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May 29, 2007

Rig for the Rigs

Offshore platforms offer endless opportunities; here's how the experts take advantage of them

Imagine a morning catching 6- to 10-pound mangrove snapper followed by an afternoon that produces trophy-size cobia and huge amberjack. You top off the evening with a 100-pound yellowfin tuna - on a surface plug of all things. In between, you jump a 400-pound blue marlin.

Sound like a fishy dream? Hardly. Welcome to the world of oil-rig fishing in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

Oil rigs can produce some of the most diverse fishing in the country. These man-made structures dot both the shallows and depths of the northern Gulf and provide protection for baitfish in otherwise vast stretches of open water. Around Venice, Louisiana, for instance, oil rigs can be found in water from 16 to more than 5,000 feet deep, which draws a plethora of species and offers amazing variety for anglers.

Conditions vary depending on season and location, but these dynamic fisheries promise the chance to experience much of this fishing in a single day - but only for those who adequately prepare.

"Fishing rigs can get a lot more complicated than people think," explains Capt. Mike Holmes, who runs the Black Sheep, a 31-foot Bertram out of Freeport, Texas (979-415-0535, www.msea2.com). "You need to be ready to troll around the rig, drift the rig and bottomfish, and you need a selection of equipment, bait and ground tackle to handle all those applications."

Tactics and Tackle
Fishing any rig usually begins with a thorough investigation of its conditions. Holmes likes to circle a rig's perimeter after arriving. He slow-trolls a Rapala Magnum or Halco Giant Trembler plug to tempt any predators lurking on the outskirts, but more importantly, he studies his depth finder, watching for concentrations of bait and fish that he'll later target. Around shallower rigs, he observes bottom contours as well, since debris dumped from a platform often accumulates in fish-attracting piles on the floor.

Rigs in shallower depths, from about 150 to 300 feet, primarily rate as snapper and grouper country. But other beefy reef bruisers hang around too. Kingfish, amberjack and cobia congregate around these structures and provide opportunities for superb mixed-bag catches.

Beware of cutoffs, a fact of life around oil rigs, especially for species that cling tight to the steel legs. Susan Gros of Reel Louisiana Adventures (504-329-7335, www.reellouisianaadventures.com) in Venice offers this advice to anglers: "Be prepared to lose a lot of tackle fishing the rigs."

Gros advises anglers to bring a healthy supply of egg sinkers in all weights for bottom species such as gag grouper and red snapper, plenty of circle hooks, and fluorocarbon leader material ranging from 40 to 80 pounds.

Lots of terminal tackle represents a necessity around the rigs, but that doesn't mean anglers have to over-complicate their choices of rod-and-reel combinations.

"I probably have 50 or 60 outfits," says Tommy Pellegrin, owner of Custom Charters in Cocodrie, Louisiana (985-851-3304, www.customchartersllc.com). "But you really don't need all that. For the regular guy, two basic outfits can handle virtually everything out there except for the bigger tuna and marlin."

For applications where he drops a lure or bait below the surface, Pellegrin uses a conventional outfit consisting of either a Penn Graph-Lite GLD20 or a Tica ST568 reel on a 7-foot, medium-heavy rod with a fast tip. He spools his reels with 50-pound mono.

When Pellegrin needs the flexibility to cast to fish on the surface - whether that involves mangrove snapper next to the rig or yellowfin tuna busting bait in open water - he opts for a Penn 750 SSM or 850 SSM spinning reel spooled with 80-pound Mustad Ultrabraid and attached to a 7-foot, medium-heavy rod with a strong backbone and a fast tip.

Snapper Popsicles and Tuna Treats
Pellegrin's recommended outfits will put plenty of fish in the boat - but not without the proper baits.

Fishing the rigs successfully all comes down to what's on the end of the line. Serious anglers who venture to these fish magnets, whether in shallow water or deep, always carry a variety of bait, both dead and live, if possible.

Anglers targeting mangrove snapper around shallow-water rigs commonly dice fresh, dead baits such as pogies (menhaden), threadfin herring and squid to fish them on free lines in chum slicks. Spanish sardines enjoy universal acceptance as primo bait as well. They prove particularly deadly for the Gulf's amberjack and jumbo red snapper when fished whole and hooked through the eyes.

Pellegrin has refined a technique of preserving these prime baits, which have a tendency to quickly soften and fall off the hook. He'll take several out of his ice chest every 10 or 15 minutes and deploy them semi-frozen. "We call them 'snapper Popsicles,'" he says. "It's unbelievable how much better they stay hooked, and the fish hit these cold baits much quicker."

Live baits are even better if anglers can get them. Cigar minnows, sardines and threadfin herring all work, but when it comes to an all-around top-notch bait, Pellegrin says a live croaker "puts you ahead of everyone else on the water. Any reef dweller will smash a croaker. That goes for snappers, groupers and amberjacks."

Offshore, threadfin herring also make excellent live bait for tuna and wahoo around deepwater rigs. But for these large pelagics, nothing beats blue runners, which Gros says have become known as "tuna crack" around Venice waters.

Unidentified Fishy Objects
Tuna crack accounts for some weighty catches, and not only tuna. Indeed, rig fishing offers the potential for catching truly large fish of various species. Cobia, amberjack and tarpon, all upwards of 100 pounds or more, loom as potential jumbo quarry anglers may encounter around shallower rigs. But it's the deep water that brings the big boys out to play. "When you're fishing these rigs, stay ready for anything to strike," says Gros, "from Warsaw grouper down deep to monster wahoo to 50-pound bull dolphin or 500-pound blue marlin tearing up the surface!"

The technique of tossing large surface plugs, such as Frenzy Angry poppers, to monstrous, marauding yellowfin has been well-documented, and while Pellegrin says his basic rod-and-reel combos can land most of the large fish you're likely to encounter in different rig-fishing applications, he did get spooled once last summer.

"I tightened the drag, and tightened the drag some more, and got to a point where I said, 'I can't hold this anymore!'" remembers Pellegrin. "It was one of those God-knows-whats. I call them UFOs - unidentified fishy objects!"

Capt. Kerry Milano of Outer Limit Charters (504-915-9991, www.outerlimitcharters.com) doesn't hesitate to employ new techniques in the Gulf's blue-water battlefield.  An accomplished south Florida tournament angler, he's helped pioneer kite fishing to the waters off Venice.

"It's the same premise we use for sailfish in south Florida," he says. "You get a few hundred yards up-current of surface-busting schools and drift over them. Use two baits under the kite, either hardtails [blue runners] or threadfin herring. They just get clobbered. It's all topwater action - you see everything."

Yellowfin can get notoriously finicky, forcing anglers to scale down to 40-pound fluorocarbon leaders at times. Since kites keep lines out of the water, Milano says bites come more frequently, and he's found this method tends to produce larger-than-average tuna. What's more, it allows an angler to use a beefier outfit.

"You can absolutely get away with heavier tackle when kite fishing," says Milano. "The only problem with going heavier comes when we have no wind in the summertime. It's much harder to fly 100- or 80-pound than 60." He sees no problem in using slightly lighter leaders though. "We can easily land 80- or 100-pound fish on 60-pound line."

When conditions allow, however, savvy anglers try to gain an advantage and beef up their gear. After a morning of slaying snapper and grouper in the shallows, it might prove the ideal way to cap off your day of fishing the rigs - just in case a big UFO should decide to strike.