Fishing The Gulf’s Open Waters
I love fishing Gulf oil rigs. I hate fishing Gulf oil rigs.
What accounts for this love/hate relationship? On the one hand, because these offshore structures are home to coral-reef ecosystems that attract many large predators, it’s unlikely you’ll have much trouble hooking up when you drop a jig or bait.
On the other hand, because you have to fish so close to the structure, don’t look for real high odds of landing whatever snatches your offering, unless you’re very fast and/or lucky, and using tackle much heavier than you’d otherwise need to avoid getting “rigged.”
But there’s an alternative — one that many (literally) overlook.
Out of Sight = Out of Mind
“It’s amazing how most anglers here have tunnel vision,” Capt. Rimmer Covington says, as we run out one of the many passes south of Venice, Louisiana, through which Mississippi River water churns. “We’re so spoiled, with so many rigs to fish; we run right over rigs, reefs, pipelines, wrecks and other relief that we can’t see, never stopping to drop a line.”
In one day of dropping jigs over various types of relief while fishing aboard Covington’s 39-foot SeaVee, I was one of several anglers to catch grouper — yellowedge, scamp, Warsaw, snowies, gags, reds — plus red and gray snapper, almaco jack, amberjack, bull redfish, true Atlantic bonito, kingfish and more.
Of course, it also helps to have a GPS full of numbers marking such open-water structure (OWS). Covington and his partners in the Mexico Gulf Fishing Company, based in Venice, owe their livelihood to knowing such spots. But with a bit of effort, weekend anglers can get in on the action, as well.
For example, those who do some homework can get their rods bent regularly by dropping to rigs that were toppled as part of Louisiana’s rigs-to-reefs program.
(That state program, by the way, while of value, is limited in scope and can do little to save the 650 or so oil platforms now scheduled for demolition and removal within the next five years by the Department of the Interior, as explained in SF’s April editorial.)
“There are nearly 30 toppled or cutoff rigs within reach on a day trip from Venice,” Covington points out. “Numbers for these are available to the public through Mississippi and Louisiana marine-resource agencies.”
Anglers can find many submerged rigs off Louisiana at wlf.louisiana.gov; search “artificial reef program.” For Mississippi waters, visit dmr.ms.gov; search “marine fisheries” and “artificial reef.”
In general, Covington says submerged structure/relief in the northern Gulf gets far less fishing pressure than rigs, both because they’re eminently visible and also offer an easy place for tying up.
The Essential Sounder
The best OWS or relief of any kind is likely to be that you find yourself, and nearly as good are numbers you get from a friend. Odds are these might be known to relatively few anglers.
Covington points out that he tries to monitor his sounder while going from place to place, marking anything he passes over that looks interesting so he can come back and check it out at some point. His GPS is full of numbers, marking not only rigs or pieces of them, but large rocks, interesting hard-bottom patches, wellheads, pipeline junctions and wrecked vessels.
“I’ve found literally hundreds of these spots,” the skipper says, “mostly by accident — by paying attention to the sounder. That’s the most important piece of equipment on my boat. Even with a limited budget, you should allocate as much as you can to the highest-quality sounder you can find.”
For Covington, that’s a Simrad NSO15 with CHIRP technology, coupled with an Airmar 3-kilowatt transducer with frequencies ranging from 33 to 210 kHz. A particularly welcome feature on his sounder, Covington says, is the BackTrack that “allows us to scroll back to structure that has already scrolled off the screen, and mark its location without having to turn the boat around and find it again.”
Covington advises anglers familiar with rig fishing to scale down their tackle, another advantage.
“When fishing rigs, you often need so much drag on such heavy tackle and line that anglers have to fight the fish with the rod in the holder,” he says. With lighter gear, they can fight the fish on their own. You also might find you’ll need less terminal gear, since structure you’re fishing over isn’t nearly as grabby as are submerged legs and cables of rigs.
In between spots with structure or relief on the bottom, it pays also to keep an eye on what can be seen on the surface, since habitat of a different sort might attract what you’re after. “Surface structure” might take the form of a ship at anchor or a weed line, such as the one we came upon while running to a spot.
Covington slowed and we began casting to it with lead‑heads and crankbaits, looking for tripletail, jacks and maybe cobia. We found a pod of the latter — or perhaps it was they who found us — and quickly hooked up a couple in the 20- to 30-pound range. Those smaller fish had beaten one considerably larger to the punch; when I dropped a jig with a 14-inch chartreuse Hogy tail in front of it, the big cobe pounced. After some exciting moments, a missed swipe with a gaff knocked it off at the boat; fortunately, it wasn’t a “release” I really minded making.
Top-Down Fishing Style
But for all its benefits, fishing OWS has its challenges as well.
“Fishing structure or relief in open water requires some skill,” Covington says, “since you might have to hold the boat directly over spots that can be very small. Some we fish are no larger than a picnic table.” Covington’s favorite places are fairly deep (200 to 400 feet) in water often churned by hard currents and choppy seas. So the helmsman has to know his stuff to sit tight and let anglers’ lines reach bottom. (Drift too fast and all might get hung before any can get bit.)
Sometimes the smallest area of relief will hold big surprises. But Covington lists as favorite open-water structure oil platforms cut off in 300 to 350 feet with at least 60 percent of their height from bottom to surface still intact.
When fishing such platforms, Covington employs a top‑down approach. “First, we fish shallow — from the top of the cutoff structure to the surface — for mangrove snapper, cobia and kings. Then we’ll work from the top of the structure down to within about 30 feet of bottom with big live baits and Butterfly-type jigs for red snapper, AJ, almaco, and gag and scamp grouper,” he says. “Then, we’ll finish off on the bottom for grouper — snowies, yellowedge and Warsaws.” He’s found OWS, including hard-bottom reefs, to the west that hold other species, such as speckled hinds and longtail bass.
It’s worth noting that during the days I fished OWS with Covington, we were hooking red snapper anywhere from near the surface to close to bottom. On one occasion, we fished a toppled rig that came to within 40 feet of the surface, and Covington and Capt. Scott Sullivan soon had live-chummed almost to the top a wad of mangrove snapper that averaged six to nine pounds. Dropping liveys with no weight brought immediate hookups.
Another OWS favorite: pipeline crossings. “They typically have no more than 10 feet of vertical relief but seem best at attracting grouper. The largest scamp and red grouper I’ve ever seen were caught on crossings,” Covington says.
Finally, he mentions pinnacles and salt domes, which offer a larger area and, for those not accustomed to such fishing, more drift time to keep baits down.
Covington follows a loose tripartite calendar for fishing open-water structure off eastern Louisiana.
January – April: “I like to troll and chunk — especially cutoff rigs with high relief — for wahoo, yellowfin and blackfin tuna,” Covington says. Go deeper and hook amberjack and scamp.
May – September: Prime time on OWS such as pipeline crossings or rocks for snapper (both gray and red), grouper, AJ, cobia and occasional pelagics. “This is also a great place in the summer to make bait: We catch a greater variety of bait than around oil platforms, from bonito and little blackfin for marlin to the blue runners, goggle-eye, and herring we use for summer yellowfin and dolphin.”
October – December: “We have a magnificent run of really big wahoo — 50 to 100 pounds and more — and they love to congregate around open-water structure,” Covington says. As in the winter, grouper offer an option down below, including Warsaws, snowies and yellowedge in 400 or so feet.
In some respects, the open-water-structure fishing can be too good. Particularly when fishing on small spots, says Covington, “the most important thing is to move after taking just a few fish from any one spot. Many of these open-water spots are small and can be quickly fished out.”
But such specific, open-water drop zones will always get far less pressure than rigs that rise far above the surface. Couple that with responsible fishing, and you can count on the myriad rigs and reefs you can’t see to remain some of the northern Gulf’s best bets for action.
While there are some acceptable hotels near Venice, Covington and his associates can accommodate groups of up to 12 in their lodge.
Mexico Gulf Fishing Company; four captains — Rimmer Covington, Scott Sullivan, Kevin Beach and Billy Wells — run four fast offshore boats; visit
www.mgfishing.com or call 601-951-3981.
www.plaqueminestourism.com, 888-745-0642 or 504-394-0018
Venice Marina; www.venicemarina.com, 504-534-9357
Cypress Cove Marina; www.cypresscovevenice.com, 504-534-9289