The dense coastal fog made the pre-dawn blackness seem impenetrable that cool December morning. Yet the 29-foot Cobiasco steamed on south toward the barrier islands that offer Biloxi, Mississippi, some protection from the open Gulf of Mexico. Our destination: distant offshore oil rigs.
An odd pre-dawn sea, oily smooth over a lingering low swell, kept our cruising speed a bit less than maximum, but once we'd put about 40 miles between us and the northern Mississippi coast, tiny distant spikes began to appear on the pink-tinted horizon. At about 50 miles, I could make out more readily the varied structures of offshore oil - from huge Eiffel-tower-like platforms to single-pole antenna rigs.
I glanced around to make sure that, in my 4 a.m. stupor, I'd put my baitcasting and spinning rods aboard. As I did, I recalled my conversation with Kyrt Wentzell of Biloxi weeks earlier. He told me I could bring my light tackle and reasonably expect to use it without any weight because the red snapper will come to the boat. "But don't expect many small fish since you won't hook many little ones - and we'll get plenty of sows."
In the ensuing weeks since that conversation, I recall wondering about that thin line distinguishing confidence from arrogance. After all, Wentzell - who makes a device called the Chum Churn - sounded pretty darn sure of himself. He based that on knowing where to fish and how (with his Chum Churn, of course). But if this was just a sales pitch, it had worked: Here I was, ready for Wentzell to put up or shut up.
In another 20 minutes or so, Capt. Shayne Malpass had eased the bow up to one of the single-pole antenna rigs in 120 feet of water while Wentzell "gave it the hook," sliding around part of the platform's base the 6-foot-long, Bo-Peep-like stainless hook that serves rig-fishing skippers out here in lieu of anchors.
"ot of people blow on by these 'little' rigs," Wentzell told me as he threw a couple of wraps of rope around the bow cleat. "So they get less pressure." Also, they "sprout legs" down below, offering more structure than the single pole visible above the surface.
Moments later, back in the cockpit, Wentzell quickly loaded his churn with whole menhaden - 5 pounds or so - and held it over the gunwale. He thrust up and down, forcing the blades to chop the baitfish on both up and down strokes. As I tied a 30-pound mono leader onto my 8-pound double line with a Yucatan or "no-name" knot, I could hear the distinct "swoosh" in the water upon each thrust.
"You'd better hurry up," Wentzell advised. "We'll have snapper under the boat in about two minutes."
Yeah, right, I remember thinking. If anything, that made me even more skeptical. I've fished enough to know that it takes a while to establish a chum trail and get the scent flowing before fish will come to or near the boat, if at all, from deep water.
"Good one!" came a shout from the stern. I looked up as I pulled my double clinch tight on the long-shank 4/0 bronze hook that Wentzell had handed me. My actions took on some serious urgency as I saw Malpass' rod arcing out away from the port corner and heard Wentzell's hoots of excitement. Less than a minute after Malpass had dropped over an unweighted cigar minnow, he'd hooked up.
By the time I'd baited up and gotten to the rail, flashes of scarlet greeted me as Wentzell netted that first red snapper. OK, it wasn't quite a sow at 12 or 13 pounds, but it was a start. And I was about to become a believer.
The Sound and the Fury
In fact, let's cut to the chase: We caught so many red snapper that day, along with the inevitable mix of other fish (including a couple cobia of 30 pounds or so, the first out of a group of four that also homed in on our enticements) that I ended up with no idea of just how many. I would have kept only one or two, anyway, but on this day we had no need to worry about keeping snapper or keeping track of our limits, since this was 100 percent catch and release. (Releases were facilitated by the fact that these reds were hooked very near the surface rather than hauled up quickly from the depths, which would have caused their swim bladder gases to expand.) We'd planned on releasing, since the red snapper season remained closed last winter. That was fine with me. I wasn't there for meat; I was there for proof.
Wentzell made good on his guarantee. We didn't catch a single red snapper under the then-legal 15-inch minimum, and I can remember only two or three snapper that were even anywhere near that small. Mostly, I remember solid reds of 7 to 16 pounds or a bit more and several sows well over 20. And except for one stop at a huge rig known by locals as "Mr. Gus" late in the afternoon, most of the fish were in fact taken on free-lined baits which seldom sank more than 10 or 15 feet before being gobbled up. It was an eye-opening day for this old weight-dropper.
Wentzell customarily guarantees and delivers such action. From his explanation of what makes his patented Chum Churn work so effectively in getting fish to the boat in just minutes, one might cite the sound and the fury. The sound is something Wentzell never thought about when devising the long PVC tube and razor-sharp, swirling blades. But, he says, it makes sense.
"When those blades cut up fish, it evokes the sound of predators busting baitfish at the surface," he says. "The chum only flows in one direction - back with the current - and it takes a while for the scent to disperse through the water. So why do snapper show up in less than two minutes, as a rule? Sound travels almost instantaneously and in all directions, not just one." The sound, Wentzell is convinced, can be the only logical answer.
That sound also helps entice snapper away from the rig. "It's typically hard to chum oil rigs because you tie up and chum flows out with current and away from the rig, so snapper under the rig may not find much scent. But noise of the churn draws them out" initially, Wentzell says.
Once they're in the neighborhood, the fury keeps them around. After I'd made a few plunges of the handle, I could see swirls of fine bits of chopped fish flowing out amid a cloud of blood and oil and the multitudinous flashes of baitfish darting through. As long as someone reaches over and repeats that 30-second process once every few minutes or whenever the action lulls (which any angler can do with one hand, keeping his gear ready in the other), it's easy to keep a great chum slick flowing and do so with surprisingly few pounds of baitfish.
Wentzell started using conventional chum blocks shortly after he'd gotten his own boat some years back, but he wasn't entirely pleased. "I'd buy boxes of chum to last the day, but the stuff's expensive. It's five or six bucks a box; you put it in a mesh bag and it dissipates in 15 or 20 minutes. Add cigar minnows for bait and I was spending $40 or so."
Wentzell recalls coming up with the idea for his Chum Churn while working as a floor supervisor at the Biloxi casino crap tables. Shortly after, he made a prototype of stainless steel. (Wentzell's father is an inventor who holds several patents; "I grew up helping him and learning how things work and how to make things.") He says, "It was big and heavy, but it worked" - until he forgot and left it dangling over the side during a run from one rig to another, thereby losing his first prototype on its first day.
He has since refined the design and gone to tough, lighter PVC and sells several hundred of the 2 1/2-foot-long tubes per year.
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.