Freelined Fins

When tuna, snapper and speckled trout are finicky, use this technique to put more in the boat.

Louisiana anglers have a reputation — deserved or not — of being on the tail end of technology and finesse techniques in the pursuit of the state’s varied fish population.

Though there is certainly a healthy segment who utilize terminal tackle that could be used as line for a winch, many are learning the phrase “free your mind” when it comes to maximizing opportunities for certain popular species.

Free-lining live and dead baits is becoming more and more popular for taking speckled trout, tuna and mangrove snapper. The species are readily caught by numerous methods including those that can be categorized as the polar opposite of a simple hook attached to main line or leader.

But a growing number of anglers are realizing that equal parts simplicity and complexity are hard to beat in taking finicky and oftentimes much larger fish.

The tuna fishery has come a long way from the days when the species was considered a nuisance by marlin fishermen and were unceremoniously tossed back into the deep blue, scorned by their captors as unfit to eat. Plenty of monster yellowfins are still caught by the billfish crowd with their stout 300-pound leaders, key chain-sized swivels and other tackle made to subdue the biggest blue marlin, but serious tuna anglers are sizing down, way down, in the pursuit of yellow-finned trophies.

A growing number of bluewater anglers are moving toward a stealthy approach to tuna fishing. Long-time veterans probably have a hard time imagining fishing for 100-plus-pound yellowfin with leader material used for bull red fishing, but that is exactly the way it has gone.

The Gulf’s reputation for big catches has forced anglers — particularly charter captains — into drastic tactics for getting bites, even on the famed Midnight Lump, where few anglers can stomach watching chummed-up fish pass up baited hooks in favor of every other piece of chum that hits the water.

Tuna fishermen on both coasts have long used light leaders — much lighter than the main line — to coax strikes from fish. Thirty-pound tippet is often used by long-range fishermen in getting bites when “fly-lining” live baits behind the massive charter boats out of San Diego. Upper East Coasters use the light stuff to entice strikes while chunking cut butterfish.

Admittedly, it takes a lot of skill and more than a little luck to bring a big fish to gaff, but most admit the number of “shots” at a fish make the defeats easier to forget.

Capt. Al Walker of Xtreme Fishing Charters (504-621-1326) is a big believer in freelining, and not just on the Midnight Lump in winter and early spring. Walker has taken to freelining in and around the massive floaters sprinkled throughout the Gulf. Walker’s chosen port of Venice is home to numerous such structures, as well as the being the most convenient jumping-off spot to the Lump.

Presentation is the key, Walker says, and the line needs to drift as naturally as possible. This means line should feed with no drag from rod guides or reel. The best way is pulling line from the rod tip or coiling a length of it in one’s hand (just make sure it is available to be let go in a split second). Tuna and bonito typically travel swiftly on the bite and really fast when they feel the pressure of the rod.

Views vary on the effectiveness and attributes of fluorocarbon leader. Walker is a big advocate of the high-tech line, but for a different reason than most, particularly the line companies.

“I’ve filmed fluorocarbon under water for a long time, and it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference in the fish seeing the line,” said Walker. “The thing that makes fluorocarbon is abrasion resistance.”

Walker likes small hooks and uses those of the live-bait variety more so than circle hooks. Small hooks allow him to more easily hide baits, and their weight will not interfere with the bait’s drift. Fluorocarbon helps land more fish when the tuna’s tough teeth rub the leader when the fish is hooked in the back of the mouth. But Walker says that 50-pound Triple Fish brand line will draw just as many strikes at a much lower price.

One of Walker’s secrets is getting as many shots at a fish as possible.

“When there are fish around the boat and I’m targeting a big fish, I’m going to put it in front of him every time that I can,” he said. “That way I’ve got a bunch of shots at him, and I’ve got a better chance at figuring out what it’s going to take to get him to eat.”

Walker will present a bait to a visible fish, and if it refuses, he’ll immediately retrieve it and wait for the fish’s next pass. Letting the bait drift farther and farther down only wastes time, and he says that he has presented a fish many, many times before he finally decided it was time to eat.

Preparation is also important. Walker doesn’t like to wait for fresh bonito to come aboard for bait. He keeps frozen meat from previous trips or he grubs around the cleaning table for sloppy cleaning jobs in order to have ideal bait — small chunks of fish meat that’s red in color — ready for the tuna’s arrival.

“Pogies are good for drawing fish and catching bait, but without question the best bait is chunked bonito,” said Walker.

A line-to-leader splice is best for wary fish, and can be accomplished with a blood knot or uni-knot. Often, Walker will tie hooks directly to his 80-pound main line when fish and water conditions allow it.

Wide-Eyed Mangroves

Gray snapper — better known as mangrove snapper — have seen a stratospheric rise in popularity as anglers with nearshore capabilities have discovered them and red snapper fishermen have taken to them as a supplement — and sadly, a substitute — for the meager four-fish red snapper limit. Reds, however, are seldom as picky as mangroves, and presenting a bait in the most natural way possible is the key to success, especially with the larger specimens.

Mangroves are often found throughout the water column with small packs hanging tantalizingly close to the surface around oil platforms. These fish are often among the biggest of the population at a particular rig, sometimes being mistaken for small cobia when chum is lobbed their way. There’s little doubt who gets the first meals among the population, but these fish can be maddeningly skittish about taking a baited hook.

A healthy mixture of scaled-down tackle and a stealthy approach to bait presentation can prove deadly in putting these “Alpha males” in the cooler.

“The bigger fish up near the surface will generally not take baits that the fish closer to the bottom will. You can catch fish 40 feet down with a traditional bottom rig and a little lighter leader, but the fish up top don’t have any use for a 3-ounce weight and swivel,” said Chris Moran of Cajun Made Fishing Charters (225-931-7306), a big advocate of freelining for the wariest of the snapper family. “Even a small swivel to connect your leader to main line can make the fish shy.”

Moran also finds targeting the surface fish more fun than simply dropping a bait to fish seen on his fishfinder. Visual stimulation is one of the things that customers remember about their charter trip.

“Being able to identify the fish on a rig leg, getting those fish in a feeding mood and finding out what will make them hit — all in plain view — is a lot of fun for me, and the charter gets to be in on it more than just feeling for a bite at the end of 100 feet of line,” said Moran, who keeps his 27-foot Gravois at Port Fourchon.

Certain things go into success when these fish are identified. Hooks need to be smaller than one would think in tackling offshore species. Sizes vary from company to company, but live bait or circle hooks about the size of a contact lens case are a good starting point.

Hiding the hook in the dead bait — Moran uses pogies — is as important as using quality leader material. Moran lets the fish tell him how thoroughly the hook must be hidden, but says there are plenty of days when they won’t touch anything with the hint of metal visible.

These fish are extremely powerful on their initial run, and will go directly for the nearest barnacle-covered pipe when they feel pressure. Moran tries to keep from re-rigging constantly by drawing the fish as far from the platform as possible.

“You can really go through a lot of hooks in a hurry if you have to present the bait close to the rig, but some days that’s the way it has to go,” he said. “You might have the main line and the rod to turn their head, but when you have to go to 30-pound leader, it can get tough. You want to try and draw the fish as far from the pipes as possible and put as much pressure as you dare when they make a run for it.”

Thankfully, snapper are not known for their long runs, but they do have very rough teeth that can render a leader dangerously fragile after a few fish. Freelining mangroves can be a frustrating learning process, but not near as bad as getting the hang of it and running out of leader material and finding that is the only thing that will draw a strike. Make certain that the amount of leader is in tune with the number of anglers. It wouldn’t hurt to make sure you’re not the only one able to tie a snell or a uni-knot, either. These are lessons best learned on the dock, not at sea.

Spooky Specks

There is a seemingly endless list of methods for taking speckled trout, the unquestioned leader in Louisiana saltwater angling. Live bait such as shrimp, croakers and cocahoes remain a staple for many anglers despite the advances in artificial lures.

Traditional methods for these baits, such as Carolina-rigging and placement under corks, are known as much for their effectiveness as their ease in use. Adding a little finesse to any number of “livies” can be disconcerting for those comfortable with throwing a bait out there with a brightly colored cork or enough weight ahead of a barrel swivel to keep in contact with one’s leader no matter what the current or depth. But allowing the bait to do its thing without the hindrances of terminal tackle can make a world of difference on many days.

Capt. Brian Epstein (504-488-5581) uses freelining techniques when normal methods don’t produce what he thinks a structure should.

“Fish act differently just about every day out there,” says Epstein. “You’ve got to be versatile in your approach. I’d love to be able to put a live shrimp under a cork and have my customers toss it out there and watch it go down, but it doesn’t always work out that way.”

Specks are not nearly as wary as snapper or tuna in the clear-water applications, so if you feel you must use a swivel, do so. Reeling in a live bait can cause it to spin and result in a nasty line twist. Often, hooks are tied directly to the main line with just enough split shot to get the bait down without interfering with the bait’s action.

Trout can be caught freelining in virtually any situation, but are probably most often caught where they might be suspended. Casting upcurrent and letting the bait drift down with an eye on the line is best.

“There are many times when trout will really thump a bait on a free line, but usually there is plenty of slack in the line with the wind and current, so it pays to watch your line carefully to pick up the strikes,” says Epstein.

That slack line can create frustration when setting the hook with a freeline. Jerking at the first tap will seldom do the job if slack is present, and will create more slack when the hook sweep is complete. Because the fish feels little if any resistance, anglers an afford to reel up all the slack, point the rod at the fish and set the hook.

For those fishermen who don’t mind straying from the easy way of harvesting the Gulf’s bounty, the rewards of presenting bait naturally can be more and bigger fish.