A pair of blue-winged teal buzzed past the tuna tower like a Top Gun flyby, their wings whistling softly in the pre-dawn light. Sunrise was still 30 minutes away as we idled past the golden marshes of southernmost Louisiana aboard Second Wind, a 72-foot F&S. Next came a steady stream of center-consoles and bay boats, all running hard and passing us to port, the former heading to the deep in search of yellowfin tuna, the latter going shallow to catch redfish; all were filled with eager charter clients. As for us, we were going blue marlin fishing. In mid-October. In Venice, Louisiana.
The timing wasn’t really by choice. Rene Cross, longtime owner of Cypress Cove Marina, had reached out in midsummer 2020 with an invitation to experience the hospitality as well as the great fishing, but it just wasn’t meant to be. A string of hurricanes hit the Gulf coast hard last season, and while Venice itself was fortunate, it certainly made scheduling a multiday offshore trip a lot more difficult. Then Cross’ 65-foot Viking, Miss Remy, was struck by lightning, effectively putting her out of commission for the next several months. More hurricanes. More setbacks and scheduling conflicts. Things weren’t looking good until Cross’ friend Mitch Jurisich volunteered to host us on Second Wind for a two-day trip in mid-October. I was concerned that it was getting late in the season, especially for blue marlin, but the pair assured me that there were still plenty of fish to be caught.
At the Crossroads
Louisiana’s unofficial state slogan is Sportsman’s Paradise, and it’s certainly not hard to understand why. Hunting and fishing are pursued with a near-religious zeal, and time spent in the outdoors is a rite of passage. Tens of thousands of square miles of game lands, cypress-studded bayous, and fertile marshes of the Mississippi Delta are home to incredible numbers of game and fish species, attracting sportsmen from far and wide to experience some of the best action of their lives here.
When it comes to the fishing side of things, Venice, in particular, is known for two things: yellowfin tuna and red drum. The tuna fishing is about as reliable as it gets pretty much anywhere in the world, with heavyweight yellowfins stacked up around the oil and natural-gas production platforms that stud the upper Gulf of Mexico. The real trick can be locating the ones holding fish, so the charter fleet consists mainly of fast center-consoles with the ability to quickly hop from one rig to another. But the blue marlin fishing here is something that really hasn’t achieved quite that same level of prominence.
“When it comes to marlin,” Cross says, “it’s just a matter of putting in the time and fishing for them. We’ve caught them as early as April and May, with the best seasons being during summer and fall.” And while most fishermen will trade their 80-wides for rifles and shotguns once hunting season rolls around, the blue marlin don’t go anywhere. It’s entirely possible to catch Venice blues throughout the entire year.
Changes in Tactics and Tech
One reason for the presence of those fish nearly year-round is the bait—the entire upper Gulf is a giant bait factory, thanks in no small part to the multitude of rigs, which serve as seafloor-to-surface artificial reefs. Everything from palm-size blue runners to blackfin and yellowfin tunas will congregate around these areas, providing a ready feeding station for any hungry pelagics in the area. The only trick is finding which rigs are holding the most bait and which are attracting hungry blue marlin.
Modern technology has stepped in to make that hunt much easier, starting with omnidirectional sonar. Rather than hoping to ping a fish under the boat with conventional gear, the heavy hitters in the Gulf are relying on sonar to actively locate marlin, then maneuvering the boat to put a bait in front of them. And while live-baiting has been common practice in the Gulf for a long time, now the tactic has moved into the mainstream, especially for tournament fishing. Nearly every boat fishing competitively here—even center-consoles—sports a set of tuna tubes capable of keeping a dozen or more baits as frisky as when they were caught, ready to be bridled and sent over, where they attract some ferocious blue marlin bites. The mix of heavy tackle, circle hooks, live bait and sonar has definitely changed the face of Gulf coast marlin fishing.
Posting Big Numbers
So just how good can it be? We need to look only as far back as the 2020 Mississippi Gulf Coast Billfish Classic. Held each year in Biloxi, Mississippi, this event attracts top-shelf teams from as far away as Florida and Texas, and has always been one of the most competitive anywhere in the world. This past summer, between what appeared to be a steady stream of hurricanes and tropical depressions, 57 boats gathered to fish, unaware that a wide-open bite awaited them.
By the end of the two and a half days of fishing, the fleet had released a total of 101 billfish, mostly blue marlin. Capt. Myles Colley led the Born2Run team to victory with 10 blue marlin releases, setting a new tournament record for the Gulf coast. Boat owner Dana Foster was on the rod for eight of those releases. But the 72-foot Viking wasn’t the only boat that was on a hot streak; incredibly, the second-place team, Reel Fire, released eight blues. Seven releases, normally enough to win a Gulf tournament hands-down, was good for only third, which was Matt McDonald’s Breathe Easy.
Colley says: “I honestly didn’t think the fishing would be good at all [for the tournament]. A storm had just passed, and normally it takes a few days for things to settle down. But looking back on it, we had a hard southeast wind for several days before the storm, and I think it pushed the fish in to the eastern side.” Colley and company spent their time fishing the deepwater rigs southeast of Venice, which were literally stacked up with blue marlin. “The first day of the tournament, you can leave early but can’t put lines in until later in the afternoon,” he says. “We got to our spot, I put the sonar down and started marking fish right away. We actually followed one for probably 30 or 45 minutes before lines in, and caught it right after we put the baits in the water. Another boat caught a double at the same rig we were fishing, and there were lots of reports of fish being caught, so we knew it would be a pretty hot bite.”
Born2Run released two that first afternoon, four the following day and then four more on the final day, for an incredible tournament finish. “It was crazy,” Colley says. “We caught a doubleheader on the second day, and had a couple of times where we would be marking another fish while we were already fighting one.” He says their blues were all in the same size range, from 250 to 350 pounds—nice, but not enough to qualify for a ride home. The tournament’s big-fish winner was It Just Takes Time with a 570.2-pound blue landed by angler Nick Pratt.
“It seemed like the boats fishing to the east with us were catching a lot of fish but not any real big ones,” he says. At any rate, Colley and Foster own the record for the most blue marlin releases in a Gulf coast tournament at 10, a mark that could last for a while, or until this season.
Thunderhorse Is King
Back aboard Second Wind, we spent our first day rig-hopping along the eastern side without much luck. As the sun continued its ever-present journey toward the horizon, we bounced from Na Kika to Blind Faith and eventually to a perennial favorite: Thunderhorse. This enormous platform sits in about 6,000 feet of water roughly 60 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi River, and is well-known as a marlin magnet. I was beginning to fear that we had contracted the dreaded Curse of the Journalist—there’s no surer way to kill the bite than to bring a writer along, and doubly so if they happen to have a camera with them. That was strikes one and two for us. After quickly refilling the transom tuna tubes with blackfin tuna, we reset the spread with fresh baits and resumed the hunt with renewed enthusiasm. Jurisich took up his station alongside Capt. Marlin Brown on the bridge, operating the controls for the boat’s Furuno omni sonar. Rather than being on the rods in the cockpit, Jurisich really enjoys using the sonar to spot and track fish, which he proved to be exceedingly adept at doing. Thanks to our headsets, we had a running monologue letting us know exactly what he was seeing in the depths below.
Read Next: Learn to correctly rig a pitch bait.
But sonar doesn’t see all. Without warning, the blackfin on the port rigger disappeared in a swirl, and within just a few minutes, I scored the first blue marlin release of the trip. With about an hour of daylight left, the crew quickly fired the baits back out, and we hooked up again a short while later. This time, it was Cross’ turn in the chair. His fish must have jumped 30 times or more in the golden twilight—release No. 2.
Once darkness set in, mates Drew Phillips and Jeremy Washington rigged a pair of squid, setting one deep and one shallow as we drifted on barely ruffled seas about a third of a mile from the platform. Jurisich was flipping giant filet mignons on the boat’s cockpit grill when the 80-wide in the covering board bounced and then bent over. With Washington in the chair, the fight began in earnest; within 20 minutes, we had the prize on deck: a 200-pound swordfish, his first.
With the previous 24 hours hard to top, the next day seemed nearly anticlimactic: We started fishing again well before sunrise, making bait in the pre-dawn gray light and refilling the tubes with tuna. The first bite around 8 a.m. was another sonar fish that we tracked for about 10 minutes before it erupted on a bait. We were now 3-for-3 on blue marlin, plus the swordfish. By midmorning, having not marked anything promising, we began a series of rig-hopping runs in flat-calm seas back up the line toward Venice and home, having achieved what we had come to do.
And while you might think that catching blue marlin in the Gulf that late in the year is somewhat unusual, Capt. Scooter Porto and the Fleur de Lis team had even better fishing just a week after our trip. They went fun fishing with their wives and friends, and returned with a new trip record for the boat: eight blue marlin caught in a single day, with a two-day tally of 12 blues and a white marlin released, as well as some nice yellowfins.
Louisiana is home to some big blue marlin as well. In 2017, Jon Gonsoulin’s Done Deal team won the World Cup Blue Marlin Championship with a 600-pounder that was caught just 18 miles offshore. And in 2020, Porto and Fleur de Lis boated an 851.9-pound blue marlin from the same area, which is now the Alabama state record because that’s where the fish was officially weighed.
Easy to Leave, Hard to Forget
As I bid farewell to this southernmost tip of the Pelican State, it’s hard to forget just what these people have witnessed in recent memory, from the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to the disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Even in 2020, Mother Nature seemed to have a personal vendetta with the state, pummeling the coastal regions with violent storms throughout the summer. But yet through it all, this remains one of the friendliest and most hospitable places I’ve been fortunate to visit. I look forward to returning to this sportsman’s paradise again soon, no matter the season.
Getting There, Staying There
Most arrivals by air will land at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, just outside the Big Easy. Grab a rental car and head south on Hwy 23 to Venice, an easy drive of about two hours.
There are several choices for accommodations. We stayed at Cypress Cove Marina, which has 62 newly remodeled rooms and suites, many offering a panoramic view of the marina. There is a pool and an outdoor pavilion as well. The marina has 107 wet slips with twin 50-amp power available for every slip; short- and long-term rates are available for those who want to stay a while. Cypress Cove has a launch ramp as well as high-and-dry storage for smaller boats, so trailering your own rig to fish out of Venice is also an attractive option. A well-stocked store and an excellent restaurant, the Cypress Grill, round out the amenities.
Venice is home to two high-profile billfish events, both of which are qualifying events for the Gulf Coast Triple Crown Championship series: the New Orleans Invitational Billfish Tournament from May 13-16, 2021, and the Cajun Canyons Billfish Classic, June 1-6, 2021. The Gulf Coast Triple Crown consists of additional events in Alabama, Mississippi and Florida, although Venice, Louisiana, is the closest point accessible by car to the warm, rich waters of the Gulf of Mexico off the mouth of the Mississippi River.