Big-game anglers in the northern Gulf will be singing a happier tune this summer.
Originally Published in April 2011 print edition.
We pulled up to the immense, brightly lit oil rig in the early morning hours, greeted by a pair of other boats. Less than a minute after we deployed our trolling baits, Capt. Jeremy Cox tightened up our spread and had it popping just right, when a black-and-purple Cabo Shaker on the right flatline pulled drag for a few seconds. A fish grabbed it and dropped it. Seconds later, the water exploded around a pink-and-blue Mold Craft on the right short ‘rigger. Vessel owner Randall Rigsby—who’d not caught a marlin, ever—went into action. The fish ran straight at the boat, jumping; Randall recovered line as I turned the boat and throttled up a bit. What a show!
For several minutes Randall’s fish jumped relentlessly. As it ran out of steam, we got into a good rhythm of gaining line. Jeremy carefully leadered her alongside the boat for release. Two hundred and fifty pounds, we estimated. We snapped a few photos before she swam away.
“Ginger,” I said, as enamored with the lure as Randall was with his first marlin.
Every fisherman has a superstition. My lures don’t get a name until they catch a billfish. Ginger now had a place in our spread behind Marge, a pink swimmer. It was a carefully tailored trolling spread we’d prepared before embarking on the 88-mile, overnight run from Pensacola. On the center rigger, a traditional blue/white Ilander-and-ballyhoo combination was joined by a yellow-and-blue Sea Star on the right-long ‘rigger. Marge, with a ballyhoo, held the left-long spot. Next to Ginger, on the left short ‘rigger, was another Mold Craft Wide Range awaiting a name. A black-and-red plunger occupied the left flat position.
We’d planned that long run, in November, to the Horn Mountain rig to coincide with the northern Gulf’s epic cool-season tuna and wahoo fishing. Among the contents of Randall’s fish box were an 80-pound yellowfin and a 45-pound wahoo.
The trip was proof positive that the northern Gulf offers nearly year-round billfish prospects. Since then, I’ve had numerous reports of blue marlin, as well as tuna and wahoo, which is very good news given the Deepwater Horizon tragedy of last summer. As the calm days of summer approach, we’re confident bluewater fishing is business as usual.
Another thing to consider: You don’t have to run to the rigs to get your first billfish.
For fishermen along the Florida Panhandle, the bite is often much hotter, much closer to home. Let’s look at the area just south of what locals call the “29 Edge,” around the northernmost tip of the DeSoto Canyon. Ranging from about 25 miles to 50 miles from Pensacola and Destin, these waters are some of the most prolific and productive billfish grounds in the Gulf. At 400 to 1,200 feet, depths aren’t as dramatic as they are to the southwest, but the billfish don’t seem to mind. Many tournament fishermen will overrun these areas to fish the river rip off Louisiana or even beyond that into Green’s Canyon, only to find that the winning fish came from the Nipple, Squiggles, Spur or the Elbow.
It’s an easy day trip, but you’ll need time to plan and prepare. First, brine your ballyhoo the night before you head out and rig enough baits for your first couple of spreads. A light coating of Bionic Brine, Sea Salt or even just table salt will help toughen up your ballyhoo and allow them to run a bit longer. The worst thing to get caught doing is trying to rig baits while you’re in the middle of a hot bite.
Next, plan out where you’ll go first and then what your plan “B” will look like. I like to pull a report off of Hilton’s Realtime Navigator and Roff’s, but both will cost you. They’ll give you sea surface temperature, chlorophyll images and current information. I also like to pull the free NOAA data buoy reports for updated wind and wave data.
Free sea surface temperature readings are available through Rutgers University. Go to floridasportsman.com/weather and scroll down to weather links. You should also log onto the FS Forum and see what bluewater reports are shaping up. I can tell you from experience, if there is a big weedline just north of the Spur or a nice push just east of the Elbow, it won’t be a secret for long.
It’s important to have a game plan of where you want to start, and for most folks that’s the start of deeper water, about 600 feet, at a bend in the contour line referred to as the Nipple. Unless the water is horribly dirty, I like lures in the water for the maximum amount of time.
If you just started trolling at 7 a.m., for example, at the Nipple, you could troll at seven knots on a 124-degree heading until 1 p.m. and you would have covered 42 miles and be right on top of the Squiggles. This would have you trolling along the eastern wall of the canyon. If you choose to start at the Nipple and ride the western wall, the same distance on a 222-degree heading, almost to the tenth of a mile, will have you on top of the Steps. You’ll pass the 131, and Elbow on this route. If you chose to cross from the Steps to the Squiggles, you’d cross right over the Spur. It’s our own little “Bermuda Triangle” of sorts, but in a good way. There aren’t any drilling rigs on this route back home, but there are lots of shallow rock ledges in 200 to 400 feet of water to hunt wahoo.
In June and July, sargassum is prevalent in the triangle and will form up weedlines and clumps along currents associated with the Loop Current or upwellings along the shallower walls of the DeSoto Canyon. These come and go throughout the day and will often be small and hard to find, which makes them all the more productive, since you just might have it all to yourself. In this cul-de-sac of sorts in the upper Gulf, tuna, wahoo, dolphin and all the billfish get together for summer vacation and if you prepare yourself properly, you might get invited to the block party.
Don’t get too hung up on water color and clarity. The cleaner the better, but some days you just have to slug it out in “clean green” water because it’s all you have for 100 miles. It would be great to have blue water pushed up against dirty water, and it does occur even this far east of the river rip off of southeast Louisiana, but it’s not that common.
The most important thing you and your crew can do while you are trolling, is to keep your eyes peeled. A wooden pallet can turn a boring day into an awesome adventure, but you have to spot it. A mostly submerged tree can be hard to spot on a calm day, but can you find it when there’s a chop on the water? That big blue might be lurking just below the trunk. And an unassuming slick on the water might just hint of a bait busting party that took place just minutes before you arrived and perhaps the party crashers are still hanging around. Let the water determine your plans when it makes sense to do so.
What tackle to pull? I’ll never forget hearing the excitement and simultaneous heartbreak in my friend Dave’s voice scratch out, “We just got dumped,” over the VHF while fishing near the Elbow one afternoon. He was fishing with 30-pound conventional gear, suitable for the average bite, but not this one. Exciting, yes, but we don’t want valuable fish swimming around with a whisker that’s several hundred yards long. As a rule, 50-pound gear is more appropriate for true bluewater trolling. Some guys beef up to 80-pound. Often, just a pair of 80s on the flatlines is enough to put a captain’s mind at ease. It always seems that the bigger bites come right off the transom. It was certainly the case with the big bluefin tuna that graced the March 2010 cover of this magazine (I took the picture!) and almost every other big bite I’ve witnessed.
Every upper Gulf state except Alabama boasts a grander blue marlin as its record, so big bites are no stranger to these waters. Even Alabama’s “small record” is 779 pounds. You won’t get 10 or 15 shots at a billfish as you might sailfishing in Miami or as you might in Central America, but you will get your shots at quality fish that won’t leave you disappointed.
One last thing I’ve learned in the northern Gulf fishery, both from my own experience and chronicling the catches of others: The best billfish lure is…the one you keep in the water the most. Yes, a blue-and-white Ilander is probably the most productive. But remember there are at least half a dozen of these on most offshore boats and nearly always one in the water. I like to pull a few different lures of my own and they have their permanent spots in the spread, and guess what? They are my most productive ones. My friend Capt. Matt Dunn has caught a pair of tournament-winning billfish and a near-record tuna on the same lure, running the same position. You think he ever takes it out of the spread? Find lures that you like to run and keep pulling them; you’ll have your own secret weapon too.
So, Ginger joins Marge, Ashley and a few others who’ve put in their work to catch a billfish. They get their monikers from ex-girlfriends, which started as a joke. But now my wife is wondering how many more names are left to use. Maybe I’ll start borrowing names from the anglers who reel them in? FS
Nipple (northernmost starting point) 29o51’ N 87o05’ W
Elbow 29o38’ N 87o17’ W
131 Hole 29o48’ N 87o05’ W
Squiggles (SE Corner) 29o30’ N 86o24’ W
Spur 29o26’ N 86o56’ W
Steps (SW Corner) 29o17’ N 87o37’ W
Ram Powell 29o03.6’ N 88o05.4’ W
Marlin 29o06.45’ N 87o56.62’ W
Horn Mountain 28o51.97’ N 88o03.38’ W
*Horn Mountain was within the Deepwater Horizon/BP closure zone as of Feb. 2011
Gulf Fishing Safe In Wake of Deepwater Horizon Cleanup
Let’s all have a moment of silence on April 20, particularly those of us who happen to be trolling the deep Gulf waters.
That day will mark the one-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon/Macondo well disaster. While fishing in the northern Gulf of Mexico has clearly rebounded, the memory of the tragedy will haunt anglers plying these blue waters for years to come.
Eleven crew members aboard the British Petroleum-contracted drilling rig lost their lives in a terrible nighttime fire. Volatile liquids and fumes, which had been insidiously climbing the wellbore, were suddenly expelled on deck, catching fire. Following the evacuation of 115 crew members, the Transocean-owned Deepwater Horizon rig toppled into the sea after a subsequent explosion. Below the surface, more bad news: A device designed to seal the well in the event of such an emergency—the blowout preventer—failed.
Over the course of three months, 205.8 million gallons of oil gushed into the northern Gulf of Mexico. The well was capped in mid-July, but not until Sept. 19 was the Macondo well finally “killed” by an injection of cement sent down via an aptly-named “relief” well. The words, “No continuing threat to the Gulf of Mexico,” from Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen were indeed relief to Gulf Coast residents—especially fishermen—but likely not so for the families of those 11 dead crewmen.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) began posting fishing closures in the area immediately following the fire. By June 2, 88,000 square miles of the northern Gulf were closed to fishing, some 37 percent of the U.S. EEZ. Fears of the oil spreading to the Florida peninsula, Keys and perhaps the east coast didn’t materialize, thanks to “Eddy Franklin”—a persistant eddy that remained well north of the Loop Current.
By November, most of the sheens had subsided, and NOAA had reopened all but a 30-by-30-mile square area directly over the Macondo well site, 52 miles southeast of Venice, Lousiana.
For anglers, the closures were a major source of frustration and—for some—economic hardship. There was good news, however, from repeated NOAA surveys of seafood samples—including fresh-caught yellowfin tuna, blackfin and swordfish: Sensory and chemical analysis indicated no danger to consumers. Fish quickly metabolize and expel potentially toxic hydrocarbon products.
Speaking in the fall of 2010, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco expressed “grave concerns about the impacts that the subsurface oil may have had on vulnerable species and young stages of diverse marine life.”
Fishermen might share those grave concerns on April 20, as well as on other days, during unscheduled moments of silence between strikes.