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August 31, 2009

Deep-Dropping in the Gulf

Drop baits and lures into the cold, black depths off Biloxi - and see what comes up!

When anglers make the run to any of the big offshore oil platforms that dot the coast off Louisiana and Mississippi, rarely do they fish deeper than the upper 100 to 200 feet, especially since so many are trolling high-speed lures at the surface or live baits not far below. But the extensive ecological communities associated with structure definitely don't stop at 100 or 200 feet; plenty of predators prowl hundreds of feet below that.

Most boats aren't equipped to get baits or jigs to great depths; in fact, most never even think about it. And undeniably, deep-dropping anglers probably won't hook anything as  sexy as a marlin, as hard-fighting as a yellowfin or as wild and beautiful as   a dolphin (mahi).

But what they do hook will most likely be both unexpected and tasty.

Tiles on the Bank
For Capt. Rimmer Covington, the day promised to be interesting.

"Deep-dropping is something we don't get to do very often," Covington (; 504-343-7372) told me as we headed offshore, near the beginning of our 90-mile run to drop to Ewing Bank.

"Most of our anglers come for yellowfin tuna, or in any case, to fish offshore. But deep-dropping is really a lot of fun. It's also interesting, both for guys like me who fish year-round as well as those who visit occasionally," he says.

Although the default plan for a Gulf deep-drop effort will likely mean running to rigs, Covington's had some success dropping baits to ledges and noteworthy interesting contours in open water. The key, he says, is to keep the depth recorder running while offshore and note anything that looks interesting. (The Gulf floor tends to be pretty smooth, generally.) Even if trolling with lines out, you can try to come back to spots you've marked another time.

"Some of the best deep-drop spots I've ever found have been by accident. Whenever I see a place that looks good, I mark it. I've probably got 1,500 'interesting' waypoints marked," Covington says, "but, realistically, only get back to fish a few."

The last two-thirds of that long, 90-mile run proved pretty rugged, in the approximately "four-by-four" seas (waves about that height and about that many seconds apart). When we finally found Ewing Bank, our drops proved somewhat anticlimactic, at least as far as bringing up the very, very weird or very, very large.

However, we did prove (1) that northern tilefish must be in fair abundance - we caught several to 10 pounds or so and (2) that it is entirely feasible to fish the bottom in nearly 1,000 feet in a moderate current with a fairly small conventional reel filled with 50-pound braid. I did so with surprising ease using a Torsa 40 filled with 50-pound TufLine XP and   a heavy (270-gram - 9 1/2-ounce) Butterfly jig.

Of course, the big Kristal 651XL and Daiwa Dendoh 3000 electrics we  used made coming up a lot quicker, and they did so while complaining a whole lot less about being tired of cranking, plus they were amenable to bigger weights and baits.

Though neither species added much weight to our total, the interest level was keen when a deepwater hake (a member of the family of true cods) and a couple of gorgeous longtail bass (a brilliantly colored type of grouper) came up.

Barrelfish in the Boat
Looking for bigger fish, we moved on to some platforms in moderately deep water. Two of them sitting in about 800 feet of water made for a memorable afternoon. At one, we found snowy grouper to around 20 pounds, plus a couple of yellowedge grouper. After boating a few, we moved to a second rig. Here, we got into barrelfish galore. Each of us kept a couple of the slab-sided 15- to 20-pound tasties, and we released a number of others. (Barrelfish aren't hampered by barotrauma from gas-swollen swim bladders; they managed to swim back down upon release.)

Two species we failed to catch, though neither are rare for those getting baits or jigs into the depths, were oilfish and escolar. But Jeff Pierce, with Mustad Hooks in Auburn, New York, accomplished one goal for the day. He wanted to tussle with a good Warsaw grouper on regular (non- electric) gear. Dropping a just-caught, butterfly-cut, 6-pound blackfin tuna to the base of a deep rig proved just the ticket. With his Tiagra 80-wide filled with 130-pound Tuf-Line hollow-core braid with a top-shot wind-on of 300-pound braid and 300-pound Seaguar fluoro leader, Pierce slugged it out with a Warsaw that looked to be at least 80 pounds when he finally had it at the surface. (He lost another big boy after a long battle in and around the rig structure.)

We were fortunate enough to have had the sea calm down considerably. "It gets very difficult to keep a boat in one spot by a rig to drop deep with lines straight," says Covington, "especially with seas going one direction, wind another direction and current some other way!" That's where experience and skill help keep anglers fishing - and safe.

A Few of the Davy Jones Gang
A look at a few of the more prevalent deep-drop targets in the northern Gulf.

• Barrelfish - A member of the family of generally obscure butterfishes, barrelfish tend to hang well above the bottom. Found throughout the Atlantic and Gulf, it reaches 27 pounds. (IGFA world record: 17 pounds, 4 ounces, from Virginia in 2008.) Edibility: excellent.

• Snowy grouper - Wide-ranging in the Atlantic and Pacific, snowies have at least a few white spots on their light-brown sides. The world-record 68-pounder was caught off Virginia   in 2008. Edibility of all grouper species: excellent.

• Warsaw grouper - One of the world's largest grouper, Warsaw live  in much of the western Atlantic but only some areas of the Caribbean. The IGFA world record stands at 436 pounds, 12 ounces, taken in   1985 from the Gulf of Mexico. A nondescript brown color, Warsaws can be easily identified by their long second dorsal spine. They seem particularly inclined to hang around the bottom of oil-platform superstructrue in 350 to 900 feet.

• Yellowedge grouper - Found in the warmer waters of the Atlantic, throughout the Gulf and southward, yellowedge seem to prefer depths of about 400 to 600 feet. The world record of 46 pounds, 2 ounces, came from Virginia in 2008.

• Oilfish - Odds are you'll know one when you see it: The distinctive oilfish is very long and dark brown with spiny, sharp scales (requiring heavy gloves to handle safely) covering its body and huge emerald-green, light-gathering eyes. Members of the snake mackerel family, oilfish are caught worldwide, most often by longliners with hooks set in 1,000 feet or more. They also may be taken by swordfishermen since they move up from deep water at night. The world record: 139 pounds, 15 ounces, from New Zealand in 1986. Their oily flesh supposedly causes diarrhea.