An Angler’s Guide to Amberjack

If you’re spoiling for a fight, these six members of the amberjack clan will gladly oblige.
Schooling amberjack eating chum
Chum heavily and schooling amberjack will rise to the surface, offering light-tackle opportunities to anglers on boats. Large AJs hooked in the depths are a gamble, often leading to break-offs on nearby high-relief structure. Jason Arnold

While Seriola might sound like an ­elfin character from Lord of the Rings, it actually refers to members of a ­genus of gamefish. Anglers know its species to be popular, aggressive, accessible, large, tasty and, above all, true brutes of the seas. The Seriola jacks—sometimes placed under the umbrella term “amberjack”—are among the most important fish for saltwater anglers around the world. 

There’s little debate among anglers anywhere that the term “quit” has little bearing for amberjack and their relatives. The damn things never give up and never give in. “They’re simply incredible fighters,” says Capt. Eric Newman of Journey South Outfitters in Venice, Louisiana—a man who has caught more AJs and almaco jacks than most and guided numerous (subsequently sore) anglers to a great many more. 

What explains the ability of Seriolas to fight so tenaciously? “All carangids are a group of high-performance piscivores,” says renowned fish biologist Ben Diggles of Australia, speaking of the family Carangidae (jacks and trevallies). Diggles cites specific physiology that helps account for the strength of amberjack and their kin: large gill-surface areas, high cardiac volume, streamlined shape, high-aspect-ratio tails and great eyesight. “They’re natural torpedoes,” he says.

Newman points out that these species don’t seem to suffer from barotrauma, so they can be released even when hooked deep. Diggles echoes that statement, noting, “Seriolas can swim a couple of hundred yards up and down the water column at will, with no apparent ill effect—a very useful adaptation for a predator.”

As a group, Seriolas are fish of tropical and temperate waters, with representation in all oceans. In total, nine species comprise the genus. While most are well-known, at least regionally, some remain fairly obscure, in some cases limited to rather small areas. Many anglers are unaware of various members of this important group. Distinguishing among some of the species can be rather tricky. 

Here’s an angler’s look at amberjack and five other major players in the Seriola clan. 

Greater Amberjack

IGFA all-tackle world record: 163 pounds, 2 ounces, caught on a squid off Tokyo in June 2015. 

Within the Seriola group, the ­greater amberjack is king. It grows the largest and is most widespread, found around much of the world. That means the species occurs throughout the western and much of the eastern Atlantic, including the Mediterranean, and the far Pacific and Indo-Pacific oceans, plus the central Pacific and parts of the eastern Pacific. 

Its size makes the greater amberjack (Seriola dumerili) the largest of all jacks, though the giant trevally runs a close second. The 150-plus-pound AJs in record books are from Japan or Bermuda.

Identifying the greater AJ, besides the characteristic color and markings, involves the body shape; it’s the most elongate and slender of the larger Seriolas that inhabit the same areas and has seven distinct (countable) spines in its first dorsal fin. Also, its supermaxilla (the flap extending back from the top jaw) has a distinct curve upward under the middle of the eye. The ability to distinguish the greater AJ from similar species is particularly important where species-specific harvest and size regulations apply.

As for habitat preferred by AJs, large structures in 50 to 350 feet are primo; often schools of the big brutes will hang just above wrecks and high-relief reefs. They’re always on the alert and quick to grab pretty much anything that moves. But savvy skippers with good electronics, satellite-based dynamic positioning, and a well full of live baits are often able to coax AJs to or near the surface. These anglers can enjoy these fish at their best, using large flies, poppers and stickbaits. The action offers full-stop visual chaos. When bringing a hooked AJ to a boat, it’s a common sight to see several others right on its heels. 

Trolling large deep-diving minnow lures also works well for AJs, as Capt. Greg Peralta of Daniel Island, South Carolina, has found. He’s caught them to 100 pounds or so while trolling the 30-fathom curve.

While fishing regulations vary across the globe, many minimally restrict the harvest of amberjack. But in the Southeast US (Atlantic and Gulf), the species is tightly regulated. Some argue it’s too little, too late. “I can remember when AJs here in the Keys averaged 50 to 60 pounds,” says Capt. Richard Stanczyk at Bud N’ Mary’s Fishing Marina in Islamorada. “But in the 1980s, the commercial guys really devastated ’em. Now the average is down probably to 30 pounds.”

“Nothing has the stamina [when hooked] of an amberjack,” says Shimano’s Blaine Anderson, who catches his share off Charleston, South Carolina. “The amberjack does not quit—ever,” he says, recalling the epic battle he watched between Shimano USA President Dave Pfeiffer and a 115-pounder. I learned of their power the hard way in high school, after hooking a big AJ on a headboat off Miami with heavy spinning gear. While doing my best to budge the monster up from deep water, something in my left knee gave. It buckled, sending me crashing to the deck. Eventually, I caught and released the fish, but I was limping for a week.

Despite their memorable fight when hooked, not all anglers want to catch amberjack. The fact is, few American anglers get excited about eating AJ. The meat is most certainly edible. In fact, I rate little AJs as mild and very good, and the small ones generally don’t harbor a lot of “spaghetti worms” (tapeworms) in the meat. Granted, you can cook those worms with the flesh and consume them without harm, but they render the whole idea of eating AJ as less than appetizing. Western Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico AJs have been implicated in ciguatera poisonings. But in some areas, typically Asian waters, anglers hold amberjack for the ­table in much higher esteem.

Almaco Jack

IGFA all-tackle world record: 132 pounds, caught on a mullet off La Paz, Mexico, in July 1964.

Almaco jacks (Seriola rivoliana) certainly resemble amberjack but are deeper-­bodied (not so elongate). The most telling feature is the second dorsal fin (the high fin with soft rays behind the smaller spiny first dorsal). That second dorsal is higher than the first dorsal in AJs, but it is notably taller in almaco jacks, at least twice as high as the first dorsal.

Like the AJ, almacos occur in most of the world’s tropical and some temperate waters. They’re fond of outer reef slopes and offshore reefs and banks, often found in schools to depths of at least 400 feet. Juvenile almacos are often seen far offshore around floating weed or objects. Like amberjack, almacos are aggressive predators, eagerly attacking bait, speed and slow-pitch jigs, and large leadheads with plastic tails.

Unlike the AJ, almacos are widely considered excellent eating, which is interesting because S. rivoliana so ­closely ­resembles S. dumerili. Anglers who can’t distinguish the two species probably throw back most almacos they catch. In fact, since the almaco is hardy, grows quickly and has a strong market ­value, it’s been a prime candidate for aquaculture. Blue Ocean Mariculture started producing hatchery reared almacos in submersible pens off Kona in 2005, marketing the sushi-­grade produce as Hawaiian kanpachi.

Samson fish
This samson fish looks much like an amberjack, but has a deeper body and a steeper forehead. Found mostly in southern Australia, these brutish jacks also don’t experience barotrauma, making them great options for catch-and-release fishing. Jamie Crawford

Samson Fish

IGFA all-tackle world record: 80 pounds, 7 ounces, caught on bait off Cape Naturaliste, Western Australia, in January 1993.

If you haven’t heard of the samson fish (Seriola hippos), don’t feel bad. Unlike the wide-ranging AJ and almaco, samson fish remain limited to a small area along southern Australia, with some spilling over to New Zealand waters. While the samson (aka “sambo” for Aussies) is clearly a close cousin to the AJ, it is ­notably deeper-bodied and has a steeper head profile. Samsons prefer coastal ­areas and habitats, similar to amberjack and ­almacos, and are also fast-growing, ­reaching 2 feet in just two years.

Samson fish have become ­increasingly popular in southern Australia in recent years, as anglers have faced increasing restrictions on other popular species. Their numbers have not suffered because S. hippos is not a major commercial target. Also, most are released because “edible but not choice” fairly well sums up the attitude of anglers in their range who find their flesh less than delicious. 

But anglers target them, commonly using berley (chum) to bring them to the surface, where they’ll hit bait, lures and flies. They carry the Seriola reputation as true brutes when hooked. And like their cousins, samsons can range from deep to shallow water without suffering the debilitating effects of barotrauma. This is thanks to small tubes that lead into the gill area through which excess gases that form when a fish ascends rapidly from the depths can escape. 

Large yellowtail
Yellowtails don’t grow as large as AJs, but their excellent taste more than makes up for it. Catching them is great sport; they readily hit topwaters and metal jigs with fury and will often follow a hooked fish back to the boat. Al McGlashan

Yellowtail Amberjack 

How many species of yellowtail (Seriola lalandi) are there? Previously, sources listed two or three separate species of yellowtail, with lalandi being one. But most authoritative sources now cite lalandi as a single species. Experts suggest three separate subspecies: California, southern and Asian. Visually distinguishing between  each subspecies is unlikely; rather, the subspecies distinctions are based on their geographical separation from one another. 

For the purposes of its records, the IGFA puts the single species into two categories: California yellowtail (from the eastern Pacific and Asia) and southern yellowtail (from the southern Atlantic, South Africa and Australasia).

California Yellowtail

IGFA all-tackle record: 109 pounds, 2 ounces, caught off Chiba, Japan, in 2009.

Southern Yellowtail

IGFA all-tackle record: A tie at 114 pounds, 10 ounces; one caught off New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty and the other near White Island in 1984 and 1987, respectively. (In the western Pacific, yellowtails are widely called kingfish, yellowtail kingfish or kingies. It’s worth noting that virtually all yellowtail line-class and fly-rod records are from New Zealand.)

Wherever they’re caught, yellowtails share the characteristic streamlined shape of the amberjack, but are distinguished by the eponymous yellow tail and yellow or brassy stripe that runs the length of the fish along the middle of each side. Yellowtails are coastal predators, though California yellowtail can be found far offshore around floating kelp paddies. Yellowtails will enter estuaries to feed, but are also taken over deep reefs. 

Thanks to their generally recognized fine edibility, yellowtails are heavily targeted throughout their range. Small “firecrackers” to 30-pounders are numerous; those of 40 to 50 pounds are considered trophy size. Given their similarity to the AJ, there should be little surprise at their reputation as ferocious fighters when hooked. Like almacos, yellowtails have outstanding attributes for aquaculturing; they’re hardy, grow fast and are fine-­eating. Pacific Ocean Farms is working for approval of a major facility 4 miles off San Diego, where the firm hopes to grow up to 11 million pounds of the species annually.

Throughout their range, yellowtails are taken on live baits and jigs. One tactic that jig anglers employ calls for dropping a metal jig (“fishing iron,” in Southern California parlance) to the bottom or down into the zone where yellowtails are holding, then simply cranking it back to the surface at the fastest possible speed.

Banded Rudderfish

IGFA all-tackle world record: 5 pounds, caught on bait in Key West in April 2015.

Any species of Seriola weighing into double digits is likely too big to be a banded rudderfish (Seriola zonata). Adults are lighter in color than AJs and can have a bluish sheen. Unlike AJ and almaco, which have seven distinct dorsal spines, rudders have eight. Their tail fins are tipped with white. Finally, only rudderfish have a bony keel on each side near the tail. As juveniles, rudderfish are unmistakable, with two white and six dark, clearly defined bands on each side.  

These smallest of the Seriolas are found in the western Atlantic from Maine to southern Brazil. Rudderfish favor waters somewhat shallower than other Seriolas, usually over hard bottom, with adults often traveling in schools. When young, they associate with weed lines and floating debris. They’re considered excellent eating.

In Florida waters, a slot limit for both banded rudderfish and lesser amberjack makes it legal to harvest only those 14 to 22 inches in fork length, and a daily bag limit allows five per person of either ­species or combined in total. 

Angler with record amberjack
Amberjack are fun to catch, from the smallest ones to record setters. Courtesy IGFA

Fortune Jack

IGFA all-tackle world record: 25 pounds, 2 ounces, caught on a speed jig from Zorrito, Peru, in March 2021.

Fortune jacks (Seriola peruana) are often considered small amberjack, though they’re different at a glance from AJs and almacos, lacking stripes or bars in the head, with uniformly silvery bodies and reddish fins. They’re found in the eastern Pacific from Mexico to Ecuador, where they patrol shallow waters, typically out to 100 to 200 feet. Little is known about the species, though anglers know they strike and fight with the heart and soul of any Seriola jack and are huge fun on light tackle. They’re also considered ­excellent eating. 

Lesser amberjack
There are a few “obscure” amberjack, the lesser amberjack is one of them. Diane Rome Peebles

The Obscure Ones

Three other species of Seriola occur in the world’s oceans, though most anglers aren’t familiar with them.

Lesser Amberjack (S. fasciata, above): So far, no IGFA all-tackle entry, largely because they’re tough to distinguish from greater amberjack, at least without a quick inspection of the first dorsal to count the spines. Also, the eye is larger in lessers. They’re found in the western Atlantic, including coastal waters in the Gulf of Mexico, often as deep as 400 feet.

Japanese Amberjack (S. quinqueradiata): Often called buri, the IGFA record is 48 pounds, 11 ounces, from Japan in December 2005. This species ranges from the waters of Japan and Korea east to Hawaii. While they resemble other Seriolas, the end of the upper jaw is relatively short and more square. Japanese anglers place great value on buri as gamefish.

Guinean Amberjack (S. carpenteri): No IGFA record to date; the maximum recorded length per FishBase is just under 30 inches. They’re found in the coastal waters of the eastern Atlantic, along the north and central African coast. They resemble little deep-bodied almacos, with a high second dorsal fin and a distinct dark bar running diagonally through the eye. Adults school in middepths or near bottom. Some sources rate their edibility as excellent.