Biloxi Offshore Fishing: Rising Up the Ranks

Fishing in Mississippi's Gulf Coast destination is better than ever

billfish jumping out water
What started out as an inshore fishing location became home to one of the Gulf Coast's biggest offshore tournaments.Dave Ferrell

Few destinations in the world can match the amenities and allure of Biloxi, Mississippi. Outstanding sport fishing for nearly every popular saltwater species and a host of entertainment options make this one of the most popular vacation spots in the Southern United States.

Situated in the heart of America’s Deep South, coastal Mississippi really came to the forefront in the years following World War II as the tourism industry gained momentum. Returning servicemen now had the opportunity, as well as the disposable income, to travel away from home on vacations. And despite its relatively small coastline, Mississippi soon found itself competing with Florida for those tourists. One of the main draws of the region remains in place to this very day: an abundance of game fish, tasty shrimp and succulent oysters. If you want fish — and you eat seafood — then you’d be hard-pressed to find a better spot.

Another boom hit Biloxi in the early 1990s, when Mississippi legalized gambling. At first, it was thought that gambling would be limited to cruising paddle-wheelers — more of a sight-seeing tourist attraction than anything else — but it quickly grew into a multibillion-dollar industry. The floating (as prescribed by law) casinos turned into enormous resorts, with many major properties dotting the coastline from Bay St. Louis to Biloxi. Nowadays, the floating restriction is long gone, and the casinos offer up 24-hour gaming, Vegas-style shows, fine dining, spas and much more.

Sport fishing has always played an integral part in the development of the area; however, anglers primarily focused on the inshore and nearshore species: trout and redfish in the sounds and red snapper, cobia and amberjack on the rigs. Anglers would catch the occasional marlin close to shore, but the run to deeper water and the more traditional billfishing grounds was a long one, usually in excess of 75 miles one way. Boats actively targeting blues and big yellowfin tuna usually left port on multi-day trips, steaming through the night in order to put lines in by first light.

The Mississippi Gulf Coast Classic
The Mississippi Gulf Coast Classic tournament, held in Biloxi, represents one of the richest events along the Gulf Coast and draws top-notch crews from throughout the region.Alaric Lambert

The Classic

In 1997, the late Bill McLellan (Marlin magazine's co-founder) and Bobby Carter were fishing a tournament in Orange Beach, Alabama, and having drinks on the boat with their teammate Danny Pitalo. As the drinks flowed, they began tossing around the idea of hosting a world-class tournament in their home port of Biloxi. They felt that it would be a great way to showcase the area's offshore action and bring some attention to a fishery that few really understood at the time.

Later that same year, the first Mississippi Gulf Coast Billfish Classic hosted 60 teams. Known for its large cash prizes, the Gulf Coast Classic quickly grew to be one of the top events on the Gulf of Mexico. In addition to the big money and big fish, participants also liked the long fishing hours (they left port on a Thursday afternoon and did not return until the Saturday evening weigh-in deadline). And because everyone gathered in the same marina, the pre- and post-event camaraderie and celebrations continued virtually nonstop. Notable years include 1999, when Bob Strue set the Mississippi state record for bluefin tuna at 837 pounds, and 2002, when Barry Carr landed the Gulf of Mexico record blue marlin — a 1,054-pound behemoth. Unfortunately, tournament co-founder Bill McLellan passed away that same year, losing his battle with cancer but ultimately leaving behind a rich legacy for thousands to enjoy.

Tragedy Strikes Twice

Just a few years later, the entire upper Gulf Coast was dealt a blow. Hurricane Katrina came crashing ashore in Louisiana, pummeling the region with hurricane-force winds for more than 12 hours. However, it was the storm surge, topping 25 feet in some locations, including Biloxi, that did the real damage. It’s estimated that some 90 percent of the city’s buildings sustained damage during the storm, and a good number of them were completely wrecked. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, upon surveying the near-total devastation a few days later, called Biloxi “America’s Hiroshima.” Even today, residents mark personal events in history as occurring before or after Katrina.

But Biloxi’s residents took it in stride and began efforts to clean up their city as soon as, or even before, the water receded. Just as everything seemed to be returning to normal, another disaster struck. Five years after Katrina, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 and initiating the most disastrous maritime oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. And though Biloxi’s beaches were spared the brunt of the oil, the true lifeblood of the region — tourism — took yet another damaging blow. Luckily, the fish didn’t care, and there are plenty of them out there! This past summer, the entire Gulf of Mexico enjoyed some tremendous fishing action.

Fishing the Rigs

Fishing in the upper Gulf of Mexico centers around the many oil and natural-gas rigs liberally sprinkled offshore. Some are quite small, while others resemble miniature cities, buzzing with activity 24 hours a day. To see these working rigs at night is to witness a sight that’s both surreal and strangely beautiful. In the Gulf of Mexico marlin circles, rigs like Ram Powell, Mars and Ursa, and Horn Mountain are legendary for producing big fish. Another popular destination is Green Canyon, south of Louisiana and far enough offshore that it receives relatively light pressure from recreational anglers. It’s a long steam, but the rewards can be tremendous in terms of both the quality and quantity of fish.

When fishing the rigs, remember that crew boats always take priority. These vessels supply parts and manpower to the rigs and operate around the clock in almost any weather short of a hurricane, so be sure to give them plenty of room. A variety of tactics work well when fishing the oil rigs. Some choose an all-artificial spread to cover ground at a higher pace, “rig hopping” from one set to another in search of productive water.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, live baiters stick close to the rigs, since they concentrate both bait and predators in a relatively small area. Small tuna, bonito and big blue runners, known locally as hardtails, make great baits for the marlin and big yellowfin tuna that frequent the rigs. There are few things more enticing to a big marlin or tuna than a frisky live bait bridled to a large circle hook, fished in the shadow of a rig.

Like a veteran prizefighter rebounding off the ropes, Biloxi’s residents always seem to find a way to reach deep inside, drawing on an amazing sense of history, resiliency and determination, to emerge victorious in the face of adversity. Despite all the hardships of the recent past, this much is clear: Biloxi is back, and it’s better than ever.

Biloxi, Mississippi at night
Biloxi has an airport, but flying into New Orleans — just an hour away — can be easier.Courtesy Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau

Getting There

Biloxi is served by the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport, located just a few miles away in neighboring Gulfport, but it’s often easier for visitors to travel to the region from nearby Louis Armstrong International in New Orleans, which is about 85 miles away. By land, there are two major highways that serve the area: U.S. Highway 90 is pretty much the main drag through town, connecting Biloxi with Gulfport to the west and Ocean Springs and Pascagoula to the east. Interstate 10 runs through the northern part of the city and is the direct route to New Orleans, Mobile and Jacksonville. By water, Biloxi sits in the upper part of the shallow but easily navigable Mississippi Sound.