Money Months

January and February aren’t normally thought of as the best fishing months of the year, but this winter, Tuna anglers will have a shot to turn their skills and ability into a big pile of cash.

Some of the nation’s most-competitive fishermen regularly converge on the Mississippi River Delta for contests involving redfish, king mackerel and billfish big enough to rule the day at the scale. The atmosphere crackles with electricity before and during those events held out of Venice. Add one more can’t-miss fishing contest to the list this winter as a number of sponsors bring you the Tuna Tug-A-War.

If you are one of countless fishermen who target tuna, you’ll want to compete in the contest scheduled to be held Jan. 2 through Feb. 26. It gives outdoorsmen a chance to cash in on some big bucks by boating bragging-sized tuna, and somethinsg to look forward to after the LSU Tigers play the Oklahoma Sooners for the national championship Jan. 4 in the Sugar Bowl a hundred miles up the river in the Louisiana Superdome.

One-time boat fee for charter boats is $850, while a one-time boat fee for private boats is $750, according to Cypress Cove Marina owner Sonny Eirich. Both the boat and the anglers aboard the boat must be entered in the tournament, he said, with charterboat angler fees of either $60 for one day or $125 for the eight-week tournament. Angler fee for those aboard private boats is a flat $125 for the entire eight-week campaign.

Eirich said the tournament is being patterned after a successful cobia tournament in Florida.

“It’s a two-month-long tournament with easy rules and one-time fees, and everyone is on a level field,” he said, noting the separate divisions.

Weigh-ins will be from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day of the tournament. The official tournament scale, a portable model, will alternate weekly between Cypress Cove Marina and Venice Marina, he said.

A post-tournament party is scheduled to be held at Venice Marina.

Interest in the Tuna Tug-A-War is picking up along the coast, Eirich said.

“We’re starting to get some feedback. Some Alabama and Mississippi boats are entered,” he said the first week of December.

It’ll probably take tuna weighing in the 190s (or, even, more than 200 pounds) to win, according to veteran charter captain Mike Frenette. Frenette owns the Teaser fleet of 36-foot Contenders.

“It’s hard to say what size fish. To catch a fish over 200 doesn’t come too often. I would say one in the 190s, for sure,” Frenette said a couple weeks after Thanksgiving. It’ll probably be a yellowfin tuna, he said, but “it could be a big-eye tuna or small bluefin that’s caught … but for the most part I’d have to say it’s going to be a yellowfin tuna.”

The Tuna Tug-A-War is generating a lot of excitement in the chilly offseason of saltwater fishing, according to Venice Marina owner Mike Butler. Butler cottons to the idea enthusiastically.

“I just think it’s a good idea. It creates camaraderie. It creates activity that doesn’t normally go on. And it creates excitement in the fishing community when it normally doesn’t go on,” Butler said recently.

Many anglers fish for tuna at this time of the year, anyway, he pointed out. Louisiana residents take to the water — as well as “snowbirds” from as far away as Chicago along with regular visitors from South Carolina, Florida, Georgia and neighboring Texas, among other states — Butler said as he warmed up to one of his favorite subjects on a chilly December day in the South.

The sheer numbers of anglers make it difficult to predict who might win what in the different divisions pitting charterboats against charterboats, charter anglers against charter anglers, private boats against private boats, and private anglers against private anglers.

“There are a lot of good fishermen out there. A lot of people really like tuna fishing. People come from all over the United States,” Butler said.

He likened the wintry tuna fishing dreams to avid hunters dreaming about killing a trophy deer.

“It’s definitely growing. It’s an experience people want to do,” Butler said. “Tuna fishing is getting like wanting to get a big buck. People want to catch a big yellowfin. They all come to catch a trophy tuna.”

Such was the case once again last winter when the area experienced some typically good fishing for tuna. As usual, tuna and other species drew people like magnets to savor some rod-bending action in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

“It’s a good time. People seem to like it. I guess people want to continue doing it,” Butler said.

That’s OK with him and others in the Venice area. He said the offseason rush of outdoorsmen escaping from “cabin fever” is good for local businesses and the economy because it puts people in restaurants, hotels and, naturally, into and out of marinas.

But the Tuna Tug-A-War comes at a time when fishermen can’t go out any time they want. They have to choose their days weather-wise, Butler said.

“There’s no doubt about that,” he said.

Most of the tuna fishing is done two or three days before a cold front and two or three days after a cold front.

The more frequent the cold fronts, the less time anglers have to get out on the water safely and comfortably. Air temperatures can get downright frosty, even during the day, which adds another element to the overall picture.

“You just have to deal with it,” Butler said from experience.

However, he said in the same breath, fishing in warmer near-shore waters has its up side.

“As you get out in warmer water, actually the (air) temperature warms up a little more than here,” he said.

Frenette confided, though, that wintertime fishing opportunities really aren’t that different from summertime, except when weather conditions are bad, they’re really bad and the cold can chill to the bones.

“Last year I fished a number of days in the tuna season, sometimes four and five days a week,” he said.

Schools of marauding, feeding tuna can be enough to warm up shivering people on the water real fast.

Regardless, Butler said, “I guess you really have to want to go fishing in the wintertime.”

Those warmer water temperatures are what brings baitfish to THE tuna hotspot along this stretch of coastal Louisiana — the Midnight Lump, which is southwest of Venice and almost due south of Grand Isle (see related story in this issue). Cooler inshore water temperatures push baitfish out and move the tuna in to feast on pogies and mullets.

Jeff Edgecombe, Venice Marina harbormaster, agreed.

“The reason they show up out there is because of the bait,” he said. “They’re there now (first week of December), but nobody has messed with them yet. It’s going to take fishermen to go out, anchor up and make sure they’re there. Once it starts, it’ll be all over with.”

Edgecombe meant that the news will be out and the rush will be on to get to an area roughly a square mile or two in size. Boats will anchor all over the Lump, which comes up to about 200-foot depths from 300 or 400 feet.

At times you’d swear you could walk from boat to boat out there just off the coast.

“Sometimes you’ll have 100 boats anchored on the Lump,” Butler said.

Most will be anchored and chumming with chopped-up pogies, he said.

Frenette, the 47-year-old charter boat captain who has been chartering since the age of 24, said probably 99 percent of the boats will be on The Lump for the duration of the Tuna Tug-A-War. But the tournament fishing won’t be confined there.

“The Lump’s getting so crowded, sometimes you have to look at other areas,” he said.

Charter captains recommend having at least 600 feet of anchor rope released slowly from the stern so that it doesn’t tangle in the lower unit, and at least one uses 20 feet of chain above a 15-pound anchor in order to catch the first time the anchor is dropped.

“Some guys get off the Lump when it gets too crowded and start pulling Rapalas and Tremblers on downriggers, and some are using the new Storm baits that actually look like menhaden,” Edgecombe said.

Tuna also might be found at floating rigs in the area, Butler said, but most will come from the Lump.

Butler also said those fishermen who get antsy when all the boats are perched atop the Lump might decide to troll on the outskirts of the hotspot with daisy chains, a bunch of artificial squid in a line with the last one embedded with hooks, and a bird in front.

“They may get lucky and catch a yellowfin or a blackfin,” he said.

Frenette agreed.

“There’s a good chance somebody’s going to catch a big tuna by trolling on the perimeter of the Lump,” he said.

Anglers who troll in that area generally motor at a speed between 6 to 15 knots, depending on what they’re most comfortable with, according to Butler.

“But, for the most part, you’ll probably produce more strikes by chumming or chunking (using bigger cuts of pogies or bonito),” he said. “Basically, one’s going to anchor on the Lump, usually in a location they’ve caught fish before. You have to know where the current comes over the Lump and where the baitfish congregate.”

That doesn’t necessarily equate to a trophy-sized tuna, though, he added.

As Frenette said, most of the tuna will be caught on pogies or, even, cut bonito. Everyone will try to get their hands on pogies, and if the fish isn’t used for bait while fishing for tuna it will be used to catch bonito, which in turn are cut up to use as chopped bait for the tuna.

Frenette advised anglers to thaw out frozen cut bait on the boat ride out to the Lump. Anglers don’t want the chunks or chum floating away with the current.

“It’s really important for anglers to thaw out the chum. When it’s soft, it sinks pretty good. When it’s frozen, it’s very buoyant,” he explained.

Most fishermen put the cut bait they fish with on a 6/0 or 9/0 circle hook tied to 50- to 80-pound-test line, Butler said. A 16-ounce weight is commonly used to drag the cut bait down deep.

Set the cut baits at different depths, say, 30 feet deep with one pole, 20 feet for another, and 10 feet on another pole (using a 2-ounce weight).

Tuna usually are anywhere from near the surface to 50- to 80-foot depths this time of year, Butler said. Once one is caught at a certain depth, anglers should adjust the other baits to the same depth, he said.

Frenette said anglers may want to upsize their fishing equipment if they aren’t fishing for fun and concentrating on trying to catch a winning fish.

“If you’re fishing strictly for that tournament, you’d probably do a few things differently than you normally do than when you’re fishing for fun,” he said.

For example, he said, you’d want to fish with heavier gear, including a heavier rod, to get the fish in the boat quicker. Of course, that tends to wear an angler out sooner, he said.

Frenette said chances are good he’ll enter the tournament. He’s looking forward to it.

“I think it’s got potential, like everything else. It’s new, so I’m sure there’ll be some wrinkles that need to be ironed out,” he said. “I think it’ll be fun and interesting. All fishermen are competitive by nature.”

In other words, bring on the Tuna Tug-A-War. It’ll be like a state championship of tuna fishing.

For more information, call (985) 643-6668 or (985) 534-9357.

About Don Shoopman 519 Articles
Don Shoopman fishes for freshwater and saltwater species mostly in and around the Atchafalaya Basin and Vermilion Bay. He moved to the Sportsman’s Paradise in 1976, and he and his wife June live in New Iberia. They have two grown sons.

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