Louisiana is famous for its offshore fishing, but what does the coming season hold? We look into our crystal ball to provide insight.
Louisiana offshore anglers are spoiled, with a fishery that is arguably the best in the country. It’s absolutely the best in the Gulf of Mexico.
Of course, we’ve earned the right to house such an abundant fishery by allowing, even encouraging, development of the rich oil and gas resources found along the Continental Shelf.
Florida doesn’t want to spoil their waters with platforms, so their anglers have to settle for a few fish here and there.
Alabama and Mississippi anglers either head for Louisiana waters, or they share with Florida in the relative dearth of snapper, grouper and amberjack.
And Texas waters are just too danged shallow to get into any really good offshore catches.
But hop in a boat and head off Louisiana’s coast, and the expectation is the boat better be filled to the gills with succulent meat during the return trip.
But times are changing.
Sure, the fishing is still superb compared to the rest of the Gulf.
It’s just that it ain’t the glory days.
Take red snapper, for instance.
The rigs once teemed with these fish, and it was nothing for any schmo to come back with truckloads of fish.
Now, even with the tight limits currently instituted, anglers have to fish harder and longer to put their four fish per man in the boat.
Capt. Steve Tomeny of the Southerner, Louisiana, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea said things were looking up in late March, with his customers pulling up some huge snapper while targeting other species.
“We’re catching some really big snapper,” Tomeny said.
But he readily admitted it was too early to make an accurate read on how the fishery would fare this year.
“It’s really hard to assess how long they’ll last,” he said.
The state’s top marine fisheries biologist said he wouldn’t bet the bank on having a spectacular year.
“I would not expect red snapper this year to be much different than last year,” Department of Wildlife & Fisheries biologist Harry Blanchet said. “I would think it would be just like last year — a lot of small fish, but not a lot of big ones.”
Blanchet said the science shows there are simply fewer individual red snapper moving into the fishery.
“What we have seen for red snapper in the last couple of years has been relatively low recruitment,” Blanchet said.
That came after a cycle of strong age classes moving into the fishery.
“If you go back a few years, we saw pretty strong recruitment,” he said of the years between 1995 and 1997. “Those year classes became available, and have moved through the recreational fishery and are less available now.”
Blanchet said the life cycle of these long-lived fish means that anglers have only about five years to catch individual fish from any one year class, and that tends to level out any wild swings in year-to-year fishing.
“It comes into the fishery at about a 2-year-old fish, and by about a 6-year-old or 7-year-old fish, you’re not seeing many of them any more,” he explained. “You just don’t get a lot of variation in the fishery.”
There are a couple of reasons for this.
“Part of the reason for that is maturity, and part of that is fishing pressure,” Blanchet said.
The first part of the equation — maturity — is largely responsible for the relatively small catch of old red snapper from the rigs on which so many anglers rely.
“In general, those older fish are less structure-oriented entirely,” he explained. “They will be on different structure or no structure at all.”
That doesn’t mean that 30-year-old snapper can’t be found around structure: It’s just that they turn their backs on the oil platforms on which most anglers concentrate.
“They’re just basically scattered out,” Blanchet said. “They might be on little humps or on ledges.”
Mature red snapper also leave shallower waters.
“You have to be in at least a couple hundred feet of water,” he said.
That makes them very difficult for the average angler to find, but Blanchet said it might be worth the effort if the goal is not simply to fill the fish box.
“If you’re rodeo fishing, you’re going to have different priorities,” he said. “It might be worth working a long time to find these fish.”
Tomeny said the search can be very rewarding.
“It’s cool when you find a new spot,” Tomeny said. “You’ll pop your limit in 20 minutes.”
But locating such honey holes is the real trick.
“Most of the natural bottom structure doesn’t show much. It’s flat bottom,” he explained.
What he looks for are small spikes on his bottom machine while running from one known fishing area to the next.
When he sees one, Tomeny shuts down and moves over the area slowly, studying his finder.
“You usually just see the fish. A lot of the natural bottom spots are real subtle,” he said. “When you happen along one, you have to stop and road-check it.
“There’s just no other way to tell if it’s holding fish.”
He’ll call for lines to be let out while he holds the boat steady.
And sometimes the most unlikely looking spot will produce big.
“A lot of those spots, you’ll stop and things start growing,” Tomeny said. “There’s a lot of fish holding right on the bottom, and they won’t show on the machine.
“But when you drop the baits, you’ll see the fish come up in the water. They come off the bottom to the bait.”
Fishing pressure also has an impact on the number of individuals available.
“Remember, we’re fishing these guys pretty hard,” Blanchet said.
That means a lot of fish between 2 and 7 years of age are landed and taken home.
Of course, it’s easy for anglers to pound the fishery because red snapper are very structure-oriented at younger ages.
“Things like hurricanes will really shuffle the deck, but unless there’s something to make snapper move, they’re going to stay in the same area,” Blanchet said.
That might mean a school of red snapper remains around the same rig for weeks. As long as food is available and oxygen levels are adequate, they will usually stay put.
“Fishing pressure by itself will not move fish off that rig,” Blanchet said.
And when they do move, they normally won’t go far.
Tomeny pointed to an LSU research project conducted several years ago that involved placing transmitters on undersized fish.
“We caught fish with those transmitters in that same (oil) field for over a year,” he said.
That’s good news for anglers, who can go back to the same areas time and again with the assurance that fish will be waiting.
However, it also means schools can literally be fished out.
Mortality rates for undersized fish that are released are another factor into the lack of recruitment.
“That’s figured into the stock assessment,” Blanchet said.
But the more small fish that are caught, released and die, the fewer fish there are that reach the magic 16-inch minimum.
So the key is to reduce the number of undersized fish that are caught.
Tomeny said that’s relatively easy to accomplish
“You don’t want to sit there and catch little fish,” he said. “I’ve seen it turn around, so I’ll give it a few seconds, but usually what you start catching is what you get.”
“What you bring up first is a good indication of what you’re going to get,” he said. “Your largest fish are going to be your most aggressive.
“Because they are larger, they’re going to be dominant, and they are going to be able to out-compete the smaller fish.”
And, despite the fact that fisheries managers calculate a certain level of mortality into their stock assessments, Blanchet said it’s just not good business to sit there and pound on undersized snapper.
“That’s not good for the resource,” he said. “Pick up and move on.”
Blanchet also recommended leaving the close-in rigs and looking for underwater structure that’s not hammered by others.
“You might want to start thinking in terms of fishing structures that are on the bottom,” he said. “You might also want to spend the effort to go that extra 10 to 15 miles.”
Tomeny said those little-pressured wrecks, artificial reefs and ledges are what pay off big for his charter business.
“There’s nothing easier than throwing a rope on a rig, but sometimes you have more access to the fish when there’s not a rig,” he said.
That’s because the schools often are wadded up inside rig legs, making fish on wrecks and other submerged structure easier to get to.
“You’re actually hitting the fish on the head,” he said.
And for decades, many Louisiana offshore anglers concentrated solely on red snapper to satisfy their appetites.
“If you went back to the mid ’80s, what were people doing?” he said. “They were bottom banging for snapper.”
Back then, when other species such as grouper and amberjack were yanked up, they were grudgingly thrown in with the creel.
Blanchet said that showed just how spoiled Louisiana anglers are, especially in light of how important those other species have been for anglers in other Gulf Coast states.
“We in Louisiana have always been blessed with abundant fish stocks,” Blanchet said.
But the tightening red snapper regulations produced one of two results: Louisiana anglers either quit going offshore, or they decided those other “trash” fish weren’t so bad after all.
“When one thing is not doing as good as it used to, you have to depend on another fishery,” Tomeny said.
Blanchet said the increasing pressure on those other species has resulted in more and more regulations.
The amberjack fishery was among the most-affected by the change.
“Amberjack was one of those species that saw a lot more pressure,” Blanchet said.
So the once very liberal limits have been tightened until today each angler can keep only one greater amberjack longer than 28 inches.
The current management measures are expected to greatly improve the stock of AJs within 10 years, but Blanchet admitted there’s still a lot that’s not known about amberjack stocks.
“It’s is a better-studied fish than it was 10 years ago, but we don’t know everything,” he said.
One thing researchers know is that AJs spawn off of Louisiana’s coast, which accounts for the vast numbers of the fish found in the oil fields.
But they move about a whole lot more than other rig fish.
“They aren’t as structure oriented as red snapper,” Blanchet said. “They are structure oriented, but they move between structures more.”
Blanchet also said the fish move seasonally due to the fact that they are a high-salinity species.
“They need a certain amount of salinity,” he said.
AJs also prefer warmer water. That’s why they are hard to find when the Mississippi River is high, and show up at the nearer rigs when the river drops and the weather heats up.
Blanchet predicted that AJs would be about as prevalent in this year’s fishery as they have the past couple of years — that is to say, the fishing should be pretty good.
Grouper fishing also should be about the same as last year, since they are long-lived species like red snapper.
That tends to make for less year-to-year variations, Blanchet said.
There are many species of grouper, but the most commonly caught off Louisiana are gag and black grouper.
“Gag grouper are widely distributed across the Continental Shelf,” Blanchet said.
But there can be several different species swimming around the same rig.
“Grouper are one of those things that you can come up with three different species in a row,” Blanchet said. “They will be in completely different habitat on the structure.”
Like red snapper, grouper are extremely structure oriented. In fact, they are probably more prone to set up shop around specific rigs than red snapper.
“In Florida, they say some of the big grouper will be on the same structure for years on end,” Blanchet said. “The divers say they know some of the big grouper — they know them personally.”
But unlike in waters off of Florida and Alabama, grouper are seldom targeted in Louisiana waters, even by charter captains.
“I find it’s hard to target them out here,” Tomeny said. “The really consistent grouper fishing is in at least 400 feet of water.”
Most anglers just aren’t going to make those long runs, but Tomeny said there’s another reason he hasn’t focused on the fish.
“It’s so deep, it’s hard to fish them,” he said. “Sometimes the current is going one way on the surface and another on the bottom.”
That means that it can appear lines are drifting out behind a boat, when in fact the hooks are being swept the opposite way into a big mess closer to the bottom.
“The deeper it is, the tangle ratios go way up,” Tomeny said.
That means it’s really only feasible for small groups of anglers.
But Tomeny said that if the effort is made to reach deep water, the results can be plenty of fare for the table.
“There’s certain deep stuff out here that will hold just grouper, or grouper and a few snapper,” he said.
Those making the effort, however, should be very careful which fish are kept because the creel limits are very prescribed.
“The difference between a gag and black is tough to tell, and we’ve got two species (goliath and Nassau) that are illegal to have,” Blanchet said. “You’d better know what they are.”
Blanchet recommended the use of detailed identification guides.
“Educate yourself,” he said.
The recently thriving mangrove fishery is another product of the clamping down of red snapper limits.
“It’s getting bigger all the time,” Tomeny said. “We come in a lot of days with more mangrove than red snapper.”
Anglers often will run out in search of red snapper, but make a few stops at platforms on the way back in to pad their creels.
This is a species that has been targeted for years in Florida, so quite a bit is known about it, Blanchet said.
“It’s the most estuarine of our snapper,” he said. “In Florida, juveniles are found very commonly in the mangrove swamps.”
Likewise, Louisiana researchers often catch them in minnow traps set adjacent to Grand Isle and Grand Terre at the mouth of Barataria Bay.
“Any of your high-salinity barrier islands are serving as nursery grounds,” Blanchet said.
And similar to grouper, these fish are highly structure oriented.
“They tend to be more residential than red snapper,” he said.
Blanchet said he wasn’t aware of any stock assessment on the species, but as fishing pressure increases on the species, so too might regulations.
Gray triggerfish might not be on the top of many anglers’ lists of target species, but Blanchet said the species has increasingly been in Louisiana landings.
That, he said, has caught the eye of federal regulators.
“The National Marine Fisheries Service said they are overfished, but the Gulf Council didn’t accept that,” Blanchet said. “Some of the science just didn’t jibe with what they were hearing on their own.”
Rig anglers can attest to that, he said.
“They’re very common in Louisiana,” Blanchet said. “They can be a nuisance at times, but essentially, their status is unknown.”
There is an upcoming stock assessment, but until then, the fish will continue to fall within the 20-per-day aggregate creel for reef fish.
Although Blanchet said the catch is mainly incidental to snapper fishing, Tomeny said the fish is actually pretty important to his customers.
“We target them,” he said. “When snapper fishing is tough, or when the season is closed, we go after them.”
And Tomeny said that he’s been doing it since 1990, when a 13-inch minimum was placed on the red snapper fishery.
“It was hard to catch a 13-inch (red) snapper,” he said. “I remember that first summer I had the boat, the triggers were thick.”
He said his customers often initially turn their noses up at the fish, but he generally makes them change their opinions.
“They’re a little tough to clean, but they’re beautiful fish to eat,” Tomeny said. “Our customers sometimes don’t want to mess with them, but I send them home with some and when they come back, they want to go catch more.”
The problem with targeting these fish are the tiny mouths.
“You’ve got to use a little hook,” Tomeny said.
His captains switch the heavy-duty offshore hooks for 1/0 models, and their anglers quickly put the fish in the boat.
“They’re not shy fish at all,” Tomeny said.
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