Challenging Mighty ‘Reef Donkeys’ of The Deep

With incredible raw power, a deep-water leviathan inhaled the bait nearly 300 feet below the surface and steadily pulled line from the big game reel as if a nuclear submarine tangled the straining braid.

“This is the biggest fish I’ve ever had on a line,” screamed Jen Carroll who used to fish professional women’s bass circuits. “I’m trying to get it in, but it’s not moving. It’s my workout for the week – two weeks!”

Cranking furiously on the big Penn reel, Jen regained two feet of line only to lose four to the monster from the deep even with maximum drag. Eventually, Jen subdued the beast weighing nearly as much as she did. After a lengthy battle in the Gulf of Mexico, she finally horsed one of the most powerful fish in the world to the surface.

Often compared to winching an anvil off the bottom, battling big amberjack can challenge just about any angler or tackle. When hooked, amberjack don’t display the flash of a king mackerel or speed of a tuna, but they exhibit incredible strength.

“There are some monster amberjack in the Gulf of Mexico,” remarked Capt. Tommy Pellegrin of Custom Charters in Cocodrie, La. “We catch bigger tuna and marlin because we have a lot of line and the fish are running away from structure into the open. An amberjack runs right to structure to cut the line. To catch a monster amberjack, use a reel with a welded drag that won’t give. Attach that to an unlimited class rod and fish from a good boat with a good rod holder. Use the power of the motor to pull the monster away from the entangling structure.”

Daniel Felsher shows off an amberjack he caught. (Photos by John N. Felsher)
Daniel Felsher shows off an amberjack he caught. (Photos by John N. Felsher)

Sometimes dubbed “reef donkeys,” amberjack can grow to more than 156 pounds. They prefer to stay in 70- to 400 feet of water around rock piles, shipwrecks, reefs, or at the bottom of an oil platform. They look for hard cover where they can ambush prey.

Voracious predators, amberjack feed heavily upon squid, crustaceans, reef fish or anything else they can gulp. Although smaller “AJs” may congregate in schools, bigger jacks rule their deep, dark domain alone — and that’s how most other reef species like it! Typically, when big amberjack cruise through an area, everything else moves out.

To find big amberjacks, look for good structure. Search all around structure to find fish. Sometimes, amberjack hold on one side of a platform or reef, but not on the other side depending upon where currents hit the structure and other conditions. Sometimes, one spot might only hold small fish, but lunkers gather only a few feet away. Also search the bottom with electronics for additional objects away from the main platform. Sometimes, anglers find bigger fish 40- to 50 yards away from the rigs, reefs or wrecks.

To catch big amberjack, most anglers simply drop a hook baited with squid, fish chunks or Spanish sardines to the bottom on extremely heavy tackle. To make baits more tempting, some anglers “butterfly” a baitfish. Fillet both sides from the tail forward about halfway to the head, but leave the pieces attached to the body. When currents hit the bait, the two slabs undulate, making the bait appear alive.

Hardtail jacks, mullets, croakers, and other live baitfish also tempt big AJs. Anglers can often catch fresh bait around structures by working a sabiki rig tipped with tiny flies on light spinning tackle. For monster AJs, use large baits. A 100-pound bruiser can engulf a hefty meal!

Anglers can also use artificial tackle. Heavy lead jigs mimic baitfish as they flutter down to the bottom. With jigs, anglers don’t need to worry about tiny nibblers stealing chunks as the lure descends. After hitting bottom, jig the lure up and down a few times. If nothing bites, keep moving it toward the surface in 20-foot intervals to find where the fish want to suspend and work that depth.

Big amberjack don’t always hang near the bottom. Sometimes, they rise in the water column or may even approach the surface to investigate activity. Chumming can entice amberjack near the top. Chop bait or trash fish into bite-sized morsels and toss them into the water. Then, rig a drift line with live bait. Don’t use any weight so the fish can swim freely. Besides amberjack, a drift line might also attract grouper, big red snapper, cobia, mackerel, or wahoo — perhaps even tuna or sailfish.

To book a trip with Pellegrin, call 985-851-3304. On line, see


Top Photo:  Capt. Tommy Pellegrin of Custom Charters holds an amberjack caught by Jen Carroll of Celina, Texas, in the Gulf of Mexico south of Cocodrie, La.


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