Targeting Amberjacks in the Panhandle Region With Capt. Pat Dineen

About the only thing that pulls as hard as a Chevy truck is an amberjack, which is how they got the nickname “Reef Donkeys.” Any time you’re targeting amberjacks you want to look for them on the high relief wrecks—the ones that stick way up like the Liberty ships and tug boats, or the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany. As a rule, the deeper you go, the larger the fish.

You can find the school-sized amberjacks in anywhere from 60 to 90 feet of water, but if you’re looking for a keeper-sized amberjack, you’ll want to start in 100 to 130 feet of water, and if you’re looking for the big ones you’ll want to start in 150 feet of water and work out to about 400 feet of water.

If you’re going to use live bait, the livelier and friskier, the better. You want a bait that’s going to swim hard and swim fast and try to get away from the fish and key the bite. Big blue runners and probably the best bait for amberjacks , followed by a large threadfin herring. If you’re really looking for the big ones, a small bullet bonito or a ladyfish, which will only catch the largest fish because it’s too big for the smaller ones are good options.

Start by hooking the bait through the nose with a 7/0 to 10/0 circle hook. I like to use a long leader, say 15 feet of 60 to 80 pound test fluorocarbon. You want that longer leader so the bait has a longer tether to pivot off of from the weight and can really move around and excite the fish. Use just enough weight to get the bait down to the bottom quickly and hold it there.

If you’re in 400 feet of water, you’re going to mark the amberjacks on the top of the relief, which means anywhere from 350 to 280 feet of water. Drop your bait all the way to the bottom, and then work it up into the depth where the fish are holding.

A big key with amberjacks is to take advantage of the times when you have one hooked up to get another bait in the water. When an amberjack is hooked, the rest of the school will get excited, and if you can get more baits down, you can have multiple fish on at the same time.

Most anglers will live bait with conventional tackle and 40 to 60 pound braided line. Fluorocarbon leaders really do pay off, even in the deeper water, especially around the spots that get a lot of fishing pressure.

If you want to fish the metal jigging spoons, I’d suggest using 30 to 40 pound braided line on heavy spinning tackle. Tie the braid off to a heavy barrel swivel and then three or four feet of 60 pound fluorocarbon leader and your spoon.

Allow the jig to fall all the way to the bottom, then retrieve it up through the school of fish. You want the jig to swim really erratically, so you really want to jerk and pump the rod. You want it to dance through the school or the fish will not follow it. When you drop all the way to the bottom, you’ll also catch a grouper every now and then.

The size of the jigging spoon you use depends on the depth. I like the five to seven inch long jigs that are fairly heavy so they get to the bottom quickly. If it takes a minute for your jig to get down, you need to go heavier. The larger jigs also produce a larger profile so they tend to catch a lot of the larger fish.

The average amberjack in my region is probably in the 15 to 25 pound range, with lots of fish in the 40 pound class and every year someone catches one over 100 pounds. If you’re just looking to play with them, you can throw a hookless topwater plug around the wrecks in 60 to 90 feet and bring them to the surface and catch them.


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