When talking about big-game fishing in this country, we tend to speak in terms of West and East Coast fishermen and their respective techniques, and yet there is a third, what some call might call a forgotten, coast. Not only is the Gulf of Mexico home to the world’s biggest cobia and king mackerel, but it’s one of the most prolific tuna, wahoo and marlin fisheries as well. The Gulf Coast is a region that, despite its rich fishery and contributions to modern big-game fishing (including this very magazine, which got its start in Pensacola, Florida, 31 years ago), stands in the shadow of more talked-about areas.
Covering some 1,000 miles from east to west and 580 miles from north to south, the cereal-bowl-shaped Gulf boasts landings of fin and shellfish that surpass the annual landings of southern Atlantic, mid-Atlantic, Chesapeake and New England waters combined! The reason for this abundance can be traced to the mighty Mississippi River, which delivers 3.3 million gallons of fresh water into the Gulf every second of the day. That influx, along with water entering from the Yucatan Straits, which circulates as the Loop Current, produces the nutrient-dense water that serves as the primary spawning ground of giant bluefin tuna, swordfish and blue marlin. The Gulf also functions as the headwaters of the Caribbean Sea, explains NMFS scientist Dr. Eric Prince. “The abundance of baitfish makes it a natural feeding zone for all big-game fish,” he says.
Festooned With Feeding Stations
There’s a saying among fishermen that when you find McDonald’s (meaning the bait), you’ll find the fish. This old saying is analogous to what we’re talking about when we look at the bait-producing and bait-holding habitat that is the Gulf of Mexico. In the Gulf, “McDonald’s” takes on the form of more than 4,000 fish-attracting, steel-legged offshore oil and natural-gas rigs found every few miles offshore. Clustered along the continental shelf from Texas to the Alabama/Florida line, the majority (3,000-plus) sit outside the mouth of the Mississippi River and Louisiana, where fish densities are 20 to 50 times higher off the platforms than in the surrounding Gulf water.
Here, even decommissioned rigs are the gift that keeps on giving, thanks to federal laws requiring that obsolete structures be removed or “re-utilized.” Many such rigs now operate as artificial reefs, including the so-called world’s largest, off Grand Isle, Louisiana — the 1½-mile sulphur mine includes obsolete rigs as well as bridge and retired power plant materials. Even before the oil industry started digging for oil and gas around 1900, the northeastern Gulf had some of the deepest bottom structure in the hemisphere, in the form of underwater mountain ranges with 3,000-feet-deep ledges. That said, until 40 years ago, these riches remained hidden under the sea.
It’s difficult to say who caught the first blue marlin in the Gulf of Mexico. In his 1949 book, Fishing the Atlantic, S. Kip Farrington mentions several caught off Port Isabel, Texas, with a 326-pound blue marlin by J. R. Montgomery of Rio Hondo being the biggest. However, marlin fishing did not seize the hearts and minds of Gulf fishermen until around 1956, following the discovery of the region’s deepwater canyons off Florida and Alabama.
Another impetus came from the voyage of the research vessel Oregon, which uncovered a treasure trove of big-game species. Hosted by the National Fish and Wildlife’s Bureau of Commercial Fisheries (now called the National Marine Fisheries Service), the 1952 expedition was headed by researchers Frank Mather of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Howard Schuck. According to Mather, who died in 2000, their mission was to take a comprehensive look at the Gulf and to determine the viability of developing a commercial tuna fishery there.
The scope of the nearly one-year-long research cruise encompassed the use of several types of commercial gear, including two miles of longline. Fishing took place from Mexico’s vast Bay of Campeche, located between the city of Tampico and the Yucatan and the north coast of Cuba, to within a few miles of major U.S. Gulf ports. According to participants, some of the best catches occurred 11 miles offshore of the mouth of the Mississippi River, where the continental shelf comes closest to shore. There the longlines produced numerous 100-pound-plus yellowfin tuna, sailfish, mako sharks, swordfish, and white and blue marlin. The results electrified a small but influential community of Louisiana anglers, including the respected national outdoor writer Paul Kalman.
As the late New Orleans-based writer recounted in a 1971 article in New Orleans magazine about the development of sport fishing off South Pass, Louisiana, he and anglers such as Herman “Dutch” Prager and Jack Brown often speculated about the kinds of fish that lay in the deep water off South Pass. In those days, big-game fishing off Louisiana and Texas meant catching 100-pound tarpon in the passes and trolling nearshore waters for king and Spanish mackerel and the occasional sailfish. In the ’40s and ’50s, spring and summer sailfishing could be quite good six to eight miles offshore of the buoy lines, off Texas, Louisiana and northeast Florida. There was the time, for example, when three boats caught 26 sails in three days off Aransas Pass in 1946.
Yet in 1949 the biggest dolphin that had ever been caught in the long-running Grand Isle (Louisiana) Fishing Rodeo was a school-size 8-pounder, which was a state record at the time. Fishing the rodeo that year, Kalman and Brown fished 50 miles offshore and caught a 23-pound dolphin that not only shattered the state record but also netted them a new Plymouth automobile. Then host of the Jax Beer Outdoors in Louisiana television show in June of 1956, Kalman heard about the Oregon cruise and invited researcher Harvey R. Bullis Jr. of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Mississippi Laboratory in Pascagoula to appear on the program, which showed blue and white marlin and huge tunas being hauled onto the decks of Oregon, just 11 miles off South Pass — a kind of no man’s land in the those days of 9-knot boats.
In three sets, the boat caught 45 yellowfin tuna, two blue marlin, 13 whites, a sail and three makos. By the end of the next week, an expedition was mounted to see what could be caught on rod and reel. The advanced team included James Meriweather Jr. of Shreveport on the steel-hulled 65-foot Melou II, and New Orleans-based anglers Bob Norman, with his 36-foot Chris-Craft, Kiwi, and Paul Kalman as crew, and John Lauricella Sr. on his locally built yacht-fitted oyster boat, All American.
“Not one of the vessels had outriggers, a fly bridge or any of the niceties standard on today’s big game boats,” Kalman wrote in a 1971 article about the trip. Being the only ones with big-game fishing experience, Lauricella and Kalman “pooled their meager knowledge” of bait rigging, hooks and leaders, and taught the others. For good measure, Kalman brought two barrels of ground menhaden chum along to use to attract bluefin tuna, blue marlin and whatever else they might encounter.