Amberjacks in the Gulf
by Capt. Clifton Jones
“Stormy Monday,” a favorite tune from the blues master B.B. King and Lucille, poured out over the radio. It was loud enough to be heard over the sputtering of our engine, but not so loud as to cover the automatic horn of the large yellow gas platform not 40 feet in front of us. Nor was it loud enough to break our concentration on searching for the big fish that often frequent these sturdy structures. From the tower on my 24-foot skiff, I watched patiently as my friend and accomplice, Van Kirchoff, retrieved a hook less chugger across the surface. We were looking primarily for amberjacks, hoping to catch them on big poppers. A client of mine, Walt Holman, had sent me several popper she ties in his spare time, and they are truly beautiful. After seeing how aggressive amberjacks (AJs) can be when chummed up on live bait, we agreed his poppers might serve as the perfect surface flies for teased-up fish.
When we pulled up to the big platform, I pitched out a half-dozen or so live and dead menhaden. Then I eased up into the tower and waited. Drifting slowly down current, I studied the bait fish as some settled toward the bottom and others ambled off. I armed myself with my trusty 12-weight. When the jacks came up, I would be ready. I asked Van to cast his teaser as far as he could to the north side of the rig. We have used this bait-and-switch technique together several times for many different types of fish, and we have it down to a science. Van pops and chugs the teaserback to the boat as fast as possible without ever fully raising it out of the water while we watch for activity on the teaser and in the chum slick.
“Here we go!” I called over the tunes. “They’re on the teaser! “One false cast and my fly landed in front of the teaser. I stripped in the slack and waited for the fish to get close enough to see my popper. “Now!” I instructed. Van yanked the teaser from the water. One real hard pull left the AJs in a frenzy and looking for anything to eat or chase. By now several of them had begun feeding on the menhaden we had thrown over earlier. With a solid “chug” of my popper, two nice fish tore themselves from their search and pounced on the big fly. Another “chug” and one of the big jacks lifted half its body across the water in an attempt to catch it.Momentum caused the first jack to miss the fly completely, but the other fish found it. With a solid strip-strike, I set the hook. “Van, pitch in some more live ones, and grab your stick!” I hollered. “We can get a double on!”
Another netful over the side brought in the little tunny. Streaks of blue green and amber raced to the surface, and their breaks and boils surrounded us -some were right at the boat. The view from the tower was awesome. Half a dozen amberjacks and numerous little tunnies scurried around us, circling closely. Down deep, I could see the dull redness of the red snapper, rising to investigate the activity at the surface. Van flipped his fly inattentively in the water as he hurriedly stripped the fly line off his reel. The large white Lefty’s Deceiver, lying motionless in the water next to the boat, got engulfed, and fly line peeled off the deck as Van grabbed for a hook-set. But slack formed in the line before he had a chance to set the hook. He gave me an amazed look that said “how did that happen?” and “did you see that?” all at once. “Strip it in fast and see if there’s still a fly on there; maybe you’ll get a bite,” I said. No sooner had I spoken than the next fish hit. “There he is -I’m on, too,” Van grunted. In a matter of minutes, we had an amberjack doubleheader. That’s when the real test began – trying to keep them away from the barnacle-encrusted security of the rig.
Pick Your Platform
It is fortunate that the Alabama coastline, although relatively small, is located on the dividing line for the Gulf of Mexico. Split Alabama’s coast right down the middle, and to the east lays the deep water of the continental shelf, with the Desoto Canyon pushing clear deep-water currents onto our beaches. To the west lies the Mississippi River Delta, depositing its nutrient-rich waters for hundreds of miles in every direction. Orange Beach, Alabama, is on that line, and fly-fishing opportunities abound, including natural and man-made reefs, oil and gas platforms, beaches, sandbars and flats.
Due south of Alabama’s Mobile Bay, easily in sight from the mouth of the pass, lie several different natural gas platforms. Since many of the fish migrate or follow bait migrations, one platform often offers as many opportunities as the next. However, the bigger platforms seem to hold more bait and, therefore, tend to yield more shots. Depths range from less than 80 feet near shore all the way to several thousand feet offshore. The spring, summer and fall migrations bring many opportunities to these platforms. Large concentrations of different kinds of baitfish move through the area either to spawn or relocate for the winter. Some will also winter around the platforms. When large groups of baitfish like hard tails(or blue runners) gather around the platforms, it can be a pretty good indication that kingfish, as well as amberjacks and little tunny, might be there. Chum lines used in conjunction with teasers can tell you in short order just which predators lie beneath the bait.
Fit for a King
Whenever I think the kingfish might be present, I attach a wiretrace for bite tippet. I use 6 to 8 inches of the lightest single strand of wire I can get by with to fend off the scissors like jaws of a king. A shorter piece of wire will usually work as well sincere are not feeding or free-spooling the kings, and the shorter the length of the wire, the greater the chance for a hookup.
For kingfish and amberjacks, I like to use a fairly large whiter chartreuse Lefty’s Deceiver that has a decent amount of flash and is tied on a high-quality, super sharp 3/0 or larger hook. Epoxying the head can help the fly last longer. Big bright poppers will also work, and the bites can be dramatic, but subsurface flies tend to draw more strikes. A fast-sinking line will help turn over the larger flies and give the angler the option of getting down to the deeper fish.
Retrieves should be varied, but remember to make the fly look like a wounded or dying baitfish -erratic, uncoordinated and even still. It helps to understand that kingfish often strike their prey and cut them in half only to spin around and then eat the leftovers. When retrieving the fly and a strike is missed, try slowing the retrieve and letting the kingfish turn back around. Often they will try to hit the fly again. Hook-sets should be solid, but be ready to clear the fly line from the deck in a hurry -a kingfish strike going away is tough to hold on to. Being taken down into the backing is almost a certainty.
Angling for AJs
The object of using live baits for chum is to entice the game fish up to the top and give them so much confidence that they will eat anything in sight. Amberjacks are a perfect target for this type of fishing. Generally they are schooling fish, so a large number of them can be present at any given time of year. And when AJs are in these large groups, the competition can be fierce. The ensuing melee that chumming causes will be the driving force behind successfully hooking these fish on fly. If the baitfish are on top and the big jacks are down deep, the jacks will have to chase the baitfish to the surface to feed. AJs chase these baits with such abandon that they will hit almost anything, especially flies.
I like to use live baits that I can get in large numbers. A dozen or so won’t do it -you’ll need several hundred to make a decent go of it. Alewives or menhaden are my two top choices. I can often find them in large enough concentrations to catch with a netor sabiki rig (a multihook-rigged leader consisting of about six to eight small, usually gold hooks). Baitfish size is not that important. I can fit more 2-inch baits into my livewell than I can6-inch baitfish.
Once the jacks are found, I like to start a chum line by pitching live baits over the side two or three at a time. I constantly watch for jacks or anything else to appear. Before any fish are even chummed up, I break out the teaser rod. My personal favorite is a big Yo-Zuri Chugger with all the hooks removed. I like to cast the Chugger as far as possible, then retrieve it erratically. The combined activity from the teaser and the live chum can create a very aggressive feeding frenzy in short order.
When the amberjacks come up on the teasers or live baits, I start throwing four to six live baits at a time to keep the jacks right at the boat. My choice of flies is the same for amberjacks as for kingfish -a big, bright Lefty’s Deceiver stripped fast. I have seen several jacks actually fight over a fly. You’ll often see the fish hit the fly, and hook-sets need to be solid -amberjacks have tough, thick jaws. Wire shock tippet is unnecessary, but you should use at least a 40-pound bite tippet.
These high-speed gamesters are made for the fly rod. A 10-pound fish is a good one, and they fight like a fish three times their size. With their long runs, they make a perfect candidate for an8-weight fly rod. They will readily come into a chum line if they are in the area. No shock or bite leader is needed, and most any small, bright fly will work. Chartreuse-and-white Clousers ands mall Lefty’s Deceivers tied on No. 2 or 4 hooks are my favorites. Most of the time the retrieves should be fast, but sometimes little tunny like the fly to just sit there and drift slowly toward the bottom. For a real show try a popper. If the little tunny, or bonito, are excited enough, they may clear the water in an attempt to rush the fly. The fish themselves usually set the hooks, and they routinely run you into your backing.
You never know what might appear in your chum line, so be ready for anything. Jack crevalle, bluefish, redfish, Spanish mackerel and even pompano visit these rigs, as do some prized game fish. Red snapper have occasionally frequented our chum slicks, rising completely to the surface and even busting baits there. Mangrove snapper are also an added bonus. When the snapper do come around, we use a 9- or 10-weight fly rod with a small Clouser or bonefish-style fly in tan or white. Crab flies and shrimp flies also seem to produce well. A short strip with a slow retrieve worksbest, as does a slow drift. A short bite tippet can help since snapper have rough mouths, and it is especially helpful when a big snapper heads back into the rig to escape.
Cobia offer another possibility on the rigs. In the spring and summer our beaches and offshore structures hold these fish in great numbers, so we try to keep a 12-weight rod rigged with a 5/0 or 6/0light-colored Lefty’s Deceiver. Conventional and fly-anglers alike seek cobia. Although big cobia have seen many a bait in their days, I think flies are still new to them. Tease them and feed them a fewlive ones, and these fish can get aggressive. Cast the fly a few feet in front of one, and retrieve it moderately without stopping(cobia tend to lose interest in a fly that stops moving).
Rigging for Rigs
This is aggressive fly-fishing at its best, and standard tackle includes an 11- or 12-weight fly rod as a minimum. Bigger rods canturn over and cast bigger flies easier and farther. There is also the added benefit of plenty of backbone for lifting and pulling the bigger fish out from the safety of their haunts. Fly rods with fighting fore grip are nice, too, because they make long drawn-out battles more bearable for some anglers. I try to keep at least twobig outfits ready at all times. The first one has a standard weight-forward floating fly line; the second outfit is rigged with a sinking line. My leaders are pretied with loop connections on the ends. This way I can change from a kingfish leader with a wiretrace to a leader with or without a shock tippet in a hurry.
Fly reels with quality drags are a must. The bruisers that inhabit these rigs can burn out a weaker drag quickly, as can even the smaller fish. Backing capacities should be at least 300 yards or so, even though most of these fish won’t take you out –just down. Still, it’s nice to have the backing if you hook a big king or a jack crevalle.
For a teaser I like to use big spinning outfits loaded with30-pound test. The bigger outfits can handle bigger teasers and cast them farther. Any old topwater plug will work, but we prefer a Yo-Zuri Chugger. Don’t forget to set your drag, though. More than one fish has forgotten to let go of the teaser in the confusion and has taken it into the rig never to be seen again.