06/19/09 — Marsh: Wreck your gear with an amberjack attack

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Marsh: Wreck your gear with an amberjack attack

By Mike Marsh
Published in Sports on June 19, 2009 1:46 PM

Lots of coastal anglers catch amberjack and most don't do it intentionally. While some anglers hate the greater amberjack because the fish eat carefully nurtured live Menhaden intended for king mackerel baits, all anglers who ever hooked one will respectfully or begrudgingly give this devil his due.

An amberjack is extremely powerful and can exceed 90 pounds. It strikes anything that looks like food, be it live, cut or frozen bait; jig, spoon or topwater lure. As long as it looks big enough to be worth chasing or makes a big commotion, it will invite an amberjack attack.

Once hooked, an amberjack possesses more endurance that most saltwater fish.

While such attributes should place them high on fishermen's wish lists, most anglers shun amberjack for the same reasons. When anglers are fishing for other species, amberjack are nuisances because they burn fishing time and wreck gear. Nevertheless, there are times when hooking a houseguest to an amberjack can make the host angler a hero.

"Everybody who lives inland wants to catch a big fish when they go to the ocean," said Capt. Jot Owens of Wrightsville Beach. "Most fisherman use topwater lures for largemouth bass. But when they see the size of my topwater poppers they don't believe there's a fish in the ocean capable of eating it. They think a fish will see it and go the other way."

While many people use live baits for intentionally targeting amberjack, Owens said the strike of an amberjack maddened by a topwater lure is one of the most vicious hits in saltwater fishing. Houseguests from inland areas who see it for the first time are awestruck by the spectacle.

"You're working a huge popper with a spinning rod, when all of a sudden a fish, or several fish, start exploding water all around it," said Owens. "Sometimes they hook up on the first strike. But other times they follow the lure to the boat, turning away at the last second."

Owens said finding a spot to catch amberjack is not difficult. He just looks for artificial reef structure where only amberjack anglers are fishing.

"King mackerel and bottomfish anglers hate amberjack," he said. "The fish wreck their rigs and eat their baits. Another fish usually associated with amberjack when the water gets hot is barracuda, which eat king mackerel or dolphin while the angler is playing them.

"Find the amberjack and you've found the barracuda."

Owens used his GPS unit to locate an artificial reef a few miles off Masonboro Inlet. He circled the area to locate sunken structure with his depthfinder. Then he throttled the motor to an idle.

He cast a big popper on a heavy spinning rod, then reeled in the slack until the mouth of the popper was facing him. Timing the twitches of his rod tip to the rhythm of the waves to keep any slack out of the line, he reeled in the popper, which made large splashes every time he hauled hard on the rod.

On the third cast, a geyser of water shot from the water beside the popper. Several amberjack were visible beneath the lure. On the next twitch of the rod tip, the line came tight.

"There he is!" Owens shouted. "Now all I have to do is keep him out of the structure."

The fish dug for the bottom. Although Owens had set the reel drag to all the line could withstand without breaking, the amberjack went beneath or around something hard.

"I'll give him some slack to see if he comes free," Owens said. "If that doesn't work, I'll try steady pressure."

Fortunately, the slack-line tactic worked. The line held, slid loose and the amberjack swam free. After a 20-minute battle, the 30-pound amberjack was beside the boat, with one of his larger buddies alongside.

"If you tossed another lure right now, you could hook the other fish," he said. "Amberjack are not boat shy. But they can get bored with a popper after a few casts, sending you to try a different spot as long as you have the strength to try again. Catching two or three big amberjack on a popper is usually enough fun for any angler, no matter how tough he thinks he is.

Catching just one will give any inland fishermen a tale to tell the folks back home about the big one that didn't get away."