For anglers, there’s nothing quite like catching amberjack fish in Alabama.
The big charter boat’s engines slowed down and the skipper turned the boat into the prevailing wind to keep the boat and the anglers aboard in the proper orientation to the structure on the bottom.
As soon as the skipper was satisfied everything was in line and ready, he told the anglers, “Okay, drop ‘em now…and hold on!”
All along the rail, anglers dropped some serious bait—big half-pound live ruby lips, big chunks of mullet, and a few live hardtails. These big baits were hooked up on heavy 50 lb line, and the rigs being used were seriously stout rods and reels.
As the baits near the bottom, the reason for the heavy gear become apparent to all, especially to the anglers holding the rods on this drop.
One by one, the rods bumped and then bent way over until the rod tips were in the water. And whatever was down below started to work on the anglers.
Most of the anglers were able to slowly lift their rods against the powerful pull from below, and then wind down on their reels to make a little progress on their hooked fish. A couple of the anglers—luckier or perhaps less fortunate—couldn’t do anything with their powerful adversaries below. Their rigs were taken into the sunken wreck below, its rough structure scraping and cutting off the lines.
As the anglers who still had their fish hooked up worked hard, a chorus of grunts, groans, and a few whines were heard as backs bent and sweat flowed freely.
Finally, one angler yelled, “I got color!”
Then the deckhand who had been standing back and smiling at the work being done by the anglers stepped to the rail with a gaff to end this particular fight. A quick lean over the rail, a swift dip and jerk with the gaff, and a 25-pound amberjack was thumping the deck of the boat.
At this point, the deckhand had to scramble to gaff and lift the other amberjacks which had been brought to the surface.
Everyone was sweating. Everyone was smiling. Hard work never seemed to be this much fun.
Then the skipper said, “Okay, let’s get the other lines back down. The BIG ones are ready now.”
The anglers who had missed out on Round One of the fight took their places, and the battle was renewed. This is amberjack fishing in the Gulf off Alabama’s coast—hard work, but so much fun.
Where We Find Amberjacks
For anglers eager to do some gruntin’ and groanin’ pulling against some big, mean amberjacks, the first thing that must happen is a boat ride. Amberjacks are not found inshore. To find the best amberjacks, anglers will need to run quite a long way offshore.
Captain Chip Day, a 30-year veteran of Alabama Gulf Coast fishing, skippers Chipper’s Clipper out of Orange Beach Marina, and he says, “Amberjack will be found mostly around a big structure. Shipwrecks are good, sunken barges, the tanks, and far offshore the gas rigs are all good places. Big offshore rock formations are good, too.”
Sometimes the amberjacks holding to a wreck or reef will be very tight to the structure, and this can make life difficult for the angler. When the hooked Amberjack has a short run to the wreck, it can be hard to get them away from the line-breaking stuff on the bottom. However, when a fish or two is hooked and brought up through the water column, the rest of the big jacks tend to move up higher in the water away from the structure, too.
When this happens, it can be a whole lot of fun for anglers to hook big amberjacks a good distance away from the safety of the wreck. At times, amberjacks will come to the surface to take lures or live bait, and this might just be the most fun situation in which to catch them.
To be honest, most anglers, unless they have a boat big enough to make the trip safely, will have better luck using one of the many charter boats out of Orange Beach or Dauphin Island when it comes to amberjack fishing.
These super-hard pullers just simply require some long-distance boat travel, and charter boat captains make these offshore runs every day and know where the amberjacks are holding.
How to Hook and Catch Amberjacks
Once a promising piece of large bottom structure is located, anglers will need to keep a few points in mind.
First, amberjack fish hunt in packs. They tend to fire up and bite much faster when another fish has been hooked and has struggled in the water. Hooking up that first amberjack may take a bit of patience and effort, but once it is hooked and caught, usually the other AJs tend to pay more attention to an angler’s offerings.
Live bait is the standard offering for big amberjacks. Captain Chip Day says, “Ruby lips, big pinfish, hardtails; these all work well.” A livewell full of large bait is a very good start for a productive amberjack trip.
Captain Chip adds, “My daughter caught an 80-pound amberjack on a four-pound red snapper that she was bringing in. As that big AJ took the snapper on its way to the surface, she hooked and caught the Amberjack.”
So, it’s not a bad idea to have some super-sized live bait—big, lively hardtails are great for mega-amberjacks.
“Artificial lures work well on amberjack, too,” he says. “Diamond jigs dropped down to the wreck or structure and then jigged up with lots of action work quite often. You can slow troll deep-diving plugs over a structure and do well.”
Captain Chip chuckles as he tells us, “They’ll bite just about anything that’s moving. Amberjack like a good challenge to catch what they want to eat.”
Another important point for anglers who want the best success with Alabama’s amberjacks is to make sure that when that big old Amberjack strikes, no slack is allowed to develop in the line. A steady and constant pressure on the line is important because any slack in the line can allow the hook to pull free.
Keeping the line in constant contact with the fish can be difficult to do when the fish makes several very strong runs down toward the bottom structure, and many amberjacks —the big ones in particular—are adept at working slack in the line and then pulling free on the next strong run.
What Kind of Rigs Will Work?
The standard amberjack rig is a heavy reel—the old Penn Senators are hard to beat—and a stout rod to match. A 50-lb main line with a six- to an eight-foot long leader of 60- to 80-lb mono or fluorocarbon and six- to eight-ounce weight to take the big live bait toward the structure is a standard rig.
When a big (over 50-pound) amberjack takes the bait, this heavy tackle is not too stout. Big amberjacks are some of the toughest, hardest pulling fish in the Gulf, and tackle must be up to the job.
Some anglers use a considerably lighter tackle with good success. Captain Chip says, “Lighter tackle can be used—as light as 20-lb line and matching rod and reel. However, catching big amberjacks on this light tackle means you’ll have to play the fish a lot.”
It seems that amberjack tends to pull back to the same degree that anglers pull on them. If a heavy gear is being used and a strong direct pull is being applied to the fish, that amberjack is going to pull back just as hard or harder. If a lighter but steady pull is applied, the amberjack may not fight as hard and may not pull as strongly.
In either case, catching amberjack fish over the deep blue water wrecks and reefs requires good, dependable equipment. The line needs to be checked after each drop for nicks and abrasions. And the drag of the reel—whether it’s a standard boat reel with 50-lb test line or a heavy duty spinning reel with 20-lb line—must be up to the task.
The one thing that can be expected when an amberjack is on the line is a long, strong fight. Any weaknesses in the gear will soon be exposed, and in a bad way when that big amberjack breaks free and goes away.
How are Amberjacks doing in Alabama Waters?
Karon Aplin, a biologist with Alabama Marine Resources, tells us that the amberjack family seems to be doing well in our part of the Gulf.
“Within Alabama’s three-mile state water boundary, it’s possible to catch great amberjack, though the majority of amberjack fishing happens in federal waters,” she says. “Over the last ten years, there have been spotty landings of big amberjack in state waters (most of these fish were taken in 2014), but the majority of amberjack caught in state waters are released.”
She continues, “Great amberjacks are a federally managed species. As such, stock assessments are taken by NMFS. The other three species are data poor; not enough information exists about their life history or stock status to make any assessment of their status.
“For fishing season information, check dates before your trip as amberjack seasons can vary based on landings and quotas. Visit the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council site at gulfcouncil.org to keep informed on the latest regulations.”
And on a personal note, Karon Aplin laughs when she says, “It’s interesting to note that at one time in the northern Gulf, the amberjacks were considered ‘trash fish,’ and I remember releasing them as a kindness because we were in search of fish then considered to be more ‘desirable’ like groupers and red snapper. Oh, what I was missing then!”
Important Contact Information:
Captain Chip Day