Oil rigs are hard to beat as structures to fish around for king mackerel, red snappers, grouper and a number of other saltwater sportfish. (June 2007)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
Red snappers are the most important structure-dwelling species off the Louisiana Gulf Coast.
However, recent decisions by the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council have cut bag limit and season lengths down dramatically. Anglers wanting to make an offshore trip worth the expense and effort will find that diversity is the key in terms both of the species pursued and the tactics employed to put them in the boat.
Let's start with red snappers first. With bag limits at an all-time low anglers want to catch really big snappers, so let's skip the standard techniques and talk about those that will put those big sows in the ice chest.
For trophy-sized snappers, the wrecks and rocks that can be found from 39 to 50 miles between Sabine Pass and Cameron are tops. These "hard spots" may require a little extra effort to find, but more often than not they produce big snappers. Snappers are not drawn to big structure only. The smaller well heads, rocks and tiny reefs hold good numbers of fish, too. And since these areas are not pressured as much as the rigs in this area, you tend to find more big fish there.
Anchor up-current of a given piece of structure and fall back across it. The preferred method when fishing these areas is to use a typical bottom rig with either squid or Spanish sardine rigged on two circle hooks. A lot of times, you'll have a strong current and you need to get the bait down to the structure. When you're fishing rigs, you've got a little more leeway, but presenting a bait 5 feet in one direction or another can make all of the difference in the world.
Anglers fishing the southwest coast should also consider the Sabine bank, a plateau that rises off of the Gulf's floor and forms a shallow flat that parallels both sides of the ship channel that leads out of the Sabine jetties.
This 25- to 40-foot deep flat attracts an awesome amount of baitfish and is dotted by hundreds of platforms and wrecks that attract some monster red snappers.
There are snappers as close as six miles off of the jetties here, but for the bigger fish, you might do well to use the 18-mile light as your marker. Once you get past the light, the water level drops off about to about 45 to 50 feet and you start finding some really big sow snappers. About 10 miles southeast of the 18-mile light are the Tenneco and Mobil Oil Fields. The water here gets very clear, usually ranging from greenish to ultra-clear blue/green.
The best option is to tie off to one of the rigs and put out some chum downcurrent of the structure. Bring a long rope and an anchor hook, so you can drift back from the rig itself. A lot of times during the summer, the big snappers will be suspended off of the rigs out in the open water. You need to chum them in to get their attention.
The best chumming fish are pogies, oily fish that can be bought by the pound at coastal bait camps. Smash the pogies up in a bucket and then throw the contents overboard. This creates an impressive oil slick and draws the snappers toward the surface. Once the area is chummed, free-line live pogies or squid toward the fish. A trick I learned from Capt. Todd Bryson a while back is to rig the bait on a stout 4/0 hook and let it do its thing.
"The key is to drift the bait slowly," he said. "During summer months, when the oxygen is low, a lot of the snappers are holding about halfway up the water column. Around the rigs, you don't always have to fish on the bottom. Also, when the fish get to biting really good, we'll fish with big spoons and bucktail jigs and usually tip them with pogy or squid."
If intense, rod-bending, adrenaline-pumping action is your idea of a good time, fish behind the shrimp boats culling their catch in the Gulf. There you are bound to find more action than you are probably bargaining for with king mackerel. Any kind of cut or live bait will draw strikes from kings.
Big lipless crankbaits are even better choices, as are Snapper Slappers and the Calcutta Flash Foil Shad (6-inch), which I have had great success with this year. Silver spoons are also great choices, especially those tipped with a jig or cigar minnow, which are great to troll behind culling shrimp boats.
If you fish the rigs for kings, bring along some chum like menhaden oil or throw out chunks of pogy to attract the big fish. I have found that canned jack mackerel makes great chum and it is very inexpensive. All you have to do is punch holes in the can and put it in a fish basket tied off to the boat. It will not take long to create a massive (but environmentally safe) oil slick. Spoons are also good for working around the legs of a rig to see if there are any mackerel prowling around. Simply throw out the spoon and let it flutter and float with the current around the structure of the rig.
One can hardly mention kings without talking about sharks because they run together a lot, especially behind the shrimp boats. These fish fight as hard as anything out there does, and are quite tasty as well.
Large circle hooks rigged on steel leaders are the most popular terminal tackle for bagging sharks. Sharks cannot only cut a line with their teeth but also with their skin, which is sharp in its own right. One quick slap of the tail can cut even heavy-duty line with no problem. For targeting blacktips and spinners, my favorite chumming method involves bringing along a bucketful of small menhaden, grabbing a handful and squeezing. Some of them will float, others will sink quickly and others slowly. This creates a feeding frenzy situation with sharks that can allow you to sight cast to them with cut bait. The ideal setup for this kind of fishing is having one bait on the bottom for species like bull sharks and Atlantic sharpnose and a couple of free lines to get the species that feed in the upper level of the water column.
At this time of year, a big bonus for anglers fishing around the rigs is to be found in the ling starting to show up in good numbers. Locating these unusual fish is no problem. They're suckers for structure in Gulf waters and can often be found hanging around oil platforms, stand pipes, jetties and buoys. They're also extremely curious and seem to be interested in taking a look at whoever is visiting their hangout.
One of the best tactics for locating ling around structure is to rev up the motors or take a paddle and pound the water's surface to get the attention of the fish. The first time I saw this done I thought the guy
doing it was crazy. I had always been taught to be quiet in the boat and to avoid spooking the fish. But when I saw a huge ling rise up to the surface I was convinced that the technique was for real.
Ling are just plain different from any other fish, and that includes biting differently: A 50-pound ling sports a mouth that could probably inhale a small child, yet the same ling can become extremely hard to put a hook into. I've always wondered why they're so finicky, and have asked just about every expert there is. All of them have told me that ling are line shy, and now I believe it. A friend of mine who pursues ling a lot says he learned that lesson when he was toying around with a big ling that kept coming up to his boat. The big fish simply wanted nothing to do with his offering of cut pogy on a 7/0 hook and 50-pound-test line, but when he grabbed a medium action spinning combo spooled with 15-pound-test and rigged the same bait he got hooked up immediately. The big fish seemed to be aware of the heavier line.
If you would like to catch ling try the standard summer fishing protocol: a handful of cut pogies thrown overboard, and live crab or fresh cut bait hanging from circle hooks. Crabs in particular are extremely good baits for ling. Almost every ling I have ever cleaned or seen cleaned had a belly full of crabs. Rods loaded with artificials should also be kept within reach since ling don't mind biting on plastic. Soft plastics like curl-tailed grubs or imitation ribbonfish are good baits for lings. One of my favorite baits is the big six-inch D.O.A. shrimp in brown or chartreuse. Using chartreuse is interesting because most of the offshore guides in Florida swear by it. A popular ling bait in Florida is an 8-inch chartreuse curl-tailed grub dressed out with a sparkled pink skirt. Guides there claim a ling can't resist it. Hard plastics like shallow-running MirrOlures and Jointed Thundersticks can also be productive.
The ling themselves are fascinating creatures to study. Their moves have baffled the scientific and angling communities, but recent developments give insight that can help anglers catch more of them.
For example, it is well known that they travel south to north in the spring and north to south in the fall. But ling are also found in deeper offshore water holding around structure throughout the year. Some scientists believe there is an additional offshore to inshore and back movement. Ling usually start showing up in Louisiana waters when Gulf waters reach 67 degrees and usually stick around until the big northers of fall move through. There is strong evidence to suggest that some ling may bond to a given piece of structure or come back to it every year.
Out of several hundred tagged in the northern Gulf, 55 were recaptured the next year and 12 of them were caught in the exact same spot where they were initially caught. That means the big ling you just never could get to cooperate last summer might be hanging around that very same buoy or rig you saw it at last year. If you happen to be in the neighborhood, you might want to see if it's hanging around and if it's hungrier than it was last time around. But don't be surprised if that ling inhales your bait and spits it right back out before you can set the hook. They tend to do that a lot.
Top ling locations include the short rigs off of Constance Beach and the rigs and pipe stands off the middle coast area.
Most anglers despise the spadefish, which, with a tiny mouth and an aggressive nature, robs bait intended for snappers. That's a shame, though, because I dare say that spadefish is every bit as tasty as snapper.
I love to fish for spades with a tiny hook or 1/6-ounce jig head fished under a 1/4-ounce split shot and baited with shrimp. I fish this on a medium-action spinning rod but you might want to consider a heavy action rod. Spades turn on their sides when hooked and give an amazing fight for a small fish.
Spades are easy to find as they typically inhabit the upper part of the water column and will approach your boat out of curiosity. I like to take along some shredded pieces of menhaden and throw a few pieces overboard to get them into a feeding frenzy. Spades will also take flies and present an exciting challenge for anglers looking more to battle with a fish than eat it.
If you are looking for big spadefish, keep your eye on the platform legs of the rig about eight feet down. The bigger spades tend to be shyer and are not as aggressive.
If it is possible to get live shrimp, send down one a free-line and there is a good chance you'll bag one if a big sheepshead doesn't get it first.
Grouper are sort of the wild card along the Gulf Coast with some nice fish starting to show up later in the summer and excellent as fall approaches. Top spots include the rigs out of Port Fourchon and around the Chandeleur Islands.
Texas angler Larry Dupree said there are also quite a few big ones out around Cameron past 60 miles.
"That's the part of the coast where you start to see big grouper and the fishing just gets better as you move toward Mississippi," he said.
Dupree fishes this area with giant hunks of bonito or whole grunt. "A bigger-bait-equals-bigger-fish kind of deal with these grouper, especially if you want the really big ones," he said.
Dupree said there is no magic to locating the big fish here but it does take patience and the ability to get the grouper before they get into the rocks.
"When you get a good one on it will try to get into the rocks so you have to horse it out. They are very strong fish and sometimes when you first get them on you will think you are hooked on a rock. If this happens, pluck the line like a guitar a few times and if it starts moving you have a grouper."
Dupree fishes with 10/0 Eagle Claw hooks rigged on a steel leader and fished on 130-pound braided line.
"Catching these grouper is a battle of strength so you have to use heavy, hardcore tackle," he said.
Anglers seeking grouper should be careful not to retain small Goliath grouper (formerly known as "jewfish" -- a name retired owing to obvious offensiveness and Associated Press rules); they look a lot like grouper. In fact, I would have a hard time telling the two species apart. Goliath grouper are protected by law and bring a stiff fine if a game warden catches you with one. Contact your local Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries office for tips on identifying the species.
As you can see, there are more than enough fish off the Louisiana coast to keep anglers busy this summer. Generally speaking, if you catch something out there, it fights really hard and tastes even better.
Could we ask for anything else?