by Capt. Damon McKnight/Super Strike Charters
Spring to Summer Offshore Fishing Venice, La.
The title is Spring to Summer offshore fishing out of Venice, La. but we really didn't have a winter or spring so let's just go with early summer fishing out of Venice, La. The weather has been a little tough this year. March was certainly the month to fish so far in 2012 with 18 fishable days with most of them being very nice. The tuna bite was incredible along with Wahoo and Amberjack. You know you have a lot of Amberjack when you are catching them on a drift line. The Yellow fin were a little smaller than what were use to with most of them being in the 30lb. range, although there were still plenty 100-150lbs. plus. I can't forget to mention that the number 2 Yellow fin in the state was caught also which weighed in at 235lbs. So as you can see it was a crazy year and a very mixed bag including sizes and variety.
We are now in mid-April and you need to know what is going on in the offshore waters out of Venice, La. The tuna bite has been very strong and should remain that way. With the unusually warm water for this time of the year we are going to see everything about a month or possibly two earlier than what we were getting . Over the past four years, everything was about a month or two late so what we are seeing now is just about right on track, maybe a little early, if you followed the weather patterns over the past 15 years. When I say everything should be a month or two earlier, I am primarily talking about those species that we usually wouldn't see in any numbers, until Mid-June or even early July. Those species include Dorado, Marlin, smaller Wahoo (20-30lbs.) and cobia. Last week while fishing, April 10th to be exact, you might have thought you were out there in late June. A perfect rip line formed about 20 miles offshore and it was completely full of Dolphin (a good percentage were bulls), Wahoo, and Tuna. Bait-fish were all over the place including flying fish and bally-hoo. This could be a great start to having an incredible season of offshore fishing. One of the most important things you have to have for unusually high success while fishing is for everything to come together. Most days you get one or two variables that will help you produce fish. There are very few days that all of the variables that you need for success will be lined up and if this season keeps going the way it is with bait fish, warm water, targeted species, great weather, and a northerly direction push from the currents, we may just have an incredible year. So far, so good.
The most productive methods during the Spring and Summer while fishing offshore for pelagic species are usually live-baiting, trolling, and chumming. Lets start with Tuna and how they have changed over the years. When I first got into Tuna fishing all you needed was a CD-18 Rapala of any color or a squid chain (daisy chain) and you would have guaranteed success. You didn't have to run very far out of the pass to catch them either. Well, it has changed tremendously over the past 5, 10, and 15 years. I am not sure what it is attributed to, possibly the fish are getting smarter and there aren't as many as before, or it could just be the pressure. The amount of boats offshore fishing for tuna has been on the incline over the years. Either way you have got to be prepared when the opportunity presents itself and you have to be quick. What a lot of people do not realize is that you have to move at the speed of the bite. High fives, too many pictures, and what one of our Captains refers to as "moving at the speed of smell" will slow down your day more than you think. You never know when you will hook your last fish of the day so as soon as you catch that first fish, you had better get the lines back out fast and hope for the next. This will turn a slow to mediocre day into an unbelievable day. Most of the time it goes down in about 1-2 hours, so that is your window. Tuna are incredibly finicky some days so I am sure the saying "as finicky as a tuna" was created by a fisherman who had them jumping all around the boat but wouldn't eat. I know the feeling all to well. With that being said, you have got to be prepared these days with more bait than you may be able to get. The number one bait of choice by Tuna and fisherman in the northern gulf is probably Blue Runners (Hard Tails) in the 4-6 inch size class. This species is plentiful, durable, and can live in a live well all day. You will know if you have the right ones because by the end of the day, the insides of your hands will be torn up from handling them. They have extremely sharp bones at the end of their tails that you don't feel until its too late. They are also known as Tuna-candy, Tuna-crack, or butter beans by some of the local captains. Most of the time any sabiki rig (Hayabusa, Frenzy, Owner, Mustad, and Ahi) will allow you to catch as many as you want and they are found around grass patches, buoys, and rigs. If you can find the butter beans, more than likely your going to have a good day of offshore fishing. If live bait is hard to find, which I do not think this year it will be because of the warmer temperatures, the next best method is going to be chumming. You usually want to bring a minimum of 50lbs. of frozen menhaden and if you can find a few, Bonita. You want to set up drift over the top of where you have seen the fish either busting the surface or where you have marked them on the fish finder. Most days they are crashing on the surface so it won't be hard to locate your target. Cut up about 10lbs. of menhaden mixed in with a cut up bonita, and start chumming the water. After you get a few hand-full's out there, then go ahead and bait up a circle hook with a tail section, or chunk of bonita, (hide the hook) and toss it out with a handful of chum next to the boat and let it drift downward. Some days the fish will immediately come up to the surface to feed, other days they won't eat until the line drifts back 25 yards plus. The upside to chumming is that it usually does not take long to know if you will be successful or not. If they aren't on it within the first 20 minutes more than likely it isn't going to work. If you spotted the fish and you know they are there, try a couple of different techniques. If you can't get a bite, you can either wait them out in hopes that they turn on, (usually persistence pays off) or you can come back to the spot later in the day. There are other species of live bait such as Threadfin Herring, Tinker Mackerel, Goggle-Eyes, Butter Fish, baby chicken dolphin, scad, and flying fish that have incredible results but they are tough to get during certain times of the year, you can depend on being able to find these species about 15% of the time. Herring are usually the most plentiful during the summer months. Another very successful method of Tuna fishing is casting top-water plugs into the schools of Tuna busting on the surface. Once they get into a feeding frenzy they aren't as tough to hook. Being able to place a top water plug such as an OTI (Wombat) or Frenzy Angry Popper into the middle of feeding Yellow fin Tuna is very exciting and usually rewarding. Just remember not to horse them in the beginning and let them run with it for a minute to insure they are hooked good.
The rest of the pelagic species such as Dorado, Wahoo, and Marlin will mostly come off of the troll. Mainly around rip lines, floaters, buoys, or anything with substantial size floating on the surface, such as a wooden pallet or a tree. My bait of choice for these species is a Blue/White Ilander rigged with a bally hoo while trolling. I usually put out a 4 to 5 line spread, depending on how the fish are feeding, which consists of two Marlin Baits in a variety of colors, Two Ilanders (blue/white and Pink/white), and a wahoo bomb down the middle. The colors that seem to produce the most Marlin hits are Pink/White and Purple/Black. Joe Yee, Makaira, Black Bart, and Cajun Yap are some of the brands I like, mainly just for confidence, but my feeling is that they will hit just about anything you have out there most days. Some days they are very particular and I may end up going to all Blue/White Ilanders either rigged or unrigged with bally-hoo depending on the amount of smaller fish feeding. Sometimes the bally-hoo will attract the smaller fish to pick at your baits such as chicken dolphin (mainly) other times bonita, barracuda, and 3lb. hardtails. If they become a problem I will only pull unrigged baits, which means when you do get a hit, it is a good one. For the most part the entire spread will catch all of these species so you really can't go wrong. Just be prepared for all hell to break lose when trolling a rip because it can and does happen. Expect to get triple or quadruple hook-ups with jumping and twisting Dolphin or a double hook-up on Marlin. There is nothing more fun than watching it all go down at once. We also catch Dolphin and Marlin, with the occasional wahoo, while live-baiting for Tuna around the floaters as well.
Gear we use:
For Trolling: I like to use two 50 wides (Duel Reels) matched with 80-130lb. 5'2 inch stand-up rods. I put the Marlin Baits (Joe Yee/Black Bart) on these reels and run them as the long lines. The rest are 30 wides (Duel Reels) with 5'6-60-unlimited custom calstar stand up rods. I put the Ilanders, Wahoo Bombs, or anything else that would work on the flat and center lines. Sometimes if most of the fish are on the smaller side avg. 20-30lbs., I will run Torsa 40's on the short lines for wahoo and dolphin.
For Live Baiting and Chumming: I use just about everything I've got for this. Most days I run the 30 wides, others might be the Torsa 40's, and some days we have the spinning reels set up ready to catch small hard tails into the schools of tuna. When the fish are on the smaller side you can definitely use smaller tackle such as the Torsas. Most of the time we are using straight 80lb. line, but some days we have to go down to 40-60lb. fluorocarbon to get a bite. Then again some days we can use 130lb. mono. And it works just as good. So you really have to determine just how good the fish are feeding and the size class of fish you will more than likely catch.
For Top-Water Casting: We go all out on our tackle so these set-ups aren't necessary but definitely are nice to use when the fish are going crazy. 20000 Shimano Stellas matched to 7'0 Custom Calstar rods made by Bar Bar tackle. They are great for casting and are more than capable of putting a 100+lb. Yellow fin Tuna in the boat. If you are not that good of a caster you may need to go with a longer rod for distance. Tuna know where that imaginary line is to stay just out of casting distance from most boats so being able to get a little further is key to catching fish some days. The Stellas are spooled with 80lb. Power Pro, barrel swivel on the end, and about 2ft. of 80lb. monofilament for leader. The mono leader is a necessity because it serves as a shock leader and will give some stretch when fighting a head popping tuna. You need it.
Fighting Belts: These are a must have when it comes to bringing in any fish of size. Braid, Aftco, and Smitty are what we use and are all equally impressive. You have to be careful with the smitty because of the aluminum gimbal which will take out a chunk of fiberglass if it rubs against the gunnel. If you are meticulous about your equipment then you will more than likely want to keep a close eye on the angler while wearing this belt and leaning on the gunnel.
Gaffs: Top Shot gaffs are what I prefer. They have a solid Stainless Steel Hook, almost looks like it was make out of a horseshoe, and a fiberglass handle that has just enough give to it. I have been using them for years and have only broken one and have had 2 pulled out of my hands, both were 8 footers. I stick to 6 foot gaffs now. I have broken or bent way to many Aftco gaffs. I can't tell you how many times I have been left standing there with two rubber hand grips in my hand and the fish sounding with the gaff stuck in his back. They are a good gaff for the money but not for everyday use offshore.
Capt. Damon McKnight
Super Strike Charters