Let's be honest, you don't want to be downwind of a shrimp boat.
But the same characteristics that send many of us into the dry heaves will turn a wide array of line stretchers into full-on food buffet mode. From the fish's perspective, it's the smell and the freebies.
Tossing their discarded bycatch overboard, along with the persistent smell of the gear, the shrimp boats in the Gulf of Mexico create a massive chum line that attracts blackfin tuna, bonito, kingfish, cobia, sharks and even tarpon. Every predator is a scavenger at heart and easy pickings are always the tastiest.
Capt. R.T. Trossett finds shrimpers year-round off his Key West home waters, but spring and fall tend to offer the best tuna opportunities. With warming waters pushing a lot of pelagics northward, the central and northern Gulf bounty kicks into gear from spring through fall. Winter tends to usher most of the fast movers south, but otherwise, anytime you find an anchored shrimp boat, it's definitely worth a look.
HOW TO CATCH 'EM
Leave the chumming to the shrimper and you'll get your shots but implement your own appetizers and you'll concentrate fish where you want them. Capt. Travis Holeman, who fishes shrimpers off south Florida, as well as the Mississippi Delta prefers live-chumming, but he's cool with chunking ballyhoo or menhaden, too.
When sea conditions allow a safe approach, shrimp boat crews usually keep several bags of bycatch on standby for paying anglers. Cash is king, but some will trade you 20 pounds of puffers, sea robins, hog chokes, lizardfish, ribbonfish and croakers for a case of beer, so plan accordingly.
With his chum supply handled, Trossett will pull up close behind a shrimper where he starts his own line of munchies. He keeps watch for tuna flashing in the chum and if he's confident the blackfin are thick, he'll focus on hitting concentrations of fish and work the edges for the isolated, often bigger speedsters.
"The more you feed them, the more fish will come," Trossett said. "When you first get there, everything is kind of spread out. The bonitos will run together and the tunas will run deeper.
"When you start chumming, if the bonitos are there, they'll show up immediately, but if you see a tuna or two, throw out more chum and they'll amass themselves."
Trossett also advises moving your chumming operation farther away from the shrimper. Tuna aren't shy, but they're easily annoyed by voracious bonito.
"The farther away from the boat you get, the tunas will take over," he said. "Sometimes you only have a few tuna in there and you have to separate the tuna from the bonito."
You can't go wrong with free-lining pinfish, threadfin herring, pilchards, Spanish sardines, cigar minnows or menhaden behind shrimpers but if the bonito are thick, you can quickly weed-out these time-wasters and interest the tuna and other high-value targets by using the largest live baits you have. Slow-trolling your baits or deploying them on downriggers can also help you reach the top-tier species.
If you don't have live bait on hand (or run out from a big frenzy), frozen sardines, Boston mackerel and menhaden will work. If you acquire some chum from the shrimper, "match the hatch" by picking your baits right of that supply. Also, those pesky bonito offer bloody, oily chunk bait and belly strips, so don't hesitate to ice a couple.
When the fish are raging on chum, fan casting a popper around the shrimper can yield big blow-ups. The often frantic feeding activity behind shrimp boats makes the fish receptive to a noisy popper. Cast around the boat and work the bait with bold, erratic surges. You'll also do well by jigging bucktails, slender blade jigs or plastic eels on 1/2- to 1-ounce lead-head jigs.
Speed jigs usually come with a single rear hook, but up your changes by adding one or two short shanked "stinger" hooks to the top end. And for maximum bait action, make sure your speed jig has a split ring and link that to your leader with a ball bearing swivel.
"Let your jig fall all the way down and then work it in the first 20 to 30 feet off the bottom," Trossett said. "You'll get tunas that way because the bonito stay higher than the tuna."
Fly-fishing behind a shrimp boat is much less technical than working clear, shallow-water bonefish haunts and works well for beginning fly anglers. If you can roll cast a Clouser or any baitfish presentation 30 feet, you'll have no trouble connecting. Floating lines usually suffice, but if the tuna or kings won't come up top, try a weighted fly and a sink-tip line.
As Trossett points out, an anchored shrimper's bycatch not only gathers fish throughout the water column, it also chums up the rocks and reefs below. Cut bait drifted down current on a 3/16- to 1/4-ounce jig head will nab any snapper rising into the chum line. You'll also want to drop a live bait or a sizable chunk of cut bait on a slip sinker rig. The options are nearly endless.
However you pursue game fish off the Gulf shrimp boats, remember that all predators have an inner scavenger. Regardless of how flashy and fancy they may seem, they're all down to get what they can while the gettins good!