Using Live Bait in the Gulf of Mexico

Consider live-baiting for blue marlin if you want to win a big-money tournament in the Gulf

Whoo Dat Marlin Fishing Gulf of Mexico Oil Rigs
Over the last few years, boats have shifted from trolling lures around oil rigs to slowly bumping around live bait and hardly moving when targeting blue marlin in the Gulf of Mexico.Jack Snow / Offshore Imaging

No matter if it's baseball, football or any other sport, participants constantly change and improve different aspects of the game. Competitive offshore fishing is no exception — one could sit and write a novel of the reasons how and why the level of competition has risen to where it is today. The continuous evolution of tackle and tactics is prevalent in every big-game ­fishery around the world, but in recent years, one fishing technique in particular has become very trendy in the Gulf of Mexico: live-baiting. So, how is one of the oldest and most effective tricks in the book changing the way people fish? Simple: It wins Gulf of Mexico fishing tournaments.

A Different Scene

What you would have seen a few years ago aboard any given tournament boat in the Gulf is completely different from what you can expect to see now. It’s common to start the first morning of a tournament at some distant oil platform with desirable conditions and a number of boats surrounding you. For as long as oil rigs have been out there, this has been a common scene.

Through the late 1990s and most of the 2000s, it was like a NASCAR race at these rigs, with boats dragging lures and racing around like cars on a track. It’s not that way anymore. Over the last few years, the same boats have been seen slowly bumping around live bait and hardly moving. Many of the old-timers will tell you it’s very ­different out there these days.

Big Blue Marlin Gulf of Mexico
Blue marlin over the 700-pound mark are now common among teams live-baiting in the Gulf. Fish weighing less than 500 pounds rarely win big-money tourneys these days.Travis Dorland

Proven Tactics

Since the 2012 fishing season in the Gulf, teams fishing with live bait have landed 10 blue marlin over 700 pounds in tournaments. Three of those were over 800 pounds; one tipped the scales at over 900 pounds. Two teams using live bait also set new state records in Alabama and Texas. All-time catch records indicate Gulf anglers have landed 48 blue marlin over the 700-pound mark. Twelve of those fish were landed in the last four years, and 10 of those fish were caught on live bait. During the 2015 tournament circuit in the northeastern Gulf, teams won six out of eight tournaments with a blue marlin kill division by live-baiting. One of those tournaments, the Mobile Big Game Fishing Club’s Memorial Day Tournament, had no fish weighed. So, really, live bait won six out of seven northern Gulf tournaments in 2015 where at least one fish was brought to the dock. Keep in mind, those are first-place finishes in the kill division only, not even taking into consideration the teams in second or third places — or even the release division.

Reel Fire Alabama State Record Blue Marlin
Live-baiting in the Gulf accounted for two blue marlin state records over the last three years: Reel Fire's 845.8-pounder shattered the Alabama state record in 2013.Courtesy Blue Marlin grand Championship / Mark Worden
Legacy Texas State Record Blue Marlin
Legacy also used live bait to nearly break the grander mark for the Texas state record in 2014.Courtesy Capt. Kevin Deerman

Compare the success rate over the last three years of live-baiting to lure fishing during seven prominent Gulf tournaments: Of those 21 tournaments, 16 were won on live bait, and four were won pulling lures (no fish were killed during one of the tournaments). The success in the release divisions were similar: Teams often need to catch two blue marlin just to have a shot at winning the release division, and it usually takes three or four blues to get it done. So what are the reasons for the changes?

Of those 21 tournaments, 16 were won on live bait, and four were won pulling lures...

Capable Boats and Man-Made FADs

Boats are becoming bigger, faster and more fuel efficient, allowing crews to stretch the range of where they fish to the point that there might literally be no frontier left. It is not unheard of for boats to go over 300 miles one way to reach a desired location, often running through the night on step with the aid of thermal imaging and other advanced electronics to help make navigating at night safer.

Done Deal Blue Marlin Fishing in Gulf of Mexico
Several teams, including Done Deal, are among the live-baiting elite, often winning or placing in blue marlin categories on the Gulf tournament circuit.Jack Snow / Offshore Imaging

There are now more oil rigs off of our coast, with the exception of Florida, than ever before. Oil rigs are, hands down, the best ­commercial-grade FADs one could ever have the privilege to fish around. They are their own self-­sustained ecosystems with life teeming all around them, from microorganisms living on the structure itself to the largest apex predators in the Gulf. There are also literally hundreds of oil rigs out there to choose from. During a tournament, one has to use all available tools, technology and word of mouth to decide where to start ­fishing — another topic unto itself.

The Birth of a New Strategy

It has always been common ­practice in the Gulf to troll lures and cover ground, then swap over and deploy live bait once a fish has been spotted feeding on the surface. It's a proven tactic done many times by top teams for several years. But to my knowledge, C-YA, out of Grand Isle, Louisiana, is the first to set the bar for live-baiting all day for blue marlin in the Gulf.

Rigging Tuna for Live Bait
Crews use a variety of live bait, including small tuna, hardtails and blue runners. The healthiest bait are more lively, increasing the odds of tying into a big blue.Jessica Haydahl Richardson

C-YA added this new twist on blue marlin fishing during the 2006 season in the Gulf when they caught an incredible 34 blue marlin, 20 of which were caught on live bait. These were unheard-of ­numbers at a time when a 10-fish season was a great year. The story goes that they had trolled lures for a full day, followed by a night of tuna fishing. C-YA had a Hawaiian mate who always wanted to live bait but was not given the chance. With 30 minutes of daylight remaining, they caught a 15-pound tuna on a lure, and the mate begged for a chance to pull the tuna around until sunset. He already had his live-bait rigs hanging on the chair when he was finally given the green light to rig the tuna on one. Within the first five minutes of live-baiting, they were tied into a 500-pounder. The rest was history: The entire crew was sold on live-baiting, and everyone was on board with doing it at the rigs in the future — even when no marlin had been spotted first.

In years to follow, particularly after 2008 when federal regulations mandated the use of circle hooks for natural bait, various teams traveled the globe to billfish hot spots to hone their ­circle-hook-fishing skill sets. Others stayed right here in the Gulf and evolved along with live-baiting — and did just fine. Today, a number of top tournament teams are consistent and proficient with live-bait fishing; Born2Run and Done Deal come to mind among many others. Techniques and methods vary from boat to boat, but the concept remains the same and rather simple: Feed the marlin what they eat on a daily basis.

Tuna Tubes Gulf of Mexico Marlin fishing
Tuna tubes are often homemade and come in a variety of sizes and shapes. They must provide ample water flow and be large enough for tuna to stay alive.Andrew Cox

A Challenging Skill Set

Tournament-winning programs like Done Deal and Born2Run didn't just achieve their level of proficiency overnight; they overcame many obstacles and learning curves along the way. Catching bait, handling it properly, keeping it alive, correctly rigging it and determining how fast or slow to drag them are all key issues. Once you have a handle on all of this, you need to overcome fighting off barracuda, sharks and grass. Clear those hurdles and you still need to be lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time where a hungry fish awaits.

A lot has to go right for live-baiting to be effective, but it sure increases your odds at winning a tournament. It is also crucial to have a proficient angler on the rod to give you a good shot at ­buttoning up that marlin. That kind of expertise and know-how does not come easily, especially in this part of the world where we are challenged with extremely long runs and not a lot of fish. This combination makes it a very difficult environment for an angler to gain experience.

Live-baiting in the Gulf of Mexico can also be very boring due to the size of the bait — ­usually juvenile tuna — because you forgo the opportunity to catch other game fish like dolphin, wahoo, white marlin or sailfish. It is not unheard of to catch these species while live-baiting, but trolling lures or dead-bait fishing is certainly more action-packed, while also increasing odds in other tournament categories. The most common bait used in the Gulf is a small tuna, but other options include blue runners and rainbow runners. Different boats have their preferences for bait, especially if they’ve had luck with a particular one in the past. Most boats pull two baits, usually one on each side fished out of the riggers.

Putting together a successful live-baiting program is more easily said than done.

Blue Marlin Fishing Gulf of Mexico
Tournament teams often decide whether to go for numbers in the release division or look for the one big bite in the kill category. Tackle and techniques vary for each.© Scott Kerrigan / www.aquapaparazzi.com

Go Big or Go for Numbers

Different factors for tackle and bait play into tournament strategies: Go for the numbers or target a big one. Those looking for numbers prefer smaller bait and light leaders, which tend to entice more bites from smaller marlin and big tuna. Those swinging for the fences prefer larger bait on heavy leaders because they feel it increases their odds should they get a bite from a larger marlin. Teams must decide on which strategy to follow during a tournament, and it often is influenced by factors such as a boat’s speed and range. A boat with speed provides the ability to bounce around and fish multiple rigs, covering more ground and potentially generating more shots at multiple fish. If you are slower and handicapped by your speed, perhaps you should try to focus more on the big ones. Spending six or seven hours of your day running from rig to rig on a slower boat decreases your chances of getting a lot bites because you aren’t spending as much time fishing as a boat that spends only three hours running to fish the same rigs.

Large bait presents their own set of challenges when targeting big blue marlin. Crews must make sure the water flow in the tuna tubes is just right, especially for larger tuna to breathe properly. Deploying and fishing bait ­weighing 15-plus pounds takes a special kind of mindset among the crew. Most crews aren’t fishing to win the release division or any of the meat fish divisions; they are looking for the big bite. Most days you don’t find it, and it’s next to impossible to persuade everyone to buy into this strategy. It seems fun, new and exciting until, 30 minutes into it, a boat pulling lures drags by you and catches a fish. Nobody likes to see that happen next to them! Your guests get bored, it gets hot as the day goes on, and there is no breeze because you are barely moving — and then your bait dies. This is where most people drop out of trying to live bait and go back to trolling lures.

Putting together a successful live-baiting program is more easily said than done. It takes the right chemistry of crew from top to bottom, starting with the owner all the way down to the chamois boy. It requires a lot of experience from the captain and anglers, as well as a ton of dedication. But if you want to raise a check on the podium, live-baiting is the name of the game when it comes to winning on the northern Gulf of Mexico ­tournament circuit