I don’t know why I had a big, yellow bucktail jig in my tackle box. It must have been something I found or was included in a tackle assortment I came to own one way or another. It was way bigger than anything I’d need for fishing around this area but it seemed just right when I tied it on and cast it out into the ocean.
Is the nearshore water at Panama City, Florida the “ocean?” It is the Gulf of Mexico and it’s salt water, so to a 14 or15 year old Hoosier-kid who had never been within 500 miles of any kind of seacoast previously, it was close enough.
I’m certain the rod and reel combo I was using wasn’t suitable for most of the fish I could have hooked, but the well used Zebco 33 and limber rod I was holding had bested every fish I’d ever hooked up with in Indiana and it was the only outfit I owned. So zing – out went the big, yellow leadhead. It cast like a cannonball shot from shoreline fortification.
Halfway through my first, or third or fifth retrieve – I don’t remember exactly, but it wasn’t long – a fish bit the lure and I was hooked to a denizen of the deep. What kind of fish, I didn’t have clue. Thoughts of shark, tarpon, bonefish, marlin and others ran through my head as the fish stretched my line like nothing I’d ever hooked in the Iroquois River.
Even when I pulled it near I didn’t know what kind of fish it was. With a wide body, steel-gray flanks and yellow tinged fins and tail shaped like narrow knife blades, it looked like a fish that belonged in the ocean. I’d read enough Sports Afields to know it wasn’t a shark, tarpon, bonefish or other salty gamester featured in those magazine stories. I do know I was surprised it wasn’t the largest fish I’d ever caught. It probably weighed a couple pounds.
Still, it pulled ten times harder than any two-pound bass, pike, carp or catfish I’d ever hooked. The line held, my reel held up and in short order, I was as hooked on saltwater fishing as that jack cravalle was hooked to my yellow jig.
Now, I can say I’ve caught shark, tarpon, bonefish and many other saltwater gamesters. But the first was a “jack.”
Jack cravalle are likely the first saltwater fish many anglers hook. Most likely, like mine, the fish are quickly released, maybe even cursed, a little. Few people go out strictly trying to catch jacks but the species is widespread and haunts a variety of habitats. Jacks snarf up lures or baits angled in search of snook, tarpon, permit and other game fish and for many guides and fishermen are more a bother than a trophy.
I suppose if a person is spending time and treasure to catch a tarpon and a parade of jacks keep crashing the party it can be frustrating. It’s happened to me, but I kept my lack of frustration to myself. Those jacks pulled just as hard or harder than the elusive tarpon we were trying to catch and were much more willing to bite. No one eats tarpon and few people eat jack cravalle so it wasn’t like whatever we caught was destined for dinner.
So recently when I was at Sebastian Inlet on Florida’s Atlantic coast, fishing with a “snook specialist” and found myself straining to remove a jack cravalle from the ocean, my snooky friend was disappointed.
“Waste of bait,” he mumbled.
I didn’t agree. I just concentrated on not having the rod pulled out of my hands. Even with 20-pound line on the reel and a tight drag, the fish was having its way with the gear for the first five minutes after being hooked. The next five minutes was a stand-off and then I finally worked it close enough to be able to grab the leader and then just forward of its tail to lift it out of the sea.
“Put me on another one of those,” I told Capt. Eric.
He mumbled something in the back of the boat. Probably something about crazy Hoosier kids not showing the proper disrespect for Mr. Jack.