Water temperatures 35 miles southwest of John's Pass have reached 65 degrees, about 3 degrees on the low side for the spring runs of kingfish and blackfin tuna.
The shrimp fleet that works the coast out of Texas should be here in late February, and with the shrimpers come blackfin tuna. You can expect to see shrimpers first off Venice in 90 to 110 feet of water as they follow the warming waters working north. The tremendous by-catch they produce is thrown overboard and produces a huge chum slick that attracts sharks, kingfish and blackfin tuna. Live bait free-lined off the transom can give you nonstop, heart-pounding action for tuna and kings.
When keeping tuna make sure to carry plenty of ice. Tuna must be iced immediately to ensure they do not spoil. We like to cut the tail and bleed fish before we ice them, which makes for a lighter color and flavor for sushi.
Attach hooks directly to your fishing line; 30- to 40-pound line is adequate and 3/0 and 4/0 hooks work fine. Kingfish require wire leaders to prevent cutoffs.
Grouper and mangrove snapper fishing has been steady in 90 to 110 feet over small breaks and solution holes. We are finding our best catches in areas with little showing on the bottom but that are hard with sand around them. Big ledges and cheese-rock areas have been fished hard by this time of year, and you may need to find new areas to get into keeper fish.
Last week in 110 feet our biggest gags ate frozen squid, with two fish weighing more than 20 pounds. Live baits produced our biggest mangos.
Light, 30-pound fluorocarbon leaders with 2/0 and 3/0 hooks did the trick. Frozen sardines cut in half and small live pinfish produced the snappers. We were able to jig up some live pilchards at Egmont Channel Marker 9, but we used them for a couple hours without a hit.
For backbreaking action, try amberjack. The key is big live baits. We have spent a couple hours the day before a trip catching big pinfish up to a pound. These huge pinfish attract jacks over 40 pounds. Fishing southwest in 110 feet over a wreck, we caught a dozen jacks of more than 40 pounds, two pushing 65.
Fifty- to 60-pound tackle, fighting belts and a strong back are required to get these bruisers to the boat. We ran out of big baits and tried small baits, and the jacks were not interested. We tried diamond jigs with no results.
As with tuna, you need a lot of ice for jacks. Cut the gill plates to bleed the fish, and you will have better meat.