Yellow Fever

There’s no cure for this disease, but you won’t mind getting it.

Most people shudder at the though of catching yellow fever. The dreaded disease, which is contracted from infected mosquitos, was last recorded in New Orleans in 1905.

Recently, however, there have been indications of a different type of “yellow fever” spreading across the Louisiana coast claiming “victims” one by one.

Being from Missouri, the biggest fish Tom Schoen had ever scrapped with were blue and flathead catfish up to 50 pounds in the Mississippi and Missouri rivers near St. Louis.

He has been an avid reader of saltwater fishing magazines for many years, and has always been intrigued by stories about yellowfin tuna fishing and the sheer power of these fish.

“How hard could this be?” he wondered before convincing himself that he was heading to Venice to see for himself.

Luckily, Schoen got the chance to hook up with a group of veteran West Coast anglers who had scheduled several days with one of the top offshore captains in Venice to chase giant yellowfin tuna, wahoo and other pelagics that frequent the Gulf of Mexico.

“After speaking with the guys, I jumped at the chance to join Rick Flores and his crew from California in late June,” said Schoen, a regional manager for an equipment company.

The group Schoen was to fish with invited him to dinner the night before their big trip to try and explain to him what catching a big tuna would be like.

“I was listening, but still in the back of mind saying, ‘Yeah, I hear you, but come on now!’” Schoen scoffed.

The group tried in vain to prepare the tuna virgin, but nothing they said could convince him what he was about to face the next morning.

As the sun rose above the mighty Mississippi River, the crew headed to blue water, where they set up beneath a large oil rig in 2,800 feet of water.

“We were letting big chunks of barracuda free fall slowly underneath the boat when suddenly I heard a reel start screaming,” Schoen said.

“Capt. Bill (Delabar) handed me a rod, and said, ‘Here you go; start reeling.’

“The first 10 minutes I would equate to being attached to a semi tractor trailer with a driver with a lead foot.

“I had no control over the fish, and simply focused on letting him take line when he wanted it and reeling in line when he chose to give me some. And so back and forth we went, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. After an hour, I was like, ‘O.K., what is up with this?’”

About this time, Delabar seemed confident they had a really big fish hooked to the end of line, while at the same time Schoen admitted he was questioning his ability to outlast this fish and land it within a reasonable time frame.

Peering over the side, the other anglers, who could not fish while the big tuna circled beneath the boat, were watching and feeling Schoen’s pain as he continued the exhausting battle with the fish one on one.

“I must say I was surrounded by people who were talking to me and helping me with instructions, but I heard nothing. It was just me and the fish, and I couldn’t focus on anything else,” said Schoen. “After about an hour and half, I was getting pretty spent, and was worried about what my fellow anglers were thinking as I fought this fish. The thoughts started going through my mind if I was doing everything I could to get this fish up to the boat. Although the captain assured me I was, for the sake of time I handed the rod off to someone with fresh arms and back.”

After another hour and several more trade-offs on the rod, the crew saw the yellowfin. Delabar turned to the customers, and suggested he break out the “satellite gaff” to subdue the fish. Having invested so much time in fighting the fish, he felt it best to end the fight with his spear gun to avoid parting the 60-pound leader and losing the magnificent fish, so over the side he went.

“To me, it was like he was offering me a drink of water after I just crawled across the Sahara Desert,” Schoen admitted. “I was having trouble getting that fish the rest of the way up to the boat, and was worried about what it would do once we got it close.”

More than 2½ hours had passed since Schoen confidently jumped on the rod to crank in his first yellowfin tuna, which turned out to be a whopping 168-pounder.

“I must say it was one of the hardest things I have ever done,” he said. “Every part of my body started to hurt during that long fight. Still, four days later I am walking with a limp and have trouble getting up from a chair,” he said.

Although this was Schoen’s first tuna encounter, he says he is hooked.

Some anglers such as John Lamey of Gulfport, Miss., get the “fever” on a regular basis. Lamey gets the insatiable urge to tackle yellowfin several times a week during the summer months.

Lamey’s first yellowfin tuna encounter was two years ago when he joined a group of police officers from the LaPlace area. Since then, he has become hooked, and recruited a following of tuna enthusiasts to join him on his monthly bluewater excursions.

“I love everything about tuna fishing — the atmosphere at the marina, the camaraderie and the ride out on the Twin Vee,” he said. “Fighting tuna was something I had always wanted to do. Once I started going offshore and hooking those big boys, I couldn’t get enough, and now I do it as often as weather permits.

“Those suckers just don’t give up. They never stop pulling, and they are true to their reputation as one of the hardest-fighting fish in the Gulf.”

His largest to date is 100 pounds, and he says he’s ready for an even bigger fish. Lamey jokingly credits his “12-pack abs” for helping him get through the fight with that one.

“I really get excited when it’s time for my offshore trips,” says Lamey, who has racked up more than a dozen chartered trips in as many months during the past year.

“Venice is just a special place,” he said. “Everyone is happy when they’re around the marina. All my cares slip away; I forget about sickness and day-to-day problems when I’m there.

“I get just as much pleasure from sitting back and watching tuna virgins reeling and groaning as they’re struggling to reel those suckers in.”

During his last two trips out, Lamey decided to let his guests catch all the tuna while he sat back and enjoyed the show.

Pint-sized wranglers

On the smaller end of the spectrum, 12-year-old Nick Howard of Nebraska decided he wanted to go offshore after his first trip to Venice last year to fish for redfish and trout. I promised Nick and his brother Trent last summer that if they made good grades, I would see that they had a day of offshore fishing to remember.

Their grandfather, Wes Howard, called to say they had indeed made the honor roll, that he would bring them to Venice for another fishing trip and asked that I go along and serve as their deckhand.

The morning of the trip, seas were calm as we headed out to Medusa, one of the popular floaters located in the Gulf of Mexico south of Venice.

Nick was up first, and it didn’t take long for line to streak off the reel as the 90-pound angler got harnessed up for his battle with a yellowfin tuna. Capt. Hunter Caballero assisted the lad with the rod as it lunged for the water, threatening to take the youngster with it.

“Whoa, hold on there little man,” said Caballero as he braced the rod.

Nick had to use both hands just to turn the handle on the Tiagra, but he didn’t give up. Finally, the yellowfin surfaced, and Caballero sank the gaff as Nick gave a sigh of relief.

The tuna, which weighed as much as Nick, flopped on the deck of the Twin Vee.

“This is the neatest fish I have ever seen,” Nick said as he posed with his trophy.

Sixteen-year-old Trent also got his first yellowfin — a nice 50-pounder the teen made quick work of with standup tackle.

Back at the dock, Nick and Trent embraced their grandpa telling him about their exciting day, and promising to do even better in school this fall — if only he would bring them back in 2009 for another chance at catching a yellowfin tuna.

It is safe to say, they too have contracted a case of “yellow fever.”