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Now you see them, now you don't

By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 19, 2002


Fishing for blackfin tuna is a lot like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Fishing for blackfin tuna is a lot like looking for a needle in a haystack.

But before you can find the needle, you have to find the haystack. And the Gulf of Mexico is an awfully big place to look.

"We'll find it," Paul Rogers said as he scanned the horizon for the shrimp boat. "I know it is here."

It's a gamble, heading 50 miles offshore in search of a boat at anchor. But when you target a species as cagey as blackfin, after a while, you develop a sixth sense.

The shrimpers work all night, then anchor up at sunrise and cull their catch. It doesn't take long for a chum slick to form and start calling every open-ocean predator within miles.

King mackerel fishermen know the value of a sweet, sticky, river of fish oil. That's why they dangle a chum block off the stern or spend hours rigging elaborate drip systems that leak menhaden oil into the water drop by drop.

Still, when it comes to attracting fish, nothing beats a shrimp boat cleaning its catch. If you're lucky, you'll find the boat before the sharks do.

And this time, the fish gods were with Rogers.

He knew he might only get one shot at a blackfin before the scavengers arrived and swarmed his baits. So he told his mate to get ready. They had practiced this drill time and time again.

The bulletin board at Merry Pier showed the results of their efforts, not dozens, but hundreds of blackfin, taken one at a time, on mornings such as this one.

"We give them a taste," Matt Mulock said as he dropped a handful of dead fish off the stern. "Just to let them know we are here."

Blackfin are a rare treat for west coast anglers. Members of the tuna family, which include the better known bluefin and yellow fin, are known for their fighting ability. The blackfin, like its cousins, is a highly migratory species that seldom comes close enough to shore to be caught by coastal sportsmen.

Its range is restricted. These fish are found only in the Western Atlantic, from Massachusetts to Rio de Janeiro, and in the Gulf of Mexico. They are common in tropical areas and are seldom found in waters cooler than 70 degrees.

A small tuna, seldom measuring more than 3 feet or weighing more than 40 pounds, the blackfin is a strong schooler and often can be found swimming with skipjacks and pods of dolphin.

These fish migrate in the late spring and early summer. Historically, late April and May have been the prime months to hook this highly prized sportfish.

And when they hit, you know it. The run is strong, unwavering and unmistakable.

"We got one," Roger said just seconds after the first bait hit the water. "Who wants to fight it?"

Tim Stefan, a former nose guard for the University of Colorado, grabbed the rod and immediately tapped into the blackfin's raw power. "Whoa," he said, "look at it run."

Stefan fought the fish for about five minutes, but then, not wanting to hog all the fun, handed off the rod to his friend Pat Walsh.

"I see what you mean," Walsh said. "It's a fighter."

Walsh played the fish for another 10 minutes, careful not to apply too much pressure. The blackfin eventually tired and was quickly brought aboard for some photos.

Mulock, the mate, tossed out a few more baits, and once again the rod bent under the pressure of a fish.

But this one felt a little different. The head shook back and forth, and the runs were strong but short.

"Bonita," Rogers said. "At least we got one blackfin in the the boat."

The captain stayed with the shrimp boat for a little while longer, but he knew the bonita had ruined his bite. So he pulled the anchor and started looking for another haystack on the horizon.

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