Rockin' the wrecks

Published March 24, 2007

It's a case of tragedy yielding opportunity. Wrecks from various maritime and aeronautical mishaps litter the Gulf of Mexico bottom, and anglers who learn how to fish them can find a bounty of opportunity.

Common denizens of these briny graveyards include snapper, grouper, cobia, sharks and triggerfish. Without question, though, the title of Gulf wreck tough guy goes to the amberjack.

Built like rodeo bulls and driven by hefty appetites, these deep-water brutes feed aggressively, fight relentlessly and offer firm, mild filets that cook up nicely on the grill or in the smoker. Distinctive features include a large, powerful mouth and dark facial streaks that intensify during feeding aggression.

The good thing about amberjack is that they're pretty open-minded when it comes to dining. Veteran AJ hunters tell of days when the fish get so fired up on a wreck that dropping a piece of white cloth on a hook yields keepers.

It's not always that easy, but there aren't many baitfish that amberjack will refuse. Pinfish, grunts, Spanish sardines and blue runners make fine offerings. And if you can sling a castnet over a load of big pilchards - something AJs rarely see - you can pretty much predict a slam dunk.

The thing to remember with live baits is that their most attractive feature is their frantic fluttering. This produces vibrations and belly flashes that attract predators.

Make sure your bait has plenty of wiggle room by tying 4- to 6-foot leaders. Eighty-pound fluorocarbon connected with a heavy-duty swivel to 60- or 80-pound monofilament does the trick when matched with stout boat rods and 4/0 conventional reels.

Now, the only problem with live baiting is that barracuda - wreck thugs - hold just above the structure. Baits heading down and smaller hooked fish heading up often fall victim to freeloading ambush.

The trick to avoiding these toothy tyrants lies in controlled depth fishing. Downriggers enable you to deploy and present baits precisely where you want them.

Wreck fishermen will idle across the structure to determine where the cudas are hovering and then motor about 50 yards upcurrent to arrange their presentation. With baits set to run below the cuda zone, you can slow troll the wreck or motor drift it by using the engines primarily for positioning.

With twin downriggers, you can set baits at staggered depths. AJs often group by size, so testing different levels will help you determine which ones are feeling froggy.

SOMETHING SHINY: Where AJs abound, no artificial lure can compete with the venerable diamond jig. Simple in design, this elongated piece of polished metal is made to reflect light and imitate the flash and dash of a wounded baitfish. Worked with a high, jerking motion, the diamond jig puts on an irresistible show for anyone who's watching.

Most diamond jigs come standard with a big treble hook, but experienced anglers often replace them with 7/0-12/0 circle hooks. Better latching ability makes circles more effective in deep water.

Now, if AJs are bumping your diamond jig without hooking up, you may need to sweeten the offering by hanging a dead sardine or a piece of squid from the hook. The added aroma will attract more lookers, and the realistic taste makes the fish hold on longer.

However you go about engaging an amberjack, you can count on a battle of epic proportions. Do your back a favor and wear a fighting belt.

Plant the rod butt in the belt's gimbal and use your legs and hips in concert with your arms and shoulders to keep maximum pressure on this powerful fish.

Wrecks often hold AJs of 50 pounds or better, so conserve your strength and let the rod wear down your opponent. AJs have no teeth, but a big fish thrashing on the deck can crack bones, so keep clear until your catch calms down enough for a souvenir photo and a trip to the big chill.

BONUS ROUND: The fact that wrecks harbor loads of baitfish means a high likelihood for traveling predators such as kingfish and blackfin tuna. Deeper spots in 200 feet or more may also see occasional visits from wahoo, dolphin and sailfish.

If you spot any of these offshore gems feeding at the surface - maybe even free-jumping - you might try trolling up some action by deploying a spread of frozen ballyhoo with blue/white, green/yellow or red/black skirts. Bullet head lures with fibrous skirts also work well with ballyhoo.

Often, the best way to capitalize on a wreck's pelagic potential is to simply let the fish come to you. Of course, that requires an element of appeal, and nothing rings the dinner bell like a plump baitfish fluttering all alone at the surface.

If you troll baits on downriggers for AJs, trail a live blue runner or cigar minnow 100 feet or more off the stern. For anchor fishing, feed out the same length and let the baitfish swim freely.

If this "flat line" bait swims erratically or hides under the boat, you can bet something big has been giving him the hairy eyeball.

Experienced charter captains have plenty of wreck coordinates stored in their GPS units. However, Gulf fish and dive charts include the locations of several productive locations. Search around these sites, as wrecks fragment over time and storm-blown pieces create peripheral structures.