Jacked-Up Surf

Jacked-Up Surf
While jack crevalle are certainly not prized as table fare, they make outstanding shark bait. These are headed to the freezer.

In the white-capped waves fronting a majestic South Texas beach, squadrons of brown pelicans repeatedly dive into the shallows. After entry into the frothy, aqua-green water, the brawny birds resurface with their basket-like bills full of fish. As some swallow a beak-full, others splash down alongside, while long, silver, predatory fish slash and weave adeptly through the action. A wailing north wind peels sparkling spray off the crests of incoming breakers—a passing cold front has provided the engine for this naturally dramatic scene.

In one of the surf's ultimate feeding frenzies, monster jack crevalle take advantage of the bounty the ocean repeatedly provides. I recently witnessed such a scene in the northern reaches of Padre Island National Seashore. We were heading in from a successful three-day charter, making our way south to north, hoping to avoid being trapped by extreme high tides pushed to the dunes by the howling front. When we encountered the school of jacks raiding bait along the beach, we couldn't resist stopping and teasing some of the Gulf's strongest fish into fights.

The pelicans were dive-bombing on acres of schooling menhaden measuring from six to about eight inches in length. The filter-feeding menhaden travel in great numbers, their schools casting conspicuously dark shadows in the water. On this fateful day the massive school stretched for nearly three miles along the beachfront, attracting hordes of hungry jacks. Hundreds, if not thousands of the sleek, shiny hunters darted through the churning waves like torpedoes, attacking their hapless prey.

After stopping, I scrambled into the back of the truck to get some tackle and find some useful lures.I quickly discovered two giant spoons and rigged one on a heavy surf rod. I predicted the lure would be snatched by one of the bruisers as soon as it hit the water. Jackfish are the bulldogs of the sea. My client Ron was looking forward to fighting one. Many anglers don't like to hook them, because they aren't edible and they fight with such stubborn strength. Others (like Ron) consider them true sport fish, respecting their ability to test the limits of the tackle and the individual's endurance and patience. When Ron quickly succeeded in hooking a jack after a purposeful cast, I could see the joy on his face.

Ron and his wife Wanda fish with me annually; they've become almost like part of my family. In their mid-70s, both these folks have experienced many things in life, but neither had ever seen anything quite like the jacked-up surf we found that day. Both lead active lifestyles and seek big adventures, despite their ages. On this charter, they'd battled and released a total of 14 sharks, the largest being a bull which weighed about 250 pounds. Even after all that shark action over a span of three days, Ron jumped right into the foray we’d found, picking and winning fights with what seemed endless energy.

After a solid 15-minute tug-of-war, Ron finally landed the first jack, a hefty specimen weighing about 30 pounds. I cast another lure into the frenzy and hooked another fish, passing the rod to Ron. With the cold front slapping our backs with a brisk wind, Ron settled into his second fight while I rushed to rig another rod. Wanda watched from the truck, seeking shelter from the cold breeze, but hanging her head out the window like a curious puppy, watching as the second jack pulled Ron down the beach. After the man won the fight with the fish, we could see why the battle had lingered so long; the hook had pulled out of the fish's mouth and lodged in its side. Despite the energy spent battling back-to-back jacks, Ron still wanted more.

We hopped in the truck and back-tracked a few hundred yards to relocate the fish. After a short wait, a ball of menhaden passed, with jacks in tow. Within seconds of sighting them, both Ron and I hooked and fought two studly jacks, both nearing the maximum size for the species. After long battles, our fish escaped, as astonishing numbers of frenzied jacks swam by us with breathtaking speed and cut our lines as they passed.

When Ron's line snapped and his rod lost its bend, I could see he had quenched his thirst for these kinds of fights and was done. I went to the truck intending to put the rods away, but another squadron of bullies came blasting down the beach, so I rigged up a new lure and quickly hooked and landed one more “banger” jack, ending our exciting interaction with the beach-blasting brutes.

Along the Texas coast, jack crevalle can be absent for long periods of time and then show up suddenly, like blitzing linebackers or raiding soldiers. Though they frequent the large jetties and passes in the spring and fall, their numbers in the surf have been lackluster over the past few years. Part of the beauty of our recent encounter was that it happened while we were on a stretch of beach devoid of other people.

For Ron and Wanda, the encounter added color to another incredible trip, one they'll likely describe at length to friends and family back in Minnesota. For me, it was a welcome sight, stirring nostalgia, as I haven't witnessed so many jacks raiding the beach in several years. This kind of drama only unfolds when several variables align simultaneously. When they do, anyone bearing witness to such a jacked-up surf will never forget what they see.