Alabama's Freighter Kings
by Dan Bowling
I breathed an audible sigh of relief as we rounded Mobile Point under the long-silent gun ports of historic Fort Morgan and headed south into the open Gulf. The relief was for my crew which wasn't exactly your basic seafaring types. Offshore experience started and stopped with my son Danny. His new bride, Libby, and newly-weds Dave and Margie Grigereit were in for a gentle ride on a beautiful day - if nothing else.
The conditions were tailor made for these Atlantans' introduction to saltwater fishing. It was a "blue bird" day, the slight ground swells had a surface chop caused by a five knot north wind which promised to minimize the heat. The channel between Dixie Bar and Sand Island, which can be a tiger at times, was a pussycat today.
Fishing was reported to be slow, but my guests had been promised a fishing trip and Danny wanted to take a shot at the "freighter kings." Freighter kings is not a rare species of mackerel found in some remote corner of the Gulf. Fishermen around Mobile, Alabama, know the term well. Here is where it comes from:
Apparently there are more freighters needing to load and unload cargo in the port of Mobile than there are berths to accommodate them. Consequently, some have to anchor offshore to await dock space. This is bad news for the ship owners, but it is good news for area fishermen.
The ships anchor beyond the fifty foot curve which meanders along the coast about eight miles south of the mouth of Mobile Bay. They are always well-spaced and generally anchor to the east of the main approach to the ship channel.
Located in open water these freighters offer a welcome haven for bait fish to hide from hungry predators. As all fishermen know, where bait fish congregate, game fish are not far away. King mackerel, big spanish, blues, ling, sharks, bonito and jack crevalle are often abundant around the ships from early June until about mid-October. This combination of anchored ships, shade, bait fish, and hungry game fish equals great fishing and lots of fishermen. On some Saturdays and holidays a huge freighter being circled by much smaller fishing rigs resembles a mother hen with a flock of chicks playing under her close supervision.
In freighter fishing the early bird gets the advantage of the choice spot which is usually tying up to the stern of the freighter. The bigger ship's crew is generally happy to toss down a line or catch a line thrown to them from the fisherman below. Their willingness to cooperate soon becomes apparent as the fisherman finds that the line running from the ship's rail to his bow goes in both directions. The freighter crew expects certain gratuities, especially cigarettes, and whatever else they can ask for with foreign tongues and gestures, to be sent back up the line in return for their cooperation. Be prepared to pass bonito and crevalle up too, because throwing anything back offends your hosts. This is a small price to pay for securing a choice spot without having to play out enough rode to have your anchor hold in 50 to 70 feet of water.
It's hard to be an early bird when dealing with newly-weds, so it was about 8:30 when we put out a couple of test lines to check surface action son Danny had spotted. There were three freighters on the horizon, but we weren't going to pass up any opportunities on the way out. Like the reports had said - things were "slow", so we soon pulled in the lines and headed directly for the closest freighter, which was anchored about two miles south and two miles east of the last channel marker known as "farewell buoy."
The freighter of choice looked lonesome until we topped the earth's curvature and could see ten to fifteen chicks playing around mother hen. There were fairly close to the ship, which meant there were probably fish keeping them there. Fishermen tend to quickly spread out in search of action if there is nothing to hold them to a spot.
Fish are not always around freighters, not always at the same place around freighters, and do not always stay at the same place at the same freighter. Therefore, the fisherman has to take measures to seek out his quarry. There are basically six steps to finding fish and determining the "hot spots" around an anchored freighter. A ship at anchor will always have its bow into the current regardless of wind and wave directions. The fisherman can bet that this current sweeping along the sides and bottom of the ship will bring with it careless or injured bait fish which is dinner for gamefish. For this reason, step number one is to approach from the stern of the ship as if there were a chum slick coming directly from that end of the ship.
When making this approach, I always begin fishing about three fourths of a mile away by putting out four king rigs at varying depths. Two planers are used taking a big spoon and a duster or artificial squid as deeply as possible. The other two dusters are trolled at medium and shallow depths. All lures except the spoon trail cigar minnows- or bonito strips. Arriving off the stern of the ship in this manner, it's time to bring step two and step three into action at the same time.
Step two is to begin circling the ship by trolling along either side as closely as possible.
Step number three is to do this very carefully. There will probably be four or five other boats doing the same thing and two or three more tied up to the freighter's stern or anchored along the lee side. All will have several lines out, so number three is quite important. The new arrival can just fall in with the group and join them in making oblong circles of the ship. Getting in this pattern is such a natural thing it is almost automatic - even for the novice.
Step number four is important and is carried out as you are executing number two (circling the ship) and number three (very carefully). This step is to closely observe the fishermen who are already there. While drawing big circles in the water around the ship, keep a very close eye on all activity. I'm not at all reluctant to put the glasses on the fishermen enjoying a good catch to see what bait he's using and more importantly, the depth he's fishing.
Frequently steps 2 and 3 are quite productive and satisfies most anglers and party boats, but if it is not productive, steps 5 and 6 are where the fun really starts.
So it was this day. Watching other fishermen had revealed that the "hot spot" was just off the freighter's stern. Two boats were tied off there and were getting good kings along with a mixture of bonito and small sharks - to the delight of the Panamanians lining the freighter's railing. This told us that step 5 was unnecessary.
Step 5, float fishing, is generally employed to locate fish when they are spread out over a large area. It is executed by getting in close to the ship, cutting power and floating down wind up to half a mile from the ship. This is when the nine to ten foot spinning rods are broken out and rigged. The reels are generally loaded with plenty of 17 to 20 pound test line with a swivel followed by a five foot length of wire leader. This terminates with a large treble hook, single or tandem number six hooks or a cigar minnow securing device. A frozen cigar minnow or live croaker, mullet or menhaden is cast out to the sides of the drifting boat and allowed to sink while playing out line as the boat drifts. The bait is then retrieved just fast enough to keep a tight line, but with some action. Some of the fishermen on board should add a small sinker or a split shot or three, depending on the wind and current, so all on the boat are testing different depths. Once the proper depth is determined, everyone should copy the successful rig.
When the float is completed, it is repeated until a hot spot is discovered and it's time to anchor. Float fishing in this manner can be fun and quite productive - a big king on a spinning rig is great sport. On this day we went directly to step 6, worked in close on the port center of the small Panamanian freighter and dropped anchor. Danny played out enough rode until we were even with the stern of the ship. Like a knuckle head, I had listened to the people at the boat ramp who insisted that the kings had been running quite deep and would not hit anything with wire leader. They were half-right. Three cut 100 pound monofilament leaders within ten minutes had me rerigging with wire in a hurry.
My inexperienced crew had enjoyed themselves immensely. Now the fun really started! Despite themselves they landed some fine kings, had a great time and learned a lot about playing and landing fish from bonito which are excellent teachers. Our major regret of the day was that a big king Danny was maneuvering in for the gaff kinked and parted the wire on a last run to get free. The king was in plain sight just before the escape and was easily a forty pounder.
The steps or methods covered here are not rules. Let's call them "approaches" because freighter kings often make their own rules. For example, my best catch of big kings was on a rough day in August. Seas were eight feet as measured by the markings on the side of the ship. The big ones were on the windward side of the ship and would strike only after the boat had been stopped and the trolled dusters allowed to sink. The hit came as the lures were being pulled up from the bottom. The big kings developed this rule - we didn't we just discovered it and joined the game.
This was probably just an unusual day because the ideal situation seems to be when the wind and wave action is brisk from a direction perpendicular to the current. Under these conditions the wind and waves hit the ship broadside which causes a "slick" on the lee side of the ship from stem to stern. This produces maximum fishing area and offers the opportunity to tie up to the freighter along its entire length - even to the anchor chain.
No doubt the port of Mobile does not have a monopoly on freighter fishing. Surely busy ports all along our Gulf coast require that some ships anchor offshore out of the traffic pattern before they are allowed to steam up the channel and tie up to the docks.
Whether the reason for this is due to shortage of dock space, legal technicalities, or just bureaucratic paper work the result is the same - it's good news for fishermen. You might check it out at the port nearest you. You will probably be glad you did!
The two closest approaches to Mobile's freighter kings are from Dauphin Island near Alabama Point. Navy Cove Marina is located near the end of Alabama Hwy 180 after it turns west off Hwy 59 at Gulf Shores. All supplies are available including block ice and frozen cigar minnows. Overnight boat slips and two launching ramps are manned with helpful personnel well schooled in where the fish are most active. Advance information can be obtained by calling 205-54-236 and asking for the launch house.
Dauphin Island has public launching facilities at the east end of the Island which is located south of Mobile at the end of Hwy 193.