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October 25, 2001

Twilight Zone T U N A

In the soft glow of the oil rig's lights, barely perceptible at the limits of its golden arc, white water exploded. Dozens more eruptions followed immediately, and in seconds the calm, dark water 50 feet aft of the charter boat Strike Zone came alive with miniature geysers. "They're here!" roared Capt. Kevin Frelich as he quickly snatched a ready rod. With a long, spiraling cast, he dropped a bait near the patch of boiling water.

In the soft glow of the oil rig's lights, barely perceptible at the limits of its golden arc, white water exploded. Dozens more eruptions followed immediately, and in seconds the calm, dark water 50 feet aft of the charter boat Strike Zone came alive with miniature geysers.
"They're here!" roared Capt. Kevin Frelich as he quickly snatched a ready rod. With a long, spiraling cast, he dropped a bait near the patch of boiling water. The strike was instantaneous and vicious; five fast and furious minutes later, Frelich put a superb 20-pound blackfin tuna alongside the boat for a quick gaff and a short trip to the ice box.
"Now that's the way it's done," he boasted. "Grab your rod 'cause they're right behind the boat!"
We needed no further encouragement. For the next two hours, Sport Fishing's Dan Jacobs and I immersed ourselves in a melee of casting, hooking and straining against dozens of these natural torpedoes. We'd tied up to Moxie, one of Louisiana's deep-ocean gas platforms, for this after-dark action. Located just 17 nautical miles offshore in 600 feet of water, Moxie is a favorite hot spot for anglers in search of blackfin.
Fortunately, the school of blackfin slowly circling the rig moved out of casting range every 30 minutes - but we needed some respites. Afterward as Frelich and his mate prepared our midnight rations of fried tuna and drinks, I learned that we had boated 12 tuna weighing 15 to 20 pounds.
Blackfin Bonanza
The Gulf of Mexico is one of the few areas in the world with a large, nonmigratory blackfin population. Enormous schools of blackfin thrive in these waters year-round, due in part to the incredible diversity of offshore baitfish that support blackfin and other pelagics: Mullet, squid, crab, shrimp, sardines, anchovy, herring, ballyhoo, pogies, hardtails, spadefish and flying fish all flourish here.
In recent years, many East Coast skippers accustomed to long canyon runs are joining the growing number of anglers flocking to Venice, Louisiana. At the southeastern tip of Louisiana, Venice's strategic location means short hauls to blue water. In fact, anglers can make the run to the 100-fathom curve in about one hour (much of it in protected waters) from Venice's two marinas, Cypress Cove and Venice Marina.
For decades, Louisiana anglers hunted blackfin during the day by trolling a wide assortment of plugs and small, high-speed trolling lures or baits near a weed line or favorite offshore platform. While fun and exciting, trolling may also require hours of patience and watchful attention. And all the noise in the water generated by a multitude of boats can make getting a good shot at a nice school of tuna difficult.
Finally, trolling may exceed the fuel capacity and wallet of many anglers who would like to target blackfin. Veteran charter captain Capt. Alan Kahoe of the Pat-Al berthed in nearby Delta Marina in Empire recognized the potential of night fishing for tuna and developed the techniques that present-day charter and private anglers use to catch both blackfin and yellowfin tuna in local waters.
Catches commonly approach 100 tuna per night on the Pat-Al. Using Kahoe's techniques, a novice can boat as many as 20 tuna in a night, but many skippers now embrace a voluntary limit of 10 per boat.
The oil and natural gas industry also plays a part in Louisiana's sport-fishing success story. Natural gas platforms and rigs by the thousands dot Louisiana's coast, many in waters as deep as 1,200 feet. These offshore rigs act as fish-attracting devices, supporting whole ecosystems, pulling in great numbers of pelagics and smaller game fish. Gulf blackfin, like many game fish, feed near such structures.
"Natural gas rigs off Louisiana's coast form the world's largest artificial reef system," says Sonny Eirich, lifelong angling enthusiast and CEO of Cypress Cove Marina. "When you combine the artificial structure we have offshore with the Barataria-Terrebone estuarine complex - the world's largest, most productive estuary system - it's easy to see that we have a fishery here unmatched and unexcelled worldwide."

Tactics for Nighttime Tuna
In the past five years, thanks to impressive and consistent catches, night fishing for blackfin has rapidly gained popularity. The best place to fish for blackfin tuna at night: a rig at the edge of or in deep water off the continental shelf.
For anglers fishing at night for the first time, the offshore platform Cognac - 12 nautical miles south-southeast from the mouth of South Pass - provides an especially good choice because it's close to land and usually has plenty of boat traffic nearby in case you need assistance. Also close by are offshore rigs Moxie and Lena, both very productive for blackfin tuna. Located in 600 and 1,400 feet, these two rigs are proven blackfin hot spots. Four of the best offshore platforms for blackfin off Louisiana's coast are West Delta 152, West Delta 311, West Delta 268 and Mississippi Canyon 486.
"On an average trip, we'll leave the dock around 4 p.m.," says Frelich. "When I find a rig in water I like, I usually troll around it to pick up a few wahoo until the sun goes down and then tie up. Once everyone has settled down and all have their gear ready, we send down the baits and start chumming.
"It's very important to use chum. Think of it as leaving road signs leading directly to your boat. Cut pieces of pogies and herring work best - the flesh is full of oil, which is very important. Putting a lot of oil scent in the water is like ringing a dinner bell for a tuna."
Two or three cups of chopped pogies every few minutes are all you need. Blackfin swim in large schools, some numbering in the thousands. A chum line can bring a school of tuna homing in from miles away.
An easy and inexpensive chum can be made by boiling several packages of inexpensive egg noodles. Chop up at least 20 pounds of pogies or herring and mix fish and noodles in a 50-gallon garbage can. Fill with about 30 gallons of water. This will last all night; it's easy to use and to clean off the cockpit deck and transom.
On average, blackfin usually give you two chances a night for action - the evening and morning bites. The evening bite generally occurs at sundown and continues for about two hours, but it's inconsistent and you can't count on it to happen. The morning bite is much more dependable, usually starting around 2:30 to 3 a.m. and lasting until just before sunup.
Few events in sport fishing can compare to the excitement generated by an early-morning run of tuna. Most blackfin feed with a vengeance during the wee hours, annihilating any properly presented bait. It's not uncommon to have a tuna hooked up on every bait you have in the water or to have tuna stacked up 20 feet under the bottom of the boat. When the water is clear, you can see the silver streaks of the blackfin as they race among the baits.
Yellowfin tuna inhabit the same waters but are rarely boated at night. Yellowfin usually haunt the fringes of a chum line but don't approach close enough for a hookup. If you'd like a yellowfin to complement your nocturnal activities, try trolling a brace of Magnum Rapala CD 18s (in green or silver mackerel) parallel to your chum slick just after sunrise.
If your agenda includes yellowfin on a serious scale, the "Midnight Lumps" is the spot in Louisiana waters to fish for them. Located 37 nautical miles south-southwest of Tiger Pass or 17 nautical miles south-southwest of Southwest Pass, the Midnight Lumps is a salt dome (seamount) rising from a depth of 450 feet to 220 feet. If large schools of yellowfin are at the Lumps, you'll see longliners there chumming. The most successful anglers anchor their boats a few hundred feet aft of these longliners, send down baits - and typically hook up in short order.

Tackle and Tips
Baits and rigging are critical. Pogies and herring will suffice for bait as well as for chum, but cigar minnows and large squid historically make the best blackfin baits. Whatever the bait, blackfin seem reluctant to take one previously bitten. If you miss a fish, it's worth the time it takes to change the bait.
Leaders should be at least 48 inches of 50- to 80-pound mono tied to a 10/0 circle hook. Once a tuna picks up the bait and the angler applies pressure to the fish, the circle hook will slide down the side of the tuna's mouth and punch a hole behind the jawbone. You'll see the barb sticking right out the corner of the tuna's mouth almost every time you gaff one aboard. The fish are so solidly hooked, you can safely play them out without worrying about losing the fish. A 6- to 8-ounce sliding sinker above a 100-pound brass barrel swivel completes the rig.
Unfortunately, smaller blackfin sometimes can be wary of even 50-pound leaders. When that happens, about all you can do is swap out your leader to 30-pound mono and hope a big yellowfin doesn't come by and spool you.
Light tackle for blackfin is a blast. A blackfin's power run on light tackle is just as exciting as the thrills that their larger yellow cousins provide. My personal favorite is a Penn Pro Stick with an 850 reel spooled with 30-pound mono, but any rugged stick of 7 feet with comparable reel should do. The trick: Use the lightest tackle possible.
The artificial bait of choice for catching Louisiana blackfin at night is the Queen Glow Beetle with a 3/4-ounce jighead made by Herb Wallace, president of Wooleybooger Lures in Houma, Louisiana. (Retail outlets for these include Professional Sport Shop in New Orleans, Puglias or Shags in Metairie, and Boat Stuf in Gretna.) Blackfin hit these artificials aggressively on sight, especially when they're working schools of bait near the surface. If you don't get a strike right away, rip the Beetle across the surface in 1- to 2-foot jerks to imitate a wounded baitfish.
Blackfin tuna are one of the most valuable of all Louisiana's pelagic species. Recreational anglers and tourists depend on them for fantastic fishing action year-round, traditionally in the bright light of day - but hook a few of these underwater torpedoes in the dark and you'll be hooked on Louisana's tuna in the twilight zone.

When not busy as president of R.K. Printing and Photography in New Orleans, Louisiana native son Richard Husser spends most of his time fishing and promoting saltwater fishing in Louisiana in photos, words and television productions. He's an IGFA rep and contributes to a number of fishing magazines.