AJ versus Goliath

(That is Amber, btw)

January 14, 2017

I didn't expect to be writing to you in January.  In fact, I don't think I've been offshore (or inshore) fishing in January.  Why?  Because its typically very cold, foggy and windy.  But the forecast calls for 82 degrees and calm.  Once again, I'll state that I'm a fan of global warming.

I'm ready to fish.  But then again, I'm always ready to fish.

My family is gone this weekend to Atlanta, so considering the fantastic forecast, I emailed a few friends to see if they could meet me at the Panacea coast for the weekend.  We had a few adult beverages at Mad Anthony's Friday night. Sam also brought some fresh, raw oysters, so that night we dug into them at the Crak Shak.  Who knew he was a "master-shucker"?  That guy can shuck oysters as fast as you eat them.  And OMG, were they good:

Captain Hook

Sam - The "master-shucker" 

Captain Hook
Hanging out by the fire on the deck, eating chilled, fresh, raw oysters right out of the cooler.  No idea what they're doing with the whole "finger" thing.  Neither do they though.

So that's how the weekend started Friday night...  Not bad.

The next morning, Joe and JJ (Joe Jr) meet us at the dock.  The guys at the dock told me that if we were going to head out, we would have to leave early (7:30 a.m.) because low tide was scheduled at 9:51 a.m.  Well heck, I've left the channel at low tide before. So what!  Well, guess what?  Low tide in January is much lower than low tide in June.  In addition to that, there was a full moon last night. So it is a SEVERE low tide.  Several places in the channel are only three feet deep.  My boat drafts exactly three feet.  Uh oh.

Well, for reasons I won't go into, we didn't get up early.  (Too many oysters, I suppose).  We leave the dock at 9:15 a.m.  Uh, this could be a bad idea since low tide is in 30 minutes.  Have I also mentioned that the "no see-ums" are wickedly bad, even in January?  If we get stuck, we're going to get chewed up for a few hours by these little gnats until the tide comes in.  If we can't clear the channel (which is 3 miles long to the Gulf), then we're stuck for 3 hours "high and dry" getting eaten up by bugs - and looking very stupid in a big boat mired in mud.  Uh, this is probably a bad idea, but we're committed now - so off we go.  

Holy crap, I've never seen tide this low in Panacea:

We don't get very far when my boat hits bottom (in the channel).  I have both motors trimmed to the point where the propellers are just barely in the water.  The props aren't hitting the bottom - my hull is!  Have I mentioned that my boat is over 5000 pounds?  We skid through the first bottom event but keep going.  I consider getting the boat up on plane.  If I do that, we have a better chance of making it, however the risk is, if we hit bottom hard, we all go flying off the boat, someone dies, and the hull or props, are potentially ruined.  (A three hour tour).  So, I make an "executive decision" to go slow. The last time I made an "executive decision" it didn't turn out so well.

We hit bottom again (in the channel) and start churning up mud.  Damn.  This isn't good.  I need a smaller boat.  :-).  That is the first time I have ever thought that.

We skid off the bottom again and again.  I can tell when I hit bottom because the boat starts fish-tailing left and right out of control.  I can assure you that its a feeling that isn't comforting when its your boat. And here I thought fishing was supposed to "relieve" stress!  I'm anything but relaxed at this point in time.  

However, after 30 minutes, we clear the bay and are in the Gulf of Mexico.  We hit bottom numerous times, but never got truly stuck.  If we had left 30 minutes later, there was no way we would have made it.  If the bottom would have been oysters instead of sand, it would have also been very bad. But we are clear.  Time to haul-boody into deeper waters.  Mental note, don't leave the channel again at low tide in January!

Did I mention that it is a beautiful day?  No fog whatsoever.  Pretty chilly this morning on the water, but clear skies and very calm waters.

We head to V Tower.  During the trip, I note that there is absolutely nobody out here - anywhere.  I don't see any other boats.  Perhaps they are stuck in the channel!

V Tower is approx 40 miles offshore, so it takes about an hour to arrive.  About 5 miles from V, we put out the trolling lines because we are hunting AmberJack.  I know, from experience, that Ambers (get the title reference now?)  often hit these "skirt" lures that we use when trolling:
Officially, they are called "dusters", but we refer to them as "skirts".   Cause, well, you know. My crew does an excellent job of putting out multiple rigs including the outriggers:

Captain Hook
Nice to have experienced crew.

Captain Hook

It doesn't take long and we have "fish on":

Damn.  Definitely not what we are seeking:

Captain Hook

Bonita make great grouper bait, but we aren't bottom fishing on this trip; we are hunting AmberJacks.  
We keep trolling, but we don't get any more bites.  We eventually arrive at V Tower:

Captain Hook

We haven't seen another boat in the entire gulf since we left port.  But these guys were here before we arrived.  Good for them.  We wave and say hello - they wave back.  From a safety perspective, its nice to have company this far out.

As I have said, we are specifically hunting the AJ species, so we don't have any frozen bait on board. We have the remaining spinner reels setup for "jigging".  I learned about jigging last year.  I have had mixed results with these lures, but I have seen people catch AJs with them:

These shown above don't have hooks on them, but we, of course, add those towards the head.  We also call them "blades".  I can't imagine who figured out that AJs would hit these odd lures, but somebody did.  Here is how it goes:  You let the blade lure drift all the way to the bottom, then you yank it up as hard as you can, then let it drift back down again.  You continue this process until something strikes it. Simple as that. In our case, it doesn't take long.  Joe is hooked up first:

Captain Hook

Captain Hook - V Tower

Have I mentioned that AJs are big, strong fish?  If not, well I can assure you that they are.  Their nicknames are "reef donkeys".  The feds changed the rules on these guys last year.  Now, in order to keep them, they have to be 34" long instead of 32".  A 34" inch AJ is, of course, almost three feet long and weighs around 20 pounds.  These guys fight like crazy when hooked.  They also taste very good. They aren't fishy tasting and they have white, flaky meat.  My advice:  Spice them up with blackening seasoning and put them on the grill.

Anyway, it takes Joe about 20 minutes to get him in the boat.  Mike gaffs him and, fantastic, we have a "keeper" AJ in the boat.  It has been awhile since I have had a keeper AJ on my boat.

Great fish Joe!  Nice picture.

Oh, here is Joe Jr., looking fashionable and watching his dad do all the work:

Captain Hook

Seriously, though, Joe Jr was also on fire today.  He caught the largest AJ and I actually lost count as to how many snapper he caught jigging (15 perhaps?):

Captain Hook

We can't keep any of the red snapper, but we would have fish for months if we could.  We caught a LOT of them.  I had no idea that they would also hit these AJ jigs.  I learn something new each time I come out here.

I'm not sure why somebody didn't take a picture of JJ catching his large AJ.  If they did, they didn't send it to me.  I sincerely apologize for that JJ.  You did a great job today.  I don't think I will ever have both JJ and SJ on my boat while we hunt AJs.  Man, that is too complicated even to write.

Within an hour, we had three keeper AJs in the boat:

Captain Hook

No, I didn't actually catch one.  In full disclosure, the one I'm holding is JJ's.  I'm just better looking than he is.  Mike and Sam fish with me a LOT, so I wanted a picture with them.  I didn't do any of the actual hard work, I just drove the boat.

Now, you would think that catching three huge Ambers was the highlight of my day as a Captain, and I must admit, catching those big boys in an hour was VERY exciting and difficult.  However, about the time we got the first AJ hooked up, I looked over at our companion boat and I notice that they also have something very large on one of their rigs.

They start fighting it.

For the next hour, I stay pretty busy moving the boat around as my crew struggles with these big AJs. But while I am maneuvering the vessel to keep the lines away from the hull and the boat away from the tower, I keep glancing over at the other boat.  They are still fighting this damn thing. Every fifteen minutes or so, they switch the pole back and forth between them, because they are getting exhausted. If this is an AJ they have, it is the biggest one I have ever seen.  (Well, haven't yet seen, at least)

After an hour, they still haven't landed it!  It is definitely not a snapper; not an AJ - too big.  I figure it is a large shark.  Pittman fought a 300 pound bull shark like this at K Tower one time.  However, sharks run.  This one doesn't.  In fact, it isn't moving much at all.  If I hadn't seen the pole twitch numerous times, I would swear they have caught bottom - but they haven't.  It is definitely a fish because every now and then they are able to crank the reel a little. These guys are sitting no more than 15 ft from V Tower.  If it is a shark, it would have wrapped itself around the tower by now and broken the line. Cobia run like crazy, but this thing is just sitting down there like a cow.

I'm pretty good at guessing what is on the other end of the line, but in this case, I got nuthin.

They keep fighting.

After an hour and half, it finally surfaces:

What the heck is that?

Captain Hook

Is that a manatee?  Wait, manatees don't have fins like that!  I maneuver my boat closer.

Now, I apologize.  I tried to get my boat as close to this fish as I could for a good photograph, but they were sitting right next to the tower and I didn't want to harm this beast.  I think everyone thought it was a manatee at first, but it isn't, it is a 300-400 pound Goliath Grouper!  Because we remained at a safe distance, the pictures really don't do this fish justice.  This boy is massive!

Now I have never seen a goliath grouper in person, so finally seeing one close-up was somewhat breathtaking. 

The two guys reach down (without gloves on) to remove the hook.  Really guys?

I yell over to them "That fish isn't done - be careful".  And sure enough, just as I say that, the fish whacks his large tail against their boat and heads straight down again.  His tail hitting the boat sounds like a gunshot.  One of the fishermen almost falls out of the boat.

They fight again; the fish re-surfaces.  We manage to take a quick photo at a safe distance.  This time they have gloves on and here is where I give these guys a LOT of credit.  With a large de-hooker, they remove the hook from its mouth.  They don't cut the leader, they actually remove the hook. Then, one of the fishermen smacks the fish three times on the belly, says "thank you" and somehow the fish knows that this is the signal that he is free.  He splashes them both again for good measure and heads back down to the depths.

Okay, that was fricking cool!  And memorable.  

I love it out here.  :-)

About 10 minutes later, I'm pretty sure he hits Sam's line.  After 20 minutes, Sam has made absolutely no progress with this fish.  Once again, it isn't a snapper, it isn't an AJ (too big) and it isn't a shark - it isn't running.  Just sitting there like a cow. It HAS to be this damn Goliath grouper again.  This guy is hungry.  Alas, after 20 minutes, the line breaks.  

Captain Hook

Still, it was very cool.

Joe rounds out the day by catching 20 or 30 more snapper (okay, I am exaggerating some), but he really does catch a ridiculous number of snapper off the stern with some pinfish he brought.  I swear, red snapper are EVERYWHERE out here these days.  I think they will be showing up next to docks soon.

It is getting late, the guys are a little tired (go figure) so we head back for the long trip home.  If you add up ALL the fish we caught including AJs, bonita, and red snapper, that was the most fish we have ever caught in a short amount of time.  150 pounds of fish - easy.

For the ride back, the weather is warm, the seas are completely and eerily calm and most everyone falls asleep.  Well, I don't, but I do have the boat on autopilot for most of the trip, so I definitely enjoy the smooth ride in.

A beautiful and productive day fishing the Gulf of Mexico in January.  Thanks for keeping me entertained for the weekend boys.

Thanks for reading everyone and Happy New Year!

Captain Marc Paul