With the clock ticking down and his team behind the eight ball, Capt. Zach Lewis knew desperate times called for desperate measures.
So the 32-year-old from Ocean Springs, Miss. decided to throw a "Hail Mary pass" about 80 miles southeast of Venice last Wednesday in more than 3,000 feet of water in the Gulf of Mexico.
He definitely didn’t use a football — but wound up connecting for the winning score, anyway.
Instead, the Mexican Gulf Fishing Company captain threw out a bucketful of almost all the remaining baitfish in his 37-foot Freeman’s livewell in a last-ditch attempt to entice one more big yellowfin tuna to come up to the surface at the Horn Mountain rig in the Mississippi Canyon.
And a nice 60-pounder promptly took him up on the offer — and wound up on ice after about a 20-minute fight with Huk Performance Fishing’s Chris Ellis and Thomas deOgburn, who were participating in the Buras Marsh Media Bash at Cajun Fishing Adventures for fishing industry media across the country.
“When we were marking them (on the electronics) as much as we were, we know they’re down there — they just weren’t coming up as we were throwing out five or six,” Lewis said, referring to the hardbellies and threadfin herring he used for live bait all day. “So I put all 15 or 20 that we had left, and that prop wash gets them and tumbles and disorients them and the tunas see it.
“Obviously, the more decoys the better so that gets them to come up and puts them into a frenzy where it tricks them into eating a hooked bait. We could have thrown five or six (baitfish) three more times, but that wasn’t working — so I put all our eggs in one basket and switched things up a little bit.”
During the trip, Lewis and mate Parker Rodrigue used the Freeman’s 21-foot outriggers to put out two hooked “floaters” on the 100 yards of mono top shot behind the boat. Then he “bump-trolled” as he watched his electronics and marked fish.
Our first stop at the Ram Powell rig produced a blackfin tuna and one yellowfin. But the water had a green tint, so Lewis made the move to Horn Mountain 13 miles south and found blue water — and eventually two more yellowfin in the 50- to 60-pound range.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, the tunas are on the upcurrent side of the rig, so depending on how bad the trash fish are around the rig, that determines how far you have to get off,” Lewis explained. “Generally, it’s on the upcurrent side and wherever you’re marking them just kind of bump troll back and forth to keep your baits on top of them.”
To do battle with the big tunas, Lewis uses Shimano Talica reels spooled with 80-pound Power Pro braid, 80-pound mono top shot and 100-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon (depending on water conditions and how finicky the tuna are.) His hook of choice is a 7/0 Mustad UltraPoint Demon Perfect Circle hook.
When fish get stubborn like on Wednesday and don’t come to the surface, Lewis and Rodrigue drop a “bomb” — using a hefty 24-ounce weight to bring the bait down to right where tuna are holding.
“If we’re fishing and I’m marking them at 150 feet or deeper and they’re not coming up on live chumming or anything, then we’ll put the weight 75 feet up the top shot so basically when you drop it down, the weight stays up and down but that bait is back there at the depth —so it pretty much puts it in front of them.
“If they’re not going to be aggressive and come up to the surface and crash on it, put it down right in front of them as they’re cruising around and pick up a bite here or there.”
On a dead slick calm day, the big Freeman named “The Freak Show” departed from Venice Marina around 6 a.m. and cruised at between 50 and 55 mph powered by four 350-hp Mercury Verado motors.
The ability to cover ground quickly can sometimes save the day, Lewis said.
“Some days it makes a big difference. You might pull up and throw out four or six baits and you hook six fish before the next boat gets there,” he said. “Some days the bite shuts off after that. Being first made your day right there.”
Wednesday’s bite was relatively slow, a product of lots of rain and a west wind pushing water from the Mississippi River onto the fishing grounds to the east. But tuna action has been pretty good all summer, he said.
“Last Saturday, we caught bait right out of the pass and I ran 17 miles and we caught 12 yellowfin and went to drop for a sword, caught a 140-pounder and we were back at Venice Marina for 11:20,” Lewis said. “That’s how much difference a couple of days can make.”