The Toughest Fish on the Reef

By: Terry Gibson


When I was in my early 20s and a high school teacher living in West Palm Beach, I met a kid named Read through the West Palm Beach Fishing Club.

Hard to believe that Read and I’ve enjoyed fishing with his family for almost 20 years now. There are lots of kids who love fishing, and there were plenty of buddies my own age I could fish with when I wanted to. But this kid was different and I liked fishing with him because of his pure obsession with it. His family had a nice offshore fishing boat, and they frequently invited me along. It was so nice of them to invite me, and after a few trips I realized that I had been assigned a unique, secret job on the boat: Get Read tired enough that he’d agree to go in.

I mean this kid would fish until we were out of bait and then suggest we troll lures and then suggest we stay out all night for swordfish. We just about always wound up cleaning fish and the boat well into the night. Then a captain friend gave me some GPS numbers for reefs that were covered in amberjacks. About mid-afternoon, I would say to things to Read along the lines of, “I think you’re still a little young to handle two amberjacks in a day,” or, “Little guy like you can’t possibly catch three—not without help.”

I am amazed that he never lost a rod overboard. Some of the jacks he caught were quite a bit bigger than him. This species of jack, which can top 100 pounds, is so strong that when you’re done messing with them a full grown angler feels equal parts pain and satisfaction after catching just one, like you’ve just had a good, exhausting workout at the gym. But that kid never let go of the rod or passed it to one of us. Not once. 

I always think of Read wherever I am and we’re catching amberjacks. Getting a kid to land an “AJ” by himself is certainly character- and confidence-building. You can file that catch under the “finish what you started” category of good life habits. It’s also a great way to put one of the most delicious fish on the reef in the box without breaking a sweat yourself. (Just make sure you don’t violate any child labor laws!)

Amberjacks will attack live baits, jigs and even flies if you can get one in front of them. AJ fishing tends to be best late spring and early summer, though they are available all year. Along the Atlantic Coast, top spots include the deep wrecks and humps off the Florida Keys, as well as the deep wrecks from Palm Beach north to Jupiter and off Stuart. As the water warms, they migrate northward all the up through Jacksonville.

Along the Gulf Coast, the best AJ fishing I’ve ever seen is on some wrecks south of Destin. That’s where this huge one came from, a few years back. Here are links to the Gulf and South Atlantic amberjack regulations. Go catch some bragging rights.

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