Offshore tuna extravaganza not for the faint of heart
I thought I knew, but now, after 62 years of life, I have gained a new perspective for what it really means to, "Run far and fish hard!"
The realization hit me as the sun fell below the horizon of the Gulf of Mexico. I had not seen dry land for hours. Out of the darkness an eight-foot wave loomed, breaking over the bow of our 32-foot catamaran. Capt. Lance Walker calmly said, "We're about 120 miles offshore right now."
Twelve of us - in two boats - were on a 24-hour tuna fishing trip with Fish Commander Guide Service out of Grand Isle, Louisiana.
"These overnight trips are for the hardcore fisherman," said Capt. Walker. "They're for somebody who is really dedicated to spending the time for the yellowfin tuna. It's a unique trip... something you really can't describe until you experience it."
Fish Commander is a full-service guide outfit with a fleet of boats, including some fancy sportfisher-style boats. But the 24-hour tuna vessels are open boats designed to get you far offshore in a hurry so you spend less time running and more time fishing. But you are smack dab in the middle of whatever elements or seas Mother Nature decides to throw your way.
Underneath the deep seas and potential foul weather are prized yellowfin tuna.
"It's a Bucket List fish for everybody," said Capt. Lance. "They're beautiful fish. It's the one thing I hear about the most. The quality of the meat is incredible and the fish fight hard."
"Fight hard" is a gross understatement. Long before being invited on this excursion, I had heard the tales of epic battles that literally brought strong men to their knees. And among this particular group of "manly men," to hand off a rod to someone else midway through a fish fight is taboo. The hander-offer can expect some good-natured ribbing (or worse). I was worried.
I was even more worried when I watched Chattanooga businessman Rob Jenkins hook up to a freight train that seemed bound for the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, 5,000 feet down. Time and time again the big tuna ripped line from Jenkins' reel. Thirty minutes into the battle, Jenkins was totally spent. It was clear there was no strength left in his muscles, or his soul. Mentally he had gone some place most men have never seen.
But reminiscent of "The Old Man and the Sea," Jenkins refused to give in to his weakened body or the fish. I could hear the words written by Hemingway, "Fish, I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends."
The battle raged on as fellow anglers gave Jenkins water and provided what feeble encouragement they could. After the most grueling fish fight I've ever witnessed, Jenkins' tuna hit the bottom of the boat... with no handoff. After photos Jenkins sat quiet for long minutes. As he sat, fingers cramped and curled as if still gripping the rod, more Hemingway words came to mind - "I hate a cramp. It is a treachery of one's own body."
"This is my third consecutive trip with Fish Commander," Jenkins said later. "I signed up for a 24-hour trip. I didn't realize I would need another 24 hours to recover from the whipping handed out to me by a 44-pound tuna. I now know that 'chicken of the sea' is word play."
"It's a unique thing," said Capt. Walker later. "A lot of people do give up. The other day I had six guys who all swapped out the rod on one fish, twice. And it still took two hours to get that fish in the boat."
Erik Almy has been a key organizer of previous outings with Fish Commander.
"This was our fifth trip in the past 30 months with Fish Commander," said Almy. "These guys are hardcore fish catching machines. This is not a sightseeing sunset cruise with a few fish mixed in. If that's what you’re after go to Destin with all the tourists."
Story continues below, but here is a Video Photo Montage from the 24-hour adventure:
Whether it is long, rough ocean rides, foul weather or epic fish fights - this is not fishing for the faint of heart. And like any fishing, there are no guarantees. Out of our group of twelve, nine anglers caught ten yellowfin.
Ten tuna may not sound like much, but the biggest fish was pushing 80 pounds and they averaged between 40 and 50 pounds. These are not the monster bluefin tuna featured on the TV show, "Wicked Tuna." But when you buy yellowfin tuna retail you will pay comparable prices - a minimum of $10 a pound, sometimes up to $30, depending upon the quality and the cut. You do the math.
In addition to the yellowfin tuna the two groups carried 21 large cobia back to the dock along with assorted blackfin tuna and mahi mahi. Truth be known, we could have caught more cobia if we had wanted. But at the end of 24-hours of hard fishing, pounding seas and hot sun most of us were figuratively and literally, "done."
"I'd say it was a little above average [trip]," said Capt. Walker. "We ended up with a bunch of nice cobia. The tuna didn't cooperate as much as we wanted but we put some fish in the box."
"I've fished with dozens of saltwater guides in six states," said Allen Neuschwander. "I have had trips where I didn't catch a thing. These guys bust their tails, and do their best to put you on fish; target species, non target species, and everything in between. They will put you on fish and at the end of the day will send you home with meat in the box."
FISHING THE OIL RIGS
Most of the fishing off the shore of Louisiana is around oil rigs - drillers and wells reaping the benefits of precious black gold resting underneath the sea bed. The Louisiana coastal economy revolves around oil and fishing.
"I've taken a lot of biologists out here," said Capt. Walker. "They're amazed by it. They describe these oil rigs as "vertical reefs." Without these oil platforms and these structures Louisiana wouldn't be the fishery that it is. We hope they keep it clean, keep it safe and do what they need to do. But these structures provide places for the bait to hide out and the game fish to ambush it. It's just an ecosystem that we really utilize and really need. It's like nowhere else in the world."
Angler Shawn Butt has also traveled the world on exotic fishing trips.
"The Gulf of Mexico is an incredible fishery for yellowfin tuna," he said. "It is rivaled by very few places across the globe."
IT'S NOT ALL HARDCORE
The 24-hour trips aren't the only thing Fish Commander offers. Their business and dozens of other guide businesses, in the Grand Isle area offer near-shore and inshore excursions as well. Of course Louisiana is known worldwide for its incredible redfishing and fishing for sea trout (also known as specks).
"I'm really well known for providing folks with a mixed bag of fish," said Capt. Walker.
He's a hardened, sometimes coarse Louisiana seaman who knows his business and isn't afraid to take clients where the fish are - near or far.
"The weather was tough for us but we still got where we wanted to go," he said afterward. "Whether the fishing is a little slow or not, by the end of the day you come back with a box full of fish."
But everyone agreed that the most important thing they brought home from Grand Isle was memories.
"We're already planning our next trip," said Almy.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Capt. Lance Walker, 225-445-1005