Fishing the Gulf of Mexico

The death of my Father in Law, retired Navy Captain Edwin Asman in July 1986, created personal family problems requiring that I take a six month leave of absence from Air Cal Airlines and go to Pensacola, FL.  My Saintly wife Angel's mother was quite ill and not expected to survive more than six months.  American Airlines bought Air Cal in early 1987.  My job as an airline pilot training instructor was in jeopardy since American had its own union instructors training pilots from their home base in Dallas, TX.  I resigned from American.  To keep me busy making an income we purchased five condos on Pensacola Bay and Perdido Key.  I leased and maintained the apartments which took very little of my time.  It was then that Sport Fishing was added to golf as a pastime and hobby.

We bought a Bayliner Saratoga 25 foot cabin cruiser as my fishing boat.  Sara was a heavy, durable and comfortable fishing vessel.  The deck of the operating area was at water level which made for a stable and smooth fishing experience.  Some boats fishing areas were five feet above sea level which made for some violent rocking side to side due to a pendulum effect under choppy water conditions.


Gulf fishing took up about five mornings each week.  I would leave the dock before daylight and return about noon or earlier if I limited out.  A fishing buddy was needed and none had been found so my Angel was asked to go with me.  Someone had to handle the boat when a fish struck the trolling baits.  She was good for about two trips and then decided that the Soap Operas were more to her liking than screaming reels and the shouted instructions from the Captain.  So, I took Macho, my wimpy Springer Spaniel, a couple of times but he would moan and throw up with the gentle rocking of the boat as we trolled at 5 to 8 miles per hour.  But I caught fish.  Spanish Mackerel and King Mackerel were my usual catch within 15 miles of the Pensacola entry channel.  I would stop at the NAS Pensacola boat docks, park in my slot, and carry or drag the 200 quart fish box over to the fish cleaning stalls.  Besides the Saufley 'Club Fed' onlookers, were some avid fishermen who liked to see what was being caught offshore.   My battery powered filet knife was also an eye catcher which caused the most gawks.  The knife was a typical electric carving knife with the double serrated blades.  It took me from 5 - 10 seconds to filet any fish under 5 pounds.  Hold the fish's head in my left hand, cut across the fish just behind the gill to the spine, rotate the blade 90 degrees and continue cutting along the bones to the tail fin, flip the filet over the knife blades while continuing to cut back up the skin side of the filet.  Three seconds maximum for the first filet and the skin was still connected to the fish's tail.  Then with the left hand, turn the fish over to the other side and repeat the filleting of the fish.  The serrated edges of the blades kept the knife from cutting through the skin of the fish.  It took about 10 minutes to clean 50 fish.  After 3-5 months I needed a new knife due to the corroding saltwater. I bought up all available in the stores when I discovered they were no longer being produced.


Retired Master Sergeant Green Beret Len O'Donovan was watching one day when I had the fish box about half full fish and ice.  He could not believe how fast I cleaned fish.  He asked where I had been fishing and what rigs I used.  "Come with me tomorrow and I'll show you."  I told him.  He was a regular fishing buddy of mine about 2 days a week for several years after that.  Some mornings we would pick up Len's  home building contractor son, Mike, at Pensacola Beach and catch a limit of King Mackerel in a couple of hours.  Then we'd have Mike back to his car on Pensacola Beach by 9 AM.


The rigs I used were simple and some were typical of what was used by other Gulf fishermen for decades.  I had one rather complicated rig that I used for catching bait fish or for Spanish Mackerel.  It was a rig of 3 silver cloth covered hooks in line which looked like minnows and behind them I attached a 5 inch silver plug called a "Top Gun."  The top gun would chase the silver minnows causing me to catch up to 5 fish on a single troll through a school of fish.  We used the Mackerel straw rigs which consisted of 3 red plastic straws and one yellow straw.  Many times Len and I would catch fish on every hook on those little rigs.  The Top Gun caught a Pelican on two occasions which messed up the fishing while we brought in the lines and then gently got to the big bird and removed the Top Gun from the beak/gullet of the Pelican.  Sharks and every other fish seemed to go for that Top Gun.  I lost a lot of Top Gun lures because of monster type denizens I never saw hit the Top Gun lure at 20 or more miles per hour nearly burning the screaming reel up and sawing a hot hole in my right thumb.   The Mackerels would slice through the cat gut lines at times and wreck the rigs.  But, it was the most fun any guy could have fishing.

Four straw hook rig                         3 trailing silver hook rig                             Shiny silver Top Gun lure

All year round I trolled the Gulf for big fish.  My reels were 2 Penn 80s (rarely used), a Penn 50, a Shimano 30 and 2 Shimano 20's.  No spinning reels were allowed on the boat. The screaming of the reels alone created more excitement in two seconds than an hour of excitement at a football game.  I became addicted to the screaming reels and the fight of the fish to escape as I worked him to the side of the boat and gaffed the razor toothed King of the Gulf.  Sara trolled the gulf both Summer and Winter, most of the time searcing for the limit of King Mackerel.  However, many other game fish provided excitement by going for the flashing lures and bait.  Large Red Snapper, Amberjack, Barracuda, Sail Fish, Bull Dolphin, Shark, Cobia and the Queen of the Gulf-Wahoo were caught on multiple trips.  The preferred rig was a silver skirted lure with a 6 inch long Cigar Minnow riding the forward hook.  I generally used two treble hooks.  The lead treble hooked through the eyes of the Cigar Minnow was half the size of the trailing treble hook.  Some fishermen used two standard hooks trailing instead of the trebles.  Here are two typical rigs but neither displays the Cigar Minnow or the leader protruding from the hole in the leaden head of the skirted lure.

My reputation for catching King Mackerel soon had plenty of fishermen wanting to fish with me.  Generally the maximum was two buddies plus me.  Any more could get in each other's way.  The maximum lines trolled was usually 3-a long high surface line 100 feet back of Sara; one medium low planer line close and down about 10 feet and one planer line down 20 feet and aft about 50 feet aft.  Approaching a target rich site like the sunken Russian Freighter or other sites further out, four lines would be out with two down and two on the surface about 75 feet apart.

The entry channel into Pensacola Bay passes Fort Pickens on the east side and Fort McRee on the west side.  Ft. Pickens is famous for the prison of the Indian Geronimo.  The channel could be extremely rough.  The duty Navy Aircraft carrier went in out of the channel daily for student pilot training.  I can remember leaving the Sherman boat docks at oh dark thirty in calm water, cruising the 300 yards and turning right at the departure point and gunning the engine to full power to hurry out the channel and then feel the boat rise sharply until Sara was about 20 feet up on a swell.  I chopped the throttle to idle and the boat swung around and headed to the west side of the channel.  Even in the dark I could see the mountain of water break violently only a few feet away from Sara.  That day was one of the few times I cancelled a fishing trip.  Countless times Sara was the only boat outside the entry channel in 5-7 foot seas.  And, we caught fish.

I recall a couple buying a new boat and taking their first family trip out into the channel.  They located an open spot in the middle of the channel about half a mile away from the beach.  The occupants threw an anchor out the back of the boat instead of off the bow.  The anchor made a solid catch of the bottom and in less than a second the boat went under with all loose items and the people on board floating rapidly on the incoming tide down the narrow entry channel.  No one drowned but the novice owner sure had a red face.

Several times the Pensacola News Journal mentioned Gulf fishing and some of my fishing trips.  The Sport Reporter went on an Oh Dark Thirty trip and managed to snag a King Mackerel immediately upon arrival at the USS Massachusetts.  Mister King Mackerel was the title they gave me probably because of that trip and other reports of who was catching first throughout the year.

This article has exceeded my normal length of a story so check for additional short tales about the Screaming Reels in the future.


Donald Cathcart