Oil rig fishing in the Gulf of Mexico should be on every angler’s bucket list. Nothing beats it for action, and you never know what you might head back to the dock with. From giant Amberjack and Grouper to Tuna, Wahoo, and even Marlin, the Gulf’s finest all hang out around these underwater towers.
What makes oil rigs so productive for anglers? What can you catch, and how? And most importantly, where should you go to fish them? Today, we’ll cover all these questions and more. You can also learn what’s being done to turn these platforms into true fish havens.
Why go oil rig fishing in the Gulf of Mexico?
In the past, bluewater fishing was as much a question of luck as skill. The basic tactic was to head out into the Gulf and troll until the clicker sounded. Of course, captains followed currents, temperature breaks, and visual cues like birds and debris, but finding fish was far from certain. Most of the time, it wasn’t even that likely. Oil rigs changed that.
These towering structures attract marine life from miles around. They build up corals and plants, and provide shelter for bait fish. This, in turn, brings bigger, predatory species. Pretty soon, you have a complete ecosystem, from minnow to Marlin. You can catch a dozen different fish just by working different depths.
Of course, oil rigs aren’t alone in attracting fish. Artificial structure has been doing so for centuries. The difference now is that you have large, fixed platforms that are marked on the map and easy to spot. What’s more, they rise through the entire water column. There are also a lot of them – anywhere from 1,862 to nearly 4,000, depending on who you ask. Finding fish has never been so easy.
From Rigs to Reefs
Before we jump into the angling itself, a little history. It’s still about fishing, we promise.
The Gulf’s first oil platform was built way back in 1938, but it wasn’t until the ‘70s that offshore rigs as we know them appeared. By 1984, oil rig fishing was so popular that Congress passed laws allowing states to turn these fish magnets into permanent reefs. This became known as “The Rigs to Reefs Program” and it created some of the Gulf’s top fishing spots.
Usually, when a drilling lease expires, the rig is hauled back to land and scrapped. Converting it into a reef instead is a lot cheaper and preserves the fish habitat at the same time. As part of the reefing deal, some of the money that companies save then goes to the state’s artificial reef program. Everybody wins!
So, how do you turn an oil rig into a reef? You can either break it in half, tip it over, or drag it to a more suitable spot (“partial removal,” “topple-in-place” or “tow-and-place” in the industry lingo). The method used depends on how large the rig is, as well as the depth of water it sits in.
Of course, not every rig is suitable for reefing. It has to be in the right place and made in the right way. It also needs to be structurally sound. Even so, the Rigs to Reefs Program has converted over 500 defunct structures into bustling fish cities. And that’s on top of the thousands of operational platforms throughout the Gulf of Mexico.
What can you catch around Gulf oil rigs?
Alright, we’ve talked enough about the rigs themselves. Let’s get into the fun part: the fish. The thing that makes oil rig fishing special is that you can target bottom and pelagic species in the same spot. This really expands your list of target species. Here are a few of the fish you might come across on your trip.
Yellowfin Tuna are the signature catch on rig fishing trips. They grow big, fight hard, taste great, and look seriously cool. What’s more, you can find them all year round. However, you’ll need to go 50 miles or more to get them, depending on where you start.
They may be known as “Reef Donkeys,” but the bite around the oil rigs is even better. Amberjack around this offshore structure grow almost too big and give no ground during the fight. Get one aboard, and you’ll have feasts for weeks – if you can lift your arms to eat.
Hands down the best food fish in the Gulf! Red Snapper are a seasonal specialty in most of the Gulf due to the short federal season. Time your trip, and you can fill your coolers with premium fillets. Texas also has a couple of rigged reefs in state waters, where you can catch them year-round.
Marlin are a much rarer sight than the rest. They’re more of a lucky draw than a target species. However, if you’re set on catching one, remote offshore rigs are about the most promising places to try. Late summer is the best time of year to look for Blue Marlin in the Gulf.
Depending on how far offshore you go, you could catch Cobia, Kingfish, deep-water Groupers, Wahoo, Mahi Mahi, and huge pelagic Sharks. There are so many different fish out there, it’s impossible to list them all here. That’s part of the fun – you never know what might take your bait.
How to Fish Around Oil Rigs
We won’t go into the nitty-gritty of tackle choice and trolling spreads. It all changes with the conditions on the day, and five people will always have six different opinions on the matter. Instead, here’s a run-down of how to approach and work a rig, as well as some tips for targeting the main species out there.
Choosing a Rig
This is tougher than it might seem at first. With so many platforms in the Gulf, it’s no longer a case of “head to the nearest tower and see what’s there.” Instead, you want to find a rig in clear, blue water. Satellite and chlorophyll data are your friends here. You also want the right temperature. Ideally, aim for water that’s in the low 70s to low 80s, depending on the time of year.
Of course, the water is only half the equation. You also need the right depth and type of platform. If you’re after reef fish, look for rigged reefs in around 300 feet of water. Partially removed rigs are the dream, because you get double the structure and a lot more height in the water. If you’re after big game pelagics, you want the deepest platform with the clearest water.
Fishing a Rig
The first step when you arrive at a rig is to figure out what the currents are doing. Bait fish tend to hang out just up current of whatever structure they’re hiding around and this is no exception. Start close to the platform and work your way out to around 100 yards or so. Once you find the bait, you’ll find the bigger fish pretty quick.
The best style of fishing varies from species to species. Chunking is effective for Tuna and Sharks, while trolling is better for Marlin and Wahoo. If you’re after bottom fish, start just above the top of the structure and gradually jig your way down to the bottom. You’ll catch different fish at every depth without spooking the ones beneath them.
Where to Go Oil Rig Fishing in the Gulf
There are thousands of oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. However, some spots have much better access to them than others. These are the places that you should start your trip from to get the most out of your time at sea.
Louisiana has the lion’s share of the Gulf’s oil platforms. As such, it’s a natural choice for a rig fishing trip. The most iconic place to launch is the fishing village of Venice, LA, 50 miles southeast of New Orleans in the Mississippi Delta. Hardcore anglers can moor even farther downstream at Port Eads, a marina at the very tip of the delta.
Starting your fishing trip so far into the Gulf has obvious advantages. You can get to the deepest and most remote waters even on a day trip. You don’t have to start this far out, though. Oil platforms cover the federal waters off Louisiana. The state also led the way with the Rigs to Reefs Program, using over 300 platforms to create 71 artificial reefs throughout their waters.
Not to be outdone, Texas also has hundreds of platforms deployed throughout the northern Gulf. Galveston is a classic staging point for fishing them, as are Corpus Christi and Port Aransas farther down the coast. South Texas towns like South Padre Island have fewer rigs, but they’re closer to the very deepest sites like Perdido, which sits in 8,000 feet of water.
Unsurprisingly, Texas has also been one of the spearheads of the Rigs to Reefs Program. So far, the State has converted over 50 old rigs. They start at the state waterline (nine nautical miles out) and go all the way to the edge of the continental shelf, 100 miles offshore. Texas Parks & Wildlife even made a handy interactive map to help you find them.
Alabama and Mississippi
Alabama and Mississippi are a little different to Western Gulf states. There just aren’t as many oil platforms in this part of the Gulf. The states also have much fewer rigged reefs. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t fish here. Gulf Shores and Biloxi are awesome starting points for an offshore adventure, as are a dozen nearby towns. However, the real action is inshore.
Both states have a ton of inshore and nearshore platforms. In Mississippi, most sites sit in under 100 feet of water. Alabama takes things even further, with great rig fishing inside Mobile Bay. If you want to go rig fishing for Tuna and Marlin, you’re better off in Louisiana. However, if you want huge Cobia and Mackerel, this is the place for you.
What about Florida?
We never thought we’d say this, but Florida actually has the worst fishing in the Gulf – at least when it comes to rigs. The Sunshine State has never had much of an oil industry, and it has been consistently opposed to exploration in both state and nearby federal waters. To be honest, we don’t mind. There are plenty of fish to catch there already.
Oil Rigs in the Gulf of Mexico: Accidental Fish Factories
You wouldn’t think of the oil industry as something that goes hand in hand with fishing. In most cases, you’d be right. The Gulf of Mexico has seen first hand how badly the two can mix. However, in some cases, oil rigs can be great for fish. They provide cover and structure, creating a haven for entire ecosystems – especially once they’re converted into reefs.
What this means for you is that you can head out to these underwater skyscrapers and find a wide range of huge, hard-fighting fish. And you can do it every day of the year. Sure, the best oil rig fishing in the Gulf might be 50 or even 100 miles offshore. But with Tuna, Marlin, and a range of deep-water bottom fish all fighting for your bait, it’s well worth it.
Have you ever been oil rig fishing in the Gulf of Mexico? Where did you start, and what did you catch? Drop us your stories and tips in the comments below. Otherwise, jump on a local charter and start hauling in monsters!