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