. Use small, sharp jerks followed by a pause to let the jig slowly fall again. Metal jigs also fall on the descent, but they can be raced back up to the boat at a blazing clip to get hammered by an amberjack.
You have the equipment. Now you need the spot. Structure makes all the difference in the world when trying to box a limit of these fish, so start at wrecks, rigs, and rocks to find some fast action. If you are lucky enough to have good live bait, then your first stop when targeting these brutes should be half to 3/4 of the way down the water column; lures should be fished through the entire water column to draw strikes. Lures are fished this way because you don't want to stop the metal jig in front of an amberjack. You want it to be racing by so it imitates a fleeing baitfish. If you are using live bait, have a pitch rod ready with just a hook tied on the end, or have a leader with a hook, but no weight, tied on the end, so live bait won't have any drag on it. I've seen big, hooked amberjack come to the surface with curious schoolmates in tow, and live bait was absolutely devoured instantly simply by having a pitch rod ready.
Now you know the art to amberjacking!