Summertime is a great time of the year to chase amberjacks in the Panhandle because we have calm seas and a lot of fish on the reefs and wrecks. The entire key to finding amberjacks is to locate high relief structure, whether that’s natural bottom or a wreck or Artificial Reef like a tug boat, barge or aircraft carrier. Anything that sticks way up from the bottom will hold amberjacks.
I’ve caught legal amberjacks in 65 feet of water, but if you’re looking for the larger fish then you’re better to find that structure in 180 to 400 feet of water or more. That’s where you’ll find the 40 plus pounders, and I’ve seen several fish over 100 pounds brought to the docks the last couple of years.
You can usually mark the fish by motoring to the up-current side of the wreck or structure and making a drift back over it. The amberjacks will be holding 20 to 50 feet above the highest point. Once you see the fish and get a good idea where they’re holding, you can anchor up or drift and fish them.
If you’re looking for a lot of action, then Butterfly jigs or jigging spoons are the way to go. You drop these down to the bottom and then work them back up through the strike zone. You’ll catch a lot of fish that way, but the majority of them will be too small to keep. For deep jigging amberjacks you want a 5 ½ foot spinning rod with 30 to 50-pound braided line and a 60-pound fluorocarbon leader—something that’s not going to tire you out quickly.
To target the largest amberjacks, you want to use a big live bait like a blue runner, 10 to 12-inch mullet or small bonito—something that kicks hard and puts off a lot of vibration. I fish them on 30 to 50-pound tackle with a 60 to 80-pound leader and 6/0 to 8/0 circle hook depending on the size of the bait and the size of the fish.
Use enough lead to get the bait down towards the bottom, but you don’t want to be right on the bottom. A lot of times you can see your bait and sinker when you’re watching the bottom machine, which lets you lower the bait right into the strike zone. Use a 10 to 15-foot leader so the bait has a lot of freedom of movement. When it starts to kick away, you want it to be able to swim, as that’s what will light up the school and get them to feed.
If you’re making the fish, but can’t get them to bite, then it’s time to switch things up to a longer leader or a smaller hook, or even a livelier bait. Don’t be afraid to experiment until you figure out what it is the fish want.
Any time you hook an amberjack, you want to keep your baits in the water, because it seems like the entire school gets excited when a fish feeds or is hooked, so leaving baits down will lead to multiple hookups. It’s natural for other anglers to want to reel their lines up to keep from getting tangled with the hooked fish, but if one person gets a bite, it seems like everyone gets bit and has a fish on at the same time.
When you get the fish to the surface, look them over before you decide whether to gaff it or not. Amberjack populations are healthy, but we don’t see as many of the really big fish like we used to, and the fish you release today may be the 100 pounder someone catches a few years from now.Captain Tips