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In Texas, football is king. Whether it’s the Friday-night lights of high school, the Saturday madness of Longhorns and Aggies, or Sundays on the gridiron with Cowboys and Texans, the Lone Star State loves football. It should then come as no surprise that one of the most abundant pelagic species on the western Gulf Coast shares a sobriquet with the popular pigskin.
Throughout most of its range, the blackfin tuna (Thunnus atlanticus) is a piscatorial afterthought. Lacking the mystique of its more-glamorous cousins — such as the hulking bluefin or cosmopolitan yellowfin — the blackfin tuna is often relegated to passenger status alongside dorado, wahoo and kingfish in offshore iceboxes. To most, the blackfin tuna is the undersize third-string halfback that gets to suit up on game day but can’t crack the two-deep.
Texas anglers know the value of the Rudy-esque battler. The scrappy fish becomes a mainstay along the Texas coast beginning in July. Offshore boats from Beaumont to Brazos Santiago begin to search for anchored shrimp boats and deepwater oil and gas rigs to prospect for blackfin tuna.
Red for Black
Red was the primary color of late summer and fall on the Texas coast for years, with most offshore focus directed at the red snapper fishery. When the National Marine Fisheries Service began to tighten groundfish regulations and impose shorter seasons for the federal species, many anglers up and down the coast took notice of the black-and-blue attack that swarmed warm Gulf waters with their spread-style attacks.
“When July rolls around, big blackfin become really thick offshore, starting around depths of 150 to 180 feet,” says Port Mansfield’s Capt. Chad Kinney. “You can pull up on a shrimper on the way, troll and catch 15 to 20 very quickly.”
Kinney says these are larger fish, averaging a brawny 17 to 20 pounds, with a few brutes pushing 25 to 30 pounds. Blackfin numbers become so thick that offshore party-boat captains switch their attention from red snapper after the federal season closes, and begin long-range and overnight trips for blackfin and yellowfin.
“Party boats run out to the floater rigs on overnighters, and just have a blast with the blackfin,” says Capt. Dan Green of Galveston. “They also target amberjack and yellowfin, but those blackfin are the stars of the show.”
Texas’ blackfin tuna fishery is a year-around proposition, but the peak season is from July through fall, when “footballs” aggregate to spawn. The western Gulf Coast’s relative proximity to the Alaminos Canyon — where a variety of tuna and billfish species spawn — and the opening of the Gulf shrimping season mean that fishermen have plenty of areas to fish. Flotillas of shrimp boats dumping bycatch and providing cover concentrate tuna schools within accessible range for anglers.
“They come in pretty close in July,” says Kinney. “If you find a shrimp boat in deep water (150 feet or more), you should find some blackfin around it. Even if the [shrimper’s] crew isn’t culling, blackfin will usually stay around the boat.”