West Delta Unwrapped

Fish this series of rigs in the West Delta area to boat a smorgasbord of fish this month.

Jagged bolts of lightning flashed through the blinds of the Sandpiper Cove, and the accompanying boom of thunder rocked us from our warm bunks long before the requested 5 a.m. wakeup call. The started crew quickly dressed, layering clothing to ward off the unseasonable chill before heading out the door. It was do or die as four members of the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas husbandry staff shuffled out the door of their motel room.

Arriving at Pirates Cove Marina on Grand Isle, John Hewitt, Christa Lobue, Ferris Gilmore and Brent Johnson loaded up oxygen tanks and a large landing net, and secured a 100-gallon holding tank to the stern of the 30-foot Albemarle Balancing Act.

As a soaking rain continued to fall, Capt. Scott Avanzino called us on the cell phone and attempted to delay the trip for a couple of hours. The excited crew was pumped, and Avanzino’s suggestion at stalling departure fell on deaf ears.

The Albemarle chugged out of the pass and into the Gulf with a 4-foot following sea and a 20-knot wind to her back to help her along. Our destination, some 45 miles out to the southeast, would be the oil- and gas-rich fields of West Delta. It was here that the Aquarium staff hoped to locate several species to help replenish their Gulf of Mexico exhibit, which was virtually destroyed during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Avanzino eased the throttles back as the boat approached WD-98C, where the crew hoped to catch half a dozen big hardtails before conditions further deteriorated.

Johnson and Hewitt rigged up two rods with sabikis. Avanzino prefers to use sabikis that he orders in bulk from a commercial fishing catalog; they sport 20-pound main line and 15-pound drops equipped with strong hooks.

“You need sturdy hooks to handle the big hardtails that roam the Gulf,” he said.

Avanzino instructed the anglers to snip off the two hooks closest to the sinker. Taking a few moments to make this simple but effective tackle adjustment makes it easier for an angler to grab the sinker when the rig is fully loaded with flopping hardtails. The end result is to avoid getting one of those extremely sharp sabiki hooks embedded in your hand.

Catching bait would be no easy task given the turbulent sea conditions. John Hewitt, director of husbandry for the Aquarium, and Brent Johnson were up to the challenge. Their efforts soon resulted in loading the well with seven frisky hardtails.

After a 90-minute ride, while on approach to WD 117, the radio suddenly crackled with a warning from a nearby vessel to give way. The ship had many miles of seismic cables deployed, which called for a change in plans and diversion to a different rig.

“Darn it, I really wanted to fish there,” said Avanzino as he spun the boat to avoid the field of spaghetti-like cables in our path.

Avanzino continued further on a southerly course, and approached WD-133F, which is a relatively new rig. Lobue rigged up a bonito strip bait, and sent it 200 feet down to the bottom. She felt a thump, and quickly reeled tight to set the circle hook. Several minutes later, a 5-pound silver seatrout flopped onto the deck.

Although most anglers would have added the plump seatrout to their day’s catch in the cooler, Avanzino had other plans in store for the fish. He fired up the diesel engines and headed for WD-152 in search of amberjack and other denizens of the deep.

This rig sits in roughly 365 feet of water, and is a favorite of those seeking amberjack and red snapper in the upper water column. Avanzino used the engines to hold the stern of the Balancing Act close to the rig as Brent Johnson threaded a 2-pound hardtail onto a 14/0 circle hook and sent it down 200 feet.

Less than a minute passed before the sacrificial hardtail became nervous. The stout Penn Slammer rod slowly doubled as Johnson wedged his thighs into the corner combing pads to avoid being pulled overboard by the strong fish.

After a brutal battle in the sloppy seas, a 40-pound amberjack was led into the cavernous landing net and, subsequently, into the giant holding tank.

Hewitt was next at bat, but came up with a toothy barracuda that intercepted his hardtail on the drop.

“You have to really let the bait fall fast to get it past the barracudas,” Avanzino explained as he unhooked the big toothy critter and tossed it back.

Big baits for big fish

There is one saying that holds true in all types of fishing — big baits equal big fish.

Avanzino emphasizes that when targeting trophy-sized fish such as warsaw or gag grouper. He wielded a razor sharp Dexter Russell knife, quickly carving one giant mouthful of sushi from the seatrout that was boated earlier in hopes of tempting a grouper from its hole.

“Large strip baits are effective, in addition to whole fish such as white trout,” he explained.

Before departing for a bottom-fishing trip, it is a good idea to check around the fish-cleaning tables at your local marina for carcasses that may come in handy if fresh strip baits are hard to come by offshore.

Avanzino insists hook size also plays a major role in targeting the larger fish.

“Using larger hooks outside of snapper season can drastically cut down on bycatch. I use 16/0 to 14/0 Mustad hooks from November to April 20, and then switch to 14/0 and 13/0 once the season opens,” he explains. “A legal grouper can swallow a 16/0 circle hook with no problem, but a 15-pound or smaller snapper cannot.”

May is also prime time for cobia to roam the warm waters of West Delta. Reports of large numbers of these migratory fish have been solid since the first of the year with charters reporting limits of the big brown bruisers.

The best piece of advice Avanzino offers for cobia fishing is to BE READY.

“Never pull up to a rig without having at least one rod ready,” he advised.

Savvy anglers will have a pitch bait ready in the livewell, as well as a brightly colored plastic jig or bucktail jig ready to cast to “Mr. White Lips.”

Old Bayside Monster Mino curltails or the 8-inch spadetail version in glow, candy corn and bubble gum shad are all great cobia baits when rigged on heavy jigheads.

“They are big and colorful and very effective on cobia as well as snapper and grouper,” Avanzino commented.

Another popular destination in the West Delta field is WD-143, which is situated near the famed Midnight Lump. When fishing deeper rigs such as this, anglers will find plenty of variety. The first 100 feet hold a mixed bag of baitfish as well as other species. Here you will find mangrove snapper schooling in large numbers against the platform legs, as well as king mackerel, cobia, bonito, bluefish, spadefish and sharks aplenty.

Avanzino suggests also that anglers not overlook the shallower platforms such as those located in West Delta blocks 70, 90 and 100. Large red snapper are very comfortable there, especially in the first few weeks after the season opens.

“Look for the big sows to hold about 100 feet off the downcurrent side of the rig,” advises Avanzino.

When approaching or departing from a rig in the West Delta blocks, don’t pass up the opportunity at a wahoo. These speeding bullets will often dart out from the rigs to snatch fast-trolled lures or ballyhoo skirted by a blue/white Ilander.

Avanzinos single choice of trolling lures is a Braid Murader with a single J-hook. He says he prefers the bait over the Yo-Zuri bonito, for example, because of their durability.

“The Braid baits are made of high-impact plastic, and the colors are vibrant. It’s the wahoo-catchingest bait in the world…period!” he exclaims.

Hot color choices include black, pink, purple and blue or a mix of any of these colors.

He also keeps a Braid Bomb rigged up for casting to wahoo once all his trolled lines are filled with toothy critters.

More artificial reefs

The purpose of the Louisiana Artificial Reef Program is to offset the loss of fishing opportunities associated with the removal of offshore oil and gas platforms.

Rigs that were damaged and sunk have been functioning as reef habitat for many years.

As artificial reef coordinator for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, Rick Kasprzak has been inundated with requests.

“With over 160 platforms damaged by Katrina and Rita, the Artificial Reef Council has developed nine planning areas that were created to minimize impacts on other users such as navigation and shrimping,” he said. “We are currently in the evaluation process on a number of rigs that were destroyed by Katrina in the West Delta field.

“If a platform is in one of the nine planning areas, we can evaluate it and accept it into the program. If it is outside one of the designated planning areas, it must be evaluated by the Artificial Reef Council with input from the public for acceptance into the program.”

For example, WD 133 and WD 137 must go through an approval process before they can be accepted under the umbrella of a Special Artificial Reef (SARS).

What’s up with warsaws?

Anyone who has kept up with the offshore fishing reports on the Louisiana Sportsman website (www.lasmag.com) will have noticed the obvious increase in warsaw grouper landings across the Louisiana coast. Not only have the numbers increased, but some trophy-sized fish have been taken recreationally, including the new Louisiana state record warsaw grouper landed in December of 2005 by Ed Frekey. That fish weighed a whopping 358.25 pounds.

Harry Blanchet, finfish programs manager for LDWF, shared some thoughts on the resurgence of this species.

“Probably the primary cause of the increase in size and number of warsaw grouper in the area was the passage of Hurricanes Cindy and Katrina,” he said.

Blanchet points out that typically a tropical storm passage is followed by increased success rates for reef fish harvesters, on the recreational as well as the commercial side. He feels much of this increase could be the result of redistribution of fish from some areas, including less heavily fished areas, to other popular areas that are fished on a regular basis.

“Although reef fish tend to be relatively non-migratory, strong storms increase the odds that the fish will move,” he said.

The result is that the most heavily fished and well-known areas, such as West Delta, have a “new” crop of warsaws available for harvest, which is great news for those seeking the tasty white-fleshed species.

Blanchet reminds anglers that there is a possession limit of one warsaw grouper per vessel, and that the warsaw counts toward the five-grouper-per-person aggregate. He also says it is important to make proper identification, since the goliath grouper, or jewfish, which is similar in appearance, is illegal to possess.

“The easiest way to tell them apart is to look for small dark spots over the body and fins of the goliath,” he said.

Another way to differentiate is by the tailfins.

“A warsaw has a square tail fin, while a goliath has a rounded tail fin,” he said.

Although primarily thought of as a deepwater dweller, Blanchet says look for warsaws in relatively shallow water, especially in the winter months.

Going home

After our trip, Avanzino packed up and bid farewell to Pirates Cove Marina and the sleepy town of Grand Isle, which has been his operations home for the past six months as a result of Katrina. After a quick trip to the shipyard for repairs, the Balancing Act will once again operate out of Venice Marina.

Grand Isle has been a great host, but Avanzino and the other captains miss their home port nestled at the top of the birdfoot delta. After a much-needed busman’s holiday to Miami to target sailfish and swords, the captains will be back at it, chasing whatever swims the West Delta blocks and beyond.

Paradise Outfitters operates a fleet of boats including a 35 Cabo, 30 Albemarle and 32- and 36-foot Twin Vee catamarans. Capt. Scott Avanzino can be reached at 985-845-8006 or www.paradise-outfitters.com.