LOUISIANA PIT STOP

Port Eads Lets North­ern Gulf An­glers Rest and Recharge on Mul­ti­day Trips

Sport Fishing - - CONTENTS - By Jim Hendricks

THE VHF CRACK­LED TO LIFE: “WE HAVE A FISH HOOKED UP, AND IT’S BIG!” ON THE MIC WAS FOR­REST LONG, OWNER OF BLUE­WA­TER YACHTS, THE REG­U­LA­TOR MA­RINE DEALER IN OR­ANGE BEACH, ALABAMA. I SENSED THE EX­CITE­MENT IN HIS VOICE. LONG WAS ABOARD A REG­U­LA­TOR 31, OWNED AND SKIP­PERED BY HIS BROTHER, BEN­NETT. ON THE ROD WAS LO­CAL AN­GLER AN­GELO DEPAOLA. I WAS ABOARD A NEARBY SEC­OND BOAT, AND UPON HEAR­ING THE NEWS, WE DE­CIDED TO GO TAKE PIC­TURES AND VIDEO OF THE FISH. BY THE TIME WE AR­RIVED, THE BAT­TLE HAD NEARED ITS END. FROM OUR VAN­TAGE POINT, I COULD MAKE OUT THE COL­ORS OF A 100-PLUS-POUND YELLOWFIN TUNA IN THE PUR­PLE-BLUE WA­TERS BELOW. THE SWEAT POURED OFF DEPAOLA AS HE BAT­TLED THE POW­ER­FUL TUNA ON THIS WIND­LESS, 90-DE­GREE DAY.

The fish cir­cled about 10 or more times, and then suc­cumbed to line pres­sure. For­rest sank the gaff, and with the help of Ben­nett and crewmem­ber Daniel Robin­son, hauled the yellowfin on deck through the star­board-side board­ing door. The smack of high-fives re­sounded across the wa­ter.

LONG RUN

This is the kind of world-class off­shore fish­ing that an­glers fre­quently ex­pe­ri­ence in the up­per Gulf of Mex­ico. While yellowfin tuna are of­ten the pri­mary tar­get, they are cer­tainly not the only glory fish in these wa­ters. Dur­ing our late May trip, we caught blue mar­lin, mahi and wa­hoo, as

well as tuna, while trolling. Deep-drop­ping can pay off with large grouper, tile­fish and sword­fish.

When wind and waves calm, ac­cess to this fish­ery proves fairly easy — as lit­tle as 30 miles away for boat­ing an­glers de­part­ing from the mouth of Louisiana’s Mis­sis­sippi River Delta, which juts far into the Gulf.

Yet for an­glers de­part­ing from Alabama or Mis­sis­sippi, it’s a dif­fer­ent story. Those state coast­lines re­cess to the north, and the run to find blue wa­ter can range up to 150 miles. That de­mands a boat with gen­er­ous fuel ca­pac­ity, strong sea­keep­ing abil­i­ties, and the speed to reach the grounds and get back at a de­cent pace.

Faced with those is­sues, some Alabama and Mis­sis­sippi boat­ing an­glers choose to stay overnight so they can get in an­other day or two of fish­ing be­fore head­ing back to port.

SHORE THING

If you choose to stay overnight, one op­tion is to sleep aboard. This might seem like a vi­able op­tion aboard a yacht, but on cen­ter-con­soles without cabins or berths, it can be down­right un­com­fort­able. Plus, some­one needs to stand watch at all times.

How­ever, there’s an al­ter­na­tive to rock­ing and rolling while strug­gling to sleep aboard the open deck of a cen­ter-con­sole. This op­tion not only of­fers hot meals and a comfy bed, but also

the chance to re­fuel and ice up for the next day.

Many boats retreat to mari­nas near Venice, Louisiana, along the fin­gers of the Mis­sis­sippi Delta, that of­fer gas, ice, meals, pro­vi­sions and lodg­ing. How­ever, the clos­est lodge to the off­shore fish­ing grounds lies about 20 miles south of Venice. High Ad­ven­ture at Port Eads (pro­nounced like “deeds”) is nes­tled just a cou­ple of miles in­side South Pass.

It’s a great place to tuck in for the evening, re­sup­ply and get some rest be­fore head­ing back off­shore. That’s ex­actly what we did on our two-day, one-night off­shore ad­ven­ture.

SCOUT­ING FOR BLUE

Plan­ning is a crit­i­cal part of these trips, es­pe­cially when it comes to find­ing the un­du­lat­ing, ever-chang­ing edges of blue wa­ter in the up­per Gulf. On the evening be­fore our de­par­ture, at Fisher’s Restau­rant at the Or­ange Beach Ma­rina, where the crew dined and fi­nal­ized de­tails of the trip, all eyes were on Rof­fer’s Ocean Fish­ing Fore­cast­ing Ser­vice mo­bile app. This gave us a weather fore­cast, as well as a chloro­phyll re­port, in­di­cat­ing how far we would need to run to find blue wa­ter.

“We need to find the rip line,” said DePaola, who has fished these wa­ters vir­tu­ally his en­tire life. This is where the blue wa­ters of the Gulf cur­rent meet the nutri­ent-rich coastal wa­ters, DePaola ex­plained.

“It forms a rip line of sar­gas­sum weed and an abrupt change in wa­ter color,” he added. “Fish such as blue mar­lin, mahi and tuna feed along the blue side of the rip line.”

The Rof­fer’s chart in­di­cated out­stand­ing weather — light winds and flat seas — which was good, since the chart also showed that the edge of blue wa­ter lay about 120 miles off the coast of Alabama.

Early on dur­ing the plan­ning, the crew at Blue­wa­ter Yachts had de­cided to take two boats

to add an el­e­ment of safety, and give us the op­por­tu­nity to shoot pho­tos and videos back and forth. The sec­ond boat was a legacy-model 2000 Reg­u­la­tor 26 Clas­sic owned, restored and skip­pered by Ma­clin Smith, owner of HMS Ma­rine Elec­tron­ics, based in Fairhope, Alabama, and crewed by Smith’s buddy, Allen Mc­Call. Reg­u­la­tor’s videog­ra­pher, Bobby Lay­den, and I would switch back and forth be­tween boats to cover the ac­tion.

RIG GAME

All hands met at Or­ange Beach Ma­rina by first light the next morn­ing, ea­ger to de­part. We all pitched in to load drinks, pro­vi­sions and lots of ice. By sun­rise we ex­ited Per­dido Pass, cruis­ing at about 35 mph on a southerly head­ing.

While the dis­tant rip line re­mained our ul­ti­mate tar­get, the cap­tains de­cided to make one stop en route at an oil plat­form known as Virgo, about 70 miles from Or­ange Beach in 1,150 feet of wa­ter.

Aboard the Reg­u­la­tor 26 Clas­sic, Smith and Mc­Call set out a pair of pink Rus­selure 6½-inch deep-div­ing plugs and be­gan trolling around the oil rig. It was a good de­ci­sion. Within min­utes, a fish at­tacked the star­board lure, send­ing the clicker singing.

Line peeled off the reel as Mc­Call grabbed the rod and bat­tled the fish while Ma­clin kept the boat in gear at dead idle. Mc­Call’s first guess was a bar­racuda. But the pro­longed bat­tle had him sec­ond-guess­ing him­self, and then deep color re­vealed its true iden­tity: a wa­hoo in ex­cess of 50 pounds.

As the fish drew close, Ma­clin deftly gaffed it and swung the ’hoo aboard. Mean­while, the crew on the 31 was also en­joy­ing suc­cess. They had landed two wa­hoo while trolling the same deep-div­ing plugs around Virgo.

LOOK­ING FOR A BREAK

Af­ter a few more un­pro­duc­tive trolling passes, we con­tin­ued to cruise to­ward the co­or­di­nates where Rof­fer’s had shown the rip line hours ear­lier. The flat seas al­lowed the boats to ramp up the speed to 40 mph, and in just over an hour, we reached the area. Un­for­tu­nately, all we found upon our ar­rival was the off-color coastal wa­ter.

Since we were well out of cell range, we couldn’t ac­cess satel­lite-im­agery up­dates. It was a guess­ing game now as to where the rip line might lie. The cap­tains con­ferred over the VHF, and de­cided to con­tinue run­ning on a southerly head­ing. Anx­i­ety melted away 30 min­utes and 20 miles later when we fi­nally reached blue wa­ter.

Both boats set out trolling spreads of rigged, skirted bal­ly­hoo with J hooks and be­gan trolling along the blue side of the color break.

The Clas­sic 25 trolled five lines that in­cluded two medium out­rig­ger lines, two short flat lines and a long line down the mid­dle. Reels were Shi­mano TLD 50 two-speeds loaded with 80-pound monofil­a­ment. Rods were cus­tom all-roller, bent-butt 6-foot trolling sticks.

The 31 set out a spread of seven lines with two medium lines on each out­rig­ger, two short flat lines, and a long line down the mid­dle. Reels were Shi­mano Talica 50 two-speeds spooled with 80-pound braided line and 130-pound-test wind-on top shots. Rods were 5-foot-9-inch Shi­mano Tal­lus all-roller, curve-butt rods with all AFTCO roller guides.

Just a few min­utes into our troll, we got the ex­cited call from For­rest Long on the VHF that they were hooked up to that first yellowfin, so we re­trieved line and headed over.

Af­ter fin­ish­ing up pho­tos of DePaola’s big tuna, Ma­clin pulled his 26 Clas­sic away, and Mc­Call re­set the spread as Ma­clin skip­pered the boat to par­al­lel the color break, which was ac­cented by float­ing mats of golden-brown sar­gas­sum weed.

As we trolled, Ma­clin ex­plained that these wa­ters are pro­duc­tive through­out the year, but the best weather oc­curs May through Au­gust. “With the ex­cep­tion of hur­ri­canes, we have some pretty nice weather here in sum­mer,” he pointed out. “But the weather win­dows tend to shrink in win­ter.”

Our con­ver­sa­tion was abruptly in­ter­rupted when the line snapped free from the port out­rig­ger and be­gan peel­ing off the reel as a col­or­ful bull mahi danced in the wake. It soon joined the wa­hoo on ice in the fish locker.

PORT EADS RETREAT

That pat­tern con­tin­ued through­out the af­ter­noon, as ag­gres­sive schools of mahi at­tacked the rigged bal­ly­hoo to fill the fish locker. At around 3:30 p.m., we pulled in the lines and, along with the 31, set a north­west­erly course for South Pass.

We reached the mouth of the pass in less than an hour, but both cap­tains were care­ful to fol­low the chan­nel mark­ers and their tracks on the

chart plot­ters from pre­vi­ous trips here as they nav­i­gated the short dis­tance though the chan­nel to Port Eads. The NOAA chart for this area warns of se­vere shoals, and some of those in­clude rocks.

The staff at High Ad­ven­ture greeted us at the docks and di­rected us to bunk houses. We then mo­tored along a chan­nel carved from the marsh that led to the ma­rina and fuel dock be­hind the main lodge. We fu­eled up, washed the decks, and se­cured the boats for the evening. Af­ter a hot shower, a cou­ple of beers, a meal of fresh mahi and rice, and a few fish sto­ries, we were all ready for some shut-eye.

DEEP-DROP DILEMMA

A fresh­en­ing breeze out of the north­west greeted us the next morn­ing, com­pli­cat­ing our plans to add some va­ri­ety to our fish­ing itin­er­ary. Lay­den and I moved to the Reg­u­la­tor 31 (and For­rest trans­ferred to the 26 Clas­sic). The crews would try some 600-foot drops on pipe­line cross­ings in the Gulf for species such as snowy grouper.

These are rel­a­tively small spots that re­quire pre­cise boat po­si­tion­ing to fish ef­fec­tively. We tried a num­ber of drops, but a 15-knot wind and 3-foot waves pre­vented us from get­ting the baits on the struc­ture.

Plan B was to fish the rip line again, and this time we found it quickly. It was in about the same place as the day prior. Yet the color change ap­peared to be even more abrupt and the weed line more con­cen­trated, ow­ing to the col­li­sion of wind and cur­rent.

MAR­LIN SUR­PRISE

Aboard the 31, the ac­tion picked up right where we left off, with one mahi bite af­ter an­other, in­clud­ing a cou­ple of fish in the 30-pound range.

Things changed dra­mat­i­cally in the af­ter­noon when a blue mar­lin in­haled the bait on the star­board flat line. Robin­son was up this time, and though he had crewed on many boats that have caught blue mar­lin, this was the first time he had ac­tu­ally fought one. He han­dled it mas­ter­fully, and within 20 min­utes, the bill­fish, es­ti­mated at 125 pounds, was lead­ered and boat-side, ready for re­lease.

Seas be­gan to build in the af­ter­noon. By 3 p.m., with Or­ange Beach 117 miles away, we de­cided to turn for home. The Clas­sic 26 had al­ready de­parted. Aboard the 31, we re­trieved the lines, stowed tackle and gear, and then Ben­nett put the boat on a northerly head­ing and bumped the speed up to 35 mph, with the seas on our port beam. Three-and-a-half hours later, as the sun was hang­ing low, we were home.

In the end, I learned that Alabama boat­ing an­glers can stage suc­cess­ful mul­ti­day trips to the rich Gulf wa­ters off Louisiana. The keys to suc­cess in­clude the right boat, de­cent weather, proper plan­ning and ad­vance reser­va­tions at a place like High Ad­ven­ture at Port Eads to re­fuel, re-ice and re­fresh overnight.

Big yellowfin tuna rep­re­sent one of the top prizes for an­glers fish­ing off­shore Gulf wa­ters, but this is cer­tainly not the only tar­get. These wa­ters also teem with blue mar­lin, mahi and wa­hoo.

Above: For an­glers de­part­ing from Alabama, it’s an easy retreat to Louisiana’s Port Eads for the evening dur­ing mul­ti­day trips. Below: The blue­wa­ter side of off­shore rips in theGulf of Mex­ico are of­ten rife with schools of mahi.

Off­shore oil rigs in the Gulf, even those sur­rounded by off-color wa­ter, can pro­duce ex­cel­lent wa­hoo ac­tion. Try trolling deep-div­ing plugs by the plat­forms.

A blue mar­lin might crash the spread at any time when trolling along rips lines in the Gulf of Mex­ico. That’s why an­glers fish fairly heavy tackle here.

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