MISSISSIPPI GULF COAST — Restrictive regulations on commercial gill netting combined with favorable weather have led to what some recreational anglers are saying is the best year in a decade for deep-sea fishing along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
“We had probably the best red snapper season anyone can remember,” said Steve Mullins, president of Coast Conservation Association of Mississippi, which represents sport fishermen. “We routinely saw snapper over 20 to 25 pounds. We had some trips where they caught their entire limit with snapper over 20 pounds, which is unheard of. Nobody knows why. There is speculation that the hurricane may have driven bigger fish from deeper water in closer to shore.”
Mullins said larger fish than normal have also been seen in other species of fish such as cobia. No one knows if the bigger fish are a fluke or a trend. He believes some of it can be attributed to a mild winter and the hurricane, and that it is also related to a regulation requiring gill netters to use biodegradable nets. Most gill netting stopped after the biodegradable net rule went into effect, and commercial fisherman said the rule amounted to a “stealth net ban” because the biodegradable nets aren’t readily available in the marketplace.
Recreational fishing on the Mississippi Coast is big business, estimated to generate more than than $100 million in economic activity per year. A single 48-foot fishing vessel can cost $1 million. This year the number of charter boat businesses is up, seven major fishing tournaments on the Coast are drawing hundreds of anglers, and casinos have begun promoting deep-sea fishing through tournaments and sponsoring their own fleets of charter fishing boats.
“Casinos are beginning to push the fishing now,” Mullins said. “Casinos are realizing that deep- sea fishing is a unique feature of the Coast that they can market. The Beau Rivage hired five boat captains, and bought five boats.”
Danny Pitalo, owner of Gorenflo’s Tackle and Marina at Point Cadet in Biloxi, agreed that deep-sea fishing is getting more exposure due to the casinos.
“We’re seeing more customers, and many more bookings that in the past year,” Pitalo said. “We’re seeing a lot more families want to go out and spend the day. Before we saw more golfers, people who would golf a few days and then go fishing for a couple days.”
Pitalo said the seven major fishing tournaments being held on the Coast this year will provide a major boost to the economy.
Recreational angler Max Pace of Gautier said the tournaments are particularly good for the economy because they bring in a large number of out-of-state visitors, instead of just having locals exchange money among themselves.
“There is no question that the Mississippi Gulf Coast is becoming a world-wide fishing destination because we have some of the best fishing in the Gulf right off our Coast,” Pace said. “We have seen a definite improvement in the fishing. The Gulf Coast Research Lab is seeing an upward trend in the fish populations. There is no question it has been a banner year for fishing all around. Red snapper had probably the best season in 10 years. Anglers around the dock are seeing good increases especially in speckled trout, flounder and white trout.”
Kenny Bellais, owner of Fish-On Charters in Biloxi, reports getting more walk-up business than in the past. He said many of the customers are people who are attending conventions at casino hotels.
“Casinos sure haven’t hurt business,” said Bellais, who recently won the Gorenflo Cobia Tournament. “People are going to conventions at casinos, and staying long enough to go fishing before they go back.”
Bellais said having larger and more plentiful fish than in the past has been good for business. Customers who catch fish are happy, and likely to return again.
“People love to get out there and catch fish after fish,” he said. “I haven’t had a dissatisfied customer yet. The hurricane last year helped us. It stirred up the bottom, changed things a lot, and helped make better fishing habitat. There are a lot of bad things about a hurricane, but this is one good thing. It pushes a lot of fish up towards shore. We caught grouper here after the hurricane that we never caught before.”
Another charter boat captain who reports a booming business is Brandon Morano with Shearwater Charters in Biloxi.
“Business has been great,” Morano said. “The fishing has been great. With the casinos, more people are coming to Biloxi. People are seeing how good the fishing is in Biloxi, and are going back and telling everybody.”
Morano believes the biodegradable net rule has helped commercial fishing, and also gives credit to shrimpers for using TEDs (Turtle Excluder Devices) that allow most of the fin fish to pass through without being caught in the shrimp net.
Morano said a lot of his customers come from north Mississippi, and have come to the Coast just to fish. The second most common class of customer is conventioneers. He also picks up a number of customers who are tourists just passing through who book a charter on the spur of the moment.
Another Coast business called C-Charters is catering to both fishermen and scuba divers, and/or people who want to do both. Owned by Harrison County Supervisor C.T. Switzer, the business offers day trips, or overnight trips running from one to three days.
There are two boats used, a 30-foot hydrocat called C-Cat used for both diving and fishing that ranges anywhere from 30 to 100 miles offshore. The 85-foot C-Angel is a liveaboard-style boat used for one to three-day diving trips. The boat can house 22 divers, and is fully set up for both diving and fishing.
Glen Ehret, owner of the Divemaster Dive Center, books charters for C-Charters and teaches scuba lessons from the boats. Ehret said interest in the dive trips is increasing.
“A lot of divers from here were going elsewhere,” Ehret said. “They see the water in close, and it is murky. But when you get offshore, it is just as clear as in the Destin/Panama City area. The diving is great. The rigs are really awesome. Once people get out there and do some diving, they are really impressed with it.”
The Coast’s only dive operation started up in late summer of 1998. Dive trip prices range from $85 for a two-tank day trip to $535 for a three-day trip.
C-Charters is being featured in an upcoming issue of Saltwater Magazine, highlighting in particular the meals provided by Ehret, who is chef on the charters. A recent article about a C-Angel trip published in the Birmingham Herald said that the Ehret’s cuisine “rivaled the finest restaurants in New Orleans, Biloxi, and Mobile.”
Outdoor columnist John Phillips also raved about the fishing saying that divers using spear fishing equipment brought up 20- to 30-pound snappers, and a grouper weighing over 40 pounds.
“We ate three meals a day on board the boat, had hot showers and comfortable beds, and caught more fish than I ever would have believed,” Phillips said. “I never before had experienced a boat like the C-Angel.”