Amberjack – The Charter Captain’s Friend

For those times when nothing else is biting, amberjack can bring a thrill!

A small wreck amberjack caught on light tackle after a 30 minute fight. Released unharmed!
A small wreck amberjack caught on light tackle after a 30 minute fight. Released unharmed!. Photo ©Ron Brooks

When I fish offshore – which because of all the current SAFMC harvest restrictions has not been often lately – I can always count on finding a few fish that fight hard and please an angler wanting a big fish. If I can’t catch grouper, snapper and other bottom dwellers, I can usually find a fish that will make the day. That fish is the amberjack. Amberjack – or AJs as we call them – are prevalent over offshore reefs and wrecks. They prowl the area in schools large and small, looking to feed on schools of baitfish.

Any time a charter captain fishes over a reef or wreck, he is looking at the water. He is looking for fish – looking to see if there are any schools of fish holding off the bottom. In most cases he will determine that a school of AJs is present. Of course, the ever present barracuda will also be there, but it is the AJ that tweaks interest.

If I’m fishing the bottom, I will almost always inadvertently hook up with an AJ. If they are over a reef, they will follow a bait all the way to the bottom to grab it. Of course, live bait draws more strikes from them, but dead bait will often bring a hook-up.

A reef or bottom area is usually quite large in perspective, and a school of AJs will be cruising the entire area. So, they come and go. When you hook one, it is quite normal to hook two or more at the same time. Three AJs in a hookup on three rods can be a real circus!

AJs – greater amberjack - grow to well over 100 pounds. The world record is over 155 pounds. So, a hook-up of three fish in the 80-pound class is something to behold.

What do we do with them when we get them to the boat? They really aren’t ”bad” eating, and I have seen AJ in the fish market at $6.99 a pound. But with every AJ I have kept to eat, I have been disappointed.

I find the flavor of the meat to be heavy. It’s a very fishy tasting filet. Some people like the heavy fish flavor. I prefer something a little milder, like grouper or snapper.

In addition to finding a flavor I do not prefer, I also find a few “passengers” on the fish. These are parasite type passengers. AJs are famous for having worms. Most of the worms appear in the meat toward the tail area of a filet. The shoulder meat tends to have fewer worms.

The worms themselves don’t present problems. Eating them, either inadvertently or by design, will not hurt you. But to a lot of people, the thought of worms automatically makes this fish inedible. The fact is that quite a few large grouper also have worms as well, especially red grouper for some reason. I’ve caught Jewfish (Goliath grouper) that were so full of worms it took quite a while to cut them out.

The difference in these fish that have worms is that I enjoy the flavor of grouper and have no problem with the worms. I do not prefer the taste of AJ – and yes, there are those of you who will argue that they taste the same.

Yes, you can actually see the worms in the meat. And that makes removing them an easy task. Just keep any squeamish people out of sight while you clean the fish. Otherwise, you will be looking for another meal for them – not grilled amberjack!

So my recommendation is to release them! If you like the flavor of the fish and don’t mind picking out the worms, by all means, keep one to eat. But, for the sake of all the anglers who love catching them, let’s do some catch and release and NOT bring them back to the dock for pictures!