June 28, 2022
This article originally appeared in the August/September 2015 issue of Fly Fisherman.
Even if it’s just once, it’s exhilarating to get out of your comfort zone, try new waters, stalk new species, and push the range of possibilities. I’m not talking about walking a little farther upstream on your home river, I’m talking about a place 120 ocean miles from the port of Venice, Louisiana. Let me tell you about The Blue.
Leaving the marina under darkness your pulse rises as you catch the first hints of sunlight and notice the water has transitioned from the sediment-laden brown color of the Mississippi River Delta to turbid green. It’s a slow change, like watching the hands on a clock. You can’t see it happening, but you know it is just the same.
Bluewater fishing by definition is far offshore where pelagic fish like tuna, sailfish, and marlin follow the subtropical recirculation provided by the Gulf Stream. As the engines take you far from the coast, the water turns bluish green as the bottom drops away and the fine sediments and algae of the inshore water disappears and eventually you find that rich deep purplish blue that signals your arrival in blue water. It isn’t just a color change, it’s a change in nutrients, temperature, and sea life that indicates a completely different ecosystem.
This is where Ernest Hemingway and Zane Grey searched their souls and bent their rods and uncovered their stories about the biggest fish in the ocean. There aren’t many fly fishers out in The Blue. Not many regulars in the bluewater crowd are willing to give up the obvious advantage of conventional gear and live bait, and handicap themselves with a fly rod. And most trout/flats/inshore fly fishers are intimidated by the size, dangers, and expense of offshore fishing.
Neither of these generalities hold true for captains Eric and Monique Newman, who were born and raised in Louisiana, and have fished offshore most of their lives. The two had possibly the best gig on the planet in the four years following the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill—they were paid to catch (by any means possible) and provide tissue samples every week of 16 different bluewater gamefish to monitor the effects of the spill.
The fish were harvested from three different zones in the Gulf of Mexico, and over the course of those four years, the Newmans (they weren’t married at the time, but are now) came to learn better than anyone where the fish out there preferred to feed, how they moved with the seasons, and the best methods to catch them.
Of course, when catching fish is your job it can be a little routine to use the same conventional tackle day in and day out . . . so the Newmans began to fly fish for some species to make it a little more challenging and sporting. And for the last couple of years these former government employees have instead been pushing the limits of fly-fishing tackle in the sporting world as Journey South Outfitters (journeysouthoutfitters.com).
Trout anglers can read the riffles and runs on a river and tell you where every fish is holding—or should be—and why. Bring those same fly fishers to the salt and they might be able to read the flats and tell you where the bonefish should be. But get them offshore and away from geographic landmarks, and they are quickly out of their element. The vastness of blue water can be overwhelming—lack of landmarks for orientation, strange equipment, big tackle, thick line, and complicated knots are all as foreign as walking on the moon.
This intimidation is real but it isn’t warranted. The Newmans can read the ocean currents like a river, and they have learned that the fish and their behavior can be predicted and targeted in some of the same ways.
The hatches in The Blue aren’t Drakes and PMDs, but schools of menhaden, mojarra, mullet, and sardines; eddies are shaped by currents and converging water temperatures not boulders; and the incredible structure in the Gulf of Mexico is formed by hundreds of oil rigs, pipelines, and shipwrecks rather than submerged logs.
This is what makes the fishery south of Venice so special: food and habitat. The Mississippi dumps nutrients into the Gulf and provides the basis for the most important shrimp fishery in the U.S., as well as an endless supply of baitfish. And not far from this source of life, the oceanscape is pinned with oil rigs creating a spectacular, stable habitat from the bottom all the way to the top.
And behind every shrimp boat are thousands of cobia, kingfish, tuna, and sharks that have benefited from all this manmade habitat by feeding around the rigs and by gorging themselves on the tons of bycatch shoveled from the decks of shrimp boats.
Feeding the Bite
Our search for food and habitat with Eric and “Moe” (nobody calls her Monique) started with a run straight out to the fleet of shrimp boats where Moe asked to come aboard and help herself to the bycatch. If the shrimp boats were expelling their own bycatch we didn’t need any extra, but by grabbing a few 40-gallon baskets of our own odds and ends, we could quickly produce our own “hatch.”
Near every shrimp boat or oil rig we brought up swarms of false albacore with blackfin tuna mixed in. The albacore weren’t our main target, but to us they were irresistible. We threw flies and quickly doubled, tripled, and quadrupled on gamefish that are highly prized and sought after by fly fishers from Cape Lookout to Cape Cod.
In Montauk you have bragging rights at the bar if you get an 8-pound “albie” on fly tackle, but on most charter boats in the Gulf, a 16-pound albie is roughly the equivalent of a trash fish, mostly because they are inedible and they get in the way of catching “real” tuna like yellowfin.
False albacore are perfect 10-weight fish, bending the rod into the cork, making your reel scream the way trout fishermen can only dream about, and we had multiple hookups with people crossing rods, clearing lines, and doing laps around the center console. We could see the yellowfins cruising below, but getting a fly through the albacore seemed impossible.
Darting between the false albacore were football-shaped blackfin tuna in the 20- to 30-pound class. They were a “next level” tuna that were larger, stronger, and more mysterious than the albies. For the blacks you needed a 12-weight rod and even then they’d make you work to get your fly back. These tuna are stunningly hydrodynamic and powerful, more so than any fish you’d catch in fresh water—but when you pick up that 12-weight it’s a sign that what you’re really after are yellowfin.
Chumming may stir fierce debate but my position is this: It’s never right where the environment is contained and the fish get conditioned. But in blue water with pelagic fish, it’s really the only shot you have, and since the fish are free to roam from boat to boat, rig to rig, and even from ocean to ocean, it’s still a long shot.
When tuna get into a chum slick, you might think the fly wouldn’t matter, but the reality is quite the opposite. A lot of chum can produce picky fish much like a heavy hatch of mayflies. We had fish after fish reject flies without the right profile, or for sitting too high or too low in the water. Color didn’t seem to matter but the fly needed that baitfish shape, and it had to be suspended, not floating right on the surface.
Big Flashabou marlin and sailfish flies wouldn’t get the job done, as you needed a slow or no retrieve. Puglisi patterns did the job better as they held their profile dead-drifting with the chum.
We were looking for tuna, but along with the albacore and blackfin Steve Rajeff spotted a 50-pound cobia and put the fly right on its nose. Jim Lebson tagged a couple of nice king mackerel. Late in the day we saw a monster yellowfin sail 8 feet out of the water, chasing bait a few hundred yards away. We quickly ran over and saw a school of bait being annihilated by yellowfin tuna, all of them tanks.
The surface frothed with their feeding—the prey was baitfish about the size of your average trophy trout, and the predators were flashing blue, yellow, purple, and silver with a speed and violence that was impressive and scary. It was like watching a 3D Star Wars movie where X-wing fighters appear, destroy, and disappear faster than your brain can comprehend it. I saw a fish that must have been pushing 120 pounds, so I ditched the 12-weight and picked up a 14-weight G.Loomis CrossCurrent.
Good call. A yellowfin crushed the fly just 20 feet from the gunwales, and an instant later I was deep into my backing, and knew that I needed all that rod and more to land this fish. My leader was a straight section of 100-pound fluorocarbon and the drag on my Nautilus reel was maxed out. With most species, 25 pounds of pressure stops them cold, with yellowfin tuna it just gives you a fighting chance.
The fight with a yellowfin isn’t glamorous. It’s a slugfest. Hold on, apply as much pressure as you can, and wait for a sign of weakness. The first run takes 200 yards of backing, then you pump and reel. Earn it back. Every crank takes a toll on the fish, and chips away at your own stamina at the same time. You have to outlast them. Like most tuna, yellowfin don’t give up and by the end of the fight you’ll love and admire them for it.
Moe gaffed my first yellowfin clean on the first pass, and dead-lifted into the boat like an Olympian. It shimmered gold and silver with hints of blue and yellow, and its oblong shape just didn’t pancake flat on the deck like any other fish would have. Just shy of the magic 100-pound mark it was good enough in my book. It’s a hell of fish to have wrangled on fly, and I wonder how I could have handled anything bigger. After a couple weeks to think on it, I’m willing to try. Anything can happen out here in The Blue.
Oliver White owns Abaco Lodge in the Bahamas and co-hosts with Jimmy Kimmel, Jim Belushi, Lefty Kreh, Yvon Chouinard, and others, the TV series Buccaneers & Bones on the Outdoor Channel.