A group of anglers from all over the world spent four days way offshore to see what might hit their jigs and poppers. The results lit up internet chat rooms.
It was just after midnight. The boat was drifting calmly more than a hundred miles offshore. Lights from the largest truss and spar oil platform in the world cast an eerie glow across the water. A large colorful popper sailed through the air like a bullet, landing more than 75 yards off of the stern of the boat.
It took only two skillful tugs with the custom-designed 8-foot popping rod before the first of many Green Canyon explosions occurred.
The large and powerful yellowfin tuna, clearly surprised by the two treble hooks solidly attached, made a mad dash out to sea. It would be only minutes until the formidable fish succumbed to the pressure of the skillful angler, and would be brought alongside the 65-foot boat.
This was truly the first trip of its kind to take place in the Gulf of Mexico. Less than 24 hours earlier, 12 highly skilled anglers from around the world descended on Port Fourchon for the start of the four-day, three-night adventure that would take them out into the deep waters off of the coast of Louisiana.
“For this trip, we will catch all of our fish using only jigs and poppers,” remarked Kil Song, the trip’s organizer. “We are not interested in trolling or using live bait. And the trip will mostly be catch and release.”
Song had managed to assemble experts in both vertical jigging and popper casting for a unique exchange of ideas and techniques used in many different parts of the world.
The cast included anglers from many cultures. Anglers who were born in or had lived in Singapore, China, Korea, Japan and Lebanon brought fresh perspective to these two styles of fishing.
They were complemented by experienced anglers from Texas, Georgia, Massachusetts and Louisiana.
Most of the anglers had never met face-to-face. Most knew each other only from an internet forum (www.verticaljigging.com) that specializes in sharing information about jigging and popping.
“The techniques for jigging and popping are still new to most people in the U.S.,” said Randy Chin, co-owner of Anglers Pro Shop in Brooklyn, N.Y. “I hope to share my experiences and help jigging and popping to grow all over the country, but especially in the Gulf of Mexico.”
Chin’s shop specializes in importing high-quality overseas tackle designed specifically for these two techniques.
“Having the right tackle can make all the difference,” he said.
The group chartered Capt. Steve Tomeny and his 65-foot Caribbean Sea out of Port Fourchon to take them on their journey.
The itinerary was simple. Leave Port Fourchon. Bottom fish the Ship Shoal and South Timbalier blocks using vertical jigging techniques. Move into Green Canyon the first night to target yellowfin tuna with poppers. Spend the next two days and nights exploring the Green Canyon area. On the way in, make several more stops for bottom fish.
“This is a very different kind of trip for us,” Tomeny said. “Most of our charters are out and back in one day for red snapper. We do an occasional 30-hour trip for tuna.”
Tomeny was chartered to attempt a similar trip in the fall of last year. Unfortunately, that trip was cut short to only one night due to quickly worsening weather.
“I believe we’ll be able to stay out there all four days this time,” he said before the trip.
Once under way, the group gathered in the galley and began preparing their gear. Vertical jigs of various sizes, shapes and colors were laid out on the table. Heavy leader material was tied to brightly colored braided lines. Shimano Stella, Diawa Saltiga and Accurate Twin Drag reels were everywhere. It was a tackle junkie’s dream come true.
The first jig to come out of my bag was a long, flat, 14-ounce work of art by Smith Ltd. of Japan. It is called the Nagamasa Jig. The Nagamasa with its highly reflective pink finish and shape like that of a ribbonfish had served me well on many previous jigging trips.
“How many of those did you bring?” asked Sami Ghandour, also of Anglers Pro Shop.
I knew right away that he was hinting that he wanted some of my stash.
“I have enough,” I remarked.
“You can never have enough Nagamasas,” Ghandour replied.
He and I both knew that on more than one occasion, large, unstoppable fish, most likely amberjacks in the 100-pound class, would be waiting to hit our jigs with unstoppable power and run straight through the legs of the rig and out the other side, adding another jig to their jewelry collection.
Our predictions came true. On my very first drop of the trip, the jig did not even make it to its intended depth; it was snatched away as it fluttered toward the Gulf floor. I found myself holding on for dear life. The behemoth creature ran straight for the protection of the rig, and quickly popped the line.
“It’s combat fishing time,” I remarked to those around me.
Fishing vertical jigs close to structure requires a fine balance between the breaking strength of the line and the maximum amount of drag the angler’s tackle is willing to produce.
Too little drag, and the fish are able to find the safety of the oil rig. Too much drag, and your knots will fail, your line will pop, or worse — your rod will break.
The Shimano Stella 20000 I was using can make upwards of 66 pounds of drag. Experience has taught me that 25 to 28 pounds is just about right for use with my 100-pound braid.
“I should have used my drag scale,” I dejectedly remarked.
Those first few hours spent working the oil rigs of the Ship Shoal area were just enough to wet everyone’s appetite. Several large amberjack and grouper were landed.
I couldn’t help but notice the excitement our Korean guests displayed at the notion of landing grouper. It wasn’t until a little later in the trip that Song explained why.
“In Korea,” explained Song as he looked at a medium-sized scamp grouper, “this fish would be worth well over $500.”
I was astounded! Needless to say, every grouper landed was met with cheers and elation.
Most of the group, fully exhausted from several hours of pulling fish after fish to the side of the boat, retired to the bunkroom. It would be a few hours until we reached the deep water of Green Canyon. I laid in my bunk dreaming of large yellowfin tuna and the chance to catch them on poppers all night.
By the time I awoke, it was dark and the Caribbean Sea was circling Holstein, the large truss and spar oil rig anchored in 4,500 feet of deep blue water. We were in the Green Canyon 645 block, more than 100 miles from Belle Pass.
With calm seas, a new moon and flying fish all over the water, I knew this would be a good night of fishing. I grabbed my popping rod, and proceeded to the bow of the boat.
My first few casts were ugly. I could barely sling the popper more than 20 yards. Ghandour, noticing my frustration, came to my aid.
“You have to load the blank,” he said, “and start with about 5 feet of leader outside the guides.”
Ghandour lifted his rod over his head, keeping the blank parallel to the deck behind him. He waited until his popper settled down. Then, with expert skill, he launched the popper skyward, releasing the line at the 10 o’clock position. The popper rocketed away from the boat, landing at least 100 yards away.
“It takes practice,” he said. “You should watch Matsutani.”
Ghandour was referring to Hidekatsu Matsutani, a very special guest from Japan.
Matsutani is well known in the Far East, and is credited with being one of the premier innovators of jigging and popping techniques and tackle.
Formerly of Sevenseas Tackle in Osaka, Japan, Matsutani took advantage of rapidly changing technology to create jigging and popping rods that were lighter and stronger than any blank in the world.
Each year he strived to improve his rods to handle larger fish. Matsutani’s rods have been documented as landing giant trevally and dogtooth tuna in excess of 150 pounds.
While communicating verbally with Matsutani was somewhat difficult, it was easy to observe the mechanics of his cast. Before long, I could throw my poppers the distance needed to entice surface takes.
“Wow! Did you see that?” yelled Ghandour.
A large bull dolphin shot into the air, held tight to the line with a large popper.
“Apparently the tuna aren’t the only hungry ones out here,” I exclaimed. “Mahi on poppers at night? Who would have thought!”
Amidst all of the action, Tomeny’s crew had a gas grill going. The smell of Korean barbecue was nearly enough to make me drop my rod. I was as hungry as the fish.
“Some Korean friends from New Jersey donated this for the trip,” Song explained.
I could barely mutter “thank you” as I shoved bite after bite of deliciously marinated beef down my throat.
“You don’t get to eat like this on every charter!” I said.
Bodies fueled by Korean barbecue took up rods once again, and continued to cast into the darkness.
The 1,000-watt halogen light mounted to the back of Tomeny’s boat held fish with us the entire night. It seemed that the further away from the rig we drifted, the more the tuna stayed with us.
As the sunrise pierced the horizon, the anglers continued to cast. The bite went on well into the morning.
Having just awaken from a catnap, I came out onto deck just in time to see Ghandour holding a wahoo in his arms.
“You didn’t really catch that on a popper, did you?” I asked.
“He crushed it!” Ghandour replied.
As it turned out, this would not be the only wahoo to attack a popper.
The next evening proved to be a bit more challenging. The flying fish seemed to disappear. I decided it was time to change tactics a bit.
Out of my bag came a Frenzy Angry Popper. It was the new style with the glow-in-the-dark underside.
“This is a local favorite,” I explained. “Most of the tuna popping in this area is done with these Frenzys.”
“It looks good to me,” remarked Chin, who had also changed tactics a bit. “I’m using this now.”
He showed one of many stick baits he had with him.
“It cruises just below the surface,” he explained.
I cast my Frenzy into the darkness off the starboard side of the boat. A few tugs, and my drag was singing.
“I think I have a live one!” I yelled.
Judging from the fight, I was sure this would be a yellowfin in the 60-pound class. Ten minutes later, my jaw dropped.
“I can’t believe it!” I exclaimed as the fish came to the side of the boat. “It’s a giant blackfin.”
The blackfin tuna appeared to be more than 30 pounds.
“This supports my theory that pound-for-pound, blackfin fight harder than yellowfin,” I explained.
I contemplated keeping the fish just to see if it might have been near the Louisiana state record of 37.6 pounds. Knowing that we already had several nice yellowfin on ice, I decided that the powerful fish should get a new lease on life. Over the side it went.
Later that night in the galley, Ghandour and I talked about the great fishing.
“This place is amazing,” Ghandour said. “It’s all of this structure. The Gulf Coast of Louisiana really is a jigging and popping paradise.”
I could not have agreed more.
The morning of the third day, Tomeny moved the Caribbean Sea closer to shore.
“We have some spots we can bottom fish during the day today, and then we can move out to Brutus for the night,” he said.
Brutus is a tension-leg platform anchored in Green Canyon Block 158.
The day’s jigging and popping proved to be very productive. Yellowtail snapper, mahi, amberjack and grouper were all part of the day’s festivities. The most notable catch was a large snowy grouper.
“I’m very glad to have achieved one of my goals for this trip,” Song said. “I wanted to catch a large grouper close to the bottom with a jig.”
Song’s fish was pulled up from 800 feet down.
Unfortunately for the group, the final evening never got off the ground.
“There’s nothing happening out here,” remarked Ghandour.
“Yeah, it’s very strange,” I replied.
All of a sudden the winds picked up and seas started to churn.
“There were some big storms in New Orleans this evening,” Tomeny said. “There’s no rain on the radar though.”
Tomeny and his crew did an excellent job keeping the Caribbean Sea tucked in behind the oil platform. As the winds finally started to subside, the decision was made to move closer to shore.
Fully exhausted from the previous three days and two nights of fishing, the group managed to gather on deck for their final few hours of fishing.
Tomeny drifted several oil rigs and rock formations during the journey back to Port Fourchon.
We once again started to hammer the amberjack and grouper.
Ghandour, still unwilling to put away his popping rod, was blind-casting in the direction of the rig. His bright popper was making a lot of commotion.
After a few minutes, just before he was about to give up, a nice-sized wahoo shot straight into the air. It had just missed the popper.
“I’ve never seen that before!” remarked Ghandour.
“This has definitely been a trip of firsts,” I said.
He continued to cast, but it appeared his one final shot at another fish on the popper had passed.
The final few stops of the trip were for jigging red snapper. A nice 10-pounder came to the boat on a small pink/blue jig I had been dropping.
The bite was good, but it was time to get the boat back to port.
“I wish we could stay out here all day,” said Ghandour as we starting putting away our tackle.
“Me too,” I replied with a smile. “I feel spoiled being the only one who lives here, knowing I can fish like this anytime I want.”
“Yeah, you are truly lucky,” he replied.
Once again, I could not have agreed more.
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