If I had a nickel every time I’ve heard a fly fishing “expert” explain that a fly reel is the least important part of your setup…I’d have enough for a PBR. Regardless, I’d bet the farm they haven’t caught an Amberjack on the long rod. These aggressive fish don’t just pull serious drag, they bust your knuckles and flat out whip your ass.
Amberjack, or Reef Donkeys, are plentiful in the Gulf of Mexico year round and move closer to shore during the warmer months. If you want to target a true stud (AJ’s get well over 100lbs) it’d be best to search in deeper (80-120 feet) waters. Like many other species, AJ’s tend to hang on structure because that’s where the food is generally concentrated.
I got my first AJ on the fly about 5 years ago, which was a juvenile at 30lbs, and will never forget the experience. At the time, my fly fishing trips were pretty much limited to the 1 – 6 feet of water that my skiff was accustomed to, so I was a bit curious when Capt. Brett Norris – of Rock Bottom Charters – told me to grab that ‘funny looking long rod’ and head offshore with him. A few beers later I decided it would be a good change of pace, and cautiously agreed. After all, it didn’t sound like much of a challenge to chum a wad of fish to the surface in a feeding frenzy, and stick a few.
Brett explained that the spot we’d be fishing, which was about 25 miles off Tampa Bay, would be full of 20-30lb fish with the occasional 40 pounder. Even though Brett hadn’t tried to feed one a fly, he was pretty optimistic it wouldn’t take long to get an eat. We loaded up my pops Bertram with beer (and my other buddy Trip and his girlfriend) and headed out.
It was a fairly calm, scorching hot summer day. Within 5 minutes of dropping anchor, we had a feeding frenzy off the stern. I couldn’t believe my eyes! The ferocity at which these fish feed was absolutely astonishing. (Editor’s note: See video)
After a dozen or so casts I came tight – to what I thought was a small submarine – and the donkey had me into the backing of my 12wt’s reel within seconds, and didn’t stop peeling drag until he busted me off on the structure below…It’s okay though because I let him keep my fly. At that point, I realized it was time to take off the gloves, lock down the drag, and get some revenge.
After another dozen or so casts I was again hooked up. Brett, Trip, and Jenny had all landed one on spinning gear, so I decided it was time to put one in the boat. After the longest 30 minute fight of my life, I was soaked in sweat and bloody knuckled – but victorious – and decided she could join her buddies in our fish box dance party.
Following my second battle royale, I cracked the most satisfying Natty Light ever created, and passed the long rod to the next contestant. My buddy Trip ended up landing one shortly after, and was in similar condition as I. He passed the rod over to an eager Brett, who flopped the line out and hooked up immediately. After a while, he told us he saw color and a few seconds later, I heard what sounded like a twelve-gauge going off.
Turns out ol’ Capt. Brett high-sticked my rod to death, modifying my beloved 4 piece Helios into a 10 piece, and continued to fight the fish with just the reel and bottom guide. That didn’t end up panning out, as it wasn’t long before the AJ muscled him down to the seafloor and wrapped him around the structure.
In the end, my knuckles healed, the rod was replaced, and the smoked fish dip was the real deal! The only piece of advice I’d give to the first-timer targeting AJ’s on the fly is to wear your big boy hat, and make sure to bring a celebratory beer (or 2).