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August 31, 2009

Fishing the Mississippi Gulf

Nearshore and offshore, surprises abound for anglers in the North-Central Gulf of Mexico

Don't stop, don't slow down and don't look left or right.

I've decided that's the only way you can stick with your game plan to target a particular fishery or species upon leaving the dock to fish the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana or western Mississippi, particularly if you're after blue-water pelagics such as billfish.

That's because - like no other area I've fished anywhere around the United States - there is so much life here and there are so many game fish to divert your attention. I've been sidetracked by activity while running out over the Mississippi River Delta or past the myriad oil rigs more times than I can count. I've succumbed to the temptations of sight-casting tiny minnow plugs on ultralight gear to tripletail  after tripletail hiding under miles-long grass lines in the dark-green waters of the delta, far from shore. I've been completely lost in the moment created by thousands of 20- to 40-pound bull reds, spotted while they swarmed on a summer day at the surface, their collective mass so great from a distance it seemed to turn the Gulf red. I've put aside other agendas to take advantage of cobia, blackfin or kingfish.

Most recently, while fishing on a long, late-summer day trip out of Isle of Capri Resort in Biloxi, Mississippi, with Capt. Rimmer Covington, the north-central Gulf of Mexico surprised me yet again - along with several anglers fishing with us.

We put aside heavier jigging gear for lighter lines after SF's publisher, Scott Salyers, hooked an oversize gray snapper - a solid 6-pounder - and it came up joined by a small army of similarly sized comrades. A huge gray snapper at the surface (and kept there with some handfuls of cigar minnows) - that's an example of the sort of unexpected action the Mississippi Delta offers.

Unending Variety
In this case, we were fishing an invisible, nonfunctioning oil rig that had been lopped off about 50 feet beneath the surface - one of many designated by GPS numbers in the little black book of Covington, who's fished these waters all his life. Of course, snapper, both red and gray, are known to feed well away from the structure they inhabit.

We caught a dozen or so and lost a few others, then moved on. Covington avoids overfishing any one area; with hundreds of spots to fish, it's pretty easy for skippers to keep moving. And we did move, fishing in one typical day the broad delta, oil rigs, shallow and deep platforms, and deep blue water.

Fate had thrown a monkey wrench into Covington's game plan, with an oil spill closing the entire mouth of the river, forcing him to fish more south and not so far west as intended. But no matter, particularly with three Yamaha 350s pushing the 39-foot SeaVee at a very brisk clip.

Besides the gray snapper mentioned, we caught large-school yellowfin of  50 to 60 pounds near rigs in 500 to  600 feet of water. Around shallower rigs, we caught sow red snapper to nearly 30 pounds and released them all since the season at the time was closed. We also pulled in and released some big bull reds from the same rigs. Add amberjack, kingfish, almaco jack, cobia, barracuda, jack crevalle, blackfin tuna and little tunny, lots of scamp grouper, a couple of gags and reds, plus even a modest (25-pound) Warsaw from 60 feet of water to the list.

Having much to do with such a diversity of predators, baitfish shoaled in abundance - pogies (menhaden), thread herring, hardtails (blue runner) and little tunny. On the calm sea, their feeding at the surface sounded like a hard rainfall.

We caught fish on live bait, dead bait, jigs and lures. A challenge greater than finding what would catch fish might have been determining what would not work. I caught the trip's biggest sow red on a white bucktail with a new-penny Gulp! grub tail. (Actually, that catch produced more than the fish: Tangled in my line was a yellow rope. When Covington pulled that in, he found himself the proud owner of a large, practically new sea anchor. The Gulf is truly full of surprises!)

Still, it's hard to beat metal jigs with good anglers, and Covington offers top-notch jig tackle (e.g., Stellas). Mustad's Jeff Pierce, aka "Dr. Fish," did nothing but drop Butterfly jigs over several days; the man is a fishing machine that never stops and also a fish-catching machine.

Covington fishes rigs and platforms, to be sure; however, he favors rock piles, wrecks and submerged rig structure. "These get less pressure than the visible rigs," he explains. Hurricanes have toppled quite a few rigs; most anglers go past the submerged structure, but skippers like Covington who know where they are often find them loaded.

Target Triple-Digit Wahoo; Hand-Feed Huge Tuna
Oil platforms farther offshore turn into magnets for bigger fish. Associated with these rigs will be schools of yellowfin as well as wahoo. In fact, the waters off Louisiana and Mississippi produce monster wahoo, particularly through the winter months. Covington says a range of 50 to 70 pounds is not unrealistic, "and we get some 100-plus-pounders every season - probably more here than any place in the world."

One spot renowned for big wahoo is, of course, the Midnight Lump, a large salt-dome protrusion rising from the depths about 20 miles southwest of the river mouth to attract wahoo (as well as tuna, mako sharks and more). "When the lump is good, it's great!" says Covington. "There's nothing else like it in the world. There are days you can hand-feed chum to 150-pound yellowfin." But it can be slow too. Generally, rigs and wrecks in 180 to 400 feet will be good places to troll jet heads, Marauder and Bonita high-speed lures, as well as large, deep-diving plugs such as those by Bomber, MirrOlure, Manns and Yo-Zuri.

Nighttime swordfishing has become almost a no-brainer, with consistent numbers taken in 800 to 1,800 feet, some 10 to 30 miles out of the river mouth. Covington says, "On a good night, we'll get five to seven bites; on a bad night, it's just sharks." Typically, the broadbill run 100 pounds, though some much larger fish have been hooked. So far, deep-dropping for them by day hasn't caught on big.

The big "floater" rigs in thousands of feet of blue water also attract fish, including tuna, dolphin, wahoo and billfish. Fishing for big blue marlin (and occasionally whites) "rivals anywhere in the world," Covington says. His blues have averaged 250 to 300 pounds, but he did release a grander in 2006 (based on measurements). On the very same day, a 998-pound blue caught offshore here was weighed in for a Florida Panhandle tournament.

So add it all up. The north-central Gulf offers a vast area to fish, loaded with artificial and some natural structure. The variety of nearshore and  offshore game fish (migratory blue-water and coastal pelagics, plus resident bottomfish) is simply unequalled  anywhere around the continent. The season is truly 365 days a year, weather permitting. Is it any wonder that these waters clearly rate as among the world's best for sport fishing?