Living History

Tuna fishing has come a long way in a short time here in the Bayou State.

One of the more amazing stories in Louisiana saltwater history is the fairly recent popularity of the yellowfin tuna as a food and sport fish.

Recognized by most now as a culinary delight when properly seared, grilled or eaten raw with a shot of Japanese horseradish and soy sauce, many anglers late to the state’s bluewater game would scarcely believe the stories told by old-school fishermen.“When I was a little kid, I practically grew up at Port Eads down at South Pass,” said Billy Good, son of Bill Good, one of the founders of the New Orleans Big Game Fishing Club. “We’d have marlin tournaments, but there would always be a category for yellowfin.

“We’d catch one of those beasts — fish 150 pounds or so — while trolling for marlin, and my job was to keep a wet towel over its head and keep pouring water over its head to keep it from getting dehydrated just so that we could weigh it.”

It was what they did after the fish was weighed that would shock most of the twin outboard Johnny-come-lately crowd sporting mono hulls or catamarans with twin outboards. A rope would be wrapped around the tail and the fish would be lowered into the water next to the huge scale. Nary a thought would be given to conservation.

“The hardhead catfish would absolutely go nuts, just devouring the carcass. We called them the Port Eads piranhas,” said Good. “You could pull the fish out of the water and there would be catfish attached to it.”

Yes, that’s how it used to be, the fish that seemingly everybody wants to catch these days had about as much respect as its lowly cousin, the little tunny (bonito). Fish that is now purchased for $4 a sliver (uncooked) in Japanese restaurants and $20 a steak (barely cooked) was part of the post weigh-in entertainment.

“I remember the first time I ever saw a man cut a steak out of a tuna, I thought, ‘What’s that guy doing?’ It never really registered to me that that was the same stuff you ate out of a can,” said Good.

A combination of factors spurred the growth of tuna fishing in state waters. Sushi restaurants became much more than a fad, the Internet howled of tales from the amazingly close deep water and technological advances in outboard motor technology made it possible for anglers — and charter captains — with slightly more restricted budgets to reach the blue water.

Much has changed, however, in the tuna fishing game, not only in how the fish are caught, but in the territorial make-up of the species. The trend away from shallow-water drilling and the removal of many rigs closer to shore have taken much of the bait-holding habitat from the tuna. Conversely, the exploration companies’ trend toward deep-water drilling has created much more habitat far from port.

“It used to be nothing to go out not that far at all and pull artificial baits and catch all of the yellowfin you wanted on a good day,” said Capt. Scott Avanzino. “I think now that there are so many structures out there that the fish don’t have to move in.

“Even in October and November, when the mullet are coming out of the passes, we’re finding a lot of the fish are holding on the drill ships and the floaters and the spars well offshore in the really deep water.”

New Orleans resident John Ryan has been fishing the Louisiana blue water for many years and, surprisingly, indicated that chumming and live bait fishing — a pair of techniques that have caught on like wildfire very recently — were among the first ways he and his crew used to put tuna in the boat back in the late ’70s.

“We would go out to West Delta 152 — in those days that was a long run — and tie up to the rig to fish for amberjack, grouper and snapper. But we were also accidentally catching tuna, yellowfin and blackfin. We hadn’t figured out that drifting would be a better way of doing it, and of course, we lost a lot of fish,” said Ryan.

“We figured out that if we chummed while tied up at the rig, we could actually target the tuna,” said Ryan. “Now, this wasn’t at all the kind of chumming we do now at the floaters and spars and the other deepwater structure. We were chumming more like you do at the Midnight Lump.”

Like many bluewater anglers, Ryan and his buddies soon turned their attention to marlin, and they began spending more and more time trolling the rip, where not only a chance at a prized billfish existed, but a variety of delicious species as well. Dolphin, wahoo and tuna helped pass the time between marlin strikes when the loop current made its appearance off the mouth of the river each summer.

When the anglers did want to target tuna while trolling, they prepared natural baits such as mullet and ballyhoo to draw more strikes.

“There was no question that if you wanted to target tuna, the natural baits were the way to go. It was a time about when the Midnight Lump was beginning to catch on,” Ryan said.

The feeling of being able to catch tuna aside from the time when most anybody could catch them — during Lump season — was very rewarding to Ryan and his crew.

The Lump, a high spot located about 20 miles off the mouth of the river, could scarcely be more popular than it is right now. That’s why it was so surprising to hear that there were regularly 50 or 60 boats anchored on it when Capt. Brandon Ballay began fishing it in the early ’80s.

“They were almost all commercial boats. The first time I ever went out there, a friend of my Dad let me tie up to the back of him. Needless to say, the next time I brought 600 feet of rope and a big anchor,” said Ballay.

Ballay says the combination of recreational over-crowding and a severe drop in the price of rod-and-reel-caught tuna — buyers contended that the meat quality was subpar due to the prolonged struggle — made many commercials move on to other things.

In their place, however, are throngs of recreational boats from Venice, Empire, Grand Isle, Fourchon and even Cocodrie.

Though there are many stories of chumming with boiled crawfish heads, Ballay says most of those are more legend than anything else. They used chopped-up pogies just as anglers do today.

John Ryan says that the Lump used to be much better for those who didn’t have the equipment for anchorage in such deep water.

“I remember seeing a boat out there with downriggers trolling around and just hauling them in one after another,” he said. “I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to get some downriggers.’

Attached to the lines aided by those downriggers were diving plugs such as Rapala CD-18s, Braid brand plugs and the familiar Halco Giant Tremblers. Though still popular with the sporadic fall and winter wahoo runs, such plugs are almost unheard of these days.

“It used to be all you needed was a spread of Rapalas and Halcos, and you could catch all the tuna you wanted,” said Ballay. “Today, they just don’t work as well. I would imagine that if everybody went back to artificials for a year, you might do OK, but we know that’s not going to happen.”

Squid chains became popular for a while when surface activity was evident and anglers were treated to explosive surface strikes from even 10-pound blackfin tuna, but late summer often meant seeing acres of finicky fish and hours of strikeless pulling. Ryan says he used to improvise with lures in order to draw reaction strikes from fish obviously feeding on small baitfish.

“We would throw these spoons and rip them back on the surface. We’d also use Rapalas with the lip removed and skitter them across the school,” said Ryan. “There were also these little squid-type jigs we’d burn through the school, and have pretty good success. This was all before the bait companies started coming out with the big poppers.”

Ryan said technology has also greatly improved the hook-up-to-catch ratio with the advent of today’s braided lines.

“Back then, you just pretty much had to live with the fact that you were going to lose a lot of fish and a lot of baits,” he said. “We were able to catch plenty of 40- and 50-pounders, but if we were on big fish, the drag systems on the reels (spooled with 40-pound mono) back then just couldn’t handle it.”

At about the same time, live bait came into the picture. Slow-trolling live hardtails was an unbelievably effective technique, and spawned a heated debate as to who brought it to state waters. Whoever it was, state anglers have been eternally grateful. Now, bait-gathering is as important to a tuna trip as making certain drags are in working order.

“The live-bait thing was what really turned a lot of people on to fishing out there,” said New Orleans angler Charles Granger. “Even though it’s not as easy to do as fishing for trout with live bait, it does take a lot of the drudgery out of just circling a rig all day at six knots.

“There’s something really cool about seeing a huge boil just off of the prop wash and the clicker starts singing. Somebody will rush over to the reel, and then somebody’s yelling at him to let him run, and finally he throws the drag and the rod goes into a full bend!”

Just in the past several years, deepwater chumming has become a preferred method in part because of the alleviation of the bait-making process, but also in its stunning effectiveness on fish that are quite apparently inactive.

“You can mark fish on your sounder at 50, even 100 feet, fish that wouldn’t come up for a trolled bait for anything, and you’ve got a shot at catching them if you stay with it enough and present your bait properly,” Granger said.

Perhaps the greatest testament to chumming’s effectiveness is the curious railings of outspoken (and downright looney, according to many) East Coast tuna fishing legend Tred Barta against chumming, saying that real men troll for tuna.

“What’s really amazing is how chumming has come about just in the last few years or so,” said Ballay of the increasingly popular bluewater technique. “I didn’t believe it at first, but the first time I ever tried it, we were drifting around one of the deep platforms and threw a few pieces of chum. All of a sudden, we had a couple of tuna right there under the boat, like they were waiting on us.”

Ballay’s last statement indicates that the book on Louisiana tuna fishing is far from completing its final chapter. Many are predicting fishing live baits suspended beneath kites in the Florida/sailfish style to be the next big thing.

“I think we’ve still got a lot to learn about tuna fishing in this area,” he said.

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