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Come Eat Me
Yellowfin tuna are one in a long list of species that can't pass up live menhaden.

By JOHN McQUEEN

Trout anglers well know the productivity of live pogies, but tuna fishermen are learning that these baitfish deliver the goods far offshore.
Trout anglers well know the productivity of live pogies, but tuna fishermen are learning that these baitfish deliver the goods far offshore.

For many veterans to the Louisiana bluewater fishing game, the current state of affairs concerning yellowfin tuna must be pretty remarkable.

Marlin enthusiasts regularly snubbed their noses at the brawny pests in the their quest for “The Man in the Blue Suit,” and many whose quest focuses primarily on billfish still do.

But there's no question about the popularity of the yellowfin in today’s age. With the increasing numbers of smaller, more manageable vessels capable of handling the oftentimes cantankerous open Gulf, tuna fishing has become a very “in” thing to do.

Similar to the learning curve relative to catching 27-inch redfish and trophy speckled trout, tactics for fooling yellowfin have evolved drastically and show no signs of slowing.

Daisy chains and diving plugs have in large part been replaced by a variety of live baits. Hardtails (blue runners) are the No. 1 choice due to their effectiveness and availability, though the smaller specimens valued by anglers are often hard to find.

Al Walker and Bill Delabar of Xtreme Fishing Charters have found that the huge numbers of pogies (menhaden) inhabiting the coastline in the spring make outstanding baits in blue water, even though they are virtually non-existent in the area where the fish are holding.

“Their whole lives, pogies are sending out signals that say, ‘Come eat me,’” said Walker, a 20-plus-year veteran to fishing the area. “Everything in the Gulf eats pogies. In the spring, when you see the pogie boats along the coastline, I know it's time.”

The yellowfin's spike in popularity has concurrently seen a large number of failings-per-angler-efforts in the attempt to boat these fish. Big tackle with standard terminal gear and baits will undoubtedly put fish in the boat when it is red-hot, but the pursuit is inexorably evolving into a thinking man's sport. Though today's gasoline-powered boats make it much more feasible to hunt down the fish, it is still quite an investment in time and money to get to the deep blue.

Striking out is one thing, but drawing a goose egg when tuna are undoubtedly present is quite another. Venice-based charter captains have proved quite resourceful in refining their techniques to match their often finicky quarry. Many will argue who first began practicing the ideas and concepts, but most will concede that they did not originate here.

The passion for tuna — bigeye and bluefin as well as yellowfin — on the east and left coasts has been in existence long before most of today's skippers were born.

Delabar brings an East Coast and Central American bluewater fishing approach to plying Louisiana waters in regards to doing everything possible to hide the fact that the frantic baitfish has a hook in it.

“I spent four years out of college in Panama,” said Delabar. “It's a place that is so good that you can go out and pull big baits on big tackle and do well. But it was one stretch of days that really turned my life around.”

Mike Coullard of Prairieville (left) and Louisiana Sportsman Field Editor John McQueen tag-teamed this 100-plus-pounder that fell for a live pogie.
Mike Coullard of Prairieville (left) and Louisiana Sportsman Field Editor John McQueen tag-teamed this 100-plus-pounder that fell for a live pogie.

Noted bluewater writer and angler Tony Pena went out with Delabar and another man for five days in the untamed waters, and began his education and subsequent love affair for light-tackle concepts and live-baiting for marlin. It was the concepts that could hook fish when the odds were against you, when the crystal clear water and flat calm seas amplified everything put out in between bait and rod tip.

Long range vessels out of San Diego use shockingly light gear when tangling with yellowfin that commonly top 200 pounds off of the Mexican coast. Live bait is a way of life for these anglers in all things tuna besides the trolled bait deployed when steaming from spot to spot.

Walker credits his father and old friends with teaching him much of what he knows about fooling fish. While recalling many days where he and his father winched up huge grouper and amberjack with steel line on Penn Senator 9/0s with special braces on the bottom of the fiberglass rods so that they wouldn't break on the rail, he said he learned just as much by observing old commercial fishermen as they finesse-fished for pompano.

“It was those tactics that really got me thinking about the things we're doing out there,” said Walker. “I was very fortunate that some of my best friends were some men much older than I who taught me about ‘slimming down’ such as when fishing for pompano. Fishing has come a long way from when I used to go out with my dad aboard the big boats out Empire, and will be evolving long after we're gone.”

Our journey began on an exceedingly pleasant morning. The surprisingly good April weather — especially taking into account the past two years — was holding as Walker, Delabar, Prairieville resident Mike Coullard and I took off from Cypress Cove Marina.

Though the plan was presenting live pogies to the fish, dead pogies, ballyhoo and live mullet were on board to ensure that any fish would see many options before it decided it REALLY wasn't hungry.

Eleven rod and reel combinations graced the Glacier Bay’s rod holders, from a basic-looking spinning combo with a sabiki rig attached to the breath-taking new Accurate reels Walker was now sporting.

I awoke from a short beanbag nap on the deck of the 26-foot Glacier Bay to see that a slight ripple on the waters of South Pass had replaced the glassy smoothness of the river 15 miles back. This was a good sign for the fishing, but not so much for the ride to the Mars platform 50-plus miles to the south.

The mouth of the pass showed a 2-foot chop on the Gulf waters as we hung a right past the Mud Lumps and the small armada of bay boats trying their luck for redfish and speckled trout. Pelicans crashed in the lee behind the sandbar west of the pass, and we soon found the raindrops marking our quarry. A few throws with a 12-foot cast net secured more than enough perfect-sized, 6- to 8-inch pogies for our needs, and we turned our attention south after a quick couple of drops for hardtails at the East Bay rigs.

“Just like I don't ever like to leave the dock without dead pogies for chunking, I don't like to go way out there without every type of bait I can get my hands on,” Walker said. “Live pogies have done great for us this year, but you never know when the fish are going to only want hardtails or when having that one mullet that you threw the cast net for at the dock makes the difference in getting bit or not.”

Capt. Bill Delabar of Xtreme Fishing Charters uses a 12-foot cast net to catch pogies just outside of South Pass.
Capt. Bill Delabar of Xtreme Fishing Charters uses a 12-foot cast net to catch pogies just outside of South Pass.

The two-hour journey saw the seas build to a solid four feet, and we all wondered where the stiff east wind and cloud cover had come from. Walker and Delabar knew that this meant good fishing, even if it wouldn't be terribly comfortable with a beam sea going and coming.

“Slimming down your tackle really pays off on those slick-calm days with bright sunshine. When you can see your bait behind the boat and tuna are charging it and just peeling off at the last second, you know it's time to downsize your terminal tackle.”

The two captains knew there were fish at the platform based on Delabar's trip the day before when he had two blue marlin hooked and lost in addition to several fat yellowfin. Our bumbling at the dock and advanced bait gathering had put us at the platform a little behind schedule, right about the time the four-hour lull had begun the day before. Not exactly the kind of news one wants to hear, but the captains' confidence laid much of the apprehension to rest.

“These fish are here, and they'll bite in the chop and cloud cover. We've just got to be a little patient,” said Walker as he scanned the horizon for signs of fish.

The reels were ready for the test with 50-pound Sufix fluorocarbon leaders spliced with 50-pound main lines. A small circle hook made to fit the size of the bait being used completed the rigging. Simplicity and progress at once as not one swivel, crimp or weight came in between the rod tip and hook.

“I'll usually start off with my hooks tied directly to 80-pound main line, but we're going straight to the light stuff today,” said Walker.

Two pogies were put out, and the slow-troll around the giant floating platform began. Walker says it takes a little more delicate approach to slow-trolling pogies than it does with hardier baits such as hardtails.

“You've really got to bump-and-go with these baits. They're not as fast as the hardtails,” said Walker.

By hooking them in the shoulder, Walker says pogies will often swim well below the surface, a helpful thing that other baits refuse to do. Also, hooking them through the nose sideways will keep them near the surface, where their flash and vibration call predators from all directions.

“You can also put them on downriggers to get to those fish that we've been marking and not really seeing on the surface,” said Walker.

The southwest corner of the rig was showing some scattered tuna busts, and soon after we arrived, a hungry tuna took a liking to one of the oily slow-trolled baits. It wasn't a spectacular strike, and the fish didn't seem to know it was hooked for a while, but it soon enough found its rhythm and was smoking toward the bottom, forcing us to follow.

The rod and reel were light and responsive, but I couldn't really put a lot of heat on the fish once it decided it wanted to sulk deep beneath the boat. After 30 minutes of this, I found out why I had sworn off tuna fishing long ago (OK, so it was mainly because they were so hard to catch). Time to hand off to Coullard, who found out the same thing.

“You can't rush these things. We lose plenty of fish by slimming down, but we also get a whole lot more bites, and I'd rather have it that way than the other way around,” said Walker.

Anglers used to think of summer as a down time for yellowfins, but now they’re discovering the fish have a fondness for live bait throughout the warmest months of the year.
Anglers used to think of summer as a down time for yellowfins, but now they’re discovering the fish have a fondness for live bait throughout the warmest months of the year.

Slowly, the fish neared the boat as the seas grew. I was more and more satisfied with my decision to wimp out seeing what the fish was doing to Mike.

“It's tough. It's tough on us because we're trying to put meat in the box when we know that the bite can end at any time or the weather like we have today can take a turn for the worse. But it's something that you just have to let happen,” said Walker.

Coullard finished off the battle with grace, and the hour-long struggle was rewarded with a fat 100-plus-pounder. Walker hustled back to the hot corner in the hopes of getting a few more fish before it was time to head north or the building wind chased us in.

Bad luck in the form of an empty hook on the starboard line and grass on the port prevented a triple hook-up when a marauding school of 40- to 60-pounders came up 20 yards from the boat. A popper was instantly slammed, and a fun 4-pounder was soon the victim of the strong spinning gear.

For connecting line and leader, Delabar uses what he calls a Tony Pena knot instead of the popular uni to uni splice.

“It's a 100-percent knot, whereas the uni is about 80 percent. You need all the strength you can get when you're using such light line,” said Delabar.

The friendly competition between charter captains has a lot to do with the fascinating evolution of fishing tactics. Though light line greatly increases hook-ups, it also knocks down the number of fish brought to the dock, something everybody takes notice of. Other captains might busy themselves with post-trip chores and feign disinterest when another boat pulls up to the dock, but everybody keeps score and knows who's in the lead for “Cock of the Dock.”

You can bet that soon enough, these guys will be taking the game to another level and changing the rules yet again.