Offshore Oasis (TFG Throwback – 1995)

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Texas’ offshore waters offer a wealth of gamefish species, from dorado (dolphin) to Ling (cobia), amberjack, kingfish and more.

Offshore grasslines bring out a smorgasbord of surface fishing action

by Larry Bozka

Amberjack - photo by Bob Epstein

Amberjack – photo by Bob Epstein

You’d have thought someone had plugged the fish’s tail into a 220 socket. The bull dorado stopped, angrily puffed its gills and, anticipating the kill, radiated a brilliant mix of fluorescent yellow, bright green and cobalt blue. Only a foot below the surface, the flickering fish engaged the afterburners and inhaled the red-and-white feather jig.

Freeport-area charter Capt. Rick Rule was more than a bit pleased with the turn of events. “Told you they’d be here,” he chuckled. “This grassline has been holding them for a week.”

We were about 25 miles off the Quintana jetty aboard Rule’s 34-foot Luhrs, appropriately dubbed the “Una Mas,” when the matted pile of seagrass appeared on the horizon like an oasis in the desert. Offshore weedlines are to Gulf surface fish what hydrilla beds are to Sam Rayburn bass. A place of refuge. A place to feed. The place for a fish-hungry angler to be in the merry month of June, when Gulf surface fishing literally comes alive.

The dorado was barely hooked in the lip. With each frantic jump the likelihood of putting it in the boat lessened proportionately, but a gentle hand on the rod and a boost from Lady Luck brought it within stabbing distance of the gaff in Jason Haas’ outstretched hand. Experienced for his years, the young deck hand deftly applied the steel and grinned widely as his lanky mentor slapped him on the back for a job well done.

It was a scene that will be repeated time and time again this summer by a great many fishermen. For all things there is indeed a season, and this, my friend, is the season for offshore surface fishing. The aforementioned dorado are only one of many offerings awaiting those who venture out on the Gulf from now until the first subtle cold fronts of autumn.

At that point, Rule and company return to the home waters of Fayette County Lake near LaGrange and turn their attention to schooling largemouth bass. Meanwhile, coastal pro Capt. Gary Wheeler will focus his sights on the Galveston Bay System’s resident redfish and speckled trout. Both, however, would no sooner pass up the Gulf of Mexico in the months to come than quit fishing and take up golf. Gulf angling is addictive, and once it’s in your blood there’s no getting it out.

With five years of summer Gulf action under his fighting belt, Wheeler has a few tricks under his sleeve. He’s a quiet and unassuming fellow, not prone to getting excited, intent upon the task at hand. Like most others who get into the business and return year after year, he knows what he’s doing. Unlike many, though, he’s willing to share his secrets.

Kingfish - photo by David Sams

Kingfish – photo by David Sams

“The name of the game is surface fishing,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean a depthfinder isn’t important. A good depth recorder will help you find not only structure, but also suspended schools of baitfish. Locate both in the same area and you’re in business.”

Reliance on oil rigs can be a handicap, and as such, Wheeler does his best to pinpoint “unseen” structure in open Gulf waters. “You need to always keep an eye on your chart recorder or LCR when you’re running,” he says. “A lot of times you’ll find a hump that you haven’t seen before. You pull it down and start making some circles to determine what’s down there. At times, you’ll stumble across some real hotspots, places you can return to over the years time and time again.”

A good offshore chart, he notes, is an invaluable tool for both the novice as well as the seasoned Gulf veteran. “Always start out with a quality chart,” says Wheeler. “The Hooksetter Gulf chart is an excellent choice; that’s the chart I keep in the boat. And,” he adds, “it’s always wise to fish in tandem with another boat or two and stay in touch on the VHF radio. While you’re at it, it’s not a bad idea to try and swap structure coordinates with other fishermen at the marina or boat ramp. Everybody is always looking for new numbers, the more options, the better.”

Wheeler’s June excursions sometimes take him as far offshore as 48 miles, to the Coral Break (around a 145-degree compass heading out of the Galveston jetties) and waters in the 80-foot depth range. For most, however, quality fishing can be found much closer to shore.

Ling (cobra) - photo by Robt. Sloan

Ling (cobra) – photo by Robt. Sloan

“Early-season action can be great close in, especially for kingfish,” says Wheeler. “Most people tend to run past the fish at the very time of year when they’re moving close in to shore and spawning. For some reason, fishermen tend to think they need to run out further, to the Heald Bank and beyond. I’ve had many, many days when it was really rough and we hit the 12-mile rigs and ended up catching red snapper, kingfish, a few dolphin and even a ling or two, all right there in the green water.”

Big kings, “smokers” in excess of 30 pounds, are traditionally best pursued in either early summer or much later, around Labor Day. In-between, however, Wheeler says the fish are still available — provided you know how to approach them.

“Fishing for big kings is a selective process,” he comments, “and it boils down to using live bait. Back in the old days of the Tournament of Kings and the Galveston Invitational, when trophy kingfish tournaments were hot, live baiting was the only way to go if you wanted a realistic chance at ending up on the leader board. Often, we’d tie up to an oil rig and spend the night. Some of the best fishing we experienced went down well after the sun set, with the boat positioned just beyond the range of the oil rig lights. If you stayed close in beneath the lights you were prone to catching not only smaller kingfish but also a lot of sharks.”

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Some huge tarpon have been caught near shore in the Gulf of Mexico during the summer months.

Some huge tarpon have been caught near shore in the Gulf of Mexico during the summer months.

Techniques for Traveling Tarpon

DRIFT FISHING BEHIND A culling shrimp boat will produce big numbers of fish — king and Spanish mackerel,

bonito, jack crevalle, a wide variety of sharks and even an occasional ling. “Numbers,” in fact, is the key word here — unless, that is, you’re talking about the silver kings of Texas inshore waters.

The bait-laden, oily expanse behind a sunrise shrimp boat sets the scene for the epic battle of man vs. tarpon. These fish are bona fide beasts, averaging over 125 pounds apiece, and they eat kingfish tackle like George Foreman puts away kiddie burgers. For die-hard tarpon pros like Capt. Jim Leavelle, there is simply no substitute. Why else would his business be named “Tarpon Adventures of Galveston”?

While other offshore anglers head for the blue, Jim Leavelle haunts the 30-foot-deep green stuff with a rabid intensity and a second sense for where these iron-jawed monsters should be. Those who spot the huge fish rolling on the surface while running offshore and stop to fire a few volleys at a moving school usually end up with little more than an adrenaline high and an acute sense of frustration. “Moving schools of tarpon are no easy catch,” says Leavelle, “but there are nonetheless times when you can get ‘em to strike. When they’re moving, an 85 series MirrOlure ripped across the surface is often just the ticket.

“I use a 7-foot graphite tarpon rod with an Ambassadeur 7000 spooled with 30-pound-test Trilene Big Game mono,” he says, “and I position my boat so that I can cast the lure out in front of the moving fish.

“Let it sink a bit and then crank it hard, streaking it through the water,” Leavelle instructs. “This is a big lure, and it’ll cast a long, long way. The color doesn’t seem to matter much; chartreuse, hot pink, green and orange have all produced for me in the past. The main priority,” he emphasizes, “is to keep the lure moving fast and to be ready to set the hook hard when a fish strikes the bait.”

If that doesn’t entice on-the-go sabalo, the veteran tarpon pro employs a second proven strategy. “I throw a Texas-Term Pop,” he says. “It’s a 5-inch Mogambo Tail secured to a 11/2-ounce jig head. The jig head is soft copper wired to a 16/0 circle hook. When the fish hits it and comes up and throws its head, the jig head breaks off of the soft copper wire assembly, which prevents the tarpon from using the weight of the lure to dislodge the hook.

“ The Term-Pop rig is made in Houston by Mark Banneyer and, says Leavelle, is a potent weapon for reaching the submerged fish which invariably lurk below surface-rolling schools. “Tom Gibson (holder of the current Texas state record for tarpon) told us that for every tarpon we see on the top there are 10 more down below,” comments Leavelle. “The Term Pop goes straight down to those fish.”

by Larry Bozka [/box]

According to Wheeler, bar jacks and small mackerel in the 12- to 16-inch range remain the ultimate offering for whopper kings. “You’re talking about a bait that might weigh 2 to 3 pounds,” he says. “Always use a wire leader for kingfish, and don’t set the reel drag too tight. As for hooks,” Wheeler continues, “I’ve used everything from circle hooks on up. Today, I prefer a good ‘ol straight No. 7 Eagle Claw stainless steel hook.”

An important note, and one that not many anglers are aware of: Run the hook through the bait in accordance with the depth at which you want it to suspend. “If I want the bait to run shallow, I rig it beneath a balloon and hook it close to the head,” says Wheeler. “If I want it to get down deep, I hook it toward the tail and freeline it.”

When currents are running hard, it’s sometimes necessary to add a large egg sinker above the wire leader and swivel. “But,” Wheeler adds, “in that situation I’ll more often than not switch over to a fresh dead ribbonfish. A 3-foot-long ribbonfish makes for a tremendous big-kingfish bait, provided you rig it on a multiple-hook leader with either two or three hooks. Just run the leader from the eye of one hook to the eye of the next hook.”

Trolling is a productive technique for taking kingfish as well, and Wheeler is particularly fond of “skipped” trolling baits. “It doesn’t matter if it’s an icefish, a mullet or whatever,” he comments. “I may have four feather jigs or four Jawbreakers out, but I always like to skip a natural bait on the surface while I’m at it. It spreads the scent, and it’s also a big-fish attractor. Marlin fishermen do it all the time as standard operating procedure.

“Don’t worry about trolling too fast,” Wheeler continues. “You want the bait to be smacking on the surface and twisting. Hook icefish and mullet through the eyes. Usually, I’ll have a customer hold that particular rod, and it’ll be the shortest rod closest to the transom. I generally troll two short jigs, two jigs further out and the natural bait skipping close in. Keep your lines spread out distance-wise and you won’t have much trouble with things getting tangled up.”

Across the board, Wheeler uses 7-foot All-Star graphite rods, the PRXH extra-heavy-action. “All-Star makes some heavier rods as well,” he says, “but unless I’m after amberjack around the rigs or big tarpon I tend to stick with somewhat lighter blanks. As a rule, most kingfishermen tend to use rods that are way too stout.”

Incidentally, All-Star is about to introduce a new rod that’s specifically designed for kingfish, dolphin and ling, with a blank that’s similar to those utilized on Midwest “musky rods” but a modified reel seat and eyelets. Details are pending, however, and it’ll be the American Sportfishing Association show in Las Vegas next month before the specifics are released. Advance word is that the blank is constructed of a new material that’s tougher than Jim Croce’s proverbial junkyard dog.

This huge dolphin weighed 61 1/2 pounds.

This huge dolphin weighed 61 1/2 pounds.

As for line, Wheeler sticks with Trilene Big Game in 30-pound test. “When I’m live baiting for big kings, though, I take it down to 20-pound-test,” he cautions, “the reason being that lighter line allows me to get more action out of a wiggling live bait. Also, as the summer draws on, the kings get more and more line-conscious.”

For that same reason, Wheeler sticks with tobacco-colored wire leader testing only 60 pounds or so. “I haven’t had any problem with fish shying away from dark steel leader,” he remarks, “but silver can be the kiss of death. Not only does it spook the fish; sometimes they’ll also strike at it, thinking that because of the flash it’s something edible.”

A note of caution about light steel leader, though: It’s great for enhancing the action of a bait, but should be replaced or re-rigged every two or three fish. “Once they put a bend in it,” says Wheeler, “it’s just plain no good anymore. It causes you to have to do a bit more rigging, but you’re only talking about a couple of haywire twists. And it’s well worth the extra effort.”

Extra effort, likewise, is the trademark of the cobia — better know as “ling” in Texas waters. “Floating cans and buoys outside of oil rigs are prime ling hangouts,” Wheeler tips. “Wear polarized shades; just like dorado, you’ll often see the fish cruising around just below the surface and they’ll often run in groups. And again like dorado, once you hook a fish it’s a good idea to leave it on the line below the boat to bring another fish or two into range.”

Ling look somewhat like huge catfish, and they’re also as curious as cats, Wheeler points out. “Idle around the rig or buoy,” he advises, “throw out some chum, rev the engine, bang on the boat and splash the water surface. Ling are attracted to noise, and that’s often their downfall.

“Still,” he continues, “they can be real tricky. It’s hard to beat a live bait for ling. My favorite is a live hardhead catfish. For my own protection, I cut off their fins before putting them in the livewell. They’re darned near impossible to kill.” Live shrimp are also preferred ling offerings, as are any small baitfish taken from the rig pilings. To really add spice to the setup, Wheeler sometimes glues an Alka-Seltzer antacid tablet to the shank of the hook. Believe it or not, he says the fizzing action can shift an otherwise inactive and indifferent ling into the “‘go” mode.

With ling fishing, reel selection is critical, as the ability to cast long distances is paramount. “I use the Shimano TLD 15,” says Wheeler. “It’s as close to a ‘bass reel for offshore casting’ as you can get. And,” he adds, “I always keep an 8/0 circle hook rigged on 60-pound monofilament especially for ling fishing. I run the barb through the baitfish’s lower and upper lip, and then let it swim freely. Above all, don’t set the hook. Wait ‘til the rod bends, pick it up and just take up the slack. From there on out,” he concludes with a chuckle, “you’re purely on your own.


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