Texas' Saltwater Big 5

Texas' Saltwater Big 5

Here's your guide to the best angling for the five favorite targets of Texas' saltwater anglers.

By Robert Sloan

There are so many species of fish to catch along the Texas Gulf Coast that it's tough to pinpoint our Top 5 favorites. There are inshore panfish, game fish and offshore brutes that are capable of yanking a fishing rod right out of unsuspecting hands. However, after taking a look at what fish a majority of Texas folks seem to like catching the most, I've settled on the following fish: speckled trout, redfish and flounder for inshore fish, and red snapper and ling for offshore.

SPECKLED TROUT
This is without a doubt the most-sought-after game fish on the entire Gulf Coast, especially in Texas. It's the king of inshore angling because these fish are abundant, hard fighting and will eat both live and artificial baits on just about any given day.

One of the best areas along the Texas Coast to wade-fish for speckled trout is out of Port Mansfield. That's where I've been fishing and catching trout on the flats for over 20 years. What makes this venue so great is its access to miles upon miles of shallow, clear-water flats that are loaded with trout.

But finding the fish can often be a test, unless you happen to be fishing with Capt. Bob Fuston, who is one of the most experienced guides on that section of the famed Laguna Madre.

"I've been fishing here a long time," Fuston told me last summer as we waded a flat adjacent to a channel. "I've seen the numbers of trout come and go. Even though we get a lot of fishing pressure down here, the numbers of trout are still good, providing we can keep the croaker soakers at bay."

Wading the surf is a favorite way for Texas anglers to catch good stringers of speckled trout - a top inshore catch! Photo by Robert Sloan

Anglers fishing live croakers have definitely put a dent in the numbers of big trout on the Laguna. But they certainly have not eliminated them.

On one particular morning last summer Fuston and I had a big time catching a heavy stringer of trout while fishing topwater plugs and soft plastics. We were fishing along a shallow flat that dropped off into the Intracoastal Canal.

Big schools of mullet had moved up onto the flat at daylight, and they had brought plenty of trout along with them.

I used a mullet-colored Zara Spook Jr. to catch trout up to 4 1/2 pounds. Fuston stuck with Norton eels in white/chartreuse or red/white. The fishing was awesome.

"Fishing the flats off the Intracoastal Canal is a classic way to find and stay on trout here in the Laguna," said Fuston. I certainly wasn't one to argue with him.

Wade-fishing the surf for big trout is one of my favorite pastimes during the warmwater months of summer. And one of my favorite wading friends is Capt. Jerry Norris, who owns and operates the Original Sabine Lake Guide Service.

Norris grew up fishing the Sabine waters. He loves fishing on Sabine Lake and at the jetties, but his favorite place to fish is the surf.

"I like catching big trout, and the surf is the place to find them," says Norris. "Late May and June are two of the prime months to fish the surf for 5- to 8-pound trout."

What Norris does is run his big center-console Parker out of the Sabine Jetties and along the beach, looking for baitfish such as mullet and menhaden.

"I don't need a green tide to catch trout in the surf," says Norris. "That's a big misconception among many anglers. Trout are going to be feeding in the surf regardless of water clarity. If I can find a concentration of baitfish, I can usually find trout."

I've been with Norris when he's caught trout in some pretty sandy water. Remarkably, he sticks with artificial baits, regardless of what color the water is. His favorite lures are Assassins, Spooks and She Dogs. The topwater plugs are used early, and then as the sun gets up, he'll switch over to an Assassin in white/chartreuse or limetreuse.

Capt. Jim West with Bolivar Guide Service has been putting anglers on East Galveston Bay specks for years. When it comes to catching trout on East Bay, West rules.

"I don't do anything out of the ordinary," swears West. "I just stick to fishing over shell, and most of the time I'll be fishing with a slow-sinking MirrOlure."

I've been fishing with West for years. His specialty is wade-fishing. And you can usually find him working mullet-imitation plugs over one of the many shell reefs scattered from one end of the bay to the other. West is known for catching big trout.

He's won his share of big trout tournaments. So what's his secret?

Well, I don't know if it's a secret, but it's a rare day when he's not casting some version of a slow-sinking MirrOlure. The reason for that is simple: Big trout like big baits.

"This bay gets lots of pressure," says West. "I learned that patience is the key to catching trout here, especially the big ones. What I'll normally do is find shell with baitfish nearby and work that reef with a MirrOlure. If big trout are there, they will eat that plug."

REDFISH
Talk about a user-friendly fish - this is it! You can catch redfish just about anywhere, anytime and on any bait. They aren't too finicky, most of the time. Reds will hit topwater plugs, flies, jigs, and live and dead baits. If they can see it or smell it, they will generally eat it. One of the easiest places to catch big reds is in the surf. And along the Texas Coast are many miles of surf to fish. The usual drill for catching reds in the surf is to set out three or four rods in holders and wait for the action to start.

What a lot of surfcasters do is bait up with a chunk of fresh mullet. The bait is then cast out as far as possible. Owing to the currents, a surf weight with wires protruding is recommended. You don't want the bait to move with the current. Otherwise it'll end up on the beach. For best results cast the bait out with enough weight to hold it in place. Sooner or later you'll catch a red, and chances are good it'll be a big one in the 10- to 25-pound class.

One of the most enjoyable ways to catch reds is by working the shallows. Port O'Connor is one of the most popular fishing areas for redfish that can be found along the Texas Coast. The back bay waters stretch for miles there. I've been fishing POC for more than three deca

des, and still haven't fished all the areas that are known for holding reds.

Wade-fishing is one of the best tactics for finding and catching reds at POC. Most anglers will be using soft-plastic jigs. But others will be working topwater plugs. There is nothing quite like working a topwater lure across a shallow flat and seeing the wake of a red come barreling over to crash into the plug. That's what red fishing the flats is all about.

Reds are strong fish. Once you hook into one, it's going to bull its way to deep water, or race across the flat leaving a mud trail. But if you can manage to hold on for that first run, you can usually turn a big red and bring it to hand in short order.

One of the best places to find reds is at the jetties. The best that I've found are at Sabine, Freeport and Port O'Connor. The Sabine and POC rocks can only be accessed via boat. The Freeport jetties are the most user-friendly on the Texas Coast.

Regardless of which jetty you'll be fishing, chances are good that you can catch reds on any given day. The best way to catch a jetty red is with live or dead bait. My favorite tactic is to rig up with a slip-cork and fish a live shrimp about 6 to 10 feet deep along the rocks. The slip-cork rig allows you to fish deep while your bait is being carried along the rocks with the current. It's a very effective method for covering lots of water and catching any reds that might be feeding along them.

FLOUNDER
Not only is this one of the tastiest fish you'll ever cook, but it's also one of the most accessible fish you'll ever go after. Over the years I've gigged them and even caught them with fly-fishing gear. But for the most part, the easiest way to find and catch flounder is with a bait-casting rod and reel that's rigged with a bottom-bumping jig or one that's set up to fish a live bait.

Rollover Pass, located on the Bolivar Peninsula (between Sabine and Galveston) is one of the best places on earth to catch flounder. I've been fishing there since I was a kid. And even over all those years the fishing has been great. Better yet, this pass has been rebuilt within the past couple of years. It's got new bulkheads and rails. It's user-friendly, with handicapped access.

The best way to catch flounder at Rollover is with fresh shad fished on bottom. The way to catch those fresh shad is with a cast net. Once you catch a dozen or so shad, you're ready to fish. You don't want to catch too many at one time, though, because they die easily. Once dead, they get soft and useless for fishing, and that can happen in a hurry.

The No. 1 flounder-fishing rig along the Texas Coast is easy to assemble and fish. First, you want to start by threading your line through a 1/4- to 1/2-ounce barrel weight. Next, tie the tag end of the line to a 20-pound-test barrel swivel. The leader should be 20- to 30-pound-test and about 18 inches long. Tie one end of the leader to the swivel, and the other to a No. 1 or No. 2 short-shank hook. When fished along bottom, this rig will move slowly with the current. Another option is to fish this rig under a float when you are fishing the flats. It's a good way to catch flounder by covering a lot of water.

RED SNAPPER
This is the most popular offshore fish along the entire Gulf of Mexico. Thousands of anglers venture into the Gulf to fish the wrecks, rocks and rigs for the hard-fighting and great-tasting red snapper.

The only negative to snapper fishing is that the National Marine Fisheries Service is so locked into commercial fishing interests that they only allow recreational anglers about six months a year to fish for snapper.

But during the months that recreational anglers can catch and keep snapper, the fishing is awesome, regardless of what the NMFS would like us to believe.

The unique thing about fishing for snapper is that you don't need a big boat to tap into this sportfishing adventure. The many party boats along the Texas Coast allow virtually anybody to go after snapper. The cost to board these so-called "head boats" for a day of snapper fishing is dirt-cheap. And guess what? They'll provide all your tackle and bait, as well.

I've been chasing snapper for well over 30 years, and can say from some very salty experience that we've got more snapper now than at any time I can remember. And the size of those snapper is incredible.

As an example of what I'm talking about, consider a trip some friends and I made last June. We headed out of Freeport and went about 26 miles offshore to a couple of sunken barges. We didn't need a bottom-finder to show us the exact location of the barges. It was quite evident where they were - it was where we could see all the baitfish milling on the surface.

I loaded up a Chum Churn and began cranking it up and down in the water. Next thing we knew there are snapper all over the place. It looked like we were having a Chinese fire drill in the cockpit of the 24-foot Parker. Needless to say, we caught our limits in a hurry. Those fish weighed from 4 to 12 pounds each. That's your basic day of great snapper fishing!

You never know where snapper are going to be located. Quite often they will be around rigs early in the season. But toward the end of June the commercial fishermen have usually stripped pretty much all the snapper off the rigs. That's why you'll probably be better off fishing for them over rocks and wrecks down in 30 to 75 feet of water.

There is no shortage of good snapper structure in the Gulf, and at times you don't need to run 50 miles to find the best fishing. Most tackle stores sell books that give the GPS numbers for more wrecks and rocks than you could ever fish in the Gulf.

What are the best baits for snapper? My favorite is a whole pogie. Another good backup bait is a whole Spanish sardine. Squid are always good, but a chunk of squid will usually attract small snapper in the 1- to 2-pound class. For big snapper, fish in the 10- to 20-pound class, you'll do best by tipping a Snapper Slapper jig with a pogie or mackerel.

LING
Call them what you want - ling, cobia, lemonfish, or whatever other name is locally popular. The fact is these are among the most exciting fish you can catch within 30 miles of the Texas shore. Ling are most often caught on the surface, which is why they are so much fun to hook and fight. However, I've caught plenty of ling while fishing the mid and lower depths around rigs.

Ling are curious fish and will swim right up to your boat. Always keep a rod rigged and ready for catching unexpected ling. I like to keep a rod rigged with a 2-ounce nylon jighead in white or chartreuse. If I see a ling swimming on the surface I can easily tip the jig with a small piece of cut bait and flip it out to the ling. It's almost certain to get eaten.

Chumming is one of the best tactics for attracting ling around a rig or wreck. Be patient when chumming for ling. They might immediately show up, or

they might mysteriously appear just about the time you're about to give up chumming.

As angler-friendly as ling can be, they can also be astonishingly tough to catch. I've seen days when they would hit almost anything. Conversely, I've been offshore when they wouldn't hit a thing.

The one thing that will almost always entice a ling to eat is a live bait. Shrimp, croakers and hardhead catfish are excellent live baits for taking them. If you don't have live baits, a jig tipped with a small piece of sardine, pogie, shrimp or squid is a very good option.

When targeting ling, remember that they can show up anywhere from just off the beach to more than 100 miles out in the Gulf.



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