Angling over the horizon produces big.
Ten minutes after that fish was released, we were greeted by what looked like a couple of torpedoes homed in on our boat. But at the front end of the bubbling streaks were yard-long dolphin racing from a sargassum weedline to belt the baits. Their dance was short but spirited on the marlin tackle. A few peanut-size dorado got in on the act while their big brothers were still flopping in the body bag. Then a blackfin tuna stayed for lunch. Things slowed for a few hours then, with only bonito to provide entertainment. But about 2 p.m., another sail latched on. This one, a full-grown model, did most of his fighting well away from the boat, and when he tired, the crew grabbed the bill and hoisted him aboard for a quick grip-and-grin photo before reviving the still-glowing fish.
I had to pinch myself to remember that we were fishing off Florida’s West Central coast, where gar are usually the only “billfish” anyone catches. But every year, more anglers are learning that for those who go west, way west, the fish are there. It’s a long ride out to the blue water, but more and more west coast boats have been making it in recent years as fuel-efficient, turbocharged diesels and four-stroke or direct injection outboards have greatly increased the range of some offshore rigs.
The trip is worth it for action-starved bluewater anglers who usually have to settle for kings and bonito closer to land. Once you pass the hundred-mile mark, you enter angling dreamland, where the next strike may well be a 500-pound blue marlin, and where it’s not unheard of to be surrounded by tons of leaping yellowfin tuna, every one of them big as an oil drum. Skyrocketing wahoo can be an anytime happening, and plenty of sails, blackfins and dolphin paint a truly lovely fishing picture. Maybe best of all, even with a few more boats making the voyage these days, it’s not uncommon to troll all day without ever coming within sight of any competition.
I joined Mark Thomason aboard his 54 Bertram out of Longboat Key, with a crew including offshore pro Steve Sprig of Naples, mate James Estes and several pals, plus Mark’s 8-year-old grandson, Morgan. Our goal was to more or less casually participate in the Old Salt Gulf Loop Tournament, which each August sends a fleet to where no boats have gone before-or at least to where few sportfishing anglers ever used to go, beyond the edge of the continental shelf, anywhere from 80 to 200 miles out.
The summer tournament is timed to coincide with a meandering of the Gulf Loop Current, a tendril of warm water that snakes into the Gulf of Mexico out of the Caribbean. Oceanographers say it runs northward roughly up the center of the Gulf, then splits somewhere off the Mississippi, with the eastern arm forming a loop that travels south along the edge of the continental shelf, eventually passing into the Florida Straits. There, it bends northward to flow between The Bahamas and Florida. This stretch of water is best known as the Gulf Stream to anglers, but oceanographers call it the “Florida Current.” The Gulf Stream proper begins north of The Bahamas, where a current coming up the east side of the islands joins the Florida Current to create a broad river of warm water that travels all the way to England after moving up the east coast of the U.S.
Gulf Loop waters last summer produced a new Florida record for blue marlin with a fish over 1,000 pounds. The tournament we fished, which included 20 boats, released three blues including one that was estimated at 450, our pair of sails, and good numbers of yellowfin tuna to 150 pounds and wahoo over 50 pounds. Dolphin were numerous but not big this time around, with the largest in the upper 20s. A few blackfins showed up in time for sushi, along with seemingly endless numbers of bonito.
The big challenge here is finding the “live water” where the fish are. Though it all looks good, with loads of bait and sargassum weedlines, there are hot zones where it seems that everything with fins is gathered, and miles between where there’s nothing happening. You can pull 20 miles between active pods of fish. The trick is to travel fast until you get to productive water, then slow down and fish hard in that water.
Most anglers pull trolling heads because this allows them to run at 8 to 10 knots or more, covering lots of area until they zone in on a hotspot. Some then switch to rigged baits and even live baits, if a few bullet bonito happen to present themselves, and slow down to give the fish a better look at the offerings.
Offshore anglers here become connoisseurs of water color, distinguishing between the green inshore waters which end somewhere around 100 feet, the pale blue waters from 100 feet out to about 300 feet, and the cobalt blue beyond. This extremely clear water is thought to be the meander of the Gulf Loop, and most experts say that the edge where it meets the pale blue water inside is nearly always a productive zone. The pale blue water sometimes extends offshore of the first major drop; on our trip, we were still in it at 800 feet.
Some anglers have a lot of faith in the commercial current reports, available via the Internet and by fax, which show current flows, speed and water color. These change dramatically day to day, and sometimes giant loops spin off the main flow of the current, whirling around on their own for days before rejoining the overall north-south movement.
Some of the best offshore anglers simply keep on going west until they come into live water. In the tournament, Scott Rickert of Sarasota fished 165 to 200 miles out, and at one point reported being in the middle of a school of hundreds of man-sized yellowfins blowing depthcharge holes in the surface. He also spotted 12 blues finning on the surface or chasing his baits, though he brought only one to the boat, a 250-pounder.
And tourney winners John Skinner, Paul Cornell and crew of Largo found their blues about 135 miles out at depths of 1,400 feet. Besides the 450- and 200-pounders they released, they lost a third estimated at about 300 pounds, and had a fourth eat a released dolphin just behind the boat. That sort of action on blues is unheard of just about anywhere these days, and just the hint of it is enough to send lots more boats into the next time zone when prime time rolls around again this summer.
Needless to say, it takes a big, seaworthy boat to make a run to the edge and beyond. Thirty-five feet is about the minimum most seasoned skippers consider safe. Dual engines are a must, and of course you’ve got to have cavernous fuel tanks, even with the most parsimonious powerplants. The general rule is that you burn no more than 1/4 of your fuel on the way out, 1/4 while trolling out there, 1/4 on the way home, and hold 1/4 in reserve. That reserve is just in case Bold wind and big waves are blowing against you when it’s time to go home-these conditions can easily jump your fuel consumption enough to require every drop of that reserve.
Gearing Up for The Deep Gulf
Because this is some of Florida’s best blue marlin water, it doesn’t pay to go undergunned, even though that means you knock any ambitious sailfish silly. Most anglers opt for 80-pound-class tackle, minimum. That may seem like enormous overkill to those who enjoy seeing fish in the 50-pound class sport their stuff on lighter gear, but when something big and blue and weighing a quarter of a ton finally takes the bait, you want to be ready. Jumbo forged hooks are also a good bet, as is 130- to 200-pound-test mono leader. Any trolling head a foot long or larger may win the lotto here, but there’s no denying the appeal of a live 5-pound bonito if you get in an area loaded with fish.
Where To Start
Pelagics are where you find them, but some anglers like to start with a known point of reference. A couple that are well known to those who fish the edge off the West Central coast include the area known as Twin Peaks at 27-43.91′N and 84-10.41′W; The Elbow at 27-43.39′N and 84-10.29′W, and West Drop at 27-43.78′N and 84-10.54′W. These not only give a point of origin from which you can troll westward until you hit action, but are also good spots to return to at night. The water is less than 250 feet deep on each, and provides excellent bottom fishing as a change of pace from trolling.