Head way offshore this month for all the tackle-busting tun action you can handle.
It was a case of the “Haves” and the “Have Nots.” Louisiana has them, Florida doesn’t. No, I don’t mean Cajuns; rather drilling rigs — the fish-friendly structures that rival just about any natural formation for species diversity and angler access.
Recently, the debate over drilling off Florida’s coast has given state and federal lawmakers, along with various environmental groups, plenty to debate. Looks like the day is coming, but it’s still a long way from reality.
For now, all of us orange-pickers wanting to sample rig action have to travel north and west — usually basing tuna trips out of Venice.
Such was the case in June 2005, when the FLW Kingfish Tour brought the second event of its inaugural season to Venice Marina. A Tampa, Fla.-based crew, led by Capt. Alex Leva, pulled a 33-foot Hydra-Sports center console down Louisiana Highway 23 with big hopes of big kings — and maybe a little bonus action on the pelagic periphery.
As luck would have it, Mother Nature threw a curve ball by way of a nasty tropical storm named Arlene. This meteorological mayhem gave tournament competitors a bumpy ride on day 1, washed out day 2 and made the Gulf downright dangerous a day after the event. But on the second day post storm, we woke to light breezes, a nearly flat sea and fish that were ready to chew.
Fishing the floaters
Joining Leva were fellow Floridians Jim Ladner, Troy Nelson, Allen Winchel and their humble photographer from Tampa. We’ve been fishing out of Venice for over a decade, so refining our priorities was simple. The target was yellowfin tuna — those arm-stretching, back-breaking brutes that reward diligence and, indeed pain tolerance, with some of the sea’s finest fillets.
Having arrived three days before the tournament, we had enjoyed plenty of dockside recon, and the local boys made clear this point: If you want consistent yellowfin action, run deep. At this particular time, several charter boats were reporting limit catches around the Mars platform. (Strange to think that just a couple of months later, Hurricane Katrina would pummel this rig.)
Owned by Shell Oil, this giant yellow floater located within the Mississippi Canyon area operates in approximately 3,000 feet. Here, warm blue water invigorated by strong Gulf upwellings keeps the massive structure washed with nutrients and microscopic life forms that create the foundation for an entire ecosystem of progressively larger food chain links.
Ranking below only billfish and monstrous Gulf sharks, yellowfins are definitely the big shots of the rig. Reason: power. Stocky, muscular missiles, these fish will test your resolve as well as your tackle.
Kingfishermen accustomed to finessing delicate fish on light drags, need to learn a new game. It’s like comparing soccer to rugby. Tuna take it tough, and they’ll make you pay dearly for every inch of line.
And then there’s the whole attention deficit thing. Unlike nearshore fishing, where gamefish orientate to wrecks, reefs and ledges, bluewater fishing can be more of a cat-and-mouse game. Although the briny buffet of various forage species found beneath a rig’s superstructure attracts the yellow bullies, tuna personify the phrase “high strung.” They simply won’t sit still.
“This is pure hunting,” Leva said. “You have to have your eyes open and looking around. When these fish are in (several thousand) feet of water, they’re not hanging over anything. They’re just following the bait schools and the thermals.”
No doubt, the fish find patches of balmy brine appealing, but nothing holds their focus like a pile of chow. Threadfin herring, menhaden (pogies) and ballyhoo will work, but if you want the real-deal, can’t-miss, gotta-have-it “tuna candy,” then you want blue runners, a.k.a. hardtails.
Surprisingly, it’s not the 2-pound studs trolled for kingfish that yellowfin like. They’re actually partial to the hotdog-sized juvenile runners that congregate near rigs and beneath weed lines and Gulf flotsam.
With dense schools of baby blue runners appearing like a bag of potato chips for hungry tuna, Nelson said the art of locating the voracious predators is actually very simple: “Find the bait, and you’ll find the tuna.”
This we did, and the results were simply astounding — multiple limits of yellowfin from 40 to 70 pounds, several sporty blackfins and even a couple of keeper dolphin that came snooping around the boat. (Free-lining chunks of frozen cigar minnows put fresh mahi in the box.) The juvenile “chickens” always show up first, but within a few minutes, a couple of 20-pounders rushed in for a sampling of the bait chunks Winchel had used to seed the water.
For these targets of opportunity, keep a heavy-action spinning outfit rigged with 40-pound braided line, a 40-pound fluorocarbon leader and a 7/0 live-bait hook. When dolphin come to investigate, pitch a live blue runner or a freshly-cut chunk their way, and the sudden meal usually meets with instant acceptance. If deck space permits, keep a live bait hooked and set in a bucket of water for quicker presentations.
Yellowfins are a gluttonous lot, which roam the ocean in search of their next meal. When a pack locates a school of baitfish, the surface erupts with white water slashing, frothy boils and showering baitfish. Tuna confirmation comes by way of “footballs in the air.”
Nothing short of spectacular, a motivated yellowfin will hit a topside meal at such velocity that its momentum carries it on a 10-foot skyward arc before crashing back into the sea.
Long before we dropped off plane on the outskirts of Mars, we could see plenty of surface commotion punctuated by the occasional crash of an enormous body’s briny reentrance. With Ladner at the helm, Leva, Winchel and Nelson deployed a simple, yet highly effective spread of Yo-Zuri Bonitas, surface runners and the old tried-and-true cedar plug.
The latter — comprising a cigar-shaped wooden tube with metal ends and a dangling hook — resembles a fleeing baitfish. Winchell said a traditional brown or red/white cedar plug running behind a daisy chain squid teaser makes an irresistible combination.
For a spell, we drifted a spread of blue runners along the rig. Winchel varied our presentation by lofting a kite, a tactic that often teases tuna into investigating the struggles of a blue runner dangling just below the surface. However you present baits, stay at least 50 yards off the rig, as marauding barracuda patrol near the structure, and if your baits make it through these ravaging pests, a hooked fish becomes a target for the toothy freeloaders.
Strikes were anything but subtle, and there’s just no mistaking a hooked-up yellowfin. The rod bends like it’s towing a dumptruck, monofilament blisters off the reel and all the while, we’re thinking “Do we have enough line?” We did, and the give-and-take battle of reclaiming wet mono is won by patience and persistence as much as power and leverage.
At boatside, gaffing a yellowfin of respectable size is like goosing a grazing Brahma — it’s not a question of “if” you’re going to get beat up, it’s a question of how bad you’re going to get it. These are just brutal fish that really don’t want to meet you. Double gaffing is just about standard for these fish, and when that first meat hook finds its mark, hold on to your drawers — it’s grenade time.
Despite their aggressive nature, tuna spook easily, and plowing a spread of baits through them will put the school down for a long time. Best bet is to watch their feeding commotion for a minute or so to determine a course or general area of concentration. Baitfish will run and predators will follow, so line up an intercept point and then drift or troll baits into the fish.
Ladner’s trolling speed averaged about 3-5 knots, and the tuna had no trouble catching their meals at this pace. Making broad hooks around the school, Ladner pulled the baits through the fish without passing overhead with the boat. Tuna will tolerate outboards from a distance, but give them a haircut and they’ll scoot for good.
Whatever baits/lures you run, keep all lines in the water for a couple of minutes after a tuna hookup, and you’ll have a good chance of scoring double or triple headers. Between bites, check your baits frequently, as floating grass and debris will mar presentations.
If the action slows, you can often jumpstart a bite by chumming with thumb-sized chunks of frozen baitfish or livies that die in the well. Tuna aren’t picky, so lay out a generous trail of freebies, and get ready for a strike.
Following a long day on the water, Winchel had his hands full cleaning a stack of tuna. After the rest of us had washed the boat and offloaded the gear, we joined him at the cleaning table. Staring at a couple of coolers full of bagged yellowfin, we couldn’t help but smile at one another.
But, you know, it was more than the meat.
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