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Out of the Panhandle, Into the Fire

Out of the Panhandle, Into the Fire
Out of the Panhandle, Into the Fire

Got a burning desire to catch a big blue marlin? You'll find red-hot action in the northern Gulf.

Offshore anglers in the northern Gulf of Mexico are a hardy lot. After all, they might have to run anywhere from 25 to 105 miles to find the desired cobalt-blue water. Area tournaments typically allow boats to leave the dock at midnight so lines can be in the water by dawn. But this hard-core perseverance pays off. It pays off in a big way. As in the legitimate chance to land a 1,000-pound blue marlin.


On June 14, 1985, angler Warren Culbertson, fishing a Destin billfish tournament, landed a blue marlin which tipped the scales at 980.5 pounds. To this day it still remains the largest blue caught on hook and line in the Gulf, but that record may not last forever.


During a Gulfport, Mississippi tournament this past summer, a 917-pounder, worth a potential $100,000 first prize, was caught but eventually disqualified when it was mutilated by the props as the crew tried to get the monster into the cockpit. Numerous boats reported a tremendous bite in dirty water south of the Mississippi River mouth, with some crew members seeing multiple free-swimming blue marlin weighing 500 pounds or better.


Just how good is the offshore potential off the Panhandle? Nineteen-year bluewater veteran, Steve Kaiser of Pensacola, offers this assessment:


"It's magnificent. I think it's one of the best places in the world to fish," he said, the day after he tagged and released his personal best, a blue marlin estimated to weigh 450 pounds. "That fish was just sheer power." The hookup occurred at the Nipple, a well-known ledge 28 miles out (155 degrees south of Pensacola Pass). The feisty blue took two hours and five minutes to land after eating a Sevenstrand Knucklehead lure. Kaiser was aboard his 23-foot boat, Venture, when the blue marlin rose into the spread.


"Fishing was absolutely great in the '60s and '70s," claimed Buddy Gentry, a long-time Destin charterboat captain and co-owner of G&S Boats (the company which built the well-known Hooker and Sound Machine sportfishers, of world-record fame). "We'd leave Destin and fish the Rock Cliffs. We were slow and sometimes we'd stay out all night, but the fish were so thick we didn't have to run that far. From August 15 to September 15, the whites were everywhere. From September 15 to October 15, it was non-stop sailfish. After that the blues took over. On a good day we'd catch 10 to 15 billfish. On a bad day, we'd get three. Man, those were the good old times."


With the continued bykill of billfish by tuna and swordfish longliners, it may be a while before billfish catch rates return to those bygone standards. From all indications, however, the offshore potential of the northern Gulf remains very good, making the chance of success a worthwhile proposition. And if a billfish doesn't find your lure or ballyhoo, there's always the likelihood of a big dolphin, wahoo or tuna.


Kaiser and Dave Conkle, who fishes aboard his 41-foot boat Miss Babbie, are longtime members of the Pensacola Big Game Fishing Club and friendly competitors when it comes to angling. Both ended the 1996 season on November 1 with 16 billfish apiece for their respective boats, tying for top honors in the club. Kaiser scored two blue marlin, three sailfish and the rest whites, while Conkle tallied 13 whites, two blues and a sail. This wasn't just routine hookups, however. It was offshore angling with a flourish.


Conkle scored three double-headers out of three possible chances, while Kaiser demonstrated his own flair for individual achievement. On October 12, 1996, the weather conditions were perfect, but Kaiser's crew canceled for various reasons. The 66-year-old retired Navy commander decided to go by himself. While trolling his usual Knucklehead and a skirted ballyhoo, two white marlin appeared and ate simultaneously.


"I was running the boat on autopilot and I stuck one rod in the rod holder and that fish stayed on while I tagged and released the other," he recalled. "I went after the second one and got him, too. Both fish cooperated and it was a nice day," he said modestly. In 18 1/2 years, Kaiser has tallied 142 billfish aboard Venture.


Kaiser and Conkle both fish the Nipple area predominantly, but other well-known hotspots like the Elbow, Spur, 100-Fathom Line and DeSoto Canyon have dedicated fans as well. Pensacola is the most convenient port along the Panhandle, to the Nipple less than 30 miles away. Anglers from Panama City, Destin, and Ft. Walton Beach, in addition to the fleet from nearby Orange Beach, Alabama, are all looking for similar conditions when roaming offshore. Many boats from throughout the region, especially during a tournament, will run to the west to fish near the oil and gas rigs off the Alabama and Mississippi coasts. The water (and subsequent rips below the mouth of the Mississippi River) can be red-hot productive also.


Blue water is closest to Pensacola in early May, but depending on the amount of rainfall (and how much fresh water is flowing down the Mississippi) and hurricane activity, it may move considerably as the summer progresses. Many anglers utilize forecasting services such as Roffer's or share dock talk to determine exactly where to start fishing.


Once on the grounds (40 fathoms deep and beyond), the typical trolling pattern is along weedlines, color changes or rips and disturbed water or flotsam. Veteran anglers like Conkle look for any of those combinations, plus keep one eye on the fathometer and the other on the chart. If you find one or more of these conditions, it usually pays to troll a grid pattern thoroughly before moving on.


Logs, wooden pallets, oil drums and other debris will often hold baitfish and consequently wahoo or dolphin, with a possible billfish nearby. Frigates and other seabirds are good natural indicators as well. Frigates especially will hover high above bait schools, which in turn attract the larger pelagic predators.


Pods of menhaden, flying fish and bonito, along with school-sized blackfin and yellowfin tuna, warrant a long and dedicated search pattern. If a smaller tuna is caught and billfish have been spotted in the vicinity, some crews will bridle the bait and slow-troll or bump in and out of gear, hoping to draw a strike. Because of the long distances and amount of water to cover, however, the majority of Panhandle boats pull artificial lures.


Moldcraft Softheads have long enjoyed a dedicated following among Panhandle anglers. Green-and-yellow, silver-and-blue and black-and-orange are among the favorite colors. They are fished like bait, with very little drag and a long dropback. Many are now being rigged with single hooks for a better hookup ratio.


Hard plastic baits are also common with C&H, Yap, Schneider and Marlin Parker lures appearing often in the spread. Lures which create a noticeable smoke trail are preferred over others.


"We don't switch lures all the time," Conkle said. "We use ones that have historically caught fish. We have confi

dence in them because we know they work. I've got boxes of lures that I don't use anymore; we just stick with the tried-and-true."


That's not to say that baits aren't popular among the Panhandle fleet. In addition to the livebait applications mentioned earlier, skipping and swimming mullet and Spanish mackerel are trolled on a regular basis. But the universal offering is a ballyhoo and skirt combination. Used with an Ilander lure, or nylon or rubber skirt, 'hoos have accounted for many marlin, whites especially, over the years. They are also very effective on dolphin and wahoo.


Depending on the size of the boat, five to seven lines are usually deployed. Two flatlines run from the stern, two to four staggered lines from the outriggers and one to two long lines (the shotgun or "way back") run from the flybridge to complete the usual setup. Lures and baits are set to run on the front face of the waves for maximum smoke trails.


In years past, the only outfits you'd ever see on a local sportfisher would be in the 80-pound class. Today, many cockpits sport light tackle combos to allow a more equitable matchup with the fish. During the fall run, 20s and 30s are the norm as anglers target rat blues and white marlin. But some, like Conkle, use the lighter tackle for all situations. During an outing in August, the Miss Babbie crew landed two yellowfins on 30-pound test. The 120-pounder came in under a half-hour, but the 190-pound tuna took 51/2 hours to bring to the gaff.


Kaiser likes to split the difference and uses 50-pound gear. "They just feel more comfortable," he explained. "The 30-pound outfits are adequate for most situations, but if I hadn't had that 50 Wide, I wouldn't have caught that big blue."


The boat handling capability can be a factor in tackle selection. Conkle's 41-footer, a custom G&S, is known for its ability to back down rapidly in heavy seas, giving the winder a chance to regain light line in a hurry. Kaiser's twin inboard/outboards and shorter hull length are better matched with the larger capacity reels. That's not to say that small boats don't raise billfish, however. Kaiser has won the Monkey Boat tournament (formerly under 27 feet, now up to 30-footers can compete) six times over the years. Ken McIlhenny and his crew landed a 720 1/4-pound blue marlin on the Kismet, a 20-foot boat, back in 1988.


"I've caught billfish from big boats, but there ain't nothing like fishing a small boat," Kaiser proclaimed. "I just like to go regardless." Kaiser is normally accompanied by two anglers on the Venture.


The Panhandle and Alabama tournaments provide the backdrop for excitement, as competition is fierce among the offshore community. Capt. Mike Rowell and his mate, Capt. Chad Linkous, experienced the drama firsthand during the 1993 Pensacola International Tournament.


"We caught a big fish which I knew was a contender, and we were still a long way out," Rowell recalled. "It took 20 minutes to get it into the cockpit with a block and tackle. I off-loaded everyone except the angler and Chad, along with a bunch of gear to increase our speed. We made it back to the scales with five minutes to spare." The 660-pounder, caught on a purple-and-blue Softhead, was the largest fish of the tourney, good for first place.


The International, along with the Ladies Tournament and the Junior Anglers Tournament, are hosted by the Pensacola Big Game Fishing Club. The International averages 140 boats each year, and it just celebrated its 27th anniversary. The ladies and junior angler events have been running for 19 and 11 years, respectively. More than 90 percent of the fish caught during these contests are released, according to club president George Ballard.


The tournament season runs from Memorial Day until Labor Day to coincide with the arrival of the larger female blue marlin. After the first of September, the hot bite nearshore occurs as marauding packs of whites, rat blues and sails converge on concentrated schools of bait.


"Last year was the best year for whites since the '80s," said John Prudhomme, another Pensacola bluewater die-hard. "There was lots of bait, and the whites were in big pods. If you found 'em, you could catch 'em."


The peak month for sheer numbers is October. November can also be great provided the weather stays nice, but that's an iffy situation if the cold fronts arrive early. Prudhomme likes to fish the day after Thanksgiving, weather permitting. Kaiser has tallied three white marlin as late as December 8. Most of the area's billfishing enthusiasts head for the deer woods by then, but there is an unsubstantiated rumor that a billfish has been caught during every month of the year by a boat from Pensacola.


Whenever you can get out and by whatever size boat, chances are fairly good you won't be disappointed in the Panhandle's offshore bounty. You may end up with a tasty grill prospect like a fresh yellowfin or wahoo. Then again, you may end up with the new Gulf blue marlin record. But if anything is certain in the world of billfishing, it's this--you won't know until you try.

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