Lump Lesson

Having success at the Midnight Lump isn’t as easy as merely hurling a chunk of bait into the water. The pros have secrets that help them consistently deliver the goods.

Anybody who has spent more than a few days simply surveying the scene at the dock of either Venice Marina or Cypress Cove Marina during the first several weeks of the year has seen it. A crew of tired anglers pull up to the dock, and the body language is unmistakable. Perhaps a few look toward the cleaning table to confirm what they knew they had seen in the distance hours before, but just as many try to avoid it, much like they avoid eye contact and small talk with fellow anglers adrenalized by their own success at the famed Midnight Lump. Most simply want to wash the top layer of pogie crud and saltwater off of their skin and get away from the place as quickly as possible.

Just as every football coach stresses eliminating mistakes in the interest of getting back on the winning side of things, there are many corrections that can be made by beginning Lump anglers before leaving the dock. Also, in-game adjustments are critical to success in both sports.

As fun as fishing the Midnight Lump can be during the winter tuna run, it can be every bit as frustrating to anglers who’ve heard countless stories of giant pelagics cruising through chumlines and watching as they gulp a baited line, instantly putting a bend in a heavy stand-up rod that doesn’t seem possible. It’s certainly not as easy as some make it out to be.

“One of the biggest things is if you’re not catching anything, try something different,” said James Peters of Osprey Charters. “It can be something very simple that can make a huge difference in catching fish.”

One of the things that Peters does not do differently is keeping at least one bait drifting naturally at all times. A drag-free drift can often mean the difference in catching fish.

“There are plenty of people who go out there with four lines set at different levels, and they just wait for the fish to hit them,” he said. “There’s one guy who does just about everything wrong. He uses big, nasty-looking hooks, big crimps, 400-pound leaders, and he catches a lot of fish. But there are times when the only line that gets hit is the one that most closely imitates the bait that is out there.”

What Peters is referring to, of course, is the thousands of individual chunks being deployed by anglers. Mimicking this slow descent can be just as important as mimicking the hardtail, a favored bait to be slow-trolled by anglers fishing for tuna the rest of the year.

“These fish’s eyesight is really incredible,” he said. “I see them tracking a piece of chum as soon as it clears the plane of the cockpit all the time. They’re on it as soon as it hits the water. You’ve got to make the bait with the hook in it look as much like the ones without the hook as possible.”

This means being detailed in hiding the hook in the bait as thoroughly as possible and taking a little extra time in doing so. With the increased amount of pressure the Lump receives each year, attention paid to the little things in the prep work can often make the difference in how bloody the boat gets.

Size often means everything out there and can be just the thing needed to get bites. Anglers who aren’t afraid to go with an instinct are often rewarded with good catches. Some of the best baits are the smallest of pogies or very small cubes of bonito fashioned to a small hook.

“Sometimes it can be as simple as having a slightly different size weight on your line,” said Scott Avanzino of Paradise Outfitters.

One of the most important mistakes that people make is not keeping the fish around the boat when a fish is hooked up. Failure to keep the chum slick going when there is chaos in the cockpit with multiple fish on the lines can often result in a tough day. Losing one or both fish — a very real possibility given the circumstances — can mean a fruitless several hours trying to get back in the game if the fish are not kept around the boat.

“It’s no fun when somebody has to keep chumming when everybody else is having a great time fighting fish, but it’s absolutely crucial, especially when there are a bunch of other boats out there. If you let those fish go, you may never get them back,” said Avanzino.

Having enough essential gear is also extremely important. King mackerel are often a pesky adversary, since using steel or wire leader is not an option due to the tuna’s keen eyesight. Chris Moran of Cajun Made Fishing Charters says that he chooses to wait them out, and has a peanut butter jar full of hooks at the ready.

“When the kings are in there, I just roll with it, just keep tying hooks,” he said. “I’ve seen it enough times where it’ll be king after king after king, and then a tuna will hit. What you don’t want to have happen is to run out of hooks. They’re not the things you want to scrimp on.”

Neither are the various weights, hooks and leader material needed to meet the finicky demands of the fish. For anglers like Avanzino, that’s not a concern.

“I’ve got cases and cases of stuff onboard in reserve. If we ever sank a boat, we’d be out of a lot of money,” said Avanzino. “Some days it’s going to take a 12-ounce sinker, some days an 8-ounce, some days a 4-ounce, some days no weight. You’ve got to be prepared for every situation.”

The same applies to bait. Taking along an adequate supply of dead bait — mainly pogies — is important, but just as crucial is securing enough bonito for cut bait and chum when they are numerous. Many anglers get several in the boat, and believe that that is enough to last the day. A good rule is to catch as many as you can possibly hold while they are in a feeding mood, because it rarely lasts all day.

“I like to keep at least a dozen on hand at a time,” said Avanzino.

When they do stop biting readily, Avanzino says that anglers can still scratch out a few by switching to lighter tackle to get bites. This is time-consuming and cumbersome when lines are set for the target species.

Because every day is different, anglers have different bait needs from trip to trip. Some days, experimentation dictates that the fish require a very small piece of bait, while other days require an extra large chunk of bonito to dissuade blackfin tuna from eating before a large yellowfin has a chance. Large chunks such as these go quickly, and keeping the big fish interested often requires a steady stream of bait.

Experimentation also led to another skipper finding a trick to getting fish to bite. Moran says he has found line color can make a big difference in getting bites. Moran is always prepared with at least two rods with different color main line.

“Clear line, of course, works best in clear water, but I’ve had days where (high visibility) yellow line gets the most bites,” said Moran, adding that he keeps enough line on board to prepare topshots (extra long leaders popularized on the West Coast) on all lines if one brand of line is consistently getting bit.

Another mistake Moran has noticed is fishermen using a standard Carolina rig with a sliding egg sinker for their deep lines. Getting bites is not often a problem, but managing a fish at boatside is a serious one when a 1/2-pound weight is swinging around.

“You don’t want to have to handline a big fish like that,” he said. “What most people do is attach an old teardrop type weight directly to the line with a rubber band, a light one if possible. Hopefully it will snap off at the strike and you’re just reeling in a fish with no weight. But even if it does stay attached, you can easily rip it off when it gets close, and having a bit of rubber band on the line is no big deal.”

Aside from catching fish is the issue of safety among those choosing to take advantage of the relative proximity of the Lump. Peters pointed out several things that many might not think of when making the decision to take on the Gulf in the middle of winter.

“Anchoring the boat is something that takes a little getting used to, especially in a small boat in choppy seas,” said Peters. “I remember a few years ago this little boat pulls up with a guy, his wife and two kids, and it had to be the worst day of their lives. The front cleat popped off when the anchor bit, the rope hit the lady in the head, and this guy was screaming every curse word in the book.”

Even when everything is going well, danger lurks even in large vessels equipped to handle the conditions.

“What people have to understand is that things can get really hectic out there when there are fish around the boat,” Peters said. “It’s really mesmerizing seeing big fish like that, and when people stop paying attention to what they’re doing, bad things can happen.”

The excitement of conquering the sea and then conquering a fish that many people spend thousands of dollars trying to catch is enough for anyone to lose focus on basic safety. Bay boats and even small center-consoles are simply not made for hours anchored on the same spot in 200 feet of water.

“I know people will say it’s just like rig fishing, but it’s really not,” Peters said. “You’re usually fishing a rig for an hour or so and then moving. You’re not sitting on one spot for many hours at a time.

“When you’ve got a big fish on, people don’t think about things like all of the weight being concentrated in the back of the boat where the person is fighting and landing the fish. It’s things like that that get people into trouble.”

Peters said many problems such as the boat filling up with water can occur over a long period of time.

“I guess it’s better now than when there were only three or four boats out there,” he said.

Another caveat with small-boat angling or any boat not equipped with radar is the possibility of fog. Peters says that just because the morning begins clear doesn’t mean it will stay that way.

“The worst situation is when the fog rolls in after people have set up,” he said. “Then you get into the situation of having to follow someone home. That’s usually not a problem now with as many boats as there are nowadays, but that’s having to depend on someone you don’t know to make the right decisions.”

Similarly, Peters said that one day last year was a particularly scary deal as a severe weather system hit the Lump as people were well into the day’s routine. Gusts of up to 50 m.p.h. would have kept most sane anglers at the dock, but there was too little indication to prevent a trip in the morning forecast.

Eliminating mistakes can’t make the weather cooperate on the days you have scheduled to fish the Lump, but they can swing the odds in your favor, make the return trip much more bearable and put a spring in your step come clean-up time.

Capt. Chris Moran can be contacted at (225) 638-6740; Capt. Scott Avanzino can be contacted at (985) 845-8006; and Capt. James Peters can be contacted at (504) 834-7097.