This fanatical offshore angler spends his weekends sleeping out in the deep blue.
It’s difficult to imagine an offshore fisherman who goes on an overnight fishing trip every doable weekend for four or five months being called “soft” or “a wuss,” but that’s what Dr. Russell O’Steen gets for finally admitting he’s reached the point where he no longer “goes regardless.”
“I have a friend who does the same kind of fishing who says the typical life of an offshore fishing career is seven to nine years,” said O’Steen, a Houma chiropractor. “I used to think he was crazy, and said that I’ll be doing this all my life. I think now I know what he was talking about.”
O’Steen used to be one of those anglers who would venture into the deep blue of the Mississippi or Green Canyon in spite of the weather conditions. He also used to pay the price for such trips, both on his body and his pocketbook.
“I used to go anyway and spend a bunch of money the next week fixing stuff so that I could go fishing the next week,” said O’Steen. “I think I’ve gotten a lot smarter since then.
“One time I had some friends from out of town who wanted to go anyway, so we went. When we got to the end of the Ship Channel (Houma Navigational Canal), a bunch of crew boats were huddled there. I guess we should have known then and as it turned out, they got sick and stayed sick, and it cost a bunch to fix everything as well.”
The captain and owner of the 44-foot Topaz Shake That Thang still keeps about as active of a fishing schedule as anybody not doing it for a living, making weekly overnighters as long as the coastal marine forecast calls for seas less than 4 feet. He bases his operations out of Venice in late spring and early summer to fish the riplines and tension-leg platforms such as Mars and Ursa, and then moves to Theriot to make the run to the Green Canyon when the dog days of summer roll around.
“I’ve found in the past six years or so that the fishing gets better out at the Green Canyon later in the summer,” he said. “We used to make trips out there in February, for the most part to be the first ones to catch fish out there.”
A typical trip begins with O’Steen leaving his clinic at noon and hopefully finding either a rip (much more typical out of Venice) or making it out to one of the platforms in the Green Canyon. A spread of marlin baits is deployed with some lines reserved for smaller lures to attract dolphin until it is judged time to head to the place where the group will catch their tuna.
“You can catch bait like hardtails if you want, but it’s really not necessary for tuna if you’re fishing at night. The most important thing for the tuna is to load up with as much chum as you can handle and to fish in the correct places,” he said. “Tuna in the daytime can be a tough deal. At night, they’re just a whole lot more cooperative.”
If all goes right, the crew will have more than enough tuna fishing under the lights, and can pull big baits for marlin until it’s time to head for the dock Saturday afternoon.
O’Steen says that from June through September, it’s almost a guarantee for tuna around the platforms. And he’s not talking about the seemingly innumerable blackfin that stage right next to the platforms and entertain anglers dropping diamond jigs.
“The yellowfin will be holding well off of the rigs, just outside of the sheen of lights,” says O’Steen. “What we’ll do is drift and cast baits on the edge of the light for the yellowfin. Sometimes a chunk of blackfin works well for the yellowfin, but we like to concentrate on the bigger tuna.”
But not too big. O’Steen prefers the medium-sized fish for his guests, many of whom are novice anglers. The fish from 50 to 80 pounds provide plenty of meat and plenty of fight without taking an inordinate amount of time to land.
His choice of tackle is curious to many who fish for tuna. Most would say that level-wind reels couldn’t possibly keep up with the blistering pace of a 100-plus-pound ball of muscle, but O’Steen says Penn 345s do just fine when matched up with 200-pound braided line. It’s admittedly an all-purpose rig also used for bottom fishing when O’Steen was into jerking heavy fish away from heavy structure. It performed well enough on the tuna, and he’s been using it ever since.
“At times, they’ll break down internally, but it’s usually 70 or so fish in between,” he said. “A lot of people have more than enough to think about when fighting a fish than worrying about the line piling up in the middle and having to let out line in order to land the fish. With these reels, all they have to worry about is their forearms.”
Drifting away from or toward the platform with the engines off is the preferred method of filling the box with tuna. O’Steen much prefers allowing the current to take him away from the platform, but says that ultimately the fish decide the rules of the night.
“There’s a lot that can go wrong when you’re drifting toward a rig,” says O’Steen.
Terminal tackle for the notoriously leader-shy fish begins with a small ball-bearing swivel tied to the braid, which is then connected to a length of either 80- or 100-pound fluorocarbon leader. A small 8 or 9/0 black circle hook completes the rigging, and hooks are hidden in the baits. Again, circle hooks are very low-maintenance for novice bluewater anglers as long as they can remember not to jerk.
The color of the hook is critical in night fishing, though O’Steen isn’t certain the reason.
“There have been times when I’ve thrown 15 pieces of chum out there with a line with a silver hook, and the tuna will almost instantly eat every piece of chum there is and not touch the hooked bait,” said O’Steen.
Another ace in the hole for the crew is an artificial called a Yummie Flying Fish. With an unbeatable action and wings that actually flap when retrieved, O’Steen says it’s an automatic strike at times.
“One time, there was a big yellowfin cruising through the chum slick that wouldn’t touch any of the other baits, but it would eat every piece of chum we threw at it,” said O’Steen. “I finally threw that Yummie Flying fish at him and caught him. He weighed 141 pounds, but was probably 138 when we first spotted him, he had eaten so much.”
Casting a bait on a heavy outfit is no easy feat, so the crew will often let the current or the boat take out line for a hundred yards or so before the angler burns it back on the surface. The skipping action of the bait drives the yellowfin crazy, but it’s often not needed as it is almost instantly attacked at times.
One of the benefits with making the run to the Green Canyon (a distance over 100 miles from Falgout Canal Marina in Theriot) is the near guarantee that there will be blue water when they get there. In fact, of all the years going there, O’Steen says he has only come up snake eyes one time.
“It was a few months ago, but someone still caught a huge tuna,” said O’Steen. “It went 218 pounds bled and weighed the following day. It would have been close to the state record, but three anglers fought it.”
O’Steen’s personal best yellowfin tuna hit the scales at 184 pounds at the 1999 Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo. It still stands as the rodeo record, but what O’Steen most remembers about the trip is the unbelievable numbers of fish.
“That was at Green Canyon 237, probably one of the best tuna rigs in the Gulf,” he said. “Usually it’s good at night and then up until about 8:00 in the morning. That day we caught fish until noon with four fish over 100 pounds along with two marlin. Every angler on board won an award, and we probably supplied forty people with fresh tuna meat.”
On a good trip, the crew will fill the hold with tuna the night before, get a few hours of sleep and spend Saturday trolling for marlin. With a five- or six-bait spread, O’Steen says he’s taken more than 30 marlin in the Gulf, including his personal best back at Green Canyon 65 (Bullwinkle) when he was still running an outboard-driven boat.
“Of course, you can troll for marlin for days and even weeks and not get a strike. On this day, we hadn’t even had our baits out 10 minutes before he hit,” said O’Steen. “All the lines weren’t even out and we hadn’t set the clicker on the reel. I looked back and pole was bent over.
“It was a good thing that we were in a gas-powered boat because we had to chase her to keep from getting spooled. It measured out at about 800 pounds.”
Without hesitation, O’Steen says his favorite marlin bait is a black/purple Wooly Booger with a double set of hooks. Black Bart lures, named for the famous luremaker and charter captain Bart Miller in Hawaii, also grace the spread of the Shake That Thang as well as an assortment of smaller baits when the bull dolphin are in abundance.
“We’ll run some smaller Joe Yee baits off of the outriggers and put the big baits on the short lines,” he said. “The big fish aren’t scared of anything out there, and will come right up to the boat.
“Dolphin tend to like brighter colors, and because they tend to eat their own, one of the best is a dolphin-colored bait.”
The venerable blue/white Ilander is also a solid choice and receives high marks for its fish-catching ability.
“You look at it and it doesn’t seem like much, but it’s got a good drag to it and it catches fish,” O’Steen said.
Overnight trips may sound easy, but O’Steen says they require a lot of planning, not only for the fishing, but for whatever else might come up when one is far from home and sharp objects are flying and cantankerous diesel engines are rumbling.
“I bring along at least two spare of everything. Belts, hoses, filters, bilge pumps, you name it. I also have a diesel mechanic who fishes with us a good bit and a couple of doctors as well who are always welcome,” he said.
O’Steen says nothing major has ever happened out there, but makes certain that everything is in order in case it does.
“It’s part of the game, but sometimes it’s really frustrating when you spend this much time on things and the weather turns bad,” said O’Steen. “You still have to always stay on top of things in preparation.”
Though his vessel is well-equipped with all necessary safety equipment, O’Steen says he didn’t start using his GPS for the majority of his navigation until about two years ago. Years of navigating off of block charts and by the configuration of the rigs on the horizon and their lights while running at night helped his bottom-fishing tremendously when that was a big part of the game.
“Whenever I’d stray off course and have to run over to a rig to find out where I was, I’d fish it before I left. I found some great snapper and grouper spots that way,” he said. “GPS does a great job in saving on fuel consumption and getting you there in plenty of time, but most people now will never find those rigs because they just dial in their location, and a few hours later they’re there.”
Also, the chores don’t end when the boat is backed into the slip at the end of the day on Saturday.
“To really clean a boat correctly, it’ll take all day Sunday,” he said.
No, it’s not as automatic as just showing up out there, but if tough summertime tuna fishing has got you down and there’s an adventuresome spirit in you and the right weather forecast, an overnight trip to the deep blue can have you cursing the tuna’s pull instead of their finicky ways.