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Patience and Live Bait: Gulf of Mexico Winter Tunas
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Patience and Live Bait: Gulf of Mexico Winter Tunas

Our boat eased to a crawl after a 100+ miles, 4+ hour run out to the floating oil rigs off the coast of Louisiana. All 900 horses took a much-needed break after carrying thousands of pounds of fuel, ice, and 6 grown men, to where the red-hot Tuna bite was happening. The Gulf of Mexico, particularly from boats out of Destin, has been producing jumbo Big Eye Tunas in the last two weeks with multiple over 200# and one pending state record 244# in the mix. The crew was eager to get after them, but we first needed to obtain the most important aspect of the entire trip: live bait. 

As we were making a pass around one of the corners of the towering platform, we spotted what looked like porpoise breaching the surface 200 yards off the starboard side of our boat. I bumped the boat into gear and headed that way. We slowly started seeing that they were not porpoise, but 100+ pound yellowfin tuna rolling on a bait ball. Two of our crew were ready with poppers on the bow and each made their first cast and anticipation on the boat was higher than the 9th inning, two strikes, and a full count to win the world series. The first cast was a let-down, but the boat’s momentum was pushing us into the perfect casting range, with the Tunas moving closer to the boat each second.

The two guys on the front each made their second casts and almost immediately after the lure hit the water – like a slugger connecting with a fast ball – both poppers were smashed and drag was peeling off the large spinning reels at a blistering pace. I sat behind the helm and cracked a giant smile as the fish continued into the deep and said, “they are here” and we knew it was going to be a trip to remember.

We put our live baits back in the water immediately and started bumping them around where the fish were once rolling before. About 100 more yards out from the spot, we saw the tell-tale signs of the school again and bee-lined towards them. Unfortunately, a sport fisher that was pulling a large spread of baits also saw them and ran close enough to send the Tunas down from the surface. We continued to slowly bump our live baits over the spot where we had seen them and it only took a few minutes for the school to come back up and absolutely annihilate one of them.

The fight was uneventful and after 10 minutes we sunk the gaffs in another 100+ pound yellowfin tuna and then rinsed and repeated. The fish stayed on the deck while the crew got baits back out like a well-oiled machine. It was getting late into the evening now and the sun was slowly dipping below the horizon. The lights on the rig all came on, lighting it up like a giant christmas tree rising out of the deep blue waters. We bumped our baits around for an hour past dark hoping that we would find another school of rolling tunas with no luck. It was the same night as a new moon, so visibility was limited to as far as the rig lights could reach and we never saw another school of Tuna rolling again.

We watched as the fish disappeared from the sonar and then suddenly zzziiiiinggg the reel starts singing our favorite song. the kind of song that you have heard on the radio countless times. one of the guys on the boat was immediately on the reel and we could tell that we were hooked into a massive fish. The most tell-tale sign of these big fish is that they will do a few blistering runs, act like they are coming up a little bit with giant head shakes, then make a few more blistering runs. Then eventually they settle into a pinwheel where they only give up what seems like inches every minute.

Our angler was comfortably fitted into the harness and the fight of the night was just getting started, man vs. beast. There were a few tense moments during the fight when we started bumping the drag up to beat the fish into submission, but the well under-gunned reel did not respond well to the additional pressure. we had to back off the drag a little bit to let the fish take line smoothly and thankfully all the knots held through it all on the 80# fluorocarbon leader.

This fish was smart, and it was not coming up without a few tricks up its sleeves. It would give us a false sense of it giving up and would make its way to 50 feet below the boat only to dive furiously back down to the 200-foot thermocline to hang out there before starting the routine again. I told the crew to get the harpoon ready, since when this fish gave us any kind of shot, we were going to take it. After an hour into the fight, the fish was showing signs of giving up and started making some obscenely large pinwheels. The kind where you worry if they are going to run into the engines, or if they are going under the boat and chafe you off on the hull. In my experience with bigger Tunas, you must let them settle into a pattern and typically it starts to become predictable the closer they get to the boat. Remaining calm, letting the angler fight the fish, clear communication, and knowing where the line is always are the most important aspects of sealing the deal. We find that the less we move the boat, the faster the fish comes up and gives you a shot. you just must be confident, calm, and collected when the fish starts making its giant pinwheels right by the boat.  

The crew went back to work trying to put another big one in the boat with no luck save for a few schoolie Yellowfins and fighting off Barracuda after Barracuda for the remainder of the trip. The crazy thing was we never put a single chunk or trolling spread out and the entire trip boiled down to one thing, patience, and live bait.

Tight lines,

Steven Vanden Heuvel



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