Amberjack Alley

There’s no need to go far offshore this month in search of one of the most exciting fish in the sea.

Pelayo let out a low whistle and pointed ahead.“Ya think…..?”

“WOW!” I gasped. “Antonio outdid himself this time!”

We were lugging our offshore gear while walking to the marina dock in Venice. Pelayo’s cousin Antonio from Miami was in town. He’d come by boat — his new one, which was now looming into view.

“Yep, that’s it alright,” Pelayo laughed as the name became visible. Scarface was emblazoned in bold black across the stern. Tony was a ringer for Al Pacino, and that was his favorite movie.

“Geezum,” I gasped. “I almost hate to go fishing in that thing! Hate to get it all bloody and stuff!”

Tony had sprung for a 32-foot Sea-Ray.

Like most of his Florida fishing chums, Tony goes gaga over amberjack, a prized fish over in south Florida.

“Heck, man,” Pelayo snorted while we visited Tony during Christmas. “Come on down to your old college stomping grounds, Tony! You’ll catch all the AJs ya want!”

Tony attended LSU law school back in the late ’70s.

“Amberjack?” he frowned. “I don’t remember many amberjack by the rigs? I remember plenty bottom fish and kings. But amberjack?”

“Shoot,” Pelayo huffed. “That was almost 30 years ago! Back then there wasn’t much bluewater fishing out here. A handful of guys with the New Orleans Big Game Fishing Club outta Port Eads trolled for marlin and tuna and stuff. That was it.

“You only remember the rig fishing back then. That kinda fishing meant the shallower West Delta and Grand Isle blocks, the 40s, 70s, 90s, maybe East Bay. We’d hook up to the rig and drop down with double hooks baited with squid. We’d crank up croaker, white trout and snapper like gangbusters. Remember?”

“I remember,” said Tony. “But I also remember those big kings.”

“Of course,” nodded Pelayo. “We’d hook a white trout through the back, freeline it out, and jab the pole in a rod-holders. Then back to the bottom fishing. The big reel started clicking, you’d grab the pole, click the bail — WHAM! — set the hook. Then you’d slug it out with a big king.”

“Remember it well!” Tony whooped. “We catch kings here in Florida too, but mostly trolling and most are small, 10 to 20 pounds.”

“Runts,” Pelayo gasped after a hearty gulp. “Summer kings were always bigger around the rigs; winter kings, smaller but more plentiful. That was about it, back then: king mackerel, maybe a coupla cobia.”

“Those were the days, man!” Tony laughed as we reminisced on his gazebo overlooking Biscayne Bay right after Christmas.

“And the NIGHTS!” Pelayo quipped as he raised his glass for a toast.

“Right!” Tony roared as we clinked glasses. “Especially the trip to Grand Isle after the Alabama game in ’78! Never forget those women at the Tarpon Lounge in Golden Mea…..”

“RIGHT, Tony!” Pelayo nodded, while grimacing and pointing behind his back at the wives. “Anyway, dem amberjacks hang out at ALL the deep rigs. Generally they like 200-plus foota-wawda. But the deeper the better. The Mississippi Canyon rigs are tops. We never really fished the DEEP rigs back in the ’70s and early ’80s, cause we were always bottom fishing. And there ain’t no bottom fishing in 600 foota-wawda.”

“Heck of a haul too,” Tony said rolling his eyes.

“Not really, Tony,” I rasped. “There’s 600 foota-wawda just seven miles off the mouth of South Pass.”

“And a few rigs,” Pelayo chimed in. “We did some calculating and think it’s the absolute shortest open water trip for big amberjack anywhere along the Gulf Coast. Gotta be. Heck man, outta Florida or even western Louisiana you gotta chug out 30-40 miles before you get to water deep enough for AJs.

“Not off the mouth of the river. If we can get to these 7 mile rigs outta South Pass, as we call ’em, I GA-RON-TEE we’ll hook up with AJs. No two ways about it, pod-nuh.

“We dive those rigs too, Tony. Amberjack are ALWAYS hanging out down around 120 foota-wawda. Never missed seeing them, huh.”

Pelayo looked at me and pursed his lips.

“Never,” I agreed. “Schools of the suckers, from 100 feet on down. Every time. They’re never any closer to the surface though.”

“Man you just drop down to 120 feet with a live fish,” Pelayo said while mimicking holding a big rod, “hardtail, mullet, pinfish — whatever — and it don’t take long — WHAM!! Then it’s hold on! All you can do to stay in the freakin’ boat!”

Tony was rapt as he listened to Pelayo’s ravings and watched his energetic pantomime.

“Ready?” Tony looked around hoisting his glass. We all nodded back. “Another round, Connie,” he turned and barked at his girlfriend who was gabbing with our wives.

She shot him the finger without bothering to look around, making a powerful jabbing motion and grimacing.

“I’ll get ’em,” I said while rising from the recliner with a heavy groan.

“Whoo-boy,” I thought while opening the sliding door into his palatial den. “Not again.”

We spent a lively evening on Biscayne Bay, and Tony took us up on the amberjack offer. Now it was a real honor to be aboard the Scarface II on its maiden fishing voyage here in Venice.

Tony was wrestling with the fuel hose when he looked up and saw us.

“Say hello to my little friend!” he laughed while pointing to his new boat.

“Not bad,” Pelayo nodded.

“NICE!” I added while stepping aboard and looking around in awe. Everything was white and shiny. The thing was gorgeous.

“Hi guys!” I looked up, and it was Connie herself, leaning over the bridge, elbows on the rail and close together. She wore a thin beach shirt but it was open in front, revealing a microscopic red bikini top. The pose did nothing to conceal or downplay Connie’s most notorious assets. Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue had nothing on this. Nor did a Victoria’s Secret catalog.

“Well?” Connie said while cocking her head.

“Oh!..Oh! Right! Hi Connie!”

I’d been entranced, speechless.

“Great to see you! Didn’t expect, I mean Tony didn’t say anything… Great to see ya!”

“Where’s Shirley?” She asked.

“Home,” I gasped. “She’s not much on this offshore stuff. Mighta come if she’d known you’d be here.”

“Awww,” Connie cocked her head to the opposite side now and frowned. Suddenly another woman appeared next to her and struck the identical pose. She had frosted shoulder-length hair, stylish sunglasses and wore a baby blue bikini, barely covered by a sheer white beach wrap.

“This is my friend Sheila,” Connie chirped.

“Hi Sheila,” I stuttered. “Nice to meet you.”

Then Sheila reached behind her. She turned back holding a champagne glass.

“Very nice to meet YOU,” she said while hoisting it. “Mimosas, anyone?”

“Sounds like a winna!” Pelayo yelled from behind me.

Geezum, I thought to myself. Tony said he’d be bringing “a crew.” This was it! Alone at sea for a week with these two women. And South Beach women can be very “liberated” we hear. Pelayo looked over with wide eyes. Musta been thinking the same thing. Unreal. Same old Tony. The guy knows how to live.

“I saw you on Politically Incorrect, Humberto,” Sheila cooed while handing me the mimosa. “Sure looked like Mrs. Brady had the hots for YOU,” she winked. “We women can tell, huh Connie.”

“We sure can, hon,” Connie was behind me, her mimosa breath hot on my ear and neck.

I raised my mimosa with slightly trembling hands and gulped.

“Yes,” I stammered. “Florence was a very nice lady.”

“I bet!” Sheila giggled.

Connie winked and brushed heavily against me while reaching for the champagne bottle. Her cheeks already had that rosy tint, the one that always signals fun ahead. Whoo-boy.

Pelayo and I were on the bridge with Tony as we passed Port Eads. The sun was getting higher now, and the girls were spreading their towels on the bow. Finally they removed their wraps. Pelayo and I tried to act cool. Tony didn’t even notice. Standard operating procedure for this guy.

“Got about 20 mullet in the bait well,” Tony said as we cleared the jetties and started a gentle swaying from the swells. “You said we’d need live bait for this fishing, right?”

“Absolutely,” Pelayo nodded without shifting his eyes from the bow.

“Well, last night I noticed mullet schooling under the lights at the marina,” Tony continued. “So I put down the scotch, took Connie off my lap, asked Sheila to stop the shoulder and neck rub for a second, and broke out the cast net.”

“Good thinking,” Pelayo croaked, still focused on the spectacle on the bow. “Save us the trouble of catching hardtails. Sometimes they can be hard to find. If you don’t mind, Tony,” Pelayo finally turned to address him, “I’ll handle the boat as we start fishing.”

“Handle the boat?” Tony growled. “Whatcha mean? To hook up to the rig?”

“We won’t be hooking up,” I said, still riveted on the bow. Sheila was turning over on her tummy now.

“Well, whatcha MEAN?” I finally turned and saw Tony’s confused frown as he asked. “Y’all don’t hook up anymore? Heck man, I even bought one of those rig hooks and everything! Hard to find one in Florida. Had to order it special. And now ya tell me..? So how on earth……?”

“For AJ fishing, we just back up to the rig, Tony” I explained. “Then drop the lines. Don’t take long to get a hit. When we do, we jam it into forward and rumble away from the rig.”

“Those AJs head straight for a piling down there,” Pelayo added. “They’re notorious for wrapping your line around a beam. Then it’s all over. So you gotta get away from that structure.”

“And FAST!” I nodded. “I mean the SECOND they grab the bait. And don’t worry, Pelayo’s a champ at this. He learned on Doc Fontaine’s boat, which is a lot like this one.”

“And there’s another advantage to this type of fishing, Tony,” Pelayo continued. “Most fish around rigs hang out on the UPcurrent side. We always noticed this while diving. Some studies by LSU marine biologists dropping sonar devices around rigs confirmed it. But when you hook up to a rig you’re usually DOWNcurrent, and on the opposite side of the rig from the bigger concentrations of fish.”

“It ain’t foolproof,” I said. “Because just 50 feet down or below the thermocline the current might be bookin’ in the OPPOSITE direction from the surface current. You never know at these deep rigs. But it’s a good guess.”

“Whatever you guys say,” Tony shrugged.

A rig was looming as Pelayo attached the leaders we’d brought. They amount to HUGE Carolina rigs — 8-ounce sinker above a swivel and 5 feet of 50-pound-test leader mono with a curly No. 4 hook on the end. The rods were Tony’s regular trolling rods. Gotta be big, thick rods to wrestle with AJs.

As usual for this area, the current was kicking. You could see it swirling around the beams as we backed up. Tony and I hooked two mullet through the lips, dropped them in and peeled of 120 feet of line on each rod. Pelayo stood on the bridge watching attentively, hand on the throttle.

“Look THIS way!” I yelled at him as the bait went down. The swine was attentive alright, but focused on the bow.

“Just YELL when you hook up!” he answered.

He finally turned to us, laughing…….. just as I saw Tony’s pole dip.

“WHOOPS!” Tony gasped while tightening his grip and bracing his legs. “I think….?”

Then WHAM! His rod dipped again, banging the gunwale.

“That’s HIM, TONY!!” I whooped while reeling in my line furiously. Pelayo immediately gunned it, and we rumbled away from the rig.

“WHOO!—WHOA!!” Tony had a death grip on the rod, his biceps bulging. He grimaced and bared his teeth. “MAN!!—MAN!!” He gasped. “THIS THING…..This SUCKER!!” He tried reeling, but it was hopeless. The brute was still stripping out line.

“Hang ON, Tony!” Pelayo bellowed from the bridge.

But Tony was slowly sliding toward the stern, his sneakers wouldn’t hold on the slick floor as the bucking brute on the end of the line made for the bottom — 565 feet down, according to the depth finder.

“Oooh-ooooh!” Some female squeals jerked my head around. The gals had heard the ruckus, and were coming around the cabin from the bow. In all the excitement they’d neglected their beach wraps.

“YEEEAAY!..Get ’em Tony!” Connie yelled. “OOOOH! Don’t go overboard Tony, my BABY!”

And she ran up and grabbed him in a spoon grip from behind, her body tight against his.

I was losing it. “NO!” Tony yelled over his shoulder. “Not NOW, Connie! I gotta!..I gotta….!” And he kept grimacing and pumping away at the reel. “AHH!” he gasped. “Think I finally turned him!”

Connie let go and backed off a few feet, looking over excitedly and clapping her hands.

Five minutes later, I reached down with one of those HUMONGOUS landing nets (Tony says they cut down on the gore staining his boat) and heaved the AJ aboard, about a 40-pounder. Not bad.

“Big hammerhead!” Pelayo suddenly yelled from the bridge. We looked up, and he was pointing to the left. “Musta followed the AJ!”

Tony dropped his rod and ran in the cabin.

Pelayo and I looked at each other and shrugged. What the…? The girls nodded at each other knowingly. Suddenly Tony burst from the cabin and started clambering to the bridge while holding a…a. rifle? Yes, a gun of some kind, looked like an AK47!

He got on the bridge pushed Pelayo aside and bellowed: “SAY HA-LO TO MY LITTLE FRIEND!!” while jamming in a banana clip!

“NO!” I screeched. “NOT HERE, TONY!!”

“Not here, MAN!” Pelayo yelled while grabbing Tony’s shoulder. “Not by a rig! We can have plenty of fun with that thing over the open water later.”

The next fish was — surprisingly — a grouper of about 25 pounds. Then came Connie’s AJ. Tony was happy to clamp on from behind to prevent her from being dragged overboard by the brute.

Ten minutes later, when Sheila hooked hers she squealed and looked over her shoulder for that same measure of security. I looked over at Tony and shrugged helplessly.