Saturday, April 24, 2010


Something called Tor-Con just rated us a 9 out of 10. Fantastic. A ninety percent chance of tornadoes today. The Weather Channel girl is advising those of us in the southeastern part of the U.S. to find a safe area in our home and to stay away from windows and doors. Outside (I’m ignoring the latter advice in order sit on my couch and watch a pair of Carolina wrens flicker about our patio), it’s slate gray and thunder is rumbling through my neighborhood. Glad I didn’t get up early to go fishing today.

Last weekend, however, I did get up early – really early – and went fishing. Let me tell you about it … although the story needs a little history first.

Over the past 13 years, I’ve done about a dozen offshore fishing trips in the Gulf of Mexico. It all started with a six-hour excursion Betsy and I took while on our honeymoon (we caught little tunny and a few small snapper … and were damn proud of it) before blossoming into a series of hard-core, overnight deep-sea adventures with a group of buddies.

This all came about when my longtime fishing friend, Joe, invited me to come along on an overnight trip out of Destin, Fla. We would be joining a contingent of his college buddies aboard the Trade Winds, part of the famous Olin Marler fleet. Two of Joe’s closest friends, Steve and Fred, were the trip’s chief organizers and most-dedicated fisherman. I was both excited and anxious, as I knew I’d have a blast – but a little worried about sea-sickness and sleeping on boat in 400 feet of water 80 miles from shore.

But, the trip proved to be an incredible experience as all 12 of us avoided contributing to the chum slick and managed to tackle a variety of deep-water and pelagic species. We had a blast and returned home with respective freezers full of wahoo, gag grouper, scamp, amberjack and the ubiquitous red snapper. That trip started an annual pilgrimage to the Gulf, as we continued our yearly explorations of Destin’s offshore fishery. Unfortunately, Joe fell victim to seasickness on consecutive trips and just couldn’t stomach another adventure aboard the Trade Winds. By that time, the original crew of anglers had dwindled to just a handful of us, and each subsequent trip featured a brand new set of faces. Steve, Fred and myself, however, were the stalwarts.

Through the years, we’ve burned into memory literally hundreds of great tales of our exploits at sea. We’ve enjoyed mega-trips that produced huge amounts of fish and the occasional meager-trip in which we just couldn’t dial in our quarry. While grouper, snapper and AJs were always among our catch, we’ve also tangled with blackfin and yellowfin tuna, king mackerel, sharks of all kinds, porgies, hake, wahoo, dolphin, ribbonfish,little tunnies and an array of denizens of the deep.

Steve won a Destin Rodeo category one year (overnight wahoo), a deckhand threw back Fred’s rodeo-winning scamp and I’ve caught some amberjacks that nearly turned me inside out. We’ve had calm days and angry seas, we’ve gone through a series of boats and captains and we’ve generated a series of legendary tales (Fred’s accidental swan-dive off the stern while fishing at night in 300 feet of water probably tops the list … but also joins a list of colorful stories which are just too long and too involved to tell).

This past weekend, Steve, Fred and I, along with Steve’s friends Lyle and Paul, joined four other “walk-on” anglers aboard Capt. Skipper Thierry’s Escape, out of Dauphin Island, Ala. Our goal was to ply the fertile waters that surround the many offshore oil rigs that dot the Alabama and Louisiana coasts.

The trip was particularly special for the Core Three, as we’d been frustrated by three consecutive last-minutecancellations of scheduled tuna trips out of Louisiana over the past year. The weather always plays a huge role in determining the success of your fishing, and well … we were overdue for a break.

Leaving out on Saturday morning, the sun was just peaking over the horizon, casting an otherworldly pink glow on the water. As the Escape cruised past the lighthouse marking the head of the pass, the deckhands deployed some high-speed trolling baits and Capt. Skipper hammered down in pursuit of our first stop.

The boat was filled with a capable crew and a cast of characters. As this was not your typical charter (we did not reserve the trip – it was scheduled by the charter service and given an “open call” for willing anglers), the fishermen onboard were experienced and well-aware of what lie ahead.

[A quick note: As only men seem capable of doing, we fished alongside the four other walk-on fishermen for two days, shared meals, beers, a bathroom and several stories … yet never exchanged names. I cannot believe the more social sex would be able to do that. I did eventually learn the name of one of our anglers … Ed, a teacher and writer, aboard the Escape in pursuit of a story for the magazine Great Days Outdoors, was a lot like everyone else onboard: a great guy and very good fisherman. He was also armed at all times with a camera, and was more than willing to drop a rod in pursuit of documenting one of us engaged in battle with an angry fish. Thank you, Ed, for the great conversation and for the photo below.]

Throughout the course of the first day, we loaded the boat with freshly-caught live bait, landed our limit of amberjack and eventually found our way to our desired destination … the shadow of the hulking offshore oil platform, the Petronius.

The massive rig was our constant companion and chief fish attractor as we slow-trolled Saturday afternoon and Sunday evening for the yellowfin tuna who call the Petronius home. Sitting in 1700 feet of water, the platform is one of the tallest free-standing structures in the world, and its massive support system provides a perfect place for the offshore food chain to kick into overdrive.

Taking turns astern, we dutifully watched the spread for any action. While the big yellowfins didn’t want to play with us, we did fool a few smaller ones along with several of their blackfin cousins. At night, though, out came the diamond jigs and anglers on both sides of the 65-foot Escape hooked up with the hard-fighting tunas, loading the fishbox with a sizeable selection of soon-to-be sashimi.

The highlight of my evening was getting the opportunity to toss a topwater chugger via a heavy-duty spinning rod. It took a few casts to hone in the technique, but the resulting strike (more of an explosion, really) was worth the money I paid to get on the boat. I would never get tired of that kind of fishing. Simply awesome.

Eventually, the lack of sleep and the total exhaustion brought about by fishing from sun-up to well past sundown wore down all of us onboard. Before calling it a night, the deckhands deployed a couple of swordfish rigs, which unfortunately went unmolested through the evening.

At 5 a.m., the boat came alive again, the tuna spread went back out and we resumed the troll. A few more fish were willing and our overall tuna haul became quite impressive. Once the sun rose well above the horizon, the trolling stopped and we ventured to another offshore platform and dropped live baits for amberjack. The AJs on this drop were much bigger than the previous day’s, which really put our already-sore forearms to the test. After wrenching up several reef donkeys in the 40 – 60 lb range, Capt. Skipper gave us a break and motoed the Escape to some deep drops over rock bottom where we fished for grouper and snapper.

By noon, we had reeled in our last fish and retired to the air-conditioned cabin to enjoy the trip back to Dauphin Island.

Back at the docks, we enjoyed a few pictures of the catch. Just a tip, though – do not try to be a hero and pick up the heaviest fish in the pile for the trophy photo. It won’t turn out well.

After the fish were cleaned and most of us had donated several quarts of blood to the Island’s no-see-ums, we packed up our coolers and headed north. Steve, Fred and I were completely worn out, but satiated. The trip had been successful and we enjoyed good weather and great fishing. The Escape and the entire Thierry fleet proved to be worthy of a return trip, and on the trip home, we discussed the next time we’d head to the Gulf for another bout of offshore angling. In the meantime, it’s back to the studio to capitalize on the artistic inspiration trips like this provide me.

Back inland, the storms continue. We’re under a severe thunderstorm warning, more storms are predicted to head our way later this evening and the tornado watch has been extended to 8 p.m. My only hope is that the wind, rain and hail will pound the pollen into submission (while miraculously missing my beloved truck in the driveway), helping all of us breath a little easier on Sunday morning.

Watch the skies. Be safe. Stay away from the windows. I’ll bet my bottom dollar that the sun will come out tomorrow.

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