Down But Not Out

The offshore fleet was walloped by Katrina and Rita, but fast action is luring them back.

The cold blustery days of February signal prime time on the Midnight Lump. This legendary fish magnet, located roughly 22 miles off the mouth of Southwest Pass, is an ancient salt dome rising from 450 feet of cobalt blue water. It annually attracts pelagic species such as the mighty yellowfin tuna, speedy wahoo and trophy-sized mako shark.

While the one-two punch from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita dealt a devastating blow to the surrounding South Louisiana coastline and marshes, the offshore fishing remains unaffected by the fury of the two “twisted sisters.”

Venice

Venice-based Paradise Outfitters’ Capt. Scott Avanzino was among those who were forced to relocate due to Hurricane Katrina. Avanzino and two of his captains moved their operation to Cocodrie, temporarily working out of Bayou Bait & Tackle.

As of Jan. 1st, they have moved all three of their boats to Pirates Cove Marina, located on the easternmost tip of Grand Isle, where they plan to stay until their home port of Venice Marina is fully operational.

“The biggest question we got when customers called after Katrina was what, if anything, was left in Venice,” Avanzino said. “Many long-time customers who were able to make telephone contact were truly concerned about our safety and the condition of our boats and the fishing grounds. Those who didn’t call or couldn’t get through just assumed Venice had been washed away by the storm.”

It was mid September when Avanzino and his crew first ventured offshore with clients on Avanzino’s 36-foot TwinVee. Not knowing what to expect, they were pleasantly surprised to find the fish stacked up around the many platforms and rigs that make up Ship Shoal and South Timbalier oil fields. The charter quickly filled their limits of trophy-sized red snapper and hefty amberjack.

In addition to an abundance of bottom-dwellers, another tasty fish made its post-storm debut in huge numbers.

“The cobia fishing was insane after Katrina,” Avanzino exclaimed. “There were several days when we saw at least 150 cobia circling the well heads in the Ship Shoal and South Timbalier blocks.”

With options like these, the customers often found it hard to agree on a plan, with some wanting snapper, while visions of yellowfin danced in the heads of others.

“I don’t think we had a trip where we didn’t limit out. We just ran out of daylight,” Avanzino said.

Cocodrie

Capt. Tommy Pellegrin of Custom Charters reported they suffered no damage from Katrina at Bayou Bait & Tackle.

Less than a month later, along came Hurricane Rita, which took out one of the main docks, left scattered grass and debris and disrupted one of the fuel lines.

“We got everything cleaned up, Gordon had the dock rebuilt and the fuel line replaced and the marina was back in business in a matter of a few days,” Pellegrin said.

“I was fortunate in that all I lost was my sign,” he said. “The storms hurt our fall charter business real bad because most of our local customers were in some way affected by the storms.

“No one felt like they could go out and spend that kind of money on chartered fishing trips when they had lost homes and businesses.

“There was no lodging for out-of-town customers due to evacuees occupying all available space in hotels and camps.”

Pellegrin and his son Eric normally run 20 or more trips during the months of September and October, but due to the devastation of the two hurricanes, they only logged a couple each month.

“Our charter business revenue was down 30 percent as a direct result of the two hurricanes,” said Pellegrin.

Capt. Eric Pellegrin’s first post Katrina trip on his 30-foot Gravois, the High Life, took place on Sept. 9. Robert Martin and a crew from Oklahoma made it down and reaped the benefits of little or no fishing pressure. Their trip resulted in a bountiful catch of red snapper and amberjack once they cleared the “mine field” of floating debris.

The following day, Tommy Pellegrin headed out on his Gravois, the Reel Life, with a group of customers from Cortec scheduled by Wayne Beard.

“We took our time running out because Eric had been out the day before and told us there was a lot of junk in the water,” said Pellegrin.

“We found entire rooftops floating with nothing underneath, oilfield trash, huge tanks, dead cows and even a life jacket with Main Pass ID stenciled on it. Many times we had to idle for 10 minutes until we got past the rip that had formed 30-40 miles out,” he said.

At their first and only stop, Pellegrin surveyed the cobalt-blue water as he tossed a few handfuls of chopped Spanish sardines overboard. As the anglers prepared for battle, several yellowfin tuna flashed through the slick.

Pellegrin quickly placed a 4-inch hardtail on a Mustad 39950 BL Ultra Point circle hook, and sent it down. The reel screamed as the fish engulfed the bait, and turned south for its first blazing run, bending the standup rod in half.

Beard watched with delight as his customers each took turns boating a 70-pound yellowfin. There were no giants to be had on that day — just good solid fish capable of putting a whipping on a grown man.

Fourchon

Capts. Aaron Pierce and Ed Frekey of Fourchon-based Tuna Time Charters didn’t escape the wrath of Hurricane Katrina. Pierce lost tackle, freezers and ice makers that were located at ground level in his Fourchon camp.

“Anything 4 feet and below was affected,” he said.

November signaled their first trip to the Lump to target wahoo and tuna. They report that action is steadily picking up at the popular wintertime destination.

“Some of our friends who captain offshore supply boats are reporting acres of yellowfin tuna jumping well offshore,” Pierce said. “We should have a great season as these huge schools continue to migrate toward the Lump.”

The duo, who operates a 26-foot Glacier Bay out of Belle Pass Marina in Fourchon, has scored several impressive catches since Katrina, including a 306-pound mako and a 358-pound warsaw grouper, both taken in December by Frekey.

Once approved by the Louisiana Outdoor Writers Association, the big grouper will assume the No. 1 spot for that species, shattering the old record by 70 pounds.

Grand Isle

Although he has yet to venture out on his boat since the storm, Capt. Myron Fischer has been hard at work onshore trying to restore Pirates Cove Marina to its pre-Katrina grandeur.

By early January, Entergy had restored power to the foot of the pier. Fischer reports that all wiring and installation of new power pedestals has been completed, and that all 54 boat slips should be available by late January.

“Several out-of-state boats have plans to move their winter charter operations to Pirates Cove, in addition to the local boats that are already here,” said Fischer. “We have diesel, gasoline, ice and bait (frozen pogies and sardines) available.”

Fischer stated there is plenty of lodging available on the island for fishermen, and several restaurants are open.

“Come on down to Grand Isle and get in on some of this great action,” he said.

Midnight Lump

The usual winter migration of pelagic fish to the famed Midnight Lump appears to be right on schedule. Yellowfin tuna have been caught there since late December with numerous triple-digit fish making an appearance in the first few weeks of the season, followed by more average-sized fish in January.

Wahoo are big and plentiful. Hardly a day goes by without one of these white-fleshed speeding bullets hitting the dock.

An average number of sharks and bonito have also made their annual appearance, with the latter ending up as chum or for chunking tuna.

Fat blackfin tuna are plentiful again this season, and are a welcome sight on slower days at the Lump. Toothy critters such as kingfish also are in abundance, resulting in plenty of lost hooks and cut leaders.

The major change this year is that there seems to be fewer boats making the trek and, therefore, less pressure at the Lump. This is certainly as a result of the destruction of the infrastructure in Venice, and the fact that power has not been restored.

With no fuel or ice available, most boats are being forced to operate from ports to the west such as Cocodrie, Grand Isle and Fourchon.

Although it is roughly the same distance from Grand Isle, approximately 42 nautical miles, boaters must run across the Gulf of Mexico in open water. There is little or no protection as compared with the run downriver and through the passes from Venice.

“If you need the protection of the passes or the river, then your boat may be too small for the open-water run,” says veteran captain Myron Fischer who skippers the 53-foot Hatteras Different Drummer.

Many of those who fish the Lump feel this shift to the west may cut down on the pressure this season, although some argue that pressure doesn’t make that much difference on a daily basis.

“I don’t think pressure is as big a factor to highly migratory species as it is to reef fish that stay put in a particular area,” said Fischer, who is a marine biologist. “These fish have been here before man, and migrate here each year due to the abundance of feed on and near the Lump.

“I don’t think they come to the Lump because of the tons of chum that is dumped there, but more accurately because they are attracted by the mullet as they migrate out of the passes of the river.”

One other interesting phenomenon was raised by Fischer. As more and more deepwater platforms are deployed in the Gulf, he feels that this may soon have an effect on the near-shore fishing by “short stopping” the tuna 100 miles or more out.

“Why will they continue to travel farther when they have everything they need at these deepwater oases?” he asked.

With more than a hundred platforms being destroyed by the recent hurricanes, and applications having been filed to turn them into reefs, this may be a point to ponder.

As they have for centuries, the tuna and wahoo will continue to visit the fertile waters to spawn and feed on the abundant baitfish, while determined anglers will find a way to fish for them, even if it means taking a detour to reach the famed Midnight Lump.

CONTACTS: Pirates Cove Marina, 985-787-3880; Capt. Scott Avanzino, 985-845-8006; Capt. Myron Fischer, 504-416-4766; Bayou Bait & Tackle, 985-594-9462; Capt. Tommy & Eric Pellegrin, 985-851-3304; Belle Pass Marina, 985-396-2442; Capt. Aaron Pierce, 985-637-9720; Capt. Ed Frekey, 985-665-3769.

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