Tarpon Tales

The ranks of tarpon fishermen are slowly fading away, which this angler can’t understand. He shares his insights into the passion of his life — Louisiana’s silver kings.

John DeBlieux had set out all but the short lines, which would go right in the prop wash.

He let out one of these short lines, watching the heavy lure and leader sink until the swivel was just beneath the water.

The second line was on its way out when a silver streak parted the water only feet from the transom, lifting high into the air before slamming down and filling the boat with water.

“It soaked me,” DeBlieux remembered. “It grabbed the lure, jumped right here, soaked me and got off.”

The tarpon left the Houma angler dripping wet and slightly confused, but it’s just such thrills that keep him searching for silver kings off Louisiana’s coast.

“You can do this all day, and then you hook one fish and your day is made,” DeBlieux said. “The whole outlook changes.”

Tarpon fishing probably is most famous in Florida, particularly around the straits between the mainland and the state’s keys. There, anglers see hundreds and hundreds of fish pass through the confined waters.

Louisiana anglers face a more-challenging task, since fish have a lot of room to scatter out.

So DeBlieux’s summer days are spent covering water between Grand Isle and Venice’s Southwest Pass, straining his keen eyes for tell-tale signs of tarpon.

The waters along the toe of land extending southeastward from Grand Isle once teemed with tarpon hunters, with rodeo entrants piling the snub-nosed fish near the scales.

Today, red snapper, cobia and other species have become the more-common entrants at these annual events.

But still, DeBlieux and a few die-hards work to catch the glory species.

They’ll be at it again this month during the 84th annual Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo scheduled for July 22-24.

Winning the tarpon category isn’t easy, but DeBlieux and his brother, Jeff, have accomplished that feat in 1993, 1997 and 1998.

It’s just in his blood, and he’s refined his techniques by spending countless hours on the water.

While tarpon can be found pretty much anywhere in the relatively shallow waters outside the Mississippi River’s western marshes, there are certain spots known for holding the brutes.

“It’s amazing. There are areas where, year after year, I can go back and they’re there,” DeBlieux said. “I don’t know why.

“Maybe it’s something on the bottom: it’s sandier or hard. I don’t know.”

Two such areas are located near the marshes.

“There’s one at Grand Bayou, and another one at Empire,” he said. “Maybe it’s the way the current comes out.”

And then there’s a group of blocks in West Delta that are a known tarpon magnets.

“You’re entering the tarpon triangle — West Delta 27, 58 and 61,” DeBlieux said.

Again, the veteran angler said he’s not sure what holds them.

However, he believes that water clarity is important, even in those traditional hotspots.

“You try to be in clean water,” DeBlieux said.

That doesn’t mean that he avoids water that is dirty on the surface.

“A lot of times you’ll see that the water will be murky on top, but clear underneath,” he said. “You’ll see that in the prop wash.

“The clear water will boil up.”

But there’s a fine line between water that’s clean and water that’s too clear.

“I think sometimes in the clearer water they can see the bait too good,” DeBlieux said.

Even limiting the search to these three general area leaves a lot of water to cover.

Novices often simply run their boats around, looking for surface fish, and that can be effective.

“You see the light reflect off of them,” DeBlieux said.

Seeing rolling tarpon is much easier when the seas are flat.

“I want it as slick as possible,” he said. “It’s just easier to fish.”

Sometimes the fish are just rolling for no apparent reason, and it takes a keen eye to spot the fish’s infrequent visits to the surface.

But often tarpon roll numerous times, or there will be several fish in a school rolling like hogs in slop.

That usually means they’re there for a reason.

“The rain minnows will get in a big, red ball, and you’ll see the tarpon just feeding,” he explained.

When that happens, DeBlieux gets his boat to the area as quickly as possible, working the school like tuna anglers do — running the boat on the edge of the school and turning to drag lures around the edges of the feeding fish.

Or even better and more exciting, DeBlieux will ease up to within casting distance and heave out a bait.

But there’s an art to sight-fishing tarpon.

“When you cast to one, let it hit, and sink,” DeBlieux said. “They almost always hit it when it’s falling.”

And when a fish pounces on the lure, the angler has to fight the urge to set the hook.

That’s vitally important because the lure of choice to sight-cast is a Coon Pop, a bait that includes a weight that pops off when the hook is set so there is nothing for the fish to use to throw the hook.

“I make my own Coon-Pops,” DeBlieux said.

The elements are simply the weight, some soft copper wire, a large plastic grub and a 6/0 circle hook.

It’s that circle hook that mandates proper technique when a fish strikes.

“If you set the hook, you’ll jerk that hook right out of its mouth,” he said. “Try to just reel it.”

That contradicts the popular belief that an angler must “bow to the fish,” or simply drop the rod tip when a strike occurs so the fish has time to swallow the hook.

DeBlieux said he doesn’t believe that’s necessary.

”I don’t bow to them,” he said. “I just pull back. I just hold my ground.”

Of course, just about anyone can catch tarpon when they’re on the surface.

It’s when the fish are loath to roll that an angler discovers just how talented he is.

It’s during times like these that DeBlieux relies on his sharpened senses to produce bites.

Always, his eyes are scanning the surface of the waters for indications that tarpon are nearby.

That could mean seeing rain minnows jumping.

“If you’ve got rain minnows in an area, there’s tarpon,” DeBlieux said confidently.

While he prefers to see rain minnows flipping the surface — a sure sign something is feeding on them — sometimes finding a school of baitfish is a much more subtle exercise.

“We look for slicks, particularly those that smell like watermelon,” he said. “What’ll happen a lot of times is that tarpon will be laying right under the water, and they’ll be make that smell.”

Another telltale sign is in the air.

“I also look for frigate birds,” DeBlieux said. “They seem to be over big fish.”

Once a slick or active frigate bird is found, DeBlieux closes in.

In these cases, however, he doesn’t shy away from where he believes the fish to be.

“We use the boat a lot of times to make them roll,” he explained. “You can look behind you, and they’ll actually roll in the prop wash.”

Any time a tarpon has been located, particularly a PI (that means tarpon that’s been “positively identified”), DeBlieux reaches up and punches a button on his GPS.

“When I find one, I hit the GPS,” he said. “It gives me a place to come back to.”

And knowing exactly where fish are holding is vitally important to continued success — and there are usually few landmarks that can put you on top of fish like a GPS can.

So if he sees fish rolling, or turns one up on a pass over a slick, he nabs the coordinates from the satellite while he continues to try and catch the tarpon.

His first instinct is to drag his spread of lures right over the slick or marked fish.

The trick is to slowly drag baits over the fish.

“For some reason, it seems the slower you can go the better,” he said.

All the while, however, his eyes are darting back and forth from his prop wash to his bottom finder.

“That’s your eyes. That’s your ears,” he said. “You can’t do without any of the equation.”

A novice angler’s head would pound from the intensity — DeBlieux constantly shifts his gaze from the bottom finder to the waters, always searching for signs that tarpon lurk nearby.

He often sees single fish, denoted by the larger signals, but what he really wants to find are concentrations of the signature Vs.

Just as with surface sightings, the angler marks any probable underwater contact for further investigation.

If a pass over the fish doesn’t produce results, he changes tactics.

First, he moves back to the slick or where he marked the fish (this is when the GPS becomes vital), and begins a drift.

“It lets the baits get a little deeper,” DeBlieux said.

Knowing how the current is moving is important, however, because the boat’s motor is only used to take advantage of the water movement.

“You want to figure out how the current is running because when you set up on a school, you want to drift over the fish,” he said.

But because he’s using artificial lures, DeBlieux doesn’t simply allow the current to pull the boat and lures over the fish — he has to ensure the lures don’t get tangled and that they maintain their action.

So he conservatively uses his engines to just ease the boat along.

“If you’re seeing fish on the finder, this is how to catch them,” DeBlieux said. “Bump the motor in and out (of gear) to control the boat and keep the spread behind the boat.

“They can get under you if you’re not careful.”

The result is a deeper spread of lures than normal.

Rips in the tarpon triangle also are likely haunts for tarpon.

“Fish will hang right on those rips,” DeBlieux said.

But effectively fishing these lines, formed by opposing currents, is counter-intuitive.

“You would think you should fish the clear side,” DeBlieux said. “Uh-uh. You fish the dirty side.

“For some reason, that’s where the fish will usually be.”

Sometimes it’s possible to follow tarpon, watching them on the depth finder.

Other times, they seem to just fade away.

When that happens, DeBlieux doesn’t worry because he knows he can often locate them again by heading right back to where he initially found them.

“You might follow a school out, but there was a reason those fish were there,” DeBlieux said. “They’ll work their way back.”

He might not immediately mark fish, but DeBlieux knows that it’s just a matter of time.

“If you’re in an area where there have been tarpon, the fish are there,” he said. “Sometimes you just have to be patient until you get on one.”

His spread consists of eight to 10 lines, varying in distance to ensure they don’t tangle and provide as much coverage as possible.

His favorite lures in the spread are Pet 21s, a spoon that has long been replaced by other, more fancy baits.

“Almost no one uses them,” DeBlieux admitted. “But it’s the way we used to catch them.

“I caught my 211-pounder with it, and I’m not going to not fish it just because they’re not in style.”

And so a 5-gallon bucket sits on his back, Pet 21s of various colors hanging off the side.

However, he also makes use of the lures that replaced the Pet 21s in most tarpon anglers’ arsenal.

His homemade Coon-Pops vary in weight, and are placed accordingly.

“I put the heavy ones close to the boat,” DeBlieux said.

The spread varies in distance from 50 seconds back to right in the prop wash.

“You won’t believe how close I’ll put them out,” he said. “When one hits a short line, it’s a total frickin’ explosion.

“You won’t believe when one jumps right at the transom.”

His general layout is 50 seconds on the starboard long line, 40 seconds on the port long line, 30 seconds on the starboard side of the transom, matched with 20 seconds on the port.

Two shorter lines are added off the corners of the transom — 10 seconds back on the starboard side and 5 seconds back on the port.

The two shortest lines are put right in the prop wash, with the rods being racked on the gunnel ahead of the transom.

Such spreads work well for many anglers, but DeBlieux has a secret weapon that ups his odds of success.

“I mix pogie oil and Vaseline, and I put it on the lures,” he said. “That’s what nobody does.”

Pogie oil has been a part of his arsenal for years, but petroleum jelly was only added after hearing longtime skipper Steve Shook recommend the mix during a seminar.

“It helps it stick to the lures,” DeBlieux said.

Once a fish is hooked, the work is just beginning.

The first thing of which to be mindful is what everyone’s job is.

“One person should be driving. One person should be clearing the line, tagging the fish and releasing it. One person should be fighting the fish,” DeBlieux said.

But this isn’t tuna fishing, where the skipper keeps the boat moving forward to tire the fish quickly.

And it’s not billfishing, with the boat being backed down aggressively.

“Most of the time, we fight the fish with the boat in neutral and let the fish fight the drag,” DeBlieux said. “I don’t want to pull the fish through the water.”

Plus that’s just tough on the angler and the tarpon.

“You’re punishing the angler and sort of hurting the fish. It’s not really fighting the fish,” he said.

So why such emphasis on having an angler behind the wheel?

“He’s there to keep the fish behind the boat,” DeBlieux said.

Also, an especially tough fish might strip out too much line.

“If we get in trouble with line, we’ll turn the boat around and chase him,” he said.

Once the tarpon is brought closer to the boat, DeBlieux generally keeps the boat in gear so he can react swiftly to the fish.

“I’ll keep the boat in gear because you want to keep the tarpon behind the boat,” he explained.

At this point, the decision has to be made whether or not to keep the fish.

If it’s big enough to have a shot at the leader board, DeBlieux snatches his snap gaff and secures the tarpon.

If it’s not, he prepares to tag it.

“I won’t even touch the leader until I’m ready to release it,” he said.

The tag is slipped behind a scale along the fish’s back and pushed into the flesh.

DeBlieux then leaders the fish, flips the hook lose and watches the fish swim away.

The lines are then put out, and the entire process starts over.

And with any luck, DeBlieux will quickly see another flash next to the boat.

All he can do is grin with expectation.

About Andy Crawford 863 Articles
Andy Crawford has spent nearly his entire career writing about and photographing Louisiana’s hunting and fishing community. While he has written for national publications, even spending four years as a senior writer for B.A.S.S., Crawford never strayed far from the pages of Louisiana Sportsman. Learn more about his work at www.AndyCrawford.Photography.