Fall Gulf Fishing

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 By Capt. Mel Berman, 970-WFLA & 620-WDAE

It’s a little chilly. Not quite daylight. An edging of warm, orange light begins seeping over the horizon. Sitting on the big Igloo cooler facing astern, you can’t help but notice the boat’s wake taking on a golden glow, reflecting the emerging day. It’s been a long hot summer and well into the autumn. But this morning is different. The windbreaker you remembered to bring feels good. Seasonal change is underway. Fall fishing has arrived. Sea temperatures are dropping, hovering around the magical 70s.

As the boat streaks past the outer buoy, all aboard share a strong sense of anticipation. This is the time of year when fishing in the gulf kicks into gear.

One of the guys fidgets with the thermos, unscrewing the top, and pouring just enough coffee into the cap so that it won’t splash out during the slightly choppy ride. Two voices crackling on the VHF talk about “limiting out on kings”. This generates a sense of enthusiasm aboard the vessel. “This is gonna be one dynamite day,” proclaims Rick, sitting on the gunnel toward the stern, “we’re gonna tear ’em up! I just know it.”

The rest of us listening would rather Rick had not said that. Overly optimistic pronouncements always seem to jinx the day.

After a moment or two, we all settle into a thoughtful silence. The loran shows 12.8 nautical miles to our fishing hole. “That’s about half an hour,” you think to yourself. It seems an eternity until you reach those special rocks, designated on this day as THE place where the big king mackerel should be hanging out.

During the final few miles of the ride, everyone comes out of their semi-conscious state. Things start humming. There is tackle to be checked one final time before “zero hour”. Big Captain Action spoons attached to No.2 planers on boat rods – check. A jointed Rebel “Jawbreaker” affixed to the leader on a No.6 planer which, in turn, is secured to the starboard stern cleat – check. Light spinners rigged with No.1 spoons -check and double check. We’re covered for everything from grouper, to spanish mackerel. to kings.

Finally, the skipper drags down the throttle and the boat dips off plane. We are now moving through the water at an ideal 6-knot trolling speed. All the “artillery” is deployed. Everyone gathers around the depth recorder, staring at it as though they were watching “The Seminoles or Gators” on TV. Soon a picture of the bottom takes form. “There should be a big ledge somewhere around here.” says Frank. He maneuvers the boat running down the final microseconds to our destination loran coordinates.

Suddenly, before we ever “zero-out” the loran, the big boat rod that’s pulling a large Captain Action spoon starts vibrating wildly. “Fish on!” yells Rick. “It’s a big kingfish! Don’t horse it,” cautions Frank. “Just reel it in steady. I’ll back you down on it.”

The king sullenly dives down to the bottom. Mark strains back. The rod has major-league bend in it. “Zzzzp…zzzp…zzzp” The king slowly takes drag.

Then, without any notice, the fish eases up ever so much. Mark quickly reels in the available slack The fish gets it’s second wind and dives down again with ever greater determination. Meanwhile, I make myself useful and reel the other outfits so that when the king surfaces he’ll have a good clean run and the lines won’t get fouled.

As the fish surfaces and sees the boat, he goes bonkers, jumping completely out of the water, then making one last desperate dive, “Wow! He must be at least 30 pounds,” says Frank. All aboard the boat are impressed with the tenacity of the great fighting fish. We all agreed to keep only the smaller, better tasting kings, so our call was to release this smoker king. As the fish is brought alongside our vessel, Frank gently releases the big spoon from his mouth, and rocks him back and forth to start the water flowing through the gills. Tail and fins begin a slight oscillation, as the fish starts moving slowly in circles. He comes to life with a sudden splash, and quickly dives into the depths of the Gulf.

Before setting out the handline with the No. 6 planer and equipped with the Rebel “Jawbreaker,” I notice that one of it’s trebles had all three hooks straightened out. This means that, while we were all caught up in fighting the kingfish, a monster grouper or other large fish struck our deep trolled bait and straightened out the hooks. Come to think of it, when I reeled in all of the other tackle, the large planer had already tripped and was on the surface.

Those straightened hooks made a good case for replacing the lighter trebles with good stout single hooks. …ones that won’t let you down when a larger grouper strikes. They also make it much easier to release the fish unharmed. The only concern might be the difference in plug action fitted with the larger single hooks. There’s a good way to check it. Before deploying the plug on the planer, drop it in the water beside the boat as it travels at trolling speed. You can then observe the action of the new lure/hook combination. You might also want to compare it to the action of the same plug equipped with treble hooks. In most instances, the new motion of the plug with the single hook will catch just as many fish.

However, this time we decide to let the Jawbreaker take a rest and replace it with a skirted lure, rigged with two 9-0 hooks and a strip of mullet. Frank kicks the boat into gear, and sets the trolling speed again. This time we go for a nice boat ride. We troll endlessly around the reef, occasionally picking up one of the biggest pests on the Gulf…lizardfish. “Ya know, if they started a blackened lizardfish craze, and we wanted to catch them, they’d disappear,” theorized Rick.

Finally, up ahead, we see three or four birds working a school of bait. Every so often a silvery line of small sardines bursts through the surface. Big Spanish mackerel leap out of the water and crash down on their prey. “Try not to run the boat too close, Frank,” suggests Rick. “You don”t want t spook them.” With a master’s touch, Frank maneuvers the boat so that only the planers travel through the big bait school.

Bang! Bang! Bang! It’s a triple hook up! Three spanish on at once. Frank puts the engines in neutral and joins Rick and me reeling in three 25-inch mackerel. “This must be what folks mean when they say they’re having a “Big Mac attack,” jokes Frank. A few more passes and we limit out on Spanish and in the bargain pull in a few 12 to 15 pound, “eating size” kings that also wind up in the cooler. Then, as though to cap a glorious fall Gulf fishing day, the big planer has surfaced with a hefty gag grouper attached, and large enough to feed the whole crew.

Now, you all know why us offshore angers develop that crazed, far away look in our eyes during these productive fall fishing months!