If you like fishing in the Gulf, imagine what two full days and a full night would be like.
The darkness over the open Gulf goes on forever. The lights of a massive oil rig twinkle in the darkness not so far away, and the Gulf itself is calm with only a slow roll of a dying swell.
The working lights of the big fishing boat shine into the Gulf water, and swarms of small fish and squid jet through the light from one side of the boat to the other. Loud splashes erupt from the darkness. The splashes come closer. Tuna shatter the calm surface of the water as they chase and catch smaller food fish.
No doubt about it, it is time to go tuna fishing.
A quick check to make sure that everything is in order: line is free to run, reel drag is set right, and the hooks of the lure are clear. A flip of the lever gear-disengage on the reel, and the heavy jig falls into the water and quickly goes out of sight in the deep, deep water below. We wait.
The wait is very short, though. After only a few seconds’ fall, the line stops going out, and the reel is quickly put back in gear, and the angler violently jerks the rod upward. The big fish below violently jerks the rod downward. The rod begins to do a rapid bump, bump, bump as the powerful tuna hooked below pulls for freedom with strong beats of its tail.
The struggle is on, and the smile on the face of the angler gets wider and wider as the fish is slowly worked back to the boat. This is the sort of action that happens very often when anglers go on overnight fishing trips to the deep water of the Gulf.
What’s the Schedule of an Overnighter?
Captain George Pfeiffer owns and operates the Emerald Spirit, a sixty-five foot Bonner set up with two showers, two bathrooms, and air conditioned bunks—he runs thirty-six- hour overnight trips quite often when twelve anglers want to put a trip of a lifetime together.
“We leave the dock at six o’clock in the morning,” he says, “and we return to the dock at six in the evening of the next day.” That’s a long time to be on the water, and just about all of the time in between departure and arrival is spent fishing.
The fishing begins almost immediately when the boat stops off the rocks of the Perdido Pass Jetty to catch bait. The livewell is blacked out with hard tails, pogies, pinfish, small ladyfish; whatever comes to the Sabiki rigs. And for first-time overnight anglers, many are surprised at the size of the bait. Some of the live bait will weigh well over a pound. Remember, on overnight trips big fish are the target, and big fish like big bait. Just catching bait for an overnight trip is fun.
As the boat enters the open Gulf, trolling lines are dropped back, and high-speed trolling for wahoo and king mackerel is done until the next stop.
Captain George says, “We stop and fish bottom structure like the Trysler Grounds for mingos and other great-tasting reef fish. Big amberjack are very commonly hooked while deep dropping. We keep fishing bottom stuff until we pull up and head for the deep blue water. Then we’re tuna fishing. At night, we jig for blackfin and yellowfin tuna, and we put out big live bait for swordfish.”
“The overnight trips focus on tuna, that hard-fighting and delicious big game fish.”
The overnight trips focus on tuna, that hard-fighting and delicious big game fish, and Captain George and his crew troll for tuna, chunk for tuna, and even fly kites for tuna once the boat reaches the deeper water near the gas and oil rigs far out in the Gulf.
“The better the weather during a trip,” he says, “the more varied ways we fish and the more techniques we can use.”
“In the morning, we troll for tuna and then work our way back to shore,” he adds. “We reverse the trip we did the previous day, bottom fishing on our way back.”
Of course, during a trip of this length, even anglers will have to eat and sleep, and on the Emerald Spirit’s trips, meals and soft drinks are provided. Anglers can bring any additional food or drinks they want, too.
Sleeping? Well, that’s up to the angler. Very comfortable air-conditioned bunks are provided. Some folks seem to be able to fish around the clock, but most anglers wear down and sleep during the night when the boat is drifting.
How do We Fish on the Overnighters?
For those anglers who get bored fishing only a single way, these long offshore trips are just the ticket. There’s something for just about everyone on an overnight trip.
Bottom fishing is always very good, and chunks of bait are dropped to natural and man-made structure to catch triggerfish—vermillion snapper, white snapper, and grouper—in season, plus other reef fish. Standard heavy-duty equipment is used.
Anytime the boat is moving from location to location, the crew puts out trolling gear for pelagic gamesters like wahoo and big king mackerel. “When trolling,” Captain George says, “we use 16 oz trolling leads and big 24 oz trolling lures in various colors and sizes. We do whatever it takes to catch fish.”
When the boat reaches the tuna grounds (80 to 90 miles offshore) around the various offshore rigs such as the Ram Powell, Petronius, and the Beer Can rigs, anglers use tuna rigs with multiple lures and teaser rigs to attract tuna and other big-time game fish. Double hookups are fairly common when the spread of lures is pulled through a school of hungry tuna. It’s quite common to have big mahi-mahi (dolphin fish) slash into a trolled tuna lure and then provide a strong, colorful battle.
If conditions allow, anglers can chunk for tuna. This technique has anglers using chunks of fresh blackfin tuna or other highly-flavored fish on circle hooks. The chunks are dropped into the water and each angler slowly feeds line out by hand as the boat drifts. This allows the baited hooks to sink at a natural rate to the level where the tuna are feeding.
Chunking is a deliberate and peaceful way to hook tuna, but when the tuna hits, the peace and quiet disappear instantly. As the tuna eats, the angler picks up the rod, engages the reel, and the fun begins. Some very big yellowfin tuna are caught by chunking.
At night, the boat is stopped and the lights come on. All kinds of open-ocean small stuff like squid and flying fish are attracted to the boat’s lights, and the tuna and other game fish follow them. Tuna fishing at night must be experienced to be believed. The tuna smash bait on the surface, and when a 20-pound or larger tuna takes a bait, it makes a real splash. Deep jigging and big top-water poppers will attract tuna.
Jigging for tuna is just about my favorite kind of offshore fishing. Using a heavy rod and reel—something that can handle 40 lb line and six to eight ounce jigs—is necessary. Although most tuna caught jigging are 20-pound blackfins, sometimes a really big and strong one takes a dropped jig. When that happens, the angler needs some backbone in the equipment to have a chance of landing the really big ones.
Jigging is easy. But catching fish while jigging is hard work. The jig or heavy flutter-spoon is simply allowed to fall free and sink into the deep water. At some point in its fall, the jig will just stop. Don’t worry, that’s not the bottom. The bottom is thousands of feet below. The stopping of the jig means that a tuna has it and is swimming off.
Take up slack, lean back on the hook set, and hold on. Even small 15-pound blackfin tuna will put a severe strain on an angler’s back. The really big yellowfin, which sometimes show up, will put a severe strain on all body parts.
Another really fun way to fish at night on the 36-hour trips is casting big, noisy popping plugs way off into the darkness and then popping the plug back toward the boat. When tuna take a top-water plug, there is absolutely no doubt about it. Big blackfins and the occasional yellowfin tuna will crush a top-water, and they fight very hard on top-water plugs. Extra-heavy-duty large spinning rigs work well for this kind of fishing, but the reels need to be able to handle the power of tuna. The reel’s drag system must be absolutely smooth with no grabs or stops when a strong tuna runs.
What do We Catch?
When the Emerald Spirit returns from a long tuna trip, the amount of fish and range of species caught and unloaded at the dock for cleaning can be impressive. For most anglers, a trip on a 36-hour offshore trip will present them with the chance to see and catch more and bigger fish than they will ever see again in their lives.
Captain George Pfeiffer says, “We catch all kinds of reef fish; big amberjack. We even do deep-dropping for snowy grouper, yellow-edge grouper and other deep water fish. We catch yellowfin tuna from 30 to 175 pounds, black fin from little 10- to 12-inch fish to 35 pounders. Blue marlin, white marlin, wahoo, and mahi-mahi have been caught. We have caught swordfish at night, too.”
Captain George laughs when he says, “On a thirty-six-hour trip, you’re out there in the deep blue!”
When fishing on the Emerald Spirit overnight trips, a wide range of angling experience and ability is usually represented in the anglers booked on the trip. It’s not uncommon for an experienced angler to catch a lot more fish than a newcomer. However, when it comes to dividing up the fish (and most of the fish caught on the overnight trips are some of the best eating fish in the Gulf), it’s a team effort.
All fish are shared out equally at the dock. “We insist on equal shares,” Captain George says. “All fish will be divided equally among the anglers. Of course, we’ll take your big fish photo when you catch a nice one, but it will all be cleaned and shared equally. Everyone takes home an equal share.”
Who Does These Trips?
Several larger fishing boats at Orange Beach and Dauphin Island routinely schedule offshore overnight trips. Anglers interested in booking an overnight trip can look at various charter boats’ advertising in Great Days Outdoors and online.
To fish with the Emerald Spirit crew, 12 anglers will make up a trip. For a boat the size of Emerald Spirit, 12 folks fishing allows plenty of room for everyone; no crowding at the rail.
If a group of friends needs help in making up a trip, the folks at Emerald Spirit and the other offshore overnight boats will help coordinate and combine anglers to make up the required number to pay for the trip.
Now, what’s the cost? These overnight trips are not like walk-on short four-hour trips, and they cost more. On the Emerald Spirit, for a 36-hour trip, anglers will pay $775 per person.
Of course, this covers all costs; tips for deck hands, fish cleaning, and meals are provided. A point to keep in mind when considering a long trip like these and the costs involved. A whole lot more time is spent actually fishing rather than just going on a boat ride to get to the fishing spots, as happens on shorter trips.
Having been on these trips before, I can truly say that the overnight tuna trips are some of the best fishing experiences of my life. I saw more and caught more on the overnighters than on any other trips I’ve made anywhere.
Captain George Pfeiffer says, “Our goal on the thirty-six-hour trips is to go tuna fishing and also catch all of the bottom fish our limits will allow. Anglers get the benefit of more fishing for the same cost of two twelve-hour trips.”
Important Contact Information:
Captain George Pfeiffer—Orange Beach
Captain Mike Thierry—Dauphin Island