Whether it’s hard fighting bottom fish or schooling pelagics, the northern Gulf of Mexico offers anglers a plethora of amazing opportunities. Each season seems to bring new challenges along with the changing weather. I happen to be a blue water buff and consider anything smaller than a 50-wide a baitcaster, so I must dread winter cold fronts, right? Wrong!
Adventurous anglers willing to think outside the box have been anxiously anticipating the turn of the year. We know that while yellowfin tuna can be encountered at any time, the largest fish show up in November and typically hang around until the end of March. The only downside to this reliable fishery is the long 50 to 100-mile run required to reach productive fishing grounds. Fortunately though, we have Destin—a central hub for a number of Florida’s most dedicated sport fish crews that acts as a gateway to the northern Gulf’s offshore riches.
Tuna in particular, are amazing predators. No matter what ocean they swim in, it’s an undeniable fact that they are highly unpredictable. At times they can be the easiest or hardest of all pelagics to coerce.
I grew up along the coast of Maine throwing harpoons at giant bluefin, and ever since my childhood I’ve been fascinated by tuna. For some reason I still can’t seem to get enough. After a short sabbatical in the Pacific, I moved back to the states in 2007 and chose Destin as a promising location to apply the lessons learned over my lifetime. Tuna in particular, are amazing predators. No matter what ocean they swim in, it’s an undeniable fact that they are highly unpredictable. At times they can be the easiest or hardest of all pelagics to coerce.
Throughout my worldly travels I’ve witnessed yellowfin so boat shy that they wouldn’t let you get within 100-yards without sounding, while at other times I’ve had them run right into the boat during explosive feeding frenzies.
However one thing is for certain; when yellowfin tuna are actively feeding on the surface, they will attack anything and everything. Yet, I was curious. Would Gulf of Mexico yellowfin tuna exhibit the same characteristics as the Pacific body of fish I’ve just spent years chasing?
I quickly learned that I had a lot to learn. Adapting to a new environment came with its own unique set of challenges. It was clear the tactics that yielded consistent success in one venue wouldn’t necessarily load the boat in another. The trick was figuring out what worked, when it worked, and exactly where it worked.
In the Gulf of Mexico tuna triumph not only requires you to utilize specialized techniques, but the boat you fish also has a huge impact on your outcome. Many of the most fertile tuna grounds in the Gulf are a long ways away from port and require a lengthy run. A center console is great for speed and has a clear advantage when it comes to 360-degree fishability, but for overnight trips and multi-day excursions, the bigger the better seems to be the general consensus. No matter what boat you are in, be sure to keep one ear on the marine forecast, plan ahead and always file a float plan.
While there are a few proven techniques to tempt yellowfin tuna in the Gulf, chunking is my absolute favorite and arguably the most effective. This approach to hammering yellowfin brings back memories of the huge tuna fleet off Cape Ann, Massachusetts. The boats numbered in the hundreds as they drew fish in from miles away into their massive chum slicks. Chunking is equally effective in many of the world’s oceans and is actually quite simple. In the Gulf we have the most success chunking at night, when almost all of the fish are hooked close to the boat. The yellowfin are often so focused on following the slick that they don’t stop feeding until every last morsel is devoured. Fresh chunks are the key. My experience has also proven that while a steady slick works extremely well, don’t hesitate to mix it up a bit. Steadily chunk for 20-minutes and then give it a break for five minutes. Boat-shy fish hanging deep are drawn closer to the transom as the handouts dissipate.
Tackle selection is all about two rod and reel outfits. A Red Pig 80 mounted on a stand-up rod, and a Shimano Stella loaded with 60lb. braid on a heavy duty spinner for throwing surface plugs and lighter baits, Since tuna are notoriously line shy, I rig with 12-feet of 150lb. fluorocarbon leader and 7/0 circle-hooks. I generally start my chunking endeavors at The Spur and work towards The Wall. If I still haven’t encountered any ‘finners, I’ll continue towards The Double Nipple. With the upper edge of the Loop Current often meandering this far north, lingering temperature breaks and eddies create perfect feeding scenarios at the aforementioned locations.
Pay Dirt At The Rigs
Deepwater oil rigs protruding from the surface across the northern Gulf provide yet another option. These massive structures not only attract yellowfin tuna, but a multitude of highly prized predators including blue marlin, swordfish, wahoo and dolphin—all frequently visit these massive feeding stations. This time of year the rigs are most famous for holding feeding blackfin on the surface, deep dwelling bigeye tuna hundreds of feet below the surface, and schools of voracious yellowfin everywhere in between. While the bulk of the chunking action is at night, there are also ways to entice tuna during the day.
A go-to daytime tactic involves deploying a bullet blackfin on a downrigger 500-feet below the surface. Slow-trolling only a mere 100-yards from popular rigs, this technique has taken its fair share of brute yellowfin during the sunniest of days. Remember to pay close attention to your sounder to help pinpoint promising depths. When tuned properly, yellowfin tuna show up as red and yellow boomerang shaped blips.
If you aren’t sure where to start, point the bow at Petronius or Ram Powell. If the bite isn’t on at these rigs, make a quick run to The Double Nipple at daybreak in search of open-water action. If you locate a drastic current or temperature break, things could heat up in a hurry.
Though tuna prefer to hunt deep during the day, if you can’t resist the need to pull some plastic one word sums it up—birds! Birds are nature’s flashing neon sign that tells you game fish are likely in the area. Across the Pacific when you stumble upon high-flying frigates, diving boobies or low-cruising shearwaters; it’s game on! In the Gulf it may just be a handful of gulls or terns, but regardless of your longitude, birds on the feed often equal tuna on the feed.
When working any sort of bird activity, it’s important to make a series of aggressive turns. I’m not sure if it is the lures changing direction that triggers strikes, but zigzagging always seems to draw the tuna in. I’ve had more than one skipper hail me on the VHF questioning what the hell I was doing—seconds before all the rods go off!
When targeting yellowfin on the troll I typically stretch out my spread. Two rigger baits are fished really long, 150 and 250-yards back with 7″ and 9″ Harry Takamoto bullets. The shotgun bait is the real secret here—a 7″ bullet fished 400-yards behind the boat. Six-knots is the perfect trolling speed to minimize unwanted noise and vibration and to allow the long lures to track well below the surface. My inside rigger baits are typically naked or skirted ballyhoo. These take their share of wahoo and dolphin.
I don’t know how many times I’ve read or been told how important it is to watch your lures. Yes, while it is important to make sure your lures are tracking properly and performing as designed, don’t get caught up and neglect to pay attention to what’s going on ALL around you. If you spend the entire day staring at the spread, you’ll likely miss busting fish or diving birds.
Destin tuna fishing definitely isn’t for the faint of heart, but if you want to test your skills against one of the ocean’s slickest predators, this fishery is a must on any angler’s bucket list. And with the biggest fish of the year here right now, there is no better time to head offshore.
The natural gas rigs littering the northern Gulf of Mexico comprise the world’s largest artificial reef system, so it’s no surprise anglers travel far and wide to target these fish-rich structures. However, it’s critical anglers exercise safe fishing practices, as the Gulf can get nasty in a hurry. While Homeland Security has attempted to create a buffer zone around the rigs, mooring, or tying to a rig is a common occurrence. However be forewarned; this can be tricky in anything more than a two-foot chop. Also consider that rig workers drop objects into the water—not intentionally of course. How would you feel about a 15-pound sledgehammer falling from the sky? Add in the fact that manned oil platforms are extremely noisy, bright and often emit unpleasant fumes, and it’s not hard to see why an oil rig may not be the best place to get some shut-eye. Some rigs have mooring buoys for crew boats, which are often used by recreational anglers when not occupied. The safest bet when conditions permit may just be to drift alongside the rig with sea anchor deployed. Whatever you decide, contact the rig via VHF and let them know your intentions, and make sure someone is always on watch.
Go For The Gold