- Black sea bass have dangerously sharp spines on their dorsal fin that can puncture human skin.
- The all-tackle world record for black sea bass is 9 pounds, 8 ounces.
- When hooked in deep water and brought quickly to the surface, a black sea bass will often regurgitate its stomach contents.
With tight regulations on the “Offshore Top Three,” king mackerel, cobia and red snapper, coupled with high gasoline prices, it may seem hardly worthwhile to venture 30 to 40 miles into the Gulf of Mexico for some fishing.
However, there are many other species in the Gulf that remain plentiful, widespread, fun to catch and limit-free. While it usually doesn’t take long to ice a limit of red snappers around most productive oil platforms, an angler can spend the rest of the day targeting these other, underutilized species. Most of them provide outstanding action, and some even rival snapper as table fare.
Tripletails are frequent residents of channel marker buoys in the Gulf. This one was pulled up about 14 miles south of Cameron, La.
Around most offshore platforms, summer anglers might fill a box with spadefish, pompano, several grouper species, triggerfish, tripletail, amberjack, blackfin or yellowfin tuna, dolphin (dorado, mahi mahi) and other excellent food fish. Closer to home, smaller boats can reach abundant redfish (for catch-and-release only in federal waters), bull croaker, black drum, speckled or white trout, flounder or monstrous gafftopsail catfish. For pure sport, test the power of such ornery critters as jack crevalle, shark, tarpon, barracuda, blue runner (hardtail jacks), rainbow runner, Spanish mackerel or several other varieties. Farther offshore, intrepid anglers might tangle with the big boys: wahoo, sailfish or white or blue marlin.
“When you pull up on a rig and drop your bait down, you never really know what you’re going to get to bite,” said Richard Miles, a charter captain from Grand Lake, La. “A lot of different species hang around the platforms.”
Most people head offshore to bottom fish near the numerous oil platforms dotting the northern Gulf. They tie to the structure or anchor nearby and drop squid, cigar minnows or Spanish sardines to the bottom. They can also increase productivity by casting artificials around support stanchions, setting out drift lines with live bait or trolling. Fishing the water column from top to bottom, anglers might land a dozen or more different species from one spot.
“When I pull up to a rig, I try to figure out which way the tide is going to drift,” said Jerry Thompson, a veteran of nearly four decades of plying the Gulf aboard his Thai Tonic. “That way, I can tie up to the platform without having to circle it too often. About 75 yards away from the platform, I usually set up one or two drift lines to run about 20 to 25 feet deep. On 90-pound test line, I tie balloons to the line as a ‘poor man’s float.’ By the time I tie up to the platform, I already have two lines working at various depths. With these lines, I normally catch some king mackerel or cobia. Sometimes, I catch some big sharks. Believe it or not, we also catch some huge red snappers on these drift lines at 15- to 20-foot depths.”
Besides red snapper, bottom bouncers might bag vermilion, mangrove, lane or several other snapper species. If they venture far enough out, they might find several varieties of grouper or amberjack. Bottom feeders all gobble the same baits in at least 75 to 90 feet of water. For big bruisers, fish at 150 to 200 (or more) feet.
A Species Smorgasbord
On one summer excursion aboard the Pamela M, a 33-foot cruiser, we motored down the Calcasieu Ship Channel south of Lake Charles, La., and headed for the Gulf of Mexico.
We stopped at a platform about 25 miles from shore to fish on bottom. To maximize our fun, we minimized our tackle. Richard Miles and Brad Deroen loosened their bass bait-casting rods. I opted for a light spinning rod.
A Lake Charles angler with a 28.4-pound cobia caught 25 miles out.
Richard and Brad dropped cut Spanish sardines to the bottom. Just to see what would happen, I tossed a chartreuse-and-white bass spinnerbait left on from a freshwater trip. Richard and Brad struck first blood and each pulled in small red snappers, the first species. Soon afterward, Richard boated a 6-pound grouper. I caught and released a small bluefish that nailed my spinnerbait, our third species.
Then a 10-pound bonito clobbered my spinnerbait as it fluttered down through the rusting steel stanchions. A compact little powerhouse, this small tuna relative stripped off 30-pound test Spiderline with muscle and speed that would impress Hercules. At times, I thought the rod would snap, but it held. Finally, we boated and released the spunky blue, gray and silver finned torpedo. As the sun barely protruded above the horizon, we had already landed four species. Richard soon added a cobia, our fifth species in less than an hour.
“Bonito are common,” Thompson said. “We cast and troll for them. They make excellent bait for other fish. From the sporting standpoint, it’s more fun to catch a bonito than a king mackerel because of the amount of fight it gives. It’s a very fast, powerful and exciting fish to catch for its size.”
Trolling Your Way There
Even big yellowfin, like this 150-pound speciment, Midnight Lump south of Venice, La.
After catching our fill of snappers, we trolled to other rigs. We set four rods with baits awash in the turbulence beyond the transom. We used -ounce plastic squid jigs in either two-toned green or two-toned blue. We also used a white feather jig, but it really didn’t matter. Spanish mackerel, bonito and blue runners hit all of them. That totaled seven species in a few hours.
“Usually, I put four rods out when I troll,” Miles said. “I put two about 30 to 40 feet back and two longer lines. I like to run the inside lines short and the outside lines farther back because they are easier to work. Most of the time, fish hit the inside close lines. Put the longer baits at least 10 to 20 feet farther back. In the wash, it gives the fish an option of baits. Sometimes, it can’t see a bait very well in the wash, but it can find that longer line. If it strikes at the short line and misses, it might see the bait on the long line. Any kind of leadhead or soft plastic squid-type trolling jig might work.”
Excellent for locating fish, trolling covers considerable acres of water. Sure, it might take a little longer to run from one platform to another at five to 10 knots rather than at 30 knots, but it also allows anglers to put more fish and different species aboard. For some people, trolling creates a rare opportunity to take truly monstrous fish. Out there, one never knows what might attack a lure.
One might think that a running boat would spook fish, especially in clear water, but sometimes propwash actually calls fish. As the boat plows through schools of baitfish, the propwash disorients them and kills some. Predators come up behind boats to feast on the easy pickings.
“Fish are looking in the propwash for anything the motor might have stirred up and killed or disoriented,” Miles said. “They are going to hit something that looks like it might be wounded. You want to troll just fast enough to keep the jigs on top of the water. Experiment with different speeds. You might have to run from two miles per hour to 10 miles per hour. Back off or speed up as necessary.”
A dolphin comes to the boat in the Gulf about 14 miles south of Cameron, La.
Heading back aboard the Pamela M, we kept watch for fish swimming near buoys or floating debris in tide lines. Driftwood, floating weed patches or other flotsam accumulates where two water layers mix. Driven by tides, baitfish attempt to hide under such floating cover in the barren sea. Tripletail, dolphin, cobia and other surface predators hunt near such cover or tide lines to pick off stragglers.
“It’s pretty common for dolphin and tripletail to hang around floating driftwood, buoys or other debris,” said Capt. Sammie Faulk of Grand Lake, La. “Except for the platforms, there isn’t much cover out there. Platforms are fished pretty heavily, so many fish hang around buoys or other structure. Bigger fish hang below the baitfish and feed on them.”
From the flying bridge of the Pamela M, Captain Sammie spotted a 6-pound tripletail lurking under a buoy as we headed toward port. He directed Brad to throw his bait near it. The tripletail inhaled Brad’s cut cigar minnow. That added an eighth species to our fish box.
We continued sight fishing, searching other buoys or floating structure for game fish. Having a spotter high in the flying bridge helped as we checked out each buoy or bit of debris for fish. Polarized glasses enable anglers to see better into the water.
“If I were targeting tripletail, I would hit every buoy and some of the smaller platforms,” Faulk explained. “I would look for floating debris. If you make a cast and they seem to disappear, they are still there. Around a buoy, they are usually down below eating barnacles off the anchor chain. Sometimes, when they disappear, drop a bait to the bottom.”
About 14 miles from shore, Faulk spotted a mahi mahi swimming near a piece of driftwood. Miles grabbed a light rod rigged with a plastic queen cocahoe jig and threw it at the colorful, blunt-headed fish. It struck, adding a ninth species to our tally.
“People catch mahi mahi at a convergence of two different water layers,” Thompson said. “I like to search for them by trolling with seven- to eight-inch natural feather jigs attached to a 3-foot steel leader tied to 90-pound line. Once we catch one, we leave it hooked to act as a decoy and start throwing other lures. The other members of the school attack that fish and try to take the bait from its mouth, sometimes actually killing that fish in the process.”
Father and son with a 17.8-pound blackfin tuna and a dolphin that tipped the scales at over 34 pounds.
To put more fish species in the boat, anglers need to stay prepared. Different rods, reels and terminal tackle target different species. Richard probably would not have caught that dolphin if he didn’t have quick access to a ready rod equipped with a jig. That rod sat in the rod holder untouched all day until just the right time. If no one had used it, no big deal. However, if someone needed it for a specific purpose and it wasn’t available, the fish probably would have escaped.
“Bringing several rod types rigged different ways gives anglers more options,” said Miles. “You may not need all those rods, but there is always a chance that you might need a particular rod and rig combination. It’s good to know it is there in case you do. If you don’t have it, you can’t use it. It is good to have different kinds and sizes of gear.”
A Trip Full Of Surprises
On another occasion, I ventured offshore south of New Iberia. The motor on our 24-foot boat broke down about 20 miles from shore, a little far out for inshore species such as trout, redfish and croaker, but not quite far enough for snapper and other offshore game species. We tied to the nearest platform and couldn’t do much more than fish while awaiting our rescue.
Nothing except hardhead catfish struck our bottom baits, but the calm green waters around the platform boiled with bluefish, hardtail jacks, spadefish, bonito and a few other species. We threw chrome spoons, Rat-L-Traps, jigs, crankbaits and other lures just for sporty action. Growing bored with catching a fish on nearly every cast, albeit few eaters, we turned to experimenting. We tossed some topwater baits to see what would happen.
Bluefish and hardtails smashed our tackle with vengeance. We also caught, or should I say hooked, some sharks, some nearly six feet long. I even coaxed a 100-pound tarpon to strike a chrome spoon. On the bass rod, the mouthy silver fish didn’t stay hooked for long. It made one spectacular leap not far from the boat before it broke the 15-pound line.
A hefty black drum caught from the Calcasieu Ship Channel south of Lake Charles, La.
For casting lures around the rigs, use steel leaders on stout line. Most saltwater fish come equipped with menacing dental hardware that can easily sever most monofilament or braided lines. By casting around these platforms, people can often add several different species to their count. On light tackle, they might tempt triggerfish or spadefish hugging the platform supports.
“Triggerfish feed primarily on the surface,” Thompson said. “Spadefish feed just below them. Both are good eating. Use a small hook with light, strong line. Those fish can give someone a heck of a fight on light tackle.”
Although people seldom specifically target them, few fish in the Gulf of Mexico fight harder than a jack crevalle. Not a very good eating fish, they make excellent sport with fast, powerful runs and shocking power. Anglers often see them ravaging baitfish schools. They might hit nearly any lure either trolled or thrown as they roam over the entire Gulf. Often, they penetrate far inshore into shallow brackish marshes, lakes and passes, devouring anything they see.
“If you can find a school of jack crevalle, you can catch all of them you want, but you probably won’t want to catch more than one,” Thompson said. “They put up a pretty good fight. They wear you out.”
If people just want to catch snappers, they can. However, with reduced limits on most offshore species, they might want to stay flexible. Through a combination of bottom fishing, trolling, casting and sight fishing near cover, anglers can put many species in their boats for a full day of angling adventure and potential piscatorial possibilities. This summer, when things get slow offshore or you’ve already filled that limit of king mackerel, cobia and snapper, try something a little different. You might like it.