Marlin Fishing in the Gulf of Mexico | Salt Water Sportsman

The Gulf Coast's Forgotten Fishing

The Gulf of Mexico offers up the best blue marlin fishery in the United States

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When talking about big-game fishing in this country, we tend to speak in terms of West and East Coast fishermen and their respective techniques, and yet there is a third, what some call might call a forgotten, coast. Not only is the Gulf of Mexico home to the world’s biggest cobia and king mackerel, but it’s one of the most prolific tuna, wahoo and marlin fisheries as well. The Gulf Coast is a region that, despite its rich fishery and contributions to modern big-game fishing (including this very magazine, which got its start in Pensacola, Florida, 31 years ago), stands in the shadow of more talked-about areas.

Covering some 1,000 miles from east to west and 580 miles from north to south, the cereal-bowl-shaped Gulf boasts landings of fin and shellfish that surpass the annual landings of southern Atlantic, mid-Atlantic, Chesapeake and New England waters combined! The reason for this abundance can be traced to the mighty Mississippi River, which delivers 3.3 million gallons of fresh water into the Gulf every second of the day. That influx, along with water entering from the Yucatan Straits, which circulates as the Loop Current, produces the nutrient-dense water that serves as the primary spawning ground of giant bluefin tuna, swordfish and blue marlin. The Gulf also functions as the headwaters of the Caribbean Sea, explains NMFS scientist Dr. Eric Prince. “The abundance of baitfish makes it a natural feeding zone for all big-game fish,” he says.

Festooned With Feeding Stations
There’s a saying among fishermen that when you find McDonald’s (meaning the bait), you’ll find the fish. This old saying is analogous to what we’re talking about when we look at the bait-producing and bait-holding habitat that is the Gulf of Mexico. In the Gulf, “McDonald’s” takes on the form of more than 4,000 fish-attracting, steel-legged offshore oil and natural-gas rigs found every few miles offshore. Clustered along the continental shelf from Texas to the Alabama/Florida line, the majority (3,000-plus) sit outside the mouth of the Mississippi River and Louisiana, where fish densities are 20 to 50 times higher off the platforms than in the surrounding Gulf water.

Here, even decommissioned rigs are the gift that keeps on giving, thanks to federal laws requiring that obsolete structures be removed or “re-utilized.” Many such rigs now operate as artificial reefs, including the so-called world’s largest, off Grand Isle, Louisiana — the 1½-mile sulphur mine includes obsolete rigs as well as bridge and retired power plant materials. Even before the oil industry started digging for oil and gas around 1900, the northeastern Gulf had some of the deepest bottom structure in the hemisphere, in the form of underwater mountain ranges with 3,000-feet-deep ledges. That said, until 40 years ago, these riches remained hidden under the sea.

Marlin Abound
It’s difficult to say who caught the first blue marlin in the Gulf of Mexico. In his 1949 book, Fishing the Atlantic, S. Kip Farrington mentions several caught off Port Isabel, Texas, with a 326-pound blue marlin by J. R. Montgomery of Rio Hondo being the biggest. However, marlin fishing did not seize the hearts and minds of Gulf fishermen until around 1956, following the discovery of the region’s deepwater canyons off Florida and Alabama.
Another impetus came from the voyage of the research vessel Oregon, which uncovered a treasure trove of big-game species. Hosted by the National Fish and Wildlife’s Bureau of Commercial Fisheries (now called the National Marine Fisheries Service), the 1952 expedition was headed by researchers Frank Mather of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Howard Schuck. According to Mather, who died in 2000, their mission was to take a comprehensive look at the Gulf and to determine the viability of developing a commercial tuna fishery there.

The scope of the nearly one-year-long research cruise encompassed the use of several types of commercial gear, including two miles of longline. Fishing took place from Mexico’s vast Bay of Campeche, located between the city of Tampico and the Yucatan and the north coast of Cuba, to within a few miles of major U.S. Gulf ports. According to participants, some of the best catches occurred 11 miles offshore of the mouth of the Mississippi River, where the continental shelf comes closest to shore. There the longlines produced numerous 100-pound-plus yellowfin tuna, sailfish, mako sharks, swordfish, and white and blue marlin. The results electrified a small but influential community of Louisiana anglers, including the respected national outdoor writer Paul Kalman.

As the late New Orleans-based writer recounted in a 1971 article in New Orleans magazine about the development of sport fishing off South Pass, Louisiana, he and anglers such as Herman “Dutch” Prager and Jack Brown often speculated about the kinds of fish that lay in the deep water off South Pass. In those days, big-game fishing off Louisiana and Texas meant catching 100-pound tarpon in the passes and trolling nearshore waters for king and Spanish mackerel and the occasional sailfish. In the ’40s and ’50s, spring and summer sailfishing could be quite good six to eight miles offshore of the buoy lines, off Texas, Louisiana and northeast Florida. There was the time, for example, when three boats caught 26 sails in three days off Aransas Pass in 1946.

Yet in 1949 the biggest dolphin that had ever been caught in the long-running Grand Isle (Louisiana) Fishing Rodeo was a school-size 8-pounder, which was a state record at the time. Fishing the rodeo that year, Kalman and Brown fished 50 miles offshore and caught a 23-pound dolphin that not only shattered the state record but also netted them a new Plymouth automobile. Then host of the Jax Beer Outdoors in Louisiana television show in June of 1956, Kalman heard about the Oregon cruise and invited researcher Harvey R. Bullis Jr. of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Mississippi Laboratory in Pascagoula to appear on the program, which showed blue and white marlin and huge tunas being hauled onto the decks of Oregon, just 11 miles off South Pass — a kind of no man’s land in the those days of 9-knot boats.

In three sets, the boat caught 45 yellowfin tuna, two blue marlin, 13 whites, a sail and three makos. By the end of the next week, an expedition was mounted to see what could be caught on rod and reel. The advanced team included James Meriweather Jr. of Shreveport on the steel-hulled 65-foot Melou II, and New Orleans-based anglers Bob Norman, with his 36-foot Chris-Craft, Kiwi, and Paul Kalman as crew, and John Lauricella Sr. on his locally built yacht-fitted oyster boat, All American.

“Not one of the vessels had outriggers, a fly bridge or any of the niceties standard on today’s big game boats,” Kalman wrote in a 1971 article about the trip. Being the only ones with big-game fishing experience, Lauricella and Kalman “pooled their meager knowledge” of bait rigging, hooks and leaders, and taught the others. For good measure, Kalman brought two barrels of ground menhaden chum along to use to attract bluefin tuna, blue marlin and whatever else they might encounter.

Located 90 miles from New Orleans, their destination was the tiny maritime community of Port Eads at South Pass, which, aside from an 80-slip marina taking shape in time for this year’s 40th anniversary New Orleans Big Game Fishing Club Invitational, has changed little since that blue-water expedition 56 years ago. The two-lane road from New Orleans still ends 24 miles north of the former Coast Guard station and 108-foot lighthouse, necessitating a helicopter flight or boat transport for would-be anglers. After parking vehicles and transferring gear, Kalman’s expedition boarded the boats and set out to catch the first rod-and-reel-caught marlin from Louisiana shores. They caught two whites — no blue marlin, but newspaper accounts were sufficient to ignite interest.

Among those steaming to South Pass was a fireplug-shaped captain from Grand Isle, who coincidentally had tried fishing for marlin off South Pass two months earlier only to turn back because of rough seas. (Capt. Bob Mitcheltree and his 45-foot single screw, Jennifer Ann, did not connect with a marlin in 1956.) Undeterred, he returned the following year with Harley Howett, an experienced big-game angler from New Orleans, with only a few sailfish to show for the effort. Not until June 21, 1958, did Mitcheltree succeed in catching the target species. Fishing with Dr. Glen Gibson of Baton Rouge, Mitcheltree recorded 14 billfish strikes that day, including the state’s first 175-pound blue marlin. Included in the catch were three white marlin and a sailfish, making Mitcheltree the first captain to land a grand slam in the Gulf. The next day, Mitcheltree reported battling a much bigger blue for nine hours before breaking it off at the boat. Four days later, in the Grand Isle Rodeo, James Meriweather caught the Gulf’s first big blue — a 463-pound, 8-ounce fish.

By May 1959, Capt. Mitcheltree had established the first blue-water charter fishing operation in the Gulf at Port Eads. “It was kind of hard to fish for marlin and tuna, and then go back to trolling for Spanish mackerel,” Mitcheltree says. “I took it as long as I could. I was wearing out both my boat and myself commuting [to South Pass] from Grand Isle.” Created from an abandoned carpenter’s cottage, Mitcheltree’s River’s End Lodge was more camp than resort, housing up to 12 anglers bunk-style. His wife, Jessie, fed the anglers in the lodge’s big meeting and dining room. Mitcheltree, whose career dated back to 1925, and his mate, Don Lyman, were not newcomers to blue-water fishing. Each logged time targeting big-game species off both Florida and Bimini and used that experience to develop the fishery. In 1963 Mitcheltree became one of the top blue marlin captains in the world, catching 21 blues between May and September. The only captain catching more was Bill Foster of Hatteras, who logged 29 blues on Albatross II that year. Scores of well-known big-game anglers got their start fishing with Mitcheltree, including Alfred Glassell Jr. of Texas, who still holds the record for the heaviest (black) marlin caught on rod and reel.

On a local level, he fished with the Childress brothers, Judge Leander Perez, Clyde Hawk and “Dutch” Prager, who, along with Kalman, started the New Orleans Big Game Fishing Club 51 years ago. The first organization in the Gulf dedicated to marlin fishing, the NOBGFC was founded by 87-year-old Herman “Dutch” Prager, now of Mandeville, Louisiana. Prager, who still fishes and who served 30 years as the club’s president, says the kernel of the idea for the club grew from many “happy-hour discussions” at Mitcheltree’s River’s End Lodge. Kalman and Prager compiled a list of 50 potential anglers and sent out invitations to the May 29, 1961, organizational meeting. Thirty-three people attended, agreeing to establish a club that would: be limited to 50 members; fish according to “ethical” International Game Fish Association rules; and, most importantly, be dedicated to furthering and promoting the conservation and scientific research of marine fishes. That directive led to their collecting the first catch-per-unit-effort billfish data from the Gulf of Mexico.

“What they did was significant,” says National Marine Fisheries Service research statistician Anna M. Avrigian, who has headed up data collection for the northern Gulf of Mexico’s recreational billfish survey since Paul Pristas’ retirement in 1993. Recreational billfish surveys, a barometer of the health of pelagic marine species, grew from their data collection efforts, Avrigian says. It’s a commitment that’s been going on since 1964, when the club hired its own marine biologist, Joe Yurt, who went to work while he was still a student at Southeast Louisiana University. For 47 years, he’s documented almost every fish landed off South Pass, including the Gulf’s first broadbill swordfish (112 pounds) on rod and reel, which was caught July 21, 1969, by George M. Snellings; the Gulf’s first grander (1,018 pounds) blue marlin, caught by Linda Koerner in 1977 (the first woman to catch an Atlantic blue that large); Bill Walters’ 1,149.5-pound mako shark in 2009; Dennis Good’s 134-pound white in 1976; and Ron Roland’s 1,152-pound giant bluefin tuna in May 2003, the largest ever caught on rod and reel in the Gulf.

Bluefin Too
Yurt was also there to weigh some of the first giant bluefin tunas caught on rod and reel in the Gulf by anglers such as the late Guy Billups and his captain, Jim Lunsford, who started fishing for them in the late ’60s on Billups’ 41-foot Hatteras, Buddie B. Having spent the first part of his long career targeting bluefins in the Bahamas with top Florida anglers, Lunsford says, “You don’t target bluefins in the Gulf so much as happen upon them.”

With the exception of club member Myron Fischer, whose wife, Darlene, caught a then club record 891-pounder in May of 1981, few Gulf fishermen target bluefin. Although Japanese longliners once targeted bluefins from January to May in the deep water of the middle Gulf, the fish are not accessible in the northern Gulf until around Memorial Day, which is when the warm, blue Gulf Stream water (Loop Current) is closest to shore. And so it was during a Memorial Day event in 1968 that Lunsford and Billups spotted a school of giants busting schoolie dolphin on a rip, catching not one but three fish that day. “Tuna fishing is different than in the Bahamas, where you ambush them,” Lunsford explains. “Here, you gotta get in front of them.” After spotting the school in that 1968 tournament, Lunsford instructed his mate to pull in the teasers and load a couple of 130s with the bonefish baits he kept on board for just such occasions. Swinging in front of the fast-moving school, Billups fed the bait back and hooked a 588-pounder and fought it to the boat. With fellow anglers taking turns, they were able to keep up with the school, catching a 431- and 434-pounder that day, Lunsford says. Not long afterward, Jack Brown caught his 859-pounder.

The Turn to Lure Fishing
In 1970, Pacific blue marlin specialist Steve Zuckerman of California accepted an invitation to fish out of South Pass with Guy Billups on Buddie B. During that trip, Zuckerman produced a handful of Hawaiian-made high-speed lures and convinced Billups and Lunsford to give them a try. “He gave me a couple of his lures, which we tried and had a marlin come up and swat, but like most fishermen in the Gulf, we were more comfortable pulling mullet, ballyhoo and mackerel,” Billups says. Thus, modern-day lure fishing did not arrive in the Gulf until several years later, when pioneering plastics fishermen like Bob Byrd Sr. of Texas and Capt. Roger Greene of Louisiana started experimenting with lures.

Both had caught blue marlin off Kona, Hawaii, and brought lures home to try, but because of his success dominating major Gulf Coast tournaments — with Tommy Faust on the 42-foot Bertram Isabel and Archie Lowery on the 42- and 54-foot Bertram Archie’s Invader — Greene became the acknowledged godfather of high-speed trolling on the East Coast. Writing prior to his death in 2009 about his early experiences with artificial lures, Greene said that he first used artificials in the Gulf in 1976 with Faust. After refining their technique, “we made a total commitment to lure fishing in 1977,” Greene said, and he won the NOBGFC’s Top Club Angler trophy for the second year in a row. The turning point in Greene’s conversion from bait to lures came just before the New Orleans Invitational, after a chance meeting with the late Henry Yap at Frichter’s Sportsman’s Haven in Chalmette, Louisiana. The ailing Kona lure maker had moved to New Orleans to be near his daughter that year and had left several dozen of his Yap lures at Frichter’s to sell on consignment. “A small, grizzled, dark-skinned man, Yap had the presence of a man who’d been there,” Greene recalled. After talking lures and techniques, at which point Yap said that he used light mono leaders lure fishing because “tuna don’t chew,” Greene walked out with a half-dozen taper-headed Yaps that led to his winning his third consecutive New Orleans club championship. “Every blue marlin over 600 pounds that I’ve ever caught was taken on a Yap, including Archie Lowery’s 738-pounder in 1980,” Greene said. Thanks to the dominance of lure-pulling teams like Greene’s Archie’s Invader and Texan James Roberts’ Renegade, in contests from the Gulf Coast to the Bahamas, the popularity of high-speed fishing with lures surged among the big-game fishermen of the East Coast in the ’80s. “Before long,” Greene said, “everyone was copying the Yap, including me and my brother, Joel.” The Frichter brothers (www.theoriginalfrichterlure.com) eventually bought Yap’s molds, and they continue to build and sell them today.

Texas Tourney Formats
In the six decades following Oregon’s unearthing the Gulf’s marine riches, third-coast anglers have not only popularized lure fishing in the Atlantic, but they’ve given us the model for the big-money, big-game tournaments now held from Cape May to Cabo San Lucas. The prototype for these events is the late Walter Fondren III’s Poco Bueno Invitational Fishing Tournament, which began in 1969 as a friendly, high-stakes fishing competition for 50 or so of his friends and a way to highlight his favorite getaway, Port O’Connor, Texas. Years later, the tournament would become a fundraising vehicle for the Gulf Coast Conservation Alliance (another Fondren invention), which is now the influential nationwide recreational fishing lobbying organization CCA.

Experienced big-game fishermen all, Fondren and friends like Stewart Campbell and Joe Bright came up with a novel idea for increasing interest in the event by bringing the inherent side wagers into the open with a lively, let-the-good-times-roll Calcutta auction of boats, which owners and participants bid upon. From those early six-figure payouts to today’s $1.5 million auction, Poco survives and thrives without the backing of a single sponsor.

Among Poco’s first winners was a South Texas angler by the name of Robert H. (Bob) Byrd, who, in his 25 years of fishing the event, was the only angler to win it three times. Fishing blue marlin off Kona, Hawaii, in the early ’70s with captains like Bart Miller on Black Bart, the enthusiastic Byrd brought Miller’s techniques home to Texas to try, says his son, Robert (Bobby) Byrd II, co-founder of the Texas-based Legends Tournament. “Dad started his fishing career with Capt. Bill Hart, the Tommy Gifford of the Texas Gulf Coast and the state’s first blue-water captain, and went on from there, fishing with top captains out of South Pass, Louisiana, Florida and Kona to learn everything he could about marlin fishing. To his credit, he was an innovator in his own right,” Bobby adds. “I started fishing with him as a boy, soon after he started pulling lures in the early ’70s, and was there when he introduced live-bait fishing for blue marlin to the Gulf. Most people don’t know this, but in the early ’90s, my dad invented some of the first tuna tubes, which he had built out of fiberglass with recirculating pumps.”

North Florida, Alabama and Mississippi
The ’60s were a turning point for fishermen in the northeastern Gulf, as well as Texas and Louisiana, says Paul Pristas, who began collecting catch data from the Gulf in 1974 for the National Marine Fisheries Service. Much like Louisiana, blue-water fishing off northwest Florida consisted of nearshore fishing for snapper and grouper, king and Spanish mackerel, and the occasional sailfish. “Very few people had ever been out as far as 50 to 500 fathoms before that,” he says. The first marlin taken off Florida’s Gulf Coast was a white marlin, caught Aug. 29, 1959, off Destin, Pristas says.

Two years later, Destin charter captain Bruce Marler caught the first blue. Like modern-day fishermen, he found his quarry on the clean side of a rip of dirty-brown and dark-blue water off an area now known as DeSoto Canyon. News of this momentous event was enough to convince tourism officials to host the region’s first blue-water contest, the Pensacola Billfish Tournament, in 1962. The tournament actually predates the Pensacola Big Game Fishing Club by eight years, organizing founder Ralph Fuller says. “The club did not start until 1970, with an organizational meeting at my house,” he explains. Again, Dutch Prager was largely behind the effort. “We met through work, and after discovering our mutual interest in offshore fishing, he invited me to fish with him off South Pass. During the trip, he encouraged me to start a club off Pensacola and later came over to help us write the bylaws and rules. Back in 1970, at the most there might have been a dozen guys trying for billfish here,” Fuller says. “Charles Peyton, who had a boat called Viking, was one of them, and he became our first president. I was elected vice president, and Tom Eastman and Tom Born were secretary and treasurer. In 1971 the club took over running the Pensacola International Billfish Tournament.”

It seems that members of the New Orleans Big Game Fishing Club had a lot to do with the founding of the Mobile Big Game Fishing Club as well, says Jim Cox, the tournament director at the MBGFC, recalling the oft-told story of how the region’s first blue marlin fishermen, Dr. Robert Mudd, Jere Austill Jr. and Max Rodgers, were rebuffed after inquiring about fishing the NOBGFC’s 1966 International. Told the only way they could fish it would be if they were members, they then inquired about joining and were rejected a second time. “Heck,” Mudd muttered. “We’ll start our own club and tournament,” which is what they did on Aug. 12, 1966.

“The Mobile Big Game Fishing Club’s Memorial Day Tournament is now one of the largest big-game events in the Gulf,” Cox says. “Our 2006 Memorial Day Tournament set a record; with 136 boats and 620 anglers participating, [it’s] the biggest ever held in the Gulf.” Cox believes that part of the reason for its success is the club’s expanded facilities at the 16-acre Orange Beach Marina, one of the Gulf’s largest. Location is another. Just 35 miles south-southeast of Orange Beach and Bonita Pass lie De Soto Canyon and other storied fishing grounds, such as the Nipple, Curve, Canyon and Elbow. These same areas have produced two of the Gulf’s three grander blue marlin, along with a dozen or more 700- to 800-pounders, including Alabama’s state record 779-pounder caught by Marcus Kennedy. Cox says that in addition to founding the Mobile Big Game Fishing Club, Mudd is responsible for catching Alabama’s first blue marlin from a 23-foot Formula in 1963, and two years later partnered with Sonny Middleton to open the area’s first Hatteras dealership.

Owned by Mobile club member Earle Long and his family, the Orange Beach Marina and adjacent Mobile Big Game Fishing Club were completed in 1978, following the developer’s promise to build the organization a clubhouse. Long says it was a synergistic relationship from the get-go, resulting in shared growth as big-game fishing in the Gulf grew tenfold. Annually, the marina hosts a handful of major fishing events, including the nonprofit Orange Beach Billfish Classic, which Long started, and he has awarded $600,000 to The Billfish Foundation and CCA since its inception.

While the New Orleans, Pensacola and Mobile big-game fishing clubs were the first of their kind in the Gulf, they are not the only such clubs. As the sport has grown these past 40 years, big-game clubs have spread from city to city to include the Mississippi and Panama City big-game fishing clubs — organizations that all started because of a shared passion for billfishing. That said, the common thread of each and every one of these organizations is conservation of the species, which almost universally is part of their charters, Avrigian says. “Many of these clubs and their members were instrumental in getting current federal minimum weights raised and universally have supported time and area closures for swordfish and other species. Yes, there are a lot of big-money tournaments in the Gulf, all with higher-than-legal limits on blue and white marlin and sailfish. And many are total release events.”

Paul Kalman Jr. of New Orleans, whose father was the linchpin for big-game fishing in the Gulf, says, “It makes us proud to know, in the Gulf at least, conservation is a legacy that continues to produce memorable fishing days all these many generations later.”

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