By JOHN McQUEEN
|Photo courtesy of JOHN McQUEEN
|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
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Daisy chains and diving plugs have in large part been replaced
by a variety of live baits.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
“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
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.”
|Photo courtesy of JOHN McQUEEN
|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
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
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.”
|Photo by JOHN McQUEEN
|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
“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
“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,”
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
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.
|Photo by JOHN McQUEEN
|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
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.