Billfishing Along Florida's West Coast

The runs are long but the rewards can be significant

blue marlin released at boat side
Blue marlin like this one lead the hit list for teams fishing off the west coast of Florida.Austin Coit

Ever dreamed of trolling virtually unfished waters, past marlin and tuna that have never seen a lure or heard the rumble of a sport-fisher’s engines? Where a robust bluewater current caroms across impressive bottom structure, with depths plummeting from 850 feet to more than 10,000 feet in just 8 nautical miles? And all this with no passport or foreign languages required. Pack your bags (and all the spare fuel you can carry) for a true offshore adventure, Florida style.

white marlin on a lure
Missed it! A white marlin charges past a lure on a flat-calm Gulf of Mexico morning. This one came back several times and was eventually released. Overnight trips mean the fishing starts before sunrise and continues after dark.Austin Coit

Head West, and Keep Going

When I moved to St. Petersburg, Florida — located just west of Tampa on Florida’s Gulf Coast — some 15 years ago, I was immediately drawn to the diversity of fishing opportunities. The spring and fall seasons host impressive migratory runs of king mackerel, tarpon and cobia, and most of my friends were hardcore bottomfishermen, targeting tasty grouper and snapper within 40 or so miles from shore. But having been born and raised in coastal North Carolina, I was intrigued the most by the distant blue water. As it turns out, a small but devoted cadre of marlin-addicted anglers actively chase blue and white marlin, sailfish, tuna, mahimahi, and wahoo at incredible distances from shore. A weathered old salt once told me, “You just go west till you can’t go any farther, then you fish.”

It’s a matter of geography, or rather bathymetry, as the continental shelf along Florida’s western coast from Clearwater to Sarasota slopes very gradually below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. Fifteen miles offshore and you’re in only about 40 feet of water. Running to the thousand-fathom curve? Be ready for a shock when the GPS reads 120 miles, give or take a few miles depending on your port of departure. Because of the distance, most who aim for the deep blue are prepared to spend a few days (and nights) offshore. A typical marlin trip starts with an early-afternoon departure and an all-night chug at a fuel-saving 10 knots. Lines go in just before sunrise as that first warm glow lights the eastern skies. Fish hard until the sun finally sets the Gulf ablaze to the west almost 14 or so hours later. Set up on the swordfish grounds or chunk for tuna and keep at it all night, then repeat for as many days in a row as you can stand. It’s a nonstop piscatorial marathon, limited only by fuel and the stamina of the crew.

Finding Fish in a Vast Area

I sat down with two lifelong veterans of the west coast offshore scene — Scott Rickert and Brian Turner — over lunch at the historic Bradenton Yacht Club to talk about the fishing along their overlooked coast. Both started fishing offshore here in their early teens aboard a variety of boats, from convertibles to center consoles, and both are intimately familiar with the ins and outs of the action taking place well over the horizon.

Scott Rickert and Brian Turner west coast florida pros
Brian Turner and Scott Rickert are two of the region's top offshore pros. Both have multiple tournament wins and decades of experience in these waters.Austin Coit

The first dilemma is finding fishy water. Unlike just about every other hot spot in the world, there’s no bluewater charter fleet on the west coast of Florida, and very few private boats venture out on a regular basis either. The only ones with the range to head that far offshore are commercial longline boats, and those boys usually don’t chitchat on the VHF. And, unlike other parts of the Gulf of Mexico, there are no oil or natural gas production rigs off the west coast of Florida. Finding pelagics like marlin and tuna can be challenging — it’s a vast area to cover.

“I use Roffer’s Ocean Fishing Forecasting Service to get pointed in the right direction,” Rickert says. “We’ll start watching the currents a few days to a week ahead to see how the currents are interacting with the bottom structure. We also carry a satellite phone on board and will call their office once we start fishing to get the most recent data.” Of special interest is where those currents cross bottom contours; a favorite spot is a series of steep drop-offs known as the Steps, located roughly 120 miles southwest of Tampa Bay. Turner also uses ROFFS in addition to RipCharts, where he analyzes data on chlorophyll and altimetry, which he finds nearly as useful as the temperature information. “By watching all the information and seeing how the good water is interacting with the bottom structure, it will give you a pretty good idea of where to start fishing,” he says. “Then there are the visual clues: When there’s a strong current and clear blue water sweeping across the Steps, you can see the upwellings and rips boiling on the surface.” He also has integrated weather information from SiriusXM linked with the Garmin electronics package aboard his 42-foot Yellowfin for near real‑time updates.

Brian Turner and Scott Rickert with nautical chart
All good trips begin with a solid game plan. Scott Rickert and Brian Turner prefer to fish areas where structure meets current.Austin Coit

Watching the Water

The primary circulation of water in the eastern Gulf of Mexico is known as the Loop Current. It’s actually a part of the Gulf Stream that sweeps up past the Yucatan Peninsula and cuts across the Gulf toward Louisiana before heading east. A difference in water pressure forces it to turn clockwise along the northern Gulf and the western coast of Florida before turning south once again. “Think of the Gulf of Mexico as a giant bathtub,” says Mitch Roffer, founder of ROFFS. “When water pushes in, it also has to be forced out, so that’s what happens with the Loop Current.” When it comes to fishing, he advises captains to watch for the way the current moves along the coast. “When the Loop Current swings inshore to the east, it pulls that gorgeous blue water with it, where it interacts with the bottom contours like the Steps,” he says. “That creates very favorable conditions. On the other hand, when the Loop Current wobbles back to the west, it can pull good water farther offshore. The fishing can still be excellent, but at that point, you’re over the edge of the shelf in 10,000 feet of water.”

John's Pass Bridge
A boat returns through John's Pass Bridge after a successful overnight trip into the Gulf of Mexico.Austin Coit

Rickert and Turner also check for filaments or spinoffs from the Loop Current as they spiral along inshore. By watching how those pockets of water cross good structure and, more important, how long they stay there, good fishing can also be predicted with some degree of reliability. “In our last series of tournaments, we fished basically the same piece of water that had moved only 8 miles north over 10 days,” Turner says.

Seasons and Species

While fishing can be good to great just about year-round, the period from late July to early October offers the most promise in terms of big billfish and tunas. This is a true mixed-bag fishery: Everything from oversize blue marlin to acrobatic whites and sails, five different tuna species, slab-sided mahimahi, wahoo, swordfish and more can be up for grabs during a trip to these Jurassic Park-like waters. Turner often starts the hunt with a spread of artificial lures to cover more ground, with Black Bart's Prowler series being a favorite. "I like darker colors," he says. "We pull a lot of black-and-red or black-and-purple, but the bonito color — light blue with white stripes — has caught plenty of marlin." When conditions look good, he slows the boat and deploys a standard spread of chin-weighted ballyhoo.

blue marlin jumping
A Gulf of Mexico blue marlin takes to the air nearly 150 miles west of Tampa, Florida.Richard Gibson

Rickert goes for old favorites in blue-and-white, like the Mold Craft Hooker Softhead. “In the old days, we went out there with a handful of baits and pulled mostly lures, but now it’s the other way around. We fish mostly ballyhoo rigged with circle hooks, 25- or 30-pound-test line, and light leaders. If things get slow, I may pull a lure back down the center of the bait spread for a blue marlin.” Both agree that more important than color is the action of the lure: It should smoke and pop at regular intervals, especially if mixing lures with dead bait at slower speeds. Both will also pull dredges in the spread and add squid chain teasers like That Flippy Floppy Thing to further stir things up behind the boat.

Nonstop Action

Another intriguing part about fishing multiday trips is the ability to have the lines in the water before the sun comes up and then fish until complete darkness falls. These are usually the fishiest times of the day for nearly any species, especially tuna, and yet most of us are accustomed to either running out or running home at these critical twilight periods. It was during one particularly memorable late summer afternoon that Rickert scored a nice bigeye tuna, fishing with his father, Wayne, and the crew aboard Reel Screamer — at the time a 74-foot Viking. Bigeyes are a rare catch in this part of the Gulf, and the crew was just getting ready to bring in the lines at dark when the tuna struck.

But just because the sun goes down doesn’t mean the action slows down. A popular waypoint known as the Box holds swordfish. Rickert’s best night there a few years ago was when he and his team caught six swords and lost two more in just one night of fishing. Turner is also a swordfish aficionado, preferring to target them in depths ranging from 1,200 to 3,000 feet. He’s also caught two swords in the daytime while deep-dropping.

Safety First

It should go without saying that safety is a major concern when fishing 100 or more nautical miles offshore. Neither captain would think of making a trip like this in questionable weather or without every conceivable piece of safety gear on board. Both carry full-size life rafts, multiple EPIRBs, satellite telephones, fully stocked first-aid kits, extra fresh water and more. In an emergency, help could be several hours away.

fuel bladders on deck
Fuel bladders provide extra range offshore. You may need additional fuel to run to the bite, or away from bad weather.Austin Coit

Fuel is also an issue. On-deck fuel bladders are a useful accessory, and even full-size sport-fishers are taking advantage of them. Some strap bladders to the bow where they are out of the way, while others arrange them in the cockpit. Either way, that extra fuel is the first to be burned off. Once on the grounds, the empty bladders are then stowed below. Turner’s Yellowfin was built with an extra fuel feed that allows him to draw directly from the bladder without having to transfer gas at sea. The additional 250-gallon on-deck ­bladder feeds his triple 350 hp Yamahas on the run out, which gives him 600 gallons internally with which to continue fishing upon arrival.

A Note on Boats

My first few trips to the marlin grounds off Tampa Bay were on open center consoles, and it’s an enjoyable trip in good weather. Stretching out in a beanbag chair on deck at night and sleeping under the stars while waiting on a swordfish bite is an unforgettable experience. On another occasion, I found myself fishing a multiday tournament, being tossed around by choppy 4-foot seas, cold and wet for almost 50 straight hours. What precious little sleep I got was interrupted by flying fish thudding into the side of the boat — memorable, but for different reasons. Still, the new breed of fast center consoles has certainly raised the bar for accessibility for the west coast of Florida.

A run of 150 miles can seem daunting, but if you have the ability to cruise at 50 mph across flat-calm seas, it’s just three hours.

Turner is building a new carbon-fiber Yellowfin 42 that he expects will be lighter than his old boat by approximately 3,000 pounds or more. “I think it’s the perfect machine for fishing out here,” he says. “I’ve had sport-fishers in the past, but I just love getting out there fast. And it’s a great platform to fish from: You have 360-degree fishability and a big cockpit.” With that kind of speed and range, he can either make a quick day trip or stay on the grounds for up to three days at a time. On the other hand, there’s a lot to be said for a comfortable convertible, with an air-conditioned salon, cushy bunks and a galley for hot meals in the evenings.

boat running with skyway bridge in background
With the iconic Sunshine Skyway Bridge in the background, a boat begins the long run to the fishing grounds off Tampa Bay.Austin Coit

A Special Place

I asked each captain what makes the west coast of Florida a special fishing destination, and their replies were understandable: It’s home. “We started fishing off the Keys,” Rickert says, “but I really wanted to do it here at home. There weren’t too many guys who were doing it, but to hear those stories on the dock made me want to get out there every chance I could.” Turner echoed those sentiments, saying, “I’ve fished all over the world, but I love it here. We’ve got depths that go from 800 feet to 10,000 in just a few miles. You just can’t beat that kind of structure. In tournaments this year, we’ve had doubleheaders of blue marlin and white marlin, and we’ve had other days where we’ve released grand slams. Scott had a super slam in a tournament a couple years ago. The action and variety are unbeatable.”