Texas' Saltwater Big 5
October 04, 2010
When it comes to great saltwater fishing action, it's hard to beat these five Gulf Coast sportfish.
Anglers looking for year-round saltwater fishing couldn't find a much better place to live than the Lone Star State.
Only Florida produces more solid angling throughout the coldest months. That said, however, Texas' coastal waters can boast plenty of diverse opportunities throughout the calendar year.
The key for Texas anglers lies in understanding the patterns and migration patterns of the game fish available to them. Once they unlock this information and apply smart fishing tactics, there's no reason that they can't score on a number of fish just about any day of the year.
Lots of fish swim off the Texas Coast, but the following five provide the most consistent action and are among the most sought-after.
Speckled trout are not only the most popular game fish in Texas but also the most abundant. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department officials have seen a dramatic increase in trout numbers over the last 20 years, and anglers are reaping those rewards today.
During the summer months, anglers with boats should concentrate their efforts around jetty systems. These large granite structures designed to aid ship navigation attract speckled trout by the thousands, and anglers who learn to read the jetties can with little effort catch themselves a legal limit of specks.
The bait to try during summer will be something live, like shrimp or croaker. Fishing shrimp under a popping cork is a well-liked method. Attaching the shrimp on a free line with only a small split-shot weight rigged above the hook and letting it drift along the jetty wall will produce more of the large fish. The same method applies to fishing with a live croaker.
Another worthy summertime opportunity, particularly for those without boats, involves targeting the surf. Specks run the surf in big schools and gladly take offerings of silver spoons and shiny topwater plugs. Using live bait can also get results, but since you often have to follow these schools as they move along the beach, using artificial lures is more practical.
Moving into fall, the fastest action is in the bays. Watch for commotion under flocks of gulls feeding on the shrimp and menhaden that the trout spook to the surface. This is the easiest time of year for catching specks, as they feed aggressively and will often hit just about anything you throw at them. Soft-plastic shrimptails, Rat-L-Traps and spoons are some of the easiest and most effective lures to fish during these situations.
During winter, Texas' trout fishing slows down -- but it doesn't shut down. This is the time of year that sees anglers seeking trophy-sized specimens for the wall throw slow-sinking plugs like the MirrOlure, Catch 2000 and Corky along shallow mudflats on warm afternoons, hoping to score on the trout of a lifetime.
The areas to focus on are those mudflats adjacent to a ship channel, as trout inhabiting deep water will move during warm spells onto the shallow flats on high tides. The black mud retains heat from the sun, and the surrounding water warms up a few degrees, attracting baitfish and the predatory trout that seek them.
During summer, redfish school on the open water of bay systems during midday "slick-offs." Running the open bay looking for hints of bronze on the water and massive schooling action is the way to locate these brutes. Gold spoons and Rat-L-Traps are best for use on schooling reds in the bays; the ones offshore, however, turn their noses up at anything except live or fresh-cut fish and crabs.
During the early part of fall, the emphasis turns back to the shorelines. Anglers wading or fishing from carpeted flat-bottomed boats or skiffs should look for tailing reds or fish cruising along shorelines. A way to increase the odds of seeing these fish is to wear polarized sunglasses, which take the glare off the water and allow you to see into the water much better.
Also during fall, the larger "bull" reds start to make their annual migration into nearshore areas, giving land-bound anglers a taste of offshore-style fishing. Anglers baited up with live mullet and crab can intercept these fish between the sandbars in the surf and in the passes linking Texas bay systems and the Gulf of Mexico. Strong incoming tides seem to bring the best outcomes.
Winter months see redfish action slow tremendously. The most consistent action is at power-plant outfall canals, where warm water draws the nearby reds.
Anglers wanting to target flounder during late spring and summer should fish the large stands of roseau cane in bay systems.
Roseau cane plays an even more important role in the life of bay-dwelling flounder than I once believed. In fact, anglers seeking flatfish can use roseau cane to their advantage in ways never before explored, at least in print.
As I've stated on numerous occasions, roseau cane's very intricate root system (not unlike a miniaturized version of the mangrove's) gives baitfish a place to hide on high tides. Conventional wisdom has it that batfish are in the marsh during periods of high tides, and that may be true for some forage species -- but certainly not all. Lots of menhaden, shrimp and other forage species are on the edges of the marsh, on the main shoreline of bays, and hidden in the roots of roseau cane.
The key for Texas anglers lies in understanding the patterns and migration patterns of the game fish available to them.
Flounder have figured this out and, being highly opportunistic predators, gang up at the edge of the cane and wait for the falling tide to expose the roots, forcing baitfish to exit. Some are aggressive enough to prey right on the edge of the cane when tides are at their peak; most wait for the fall to begin.
Otherwise, flounder don't do much in summer months. Highly susceptible to changes in water temperature and dissolved oxygen levels, they dwell most frequently in the large cuts in a bay system or near deep water, where the water is cooler and richer in oxygen.
One of the savvier tactics for catching these fish involves locating schools of shad (a.k.a. "menhaden"). Many anglers make the mistake of relying on concentrations of mullet, which are easier to find, but too large for flounder to target easily. Once baitfish are located, start fishing the area in which the most shad gather. T
he "S-turns" in a cut are a good place to start, as are eddies that form near the mouth of a cut.
Fall flounder fishing involves concentrating efforts around passes joining bays and the Gulf of Mexico. Spots like the Surfside Jetties, Rollover Pass and the South Jetties near Aransas Pass become highways for flounder exiting the bays to spawn in the deep waters of the Gulf.
Live mud minnows or finger mullet rigged on a fishfinder rig are among the most-used and simplest setups to use on these migrating flatfish. A fishfinder rig -- a "Carolina rig" to bass anglers -- consists of an egg weight rigged above a swivel and attached to a leader attached to a hook. You want to drag a fishfinder slowly across the bottom, so as to give the sluggish flounder a chance to grab it.
Winter has little to offer flounder fishermen, since most of their quarry are in the Gulf of Mexico. During spring, shorelines of bay systems are good for getting after flounder, but few anglers fish them, as bayous, sloughs and other drainages are much easier to target, and probably hold more flounder. But on occasion, a likely piece of shoreline that's lined with roseau cane will start to pick up.
I say "likely," because not all shorelines are the same. When the tides are super-low, I look for shorelines that drop off steadily for a few yards and then make a sudden drop of a couple of feet. I've found that flounder will usually stack up in the deeper holes right off the edge of the dropoff. Also, some flounder will stay in the ultra-shallow water on the shoreline.
When the tides are high, I like to find a shoreline, after which I start hitting the roseau cane.
Sharks are easy pickings in the nearshore Gulf of Mexico during summer months, and can provide anglers with some excellent sporting opportunities. These pelagic creatures start arriving in March and usually don't leave until October; if you pull up to any oil platform or drift through a big school of mullet or menhaden, you're likely to run into some sharks.
To draw sharks in, chumming is a necessity. Sharks are opportunists, so putting out chum is like ringing the dinner bell for them. They're strong, intense predators, and by stimulating them through chumming, you're likely to elicit exciting, aggressive action.
There are many ways to chum; there's probably no wrong way to do it. The most economical would be to take a five-gallon bucket, punch it full of holes and put weights in the bottom. Fill it with fish guts, old shrimp, cut menhaden or any kind of smelly stuff. Tie the loaded bucket to the boat with enough rope to sink it at least 10 feet down. This will create a chum slick that will draw sharks from all around. I like to use this in conjunction with cups of beef blood poured over the side.
|AN ANGLING GUIDE TO OUR FAVORITE SALTWATER GAME FISH|
|SPEICIES||PRIMARY RANGE||BEST FISHING||BEST TACTICS||BACKGROUND|
|SPECKLED TROUT|| Trout range from bay systems and marshes into the surf and around jetties. Some areas have strong populations around the oil rigs. During winter, they tend to school in the deep water of ship channels.||Fall is the best time for good numbers of fish, although they tend to run a bit small. Summer fishing is good around ship channels, with some bird action. Late winter and early spring are the best times for trophies.||Fishing with live shrimp around jetties and fishing soft plastics under schooling birds are highly effective. Fishing topwaters around shorelines is also a great way to catch them during winter and spring.||The speckled trout, a species once ravaged by commercial harvest, is at an all-time record high as far as population numbers go. Contrary to popular opinion, these fish spawn almost year 'round.|
|REDFISH||Redfish can be found from the backwaters of marshes into the Gulf of Mexico and anywhere in between. The largest fish dwell in the nearshore Gulf waters, while the "slot-sized" fish are creatures of the bay.||The best fishing for the large bull reds is during late summer and early fall when they gather around the surf and jetties. Spring fishing can be a little tough, but the action picks back up in summer.||Casting topwaters and spoons at tailing redfish is a popular method of fishing. Flyfishermen also score well. For the larger bulls, live and cut bait fished around the jetties is best.||The redfish has a similar story to the speckled trout. The reds are at record high numbers as well, owing to a ban on commercial harvest and a highly successful stocking program.|
|FLOUNDER||Inland bays, marshes and ship channels are the main haunts of Gulf flounder. However, these fish can tolerate fresh water and are sometimes caught in the mouths of freshwater rivers.||There are two distinct flounder runs: spring and fall. The larger fish are caught in spring, but great numbers move in fall, and thus anglers have more success overall then.||Fishing along stands of cane on the shorelines of marsh with jigs tipped with shrimp is becoming one of the most popular methods of catching flounder.||Commercial harvest with its shrimping-related bycatch has taken a toll on flounder. Recent efforts by groups like Project Flounder Future and the Saltwater Conservation Association are beginning to pay off.|
|SHARK||The Gulf of Mexico and shallow bays are the principal shark waters. Most anglers find sharks in the surf and around oil rigs. Large bull sharks in particular have their babies in Texas bays.||Summer is the peak time to catch sharks in great numbers in Gulf waters, although some of the larger specimens start coming near shore in March, making them easier to catch.||Chumming an area with fish oil and fishing with cut bait is the best method for taking sharks. For the surf, fishing out past the second sandbar with a large, oily chunk of fish at night is typically the best method.||Sharks have become a popular sportfish. Recent conservation measures seem to be aiding the ones that are often caught in Texas, such as the blacktip and spinner. The largest of sharks are still in peril.|
|RED SNAPPER||Ever popular with Texas anglers, red snapper inhabit the Gulf of Mexico, primarily around common structures like oil rigs, ship wrecks and reefs.||Winter is the best time to catch them, but federal law prohibits fishing except between 12:01 a.m. April 21 and Oct. 31. The first couple of weeks after the season opens is the best time to catch the large sows.||Fishing cut bait around oil rigs is the best method for catching snapper. Another great way to bag snapper is by throwing small chunks of cut fish overboard as chum and catching them with hard-plastic jigs.||This fish is involved in much controversy because of season closures in federal waters of the Gulf. Anglers can fish for only half the year. Red snapper is the most sought-after species in the northern Gulf.|
If, like many anglers, you're shark fishing from a pier, this bucket method can prove valuable, especially with bonnethead sharks, which travel in small schools and are very common around piers. You can lure them in very easily by dropping a chum bucket over the side of the pier; other species will respond as well.
Another easy and cheap method of chumming involves purchasing several cans of jack mackerel at the grocery store before your trip. This stuff is very oily, and so will easily draw in sharks. Last year we tagged 26 sharks in a day that were chummed in by two 79-cent cans of jack mackerel. All we did was punch holes in a can and hang it over the side of the boat in a lingerie-washing bag. Every once in a while I would shake the can to let out more oil and fish.
If you want to get sharks to come to the surface to hit a saltwater fly or a surface lure, try taking out a pail of wet sand or mud and live glass minnows or finger mullet. Take several of the baitfish, clump them up in the sand, and throw it overboard. The fish will escape at different depths, which will drive sharks crazy. Once they start surfacing, you can skip the sand and just throw over the live bait to keep them surfaced. Some anglers call this "power chumming."
As far as bait goes, any bloody cut fish will work; I prefer mullet, because it's easy to get and cuts easily. Probably the all-time best shark bait, though, would be chunks of jack crevalle or bonita. Both of these exceedingly oily fish will coax a shark strike quicker than just about anything else will. I once caught more than 30 sharks with pieces of one 10-pound jack crevalle.
For catching larger sharks, a freelined live mullet or ladyfish is a wise choice. Of course, no live bait fished in a chum line for sharks in the Gulf will be "live" for long!)
My policy on retaining sharks takes the species and the condition of the fish after it's landed into account. In the past, before I started using circle hooks, the shark went in the ice chest if it was bleeding badly from the gills. Circle hooks just about eliminate this problem, though, and now I only take home a few Atlantic sharpnose sharks, which are easily the most numerous sharks in the Gulf of Mexico. I let the rest go. Even blacktips, which used to be commonplace in Texas waters, are declining, becoming quite scarce in some areas; I definitely release all blacktips. They're still relatively populous, but their average size is declining rapidly. It used to be easy to catch blacktips 4 and 5 feet long; no more.
In Texas waters, you can only retain one shark per day, and that's plenty, as they have no bones (cartilage is their substitute) and produce more meat per pound of whole fish than anything else.
The red snapper fishing calendar is a short one: A federal closure initiated by the National Marine Fisheries Service mandates a season running from April 21 through Oct. 31.
Summer is the toughest time to catch snappers, because the larger fish tend to venture farther offshore. Anglers working offshore rigs, wrecks and natural reefs find the fish weighing 15 or more pounds from 25 to 60 miles offshore.
Since party boats often fish around reefs loaded with bait-stealing triggerfish, here's a piece of advice: Fish with a huge chunk of bait or with a live fish. That'll keep some of the smaller snappers away, and it'll take the triggers a while to eat it.
If you can safely get 40 or 50 miles out, you should be able to get away from a lot of the immediate pressure and get into the really big fish. The prime baits are cut cigar minnows or large jigs like the Snapper Slapper Pulsator tipped with cigar minnows or squid.
Come fall, the fishing improves somewhat, with some migration of snappers back to rigs nearer shore. A problem arises when this migration coincides with the first major cold fronts of the year -- and that means rough seas. Anglers in a position to pursue fall snappers should use the same tactics appropriate at any other time of the year.
You might also want to consider chumming. It's a great method for snapper fishing, but during spring and summer, sharks are prevalent and are apt to come in, thus shutting down your snapper fishing. As above, cut up chunks of menhaden or some other oily fish and throw them overboard to attract snappers. When you do, give them an offering of bait, and they'll usually respond with considerable intensity.
Anglers who feel that they can't afford a private charter may want to give party boats in their area a call. The charge to go snapper fishing on the large boats is around $60 per person, but the size of fish that you might catch can be surprising.
Since party boats often fish around reefs loaded with bait-stealing triggerfish, here's a piece of advice: Fish with a huge chunk of bait or with a live fish. That'll keep some of the smaller snappers away, and it'll take the triggers a while to eat it. Many times a big sow snapper will come up to run the thieves off before they can finish the job.
Then the battle's on -- and if the angler wins, he goes home with a big smile on his face and some tasty snapper filets.
And in the end, that's what fishing's all about!