by Pete Cooper, Jr.
Part of my 25-year career in the inshore/offshore oilfield was a six year stint as a lease operator - or "pumper"- in Black Bay: a remote, fairly shallow expanse of open water at the edge of Breton Sound, southeast of New Orleans. It was during the beginning of the good days in the oilpatch: if you produced your quota of oil and gas, and if all the equipment was working properly, the bosses cared less how you spent your time. I chose to fish.
Black Bay is typical of most large "inshore" oil fields across the Gulf Coast. It was developed by drilling numerous individual wells scattered over a broad area - no "clusters" as on offshore platforms. Those produced into treating and storage facilities - or "tank batteries"; there were seven of those in this particular field.
Much of the bay-bottom was shell; a good portion of it was public seed-oyster grounds - prime saltwater structure. So the fish, mostly specks, could be found schooled up near any given well - or tank battery - at any given time. There were others, though, which were much more consistently productive, and invariably those held the fish in very specific locations.
I fished five of the seven tank batteries in Black Bay fairly extensively over the years (considering I had to hold on to my job, too). At each one - day in and day out - the best spot was where a cluster of pipelines carrying the oil and gas from the individual wells to the facility were gathered into a manifold. The bay-bottom below that point was covered with a jumble of iron, and if there were specks anywhere around those platforms, you could bet they would be holding to that iron. The point is, look for what appears to be a wall of pipes approximately three inches in diameter extending from the water's surface to the deck of the facility - that's the spot!
The fish around the wells themselves are often localized just as site-specifically as they are around the tank batteries. It won't take many casts to determine if they are there, but the entire area around the well must be covered; there may be a small hump or low-profile reef nearby - "something different" on bottom which holds the fish. Be quick - the more wells you try, the more likely you will find specks - but be thorough.
Where you do find them, you are apt to find them there again on subsequent trips. All you have to do is locate the same well. That's not really too difficult, consideringit is very well camouflaged by the presence of only several hundred others nearby which are identical in appearance. Each well should have an identification sign on it, denoting its owner, the lease designation, well number, and so forth. Write down the lease and well number, along with the spot where you found the fish; for instance: West Black Bay; State Lease 2127 #17; 60 feet at 30 degrees (where the specks were at). Once the action stops, run your depth recorder across that spot to see whether the fish were simply a randomly-passing school - and the well may not really be a hotspot, or whether there is something on bottom which was holding them there. That way, you might discover the ultimate speck-structure: a shell pad.
Shell pads aren't too common in depths of less than 8 feet, but there are usually a few in every inshore oil field; find one, and you have yourself a honey-hole. They are made of clamshells, and in this setting they are placed there to either level the bay bottom, to stabilize the barge-mounted drilling rigs used to develop these fields, or to fill a hole washed out by the tugs as they attempted to position the rig on the well-site. The pad can extend 20 or 30 feet from one side of the well and upwards to 150 feet from the opposite side. Remember that, should you discover one and the action near the well suddenly stops; the fish may have only moved a bit further out on the pad.
Looking for shell pads in these depths with your recorder will temporarily scatter any nearby fish, though they will usually return shortly. So what do you do in the meantime? See that well over there with the two parallel lines of pilings extending away from it? Those were used to secure the rig in position - and more than likely sit atop a shell pad; work it without graphing it first.
Piling-lined pads are most often found in depths of 10 to 20 feet which are typical of large bays, sounds, and the nearshore Gulf. In deeper water,though, "submersible" and shallow-draft "jack-up" rigs can be used, and those do not require a shell pad. They also cost more to operate than a "posted barge" rig, which must sit atop a pad in water of this depth, so you can be pretty sure that at least some of the wells will have been drilled by this less-costly type of rig. How do you find them? If they are not piling-lined, you must "prospect" for them with your recorder.
While finding specks can be accomplished without much advanced angling technique in the relatively shallow inshore fields, it requires a bit of refinement here because of the deeper water and the more-pronounced affect of tidal flow. Most often, the fish will hold near bottom, and they won't rise very far to strike. So you must get down to them.
That is best done by approaching the well from directly down-current to the point where a cast of some 60 feet will put the lure just beyond its nearest side - not up against that nearest side. This will allow the lure to sink into the strike zone - that point near bottom just down-current from the well - before the combined action of the current and the retrieve draw it away from the fish. Here, "downstream" casts will cause the current's action on the line and lure to lift it prematurely out of the strike zone, and "sidestream" casts can create so much belly in the line that it can mask a strike. "Upstream" casts are always best!
While eighth-ounce and quarter-ounce jig/soft-plastic combinations are quite suitable for inshore-rig applications, half-ounce or a tad heavier, depending on the current, are more appropriate for the deeper waters. Types and colors? Whatever trips your trigger. I've caught too many specks around too many rigs on too many different shaped and colored plastics to step into that trap! Here, getting something down to them seems most important.
Fairly light lines - say, 12-pound or so, help in deeper water settings, as they give you better feel of the lure and are less-affected by the current than even 17-pound. One must realize, however, that by attaining optimum "feel", he is leaving himself open to be "touched" by something a lot larger than even the biggest speck. I now stick with 17-pound, miss a few strikes, and use a heavier jig when the current is running hard.
And for all of that, I still get eaten up on occasion, usually around one of the nearby wrecks.
There are two drilling rigs in the East Black Bay field that were wrecked by either Hurricane Betsy or Camille. If I had a dollar for every speck taken around them, I could pay cash for a 65-foot Hatteras!
Most of the wrecks I know of are scattered around the Mississippi River Delta. I got my biggest speck in years around one off Pass a l'Outre a while back - on a hard-rising tide, bumping bottom with a half-ounce jig. A lot of folks hereabouts Carolina-rig small live croakers with the lightest weight that will hold bottom. They catch some brutes like that, too.
You can catch specks around wrecks on just about anything. The point is, if you notice something a little more junky-looking than whatever else is around, try it. Next to a shell pad, I can't think of any other type of speck-structure I'd rather prospect.