Gary Graham – ROAD TREKKER

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Wednesday, April 17, 2019
It’s all about the kids
Wednesday, May 15, 2019
Rooster Fever

Don’t know Jack?
“Gary, have you ever tried to explain that amberjacks are extremely rare in Baja? All the fish being identified as amberjacks recently are really Almaco jacks,” Steve Crooke texted.

Retired from the California Department of Fish and Game after 38 years, Crooke had been involved with the live bait fleet (commercial mackerel/sardine fleet), the rockfish life history program, Ocean Resources Enhancement and Hatchery Program and recreational angler catch program; he also co-chaired the Highly Migratory Species Plan Development Team for the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

ONCE THE FLY reached the bottom, two or three abrupt strips would usually produce a strike, resulting in an intense battle on the 14-weight fly rod and a cherished photo-op for the excited angler.

Currently, he is the Scientific Adviser for the Sportfishing Association of California (SAC), providing biological assistance for both state and federally managed fisheries, and he is my “go-to” guy whenever I have a marine life question. He has never steered me wrong.

His recent question reminded me of my first encounter with the Almaco jack.

In the late ’80s, Greg, our oldest son, was working aboard the sportfisher War Eagle, owned by Bob and Diana Hampton. They were planning a trip to Revillagigedo Archipelago, about 250 miles south of Cabo San Lucas, four islands of volcanic origin: Socorro, Clarion, San Benedicto and Roca Partida.

Yvonne and I were invited to tag along, and a few weeks later we were trolling down-swell, south, aboard their Hatteras. Our trip was punctuated by frequent billfish, dorado and yellowfin tuna strikes during the day.

As we often did on these ventures, Yvonne and I volunteered to take the “graveyard watch” to enjoy the solitude and the extraordinary star-filled sky together.

As the islands in the distance came into view, the wahoo bite was astonishing. Multiple strikes repeatedly stopped us. It was crazy! By the time we neared the island chain, we were limited out; the fish hold, the on-deck freezers, as well as the ice chests, were plugged with wahoo filets.

You’ve heard of fish jumping in the boat? If a spinning rod with a free-swinging lure was left dangling in one of the rod holders, a wahoo literally impaled itself on it as it leaped 10 feet in the air.

One afternoon, we anchored in the bay near the naval station in about 60 feet of water. As dusk turned to dark after dinner, I pinned on a caballito and dropped it down to the bottom. Within minutes, I was hooked up to something solid and stubborn. It wouldn’t budge. One by one everyone went to bed, and throughout the night I continued my battle alone struggling with many unknown adversaries who either managed to rock me or break off without ever showing themselves.

THE FOLLOWING ALMACO Jack, Seriola rivoliana were caught at East Cape, Baja California Sur, Mexico: Note the stripe through the eye on this freshly-caught fish.

My frustration spawned determination, and finally, shortly after dawn, I brought an Almaco jack to the boat on its side.

I awakened Greg, sleeping on the bridge, who gaffed the 30- to 40-pound fish for me.

According to Crooke, the easiest way to differentiate between the two species of fish is by the height of the dorsal fin, which is twice as high, and the number of gill rakers on the Almaco jack. The first is easy and so is the second if you can count. If there are 18 or 19 gill rakers, use the dorsal fin method to be certain.

Almaco jacks are much more robust, shorter and stockier in the body, plus they feature a dark bar that extends through the eye to the base of the dorsal. The few amberjack Crooke has seen traveled down the Mexican coast and to the south. He did count a few gill rakers to be sure.

My next encounter with Almaco jacks, in quantity, was several years ago at East Cape on a ridge approximately 70 feet deep below Los Frailes.

Visiting fly fishers were finding it difficult to cast the heavy tackle trying to land these brutes that had gathered along the ridge.

As their guides who were familiar with the area, we instructed them that the heavier tackle was needed to land these fish.

Instead of making long casts, we had them cast as far as they could and then shake out the rest of the weighted fly line. Once the fly reached the bottom, two or three abrupt strips would usually produce a strike, resulting in an intense battle on the 14-weight fly rod and a cherished photo-op for the excited angler.

Seldom targeted, the Amalco jack has seemed to make a resurgence this season already. And now that Crooke has helped straighten out the name thing, you will know Jack when you catch one!

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