Steve Papen took off from John's Pass early one morning last week and headed west in search of oil. Papen, like most Gulf Coast charter boat captains, worried that the Deepwater Horizon disaster might have fouled his favorite fishing grounds 100 miles off the coast.
"We fished right along the edge of the closed area," said Papen, who runs Fintastic Charters out of Madeira Beach. "The water was a perfect, cobalt blue, just like it is supposed to be."
Fishing with friends aboard a 33-foot, triple-engine Contender, Papen came across a large piece of debris, encrusted with barnacles.
"It looked like it had been there a long time," he said. "It was just loaded with mahi-mahi."
The "Loop" current, a veritable river of warm water that enters the Gulf of Mexico off the Yucatan Peninsula and flows north before rotating clockwise down the west coast of Florida, carries flotsam and jetsam as well as a variety of pelagic fish.
Charter boat captains, especially blue-water hunters such as Papen, fear the Loop will pick up oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill and chase away the fish that drives their summer business.
But on this spring day, there was no oil, only fish.
"The guys were catching dolphin on spinning rods, and then along came this wahoo," he said. "Out there you just never know what you are going to catch."
As of Wednesday evening, federal officials had closed more than one-third of Gulf of Mexico federal waters (those beyond 9 miles from Florida shores) to commercial and recreational fishing. In the Panhandle, the oil slick had moved for the first time into Florida waters (those within 9 miles of shore on the gulf). As the edge of the slick drifted within 7 miles of Pensacola's beaches, some forecasts called for oil to wash onshore by today. The closest the federal closure came to the Tampa Bay area as of Wednesday was about 100 miles.
Few recreational anglers venture as far west as Papen.
"There were only two other boats out there with me," he said. "You have to really know what you are doing."
But the rewards are well worth the effort. The deep water, the lack of angling pressure and the added benefit of the warm current, make the waters 250 feet and deeper the prime hunting grounds for species most anglers only read about in fishing magazines.
After catching the 90-pound wahoo, Papen and his party continued on to deeper water.
"We stopped in 450 feet, right on the eastern edge of the Loop current, and dropped a butterfly jig," he said. "It wasn't down there for more than a few seconds before I got cut off."
Papen knew the fish were home.
"I dropped down another jig, let it do its thing, and wham! We got this beautiful Warsaw grouper," he said of the 70-pound fish.
Most anglers are familiar with red and gag grouper, the common inshore species, but in deep water, you will find other members of the grouper family, including black, scamp and yellowmouth.
These fish tend to be large, some heavier than 100 pounds, which means bringing them up from deep water can be a challenge. "You better be ready for a fight," Papen warned.
Papen loves offshore fishing during June. "Everything is perfect," he said after running his third, 12-hour, offshore fishing trip in three days. "The fish are on fire. I don't have to do much to look like a hero."
On one excursion, Papen and his customers raised two sailfish and a white marlin, while one angler on another boat caught a blue marlin.
In addition to the classic blue-water species, fish found closer to shore, such as amberjack and king mackerel, are also present.
"They are just bigger and badder," Papen said. "Many a kingfish tournament winner has been caught offshore in deep water."
Now that June is here, offshore anglers will be able to add another species to the mix: red snapper.
"With the way everything else is biting, I am sure we are going to have a good season," Papen said.
Fishing deep water is not for everybody. It is unwise to head that far offshore in a boat smaller than 30 feet. At a minimum, twin engines are necessary. Many anglers use triples so they can run back in quicker if the weather turns bad. An EPIRB (emergency position indicating radio beacons) and a satellite phone are also recommended.
"There is also safety in numbers," Papen said. "Run out there with other boats. If something does go wrong, you will have somebody there to help."