It was a quick, one-minute homemade fishing video my friend Capt. Greg Hildreth made the other day off St. Simons Island, Ga.
He had a charter fishing trip with anglers Jeff Smith and Floyd Robbins of Savannah. The target was Atlantic spadefish, which have jammed reefs and wrecks in recent weeks off Southeast Georgia and Northeast Florida.
Greg had chummed a huge school of spadefish (sometimes incorrectly called angelfish) beside his boat using a softball-size cannonball jellyfish (jelly ball) slipped onto a cord fish stringer. The water was clear as vodka, and the fish were in a frenzy munching on the jellyfish at the surface.
Greg was seated on his 20-foot bayskiff gunnel as the action was recorded. Hildreth slowly leaned over boatside, and with a two-handed, slow-motion grab, simply picked up one of the spadefish — a chunky 6-pounder. As he lifted the fish above the water, the spadefish pulled up the jelly ball it was chewing — refusing to let go of its meal.
As Greg raised the spadefish in his hands, and the jellyfish came topside with it, several other spadefish moved up and out of the water as well — refusing to let go of the clear-brown-rust-colored jelly ball.
It was incredible, and none of the fish struggled or fought against Greg as they were raised out of the water with the jellyfish.
Greg then eased the fish and jelly ball back into the Atlantic. Then he repeated the process again.
The 53-second video (see it at www.facebook.com/GeorgiaCharterFishing) is stunning, remarkable considering these are completely wild, ocean-roaming sportfish, which likely is why they are so completely oblivious to man and his wily ways.
The fish were so focused on feeding on the jelly ball, that Smith made some remarkable photos of the school with an underwater still camera, too.
“I’ve been chumming and catching spadefish for years, and they get so completely focused on feeding on jellyfish I figured I could just reach over carefully and pick one up,” said Hildreth. “I tried it, and it was a snap. You can’t do that every day. But when spadefish are hungry, and in big schools beside the boat, it’s pretty easy to do.”
“Come fishing with Greg Hildreth, and leave your tackle at home,” says Jeff Smith on the Facebook video, which is one of the funniest quips I’ve heard in a while.
While grabbing or “noodling” for spadefish may be simple and fun-to-do at times, catching spadefish on rod and reel is more practical and surely more sporting. The deep body, thick fish fight extremely well on light trout or redfish type tackle, and when they are abundant (as they are now), they afford excellent family fishing fun.
They’re great on a dinner plate, too, with firm white flesh that Jeff Smith likens to dolphin. Fried, broiled, grilled or made into ceviche, they are wonderful table fare.
Hildreth uses 14-pound test braided line, with a 4-foot length of 20-pound fluorocarbon leader. They have no sharp teeth, so cutoffs are rare. A size 1 or 1/0 heavy wire hook is used, and a small piece of cut jellyfish is preferred bait. Hide the hook in the jelly bait strip, and drop the bait to fish when they start chewing on a jelly ball placed overboard as chum.
Jellyfish usually are easily found as anglers head offshore for a day of spadefish action. Jelly balls are seen at the surface and are quickly dip netted. Hildreth likes to have a couple dozen jellyfish for a day of spadefishing.
Right now, spadefish are holding over wrecks, reefs and hard-bottom areas from Daytona Beach to Savannah. Hildreth has been targeting artificial reefs A, F and C off St. Simons and Cumberland islands. Fish also are covering most reefs in 40 to 90 feet of water off Mayport and St. Augustine.
Often spadefish just rise to the surface when a boat shows over a reef or wreck. Jelly balls are placed overboard, fish begin feeding, and the fun catching begins. Sometimes, however, spadefish are deep, and must be attracted topside where they can be seen and caught with ease.
One way to get deep spadefish up is to use a coat-hanger rig with jelly balls. Unwrap and straighten a coat hanger, then slide a 10- to 16-ounce bank sinker onto the wire. Next, string several jelly balls onto the coat hanger. Bring the wire ends together to form a circle, then make a quick twist in the wire ends to keep the jellyfish and sinker from coming off.
Attach a stout boat rod outfit to the coat hanger with a sturdy snap swivel, then lower the jelly balls overboard to a deep reef or wreck. You’ll feel spadefish start feeding on the jellyfish, then reel slowly to the surface. The spadefish school should follow, and the fishing fun begins.
There are no recreational angling restrictions on size or limit for spadefish harvest. But Hildreth limits his anglers to 8 or 10 fish per day, which is about all anyone wants to clean after a day on the water.
“This a great little sportfish, and to preserve the resource, anglers have got to use some restraint in what they take home,” he says.