Tony French eased off the throttle of his 25-foot open-cockpit bay boat, timing it perfectly so the craft would slide smoothly and quietly to within casting distance astern of a shrimp boat.
Two of us on the bow were armed with rods, and as soon as French said “now” our lines were flying through the air.
Five seconds later, we were both hooked up and line was peeling off both spinning reels.
The fun had begun.
“Enjoy, while I have some coffee,” the captain said, settling against the cushion of his bench seat. “This could take awhile and be quite a show.”
For the next 20 minutes there was chaos as lines crossed and uncrossed, and as reels screamed and then silenced only to scream again soon enough.
“The great thing about fishing around a working shrimp boat when the shrimpers are culling through their nightly haul is that you never know what you’re going to catch,” French said, while directing the action with suggestions from his perch. “Could be jacks (crevalle), bonito, sharks, bull reds, Spanish (mackerel) or cobia.
“But these: I’m betting either big bonito or jacks. They aren’t happy about being hooked.”
Both of the hooked-up fish were starting their third circles around our boat, which had drifted about 100 yards away from the shrimp boat.
“Jacks,” French said. “They always circle. Hope you boys ate your Wheaties and know how to dance.”
It took a full half hour, but we finally pulled the fish aboard, and — as predicted — they were both jack crevalles.
Good ones, too, weighing 23 and 25 pounds.
We pitched them back, and after spraying the blood off the deck with a hose, French cranked the boat and moved back toward the shrimp boat where the deckhands were still throwing their bycatch overboard.
“We don’t even have to chum: They’re doing it for us,” he said.
Moments later, two more fish were hooked, and our rods were bent and our reels were screaming.
Welcome to the Gulf of Mexico and the waters of the Mississippi Sound in the late spring and early summer, when shrimp boats are plentiful and the fishing action exciting.
If you are strictly in it for sport, which we were the day after slamming trout and redfish in the marsh and filling our coolers with enough fresh fish for a month of eating, fishing around shrimp boats is a blast on medium or medium-heavy tackle.
We used 7-foot medium-heavy spinning rods rigged up with 12-pound mono line and 30-pound fluorocarbon leaders.
We used lipless crankbaits until we ran out, and then switched to cut bait, using bonitos we had saved for just that purpose.
We went through 2,000 yards of line, emptying a bulk spool over six hours of fishing.
“Always bring a bulk spool if you’re going to use that light of line because you’re going to hook some things that you aren’t going to turn,” French said.
We hit four shrimp boats, always looking for one in which the crew was sorting their catch.
By 2 p.m., the two of us who had been fishing were done, baked by the searing sun and worked over by hundreds of hookups.
The action had been non-stop.
We only kept two fish to eat: a pair of medium-length blacktip sharks we managed to boat after French suggested heavier leader.
The rest of our fish — at least those we saw — were a mix of jack crevalle averaging 20 to 30 pounds, and bonitos between 6 and 14 pounds.
We also released two bull reds and two huge black drum, and an undersized cobia released itself right beside the boat.
It was so much fun that we cleared our schedules back at home and stayed another night for a repeat performance.
We, like all the fish we’d caught, were hooked.
Going for meat
Obviously, that kind of fishing, where the goal is the fight and not stock up for future meals, is not for everyone. It’s certainly not the kind of action that drives the sports fishing industry on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
“No, most people want to get more for their money, like a box full of fillets,” said Capt. Robert Early McDaniel — Capt. Earl for short — of Whipasnapa Charters in Biloxi. “You can’t blame them, because they feel like they’re getting a return on their money. We like to get them on red snapper when we are allowed to, mangrove snapper, cobia, redfish, speckled trout, flounder, puppy (black) drum and sheepshead — even sharks.
“And we can do that. We have a good fishery, and it all depends on the party and what they want to chase, or what they are able to withstand over the course of a long day. It can wear you out.”
McDaniel loves it all, from a simple inshore trip for trout, reds and flounder — “and, if we’re lucky, some ground mullet,” which is his favorite meal — to big, backbreaking amberjacks, cobia and giant sow snapper.
“What’s funny about it is that most of the ways we fish opens the door to so many different species, kind of like that story you were telling me about running around and finding the working shrimp boats at anchor,” he said. “Whether you are fishing at the rigs, the marshes, the blue-water rip grass lines or on the man-made reefs, you never know what’s going to bite your hook.
“You can target one species, but it is rare that it will be only thing you catch. The exception, of course, is shark, where you can use such a big bait that it is the only thing that can eat it — and I got clients who want just that.”
Though McDaniel’s boat is named for red snapper — and he is among the best at finding the biggest sow snapper in the Gulf — his first love is catching cobia.
His brother Randy still holds the state record of 106 pounds, 13 ounces that was caught in 1996 aboard the original Whipasnapa.
“I love the brown fish, and after the spring spawn is over in May and the bar fishing (for spawners) is done, we follow them back out to the deeper water and look for them around the rigs and around, well, anything, as in anything from channel buoys to old wrecks,” McDaniel said. “We can do that all day in June, and on a good day (we) run up on five or 10 (cobia), and if we’re lucky boat three or four.
“Now, that’s some fine eating.”
Living off the shallows
Most coastal fishermen target redfish and speckled trout as their game of choice, and that is perfectly understandable. Both are fun to catch, usually are found in close proximity to each other and are wonderful to eat.
Even more importantly, they can be found close when the Gulf is too angry to venture far offshore.
They give a guy options.
“I wish I could make a living chasing snapper, but the season is so short, and cobia — most customers want more bites and more action,” Capt. Earl said. “The weather is another problem, even though it does flatten out more in June and July, and allows us more days to get out.
“That’s why I have to keep track of where the reds and specks are, and have that option to offer my clients. They’re our bread-and-butter fish down here.”
Most of Mississippi’s charter fleet and easily 90 percent of its coastal recreational boats target reds, specks, puppy drum and flounder, and a lot of anglers make the runs to the Biloxi marsh (west end of the Sound) or fish the surf around the barrier islands.
But, increasingly, thanks to work by the state’s Department of Marine Resources and other agencies, a lot of action is closer to home — like right off the beaches.
Dozens of reefs, many made from concrete cleared after Hurricane Katrina, are located within a few hundred yards of the beaches.
Capt. Robert Early McDaniel often relies on those structures to fill a necessary chore on many of his charter trips. Flounder are his wife’s favorite fish, and when she requests one for dinner, the Whipasnapa captain is happy to oblige.
“Nobody’s happy if Momma ain’t happy,” McDaniel said with a smile. “When she wants a flounder, it’s usually not a problem. We will hit a reef or two or fish around some breaker rocks on the run in, and we can usually find what I need to keep peace at home.”