Take a ride aboard “The Bill Collector” with Captain Eddie, Captain Hoop and the four of us in search of giant Yellowfin Tuna in the Gulf south of New Orleans. This is our story so grab a beer, sit back and dig in. You won’t be sorry.!!!
“Who Dat”! If I heard it once, I heard it a thousand times since turning on the radio on my 9 hour drive to New Orleans on the eve of Super bowl Sunday. I was sitting in the International Airport in New Orleans waiting for my son Derek’s arrival on a 7pm flight from Houston. I sat in the terminal and thought back to 8 months ago when I had a conversation with Derek, a Sergeant in the Army, who was then on his forth month of a year long tour in Northern Iraq at a small Army outpost. I knew he was having a tough time with the job he was assigned to. I knew that if I set us up a tuna trip it would give him something to look forward to while working in the sand box for the next 8 months. It was cold outside and the wind was really howling. I was hoping the wind would die down over night and provide us with some calm seas for our offshore trip in the morning. I had talked to our guide Captain Eddie earlier in the day and he assured me that we were looking good for some offshore Wahoo and Tuna in the morning. I had my fingers and toes crossed for good weather. Travelers were coming into New Orleans by the hundreds wearing black and gold jerseys and flashy Mardi Gras beads. “Who Dats” were coming from all directions. The New Orleans Saints were finally playing in a Super Bowl and the city was just about to come unglued. I wanted to get Derek and get on our way to Venice. It was going to be a 2 hour drive and it was going to be late by the time we got to the lodge. I was already tired from the drive and a lack of sleep from the night before. I was so excited about the trip I couldn’t sleep and tossed and turned the night before. I was in desperate need of rest before our offshore trip. My cell phone rang and when I answered it was Fred letting me know that he and his son were checked into the lodge and getting ready to hit the sack. Fred was an old friend of mine from Atlanta and we had done some fishing together in the past. When I planned our fishing trip I thought of Fred telling me he and his son would love to go some day. I called Fred and he said to count them in. It was all coming together perfectly. Another “Who Dat” came from behind me and I recognized the voice right away, it was Derek arriving. He was looking as strong as I had ever seen him and I couldn’t help but get a bit choked up at the site of him reaching out to shake my hand. Thankfully he had nothing but carry-on and we were on my way to the parking garage. We talked about his flight and his family while hustling through the airport. He told me he was starving and the only thing he had in the last few hours was some peanuts and a rum and coke. I knew the perfect fix for a hungry fisherman on the way to fish camp. If you’ve ever been on the migration to Venice, La. you know that stopping by Salvo’s Seafood in Belle Chase is a must. A shrimp Po Boy is just about as good as it gets down there. We chatted about fishing and old times when Derek was growing up and we resided in Belle Chase while I was in the Navy. Derek spent 4 years with me down there and we fished for reds and specks every chance we could get while living there. I was a single parent at the time while juggling a Navy career and raising a young son. We laughed about some of the things we did and times we spent in the marsh. Salvo’s parking lot was just about as packed as it could get on a Saturday night with all the locals loading up on their delicious seafood. I found a spot right up front and Derek ran in to order a shrimp Po Boy to go. I watched him through the window while sitting in the truck and thought of how many Po Boys we’ve ate over the years. Within a few minutes he was back in the truck and we were back on highway 23 pushing onward to the south. I could smell the shrimp and begged Derek to save me the last couple of bites of shrimp which he did reluctantly. He finally gave me the remaining few bites and it was as I had remembered it. A little slice of fresh shrimp heaven. We passed by the oil refineries and I could smell the all so familiar scent of the Mississippi river, oil, marsh and all the other memories of years past. Finally, after what seemed like forever we were checking into the Lodge and I was ready for some rest. We were staying at the Cypress Cove lodge and it was nice. Probably the nicest accommodations I’ve stayed in down there. The alarm was set for 4:45 and I was finally in the bed. Once again tossing and turning and thinking about a hundred different things. Very little sleep was to be had for me and before I knew it the alarm was sounding and I was in desperate need of coffee. We got dressed and loaded up our gear to head to the marina. I filled my thermos from the coffee pots in the lobby and we were off. Even though the coffee was burned and probably left over from hours earlier, it was just the ticket to wake me up. There’s nothing like burned, thick grainy coffee to bring you to your senses first thing in the morning. We arrived at the marina and saw Fred and his son Chad standing behind their truck dawning the cold weather gear. There was still a slight breeze in the air as I looked across the marina at the parked boats. I saw Captain Eddie’s 36 foot Palmetto in the backdrop and I saw a large shadow milling about on the boat and knew it was Captain Eddie getting things ready for the trip. Captain Eddie is a tall 6’ 6” lanky young man with strong grip, steely eyes and a cheesy goatee. He’s very well known in the area and is one of the very best seasoned Tuna Captains in the gulf. As we walked towards the marina for some last minute supplies I ran into another familiar face, Captain Hoop. They call him Hoop and next to Captain Eddie he is one of the best. Hoop is older, well into his sixties, but just as strong and able as any of the younger deck hands around. I exchanged pleasantries with Hoop and introduced him to Derek, Fred and Chad. I was really surprised to find out Hoop was working our boat with Eddie and very happy to have that much talent in one boat for the day. Before long Eddie came into the marina and more introductions followed. I could tell Eddie was not feeling well. I ask if maybe he had partied a little too hard the night before but he quickly squashed that notion. Eddie wasn’t a complainer and although he was visibly not feeling well, we never heard another word about it during the day. “Let’s load up Jim, we’re all set”. That’s all I needed to hear and headed down to the boat with my gear. After taking on gear, ice and a box of chum we were making our way down the Mississippi for the oil rigs in the gulf. It was a cold wet ride out and the waves were still rolling at 3 feet. Everyone was huddled behind the center console chatting and watching the horizon. I stayed up front and caught up with the latest news with Eddie. I had been down fishing with Eddie on the eve of the Super bowl last year. We had caught several large Wahoo the year before but the big Yellowfin had eluded us. I had fished for Yellowfin once before while stationed in San Diego, Ca. I was Derek’s age at the time and I was just about as strong as I was going to get. My biggest Yellowfin was around 150 and it was all I could do to bring the big fish in some 25 years ago. I knew Derek would be up to the task with a fish of that size but I was too old and had too many repairs on my body for a fight with a 100lb+ fish. Fred and Chad had never tussled with YFT before but they were both avid outdoorsmen and I knew they would be fine for the fight. A large oil rig came into view on the horizon and I ask Eddie if that was our first stop. He confirmed my suspicions telling me we were going to warm up on a couple of Wahoo to start the day. As we got closer we could see that we had company on the rig as another large boat was already trolling the rig. We decided to troll the deep diving Stretches around the rig once just to see if we could pick anything up. On our first pass there was nothing to be had but we were entertained by a commuter helicopter landing above us on the giant rigs helicopter pad. That was an awesome site for the first timer. We pulled the divers in and headed further out to the hump some 50 miles offshore. As we approached the hump, I saw 3 cut-off rigs in a triangle and Eddie pulled the throttles back on the big Palmetto and it’s 2 big Yamaha 250’s. We tossed the plugs out the back and fed the line back to start our troll. It didn’t take long till one of the rod tips started bouncing and our first fish was on. We had agreed to let Derek start us off and he soon got the feel of the heavy Penn reel. It was awkward for Derek at first but he soon settled in to reeling in the fish. Eddie said it was a nice King Mack and before long the other two rods were bouncing. I got out of the way and let Fred and Chad have at it. First hook-up of the day was a triple. Eddie said the lump was loaded with thousands of nice kings. He then said something that really surprised me, the nice 10-20 pound Kings would make great bait. I knew right away he wasn’t kidding. We got the 3 Kings in the ice locker and fed the plugs back out the back as Captain Hoop went to filleting the kings at the back of the boat. We quickly hooked up with 2 more Kings that would warrant celebration for anyone on the FLW Kingfish tour. To us it was more big bait. After landing the next two Kings we cut the motors back to neutral and Hoop started a chum line out the back port side. Hoop had loaded a case of chum earlier and Eddie started rigging the rods for freelining big chunks of bait. Our drift was to the starboard and Hoop continued to chum the port stern. Eventually we had the rods rigged and Eddie was freelining the first bait out the back with the rod in the gunnels holder. No weights, just a big chunk of meat on a big circle hook. Eddie showed us how to feed the bait out slowing hand lining the offering. Just as the bait drifted out of site the line came tight in his hand Eddie dropped the line and quickly threw the drag lever forward just as the tension hit the reel. Drag was screaming and the rod was bowed. “Who wants him” Eddie yelled. Chad was the closest and grabbed the rod, drag still screaming. All you could do was hang on. Chad quickly moved to the starboard side with the fish while Eddie was loading another big chunk of meat on a hook. He gave me another rod just forward of him and I placed the rod in the rod holder and mimicked Eddie. It wasn’t long before my line gave a quick tug and I knew it was time to throw the lever in gear. Once again, drag screamed as I wrestled the rod from the holder. It came to me very quickly; the old familiar pull of a large YFT. I knew right away that it was a marathon and not a sprint. If you’ve never caught a YFT, let me tell you, they are stronger than you and they don’t get tired. They mostly just circle the boat and try and wear you down as you try and wear them down. It’s a contest of brut strength on their turf. I quickly realized that I was not young any more and I was going to have to pull out every reserve I had to get this fish to the boat. Hoop dug out a couple of rod belts and back harnesses which made fighting the big tuna more tolerable. My tuna took me around the boat a few times as did Chad’s big fish. Within a few minutes the area around the boat was teaming with fish. As I fought my tuna I could see schools of bonito swarming the chum at the back of the boat. About a half dozen 6 foot sharks started circling at the back corner of the boat where the chum line started. Eddie and Derek were feeding free lines out the back corner and moving out of the way as Chad and I would circle the boat with our fish. They would have to literally jerk the bait from the swarming shark’s teeth to keep from cutting off the heavy mono leader. After thirty minutes of going around the boat several times I finally gained enough to get the fish close enough for Hoop and Eddie to gaff. It turned out to be a nice seventy pounder. Chad followed me with a little larger fish at around ninety pounds. We were both spent and headed to the comfort of Eddie’s bean bag chairs at the bow of the boat. Derek was still trying to hook up a fish and was really battling with the sharks. Finally the drag started screaming and Derek was hooked up. I was relieved because I really wanted to see him get a hold of one of these fish. Before long Derek’s tuna was dragging him to and fro, up and down and around in circles. He was jerking and pumping and pulling and squirming before he finally settled into a long battle. I believe Derek thought the Army would show these fish a thing or two. It was a little different than a 15 pound King. I knew his fish was bigger than mine from the way it pulled him around. Derek is pretty stout but the fish was having his way. At one point, I was laying on the bean bag as Derek made a circle around the boat. He stumbled and dropped to one knee right in front of me. He looked at me and said “Do something would you”! I couldn’t help but think of a time when he was around seventeen and came home drunk. The only time by the way. I heard him come into the house late one night and run upstairs and start puking in the guest bath. I got out of bed and hurried down the hall to find Derek slumped over the toilet. I remembered he looked up at me and said the same four words “Do something would you”! I ask “What do you want me to do”? He said “Rub my back or something”. When he asked me to do something while fighting that tuna I had to laugh. I ask if he wanted me to rub his back again. Damn that was classic. Anyway, Derek got back up and I followed him around, coaching him as we went. In the mean time Fred had hooked up and was well into his fight. After feeding several sharks and 45 minutes later, Derek and Fred’s fish were in the boat and we were all tired from running around the boat with fish and running around the boat with no fish. It was a workout to say the least. Eddie wanted to move because there were just too many sharks. We put the motors in gear and push to a different location on the hump. Less than a mile away we cut the motors back and started another drift chumming as we went. All rested we were ready for another fight. Maybe not very anxious but ready none the less. With no pesky sharks around the back of the boat we freelined some big chucks out the back. It wasn’t long till a school of hungry bonito showed up and started eating. We needed more bait so Derek and Chad caught 4-5 bonito for fresh bait. Eddie put a good sized chunk of meat on a circle and fed it back into the depths. Very soon the drag started screaming again and Eddie handed the rod off to Fred who happened to be standing nearby. The drag continued to scream and Eddie made a waving motion at the line as it tore off the reel. “Good bye” Eddie laughed as the drag continued to scream with Fred holding on for dear life. We all knew it was big. It was bigger than we’d seen yet. Fred continued to fight the fish in an epic battle. Fred is in his sixties but very tall and stout. After 30 minutes we were peeling off Fred’s jacket and hat as he was visibly wearing down and heating up. Hoop asked if he needed relieved but Fred shook him off and continued. Derek and I stood by Fred for moral support and an occasional straightening of the waist belt and back harness. Fred finally said uncle at 45 minutes and prepared to unhook and pass the gear to Derek. Chad and Eddie were in the back trying to hook another monster. That’s when I heard it. “Mako”, “Big Mako,” “Huge Mako” Eddie screamed. Eddie and Hoop came alive. As I was helping Fred and Derek I saw a huge rolled up steel cable and an unusually large Hook in Eddie’s hand. I looked off the starboard bow and saw a dorsal fin out of the water and a wake being pushed by this huge shark. It still seems unreal to me. The shark circled around the bow in a large arc and started back towards the boat. I watched the shark approaching and at times not only his dorsal cleared the water but at about a car length behind was a tip of a tail. It couldn’t have been real. It was so far behind the dorsal I thought it was another fish but quickly realized it to be the tail of the same fish. I had to get back to work with Fred and Derek and lost site of the shark. Derek was hooked up with the harness and fighting the fish that Fred started. I glanced back at Eddie, Hoop and Chad as they searched the waters for the big Mako. Apparently the Mako had dove deep and disappeared before reaching the bow of the boat. Next I saw Eddie hook up about a half of a King Mack on the large hook. Derek and I were on the port side about mid boat and I was looking down into the water hoping to see Derek’s tuna come up to color. The next thing I saw is permanently engrained in my mind. As I was looking into the water a large dark grey shadow moved slowly into my view from the stern. It was a large grey shadow against the oceans blue backdrop and it was big. It made the sandy colored 6 footers we’d seen earlier look like babies. This shark was big. I could see its gills move in and out as it moved and I saw the familiar point of the Mako’s nose. It was far larger than anything I’d seen in years. The way it moved was reminiscent of a whale shark we came along side years ago off the Florida Keys. This fish was majestic as it moved through the water. I yelled at Eddie telling him the Mako had reappeared moving forward of the port side. The shark barely missed scrubbing Derek’s braided mainline as he passed. Derek continued with his battle as the Huge Mako surfaced again in front of the boat and made a turn. I watched as the Mako move toward the boat on the starboard side just where Eddie, Hoop and Chad waited. I looked at Derek again and then looked back at Eddie just as the big Mako took the bait. Drag screaming, Eddie took the rod from the holder. I abandoned Derek and ran over to see the fish strip line. No sooner than I got to the back the mammoth fish breached the surface and shot straight up in the air with a half summersault. The fish made a large splashing thud as he hit the water. The Mako did this again and again while running aft, for a total of four breaches. The drag was tearing off the reel at an incredible rate. The distance the Mako pulled made the big tuna look like child play. Chad was hooked to the fish via the rod, reel, waist belt and back harness. The Mako swam a good distance from the boat then decided to come back and go deep on the port side of the boat, right where Derek and the big tuna had set up camp. The ultimate fight was on. Fred and I, the two old dudes were letting the youth have this fight. Chad was on a monster Mako and Derek was battling a monster YFT. It just about took an act of Congress but Derek finally gave up the fight on the tuna. I took over the tuna fight and Derek rested up for a crack at the Mako. Over the next thirty minutes nothing changed. I fought the tuna and Chad held on to the Mako. Derek took over the tuna fight for me as we got the tuna close to the boat. Finally we had the gaff into the 140 pound tuna and drug him in. Pictures were taken as Chad and Eddie battled the Mako. After the tuna was put away our only focus was the big Mako. We let him pull the boat around for the next hour while we discussed what to do with the fish if we ever got him close to the boat. Eddie and Hoop guessed the fish to be around 1000 pounds and a length of 12-14 feet. It was a behemoth and not far off of a record. Our options were release or capture. Just about any captain down there, respectable or otherwise wouldn’t hesitate to bring this fish in by any means available. They are good table fair and extremely popular for bragging rights with all the captains. Another problem was getting the fish in the boat. We figured it would take a captain and crew from one of the nearby boats and us to get it into the boat. Derek took over on the fish and spent the next 45 minutes just holding on. I took a turn of about 20 minutes and Chad took over again. For the next 45 minutes we all took turns on the fish. At around the two and a half hour mark we gained enough line on the fish that we could see a line splice that Eddie thought to be at 50 feet which gave us some hope. We tried like hell to gain more but a few minutes later the big fish dove again and we watched the splice leave the last eyelet and head for the depths. That was the final straw for me. Derek and Chad were just about spent and I didn’t think it was worth wearing ourselves out anymore. We had the tuna and that was good enough. I looked at Eddie and he looked at me. We knew we were just about out of options. At that point, for some odd reason the fish started coming up, and I mean coming up quick. I briefly thought he was going to breach again, or worse yet, attack the boat. He came up fast and we saw the splice again as it quickly wrapped into the big Penn spool. At that point Eddie got on the radio and called another Captain to bring over the 12 gauge and a flying gaff. Yep, a pump 12 gauge and a flying gaff with around 50 feet of heavy nylon rope. The shark was within 40 feet of the boat under the port side as the other Captain pulled along side in his Glacier Bay. He handed Eddie a black pump 12 gauge which I quickly recognized as a Remington 870, just like the one I grew up with. The deck hand handed Hoop the flying gaff and rope. Eddie ask who wanted the honors and I figured if there was going to be gun play I wanted to be the one with the gun. It was an 870 alright. A black 3 inch magnum with a vent rib barrel. Eddie handed me a box with 5 three 3 inch magnum slugs. I walked forward to the bow, checked the safety and slipped 2 shells in the mag and dropped a third in the open ejector. I slid the action forward chambering the third shell and thought long and hard about it. I knew Eddie and Hoop wanted the fish and I thought if anyone was going to shoot it, I wanted it to be me. I thought about the right angle if the fish remained on the port side and I positioned myself just aft of Derek and the fish. The final decision was made to shoot the fish, hit him with the flying gaff that was tied off to a stern cleat, and hope he dies quickly. Hoop was on the flying gaff just forward of Derek and I was waiting with the 870 just aft of Derek. The Captain of the boat that gave us the gun and gaff had some experience and said the shot had to be in the back of the head, between the eyes. The fish’s head needed to be above water for the slug to be effective. Nothing to it. Soon the fish came into site just where we thought he would be, at 20 feet in depth and on the port side. Eddie was keeping the boat straight moving with the fish. At the site of the big fish Hoop dropped the gaff, grabbed the line just forward of the reel with his gloved hands. He pulled line while Derek cranked the excess Hoop provided onto the reel. Slowly the fish came up. My God it was huge. As the fish rose I selected my mark between the fish’s eyes and set my finger on the safety of the 870. It was about to happen. Guys, the adrenaline was overwhelming as the fish rose. I could feel my heart beating in my chest. I watched Derek and Hoop work. The steel leader hit the end of the rod tip and Hoop grabbed the steel to pull up the remaining few feet. Three feet, then two feet, then inches from the surface the fish just glided closer to the surface. I clicked the safety off as Hoop and Derek slowly leaned back away from the gunnels edge. I saw the fish’s wake and my mark as I lowered the vent rib down to his head. I heard Eddie scream “Shoot now” as I squeezed the trigger. The fish and the water exploded as the gun went off. Blood and saltwater spray splattered in a huge explosion. For a split second the fish started to roll and I thought it was the end. In the next instant the fish came to life and started thrashing wildly. I could tell he was hit just behind the left eye judging from the flap of meat dangling to the side. It was like that scene from Jaws where the sharks head was above water thrashing around with meat hanging down. I heard Eddie scream “Shoot him again” and I jump to life and chambered another round. I quickly lowered the barrel on the thrashing fish and squeezed off another round into the head of the fish. I’ve never shot a large moving Mako shark from a pitching boat before and I quickly realized it was hard. The shark was just getting more pissed off and I was getting pissed off along with him. I wanted to put an end to this shit as quickly as possible. I lowered the barrel again to the thrashing sharks head and squeezed the trigger from around 4 feet. Nothing. Just a click. Within a split second I thought jam, empty, only fired two shots and didn’t chamber the third shell. I quickly chambered the third shell and lowered it to the fish again. I squeezed off the round as the fish took a dive down out of site. Blood was streaming from both of his gill ports as he went. I could smell the spent powder and I could hear the drag pulling again. We were all in shock to a large degree. We were in shock so much Hoop still had the flying gaff in hand. Derek, Hoop and Chad were speckled with blood and I was riding an adrenaline rush like I hadn’t felt in years, it was unreal. The fish had to be dying, but he was still head shaking and pulling. He went straight down around 50 feet and just swam forward. I kept thinking he had to die soon. The whole event is still very surreal to me even now as I write this. I told Eddie the fish was surely dying and there was no way he could have survived the firepower we unleashed on him. Eddie said we never got a shot between the eyes and he was probably wounded and mad. We tried to budge him from his 50 foot depth but if we gained on him he went right back to 50 feet. Derek gave the rod a pull with everything he had and the drag at full forward. The fish started to rise again. Derek and Hoop worked the rod and Fred handed me the remaining 2 shells. I couldn’t believe I was actually reloading. Closer and closer the fish came. Twenty feet, then ten then five and we got into position. Hoop pulled the leader up again and I removed the safety. The big fish was still streaming blood from both sides as I lower the 870 for the next volley. It was like the fish remembered the last time he surface and just before he reached the top he quickly started diving. Derek held his ground and the fish pulled hard. The rod bowed over and then quickly snapped up. Just like that it was over and the shark was gone. He made his escape pulling a broken leader and our hearts sank. We were defeated, wore down and exhausted. Completely spent, we were all pretty speechless for a long while. The day was done and we were heading home. I know that a million things went through all of our minds on the 2 hour ride back to the marina. I’m still trying to digest it all. We cleaned the tuna back at the dock had a few beers and chatted about our day. Another smaller Mako was brought in and we just had to chuckle at the little 6 footer. I can’t think of an ending to this story as the ending sank along with the dying Mako. After an evening of a Po Boy in our room watching the Saints kick some butt in the Super Bowl, we both got a good night’s sleep and we were somewhat rested for our trip back home. I can only relate the way I feel right now to the way I felt the day after running my first marathon. I’ve got muscles that are waiting in line to be sore as I write this story. I definitely sent Derek back home with some lasting memories. I think I have caught my last YFT and have definitely shot my last Mako.