Sometimes a little vertical lift is all that’s needed to turn finicky tuna into ravenous hordes.
Yellowfin tuna often get finicky as the temperatures rise and sea conditions become slick. These are the times when Capt. Kerry Milano pulls out all the stops to try and ensure action for his customers by employing a stealth method often used by Florida sailfish guides — a fishing kite.
“The fish see the same thing day in and day out — chum, live baiting and so forth,” he said. “Kite fishing is just something different and is highly effective, so as a captain I like to experiment with anything that will help my customers catch more fish when the fish are not cooperating.”
It was on one such balmy afternoon recently that WWL Sports Director Jim Henderson, cameraman Bob Parkinson and I headed out with Milano and his mate, Eddie Cerise, to target yellowfin tuna. With so many fish over the century mark hitting the docks this summer, the level of chatter and excitement on the boat was high.
Milano questioned Henderson during the ride downriver about his previous tuna fishing experience.
“I caught a 65-pounder down in Grand Isle when I first got here,” Henderson replied.
Milano and Cerise just grinned and nodded, knowing full well that the chances of topping that catch were excellent. The loop current that flows up from Mexico had formed a cool-water eddy near our destination — the Transocean Amirante, which is an offshore floater located about 40 miles out of South Pass.
“Tuna really like the temperature change associated with this cool-water eddy, and they have been consistent at this particular rig,” Milano explained to the eager crew.
As with most offshore adventures, the first order of the day was to catch live bait on the way out to the fishing grounds.
This summer, the new “hot bait” has been Atlantic threadfin herring, a small greenish baitfish averaging about 6 inches long. Some of the local captains refer to the slender baits as “tuna crack.” It seems the ‘addicted’ tuna just can’t consume enough of them.
After clearing South Pass, Milano pulled the throttles back and scanned the slightly rippled surface for signs of activity.
“To locate threadfin, we look for a disturbance on the surface, and circle around to get upcurrent from the school and drift through them,” he explained.
Threadfin can be a little skittish, so it’s important to cut the engines off and drift well ahead of the school.
“You have to cast a sabiki into the school, and work it back steadily,” Milano explained as he quickly worked a 7-foot medium-action spinning rod rigged with a size 8 sabiki rig.
Two 50-gallon stern livewells were soon brimming with baits. While the task of catching bait is usually on the minds of the crew, one crucial step that is often overlooked is the care of baits after they have been caught.
When unhooking baits from a sabiki, it is a good idea to have another person standing by with a dip net. Place the baits into the net, being careful not to knock scales off the threadfins, and then release them gently into the livewell. A little extra care on the front end will result in livelier, longer-lasting baits.
Sporting three 225-horsepower Yamaha outboards, the 36-foot Contender made short work of the 40-mile trip to the floater. During our approach, the VHF radio crackled with a report from a sleek Georgia sportfisher already fishing the rig.
“The tuna were jumping real good when we first got here this morning, but they went down,” said the captain.
“Was that a tuna?” Henderson asked pointing to a large hole in the water 30 yards behind the boat.
“Yup, and it’s a linebacker too!” exclaimed Cerise, an avid Saints fan who was thrilled to share the boat as well as his opinions on the upcoming football season with Henderson, the Saints play-by-play commentator.
“Sounds like it’s time for a kite,” said Milano.
Milano first became interested in kite fishing in 1998 when veteran Venice guide Kevin Hunter showed him how to fish Bob Lewis kites.
“Back then, it quickly became evident that when the tuna were finicky, kite fishing enabled hook-ups when no one else was getting a bite,” he said.
Often there are periods during the summer with long stretches of calm weather meaning little or no wind. Although more challenging, Milano explains there are a few tricks to getting the kite to fly without a strong breeze.
“Put the engines in gear and slowly pull the kite behind the boat until it stays aloft, or add a helium-filled balloon for lift,” he said. “I visit a local party supply store, and pick up a couple of large latex balloons along with a portable helium tank.”
Milano used the tank to inflate the balloon, and then carefully fastened it to a loop on the back of the AFTCO kite. With Cerise assisting, the duo succeeded in getting the balloon attached and the kite aloft.
Milano’s kite setup includes a short 3-foot kite rod, a Penn 114 HLW high-speed retrieve reel spooled with 100-pound Power Pro and two release clips staggered along the line. On the business end is an Owner Gorilla 7/0 live-bait hook.
Two flat lines were also deployed, one with a bar jack and one with a hardtail. The jokes were flying, and Henderson was in a light hearted mood.
“You had better get all your jokes out of the way now, because you’re not going to have any breath left to tell them after you fight a big tuna,” I warned him.
No sooner had the words been spoken when the port line on the Shimano 50W began to scream against the drag, and Henderson donned a fighting belt.
“That’s a good fish, Paw-Paw,” Milano chuckled as Cerise commenced to clearing the other lines and reeling in the kite.
“Alright I’m going to spin the boat around, reel on him quick. He’s trying to swim to the boat and spit the hook, so just keep reeling,” Milano instructed.
Those of us watching the show teased Henderson as he struggled with the brute.
Under a broiling sun, Henderson cranked as sweat dripped from his arms and the bill of his cap forming a large puddle on the deck around his feet.
The fight seemed interminable, and the unblinking eye of Parkinson’s camera caught every wince and grimace of Henderson’s agony-filled face. The footage of the fight would later air on WWL-TV’s Fourth Down on Four.
Finally, after more than an hour of battle, the end drew near — or at least it appeared to.
“Grab the gaff,” shouted Milano as large sickle fins began to gleam way down under the boat.
“I don’t think he’s quite ready yet,” Henderson lamented as the fish streaked off all of the line he had just so painstakingly gained.
Henderson became lightheaded from the battle, and Cerise poured bottled water down his back to help cool him.
But the angler would prove victorious today. The big fish finally succumbed and slid onto the surface, where two gaffs found their marks. Cerise and Milano heaved the shimmering behemoth over the gunwale as Henderson, knees quivering, collapsed against the leaning post.
“Hey Jim, fighting a big fish like this could be a new way to break in the rookies at Saints camp,” laughed Cerise.
“You know, it sort of SMELLS like the locker room at Saints camp,” replied Henderson as he tried to catch his breath and rehydrate his body after the marathon battle.
In the beginning
Back in 1993, Capt. Kevin Hunter was one of the first to experiment with kite fishing in the Venice area.
“I had heard about it, and then one day I just started messing around and using a kite in the wintertime,” he said.
His first trip using this new contraption made a believer out of him.
“We had virtually as fast of action as you could have. To say we were impressed would be an understatement,” he said.
Soon after, Hunter was hooked, and the kite became a mainstay in his tackle arsenal. Currently he has two of his Shimano TLD 50s spooled with 150-pound Power Pro dedicated to kite fishing.
“There were days when I would depart in the morning with the mindset to dedicate my whole day to kite fishing. If I stuck with it, we always seemed to have fantastic action,” he said.
The visual aspects of dangling a live bait from a kite are appealing not only to a fish lurking beneath the surface, but offer some unique insights into feeding habits from above as well.
“All the stuff that would be neat to see if you could watch from beneath the surface, like a fish stalking a bait and so forth is what you witness when kite fishing,” Hunter explained. “It was like seeing everything in slow motion. Watching a big yellowfin tuna boil on a live bait and then come back and crash it was just awesome.”
Some winter days when Hunter fished the Midnight Lump, when the action was slow and there weren’t too many boats around, he would put out a kite.
“We once watched a wahoo cut a hardtail in half then come back and skyrocket on the other half,” he said.
Plus it was perfect for those days when tuna got wary and Hunter was forced to switch to lighter line and smaller baits. By deploying his baits under a fishing kite, Hunter found he could use heavy mono and 200-pound leader or even braided line to make quick work of brute yellowfins. Kites also allowed him to use larger hardtails, which are sometimes plentiful around the deep rigs.
And don’t think kites are just for tuna. Hunter has witnessed makos, kingfish and even giant marlin nailing baitfish under kites.
“One day while fishing the Ocean America, we had a really big hardtail, so I decided to put it under a kite. I kept the bait right next to the boat as I let the kite out, and as soon as I pitched the hardtail out, it skipped across the water maybe 5 or 10 feet and a 600-pound marlin ate it,” he said.
Milano has also had a great summer using a kite. Just a few days prior to our trip, his customers quickly landed a 60- pound yellowfin followed by an 80-pounder. After they got the kite aloft again, it suddenly dived, almost crashing into the water. Milano started cranking, and quickly realized that the release clip was fouled. Forcing the line from the clip, he continued reeling until the line suddenly screamed from the Tiagra.
“When I tried to lift the rod from the holder, I couldn’t budge it, so I knew it had to be a really good fish,” he said.
One hour and 45 minutes later, after all the customers cried ‘uncle,’ Cerise took over and finished off the fish — a 186-pound yellowfin.
Learning the ropes
The major advantage of using a fishing kite is that there is absolutely no line or leader in the water. This is especially important when targeting leader-shy quarry. From a fish’s perspective, all it sees is a meal struggling and splashing on the surface.
There are two brands of kites used most often by local captains. The first is an AFTCO kite, which is constructed of black rip-stop nylon sailcloth, and is virtually waterproof. AFTCO kites can be ordered with two sets of interchangeable spars for different wind conditions.
The second is the Capt. Bob Lewis kite, which comes in various color coded weights of cotton polyester fabric ranging from x-light (less than 6 m.p.h.) to heavy wind (up to 20 m.p.h.). Their downfall is if salt accumulates or the kite gets wet from rain or a crash into the sea, they tend to dive and not fly straight.
The basic kite rod is generally 3 feet long. Reels, for the most part, are either high-speed-retrieve manual or electric reels. Most captains prefer to spool their reels with Power Pro or other braided line. Attached to the line are two or more release clips with some type of barrel swivel or other stoppers located along the line.
Once the kite is aloft, a line with the live bait attached to a separate rod and reel is fastened to one of the release clips. The kite is then slowly deployed farther from the boat until it is at the desired distance, pulling the bait across the surface of the water. Adjustments are usually required to compensate for waves, and can be accomplished by putting the fishing reel in free spool a little at a time to keep the bait splashing just on the surface.
When a fish strikes, the line will pop out of the release clip and as it falls, will have slack or belly. The angler must reel as fast as possible to take in that slack and come tight on the fish. The delay is actually perfect for allowing the fish to swallow the bait.
A word of warning: It is at this stage when kites can become a nuisance if not reeled in before chasing down a fish. They can become wrapped around outriggers, radar or even other rods stored above. It is a good idea to assign someone to man the kite rod to avoid a tangled mess.
Capt. Kerry Milano can be reached at (504) 915-9991.
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