You see a lot of different fish hanging on the catch board at Venice Marina. That's a testament to the bountiful assortment found in and around the Mississippi Delta. But during the summer months, one species dominates the souvenir photos and that's the Gulf of Mexico bully known as yellowfin tuna.
Elusive, challenging, and therefore all the more intriguing, these arm-stretching, back-breaking brutes reward diligence - and pain tolerance - with some of the sea's finest filets. Ranking below only billfish, the rare bluefin appearance and monstrous Gulf sharks, yellowfins are bona fide Gulf big shots. Built for power, these stocky, muscular missiles will test your resolve as well as your tackle. No doubt, tuna take it tough and you'll pay dearly for every inch of line.
Check out this gallery of summer tuna fishing in the Gulf of Mexico:
Venice, La., has long been a popular origin for tuna trips because it's the last populated port with full facilities on the Mississippi River delta. Also, your run to the river's mouth provides approximately 30 miles of protected water - a welcome respite when the Gulf gets an attitude.
Where to find them
Summers in the northern Gulf sees very few of the trucks scaling 100-plus pounds that frequent waters closer to shore during fall and winter. However, May-Sept. offers abundant school fish, and as Capt. Brent Ballay said, these smaller tunas bring plenty of game.
"There's a lot of fish in the 40- to 60-pound range, and that's more than most people can handle anyway," Ballay said.
High-strung gluttons with little patience, tuna will only congregate at sites rich with food. In Gulf waters, there's no better bet than offshore drilling rigs, especially the deepwater floaters in 2,000-4,500 feet (20-70 miles from South Pass). Here, warm, blue water invigorated by strong Gulf upwellings keeps the massive structures washed with nutrients and microscopic life forms that create the foundation for an entire ecosystem of progressively larger links in the offshore food chain.
Capt. Mike Ellis said that summer finds a good bite on most any deep water rig you visit, but ultimately, it's all about the groceries. "If the bait's plentiful, there's no reason to go farther than 30 miles (from the Mississippi Delta)."
En route to offshore drilling rigs, anglers often encounter weed lines - the bonus buffet of the Gulf. Forming along the boundaries of converging water masses, weed lines principally comprise golden Sargasso, but lumber, tarps, mooring rope, coolers and practically anything that floats can turn up in the offshore accumulation. Baitfish and crabs find substantial shelter under the buoyant cover, but opportunistic predators are usually lurking nearby, so keep watch for the telltale surface explosions of feeding tuna and the classic "footballs in the air" - leaping yellowfins.
Feed 'em right
Threadfin herring, blue runners (aka "hard tails") and rainbow runners top the live bait list. Slow trolling and drifting both produce, but to spice up the presentation, try lofting a kite. With a short, stout rod and a 4/0 reel controlling the kite's altitude, your fishing line snaps into a release clip on the kite line with enough slack for a bait to dangle below. Raising or lowering the kite enables you to keep the bait just below the surface with sufficient water for breathing, but still shallow enough to attract attention with frantic splashing.
However you present your baits, remember that most of the year, tuna actually prefer smaller forage. Blue runners can grow to nearly two feet in the northern gulf, but the hotdog-size juveniles that congregate near rigs and beneath weed lines are your best bet.
"I don't care if a tuna is 500 pounds, he'll make 90 percent of his diet on baits 6 inches or less," Ellis said. "There's only one time they'll eat large baits and that's during the fall mullet run. Then, we'll fish 3-pound mullet."
Dead baits also work, and few are better than the oily flesh of freshly chunked bonita or menhaden (pogies). The key, Ballay said is to get ahead of the rig and chum heavily down current. He'll make sure his hooked offerings match the chum size so the tuna can't distinguish the appetizers from the dinner check.
Artificials typically work better during the cooler months, but if the tuna are thick, don't hesitate to drop a spread of Halco Tremblers, Yo-Zuri Bonitas, Mann's Stretch 30's, Magnum Rapalas, 113MR MirrOlures and the venerable cedar plug. A traditional brown or red/white cedar plug running behind a daisy chain squid teaser makes an irresistible combination.
For trolling and drifting, 6 1/2- to 7-foot standup rods and 50-class reels loaded with 80-pound mono, will handle most summer tuna. For added strength, use a 6-foot piece of 60- or 80-pound fluorocarbon leader and fish natural baits on 7/0 circle hooks.
When a tuna strikes, the ensuing give-and-take battle is won by patience and persistence as much as power and leverage. Endurance requires good posture aided by a fighting belt, if not a back harness. Short, power strokes that allow you to put line back on the reel are better than long, exaggerated motions that do little more than stretch line and strain your back.
Plant your feet, keep your knees bent and keep your body tucked in tight to the reel so the fish's relentless force doesn't keep you teetering off balance. Use the boat's gunwale as a leverage point by banking your knees against the side. At boatside expect an explosion of last-ditch defiance. Double gaffing is just about standard for these fish and when that first meat hook finds its mark, you'd better have a solid, double-handed grip or you'll be buying a new gaff back at port.