"Out of the weekend warriors, these guys are the best at what they do — period!" said one local captain.
Of course, I wanted to see for myself what makes them so successful, so in late August, I joined them aboard their 36-Contender for a day of chasing bottom species.
From the moment I stepped onboard, it became obvious — teamwork and preparation were the name of the game.
After a comfortable run down the river, we exited South Pass. Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Gimme Three Steps" blared over the XM radio as we pulled up to a stand-off buoy to catch bait. As soon as the boat slowed, three anglers sprang to their feet and grabbed spinning rods rigged with sabikis.
"Alright guys, they're right under the boat," said Ben Burst III, captain of the BurstFactor and leader of the six-man fishing team.
Don Latil, who has been a friend and business associate of Burst's for more than 10 years, was the first to swing a fully loaded string of miniature hardtails over the gunnel.
"Little potato chips ready to be gobbled up," said Burst.
Burst's dad, Benny Burst Jr., carefully unhooked each of the small, silver fish from the size 4 sabiki, and gently placed them in a dip net, which was quickly relayed to the stern livewell by his brother, Maurice "Mo" Burst.
Latil soon added a few 8-inch barjacks plus an oversized hardtail to the mix.
"Put those in Don's private livewell," said Burst III. "I sure hope he's the sharing kind, because those are guaranteed to catch the biggest fish," he grinned
With precision and teamwork, all three livewells were soon swarming with bar jacks and hardtails of various sizes.
"With bait like this, we're going to be like the trout fishermen today — by 9 o'clock we'll have our limits, bro," Mo grinned.
Burst fired up the triple Yamaha 250s, and pointed the bow east toward one of his favorite areas, the Main Pass 299 block. At 45 m.p.h., the Contender made quick work of crossing many miles of glass-like open water.
As soon as Burst throttled back the engines, the deck of the Contender became a flurry of choreographed activity. Tommy Cook, the newest member of the team who earned his wings and team shirt during the 2007 Faux Pas Rodeo, hauled bean bags to the front of the boat. Other team members baited their lines, and stood ready and waiting for Burst to give them the go-ahead to drop.
After slowly surveying the bottom as he idled around the rig, Burst gave the command to drop down 150 feet.
Peering over the side, Burst quickly determined he did not like the conditions. There was little current moving beneath the steel legs of the rig, and with no bites, he instructed the crew to reel up.
"We're going to have to run to find some more current," he said.
Burst prefers to fish rigs in 200 to 220 feet of water with a good current. He says that although some snapper may be found in the 125- to 150-foot depths, they're not going to be trophy fish — the ones over 20-pounds — that team BurstFactor targets.
At our next stop at a towering, newly painted rig located in 225 feet of water, Burst liked what he saw, and alerted the crew that he wanted to tie off. Unlike many boaters who use rig hooks to secure their vessels to a platform, this crew has perfected a different method. Latil had assembled a conical red marker buoy threaded on nylon rope, which he attached to a heavy shackle beneath the buoy.
Cook, being the youngest and most nimble of the crew, is assigned the task of standing at or on the bow and tossing the buoy over a selected target. One of the other crew members then retrieves it with a long-handled gaff. I watched in amazement as this simple invention worked flawlessly.
Once we were safely secured to the rig, mere seconds passed before five lines hit the water. These guys move — there's no loafing on bean bags and drinking a cold one. If you are on the boat, you had better have a rod in your hand and a baited hook in the water, according to team member Dolph Federico, who has fished with Ben Burst for 20 years.
The first drop at the rig yielded a double header on scamp landed by Latil and Cook, which was quickly followed by two more scamp in the 5- to 8-pound range.
Burst continued to coach his teammates, and intently watched the rod tips.
"Wasn't that a bite, Mo?" Burst inquired.
As Mo reeled up his line and inspected the bare hook, Burst declared, "That was definitely a scamp."
The scamp exhibits a trademark bite, which is to grab the bait and quickly swim up. Anglers targeting scamp need to remember to reel fast as soon as the line goes slack, while resisting the urge to set the hook. The BurstFactor team relies on snelled 10/0 circle hooks for all their bottom fishing. When used properly, circle hooks are designed to set themselves.
"If properly fished, slack line equals Stacy's Spicy Scamp Tacos," said Federico, who admits the sweet, white meat of a scamp is his favorite.
"Don't you lose that one, or I'm going to get mad," Burst shouted as Mo's rod bucked under the pressure of a nice fish.
Mo victoriously swung the scamp aboard, and redeemed himself. Although he is currently undergoing chemo treatments and might have to rest after battling a few big fish, Mo always gets back in the game and carries his load on the boat.
A few minutes later, Burst Jr. showed me a beautiful long-handled bamboo gaff that was safely stowed under the gunnel.
"I had Benny send off and get these special long bamboo gaffs, but I'm not allowed to use them," he confessed.
"My dad, Benny B, is only allowed to HAND US the gaff — he is barred from gaffing anything that is trying to get away," said Burst III.
"Mr. Benny is strictly prohibited from gaffing duties on quality fish. Sometimes I think he is a mole from PETA — I have never seen anybody knock so many fish free," Federico added.
Not to be outdone, Burst Jr. fired back, "Dolph is the lover in our group, and he is also our team photographer and story teller, though he can't keep his stories straight from one trip to the next. I think he missed his calling as a film producer."
"I'll tell you a story about Dolph," Maurice chuckled. "He took my kids fishing for trout on Lake Pontchartrain several years ago. They were all excited, and when they got to the spot and prepared to bait their hooks, Dolph opened up what was supposed to be a container of frozen bait shrimp, and instead found a pork roast!"
Although the guys continued ribbing each other, they never stopped fishing. In addition to numerous scamp, Latil also hooked into a nice gag grouper right against the rig leg. He expertly worked the fish by quickly reeling and using short pumps of the rod all the while moving toward the back of the boat to pull the fish even farther from the rusted metal beneath the surface. Grouper instinctively dive back into their holes, and unless the angler takes immediate action and allows absolutely no slack in the line, the grouper will win the battle.
The action continued with several nice red snapper, another gag grouper and too many throwback amberjack to keep count of. Once the live bait supply was exhausted, Burst made a quick run to a nearby buoy to replenish the supply. This was yet another lesson in successful bottom fishing — know ahead of time where a bait supply is, and fish in close proximity to that supply.
Returning to the rig, Burst positioned the boat on the opposite rig leg.
"It ought to be a slam fest over here," he said.
Using a light yet very strong Shimano Trevala rod rigged with 3 feet of 150-pound leader and 16 ounces of lead, Latil sent a large hardtail down to the bottom. No more than two minutes passed before the rod slacked, and Latil reeled like a madman. After a five-minute fight, a dark-brown image came into view beneath the surface.
"Big scamp!" shouted Burst as he grabbed the gaff and leaned over the side.
The big brown broomtail weighed 20 pounds, and the crew celebrated what was then the fish of the day.
More red snapper were boated along with two nice amberjack. A lone strawberry grouper and a few more scamp were boated by Burst Jr.
With the live-bait supply dwindling for a second time, it was decided to bring out the dead bait. From a hold of the Contender came a virtual smorgasbord of offerings including squid, frozen cigar minnows and pogies. This was yet another example of a well-prepared team — bring several varieties of bait, don't skimp on the quantity and keep it iced and fresh until ready to use.
Cook threaded two frozen cigar minnows onto his hook, topped it off with a whole squid and then sent the offering to the bottom. He quickly felt a bump then another before the stout rod lunged toward the water.
"Whoa!" he shouted as he simultaneously cranked on the reel and wrestled the rod into his fighting belt. Being the newest member of the team, and relatively new to offshore fishing, Cook was cranking like mad in the see-saw battle, expending more energy than he needed to.
Burst III tried to coach him to save his energy by using short, smooth rod pumps, but he would have none of it. Cook put his head down and cranked so fast that I expected the fish to come up scaled.
Finally a pinkish shimmer came into view below the surface, and Burst III went for the gaff.
"It's a BIG red snapper!" Cook exclaimed.
"Now this is what we're looking for," the crew announced in unison as they exchanged high fives and posed for a team photo with Cook's fish.
Federico, who didn't make the trip, offered some insight into how the BurstFactor team got started.
"We started getting pretty serious about offshore fishing around 1999, I guess," he said. "We used to launch out of Breton Sound Marina, and run the 70 miles to Block 299. We would fish overnight and come back the following day.
"Back then, Ben had an old, refurbished hull with a single Yamaha 250. In June 2002, we got caught in a freak storm when north winds blew up some 10-foot seas. After a dicey four- or five-hour run back in, Ben committed to 'reorganize the fleet.' He added a 23-foot Reno skiff, and then really tested his relationship with his wife with the 36 Contender. We relocated the base of operations to Venice, and we've been in the deep-blue sea ever since.
"Ben and I go back to when he was a commercial shrimper and I was a radio station disc jockey. Our careers and lives diverged for awhile, but now we both work in the print industry in the same building in Kenner. We see each other daily, and whenever we don't have a work project in front of us, we plot our next voyage."
Federico explained the reason for BurstFactor's success: persistence, persistence, persistence.
"Ben is the most competitive person I know. He doesn't quit," said Federico.
The team makes the most out of every trip. They typically leave the dock in the dark, and fish until the sun goes down. Burst's job is not only that of captain, but he acts as coach too. All team members fish every drop. On a rig, it's 200 feet down for two or three minutes, and wind it up. Check and change the bait, let it back down. They never stop fishing.
Another advantage is that they fish the same six guys on the boat almost every trip. Each knows their place and what to do, dividing the chores of cutting bait, chumming, rigging sabikis, re-tying hooks, gaffing and icing the fish. There is no doubt about it — these guys move on the boat.
"I guess the most diplomatic way I can describe Ben is he can be very inspirational," Federico said. "He is very animated, verbal and demonstrative. Fish, or get off the boat.
"Additionally, having the right vessel, top-notch gear and a gutsy crew lets Ben go out in conditions other captains won't attempt. If the Gulf is pitching steady 5s, and the fishing is hot at Thunderhorse, you'd better hold on tight because we're going — 45 m.p.h. slamming every wave, we're going. I've lost fillings on these runs."
I asked several of the team members what was their favorite fish to target. Burst Jr's choice was big red snapper. He says you have to search for and target them; you don't just drop a line and catch them. Latil prefers big grouper, while Federico's favorite is the weird and unknown that come from the depths around the offshore rigs.
"I really hope that every fish I drag up is somehow unusual," said Federico.
Sometimes it is a huge warsaw, a snake eel or something they cannot identify. The crew has encountered whales, giant mantas, huge sea turtles, all types of sharks, strange reef fish and crazy creatures of all kinds.
But they all agree when asked what their favorite fish to eat is .
You can't beat the sweet meat of the scamp.