The "wow" factor.
A fish with a veracious appetite, smoking speed and brute strength screams "Wow." Add easy accessibility, vivid surface strikes and a street-fighter attitude and the wow factor goes off the charts.
Enter the crevalle jack, or more commonly, "jack." They visit the Calibogue Sound between Hilton Head Island and the mainland every summer and draw a collective "wow" from fishermen who encounter them.
Capt. Brian Vaughn of Off the Hook Charters in Hilton Head is one such admirer."Pound for pound, they are one of the hardest-fighting gamefish out there; (they) are usually spotted on the surface tailing in large schools or feeding in a frenzy on schools of baitfish.... There is nothing like casting a large topwater plug on a spinning rod or a big popper on a fly rod and watching several fish fight over it and one inhale it (into) a bucket-sized mouth on the surface,"
Jacks travel north from tropical waters and start to show in the Calibogue Sound in late June when the water temperature gets into the 80s, and hang around until mid-October - the same basic migratory pattern as tarpon, another great sportfish that brings nothing to the dinner table. The earliest Vaughn has ever caught a jack in Calibogue Sound was June 10, and the latest was Nov. 8.
While found up and down the South Carolina coast, Calibogue Sound likely has the highest concentrations of big jacks close to shore; Vaughn has even managed to catch them from his stand-up paddle board. The ability to fish from smaller craft gives inshore anglers the chance to experience action normally reserved for only offshore anglers.
This doesn't mean that finding jacks is always an easy task. Jacks stay on the move, so they rarely stay in one area for too long.
"One of the most challenging things about jacks is finding them," Vaughn said.
The mouth of the sound, as well as the mouth of rivers and creeks that dump into it are good places to focus on, and calm days make finding jacks a much easier task.
"I like to look for are their forked-shaped tails that look like chopsticks swimming around on a slick calm day, the V-wake they push when swimming right below the surface or a large dark spot just under the water," said Vaughn, who is most- excited about one particular way of locating jacks. "The most unbelievable way to spot them is when they are in a feeding frenzy that may only last for a few seconds or as long as several minutes."
Jacks are hefty fish; in the Calibogue Sound, they average 15 to 30 pounds, with some bruisers even larger. Vaughn's largest jack weighed 30 pounds, just shy of the 40-pound state record that he is determined to break.
Big fish means big tackle; medium to heavy action spinning rods and reels loaded with at least 200 yards of 20- to 30-pound mono or braid and 10- to 12-weight fly rods with large-arbor reels and at least 200 yards of backing are needed to get the job done. Wire leaders are not needed for jacks, but 40- to 60-pound shock leaders are because jacks have abrasive mouths that can wear through lighter lines.
Jacks are not picky, and artificial lures and flies are favorites of anglers targeting them, but larger-profile live baits like menhaden are a great option as well on 5/0 to 7/0 circle hooks. For cruising fish, a presentation that puts the lure or bait in their path of travel is sure to get their attention, but when in frenzy, all that's required is an offering thrown amongst the chaos.
"I prefer to throw a large topwater plug or popper fly that will make a lot of noise and displace a lot of water, because when retrieved, it really helps get the attention of the jacks and draw them to strike," Vaughn said.
Built for power and speed, jacks have tall, slim bodies and pronounced forked tails, resulting in strong, bursting long runs at the start of a fight followed by a back-breaking straight up-and-down battle. Keeping steady pressure on the fish and not allowing any slack in the line will greatly reduce the chance of a jack shaking the hook; once the jack starts swimming in tight circles, it is nearly ready for landing.
"Almost all of my clients that have caught their first jack are amazed by their power and blown away by their size," Vaughn said. "I have also had a lot of people on board who have caught jacks in other places, such as Florida, but never as big as the ones we have here in the Lowcountry."
Jacks are often described as having zero food value, a rating even lower than that of the stingray, shark and bluefish, but that shouldn't keep fishermen from targeting them. Thanks to the mentality of catch-and-release, what was once considered trash is now firmly in the treasure category: -hard-fighting, heart pumping, treasure. If the goal at the end of the day is dinner, than one of the hundreds of restaurants to choose from on Hilton Head will do just fine to satisfy the appetite battling a jack builds up.
WHERE TO GO/HOW TO GET THERE - Three public landings provide excellent access to the Calibogue Sound: the Cross Island Boat Landing on Cross Island Parkway off SC 278, the C.C. Haigh Jr. Boat Landing off SC 278 on Pinckney Island and the Alljoy Boat Landing at the end of Alljoy Road in Bluffton on the May River. Once on the water, keep an eye out for diving birds - a dead giveaway that something is happening below the surface. Also, search around the mouth of the sound or anywhere large flows dump into the sound.
WHEN TO GO - Jacks start to show up in the Calibogue Sound in June and hang around until October. They thrive in areas where the water temperature is firmly in the 80s. Days with little or no wind and bright skies make locating jacks much easier for fishermen.
TACKLE/TECHNIQUES - Medium to medium-heavy rods in 7-foot lengths are preferred, and those with softer tips allow casting of topwater baits. Reels should hold at least 200 yards of 40-to 60-pound braid or 20- to 30-pound mono. The most aggressive strikes come on big poppers and other topwater plugs 5 to 7 inches long that move a lot of water. If fishing live bait, a big menhaden or similar-sized bait on a 5/0 to 7/0 circle hook is needed. Stout gear is needed for fly fishing to cast large poppers or streamers in the 3/0 to 5/0 range and handle extremely hard-fighting fish. Rods in 9-foot lengths, in 10- to 12-weights with floating fly lines and 6- to 8-foot leaders of 20- to 30-pound test and at least 200 yards of 30-pound backing on a disk-drag reel will get the job done. Shock tippets of 40- to 60-pound are needed to stand up to a jack's abrasive mouth.
GUIDES/FISHING INFO - Capt. Brian Vaughn, Off The Hook Charters, Hilton Head Island, 843-298-4376, www.offthehookcharters.com; Capt. Fuzzy Davis, Hilton Head Island, 912-547-1464; Southern Drawl Outfitters, Bluffton, 843-705-6010. See also Guides & Charters in Classifieds.
ACCOMMODATIONS - Hilton Head Visitors and Convention Bureau, 800-523-3373, www.hiltonheadisland.org.
MAPS - Capt. Segull's Nautical Charts, 888-473-4855, www.captainsegullcharts.com.