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Offshore Florida Panhandle! Monster Tuna

We all have our own favorite seasons and here in the beautiful, plentiful, Panhandle we have a lot to choose from! No matter if it is red drum in the bay or the first blue marlin showing up in the Gulf, each month seems to bring a new challenge along with the changing seasons.

I happen to be an offshore guy, and consider anything under an 80-chair outfit as a bait rod. So the first cold fronts of fall and winter must be torture for me or you think I’ll probably just migrate with the billfish down to the Keys? Well not necessarily, from November on, tuna become the offshore game. Bluefin, bigeye, and monster yellowfin abound, in numbers!

One of the wonderful options we have in the Destin area as a base for our offshore ventures, is the gateway to Northern Gulf. We can fish the ‘Other State” waters, or head offshore to some great canyons that will have current lines, weed patches and bait. One of my favorite routes is to start at the Spur and work my way to the Wall, and if I am not into the Finners by then, I’ll continue on out to the Double Nipple area.

I grew up on the coast of Maine throwing harpoons at giant bluefin tuna, and ever since childhood these awesome fish have held a magical draw over me. Moving back to the states in early 2007, I knew I had to deal with seasonal fisheries again, and chose Destin, Florida, the panhandle area to apply lessons of a lifetime of fishing around the globe to my new home base.

In my last research area, Vanuatu, South Pacific, we had year round billfishing, and yellowfin is the ‘big tuna’ down there. They can be the easiest or the hardest fish swimming to catch, all depending on the schools behavior at any given moment. I’ve seen yellowfin so boat shy that you can’t get within a hundred yards of them before they sound; while at other times I’ve had them actually hit the boat during feeding frenzies! When the fish are in one of those ‘frenzies’ they will hit anything and everything, but would Gulf tuna be the same? I quickly found I had a lot to learn and adapting to a new environment brought along its own unique challenges. What works in one area won’t be a sure fire guarantee to load the boat in another, but some will, the trick is figuring out what works where and when.

The boat you fish also has a huge impact on offshore fishing in the Gulf; the run offshore is long, involving lots of steaming time. A fast center console is really cool for the speed factor, and at night has the advantage of allowing ‘any where on the deck’ in fight mode. For over night trips or multi-day excursions the bigger the better seems to be the way to go, but what ever your flavor the key is to watch the weather and plan it out!

Gulf of Mexico Chunking:

This method of hammering yellowfin was reborn onboard of Gordon Gill’s 54′ Hatteras ‘Never Better’ in fall of 08, bringing back memories of the huge chum fleets off Cape Ann, MA in the summers. These boats numbered in the hundreds and the bluefin would be sucked into the massive chum line created by the chunkers.

Well we just recreated this on a smaller scale at night 80 miles offshore from Orange Beach under the lights of an oil platform. In fact we put more yellowfin onboard in a two-hour period (about 600 lbs worth- three fish in the 100 pound class with the rest nice 20 to 40 pound schoolies) than I can remember for a long time! It was a blast and so simple that I wish I tried this method on the Pacific side.

Simply chum with some fresh bait (in our case we jigged up a bunch of small blackfin tuna, filled a couple 5 gallon buckets with this cut into three inch by three inch chunks). Two rods: an experimental Red Pig 80 (now out of business) on a short tuna stand up rod, and a Stella loaded up with 60lb test braid, the 5/0 circle hooks on 12 foot, 150 pound test leaders with a small swivel to the main line. The chunks with hooks were just dead drifting with the chum; and on the sounder were the yellowfin resembling upside down V’s in the water 20 to 50 feet below us.

It didn’t take long and once we started the chum line we had our first yellowfin on in 10 minutes. We did have to pick up and move once when we got sharked twice. But we just moved to the rigs opposite side, found a bait line formed up on the sounder and started the chum line over. Not sure if it was the same school of yellowfin that found us, or a second school that we drew in, but like the first go, 10 minutes of chumming and WHAM! At day break it was over, the yellowfin just started to settle away into the depths below us…then they were gone! Damn we didn’t want to wait all day until night once again brought on the bite so…

The FAD Fish:

A crewmember in Vanuatu taught me this tactic, and I’d love to give this a go back in Hawaii, (and I was stoked to find it is a killer in Gulf of Mexico, at a deep water oil platform). February 2006 South Pacific with the surface water temperature peaking at 91 degrees and the deck so hot you had to keep a deck hose going all the time or the teak deck would be too hot to stand upon. The fishing was beyond poor, nothing and I mean nothing was on the surface, we didn’t break a rubber band in the last three hours, and I didn’t have a clue what to do next. Sammy my deckie suggested we head back to Tuk Tuk FAD and try our two live baits (two 3lb Skippy’s bridled up awaiting in the tuna tubes –we caught them at 6:00 am-the only bloody fish we caught all morning) At the FAD we pulled in the lures and Sammy yelled up to me asking if I had any feed on the sounder. “100 meters, everything is deep” I shook my head disappointed and wondering why the ocean turned into this barren, fishless desert!

Sammy dug out two 5lb lead cannon balls and snapped them onto a 80lb chair outfit. A bridled skipjack went out on a 130 rig. He pulled off a about 30 feet of line and attached the weights to the 130’s line with a heavy rubber band. Ahh…a make shift down rigger! The Skippy was sent down into the depths and while he was busy rigging up the next bait, WHAM the first one went off in a scream! We caught three big yellowfin in the 150 lb. range that day, saving what I’m sure would have been a bust! Since that memoir day this has become a favorite FAD method. We also racked up some really nice marlin doing this, but it works very good on yellowfin, and I bet in Hawaii it would be a killer on bigeye.

That is when a bell went off in my mind. This could work in the Gulf on winter bluefin, bigeye and yellowfin! Yeah, this turned out to be big time deadly and our offshore platforms have turned out to be FAD buoys on steroids. They attract so much feed from miles away, and the bait will hold all species of tuna from surface feeding blackfin to deep schooled bigeye. Again most of action is at night, but drifting a live cannon ball bridled blackfin in a bait band at a depth of 500 feet or more a mere 100 yards off a rig, has taken a fair number of nice 100-pound plus finners during the day.

Pay attention to your sounder, 28, 36, or 50 kHz is best for seeing fish at depths. Adjust your gains so the feed band will be shown. You will find that the tuna are usually within or just below the feed band. The first time we tried this last fall, Gordon took one really nice yellowfin on a Stella, which at depth he had less than half the line on the reel to start with!

A flock of Seagulls:

I don’t know how many times I’ve either read or been told by other skippers that you need to watch your lures! Well yeah… but don’t get caught up in this to the point where you don’t pay enough attention to what is going on around you. And yes I’ve had plenty of marlin come into the spread while I’ve had my eyes glued to the binoculars. Going back to my harpoon days, where you looked hard all day long from the tower searching and hunting. If you spend all day staring at the lure spread you’ll miss so much in the course of a day, that floating log, the tail fin or that bird pile!

The current lines around the Spur area almost always have big patches of grass, with massive schools of hardtails. These are great baitfish for Fall tuna, and if you see a bait band holding deep under the patch, this is a great time to sink down a bridled hardtail or two. We’ve had very little luck trolling in the fall and winter in open water unless I am around a good current line.

It seems that the tuna want to go deep during the day, but if you just can’t resist the need to explore and pull some plastic about in the day light, one word applies; birds!

I spend the majority of my day looking for birds, and make no mistake about it;birds are nature’s flashing neon sign that tells you that there are fish in the area!

In the Pacific when you come upon that mixed grouping of bird species, high flying Frigates, diving Boobies and low flying Shearwater’s buzzing about. Right away you know that this isn’t about Aku (Skip Jack Tuna) you’ve found the yellowfin and they are on the feed!

In the Gulf it can be just a handful of gulls, but regardless of where you are Birds = Tuna, and with Fall Gulf tuna if they come to the surface there will be BIRDS! When targeting yellowfin , I lengthen out my trolling spread and pull at least five weighted bullets. The two riggers lures are switched to chrome headed jets or ‘Harry Takamoto’ bullets, one seven inch, one nine inch, and set LONG! (150 yards, and 250 yards back) The shotgun or stinger is the real weapon here, a seven-inch bullet 400 yards behind the boat! Slow down to six knots to minimize the noise and let those long lures sink down. These 3 lures will take 90 percent of my yellowfin. My inside set will be ballyhoo rigs, and these will take their share of any late wahoo, or dolphin hanging about. Work the immediate area under the birds, making a series of boat turns. The change of direction sucks the tuna in. I’m not sure if it is the lure changing depth or direction that brings on the strike. I’ve had more than one boat ask me what the hell I’m doing; usually right before all the rods go off!

Invest in a good pair of binoculars; anything made by the Germans is top of the line and worth the money. Steiner, and Zeiss are probably the best and if you take care of them your children will enjoy them long after you.

These methods will all add weight to the brine bag, and how about taking care of your catch. To maximize food quality, it is essential to take extra care of the tuna. Kill the fish by ikying it, and then bleed the fish behind the petrel fin and slitting around the gill plates. Remove the gills and guts, and pack the body cavity with ice, then place the fish into the brine bag. Carry lots of ice. On offshore over night trips, we never leave the dock with less than 200 pounds of fish ice, per day. Pack the crushed ice around the fish. At the dock add a little rock salt to the brine bag, and the fish will be suitable for any Japanese market. The best sashimi is a fish that has been ‘brined’ for 24 hours before being loined out. Take care of your yellowfin in this manor and you’ll see why this fish sells for serious money! I gotta hand it to the Japanese they know the best seafood on the planet. As my old 1980 era New England Tri Coastal tee shirt said “Eat It Raw’ Why ruin it…

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Capt. Mark S. “Corky” Decker is an IGFA-certified captain, freelance writer and a proven world-class billfish guide. He grew up commercial fishing on the East Coast, prior to quitting college and relocating to Alaska to cash in on the booming fisheries of the 1980s. After almost 20 years of incredible success, it all suddenly came crashing down with a looming federal lawsuit for illegal fishing practices that changed a whole way of life — not just for him but for commercial fishermen in general.

 At age 40 Corky ran away to the South Pacific to start over, fishing for marlin and writing about the sport. Today, Corky's home port is Destin, Florida, where he lives with his New Zealand-born wife, Maggie. Corky recently completed his first novel To See A Green Flash and is currently working on a sequel to his personal memoir A Hardway to Make an Easy Living. In the Spring of 2012 Corky came full circle yet again and purchased a Maine harpoon boat to pursue the fish of his youth — giant bluefin tuna. He fishes out of Perkins Cove in Ogunquit, Maine, during the summer — where his passion for fishing began. To find out more about Corky and order one of his books, visit corkydecker.com.