Chicken of the Gulf

Paul Ly, James Short, Tray Cherry, Colin Byrd and Kendall Sauls with a couple of 140-pounders caught chunking The Lump.

Fishing for tuna at the Lump

Mississippi gets a bad rap in the media. We’re last in the country in supposedly important things and first in supposedly bad things.

For the most part, I don’t really care what the media thinks: Stay put America — we’re already crowded enough down here.

We have access to a fine saltwater fishery here in the Magnolia State. I’ll put it to you this way: I can leave my home in Ocean Springs and be in the water in 15 minutes.

I can take a left out of Ocean Springs Harbor and go catch anything from speckled trout and reds to snapper, grouper, yellowfin tuna and marlin. I can hang a right and go catch speckled trout, reds, bass, catfish, crappie and bream.

There aren’t many places in this country where that’s possible.

Shhhhhh: We have a hidden gem south of I-10.

Ocean Springs’ Kendall Sauls shares the same sentiment about our coast.

Sauls and his band of brothers — Tray Cherry, Colin Byrd, James Short, Paul Ly and Mark Martino Jr. — decided to hang a left and chase yellowfin tuna from Cherry’s 32-foot Yellowfin in late January.

The result was a box full of tuna — two of them 140-pounders — along with some nice wahoo.

Their catch came from an area known as the East Lump, an underwater salt dome off the mouth of the Mississippi River. Any way you slice it, it’s about a four-hour ride to get there, whether you launch in Ocean Springs and take the scenic route or trailer to Venice, La., and launch there.

Imagine the Indian mounds at Pickwick but much larger, deeper and covered with tuna — along with numerous other saltwater species.

To catch yellowfin on the Lump, anglers use a technique called chunking.

When I first heard the term I assumed it meant casting (chunking) a popper or some type of artificial to try to entice a strike.

Far from it: Chunking involves cut bait, stout tackle and stealthy hook placement.

“Basically, you’re cutting the bait up into little pieces and throwing them out a few at a time,” Sauls said. “It’s like building an ecosystem around the boat.

“You’ll see bonita come up, blackfin come up and then all of a sudden you’ll see big shadows of the yellowfin coming up.”

Some anglers anchor, some drift. Sauls prefers to drift.

“We start about 200 (feet in depth),” Sauls said. “The wind was out of the north (during the January trip), so we were drifting south. Most of the fish we saw were at about 220 (feet). I’ve seen them sometimes at 280; sometimes they’re deeper. I think it all depends. They’re looking for you just like you’re looking for them. There’s no set depth.

“I just pick a spot. A lot of people want to ride around looking for marks. I pick a spot because the fish can move just as fast as you; I just wait for them to find me. Then when they get there you can check your marks. There might be a fish down deeper under the boat and you can tell where the bigger fish are. Usually you will see them — you’ll see them come up and eat the chum you’re throwing in the water.”

Some days the water clarity is such that you can see the yellowfin rise up in the chum; some days you can’t see more than a few feet down.

“Sometimes the water is too dirty,” Sauls said. “Those two big fish we caught, we never even saw them. We were just free-chunking; we were chumming. We had one person on the bow chunking and one on the stern chunking. You need to keep them separated. The bait would get down about 15 feet, but the water was really silty so we couldn’t even see it. Both those fish we couldn’t see.”

One angler is in charge of cutting up the bait and throwing it out to attract the fish. The other angler has the rod and reel with a large circle hook hidden in a big piece of pogie or other type of cut bait.

“When somebody throws a handful of chunks out, you want to throw your bait in with that pod of chum to sink down with it,” Sauls said. “It may go down 100 feet.”

“You’re free-lining it the whole time,” Zach Joseph, another fisherman from Ocean Springs, said. “You don’t want any tension on the line; you just stand next to the reel and keep peeling off line. Once a tuna grabs it you know it —  it just takes off.”

The goal is to have your hook-hiding bait in with the chum.

“You want it free-floating with the pod (of bait),” Sauls said. “You want it in that group so when the fish comes through they’re going to eat every chunk in there.”

When the fish show up it’s basically a feeding free for all. It can get more frenzied than when the Baptists and the Methodists show up at the Hartz Chicken buffet at the same time on a Sunday afternoon: Not a good place to be if you’re a chicken gizzard or a pogie.

“When a tuna picks up your bait, your reel is on free-spool, so you let it run for about five to seven seconds,” Sauls said. “It’s a circle hook, so all you have to do is put it on strike and reel — you don’t have to set the hook or anything.

“If you do it too quick it’ll just pull out. You want it to get down in his mouth a little bit. The circle hook is going to get them right in the corner of the mouth.”

Fishing the Lump is not the time for long, drawn-out battles with a big fish, if it can be helped. Large sharks of every variety inhabit the Lump, and will make a quick meal of a sizeable tuna.

To make sure he can get a fish in quickly, Sauls uses some serious tackle.

“For tuna in March, fishing on the Lump is usually with 50-weight reels and  50-weight rods,” Sauls said. “We use the short, bent butts; some people use the straight butts. We have 150-pound braid, with 80-pound mono on top. We use an 80-pound fluorocarbon leader and an 8/0 Owner circle hook.

“My reels, I use Avets (but) most people use Shimanos. I just like (the Avets); they’re just different. My rods are built by Melton tackle — mine are 80- to 130-class. They’re a little overkill, but they work well for Lump fishing.

“I use about 35 to 40 pounds of drag, if we can. If we have to use lighter leader, we’ll use 25 pounds for drag. It just depends.”

Sauls uses Momoi Diamond braid, 100 to 150 yards of Momoi monofilament as a topshot and then a 12- to 15-foot Seaguar fluorocarbon leader.

He uses a uni-to-uni knot for all of his connections but will sometimes go to an Albright knot for his braid-to-topshot connection.

Another key component to drifting the Lump is your GPS/sounder. During your drift, keep an eye out for yellowfin in your chum or large marks on your sounder so you can hit “mark” each time you see a fish.

By doing this you will have a track of the drift.

“I always follow my GPS coordinates,” Sauls said. “If I see a fish, I’ll hit ‘mark’ to put a little X where we saw it, so that way when we restart the drift we’ll see where they showed up last time. Maybe 100 yards or 200 yards (away) they’ll show up again and you mark it. I’ll pretty much have a mark line of everywhere we’ve seen a fish.”

There’s a lot of opportunity as you leave from Mississippi harbors, whether you go east or west. And we have fabulous hotels and an abundance of awesome eateries to keep you content while not on the water.

So head south to the coast, and then hang a left out of Ocean Springs Harbor. There’s a big yellowfin with your name on it just waiting on that pogie to drift by.