Just over fifteen years ago, I lived in Houston, TX, and I regularly fished the piers and occasionally took red snapper trips out of Galveston. While I was on one of those trips, I overheard some fellow fishermen recounting the fun, work, and huge haul of tuna they experienced on a tuna safari trip a few weeks earlier.
One of the guys had caught over twenty blackfin tuna and three yellowfins! I did not know such trips existed before this, but once I heard about them, it became my dream to go on one of these trips. I started to look for an opportunity to go, and the money to make it happen (the trip costs $350).
A few years later, I finally had my chance. I was booked for a red snapper trip, but a storm forced the company to cancel. However, they offered the option of applying the money for that trip to the tuna safari, and I had to take it. After all, that money would not help my bank account as much as a freezer full of tuna would. I’m so glad I took the opportunity!
First Deep Sea Tuna Fishing Trip
We had to arrive at the boat by 6:30 am. This is to ensure everyone has paid and all are accounted for. I arrived at 5:00 a.m. to make sure traffic and car trouble did not mess up my trip. I was surprised to find that there was already a long line in the parking lot of expectant anglers.
The reason they all lined up like this is that the bunks were on a first-come-first-served basis. I was new to this game and didn’t know my comfort in sleeping would be tied to my punctuality or tardiness. Thankfully, I was able to get a comfortable seat/bunk and get settled in once the boat was ready to depart.
The boat we were on is the New Buccaneer operated by Galveston party boats. It’s an 85’ x 33’ catamaran with four diesel engines. The boat is large enough to take 100 fishermen. Back then, they took 49 fishermen on the tuna trips, but now, they limit it to only 38 in order to ensure everyone gets a bunk to sleep on.
As many of us do, I spent the weeks before the trip watching online videos to learn how to jig for blackfin. I watched a lot of videos by fishermen in Florida, and this caused me to be poorly prepared for the kind of blackfin fishing that takes place on the New Buccaneer.
Texas Coast Deepwater Rig Fishing
The current is swift near the deep drilling ships, and the jigs they use in Florida are not as useful in these waters. I struggled for a while, trying to figure out how to make a lure work in water it was not designed for.
Thankfully, a nice fellow named Peter was willing to tell me what I was doing wrong and sell me one of his jigs. It was a Williamson Benthos Speed Jig 8 oz. I used it for the rest of that trip and caught 25 blackfin tuna in the process.
In fact, I used it on two subsequent trips until it broke in half due to the stress of blackfin attacks. I still have the top half in my tackle box as a reminder of all the fun and fish it supplied. Not only did I catch all those blackfin, but I also caught a yellowfin, two rainbow runners, two king mackerel, twelve vermillion snapper, four mahi-mahi, and a few other reef fish.
I caught so many fish, I had to go buy another large ice chest to supplement the two I brought with me. Needless to say, after this, I was hooked. Anytime you have to buy more storage space for the fish you just caught, is a good time.
Here’s how the trip works. You get on the boat by 7:00 a.m. The boat leaves at 7:30, and travels for several hours until it reaches the deep reefs where vermillion snapper, amberjack, grouper, and other assorted fish stack up. The captain (usually Matt on these trips) will spend several hours putting you on prime fishing reefs during the day.
Towards the evening, they will pull anchor and head out to deep water in order to get to the drilling ships by sundown (150 miles from shore). When the boat arrives at the drilling ship, the captain will instruct everyone to drop their jigs and catch some fish.
The boat is allowed to drift past the drilling ship for a while until it gets too far from the lights (most of the fish congregate near the lights), then the captain will have everyone “reel ‘em up,” and move back for another pass by the drillship. This will go on all night until the sun rises. Then, it’s time to head back home. This is a grueling night of torture and fun, but more on that later.
Usually, the boat is divided into two sides for two kinds of fishing. The up-current side will be designated as the casting side for those who want to target top-water yellowfin. The down-current side is reserved for those who want to jig for blackfin and/or float a chunk line to also target yellowfin.
Everyone works together to help each other catch their fish. We usually call it “the dance.” The dance happens when someone hooks a large fish that starts to run sideways. They then follow the fish down the boat, going over and under the lines of other fishermen until the fish is close enough to gaff or swing into the boat.
It always amazes me how few tangles there are given the number of running fish. However, the dance, coupled with the expert help of the deckhands, always seems to avoid the expected tangles.
Hooked on Deep Sea Fishing
As I said earlier, I was hooked. After I brought back over 100 pounds of meat and filled the freezer, my wife was convinced that this trip was worth the time and money. So, I began to plot with friends to get back out on the boat.
Finally, I convinced three other friends that they needed to come with me to see what it was like, and to (truth be told) help me load the heavy ice chests in my truck! I explained to them that it was the most fun they will ever have while hurting more than they probably ever had. I’m not going to lie; it is a tough and grueling trip. It can be hot (this is the Gulf we’re talking about), long, and a lot of work.
Once the boat makes it to the drilling ship and the sun is setting, the work truly begins. For those who want to catch lots of fish, the work does not stop until the sun rises again.
I have a wife and seven children. For me, these trips are a useful source of quality seafood which we could not afford at the store. Then there is the added bonus that I get to catch the fish myself, skin it myself, and can ensure the quality of the food from start to finish.
Anyway, back to the fishing. Once the jigging starts, you are wagging (watch a video and you’ll see) a half-pound weight on the end of a seven-foot rod from 400 feet down, while reeling it up, for the next 8-9 hours.
Your back, knees, elbows, wrists, hands, neck, and (did I mention back?) will be very tired and sore by the middle of the night. But like I said before, it is the most fun you’ll ever have while hurting so much. That’s just the jigging part.
Once the fish start to hit, it gets even more fun, and more tiring. A blackfin tuna can reach speeds of over 30 mph. I like to tell my friends, “imagine an eight-pound bowling ball moving at 30 miles an hour hitting your jig 200 feet down.” That’s the kind of hit and fight you can expect from a medium-sized blackfin.
Once I got my friends involved, we started to make a hobby out of the trips. On one of the trips, the barracuda were in rare form and stole several of our $15 jigs. That would not do. So, we decided we needed to make our own jigs.
We made three designs, found scrap lead, and started melting and pouring. Now, all the fish we catch on the boat are with our own jigs! I even caught my largest yellowfin ever on a jig I made, and he fought all the way from 400’ to the top. That was a great feeling and a great trip!
Tips for a Successful Tuna Safari Trip
If you are thinking about going on a tuna safari, the following tips will help you enjoy your trip and be more prepared than I was the first time around.
1. Plan to sleep while the boat is moving. As soon as I get on the boat and put my gear away, I layover, and go to sleep. Then when the boat stops, I fish. Once the boat moves to another spot, I go back to sleep. Sleep every chance you get on the way out so that you will not need to sleep while at the tuna grounds.
I always feel bad for the guys who have to sleep at 2 am because they didn’t sleep on the way out.
2. If you go on the New Buccaneer, plan to eat at the galley. They will let you bring your own food, without a problem, but I usually choose not to for several reasons.
The first is that the food is so good, it’s a treat to eat it. The second is that they charge prices cheaper than your favorite burger joint on land. A really, and I mean really, good double bacon cheeseburger is around $5-6. It’s hard to beat. The lady that runs the kitchen is an excellent cook, and they don’t gouge you with their prices.
3. Bring some Tylenol or Advil. This helps with the soreness after the catch.
4. Use a depth-counting reel or multi-colored metered fishing line. I have a depth counter on my reel, and it has netted me considerable results. The captain will usually tell you what depth the fish are swimming. I will drop my jig 50-100’ below this depth and jig it up through them.
Having a buddy with depth capable gear is also very helpful. If he hooks one at a certain depth, he can tell you how deep it was, and you can more carefully target the hungry fish. Using this buddy system, we usually catch significantly more fish than others on the boat.
On one trip, four of us caught over a quarter of the total blackfin on a trip with 38 fishermen. We were able to target them at the right depth and save a lot of effort in the process.
5. Eat something between 2:30 and 3:00 am. If you don’t, you’ll probably get seasick. This happens all the time. By 3:00 am, your body is hungry, tired, and sleepy, and the movement of the boat is starting to get to you. Eating something helps get rid of the queasy feeling.
6. If you decide to eat something and drift a line while you’re doing it, you will get a run on the line right as you are about to take a good bite. It always happens.
7. Expect an hour-long fight if you hook a yellowfin on a jig. They usually hit down deep, and it’s hard to convince them to come to the surface to meet the gaff.
8. If you catch your first yellowfin on the New Buccaneer, it’s tradition to eat its heart. They will cut it out for you, give it to you, and cheer for you as you bite into that coppery pulsating fish motor. It’s an experience everyone should go through.
9. Bring a blanket/sleeping bag, pillow, and a change of clothes. You’ll be more comfortable sleeping, and you can change once all the fishing is done. Otherwise, you have to sleep in cloths covered in tuna blood, squid juice, salt, and sweat.
10. And finally, please tip your deckhands. They work hard all night to help you. Then, after the fishing is done, they clean the boat while you get to sleep all the way home. Remember, these guys work for your tips, and they usually do a good job.
More Great Reads: