T he Gulf of Mexico is a temperamental body of water, changing moods with the seasons.
Winter’s storms turn the Gulf into a raging tempest, but as time pases, the Gulf begins to settle as spring turns to summer. Angry seas transition into rolling swells, becoming navigable to anglers with seaworthy boats.
Then, in late summer, the Gulf changes yet again, becoming placid and taking on a docile personality. Even bay boats can safely navigate the flat waters. If you yearn to play tug-of-war with a large fish, the shallow Gulf teems with cooperative fish as summer prepares to transition to autumn.
The autumn equinox occurs on September 22 this year. As this astronomically significant date approaches, baitfish in the bays begin to push through passes into the open gulf to spawn and over-winter.
The amount and variety of bait that heads to the Gulf for the winter is staggering. Silver and striped mullet, pin perch, piggy perch, and croaker, as well as white and brown shrimp are part of this exodus. Some baitfish remain in the bays throughout the winter, but large numbers of their brethren elect to head to deeper water.
Arriving in the naked Gulf waters, the menagerie of defenseless bait concentrates into tight schools seeking safety from marauding predators. It doesn’t take long for sharks, jackfish, tarpon, and bull reds to discover these huge balls of bait.
Often overlooked by anglers because of their minimal appeal on the plate, little tunny are a worthy adversary, which can be found in large numbers in the shallow Gulf just a short ride from any jetty. Commonly called little tuna and false albacore, Euthynnus alletteratus is a powerful foe when caught on light tackle.
Little tunny are schooling fish and do everything quickly. Their motor doesn’t have an Off switch. About the size of a football, the tuna-shaped fish often breach the surface pursuing food. Fresh from the water, little tunny, or bonito, are strikingly beautiful; the dark, wavy lines superimposed on the fish’s vivid green or blue back is a good visual reference. Although brutes to thirty-pounds occur, most fish run in the eight-ten pound range—an ideal size to do battle with on sturdy saltwater tackle.
Little tunny like to slash through baitfish near the surface. Wheeling and crashing gulls will betray their presence from a distance. A good pair of binoculars is a valuable ally when you search for feeding fish. I find that schooling activity increases in the afternoon. It seems I am always greeted by numerous schools boiling the water as I approach the jetties on an inbound heading.
Fishing for little tunny is definitely a run and gun afair. To find fish, you need to be mobile, which is a good thing. Even when there aren’t fish around, the man-made breeze created by the ponies on your transom is blessed relief from the searing heat of summer.
Once you spot a school of feeding fish, take a minute to determine which direction they are heading and then try to get in front of them. Forget your trolling motor. These fish are so fast, you can’t keep up with them. Running right up to a school and shutting down your outboard will spook the baitfish, which in turn puts down the little tunny.
Large spoons and jigs are good options if you want to fish wth lures. A short section of wire leader will minimize bite-offs in case mackerel crash the dinner party.
Retrieve your lure as fast as you can as offshore fish dine on things that swim quickly. A lure that is retreieved slowly is unnatural and will be politely ignored. Rip your rod tip forward periodically to increase your lure speed in hopes of triggering a reaction strike.
Sweetening the hook of your lure with a cigar minnow, or sardine, can also improve your success. If the little tunny give your lures the cold shoulder, try trolling.
Throwing out a handful of chum will often hold a feeding school for a while. Have a pile of cut chum standing by, so when you get into some acction all you have to do is pitch out a few chunks.
The shallow gulf offers plenty of opportunties for bay fishermen who want to venture beyond the jetties. Several words of caution: File a game plan with a friend and then stick to it. Let them know when you are launching, how far out in the Gulf you will venture, and when you expect to be back at the ramp. Although slick calm Gulf waters are very inviting to the bay angler, don’t venture beyond a reasonable distance from the beach.
The shallow Gulf is full of hungry predators right now. If you want to have your string stretched, you won’t have to go too far beyond the end of the jetties to find some action.
Email Greg Berlocher at [email protected]