A Speck In The Gulf

There's a lot of water in the Gulf, but specks can be found all along Louisiana's coast -- you just need to know where to look. (August 2006)

Photo by TOM EVANS

Since moving to Buras back in 1968, I've fished for specks around a lot of the Gulf's nearshore petroleum structures. I'm quite proud to declare that my fishing partners and I have caught our share over the years.

On one particular trip, a steady stream of eye-opening specks began filling up my cooler within five minutes of our tying off to a bit on the protective cribbing of the first well that we prospected. By the time we hollered "Uncle!" that cooler, which was a 120-quart model intended to hold cobia, was so full that it took two of us to lift it -- and we were still a few fish short of our limits!

But we'd had enough fun and games (and fillets) for the day and headed in anyway. The squall that had held us up from fishing for cobia had dissipated, and the far-off Gulf was beckoning, but it didn't matter a whit by then -- because there wasn't anywhere left in the boat to put a decent-sized cobia!

I appreciate stumbling into an opportunity like that now and then -- but then, to crib radio great Paul Harvey's immortal phrase, there's "the rest of the story." You see, at any time from, say, late April into October, offshore oil-field structures offer great potential for specks. And that applies all across the Louisiana coast.

At this point I feel it relevant to qualify "offshore" as being actually "nearshore" -- which, for the purposes of this article, would best be defined as from the surf out to depths of 25 to 30 feet or so. Since the surf is worthy of an article of its own, we won't address it here; our coverage will begin at the end of a long cast from the beach -- somewhere just outside of the first breakers.

During summer's low tides, the troughs nearer shore are too shallow to be suitable for specks, so schools of them will search for prey up and down the beach just seaward of the breakers at the last (second or third) bar. A often as not you'll just run randomly into these fish, but their presence can also be unmistakably signaled by the squawk of diving gulls or the appearance of small, fresh and rather pungent slicks. In any event, a little time spent idling along such a stretch of beach may prove very worthwhile.

But when specks are involved, I do as much of my prospecting as is possible with (in this case) a jig; in this sort of setting I'll usually troll a pair of them. The tactic has been quite effective for locating fish that were for all practical purposes invisible, and I highly recommend it. Just toss 'em behind the boat a good ways and drag 'em along; on getting a strike, make a circle and another pass through the area in which it occurred. If you pick up another fish, shift into casting mode, running under trolling-motor power. These fish will usually be on the move, but if you're quick enough, you can catch several from such a school.

Along open stretches of coastline, specks make quite viable targets; even better, any irregularities punctuating those stretches will serve to attract and to hold the fish. One variety of this would be jetties, which, like the surf, merit an article of their own. However, what's usually more-consistent action -- with specks, anyway -- comes compliments of the petroleum industry.

You won't often encounter rigs of any type just outside of the breakers along a (relatively) hard-bottomed surf zone, but plenty of them are present in areas marked currently or formerly by a gradual transition from interior marsh to the open waters of the Gulf. The vast West Bay field offers an example: Numerous odds and ends associated with petrochemical extraction once lay in and alongside canals near the seashore. Wave action having caused virtually all of those canals' banks to subside or to erode away, many of the structures for which the canals were built now stand in open water -- not technically in the Gulf proper, maybe, but a long way from the "bank" And it's a straight shot to Texas from them!

While any form of hard structure along our otherwise nearly featureless coastline will lure in both prey and predator, some of this similar-looking stuff is consistently more profitable than the norm. Almost always, this is a result of the amount of "iron" -- often in the form of small-diameter pipelines -- along the bottom near a structure. These metallic mazes can supply the lack of naturally occurring shells in the area, and a jumble of such in the vicinity of a structure can turn out an indicator of a real hotspot!

Some of these odds-and-ends structures in the "transition zone" can look like the typical oil-field rig; others, though often small and unimpressive in appearance, can also serve to focus speck activity. I recall one of the latter sort, a comparatively tiny pipeline-riser platform that Capt. Anthony Randazzo and I probed one midsummer morning a while back. The only scrap of hard structure in an area of perhaps a square mile, it was definitely unimpressive -- but a small school of very nice specks was nevertheless holding to it.

Which brings up an important rule of thumb: In areas like this, specks are often found on the side of a small-scale structure if something's on bottom; if nothing's nearby, the odds of it holding fish decrease. This principle doesn't apply exactly to the larger extraction and processing facilities, but still, the little structures in this zone have tended over time to bring me much better action than that I've met with at the larger ones.

The point: Work the water all the way around a small structure before you write it off. The fish near the small pipeline platform that Anthony and I hit were just off its southeast corner; a cast anywhere else around its perimeter brought naught!

No matter how strongly the productivity of small structures in this area is emphasized, however, most folks head for the biggest ones around (at least initially). Assuredly those can, and often do, hold fish -- at least, in particular places. To a slightly lesser degree than is the case with small structures, the prospects around a big facility will frequently depend on the amount of iron near or on bottom -- and yes, if you're working that iron properly, you'll lose some jigs!

Before you begin to work such a structure, scrutinize it closely. Don't go blasting up to it, or rev the outboard several times while tying off to it. (That latter behavior is, I've noticed over the years, all too common.) Rather, approach it from a distance at idle or, better yet, with the trolling motor; then, determine which side of the platform appears to have the most iron in the water, and work it first. Also, it's almost always best to fish these structures without anchoring o

r tying off to them -- provided, of course, that sea conditions allow that! Also: Keep your distance from the projected strike zone, as this water is typically less than 6 feet deep.

Because of these areas' shallow depth, potential for lures snagging on and near bottom, and water that's occasionally not too clear, a popping rig can be an asset. A pattern effective for covering lots of bases involves having one of the crew work a straight-up jig while another ventures a popping rig; then, everyone hits 'em with what seems to be best.

But be quick about it! The possibilities around these transition-zone structures, large and small alike, are truly inspiring, but the action can be short as well as sweet. Also, while knowing where and how to work these largely unheralded honeyholes is important, equally so is hitting enough of them.

The same goes for structures further offshore, although getting optimal outcomes there requires a slightly different pattern. Initially, though, it all begins in the same manner -- but in this case, you tie the boat directly to the structure!

Even in nearshore oil fields, current often poses problems during this exercise. To facilitate the drill, first identify the downcurrent side of the structure; then, move the boat at dead-idle to a point at which you can locate something to tie a line onto -- and that should never be a part of a well or any associated equipment. Handrails, bits, and beams are best.

Now, with one end of a long 1/2-inch rope tied to a bow-cleat, one member of the crew moves to the bow with several coils of the rope in his throwing hand while another follows him with a long-handled gaff. The helmsman then moves the boat slowly and, with as few changes in r.p.m.s as is possible, toward the tie-off point. The rope is then tossed over or around it, and the rope's loose tag-end retrieved with the gaff and held.

The motor(s) will then be slipped into neutral, allowing the boat to drift back from the structure a safe distance while the rope-man feeds out required slack and then ties it off to the other bow-cleat. Do not use a knotted loop, as that can be difficult to retrieve in a rush.

Once the boat's hanging back on the open loop formed by the rope tied to both bow-cleats, take a few minutes to determine if its yaw is favorable; then, shut off the motor(s).

I realize that this is a lot to be said about a task that's often given little thought -- but thinking about it will assuredly lead to greater rewards and less grief. This particular method is predominantly a safety measure, but the entire procedure keeps disturbance to a minimum, and that can have a direct, positive effect on any upcoming action.

And I've seen the contrary happen time and time again: An angler will tear up to a structure, high-rev his outboard several times in both forward and reverse while his "podnuh" tries several times to toss a rope around something, eventually bangs the boat against the structure, and finally gets it secured. He and his crew then each make a half-dozen or so casts -- almost always without favorable results. He then fires up the outboard, unties from the platform, and takes off to try another structure.

Believe me: A guy like that will not catch any specks here. Worse, he'll also make it terribly hard for other anglers to do so, either -- even if they go about the business in exactly the right manner.

Once your boat's been secured to an offshore structure and its yaw determined to be satisfactory, and after its outboards have been shut down, take a short break to allow even the slightest disturbance you might have made to be forgotten by the fish that could still be around, and, if so, probably quite near. This step is seldom taken, but in effect, it prolongs your stay, and the longer you allow yourself to remain at an offshore structure, the more likely it is that you'll catch some specks -- assuming, of course, that any are there in the first place.

Never give up on one of these sites without investing at least a half-hour in it! Also, keep an eye on any nearby prospects -- you sure don't want to waste time around one that somebody like our engine-revving angler above has just left!

Working an offshore structure with jigs is pretty basic. Make your first casts upcurrent, and in a manner that will allow the jig to be retrieved alongside the structure. Let the lure sink to increasing counts until you hit bottom or detect a strike; then, retrieve it slowly with fairly long, easy pumps. If that doesn't work, flip the jig to the base of the structure just upcurrent of your boat, allow it to sink, and jig it slowly back towards you while retrieving very little line -- and keep the racket to a minimum.

Both at sites like these and around structures in shallower water, a hot bite can suddenly go cold. Several factors can cause this, the most common being that the fish have either been caught to the point that any remaining have quit biting, or you've somehow spooked them.

Another reason: a visit by a school of jack crevalle or porpoise, either of which will scatter a school of specks in a heartbeat. The only way of telling is to catch sight of a porpoise in the vicinity or to retrieve a couple of speck-heads in short order. In either instance, leave immediately and try a couple of other spots (you may find another honeyhole that way); then, go back -- after a bit of time, fish that were there and survived the onslaught just might return. If, however, there seems to be no reason for the bite to have stopped, leave and come back next time.

* * *

As I mentioned at the top of this article, I've caught a lot of specks in the Gulf. They've averaged larger than those I've taken inshore, and some of the biggest ones some folks have ever caught have come from out there -- usually on small live mullet worked deep on a fishfinder rig. But the best thing about these fish is that if you find them around a particular bit of structure here, it's quite likely you will find them there again -- or around one similar to it.

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