By Steve Dougherty
From natural reefs, wrecks and rockpiles to salt domes and ancient karst formations, weather buoys, FADs, underwater pipelines and distant drilling platforms tethered to the seafloor, the diverse assortment of marine communities in the Gulf Coast offers abundant year-round angling opportunities. Just as unique as the multitude of different environments that exist offshore, there are a variety of elements that combine to define each of the five states lucky enough to border the Gulf of Mexico.
Kicking off our Gulf tour along the emerald waters of Florida’s panhandle, one fisherman in particular had great influence on what has since been called “The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village.” Moving from New England in the mid-1880s, Leonard Destin fished these waters exclusively, and in time, a total of a dozen pioneer families settled the area. In the 1950s, the natural inlet was dredged for easier access to the Gulf. Now, Destin boasts the largest, federally permitted charter fleet in the nation.
Heading offshore from East Pass, most point the bow toward the DeSoto Canyon, the Nipple, the Elbow or the Spur. Out here, when conditions align, there’s a chance of hooking white and blue marlin, sailfish and swordfish in a single day. “The reason why I like Destin is because we have such a diverse fishery,” says Capt. Adam Peeples of One Shot Charters. “The bottom fishing is excellent, and we’re only 60 miles from an area where you can catch a billfish slam in a day. I guess a long run is subjective.
“In the summertime, the Spur is my backyard, just 60 to 70 miles offshore, and I consider that more of a short run. Running out to the oil rigs, we’re going 150 to 180 miles. That’s the only downfall. We don’t have platforms to fish in Florida’s waters, but now that we have FADs out there it adds a new element.”
In an effort to create habitat where it did not exist before and enhance fishing opportunities off the Emerald Coast, a team of engineers lead by Alex Fogg pioneered the first permitted network of anchored fish aggregating devices in the continental United States. The wildly successful project delivered eight anchored buoys in two linear arrays within the waters of the DeSoto Canyon in roughly 1,600 to 1,800 feet of water.
“Our open water fishery is hard to beat, there’s lots of good trolling opportunities. It’s hard to say we would ever be better than Venice as far as fishing goes, but for a destination, Venice doesn’t have any beaches or a restaurant scene,” Peeples says.
Home to the Cobia World Championships, Harbor Docks is a must-visit when in Destin. The restaurant has been serving local seafood since 1979, and its docks are interspersed with commercial vessels and sportfishing crews. Grab a cold drink and watch totes of fresh fish being pulled down the weathered planks. Boshamps Seafood & Oyster House is another local favorite. You can’t get enough of their fresh oysters baked with caramelized onions, Alabama feta and sprinkled with house-made bacon marmalade. Every meal here is a memory.
Among the coastal towns littering the Gulf, few are as friendly and welcoming as Orange Beach, Alabama. “To me, Orange Beach is the hub of the northern Gulf. You can get everything you need. Saunders Yachtworks is there if you run into some boat problems, there are several different mechanics in the area and the restaurant scene is great. We’re nowhere near as busy as Destin or Panama City, yet there are still multiple marinas to choose from. Orange Beach Marina is phenomenal; it’s super clean, there are two restaurants and I can be in the Gulf in 10 minutes at idle. We stay at Orange Beach Marina in a covered slip, which is pretty incredible, especially for our 72-foot Viking,” says Capt.
Patrick Ivie of Breathe Easy.
One of the Gulf’s finest destinations, the Wharf Marina encompasses a 222-acre entertainment district and is home to the Orange Beach Billfish Classic, The Invitational and The Blue Marlin Grand Championship. “The Wharf is really nice and has modern floating docks, numerous restaurants, bars and shops, and it hosts multiple tournaments every year, which is great because it’s an awesome venue. From here it’s about an hour run whether you go through Mobile Bay or Perdido Pass, but it’s a great place to bring the family. It all depends on what you want to do,” Ivie says.
When it comes to offshore fishing, the rigs are about 70 to 75 miles offshore from Orange Beach, and you can go as far as you want from there. “Everyone up here is fishing the same thing for the most part, aside from the guys in Texas that have their own platforms. Green Canyon is about 230 miles out. We’re super close to the Nipple and the Elbow, which is where we fish for white marlin and sailfish later in the year. We’re only 60 to 70 miles from the FADs, then you have Lloyds Ridge and the Spur. We can reach everything. So can the other guys, but we’re more centrally located. In my opinion, that’s what gives us the advantage,” Ivie says.
Compared to Florida, Mississippi has a small stretch of coastline, but what the Magnolia State lacks in waterfront real estate it redresses the balance with great people, great entertainment and great food. The seafood industry continues to play an important role in the diversity of Biloxi’s local economy, and numerous casinos exist along the east part of the waterfront, offering panoramic views of the sound. Aside from Biloxi’s trademark casinos with Las Vegas-style shows and fine dining options, there are a host of other attractions to keep everyone entertained, including beaches, golf courses, museums and historic sites. When it’s time to fish, heading out past Biloxi Lighthouse provides anglers with easy access to one of the most prominent valleys cut into the seafloor of the continental slope—the Mississippi Canyon.
As the sixth leg of the Gulf Coast Triple Crown, the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Billfish Classic is one of the most prestigious tournaments in the Gulf, attracting elite sportfishing teams to the Golden Nugget Casino & Hotel every June. With festivities headquartered at the Point Cadet Marina, the 2020 event set a new Gulf record, with an astonishing 101 billfish released during two-and-a-half days of fishing. Four qualifying blue marlin were weighed at Mississippi’s largest marina, with It Just Takes Time taking top honors with their 570.2-pound blue and Born2Run winning the release division with 10 blue marlin caught on live bait in the Mississippi Canyon. In addition to the world-class blue marlin fishing experienced in 2020, 17 boats weighed yellowfin of 125 pounds or heavier.
“We’re proud to celebrate 25 years of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Billfish Classic,” says Tournament Director Bobby Carter. “It’s a credit to the incredible fishery the Gulf Coast has to offer and the loyal support of all our great teams.” As of press date just weeks before the 2021 event, there were already more than 100 boats pre-registered. Among many accolades, the MGCBC has paid out millions in prize money over the years and holds the distinction of weighing a 1,054.6-pound blue marlin—the largest ever caught in the Gulf. While there’s never a bad time to visit Biloxi, May through October is prime time for billfish.
Located at the end of the road in Plaquemines Parish, Venice, Louisiana is about 75 miles southeast of New Orleans in the heart of the bayou. The saltwater fishery that Louisiana has to offer is one-of-a-kind, and Venice is the epicenter no matter the month of the year or species in the crosshairs. However, don’t expect much in the form of nightlife, provisioning or cell phone service. “The closest grocery store is 25 miles away, but you can get liquor, bread and milk at the Dollar General in Venice,” says Steve Thomas, tournament director of the Cajun Canyons Billfish Classic.
You do not go to the end of the road for anything other than fishing, and the reason Venice leads the way to such a hotbed of action is because it has the closest deep-water access in the entire Gulf of Mexico. The only downfall is the 25-mile commute down the Mississippi River that’s required to reach open water. “They are actually dredging Tiger Pass now, and supposedly they’re going to dredge South Pass to 18 feet, which would be great,” says Thomas.
Southwest Pass is currently the favored thoroughfare, and once you reach the Gulf, the magnitude of the oil and gas industry becomes apparent. From permanent structures attached to the bottom in shallow water, to floaters tethered to the dark depths of the continental shelf and thruster-propelled rigs that stem the current at four-knots, the Gulf’s self-sustaining platforms provide the energy to power the United States and beyond. These massive rigs tapping underwater energy supplies provide what is arguably the greatest network of artificial habitat in the world, attracting nearly every species of fish that swims in the Gulf of Mexico.
“It is no coincidence that so many varieties of fish can be found near Venice. The Mississippi River deposits cold, nutrient-rich freshwater into the warm and saline water of the Gulf. This combination of water, nutrients and the steep continental shelf makes for fishing unlike just about anywhere else in the world,” says Capt. Brett Ryan. Cypress Cove Marina & Lodge is popular with those on their own bottom and home to the Cajun Canyons Billfish Classic, which is the second leg of the Gulf Coast Triple Crown. If you need a charter, there are numerous catamarans and center consoles ready to shuttle you offshore from nearby Venice Marina.
If you’re looking for a bit more life on land, Grand Isle is approximately 35 nautical miles west of Venice. Along Louisiana’s only inhabited barrier island, Hurricane Hole Marina is the place to be offering transient slips, long and short-term rentals, a hotel, restaurant, ship store, luxury pool, kid’s splash pad, beach access and more. Home to the first stop of the Gulf Coast Triple Crown, Hurricane Hole and its Louisiana Gulf Coast Billfish Classic is a popular retreat for sportfish crews seeking resort-style amenities while still retaining the Gulf’s simple pleasures.
Many outsiders don’t immediately associate Texas with big game sportfishing, but the Lone Star State has it all. “Port Aransas is a special place because we have easy access to the rigs offshore for live baiting big blue marlin, which is almost a year-round thing. We have our bluefin tuna season where we catch a lot of giants as bycatch, and then we have a short but pretty good dink bait season where we get our whites and sails close on the shelf. Even just up around the corner at Galveston or Freeport, they don’t really get what we get down here. We also have access to the shallow rocks off Port Mansfield that have a ton of great grouper fishing and state water red snapper. I consider it the best in the Gulf for the range of species you can target,” says Capt. Dusty Mayo.
In an area known as the Coastal Bend, Port Aransas has great restaurants, bars and nightclubs lining every inch of waterfront. “What’s consistent about Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi are the oil rigs and the live baiting. That’s how most of the tournaments are won, catching one big fish. You come around the corner where we are, and it splits the teams into two different directions. Most of the crews that are savvy with live baiting blue marlin go out and hit the deep-water rigs. The ones more into the dink bait fishing stay closer to the continental shelf. For this we’re fishing anywhere from 40 to 80 miles out,” Mayo says.
The Gulf of Mexico comprises more than 600,000 square miles of open water and is perhaps the most species-rich destination an angler could ever dream of visiting. The fact that the waters of the Gulf are teeming with life shouldn’t be a surprise, but what is surprising is how more glamorous destinations continue to overshadow it. This is one of the world’s greatest fisheries and serves as both a migratory destination and nursery for many important species. Whether you chase good fishing or just good times, the Gulf of Mexico is ready when you are, well within reach and without the need to board a plane, stamp a passport or take a Covid test.
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