Whether or not you fish the west side of the pond or the east side of the pond chances are that when you load up your buddies and head out for an offshore adventure, you are going to ease her on out towards some kind of structure or another. One of the main differences that separates fishing the west side of the Gulf of Mexico from the east side, is the presence of unnatural structures those of us on the west side have affectionately come to know as oil rigs. According to current legislation, this stark difference between the two sides of the pond is currently slated to last until at least June 30, 2012. What will actually happen in the future, considering current domestic dependencies on oil combined with global turmoil and most importantly, the big business/political media spin on current reserves and demands, all remain to be seen and are no doubt a subject to be intentionally avoided in this article, though not necessarily overlooked.
An undisputedly more grandiose version of offshore fishing, offshore oil drilling is a high risk, high tech, highly secretive and costly business. Additionally, they share striking similarities in that the absolute bottom line in both industries is that you cannot truly know, until you go and find out for yourself. As can be learned on the National Geographic Channel, most drilling sites are initially found by geologists on scouting ships using very powerful sonar devices that detect distinctions on the ocean floor that might indicate the presence of oil. The risky and costly part comes from the fact that the only way to know if there is oil, is to get some type of temporary drilling platform out there and start drilling. If oil is found then what is known as a production platform is put into place and the whole operation begins to pay for itself. If the water is too deep for a fixed platform i.e., one that rests on the seabed, then a floating type platform must be used. There are many different types, shapes, and sizes of these floating platforms serving for a variety of depths and purposes. However, the majority of these floating platforms are semi-submersible in some fashion or another. The legs of a semi-submersible rig, or floater, are a lot like the ballast tanks used on large ships. These legs have valves that take in enough seawater to partially sink below the sea surface, stabilizing the platform, which is then held in place by cables attached to enormous anchors placed on the sea floor.
Fishermen in the Western Gulf of Mexico can benefit from fixed platforms, floating drilling platforms and floating production platforms, provided that the platforms are in the proper depth of water, and that they have been in one place long enough to amass a significant quantity of baitfish. The generally accepted theory is that the baitfish are attracted by both the lights and structure provided by the platforms. Once the little fish show up, it is only a matter of time until the big fish show up and following closely behind the pelagic species are the fishermen.
Some of the more infamous fixed platforms found off the Texas coast that are known for their abundance of big game species such as blue marlin, white marlin, sailfish, tuna, amberjack, and grouper are not surprisingly found in the deepest waters. Found 60-100+ miles from Freeport, TX, fixed platform rigs known as Tequila, East Cerveza, West Cerveza, Jalapeno, and Little Sister have all shown themselves to be proven producers of big fish.
John Murray and his crew aboard the 56’ Viking Hot Rod were fishing at one of the Cerveza rigs when they caught and weighed in not one, but two blue marlin. Collectively weighing in at 895 pounds, the two fish were more than enough to make Hot Rod the 2006 winners of the annual Poco Bueno tournament. Team Cherokee won the 2006 Port Aransas Masters/Fred Rhodes Memorial tournament with two tagged and released blue marlin caught at Tequila. Tequila is a fixed platform that sits in roughly 600 feet of water and is well known for having produced countless numbers of Poco Bueno winning fish. Additionally, Raul Reyes, a deckhand aboard the 48’ charter vessel Blue Fin of Captain Elliot’s Party Boats located in Freeport Texas was tied to a rig 60+ miles from Freeport in 643 feet of water when he caught the pending Texas state record 302.7# Warsaw Grouper. Christi Barwise of Cherokee also clinched the top angler and top boat title in the 2006 Corpus Christi Big Game Fishing club by catching three blue marlin in one day at Little Sister, a fixed platform that sits in roughly 800 feet and is one of the deepest fixed platforms off the Texas coast.
Offshore of the fixed platforms and sitting in water ranging from 1500-3000+ feet are the semi-submersible platforms or “floaters” as they are commonly called. Some of the more infamous floaters found off the Texas coast are Boom-Vang, Diana, Gunnison, and Augur, some of which are probably closer to Louisiana than Texas. If fishing fixed platforms can be good, then fishing floating platforms can be better. Though deeper water is not always proven to be better, the chances of catching that rogue monster fish of a lifetime seem to increase somewhat with water depth.
Whether you are fishing a deep fixed platform or even deeper floater, there are several fishing tactics that remain the same, depending on the depth of water you happen to be fishing. To learn more about making the most of a Texas offshore safari, I spoke with Brett Holden owner/operator of the 46’ Bertram Express Booby Trap out of Freeport, Texas. Because of the price of fuel, Brett and his crew have found that fishing three and four day excursions instead of overnight trips are a better way to get more out of the fuel spent getting to the deeper waters. The Booby Trap and crew try to fish every possible fishable day from May through October. This past season, they ran over 40 trips that add up to over 100 days spent in the Gulf of Mexico. You would be hard pressed to find anyone in the Texas private sector that fishes more than that.
Like all fishing excursions, a lot of the preparation begins before ever leaving the dock. Brett and first mate Travis Lovell usually grind 60-80 pounds of chum before a fishing trip. Frozen in 5-10 pound blocks, the chum is placed in the icy-tek coolers where it will stay frozen for a couple of days. Once they reach the fishing grounds, the blocks are fed into the boat’s tuna tubes allowing the steady water flow to consistently push the chum out. Frozen block will last about an hour with this method, and it tends to work pretty well, as it draws the baitfish in, and then the bigger fish. Preserving your catch on longer excursions is another concern, especially when it will take days before the fish get to the dock. Booby Trap typically carries two or three 270-quart icy-tek coolers loaded with about 700 pound of ice. All yellowfin brought aboard are quickly tubed out and wrapped in plastic bags to keep the water from getting to them. The vessel also carries extra fuel in 55-gallon drums on the back deck, which can also serve as tables and rigging stations. When making long ventures from the house, it is important to accurately estimate how much fuel you are going to burn on the way in and out, while you’re trolling, and how much your generator burns while drift fishing.
According to Brett Holden, “The fishing at the floaters is hard to beat because you
have swordfish, tuna and marlin all right there. This year we saw numerous whale sharks, whales, manta rays, and sunfish. Everything seems to hang around the floaters.”
A typical Booby Trap trip will leave late in day making its first stop at Tequila or Cerveza on the way out to do a little live baiting for Blue Marlin. When targeting billfish, tuna or other toothless critters, most anglers will opt to use anything from 300-800 pound monofilament or fluorocarbon leader material. Fluorocarbon is upheld to be more abrasion resistant while monofilament is clearly more affordable. The differing schools of thought concerning line class depend first of all on the tackle. Many anglers have maintained that using lighter line and tackle is a consistent way to get more bites. While this may be true, most Texas anglers generally live bait with 80# class reels using 300# leaders or more. The next step to successful live baiting is matching the hook size and type to the intended prey and predator fish. Typical Texas baitfish include tuna, blue runners (hardtails), rainbow runners, amaco jacks, bar jacks and lastly Bermuda chubs. The Booby Trap crew prefers to fish Shimano 80W reels with 300# monofilament leaders. They generally have a big rainbow runner on one side and a blue runner on the other side, both bridled on J-hooks.
After an inshore live baiting session, but before it gets dark, Brett will pick up and run out to the floaters for the evening tuna bite. The first order of business on arrival at the floaters is to assess what size tuna happen to be out there at the time. Typically tuna ranging from 30# all the way up to 100# can be seen jumping and feeding on the surface. The size category depends on what tactics will used to catch them. For the bigger tuna, Booby Trap will employ a live bait tactic slightly different from the billfish tactic. They will catch bait either off of the floater itself or off the mooring buoys used by supply boats. They target the smaller blue runners with sabiki rigs, as diamond jigs tend to catch bigger baits. Half pound to 1-pound blue runners are really effective on the bigger tuna, and serve to keep the thirty and forty pound fish off the hook. The tuna fish live bait rig consists of 20 feet of 80-pound fluorocarbon and a smaller j-hook. Chumming and bump trolling, Brett tries to keep the baits 100-150 yards behind the boat, a lot like live baiting for marlin. The baits are run up in the clips with about 80 feet of drop back in water, with the reels locked up. The reels used are 80W Shimanos spooled with 100-pound Mamoi line. Brett went to 100 pound on the 80Ws because the 80Ws are also used for swordfishing and he has had way too many swordfish completely empty the reels.
Trolling blade lures, small rapalas, stretch 20’s, stretch 50’s, yo-zuri squid or just about any other diving jig on a 50W is an effective way to catch the smaller tuna. The yo-zuri squid are particularly effective, but after two or three fish they are usually too beat up to use.
Chunking with pieces of bonito or live flying fish is another way to tangle with nice tuna. Again, the Booby Trap uses a stand-up 50W and will typically only fish one angler at a time to reduce tangles. The 50W stand-up is spooled with 60-pound line attached to an 80# fluorocarbon leader. Take a chunk of bonito about half the size of your fist, drop it back just past the light and hold on. One of the biggest problems with this method is keeping the blackfins off your bait. Brett said,
“I can’t tell you how to keep the blackfins off…some nights the blackfins just wore us out. We usually just try to put on a bigger bait. Even that doesn’t work, as we caught a couple of blackfins on one-pound blue runners this year that were enormous for blackfins. Everybody stretches that 30 pound blackfin word, but we had a couple in the thirty pound range this year.”
After the evening tuna bite dies off, Booby Trap and her crew will usually start swordfishing right off the rig until daylight. Brett Holden on swordfishing at the floaters:
“We try to stay within a mile of the floater, where we have had some of our best hook-ups, as these rigs will hold swordfish. We typically use 200-300 pound mono leaders for swordfish because fluorocarbon tends to be a little too stiff. We will use about a 50-foot leader with a light stick and a breakaway weight. A breakaway weight is a weight attached to the swivel with copper wire. Once the fish hits the bait, the weights pop right off. We fish for swordfish with the drags set as light as possible. If the fish comes up and starts billing the bait, we will pick up the rod and yank it hard one time to try and release the weights. A lot of times they will bill the bait for as long as five minutes, or hit even the light stick. Once the weights are free, we will sometimes crank the bait away from the fish and then put it in free spool to feed it off just like you would any other fish. Just let him take it until you figure he’s got it. The breakaway weights reduce your chances of him throwing the hook when he comes to the surface to start jumping. If you’ve got five pounds of lead swinging around on the leader, then you’ve got a chance of him breaking your leader or the line, or pulling the hook. A lot of times, a swordfish will just grab the bait and come to the surface. You look over the side and you’ve got a slack line and there’s a swordfish swimming around the boat with a light stick in his mouth. Things can get pretty exciting, pretty quickly, but the floaters hold a lot more swordfish than people think. We caught probably half a dozen at the floaters this year.”
The biggest swordy landed by Booby Trap crew weighed about 150#. They had one to the boat one night, on the leader, that was estimated to weigh about 500# but the fish pulled the hook and was lost.
Once dawn approaches, the Booby Trap crew will take off the light sticks and drag their squid from the night before around the rig, or pull some tuna jigs around to try and get a few more tuna in the box. Trolling large squid is a well-known tactic for landing large tuna.
Conventional trolling methods using either natural baits or lures can also be effective at the deepwater rigs. Brett prefers to troll natural baits, as it is more fuel-efficient and you tend to catch more of a variety of fish. The Booby Trap five bait, natural bait spread consists of larger islanders with ballyhoo on the flats, smaller islanders with ballyhoo on the riggers, and a mold craft super chugger down the middle.
When fishing lures, the Booby Trap and her crew pull mostly Pakula Lumos on the riggers, with larger Black Barts like the Marlin Candy, or Mold Craft Super Chuggers on the flats.
In all, of the 100+ fishing days in the Gulf, Booby Trap caught an estimated 1/3 of their fish at the floaters. The floater fish tally comes out to about 10 blues, 3 or four sails, 3 whites, 6 swordfish, and at least 100 tuna ranging from 30 pounds to 130 pounds. The average tuna they caught this year was in the 55-65 pound range, which is a higher average in comparison to years past.
If nothing else can be said of the floaters, it is a place where you are likely to see just about anything come crashing through your spread, be it a Mako Shark, or a Blue Marlin. Brett recalls,
“One time we were trolling by the rig and we had all five lines go down. We wound up catching four out of five of those fish, all yellowfin, all over 80 pounds. That was when we caught the 130# fish.”
Fishing the Texas Offshore floaters is a place that truly brings to life one of the best descriptions of a marlin bite, by the master himself. From Hemmingway’s “One Trip Across,”
“He’d come up from deep down and missed it. I knew he’d turn and come for it again. Then I saw him coming from behind under water. You could see his fins out wide like purple wings and the purple stripes across the brown. He come on like a submarine and his top fin came out and you could see it slice the water. Then he came right behind the bait and his spear came out too, sort of wagging clean out of the water.”
“Let it go into his mouth,” I said.