Fish the northern Gulf this summer for blue marlin, white marlin and sailfish. by Corky Decker

Today, nearly all billfish catches are released, as is the case with this Gulf blue marlin, being led alongside the boat to revive.

It’s different than what you might find in South Florida or The Bahamas. Way different from global hotspots like Kona or Panama.

We have a mix of billfish species, sure—blue marlin, white marlin, sailfish. But we have longer runs to contend with, and a harder time finding actual blue water. That big ol’ Mississippi River to the west dumps billions of gallons of muddy water daily into the northern Gulf. On the flipside, the influx of nutrients and forage from the coastal estuaries delivers plenty of food to larger fish.

Over the years, I’ve fished around the world for billfish, but I made Destin, Florida, my home for a reason. We have a well-developed sportfishery and a healthy biomass of billfish—not what it was in the old days, but in recent years it seems there are more fish every season. Buddy Gentry of G&S boats, who helped pioneer the marlin fishing in the northern Gulf, has fished Destin for over 50 years. He told me his best billfish year ever was in 1969 when he logged 97 billfish in a season. That’s more than I’ve caught in the four years I’ve lived here, but if billfish conservation measures are successful, this area has the potential to be world-class.

A pair of grand slams from the Destin Fishing Museum archives: Capt. Royal Melvin’s Venture II (1978, right) and original Venture (1965, left).

PLANNING A TRIP

Before I leave the dock, I order up a ROFFS report, Roffer’s Offshore Fishing Forecasting Service (www.roffs.com). These reports—and others like them offered by Hilton and other services—are indispensable to Panhandle offshore fishermen. Roffer’s charts I’ve found to be very accurate, showing where to find blue water and temperature breaks. I know many locals who have caught marlin in green water, but I haven’t. I want the blue water, the temperature breaks (80 degrees being the magic number), a nice tight current line, and maybe a wellformed weedline. A ROFFS report gives me a direction, and a place to start. We can get some ripping currents offshore, moving the blended water around fairly fast on a daily basis, so the most up-todate report is important.

A good color graph of the satellite water temp data, with current information and interpretations, is the best 64 bucks you can spend. In fact, with the price of fuel, that report is liable to save you a lot more than $64!

Many days, the most productive waters begin about 40 miles from shore. You either have to have some size or a fast boat to be successful here. I’m a size and comfort guy and my 45-footer is even a tad small. I wish I could afford a 55- to 65-foot boat, but I make do and have adapted my trips to suit this area. To save on the fuel bill, I leave in the evening and run offshore all night at 8 knots. The next morning, we troll till dark, then shut down and fish for swordfish the second evening (we have some unbelievable sword fishing here, but we’ll leave that topic for another time). Finally, we fish
our way home on the last day.

These multi-day trips require planning and a nice weather window, but if I hit it right, I can get in two days and a night of fishing for less fuel burned than if I ran the 40 miles both ways at 20 knots or so on a day trip.

When I plan an offshore trip, I want at least a three-day weather window, hopefully light and variable winds. If the forecast includes anything over 5 to 15 knots and 2 to 4 feet, I’m staying closer to home. At night on a swordfish drift, I turn on every deck light, all under water lights and keep a guy on the bridge on wheel watch. While a screaming Tiagra will wake everyone up, it just makes good sense to keep an eye on the radar and be bright and noticeable. Since I only make around 8 knots traveling at night, the risk of doing damage by hitting something in the water is greatly reduced. The Mississippi dumps a lot of debris into the Gulf; seeing guys running at 20 to 30 knots at night sends chills up my spine. While my boat only holds 400 gallons, I plug her to the fills and also carry a 100-gallon bladder on the bow for emergency fuel; I have very good fuel gauges to monitor my burn, but also double check my sight gauges a couple times a day.

I’ve had the best success on billfish in this area trolling weed lines; the thicker the better. Heavy cover holds a lot of chicken dolphin and marlin consider them candy. Look for bait balls (usually small blackfin tuna, bonito or hardtails) either on the surface or in the upper water column, covering some ground to locate the fish.

Once I get a billfish knockdown I’ll work that immediate area hard. Most of my best days have come when I stayed in just a small area. It seems that once you find a blue—or even more so, sails and whites—you are in an area holding numerous fish. Don’t go charging off after getting bill whacked. Stay put and look hard for signs; this it seems is a key element to successful Gulf marlin fishing. The guy who tells you to stare at your lure spread is doing you an injustice. The tip of a fin, a free-jumping sail, that frigatebird are all signs you don’t want to miss. If you have a tower, this is where you need to be from dawn till dusk. Investing in top-quality polarized sunglasses is a must. Binoculars are invaluable, too. I buy German Steiners. I try to pay the most attention to a few hundred yards around the boat, but every half hour or so I’ll scan the horizon, mostly looking for birds. If I’m working open water, I always try to troll quartering the seas; the lure spread will track better. When fishing weedlines or current, the layout will dictate your direction of travel.

Your lure selection can be different for targeting whites, sails and blues, but I have caught all three species in the same day in the same area in the Gulf before. Running a mix seems to work the best for me. I like to pull six rigs for my Gulf spread. Everyone has their favorite lures; mine happen to be Steve Coggin’s Hawaiian Copas. I pull large, noisy concave heads (12 to 15 inches skirted) on two flatlines 40 and 60 feet back. Most of the big blues will be on these short corner lures, which makes for some exciting crashes.

From the outriggers, we’ll run pushers or slants rigged with 7- or 9-inch skirts 120 and 140 feet back. The ‘rigger lures account for most of the white marlin and sailfish hits, but again I’ve caught blues on every lure in the spread.

Our “fly trap,” on a 30- or 50-pound outfit run off the bridge holder, is a naked ballyhoo right in the center of the pattern, usually 80 to 100 feet back.

The shotgun off the center rigger is a bullet-head run way back 200 yards or more. When a billfish comes in and whacks a lure or two, often she’ll drop
back deeper in the spread. A second or two later, this single silent bullet-head-—different from what she just rang her bill on -comes by and Bam! I also catch heaps of wahoo on the shotgun. This lure is a 9-inch, icy blue-over-pink with bright flash wings. Steve makes a mirror finish, and a white pearl bullet that is a killer!

White marlin are present in the gulf-- especially in the fall--though not in the numbers seen recently along the mid-atlantic.

THE FAR RIGS

If you are lucky enough to own a 50-foot battlewagon or a high-speed center console, the numerous deepwater oil rigs off Alabama and Louisiana offer some unique opportunities. These platforms and drill ships have been seeing the offshore fleet for years and unlike most other foreign drilling waters that I’ve been to—who won’t allow any vessel within 500 meters unless it is a hired supply boat—the Gulf guys will let us drop live baits and pull lures around the rigs. These offshore platforms are the ultimate fish-aggregating devices. I’ve had my best mahi-mahi days around these structures. Some of my favorites are Mars, Thunder Horse and Marlin Rigs, and if the mahi and feed are around, so are the billfish. Many of the big-name Gulf Coast tournaments are won every year with fish caught off a platform.

Be respectful if a supply boat is approaching to set up on D.P. (dynamic possitioning); they need some time to get where they need to be under a pump or off load cranes. Give them room. Hard tails, blackfin and small yellowfin tuna bridled up on a circle hook and sent down amongst a feed line or bait ball is about as hard for a blue to resist as a sirloin is to a half starved Labrador. It’s going to get eaten! I love live-baiting and I really love live-baiting the rigs. Just don’t get too close to the rig legs or your marlin biscuit will get stolen by the local barracuda. A hundred yards or so seems to be outside the cuda’s eyesight range and you’ll be ringing the dinner bell for Miss Billy.

Another fun technique that’s deadly around the platforms is chunking at night for slammer yellowfins. A couple of 5-gallon buckets of silver dollar size blackfins cut up before dark is your chum. Look for upside down v’s coming towards the surface at dark—those would be your yellowfins—and start a slow chum slick. Drift a chunk of blackfin back in the slick on a leader just shy of 100-pound-test and hold on!

The choice between swords and yellowfins at night makes for a hard decision. Sleeping? Forget about it. I’ll sleep when I’m dead. Unfortunately, my
current boat doesn’t have the fuel capacity to fish the offshore rigs, so my trips out to those wonderful reaches are limited to tournaments and invites by my friends with the big toys. – FS

First Published Florida Sportsman April 2013

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