Night Fishing the Gulf of Mexico

Extend your range and your fishing beyond the limits of a day trip with careful planning.

night fishing in Gulf of Mexico
Multiday Mission: By making an offshore trip a two-day affair, you maximize time on the water, and save fuel.Scott Sommerlatte

With time a precious commodity and fuel prices nearly tripled in the last 10 years, fishing the deeper waters of the Gulf of Mexico is more difficult than ever. Out of my home state of Texas, consistent fishing for grouper and tuna often requires trips of 70-plus miles. By the time you add in stops for catching bait, this leaves little time to fish in a day, even in a fast center-console. Over the years, several of my good friends have figured out how to “stop the clock” and get more bang for those dollars spent at the gas pump by staying out in the Gulf overnight.

night fishing in Gulf of Mexico
Go Big: Spending the night lets you put in the time necessary to coax the bigger fish into the feeding mode.Scott Sommerlatte

Horizon Bound

About seven years ago, I got a call from my buddy John Thomas Dusek, who owned, at the time, a 31 Yellowfin. “We’re heading out to the floaters tomorrow morning, and we are coming back in the next day at noon,” he informed me. “You in?”

It was a new concept to me, but the thought of throwing topwaters under the lights all night for tuna made my heart race, so I jumped on board.

Preparing for the trip was no different than for any other except we needed more food, more to drink and more bait. None of this was a big deal, though space gets tight when you put four people and everything they need for 36 hours on a center console. Where normally you need lunch, you now need two lunches, dinner and breakfast.

A stop at our favorite breakfast taco stand took care of the last part of the equation, and the rest was taken care of by Subway and Buc-ee’s, our favorite convenience store down by the beach. The next hurdle was bait. You never know what you are going to find in regards to bait when you head into the Gulf, so our buddy Pat Varga, who would be accompanying us on the trip, stayed up late the night before catching pinfish to ensure that, should we not be able to find good numbers of blue runners, we would not be wasting our time.

It was a beautiful thing. Instead of getting up at 4 o’clock to meet and get the boat ready, we could sleep in, meet up later, make the long run out, make several stops to catch bait, reach the fishing grounds around midafternoon, fish until dark and through the night, and then fish our way back in.

red snapper in the Gulf
Red Opportunity: Red snapper provide lots of great action, but pay attention to the ever-changing Gulf snapper regulations.Scott Sommerlatte

Stepping Out

On the way out, we made a few select stops to look for cobia and amberjack. Our success in finding for cobia was limited at the two or three offshore drilling platforms, but we boated a couple of sizable amberjack and then dropped the hammer for Flower Garden Banks, a prominent reef system 100 miles off Sabine Pass. The goal was to reach the area before the sun made it to the horizon and to troll for wahoo, which feed best at sunrise and sunset. That evening was perfect as could be, and we added a nice ’hoo to the box before heading even farther into the Gulf.

What I remember most is pulling up to the rig known as the Gunnison just after dark. I wondered if the guy who dreamed up this monstrosity had any idea that he was creating one of the largest fishing lights ever, a beacon that attracts millions of baitfish, which in turn lure some of fastest, hardest-fighting fish to it every night.

While the yellowfin pulled a no-show, we had enough blackfin that were more than happy to crush a topwater and provide plenty of sport that night. The next morning, just as color appeared in the east, we managed a few smaller yellowfin by free-lining blue runners beneath the lights. Then it was time to head back.

On the return, we stopped at Flower Garden Banks yet again to troll for wahoo and made a couple of drops for amberjack. After we boated a wahoo and a couple of reef donkeys, it was time to find some cobia, dorado and snapper. Looking at the coordinates we had for fishing spots between us and the dock, we chose some buoys, rigs and reefs as close to our return track as possible and headed home.

blackfin tuna in the Gulf
Pelagics Too: Overnight trips offer chances at pelagic species like blackfin tuna too, not just bottom dwellers.Scott Sommerlatte

Plan, Plan, Plan

Since our first trip, we have learned much about overnighting. If there is one tip I can offer, it’s be efficient. Don’t clutter the boat with unnecessary items, but make sure that you have all that you need. Nothing sucks more than being hungry or thirsty and knowing that you still have a four-hour boat ride back to the dock. Or even worse, wondering if you will have enough fuel to make it back.

Safety

When you’re planning an overnight trip into the Gulf, safety is the first consideration. Know the limitations of your boat. Is the engine reliable? Can you carry enough fuel to make the trip and have plenty of reserve should it be needed? What is the weather forecast? These are but of few of the questions to ask yourself before setting out on an extended adventure.

It’s also important to ensure that all of your communications and safety equipment is in good working order. I recommend carrying a backup GPS and a satellite phone in case of an emergency.

jigs for Gulf fishing
Assortment of flutter jigs and bucktail jigs, plus jigging spoons and sabikis (not pictured), are easy rigs to use to catch baitfish.File Photo

File a float plan that details the trip, including compass headings to and from the fishing grounds and lat/longs of every anticipated stop, with a loved one or friend. Provide an estimated return time, and agree on a time they should alert the Coast Guard should you fail to make contact with them. Also remember that operating a boat and fishing at night can be dangerous. Nothing can put an end to a fishing trip quicker than striking a deadhead or running into an unlighted standpipe. In addition, there are tons of small hazards strung about the boat. One night I woke up from a short nap in the beanbag and walked to the back of the boat. Half asleep, I grabbed everything that I could find to keep my balance. I woke up quickly when a large treble hook ended up embedded in my hand.

Carry plenty of illumination on the boat, and stay aware of your surroundings, both around and on the boat. Most importantly, make sure someone is always awake, whether the boat’s drifting in open water or tied up to a rig or buoy. The direction of the current can change, and you never know if the captain of some crew boat or shrimp boat bearing down on you is asleep at the wheel. Sharpen your instincts, make a sound plan, and pack smart; overnighting in the Gulf is worth all the effort you put into it once you're far from land, into the fish and in no hurry to move on.

Think Long-Term

An extended trip requires some careful planning; you’ll need more than you are accustomed to packing for a day trip just to cover the extra time you’ll be at sea. You’ll also need to build in some spare supplies to carry you over in the event of delays or trouble that could postpone your return. Here are some things to gather as you prepare.

  1. Extra ice for the extended stay.

  2. Enough food for the time out and some extra rations that don't require refrigeration, for emergency use. Pre-prepared sandwiches, cold pizza, fried chicken and things that can go bad should be used up first.

  3. Extra water. The amount needed per person varies, but in warm weather, a gallon per person, per day is a good rough guideline. You'll need more if temperatures are high, and this does not take into account washing, only drinking water.

  4. Extra bait, should it be needed.

  5. Extra fuel or full reserve tanks just in case. Figure out your fuel requirements for the trip planned. Use the standard guideline of allocating a third of your fuel for going, a third of it for the return trip and a third as reserve.

Safety Checklist

  1. File a float plan with family or friends, and let someone know when to launch a search if you haven't checked in.

  2. Ensure that engines are in top working order.

  3. Ensure that all electronics are in good working order.

  4. Pack foul-weather gear and a set of dry clothes — these can make or break a trip.

  5. Take extra illumination and spare batteries.

  6. Bring a satellite phone.

  7. Keep a spare handheld GPS in case of a major malfunction.

  8. Pack charts in case of an electronics failure.

  9. Maintain a well-stocked first-aid kit.

  10. Bring any required medications (blood pressure meds, insulin, etc.) for those who may need them.

Overnighting in the Gulf of Mexico

Because you’ll encounter a variety of species and ways to fish for them, try to choose outfits that are versatile. This keeps the boat from becoming cluttered. Here are some very general recommendations.

Rods: 30-pound bottomfishing rods suitable for pulling large amberjack and grouper from heavy structure; 50-pound trolling rods for wahoo and kingfish; medium-heavy casting rods for casting lures and jigs to tuna and live baits to cobia; 12- to 16-pound rods for catching bait.

Reels: Best quality with reliable drags, sized for rods and appropriate line.

Lines: Braid for bottomfishing and heavy casting; mono and wire leaders for trolling.

Lures: Flutter jigs; assortment of 2-ounce bucktail jigs; 1/4- to 1/2-ounce jigging spoons and sabiki rigs for catching bait.

Other: An assortment of prerigged bottom-drop leaders for grouper and amberjack, and wire leaders for kingfish and wahoo.