Life is Hard

Hardtails are near the bottom of the offshore food chain, meaning just about anything that swims will gobble them up.

The briny deep just off the fertile Louisiana coastline is full of big fish, so much so that its anglers, for many years, spurned the use of live bait to catch prized species such as yellowfin tuna, amberjack, cobia and wahoo.Recently there has been a live-bait craze sweeping ports such as Venice, Grand Isle, Cocodrie and Cypremort Point. And no live bait is more sought after for these deepwater brutes than the blue runner, commonly known as the hardtail.

Pull up to most any oil rig in 50 feet of water or more, and one of the first things you’ll notice if the presence of small, shimmering fish on the surface, feeding on something that is not visible at all to the naked eye.

Many a snapper angler has eyed the sounder upon pulling up to a rig and hurriedly sent a bait to the large blob of fish being marked, hooked a hard pulling fish and disappointedly threw the first few into the ice chest to be used for cut bait before moving on.

Offshore anglers favoring bigger quarry now have a critical step on the way to the fishing grounds. Sabiki rigs, long multi-hooked leaders with fish skin or bright, synthetic “flies” attached to the hook are deployed to the depths where they are erratically jigged in hopes of hooking one or, better, several hardtails for use when the fishing begins in earnest.

It’s best to go overboard when buying these rigs. The fish themselves do a good enough job destroying them during the catching process, and there are often rogue jack crevalles patrolling the shallow rigs who love nothing more than the cheap meal presented by a struggling bait or two.

To catch them, drop the rig to the appropriate depth and begin a sharp, erratic retrieve toward the surface. Though many suggest keeping the baits in the strike zone once a fish is hooked in order to secure more bites, this often attracts predators and/or overloads the rig with hardtails, causing problems you have to see to believe. Best to get the first bait in he livewell and worry about filling it on the next few drops. Many times, more hardtails will attach themselves on the way up anyway.

LSU Ag Center biologist Jerald Horst says there should be no underestimating the importance of hardtails.

“Hardtails are among the most important bait fish for a variety of deep-water, migratory species,” he said. “They are a major player in terms of being a forage fish in the Gulf.”

Louisiana’s ubiquitous oil and gas platforms provide an ideal environment for holding large numbers of hardtails, thus making it the perfect bait for offshore anglers. Though mainly plankton eaters, hardtails are able to be easily caught by anglers keeping their baits small and their movement erratic. It also doesn’t hurt to catch them in water that is a little off-color.

“They’ve got a big, big range, and around here, they’re very easy to target,” said Horst. “They can be found in the surf zone — though they’re not usually found that shallow here — out to the deepest part of the Gulf. They really congregate on the platforms, and there are reasons they do so that are really interesting.

“The platforms create enough of a current break that it creates an ideal situation to concentrate plankton, both phytoplankton and zooplankton. In fact, the murky inshore rigs are loaded with hardtails because, in large part, that murk is the plankton that they’re feeding on.

“Zooplankton are also very much attracted to the lights on a rig.”

This presence of food serves as an ideal habitat for hardtails, so much so that Horst says that science — and there is very little of it regarding this species — indicates that as many as 30,000 hardtails can hold on one platform.

“That’s the reason the tunas and the mackerels and other highly migratory species are attracted to the rigs,” he said. “They’re open-water species. They are there because the bait is there.”

The hardtail’s acute eyesight makes it imperative that anglers catch their bait in water with at least a little murk and secure as much bait as they plan to use for the day should the destination be clear water. Chances are that you won’t have much success trying to secure additional baits when a barracuda snares the last one while slow trolling for tuna.

“The food that they’re eating is, at most the size of a pinhead. You’re typically not going to have a whole lot of success catching them in bluewater,” said Horst.

Perhaps no one is more qualified to talk about the use of hardtails as bait than Capt. Aaron Pierce of Shoreline Charters. As well as being an accomplished bluewater angler out of Port Fourchon, Pierce spent many years and many long, rough boat rides on the Southern Kingfish Association (SKA) tour. Most of the teams fishing kingfish tourneys in Mississippi and Louisiana use hardtails as bait, and the slow-trolling method used extensively in the Louisiana charter fleet that target yellowfin tuna is much the same as the technique SKA anglers have been using to tempt smoker kings for years.

“The technique is pretty much the same. Hardtails are slow trolled — one or two miles per hour — around oil platforms,” said Pierce. “One of the differences is that kingfish anglers try and find the biggest hardtails they can to eliminate the smaller kings. That’s not to say that a 20-pound king won’t eat a big hardtail, but the thinking is that the bigger baits do (dissuade the smaller fish.)”

King mackerel are anything but leader-shy, and it’s a good thing. Otherwise, almost none would be caught.

Leaders for this type of fishing consist of three separate strands of wire from 61-81 pounds of test. Haywire twists — by far the predominant connection for single strand wire used for the leaders — are fashioned to a swivel on one end and a 5/0 Mustad live bait hook on the other.

Also in the eye of the live bait hook is another haywire twist on one end and a No. 2 treble hook, known as the stinger hook.

The hardtail is hooked on the live bait hook on the hard part of the nose and through the body on the stinger hook, giving the angler two chances to hook a prize-winning king. For hardtails that are really big, Pierce adds even a second stinger hook to the leader.

For what they lack in table fare, kingfish make up for with breathtaking surface strikes — known as sky-rocketing — on the flat lines of a typical four-rod spread (two other baits are fashioned to downriggers to target deeper fish).

Kings often race toward the baits from almost directly below and their forward momentum carries them well into the air, sometimes as much as 10 or more feet. The hang time is often enough to see the hardtail flailing away in the fish’s toothy jaws.

But even such aggressive strikes and complex rigging such as this are not enough to make every hook-up stick.

“I’ve pulled the hooks on fish and the bait comes back with the entire midsection missing,” said Pierce. “It’s not common, but it does happen.”

All of this may sound like a bit much for a state with among the lowest interest on any coast for king mackerel. But Pierce has adapted the slow-trolling technique to one of the most prized fish in the Gulf in terms of table fare and fighting ability alike.

Wahoo are frequent by-catch in SKA tournaments, and teams are more than happy to put them in their fish boxes even as they curse the time lost in their pursuit of mackerel that take home cash prizes.

“I’ve caught lots of big wahoo in king mackerel tournaments, 80 pounds and over,” said Pierce. “The same techniques work for wahoo when you’re in water where you can target them.”

Pierce is referring to deeper water structure where kings are less present. This typically means depths of 200 feet plus. Though ‘hoos of bragging size can and often are caught in water much shallower, that water usually contains a lot of kingfish and sharks. And those species can go through a lot of baits before a wahoo is hooked.

“A few years ago, there was a big line of floaters just south of Grand Isle (block) 82. There were about five of them in a row,” said Pierce. “(Other charter skippers) would go out there and we’d radio each other to find out which one was holding fish.”

Of course slow trolling is just as its moniker implies — it’s slow. For this reason, it helps to have a fleet of boats working as a team. Drawing strikes on traditional wahoo “shaky baits” such as Magnum Rapalas and Braid baits and then switching to live bait is a more efficient way of doing things.

The possibility of big wahoo usually precludes the use of typical kingfish gear, which entails line as light as 20 pounds to draw strikes. Pierce switches to beefier rods capable of holding large amounts of at least 50-pound line. Veteran bluewater skippers say that a big wahoo will dump enough line on their lightning-fast initial run to fool them into thinking that they’ve hooked a marlin. Pierce upgrades his leaders to wire that tests at 109 pounds as well as bigger hooks.

Amberjack is another species caught on live hardtails, though the tackle and techniques are as different as night and day. What AJ anglers miss in the aerial show kings and wahoo put on, many believe is equaled by the unmistakable feeling by the bait on the end of the line when one of the meanest fish in the Gulf nears. Saying that the bait is feeling nervous is an understatement.

“You’d be nervous too if you saw some of the size of the amberjack that are down there,” said Blain Doucet, who makes the long run to the deep Eugene Island blocks from Cypremort Point.

An admitted snapper fiend, Doucet says he’s often glad when the bite slows and the crew decides it’s time to do battle with the jacks. Also an avid diver, he knows what lies down there and exactly why many anglers have no shot at stopping some fish with what they think is adequate tackle.

“If you’re really serious about catching most of the fish you hook, you’ve got to be serious about your tackle,” said Doucet.

Hooks used by shark fishermen on the northeast Atlantic Coast, 300-pound leader and 200-pound main line are important cogs to the process, but it’s the custom 5 1/2-foot rods and the wherewithal to use them properly that puts fish in the box.

“You can tell in the first five seconds of so if you’ve got a real fish,” says Doucet, calling any jack 50 or more pounds a “real” fish. “Even with all of the harnesses and special rods and heavy line, you’ll take some casualties.”

With the heavy gear, Doucet is able to break the spirit of the fish quicker and get smaller fish back in the water in good shape after a boat limit is reached.

Cobia and dolphin are also taken on free-lined hardtails, and finicky members of both species are known to light up when a baby ‘tail is presented to them.

For these fish, much smaller baits are best, meaning finding locations where they hang out. These smaller baits are often favored by tuna anglers, and locations are strenuously guarded.

Smaller sabiki rigs are deployed in order to catch the prized baits that are as small as 4 inches. Of course, in the search for smaller baits, large hardtails are often encountered. These fish are extremely strong and can tear apart the smaller sabikis quite easily.

Having a healthy supply — and that can mean two dozen or more — on hand is a must for acquiring any size bait, but is doubly important when searching for the ideal-sized ‘tails.