However, the Gulf didn’t always provide excellent fishing. Today, many species depend upon thousands of “artificial reefs” established by oil companies off the Louisiana coast. With barnacle-encrusted steel legs and other assorted structure or debris, an oil platform can create incredible habitat.
“Before the oil industry built platforms offshore, the western Gulf of Mexico didn’t have many red snappers,” says Dr. Bob Shipp of the University of South Alabama and author of Guide to Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico. “Before the 1940s, Louisiana had essentially a flat, mud bottom with only a few small hard spots. Texasc and Louisiana had few snappers until the oil industry came in the mid-1940s. There’s a debate on whether artificial reefs and oil platforms attract or actually produce fish, but if an oil platform extends 200 feet from the bottom through the surface, that makes [an] extensive three-dimensional habitat.”
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita destroyed or damaged many platforms in 2005, especially between Grand Isle and the Mississippi River delta and off the Cameron Parish coast. Companies replaced or repaired some platforms but abandoned some structures that continue to attract fish.
Usually, fishing improves a few months after a storm. Powerful storms can clean systems and redistribute fish stocks. They also push fish from deeper waters towards the shore. In addition, storms break up cover, create new reefs and realign contours.
Anglers might not catch 1,000-pounders when they venture off the Louisiana coast, but they could catch enough fish to fill several coolers. They also may not catch the particular species they desire but with so many species swimming in the Gulf of Mexico, they might catch something just about any day of the year.
LOOKING FOR SNAPPERS
“Snappers generally stay pretty close to one spot,” Bob Shipp explains. “Some deep-water pockets are never fished. When a storm comes through, it reshuffles the population by covering old spots with sand or currents push fish to other places.”
To find snappers, anglers start in water about 40 feet deep. Off the Cameron Parish coast, boaters might venture 30 to 40 miles offshore to find snapper waters. Off Grand Isle, they may only go a few miles. Off the Mississippi River delta south of Venice, the water depth can quickly drop to 1,000 feet.
“The shallowest I’ve ever caught red snappers is about 40 feet,” says Capt. Tommy Pellegrin of Custom Charters in Cocodrie. “The deepest is about 400 feet. I’ve caught snapper almost on the surface. Sometimes, they rise to eat chum, pieces of fish or other bait tossed in the water to attract bigger fish. In shallow water, we sometimes use diamond jigs or swimming baits that resemble minnows instead of bait.”
In about 60 feet of water, “Doc” Kennedy landed the all-tackle world record red snapper, a 50.25-pound fish, on June 23, 1996. He caught it near an oil rig in South Timbalier Block 185 south of Fourchon – a “block” equals a nine-square mile chunk of the Gulf of Mexico.
In one of the simplest fishing methods, offshore anglers drop lines baited with squid, menhaden – also known as pogie – or other morsels to the bottom to catch snappers, amberjacks, groupers and other species. Sometimes, people jig spoons or other lures off the bottom. Once in a while “bottom fishermen” can catch the largest fish higher in the water column.
To find the right depth, some people drop a line over the side and count by thousands. Others mark their lines in 10 foot intervals and slowly feed out line, pausing about every 10 seconds to see what hits at that level before continuing to the bottom. Some people drop baits all the way to the bottom and begin slowly retrieving them to find the proper depth. Fish might suspend just off the bottom, near the middle of the water column or even higher.
Trail of the sea wolves
Like ravenous sea wolves, toothy king mackerel roam the Gulf of Mexico looking to devour anything they can catch. They often follow schools of mullets. They migrate from south Florida in the winter to the northern Gulf by spring, remaining there through fall. In the northern Gulf, they spawn from late spring through summer, peaking in mid-summer in the waters over the middle to outer continental shelf. King mackerel may exceed 90 pounds with the state record coming it at 82 pounds.
FIGHTING AN AMBERJACK
In deeper water, bottom fishermen can often catch amberjacks and groupers with snappers. Not flashy fighters, but incredibly powerful, amberjacks hunker down and dare people to pull them off the bottom. Fighting a big amberjack in 200 feet of water can feel like trying to crank in an anvil – an amberjack can weight up to 150 pounds.
“I’ve caught amberjacks in as little as 80 feet of water, but most of the time we start looking for them at about 150 feet,” Pellegrin says. “The optimum depth is probably more in the 200- to 300-foot range. People usually catch 20- to 30-pounders, but there are some monsters in the Gulf. If people want to challenge bigger amberjacks, they can fish in even deeper water.”
For monster amberjacks and giant groupers, use live bait such as small jacks or other fish, attached to heavy tackle. Many people catch their own baitfish by throwing Sabiki rigs: a cluster of tiny flies on light tackle. Both species eat a variety of small jacks, menhaden and other baitfish.
“Divers tell me they’ve seen amberjacks in the 120- to 130-pound range with several hooks hanging out of their mouths,” Pellegrin says. “With the power of an amberjack swimming next to a rig, the chances of landing a 100-pounder are slim. Sometimes, we hook something we can’t move. We call it a UFO: an Unidentified Fishy Object. Usually, that’s a big amberjack or grouper. To catch monster amberjack, use a reel with a welded drag that won’t give. Attach that to an unlimited class rod and fish from a good boat with a good rod holder. Have the captain pull the fish away from the rig with the boat motor.”
After catching limits of bottom dwellers, anglers may try for several other species. Around most offshore platforms, people might also catch spadefish, pompano, triggerfish and other species. For pure sport, test the power of such powerful fighters as bonito, sharks, tarpon, barracudas, blue runners, rainbow runners, Spanish mackerel or several other varieties.
Although people seldom specifically target them, few fish in the Gulf of Mexico fight harder than jack crevalles. Not a very nice tasting fish, they make excellent sport with fast, powerful runs and shocking power. Anglers often see them ravaging baitfish schools as they roam the Gulf and shallow estuaries, devouring anything they see. On Aug. 15, 1997, Leon Richard set the world record for jack crevalle with a 57-pound, 14-ounce lunker he caught while fishing near Southwest Pass off the Mississippi River delta.
Near platforms, many anglers rig drift lines with either live bait or chunks of fish. Without adding extra weight, toss a baited line behind the boat and stick the rod into a holder until something takes the bait. As the bait undulates or swims in the currents, it attracts king mackerel, cobia, barracuda and other large predators. Some people attach live baits to balloon rigs. Drifting with the tides, a balloon acts as a strike indicator and holds the bait near the surface.
Rig Fishing for Mangrove
Sometimes, a particular rig might predominantly hold one species of fish or another. Depending upon currents and other conditions, one corner of a platform might hold the most fish of one species while an opposite corner holds a concentration of different fish. To find the right platform, many captains look for fish or concentrations of bait with electronics. Find the bait, and anglers usually find big predators looking for them.
Mangrove snappers generally hang higher in structure, often feeding right below the surface. In small boats, anglers can sometimes catch them in water 20 to 60 feet deep around near-shore structures off Grand Isle, Venice, East Timbalier Island, Grand Chenier or Johnson Bayou.
Notorious bait stealers, mangroves eat almost anything that swims. Preferring hard structure, they often congregate in the mass of steel under platforms, but come out to sample tidbits in chum lines. Many anglers free-line bait for mangroves with little or no weight or tempt them with Carolina rigs. Mangroves also hit a variety of lures including flies, plastic-tipped jigheads and spoons, especially when swarming in a chum slick. They might even hit an occasional topwater popper.
“For mangroves, my number one bait is a live croaker about 2 to 4 inches long,” Pellegrin says. “Mangroves also eat cut pogies, sardines, cocahoe minnows, squid or finger mullets, but they’re smart enough to be line shy. They won’t bite if the terminal tackle is too large. Fluorocarbon leader is almost a must. Keep the hooks small enough to hide inside bait when chumming. With live bait, it’s obvious you can’t hide a 2/0 hook, but live bait attracts fish on its own.”
ANGLING FOR BIG GAME
Farther out, anglers troll the “blue water” for blue marlin, white marlin, sailfish and dolphin each summer. In southwest Louisiana, anglers might need to travel 70 to 90 miles from Calcasieu Pass to find blue water. Off the Mississippi River delta, anglers might find blue water fairly close to shore. Out of Venice, many anglers go to the edge of the Mississippi Canyon, a deep bottom formation off the delta. South of Lake Charles, anglers troll along the Picket Fence – a cluster of seven seamounts stretching about 12 miles approximately 110 miles south-southeast of Calcasieu Pass. Few people bring marlin or sailfish to port now, preferring to release them alive, but Linda Koerner set the state record in July 1977 with a 1,018-pound blue marlin.
To tempt marlin, tuna and other big game species, many people work drift lines baited with live fish near huge floating platforms anchored off the Louisiana coast. In Mississippi Canyon Block 194 about 13 miles out of the South Pass of the Mississippi River, the Cognac floating platform sits in about 1,023 feet of water. Some other major floating platforms off the Louisiana coast include Lena, Mars, Medusa, the Auger, Little or Big Arco and Ursa.
“We use a lot of live baits but if I had my choice, I’d use flying fish,” says Capt. Scott Avanzino of Paradise Outfitters in Venice. “In the summer, we come up next to floating seaweed in the dark and put a light over the side. Flying fish see the light and swim toward the surface where we catch them in dip nets. In the winter, tuna come up on the continental shelf and feed on pogies, mullets coming out of the marshes and herring.”
In the summer, many anglers also catch big yellowfin or blackfin tuna, cobia, mackerel and other species near anchored shrimp boats. After shrimpers pull in their nets, they often toss bycatch – anything they can’t sell – over the side. Large predators often hang around an anchored shrimp boat waiting for their next handout. Anglers can approach near a shrimp boat and toss chum into the water. Fish think the shrimpers have started to cull their catch again and rise to the bait.
“When shrimpers toss their bycatch over the side, that attracts fish,” Pellegrin says. “Fish can recognize the sound of the nets dragging and diesel engines and have learned that they can get a free meal when they hear that sound. We go behind a shrimp boat and start chumming. A lot of bonito come up. Bonito feel secure under the shrimp boat. After we drift off, tuna arrive. The farther away from the shrimp boat, the more blackfin or yellowfin tuna show up.”
For chumming, toss in enough oily fish chunks to keep tuna interested near the surface but not enough to feed them. With tuna swimming around the chum slick near the boat, anglers can pick their fish by “cane-poling.” They can drop a succulent morsel with a hook in it next to the fish they want to catch, often using less than 10 feet of line.
Mottled, splotching brown fish that look something like a goggle-eye on steroids, tripletails make an excellent bonus to any trip. Tripletails derive their name from top and bottom fins that almost look like two extra tails. Frequently, anglers ignore them as they blast out to the rigs for snappers or troll for king mackerel and cobia, but tripletails taste delicious and provide outstanding, yet unpredictable, targets of opportunity for light tackle enthusiasts. They also offer anglers in small boats some offshore action because they sometimes enter coastal estuaries or come very close to shore.
“Tripletails are kind of a ‘now you see them, now you don’t,’ fish,” says Capt. Erik Rue of Calcasieu Charter Service in Lake Charles. “When I’m targeting tripletails, I get in an area with a lot of floating debris and burn a lot of gasoline. It’s sight fishing, almost like hunting. Sometimes, we see them in open water sunning themselves. If we find a grass patch with lots of bait and activity, that’s where tripletail will be. We cast to them and watch them eat the bait, but we have to see them before we can catch them.”
Anglers usually see tripletails from late spring through early autumn with peak months in July through September when large patches of grass drift around in the Gulf. Tripletails hit a variety of lures or baits, including silver or gold spoons, small topwater baits, jigs, live shrimp or crabs. Bait placement usually matters more for catching tripletails than bait selection. Make the first cast count. Throw the lure or bait past the fish and bring the bait right past its nose. Don’t throw right on top of it.
While looking for tripletails or running from rig to rig, many anglers troll for mackerel, dolphin and cobia in summer. In winter, trolling might bag some wahoo or tuna in water at least 200 feet deep. For trolling, use various spoons, feather jigs, deep-running plugs, plastic squids, imitation flying fish or natural baits. Typically, people rig two to six lines – each tipped with different bait – and pull them behind the boat at two to 10 knots. To keep lines from fouling, keep the inner lines short, about 30 to 40 feet, and set outer lines to longer lengths.
Cane-poling at the Midnight Lump
In the winter, “cane-poling” or drifting baits also work for big yellowfins at the “Midnight Lump.” Officially known as Sackett Bank, this ancient salt dome located about 18 miles off the mouth of the Mississippi River, rises from about 700 feet of water to crest about 185 feet below the surface. Upwelling currents smash against this submerged mountain, hurtling plankton toward the surface. Baitfish gather to feast on plankton in the extremely fertile waters of the Mississippi River delta. Yellowfins start showing up at the “Lump,” in mid-October and stay through early April. However, the peak runs from late December through early March.
Some yellowfins weigh more than 200 pounds, but the crew of the Miss Cathy – Mike and Paul Ippolito, Pat Fitzmorris and Ron Roland – landed the lunker of the Midnight Lump. After a grueling 5.5-hour fight and a 7-hour tow back to Port Eads on May 25-26, 2003, the team landed a bluefin tuna weighing 1,152 pounds, the largest game fish ever landed in the Gulf of Mexico.
Hiding under flotsam
Hard fighting and great tasting, cobia – also called lings or lemonfish – love to eat live hardhead catfish attached to drift lines. Curious fish, they often bask on the surface or suspend just under objects such as seaweed, floating crates, lumber or other flotsam. Cobia often hit jigheads tipped in plastic or sweetened with a little bait. Pitch a jig about six to eight feet in front of a cobia or just close enough for the fish to see it. When a cobia comes for the bait, tease it to make it strike harder. Instead of letting the cobia smack it, jerk the jig away from the fish.
“Often, a cobia comes charging at a bait and the angler thinks the cobia will nail it, but it will stop and just nose it,” Pellegrin says. “Tease the cobia first. Swim the bait away from it. When it comes to snip at it or sniff it, jerk the jig away from it. Keep teasing the fish until it gets so fired up that the angler won’t be able to jerk it fast enough to escape it.”
Besides cobia, tripletails and dolphin (not the mammal) also hide under floating debris or along weedlines. When running between rigs, anglers should look for fish lurking near such drifting objects. They don’t necessarily need large objects – big fish hide under even the smallest, most inconspicuous bits of flotsam, possibly as small as a floating drink can. Look for them under driftwood, old crates, lumber and other debris.
To book a trip with Avanzino, call (985) 845-8006 or see www.paradise-outfitters.com. To book a trip with Pellegrin, call (985) 851-3304 or see customchartersllc.com. To book a trip with Rue, call (337) 598-4700 or see www.calcasieucharters.com.