The perfect combination of a big fish and a big appetite – amberjacks are one of the top deepwater species in the southeast. When we talk about amberjacks, we’re usually referring to the Greater Amberjack, as opposed to the few others such as the Lesser amberjack and Banded rudderfish which look remarkably similar but do not reach the same size. Amberjacks are one of the top-fighting fish out there, and are excellent on the grill or smoker when prepared fresh, so whether you’re an avid sportsman or looking for dinner, the amberjack is a great fish to target. In this “101” article, we’ll describe in summary everything you need to know to get out and catch one.
When to Find Amberjack
This is one of the best things about amberjack – you can easily find them year round, especially in Florida. It appears that there are different behaviors within the overall Greater Amberjack species in their seasonality. Even in the same locations, some groups of amberjacks migrate seasonally, while others stay put all year long. When the fish do move, they do so for spawning purposes. If they reside in more northern areas like North Carolina to Georgia on the Atlantic coast, or Texas through Alabama on the Gulf, they will travel down to Florida to meet the rest of the population in early spring for spawning. Their peak spawning months are April and May. After that, they travel back to their other waters for the summer, fall, and winter seasons.
Where to Catch Amberjack
Amberjack are structure-oriented fish. They tend to like high profile areas like deep ledges, as well as high artificial reefs, shipwrecks, and big rock piles. If the natural reefs have high profile, they will be thick there as well. Any of these habitats in the range of 60 to 240 feet of water is the preferred zone of amberjack, but in general the biggest fish will be in deeper water.
Tackle for Amberjack
If you’ve ever had a big grouper run you into structure after the bite, think of that much fish with a big powerful forked tail behind it, and you have an amberjack. Landing amberjack is more about getting them to the boat after they’re hooked than getting them to bite, and it requires some pretty serious gear. Unlike some fish, they don’t seem to tire out easily, and fight the whole 200 feet up to the boat.
Spinning Tackle for Amberjack
Because of their strength and tendency to pull you under structures, conventional tackle is the standard, but spinning tackle can be used if it’s heavy enough for the job. A heavy reel capable of 80-to-100-pound test line, matched with a seriously strong-backboned rod is recommended for using a spinning rod. Spinning gear is best used when you have the ability to chum the fish away from the structure to reduce the risk of hang-ups. A heavy spinning reel with at least 25 pounds of drag or more is best.
Conventional Tackle for Amberjack
Conventional tackle is the recommended gear for amberjacks. Conventional tackle gives you much greater leverage for lifting up against these powerful fish than spinning tackle does, and can really make the difference when the fish keep breaking you off.
Use conventional tackle in the heavy category with 60-to-100 pound test line. Since you can use this gear to get the fish away from the structure, it is the best method for using live bait or deep vertical jigs close to the structure for more action.
Baits for Amberjack
This is the easy part of catching amberjack – they aren’t what you would call, “picky.” Whatever bait you can get your hands on, especially if it’s available live will work great for amberjack.
This commonly includes blue runner, cigar minnows, mullet, Spanish or scaled sardines, threadfin herrings, pinfish, and countless others. For frozen bait, cigar minnows, mullet, and squid are perhaps the best available and effective frozen baits.
Lures for Amberjack
Amberjack are incredibly aggressive, making them excellent targets for artificial lures. One of the most effective lures out there is a vertical jig. This type of jig is a long heavy piece of metal which is allowed to sink straight down to the bottom, and then jerked up as you reel in the slack after each jerk.
Amberjack seem to just love this pattern, and oftentimes hit the bait as it’s falling. Other lures can work well too, especially if you chum the fish up near the surface. Here, you can use a variety of spoons, diving plugs, and even flies if you’re lucky enough.