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December 02, 2010

West of Venice

Louisiana's overlooked central coast - teeming with fish, not anglers

Venice tuna

Fishing with the Gov
We crossed 50some miles of open Gulf south of Cocodrie to start fishing. Pushed by triple 300 Suzukis, the Reel Life rocketed past several oil rigs that Pellegrin said held plenty of fish, but this was part of the federally closed area during those weeks after the BP disaster. In fact, we saw absolutely no sign of oil, coming or going, and Pellegrin told us in the many days he'd been out on the Gulf after the Deepwater Horizon began gushing oil, he'd seen virtually none of the nasty black stuff.

While acknowledging that certain areas of the state's coast had suffered serious oil intrusion, Jindal said as we headed out, "So much of our waters have never been touched by oil," while lamenting the fact that the nation generally had not gotten that message. The governor noted that the state's recreational fisheries contribute more than $1 billion annually to state coffers but also said it's not only about the dollars: "For us, fishing is a way of life."

As if to prove that great fishing awaited anglers here, we hadn't been stopped next to our first rig - about 55 miles out, in 125 feet of water - more than three minutes when the governor hooked up the day's first fish - a gray (mangrove) snapper. As Pellegrin had promised, it would be considered a trophy size most anywhere. While the angler held the fish for me to snap a photo, beaming with justifiable pride at his catch, a commotion ensued portside. It seems, as so often happens out here, a cobia had barged in to crash our little snapper party - and was already on the business end of a rod held tightly by the governor's security man, trooper Dwain Rand. With one of the rig's barnacle-laden legs only a few feet away, Rand had cranked down the Penn Torque's star drag, keeping the furious cobia boat-side as Pellegrin scrambled for a gaff.

Within 15 or 20 minutes of that first stop of the day, we'd boated a monster mangrove, the cobia and some big red snapper (that we released, being just after the 55day season for the species, shortest on record).

And so it went. We visited a number of rigs for the next few hours. All held fish; the action varied from merely good to spectacular. At none of the rigs, by the way, were other boats already parked. We seemed to be the only sport-fishing boat on the Gulf.

Pellegrin says that even before oil concerns, anglers fishing off the Louisiana central coast enjoyed considerably less competition for structure than Venice-based boats simply because there are far fewer charters and private boats out here to compete for the abundant rigs. (He has literally hundreds to choose from in depths ranging from 50 to 5,000 feet of water.)

A Little Relief, A Lot of Action
On our second day out, Pellegrin proved that the productive habitat here isn't limited to rigs. We took advantage of calm seas to drift over some areas of relief 170 to 250 feet or so below, about 65 miles out near the south end of Ship Shoal. It would be a stretch to suggest these were reefs, but the depth sounder showed enough sharp sloping of mostly smooth bottom to attract and hold fish.

That became quickly obvious as rods began to bend around the boat. Our tally of various species from day one quickly piled up, and not having to worry about hooked fish finding the structure of an oil rig made for much less angst when we hung a good one. While of course bait is always effective, the day belonged to the hard-core jiggers - that would be Kramer and me (joined by Pellegrin now and then, whenever he had a chance). We had consistent action, fishing various metal jigs, though for me the real ticket, outfishing other models, was a 7ounce green/glow Bomber Darter jig. Our tally included yellowmouth grouper, scamp, red snapper, silk snapper, almaco jack, amberjack, banded rudderfish and other species.

The boys fishing bait scored as well, including some game fish not on the jiggers' list - a feisty king mackerel and a real surprise. Angers latched onto a thumb-burning dragster that proved to be a hefty blackfin tuna - not what anyone had expected when his rod bent double with a bait nearly on bottom at 180 feet!

"That's why I call this area ­'wonderland,'" says Pellegrin. "Every time you hook something, you wonder what it is."

While I would have been happy to jig such open, deeper water all day, others grew restive for another shot at fishing the rigs. We made the move and caught some good fish, but mostly, we just lost 'em. In fact, it was an embarrassment of losses, both fish and tackle. The action, by any measure, was remarkable. As fast as you could get a bait or jig down, you'd generally be hooked up to something in short order. When I managed to get my jig down through snapper and jacks to the base of a rig in 400 feet, I quickly hooked up Mister Monster - almost surely a big grouper. Since I'd brought nothing heavier than 50pound line, the fish just laughed at me as it took off into the rig. With slack line and jaw, I cranked in. We hooked several fish well away from the rig and felt cheated when nevertheless we still felt them take the line over or around some structure or cable obviously jutting way, way out. Rig fishing is (a) fast and (b) tough!