When Capt. Tony Strickland of Murrell's Inlet piloted his 34-foot boat Kill'n Time out to the Gulf Stream last summer, he and angler Lee Frederick just wanted to enjoy some weekend fun fishing.
They had no idea they'd claim a little piece of South Carolina angling history that day.
After anchoring up at a reef near the Georgetown Hole, Strickland's anglers started dropping down baits for grouper. Frederick was "walking" a cigar minnow on the sea floor when a 100-pound, 8-ounce amberjack crashed their bottom-fishing party.
"The fish tried to dig in on a deep ledge, and I countered that by moving from the stern up to the bow for a better angle," Frederick says. "Capt. Strickland cleared the rods on the boat, and I felt the fish swim clear of the bottom structure. Then the fish started swimming at an angle, using the current against me."
After a 15-minute fight on a heavy-action Ugly Stik rod outfitted with a Penn reel, Frederick brought the massive AJ to the boat. After the fish was gaffed and hauled aboard, Capt. Strickland immediately knew it was the largest amberjack he had ever seen.
The fish was caught about 3 p.m., and even though they had some productive fishing time left, Strickland elected to head to Captain Dick's Marina. Back on land, S.C. Department of Natural Resources biologist Krista Reynolds certified the amberjack's weight. Frederick's fish became the new state record, besting the amberjack record set by Shane Kelley in 1998 by a mere 13 ounces.
"In 25 years of fishing I've never caught a state record, and I never thought it might happen with an amberjack," Frederick says.
And so it goes with amberjack. For most fishermen, catching a few AJs while fishing over a reef or live bottom area is just part of the routine, more of an afterthought than a goal. There are so many of these huge, hard-fighting fish at nearby reefs and wrecks that anglers sometimes have to reposition their boat just to get away from them.
Most veteran anglers simply don't see amberjack as a worthy opponent : many even slap AJs with the derisive nickname "reef donkey."
But this impressive open-water species enjoys a better reputation among Lowcountry charter captains. Because when your living and reputation depend on finding big, hungry fish, AJs stop being "reef donkeys" and start being "charter savers."
When the fishing is slow, you can almost always count on amberjack to save the day.
Giving AJs their due respect
Capt. Mark Brown, who runs the Teaser 2 charter vessel out of Shem Creek (charlestonfishing.net), has been dropping baits for amberjack all the way back to the 1960s when he was chartering down in Florida.
Four decades of experience tangling with big jacks has given Brown an extensive knowledge of these fish.
"Amberjack are a migratory fish and frequent our inshore waters most of the year, except for the dead of winter when they are in 200 feet of water or deeper," Brown says. "They have a well-known summer spawning location known as 'the humps' off of the Central Keys, and it is thought that fish off the S.C. coast take part in that spawning aggregation.
"Most of the fish caught off our coast are greater amberjack, but we also see lesser amberjack, banded rudderfish and almaco jack."
The lesser AJ is a smaller fish that remains in deeper water. It's easily identified by its big eyes, which help the fish recognize its prey in darker conditions. The banded rudderfish is from the same family, although it has a smaller head. The rudderfish is a good eating fish and doesn't have worms. The almaco jack, however, is often riddled with worms and is caught only for sport.
Greater amberjack seem to have a better reputation down in Florida, as a game fish and pretty good table fare. Several Sunshine State restaurants are even named for the fish.
Charleston menus are not nearly as flush with AJ offerings, and many local offshore anglers don't keep AJs. The commonly held belief among Lowcountry anglers is that an amberjack's flesh is filled with parasitic worms.
It's a fact that amberjack meat, particularly from larger fish, does often contain worms - but so does the flesh of many other saltwater game fish.
Brown, for one, thinks the AJ may be getting a bad rap when it comes to worms.
"They get passed along the food chain, starting with worms in shellfish that are consumed by smaller fish who then grow larger," Brown says. "When cleaning an amberjack, we can generally cut the worms out and just filet the white flesh. Since the worms tend to congregate in the rear of the fish, we cut the fish off at the anal-dorsal fin and then trim off any of the fishier-tasting red meat that is left.
"About a month ago I kept one, cleaned it and ate it," Brown adds. ": True story - I once served a plate with fried grouper on one side and fried amberjack on the other, and the AJ got finished before the grouper."
Brown says one popular way to serve AJ meat is on kabobs with vegetables.
You can always count on AJs
In the world of saltwater fishing, there's no such thing as a sure bet. But amberjack come mighty close, especially at the many reefs and wrecks off the Lowcountry coast.
AJ schools can be spotted circling at the buoys marking the shipping channel outside Charleston, and at nearshore spots such as Capers Reef, 4KI and the Charleston 60. Offshore reefs such as Y73 and Comanche Reef hold tons of AJs, including potential record-breakers. (An angler fishing on the now-retired Thunderstar, which formerly fished out of Shem Creek, was rumored to have landed a 116-pound amberjack that did not qualify for the record books because it was landed using an electric reel.)
Virtually any style of fishing around these reefs and wrecks will draw an amberjack strike, and more than a few AJs are caught as by-products when fishing for other species.
Trolling ballyhoo around offshore wrecks? You'll catch AJs.
Dropping heavy-metal knife jigs for grouper and snapper? Slow-trolling live menhaden for king mackerel? Casting big bucktails at the buoys for cobia?
AJs, AJs and more AJs
"We caught more of them during the recent Tailwalker Tournament than I care to remember," says Jack Bracewell of the Eren's Addiction king mackerel fishing team. "They will eat a slow-trolled live bait or a ribbonfish."
While a bit of a nuisance to veteran offshore anglers looking for other game fish, amberjack do bring lots of enjoyment to recreational anglers simply hoping land a big fish.
AJs also provide anglers one of the best opportunities to land big saltwater fish with artificial lures. Armed with a heavy spinning reels and stout rod, almost any angler can tangle with a 30- or 40-pound fish. Butterfly jigs work very well with amberjack, as do various larger soft-plastic lures.
Brown likes to use a 6-ounce, white-and-red feather jig with a purple rubber worm on the eight-ought hook for added flutter movement. He'll drop the lure to the bottom and then jig it once or twice. Amberjacks usually strike when the jig lands or pauses.
"There is no shortage of amberjack, and they are very excitable and well-known for their kamikaze feeding tactics behind the boat," Brown says.
How excitable? Once AJs become frenzied, they have been known to strike hooks with no bait. And they're not the least bit boat-shy - when properly teased, big schools will erupt in a feeding frenzy right beside a boat.
Many anglers ignite such frenzies by using a gaff or boathook to cut figure-eights in the water boatside. The splash and flash can excite AJs.
Others simply toss live menhaden out near the boat. With a school of two dozen 30-pound amberjack swimming underneath, these small inshore bait fish have a life expectancy of about 5 seconds.
Some anglers have developed even more specialized ways of getting an AJ school all worked up.
Capt. Tucker Blythe of Grey Ghost Charters (charlestoncustomcharters.com) likes to pit fly-fishing anglers against large amberjack. Blythe looks for AJ schools about 4 miles past the tip of the Charleston jetties, paying particular attention to color changes in the water when approaching the shipping channel buoys.
Once he finds a school, Blythe will toss out handfuls of "freebie" menhaden to start the action. If that's not enough, he's got other tricks.
"When I get to a buoy, I bounce a butterfly jig with no hook down deep in the water column, and the lure action will bring them to the surface."
Blythe might also turn to another secret weapon: a hollow whiffle ball bat with the tip sawed off. He'll load the bat with live menhaden and sling them out near the buoys with pinpoint precision.
Fly rods should be fairly stout when tangling with amberjack. Blythe uses a 12-weight TFO rod with an Orvis reel, spooled up with floating line and a 40-pound leader.
"Amberjack will test the drag system on your fly reel," Blythe says.
Blythe's favorite amberjack lure is an oversized popper fly in chartreuse or hot pink. "I find they like the bright colors," Blythe says.
Blythe's big popper fly has a hollow plastic tube running through the middle. He'll usually run a 40-pound leader though the tube and then snell on a six-ought live bait hook. Since the hook is attached to the line but not the lure, the fly can be often be retrieved if a big amberjack breaks the line.
"The way I rig my fly, if the line parts the fly usually floats to the surface, and I can scoop it out of the water," he says. "If the line doesn't part, you can really put the heat to the AJ's with a 12weight rod."
These big popping lures with feathers can be difficult to cast very far, even in a light wind, so the amberjacks should be close enough to the boat so that only short casts are required.
When he's not fly-fishing, Blythe may break out some spinning tackle and use a 10-inch, soft-plastic lure in bubblegum color made by Hogy. These jigging-popping lures have a flat or blunt nose, which gives them good action. You might consider this lure a "splash bait," since all the commotion it causes gets the amberjack fired up.
If all else fails, there's this fool-proof technique: Hook a live menhaden on a five-ought circle hook and pitch it into a school of frenzied amberjack.
"I had a client from Memphis fishing for spadefish when the AJ's came up, so he pitched them a bait and the water just flushed as the jack nailed it," Blythe says. "After a 20-minute fight that caused the angler to grunt and strain, we released the fish.
"He said he was going to tell all his buddies about the thrill of an amberjack."