Grander Tuna

This is the time of year when bluewater fishermen catch the monster yellowfin that fight harder than anything Tyson ever threw.

Kevin Carter resembled a marathon runner trying to sprint up the last hill to the finish line at the end of a race. Drenched in sweat from head to toe, his muscles rippled. Only pride kept him from complaining about fighting the 140-pound-plus yellowfin tuna, which gave him a steady dose of soreness and exhaustion.

The first five minutes of a yellowfin battle always resemble the first five minutes of a marathon race. You’re excited about the challenge of the day, but then you wonder, “Why was this something I really thought I needed to do?”

But once we hauled the big yellowfin onboard the Peace Keeper, Carter felt a sense of accomplishment only a serious tuna fisherman could understand. He had taken on the big tuna with stand-up tackle and fought it for nearly three hours. Through the battle, Carter watched his reel throw spray that looked like smoke coming from the spool as the big tuna charged time and time again. Carter’s endurance, not his strength, had proved the ingredient most needed to win the battle and take home some of the finest sushi the Gulf of Mexico had to offer.

At one time, bottom fishermen targeted red snapper and grouper, and blue-water anglers preferred to go after marlin. However, the reliability of yellowfin tuna and the fact that they bite year-round have made them new stars in our offshore waters, particularly with the recent further reduction of red snapper limits.

When you get a tuna onboard, you will have had a hard and long fight, and you’ll revel in giving your family some of the finest-tasting saltwater fish that swims.

In the past, if you traveled from Venice to 1,500-foot-deep water, you’d spend most of your time getting to or coming away from the fishing site and very little time fishing. But thanks to new technology, faster boats and more fuel-efficient engines, charter boats can reach the fishing spots less than two hours after leaving the dock.

Man and his machine

Rimmer Covington of Pass Christian, Miss., a different breed of offshore fisherman, has two undergraduate degrees in finance and also a master’s degree in accounting. He’s walked away from a high-paying job in the securities industry to live the life of his dreams.

“Every weekend, I’d head to Venice and run a charterboat,” Covington says. “When I was on that boat and out in the Gulf of Mexico fishing, I knew this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Although I enjoyed the securities business, I never could escape my longing to be a charterboat captain.”

Before he made his bold step, Covington studied the market to determine what could separate him from other charterboat captains, and what he could offer to create better trips for anglers. He learned that he needed speed.

“Most fishermen don’t like to spend most of their trips riding to and from where they’ll fish,” Covington said. “They want to reach the fishing spot, fish as long as they can and return to the dock quickly.”

If anglers had the option, they’d prefer comfort and enjoy entertainment on the way to and from the fishing spot. To answer this need, Covington purchased a smooth-riding 39-foot 2007 Sea Vee powered by a 300-horsepower Suzuki four-stroke engine with a Raymarine electronics package that included a Raymarine E-Series model 120-multifunction navigation display and a DSM300 depth finder with a B260 1kw transducer.

“We also have radar, Sirius satellite weather and JL Marine audio that allows us to pick up 200 radio-satellite stations, and produces one of the best sound systems on the water,” he said. “The boat also has a TR-1 Gladiator autopilot. This boat is a run-and-gun machine.”

The boat cruises at 43 to 45 m.p.h. On the top end, it can run about 60 m.p.h., and can get from the dock to the fishing grounds quickly.

But speed’s not cheap. Covington’s boat burns about 45 gallons per hour, and gets about 1 mile to the gallon, so he usually burns about 300 gallons of gas on an average trip.

These newer, faster boats signal the wave of the future for charter fishing. During a day, Covington will run 60 to 100 miles from port before he starts fishing, since he usually knows where the tuna have concentrated before he leaves the dock.

Finding tuna

When I fished with Covington, once the Peace Keeper finally slowed down, our boat had reached a point above 1,500 feet of water.

“The depth of the water isn’t nearly as important as the type of bait that’s holding in this location,” Covington said. “The tuna are feeding on hardtails, barjacks, goggleyes, big-eyed scad, flying fish and squid. Although we’re targeting yellowfin tuna, we’ll also have a chance at dolphin, wahoo and marlin.”

Covington explained that the legs of an oil rig will concentrate baitfish, and the sport fish will go where the baitfish hold.

“These oil and gas platforms have really been a tremendous benefit to fishermen, because they provide structure for the baitfish in an easy-to-find location where the anglers can pinpoint sport fish,” Covington said.

Like any good captain, Covington studies the water and makes notes of small details that often pay off big in tuna dividends.

“One of the important factors when tuna fishing is current,” he said. “The more current an area has, the better the fishing will be, and the better our likelihood of seeing and catching a tuna. A tuna has to have water coming over its gills at 3 to 5 m.p.h to have enough flow to sustain life.

“If a region of water has 3 to 4 knots of current like we do today, the tuna can hold in one spot and let the current bring the bait to it. Then the tuna can see the bait on the surface and make a quick run to eat it.

“When we spot the tuna on our electronics, we put our baits out and plan to bump-troll right on top of the fish. Bump-trolling is simply putting the engines in gear and then taking them out of gear to just barely move the boat.”

Catching tuna

Tuna hunt in packs.

“The tuna will start circling a pod of baitfish at maybe 600 to 800 feet deep, and then they’ll push that school of baitfish up to the surface,” Covington said. “When the tuna get the baitfish up close to the top of the water, usually near the oil rig, they’ll try and push the baitfish out away from the rig and up to the surface where they can attack and eat the baitfish quicker and easier.

“The smaller tuna that will weigh 60 to 80 pounds will generally be the tuna that herd the baitfish and push them to the surface. Often, the bigger tuna will wait on the bait to reach the surface before they attack and eat.”

Covington uses a kite to catch the tuna.

“When we’re going to fish our baits on kites, we use a bridle on the back of our blue runner,” he said. “We put the hook under the bridle and use a No. 9/0 7691DT Mustad Southern and Tuna hook. Then we slide the bait along the line that secures to the kite that’s flying well out the downwind side of the boat.

“The advantage of the kite is it gets the bait far out to the side of the boat and holds the line and the hook just out of the water. Then all the tuna sees is the bait skipping across the water.

“To encourage the tuna to come up to the surface, we allow the bait to skip. The bait will come down and thrash the wire. The kite will lift it a little, come down and thrash again. When we see the tuna strike coming to the bait or at the bait, we lower the blue runner so it’s easier for the tuna to get the bait in its mouth.

“This type of presentation doesn’t allow the tuna to see the hook or the line, so we’ve found we can get far more strikes by flying the kite than by dragging the bait behind the boat.”

When the tuna takes the bait, the line that’s attached to the rod hops off the kite string and allows for about a two-second drop back to give the tuna time to completely eat the bait before you set the hook. Covington spools his Shimano reels with 350 yards of 130-pound-test Jerry Brown Holo Core Spectra line, top-shotted with 80-pound Mustad Ultra Line on Shimano rods.

Covington likes stand-up tackle because then the angler has more mobility than if he’s sitting in a chair. He quickly and easily can move around the boat, depending on which way the fish is runs.

Not 20 minutes after Carter caught his tuna, a second tuna took a 1 1/2-pound bar jack under the kite, and Mike Jones of Jackson, Miss., stepped up to answer the call. When Jones took the rod, the big yellowfin ran, taking out more than 400 yards of line before it stopped its run.

“Anytime we have a tuna run that far, it usually will weigh 150 pounds or more,” Covington said.

As the fish stopped its run, and Jones started to reel it in, he looked like someone had dumped a bucket of water on him. Sweat dripped off him, and occasionally, he’d need a cool drink of water.

“What’s hurting, Mike?” someone asked.

He replied, “My back, my feet, my hands, my shoulders and every other part of my body,” and he’d only held the rod for about 25 minutes.

“How long is the longest you’ve seen a tuna fight last?” I asked Covington.

“About four hours,” he answered.

Jones grimaced at the prospect of having to fight this huge tuna for another 3 1/2 hours.

Covington felt confident that Jones could bring this big yellowfin to the boat.

“Landing a big tuna isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon,” Covington observed about an hour into Jones’ fight. “You really have to pace yourself to stay in the fight and get the fish into the boat.”

Finally, after about 2 1/2 hours of hard work, Jones brought the big tuna alongside, and Covington and the deckhand gaffed the 175-pound yellowfin and got it onboard.

Why would anyone want to fight a fish for one to four hours and suffer physical exhaustion when the battle’s over? Only a fisherman knows, just like I can’t understand why people climb mountains or jump out of airplanes when they’re not crashing.

But catching even one yellowfin tuna has hooked more than a few anglers on making trips to the blue water off Louisiana’s shores every year. When the battle with the tuna ends, whether the angler verbalizes it or not, he understands that he’ll return for another fight next year.

Capt. Rimmer Covington can be reached at (601) 951-3981 or rimmerc@gmail.com.

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