To catch the largest blackfish in mid-June, look for green (salty) water.
Temperatures hovering in the high nineties, blistering sun, little or no wind, a tide that’s barely moving—these are the conditions that our brigade prays for.
What most people say are the worst conditions to fish during summer are exactly what the fishing team I call the “Blackfish Brigade” lives for. Now, why in heaven’s name would anglers hope for such miserable conditions? Simply stated, it’s because these are the conditions that make targeting blackfish in Mobile Bay so rewarding.
The ragtag group of Rick Tourne, Kyle Mitternight, Michael McDonald, and “old man” Frank Mitternight team up together during the most miserable time to fish. Blackfish, also known as tripletail, move into Mobile Bay as the salinity and water temperatures, along with baitfish, gather to their liking. This setup usually occurs sometime in June and will continue till late September, depending on weather conditions.
Instant info helps
For many years, Mobile Bay blackfish were the desired targets of a small contingent of dedicated anglers who love the fighting action and the incredible table fare of blackfish. With today’s instant information available on the Internet, stories and pictures are at the fingertips of anyone with a computer. This instant knowledge of the blackfish has contributed greatly to its newfound popularity.
Rick Tourne of the Blackfish Brigade talked with me about how the motley group of fishing friends got together and started chasing the delicious blackfish.
“I, Michael, Kyle and his Dad, Frank, are all serious speckled trout anglers,” he confides. “After a fierce spring of chasing specks when the weather conditions are comfortable, it gets quite a bit tougher to find them and catch them in the miserable summer weather. However, that’s when blackfish are around to be caught.”
When to Start
“We start fishing for blackfish the first part of June,” Tourne advises. “There will be some fish show up in May, but those fish seem to run on the smallish side. From mid-June on, the better quality fish arrive. Once the water temperatures hit the mid-seventies to high-seventies you can pretty much count on catching some very good fish.”
What to Look For
Besides water temperature, Tourne and his group are looking for something else critical to catching blackfish.
“We pay close attention to water salinity,” he says. “We are on the lookout for green, salty water. If the water isn’t green, then it’s not that salty. In the early part of summer, that water condition is normally restricted to the lower end of Mobile Bay and the Mississippi Sound. Another reason we target those areas near the Gulf is that you have constant waves of new fish coming in. Fish that have migrated to the northern part of the bay have been pounded by fishermen. These fish can get real spooky and difficult to catch.”
Looking for any new floating debris or possibly even newly-set crab traps, the Brigade is also looking for fish. Blackfish love to position themselves under anything that provides shade.
“Even though we’re constantly trying to spot fish near the shady spots, they don’t always show themselves,” Tourne adds. “I would say it’s about 50-50 on whether we see the fish or not. Either way, we like to give new stuff a try.”
Blackfish have a fondness for shrimp, so the Brigade will have plenty along for a blackfish trip.
“We use large dead shrimp and as big a live shrimp as we can find,” Tourne explains. “Some days they work equally well. Occasionally, we also use finfish, mainly pinfish, for bait to tempt blackfish.”
“We vary our tackle setup, depending on the spot we fish,” Tourne says. “You can get away with a lighter rig when fishing floating debris. On those rigs we use 20-30 pound test line. Floating debris will give a little if you get caught up in it or the fish pulls you into it.”
For the stationary spots, Tourne and his group beef up their tackle setup. “When targeting channel markers, buoys, or any other spot that won’t move, we step up to at least 40-pound test,” he says. “Any larger and it becomes difficult to cast your bait to the desired spot.”
On the matter of corks, Tourne has a couple of ways to use them to be more effectively.
“Using a cork allows you to see the strike,” he confirms. “That’s the designed purpose of a cork. We use a set cork around the floating debris we encounter and use slip corks around stationary structure. When we spot a fish around floating debris, we will set the cork at a foot or two.
“We want that fish to be looking up at our bait and entice it to strike. Fishing that shallow keeps the bait up near the floating debris. On the stationary structure, we fish three-to-five feet deep. You don’t always see the fish, so you need to fish deeper to allow any fish on that structure to see your bait.”
When questioned about the Brigade’s best trip ever, Tourne struggles a little with his answer. “We’ve had so many good days chasing blackfish that it’s hard to pick the best trip ever,” he says. “I do remember one trip where we caught three fish that weighed between 18 to 20 pounds off one channel marker.
“We probably ended up catching nine fish in that same pound range. On that day, we were tagging and releasing fish. Another good day was during the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo. We caught 15-plus fish and I managed to take third place in the rodeo.”
Tag and Release
On the subject of tag and release, Tourne is very enthusiastic, urging others to get on board with the program.
“With the limit on blackfish at three per person,” he says, “your day can be over quickly. To extend your enjoyment, you can practice catch and release. I suggest people go further and start tagging these fish. We started tagging and releasing blackfish several years ago. We got back information from the program that was eye-opening.”
As mentioned at the start of this story, targeting blackfish in Mobile Bay has become very popular. With that popularity comes competition for the fish. Tourne points out a few things to be fair to your fellow blackfish anglers.
“First off, you don’t have to race pole-to-pole to beat others at catching fish,” he reminds us. “You need to fish these spots thoroughly. If you see someone fishing one side of the channel, you should restrict yourself to the other side. Secondly, if you come upon someone fishing the poles, you should not hopscotch that person to the next pole. Instead, go up two or more sets of poles to be fair.”
Be an opportunist
Following other anglers and fishing the poles or markers they just left can sometimes pay off if the area is crowded.
“You can pull right into a pole or channel marker that another person has just left and catch fish,” Tourne says. “We’ve done this several times. You may be fishing at a different depth or may be using bait that they were not, allowing you to catch fish the other person left behind.”
Fishing etiquette also applies to other anglers. No one can claim all the poles or buoys in the area. Keeping a cool head and not blowing up at someone fishing the same set of markers, especially during a tournament situation, should be practiced.
“We try and give people room when we’re fishing the channel. The only time we come close to crowding anyone is when we’re heading to a particular pole or marker where we caught really big fish. During a tournament or fishing rodeo, someone else may not treat you as kindly as during a leisurely fishing trip.”
Chasing the elusive blackfish (or tripletail) can be a rewarding experience. It does take time to learn as much about them as the Blackfish Brigade does. However, thanks to the generosity of “Big Rick” Tourne, you have just finished reading the Cliff’s Notes version of catching one of Mobile Bay’s most prized visitors.
Save a couple of fillets for me!
Gulf Coast Research Laboratory
Blackfish tag and release program
Jemison’s Bait Shop
Live and dead shrimp