Spare the Lead and Don't Spoil the Action
"I have to tell people who use the churn: 'Don't use lead!' It's hard for some of them to get used to the idea of floating back a bait," Wentzell says. His choice of tackle, typically: a Calcutta 400 on matching rod, spooled with 20-pound test. But spinning gear also works, he says. While Wentzell doesn't fish the long rod, he has no doubt of red-hot opportunities for fly casters seeking to connect with big mama reds.
Anything heavier than 40- or 50-pound mono for leader (or any wire) will usually turn off bigger fish. "They didn't get that size by being stupid," Wentzell reasons. "Their eyesight's keen, and they take a good look at things." While he likes circle hooks when he's dropping a weighted line, for most free lining, "I tend to avoid them because it's harder to hide a circle hook than a conventional hook in the body of a sardine or cigar minnow." Wentzell likes to run the hook through the bait's mouth, out its gills and back into the side of the body to hold and hide.
Wentzell favors oily menhaden for chum. He buys 60-pound flats from places that sell to commercial crabbers. Despite lots of churning, we went through no more than 20 pounds all day. And any fish will work - for example, some pro kingfish anglers have shared their enthusiasm with Wentzell for the way the Chum Churn chops up blue runners.
This is certainly not to suggest that a Chum Churn or even bait, for that matter, are prerequisites to good fishing around the Mississippi rigs. On those occasions when fish are active and hungry, a jig and plastic tail can do the job, as I discovered when we tied up to Mr. Gus briefly in the afternoon before heading in. The snapper were in a biting mood and required no chumming. I dropped down various jigs with good results, but the best luck of all came with a 2-ounce lead-head and a big, copper-flake curly-cue tail which the snapper hit on the fall about halfway to bottom. My last snappers of the day grabbed that jig - one an 18-pounder that proved a real handful on 12-pound mono. Before we pulled away from the rig, the same jig caught another smaller red, a nice Spanish mackerel, and a couple of bluefish, and almost enticed the day's second big cobia to eat when it cruised up behind the boat. (Instead, it went for Malpass' cigar minnow.)
Leaving such fast action wasn't much fun, but Malpass pointed out that we had a long run back and in the short winter day it would be dark before we hit the dock. How right he was: We returned as we left, running the last 12 miles inside the barrier islands in the dark of night while enveloped in the dank, thick fog that had again settled all along the northern Gulf coast. The blurry lights of Biloxi's casino-lined waterfront were a welcome sight.
I came away with some new-found knowledge, including an appreciation for how great the winter fishing for red snapper can be around oil rigs off the Mississippi coast when the weather permits. Competition is down and, even if the season is closed, catch-and-release action is great for sow reds, and a mix of other species will typically give anglers something for the fish box. And I learned a few tricks from a couple of sow snapper experts, not the least of which is that sound seems to be a significant factor in attracting fish to within striking distance.