Gulf Coast: Home Slider
May 15, 2012

The Gulf Coast's Forgotten Fishing

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

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 ( eventually bought Yap’s molds, and they continue to build and sell them today.