SPORT­FISH­ING

COASTAL LOUISIANA’S OIL RIGS CRE­ATE HABI­TAT THAT YEL­LOWFIN TUNA AND OTHER PELAGIC SPECIES LOVE.

Power & Motor Yacht - - IN THIS IS­SUE - By John Brown­lee

Hunt­ing for yel­lowfin tuna among Louisiana’s oil rigs.

The oil and nat­u­ral­gas plat­forms erected around coastal Louisiana num­ber in the thou­sands, and come in a wide va­ri­ety of sizes and shapes. Some are manned while many oth­ers are not, and yet all of them pro­vide an es­sen­tial ben­e­fit for the fish that in­habit the north­ern Gulf of Mex­ico; they be­come habi­tat.

Be­fore the rigs came along, the bot­tom of the north­ern Gulf re­sem­bled much of the rest of the coastal Gulf, mean­ing it was flat mud and sand, with the oc­ca­sional rock or reef crop­ping up. Over­all, re­lief was scarce.

But the rigs changed all that, cre­at­ing an in­cred­i­ble amount of un­der­wa­ter struc­ture in the form of the rigs them­selves and their metal legs, both large and small. If you’re a bait­fish, find­ing any­thing you can use to hide from preda­tors is a good thing, and over the years the oil com­pa­nies built lots of hid­ing places for the lower end of the food chain.

Hunt­ing Grounds

Un­for­tu­nately for the bait (but good for us), the preda­tors pretty quickly fig­ured out that the bait were drawn to th­ese struc­tures; the il­lu­sion of sanc­tu­ary is short-lived for the bait of the world. In short or­der, the rigs at­tracted huge schools of bait of many dif­fer­ent types, and hordes of game fish soon fol­lowed.

Yel­lowfin tuna make up a sub­stan­tial per­cent­age of th­ese preda­tors, and you can catch them year-round out of Venice, Louisiana. This quin­tes­sen­tial fish­ing town lo­cated along the Mis­sis­sippi River where the road dead-ends 75 miles south of New Or­leans is re­ally noth­ing more than a gi­ant fish camp. There’s not much to do there other than fish, be­sides maybe duck hunt­ing in the win­ter, so ev­ery­one there has a shared mo­ti­va­tion for be­ing in town.

Capt. Trey Pique ( voodoofish­ingchar­ters.com) is a Louisiana na­tive from Me­tairie, just west of New Or­leans, who has guided out of Venice for a decade. Pique and I headed off­shore in March to search for the big yel­lowfin that prowl be­neath the rigs in blue wa­ter. This re­quires a lengthy boat ride, as it’s about 26 nau­ti­cal miles from Venice Ma­rina to the mouth of the river, and then your off­shore trip be­gins from there.

Miles to Go

Fast, multi-en­gine off­shore cen­ter con­soles have be­come the boats of choice down there since you must cover a lot of wa­ter just about ev­ery day. Once you get to the Gulf, a huge num­ber of op­tions await you on ex­actly where to go fish. Nat­u­ral-bot­tom ar­eas ex­ist not too far from the var­i­ous passes that dump fresh wa­ter out of the Mis­sis­sippi into the Gulf, but they had not pro­duced many big fish in the days lead­ing up to my visit, so Pique opted to head off to deep wa­ter to a well known “floater” rig.

Floaters do just what it sounds like; they float in very deep wa­ter, tethered to the bot­tom only by a thin pipeline ex­tend­ing down­ward into great depths to ex­tract the oil far below the seafloor. Highly so­phis­ti­cated GPS sys­tems cou­pled to nu­mer­ous un­der­wa­ter thrusters keep the rigs in a pre­cise po­si­tion, even in heavy weather.

This par­tic­u­lar floater sat in 5,400 feet of wa­ter 62 miles east of the south­east pass of the river; quite a run. But as we ap­proached the rig, tell­tale marks be­gan to ap­pear on the sounder about 200 feet below the boat and we knew the trip had been worth­while. “Looks like some­body’s home,” Pique said with a sly grin as he po­si­tioned his 39-foot Yel­lowfin down-cur­rent of the rig for a drift.

Pique pulled a dead bonito from a be­lowdecks cooler and be­gan cut­ting it into chunks. You can fish for the tuna in many ways, in­clud­ing trolling, us­ing live bait, or by deep-jig­ging, but chunk­ing re­mains a highly ef­fec­tive and time-hon­ored way to elicit a bite.

The pro­gram con­sists of in­sert­ing a cir­cle hook into a chunk of bait to con­ceal it, since the wary yel­lowfin have keen eye­sight. As Pique tossed a few chunks at a time into the cur­rent, cre­at­ing a steady stream of bait, I pulled line from my rod tip, al­low­ing my bait to sink at the same pace as the free chunks. That’s a key point; any pres­sure on the line that might make your bait look dif­fer­ent from the free­bies will usu­ally cost you a bite.

The Bite Is On

It took a while, but af­ter the baits reached the tu­nas 200 feet down, the bites came pretty quickly. Pique struck first, deck­ing a fish well over 100 pounds. My turn came as I hooked and fought a chunky yel­lowfin that we es­ti­mated at about 75 pounds. The ac­tion came steadily and we soon had a full fish­box.

Pulling up to Venice Ma­rina that af­ter­noon, we were feel­ing pretty cocky about our suc­cess­ful day, un­til we re­turned to Venice Sports­man’s Lodge and were greeted by a fel­low guest, 74-year-old Vic Wick­man of St. Peters­burg, Florida. That same day, he had spent two hours and 45 min­utes strapped into an 80-pound standup out­fit and landed a beau­ti­ful 226-pound yel­lowfin with­out as­sis­tance from any­one on the boat. His fish missed the Louisiana state record by a mere 25 pounds.

And some­one else landed a 215-pounder that same day! Both were caught far from each other, and far from where we had fished to the east, show­ing just how large and spread out the tuna pop­u­la­tion can be. It’s al­most overkill to men­tion how many other pelagic species roam th­ese amaz­ingly pro­duc­tive wa­ters, in­clud­ing dol­phin, blue and white mar­lin, wa­hoo, king mack­erel, and much more.

Then there’s the bot­tom fish­ing. We spent our sec­ond day catch­ing fat Amer­i­can red snap­per one af­ter the other around rigs closer to shore, in Louisiana state wa­ters. To top it all off, we caught a 50-pound War­saw grouper at the end of the day, a some­what rare catch. I’ve caught only five War­saws in my en­tire life.

The north­ern Gulf teems with life, both ag­gre­gated and prop­a­gated by the stag­ger­ing wealth of un­der­wa­ter hard­ware. The Gulf of Mex­ico off Venice con­sis­tently pro­vides more shots at large num­bers of truly big fish than any­place else in the con­ti­nen­tal U.S., and it’s a place all se­ri­ous off­shore an­glers should visit.

Catch Ed­i­tor-at-Large John Brown­lee on An­glers Jour­nal TV and see a binge-watch-wor­thy back­log of pre­vi­ous episodes at way­pointtv.com.

Oil plat­forms can be eye­sores, but they can yield some beau­ti­ful fish­ing.

The au­thor hoists a War­saw grouper. The fish is big, but the mem­ory’s big­ger.

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