Best of the Blue

Get out to the deep water this month, and use these techniques to fill your creel.

Across the Louisiana coast, captains often agree the No. 1 question those shopping for a tuna trip generally ask is, “When is the BEST time to catch yellowfin tuna?”

Although no one can argue the winter Midnight Lump season consistently ranks at the top of the list for bagging tuna over 200 pounds, anglers should not overlook the slick-calm months of July and August. These months can actually be some of the best times to target tuna, when seas are glass-like and massive schools of fish can be seen leaping in the distance.

Last summer, during an outdoor-writers event billed as “Marsh Madness,” I was fishing aboard the 30-foot Gravois Pale Horse about 40 miles offshore at the Medusa platform along with several sponsors of the event. It was late in the afternoon, and we were winding down from a successful day of tuna fishing with Capt. Rimmer Covington.

As we peered down into the cobalt-blue water, a big yellowfin suddenly appeared from the depths and cruised through our slick, gulping pieces of chum just a few feet off the transom.

Yamaha’s Jonathan Burns donned a fighting harness as our mate, Jason, grabbed a rod and quickly imbedded a circle hook in a piece of chum, tossed it over and then slowly fed the line out by hand. We watched in awe as the big yellowfin methodically worked its way through every morsel of chum including sucking down the one with the hook.

The lever on the reel was pushed to strike, and Burns cranked the line tight. The Tiagra screamed, and the fight was on. After a grueling three-hour, 20-minute battle, the fish continued to circle just out of gaff range. Suddenly the 80-pound fluorocarbon parted, sending the angler flying backward as the fish slowly sank out of sight.

Luckily, I managed to snap several photos as proof of the mammoth yellowfin. Resembling a B-52 with pectoral fins that reached the tail, I would conservatively estimate it at near 300 pounds — and without a doubt, it was the biggest yellowfin I had ever witnessed.

More recently, there have been several outstanding summer yellowfin to hit the docks.

Capt. Brett Falterman on the 32-Twin Vee Kraken had a group of customers tag-team a 200-pounder in May dispelling the myth that the winter months are the only ones to produce monster tuna.

The crew of the Head First II, a 33-foot Palmetto whose home port is Boca Raton, Fla., had its hands full on May 31 while trolling just six miles out of South Pass. Tim Hare, Zack Susla and Jay Krieger were trolling an Ilander over a rigged ballyhoo when a big fish came calling.

“It was rough, and we were trolling to the west with a strong easterly blow to our backs along a grassline when suddenly our right rigger went off. We missed that fish and then the left rigger popped and the reel screamed,” said Hare, the owner of the boat.

Susla was the angler on the brute, and whipped the 183-pound fish in a short 30-minute battle on a Crowder rod with an Avet 50W spooled with 80-pound monofilament.

“Once Zack got the fish boatside, I hit him with one gaff and Jay stuck him with a second gaff,” said Hare.

This is not uncommon, as most large tuna in the summer are caught while trolling. Some captains feel that this is due to the fact that the larger tuna are solitary fish while the smaller tuna are school fish.

Capt. Chris Wilson of River’s End Outfitters likes to pull what he refers to as a Rapala chain. Only the last lure has a hook, but sometimes he’ll have tuna busting all along the chain.

“It will catch just about anything,” said Wilson.

Sometimes Wilson deploys it on a downrigger about 100 feet down, which he says not only tempts yellowfin but bigger quarry as well.

Tuna-tagging efforts

Research is being conducted that may help determine what the habits, movements and migration are of various size yellowfin tuna. Monitoring stations have been attached beneath the Gulf’s surface to several rigs south of Venice.

A yellowfin tuna-tagging project began in May with a goal to tag 100 tuna. The small black cylindrical tags are being inserted into the body cavities of yellowfin tuna by University of South Florida-St. Petersburg personnel.

Capt. Kevin Beach on the Pale Horse has been getting these scientists on the tuna as well as assisting with the underwater placement of the monitoring devices. At press time, 50 yellowfin had been tagged.

Beach said some of the early data returned shows most of the tagged tuna swam back and rejoined the school near the rig on which they were caught. The tags can also report data such as movement, depth at which the fish held and for how long.

Anglers are being urged to check the underside near the belly when cleaning yellowfin tuna, and are being asked to file a short report on any landed fish that contain the special 3 ½-inch-long tags.

“We would like them to report the date, location, length, weight and note any scars, etc.,” said Randy Edwards, who is heading up the research project.

If a tag is spotted, anglers should call 727-803-8747 x 3069 or log onto rewards@usgs.gov.

Delectable dolphin

Dolphin are a welcome species that show up each year in the summer months. These fish, when “lit up,” flash such neon colors as blue, green and yellow. They are often found feeding beneath sargassum grasslines, around flotsam or beneath standoff buoys.

The larger of the species are commonly referred to as cows or bulls. The smaller fish are referred to as chicks. These fish have voracious appetites and phenomenal growth rates — some say they are the fastest-growing fish in the Gulf, gaining an inch of length per day. At such rates, this month’s chick will quickly become next month’s cow or bull.

Chicks will dart from beneath grasslines, and once one is hooked, the others stay nearby as long as the hooked fish is kept in the water. This is great fun for children as the action is non-stop and the fish are of a size that makes them challenging, yet allows young anglers to proudly fight the fish by themselves.

Dolphin also can be found surrounding offshore platforms and rigs, primarily in warmer areas in blue water. Many times they will dart out and gobble a bait meant for a yellowfin.

Wilson says his preferred dolphin technique is to skip ballyhoo while trolling along a grassline.

“Dolphin are very aggressive and will eat anything including attacking the swivels,” he said.

Dolphin, tuna and marlin often frequent the same platforms and floaters, so Wilson prefers to “start at the top and work down.”

When he first arrives at a rig, Wilson sets out a five-lure spread consisting of a combination of Ilanders, Joe Yees or Merlins, and makes a few passes to see what lurks there.

“I’m looking at the depth finder, looking for schools of tuna, a couple of big dolphin or maybe a blue marlin,” he said.

If the spread isn’t effective, he’ll deploy live baits such as hardtails, bar jacks or threadfins on drift lines.

Topwater poppers such as Yo-Zuris are deadly when cast on oversized spinning reels spooled with PowerPro. Wilson likes to use 3 feet of 80-pound fluorocarbon, which helps alleviate tangles.

“Dolphin are cannibalistic creatures, and will eat other dolphin as well as any type of strip baits,” he said.

Marlin mania

Blue marlin have made a strong showing so far this season. In addition to numerous billfish caught and released during the winter months, Wilson released four blues in just under a week in May, the largest of which topped the 500-pound mark.

Wilson chose a favorite yellow/black Merlin to tempt the blue while trolling 40 miles offshore.

His customer was thrilled as the “man in the blue suit” thrashed and jumped as he fought the big fish on standup tackle. It took two hours of fight time until the angler finally got the fish under control, and Wilson leadered it.

As the lit-up blue was brought alongside the 36-foot Contender, Wilson, who was working alone serving as first mate and captain, explained to the customers that marlin are always dangerous and can be unpredictable at boatside.

Wilson says it is important to keep the boat moving while at the same time keeping the fish from swimming under the boat and getting cut by the prop. It is also a good idea to try and stay behind the point of the bill and reach forward to avoid getting impaled by a surging fish.

Everyone took a step back when Wilson wired the big blue the first time and it stripped the leather off of his new wireman’s gloves as it made a searing run dumping almost 300 yards of line. After five tries, Wilson finally grabbed the brute by the bill.

As is standard protocol for billfish, they practiced CPR — Catch, Photograph and Release. After measuring the 115-inch fish with a specially designed, extra-long fabric tape made by Faux Pas Prints, they snapped a few photos and worked to get the fish going again before sending it back to the depths.

Anglers who would like a marlin mount should furnish length and girth measurements as well as high-resolution photos for the taxidermist to work from. High-quality replica mounts are available from several sources.

Another marlin fanatic is Capt. Jimmy “Gringo” Guerineau, who has been running large sport-fishing boats for over 20 years, and often targets marlin.

“I like a mirror head such as a Joe Yee with a lot of flash and eyes on the skirt,” he said. “I rely on Hilton’s Realtime-Navigator, which I have loaded on my laptop computer. Lately, there has been a north and southbound push that came together and then went eastbound. That is the area that I will generally start out when targeting tuna, dolphin and marlin.

“There are a number of rigs such as Thunder Horse and Devil’s Tower as well as a couple of drill ships in close proximity to this area, so it gives me plenty of choices.”

When preparing for an offshore adventure, Guerineau relies heavily on NOAA for the correct wave forecast and, as mentioned, publications such as Hilton’s Realtime-Navigator for information such as altimetry, currents, salinity and sea temps.

One point Guerineau says is important is to be courteous when approaching a rig or floater. Remember, they are working platforms with all sorts of supply vessels moving in and out to drop off personnel or supplies, as well as helicopters landing and cranes working.

“Generally, on approach, I will call the rig or drill ship on Channel 16 and let them know my intentions,” said Guerineau. “I’ll usually tell them where I plan to fish and ask them to let me know if I get too close to their bow or operation.

“In return, rig personnel or the drill-ship captain might come back over the VHF and tell me if they’ve seen any tuna busting, or they might advise me that they have ROVs working and ask me to give them some room.”

Another very important notification takes place whenever there is a release of H2S gas, which is highly toxic. Boaters need to be aware that if they hear a siren or notice flashing red lights, they should immediately move away from the platform and to the upwind side.

The summer months offer endless opportunities for many species. Anglers are reminded that with the summer heat comes the threat of thunderstorms that can quickly build and surround an unsuspecting boat. Keep an eye out for the formation of waterspouts and beware of dangerous lighting, which can cause havoc on boat electronics not to mention bodily harm.

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