The open offshore depths of the Gulf of Mexico feature vast expanses of sand bottom with limited structure. Small bait gravitate towards any deviation, either on the surface or below, to find food and sanctuary from predators. Bigger fish also key in on these areas for nourishment, which in turn attracts large pelagics like yellowfin tuna, dolphin, wahoo and ultimately billfish.

In August 2020, Okaloosa County started deploying eight fish-aggregating devices or FADs, offshore of Destin Pass. These large anchored buoys immediately began attracting bait like jacks and flying fish. Soon larger hardtails, rainbow runners and blackfin tuna arrived to feast. Dolphin, wahoo, tuna, sailfish and marlin showed up not long afterwards. Now, nearly three years later, the project is a resounding success.

“We lost two FADs but replaced both so we are back to eight total,” says Alex Fogg, head of the Coastal Resource team for Fort Walton Beach and Destin, a tourism department of Okaloosa County. “Last week the Okaloosa County Commission approved the first phase of a second deployment. Plans include adding four more FADs 40 miles east and west of Destin Pass (two each), to allow easier access to smaller boats. Actual deployment will be many years out though, due to the lengthy permitting process.”

The Okaloosa FAD network was directly funded by local tourism tax dollars. Six percent of every dollar that’s spent in hotel or vacation rentals is collected and used for tourism-related projects. A small portion of those tourism dollars helped underwrite the FAD deployment.

Fogg and colleagues have been doing research at the existing network to tag juvenile tuna to track movement and connectivity among the FADs. The team is also coordinating with a couple universities to count other species tagged in on-going studies.

“We’re seeing lots of wahoo whenever we’ve been out there,” Fogg explains. “The winter bite has been outstanding with lots of wahoo caught, some mahi and even a few blue marlin. We are really expecting productive spring and summer seasons out there for anglers.”

That success in the eastern part of the Gulf hasn’t gone un-noticed. Capt. Tom Hilton, president of Hilton’s Realtime Navigator, an offshore forecasting service used by many blue-water teams, decided to launch a similar project off Texas.

“Alex Fogg is my hero,” Hilton says with a laugh. “The Destin FADs were definitely an inspiration to do something similar here, but since everything is bigger in Texas, we’re deploying 14 FADs to start.”

With invaluable input from Fogg, Hilton, the Houston Big Game Fishing Club, Friends of RGV Reef and others started collecting private donations to fund the project. All the individual FADS will be named in honor of the sponsors and will feature corresponding logos or graphics. The locations will be highlighted on the Hilton’s and Atlantis Marine web sites. Deployments will be around popular hot spots such as the Tequila Cutoff (former rig), East Breaks, Colt 45 and others. Several local civic groups are also involved, realizing the economic impact from sport-fishing.

The Texas FADs will be 14 feet tall buoys (8 feet above the surface), anchored with 3,000 pounds of chain to two blocks weighing 5- and 3,000 pounds apiece. Each will be equipped with a GPS transponder and geofence for alerts and will not pose a threat to navigation. Hilton did his due diligence to site each grouping in areas that would not damage sensitive bottom. The network is expected to last up to a decade and a trust fund has been established for maintenance and routine inspections. The US Coast Guard gave final approval in late February and deployment is planned for May in one operation.

“I’ve never seen this much enthusiasm and support for a project by the Texas big-game community,” Hilton says. “Several tournaments are planning on adding an extra entry fee to generate more funds for maintenance. These FADs will bring blue-water fishing within reach of center console boats to level the playing field and bring more economic impact to coastal communities. They will also reduce the carbon footprint since less fuel will be burned to reach the closer spots. It’s an historic effort and I’m optimistic and hopeful. But until we get ‘em in the water, I’m nervous.”

Hilton and the Texas supporters are already planning a second phase FAD network that will be sited further offshore. The attraction continues.