Texas' Big 5 Saltwater Game Fish

Texas' Big 5 Saltwater Game Fish

Let's take a closer look at the five species that Texas saltwater anglers are craziest about catching.

By Chester Moore Jr.

Texas anglers seeking saltwater thrills have it better than ever.

Our coastal fishery is in excellent shape, and thus affords anglers many opportunities for a good time whether they're wade-fishing the back bays or trolling the blue waters of the distant Gulf.

The following gives a breakdown of where and when you can catch the most popular and exciting fish on the Texas Coast this year.

SPECKLED TROUT

Anglers can catch speckled trout more consistently year 'round than any other game fish.

During summer months, top anglers look to oyster reefs and the main body of bay systems to find large numbers of trout. Some of the most popular areas include the reefs around the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge shoreline, Hannah's Reef in Galveston Bay, the Oyster Farm in East Matagorda Bay and Sabine Lake's big reef near Mesquite Point.

The general practice for fishing reefs is to make long drifts with the current and to fish with live bait, like croakers, on the bottom. Specks are suckers for the vocal baitfish, and local marinas regularly sell out fast when the action's hot and heavy.

A flounder of this size will always be a welcome catch. Photographer Gerald Burleigh hooked this monster by fishing live bait. Photo by Chester Moore Jr.

Artificial lures are also productive, Bass Assassins, Slimy Slugs and the Norton Sand Eel being the plastics most commonly used. A good tip: Use a windsock or drift sock to slow boat movement.

When autumn comes calling, fishing under flocks of birds comes into play as the baitfish leave the marshes with the trout following them. During the early part of the fall, look for fish to be around the cuts; then, as a few cold fronts make their way through, look to the main body of our bay systems to find the fish. You'll find, however, that winter fishing for speckled trout calls for a big change in tactics.

The fish become lethargic, and so call for extra-slow angling. Working slow-sinkers like the B&L Corky where shallow mud flats meet deep water can result in to catching the trout of a lifetime.

Speaking of the trout of a lifetime, many anglers want to know the best place for getting a 10-pounder. I'd say, go to Baffin Bay, which contains many hotspots, including the Gauge Bar and Starvation Point. Both East and West Kleberg points are also excellent, particular for wade-fishing in late winter and spring.

The unusual rock mounds that help define Baffin Bay also harbor some of the better fish, particularly during summer. It's been millions of years since prehistoric worms created those mounds, but I'd bet that lots of anglers would like to go back in time and thank them for doing so - because those rocks are like a magnet for Baffin's big speckled trout.

Capt. Les Cobb of Baffin Bay Guide Service says that fishing live croakers around those rocks and out into the mouth of the bay is a killer method for sow trout. "During summer those croakers are hard to beat in Baffin," he asserted. "By this time, most of the shrimp in the bay have disappeared, and the trout go to feeding on the croakers real heavy. They've been known to produce some huge fish."

If using croakers to tease those big trout isn't your thing, stick with big topwaters. Should the water be murky, go with something that has chartreuse or orange in it, as those colors seem to produce well there.

A note for anglers who've never fished these rocks: It's like fishing any kind of structure - if you don't find fish quickly, move on to another spot. You might have to move to several sets of rocks during the course of a day, but one of them will pay off.

REDFISH

Redfish tend to mimic speckled trout in their patterns during the late-spring period. Shorelines and passes near the Gulf of Mexico hold the largest concentrations of fish. Top spots for spring reds include Port O'Connor, Rockport, East Galveston Bay and South Bay near Port Isabel.

Redfish start their most consistent bite patterns in summer, reaching a dramatic climax in the fall. Summer reds tend to 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 will prove the most effective way of ascertaining the whereabouts of these brutes.

In the nearshore Gulf of Mexico, populous schools of reds chase menhaden and shrimp. Anglers can most frequently find them somewhere between 200 yards and two miles from the beachfront. Gold spoons and Rat-L-Traps are best for taking schooling reds in the bays; offshore fish, on the other hand, turn their noses up at anything except live or fresh-cut fish and crab.

Winter is a slow time for our second-most popular fish on the coast; the redfish action dwindles to nearly nothing. About the only reliable action will be found at power plants' outfall canals, where warm water draws in roving reds. A few bull redfish hang around jetty systems as well, taking offerings of crab and cut mullet.

FLOUNDER

Flounder fishing is a proud tradition along the Texas Coast, and never more so than during the fall run.

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 will be the simplest setup to use on these migrating flatfish - it's certainly the most popular. The fishfinder rig, which is also called a "Carolina" rig among bass anglers, consists of an egg weight rigged above a swivel and attached to a leader attached in turn to a hook. A fishfinder is best dragged across the bottom slowly, so that slow-moving flounder get a chance to grab it.

Winter brings very little action for flounder anglers, since most of the fish are in the Gulf of Mexico. A few leftover flounder show up from time to time, but the action doesn't pick up again until spring, when the fish migrate back into our bays. From the five days prior to and after the full moon in March, you should fish the passes to find the greatest numbers of flatfish. After that, switch gears to fishing shorelines.

During spring, the shorelines in our bay systems are great places to seek flounder, but few anglers fish there. Bayous, sloughs and other drainages are m

uch easier to target, and probably host more flounder. But there are times when the shorelines can be highly productive.

Flounder abound in all Texas bay systems. However, some spots are proven flounder factories, especially during the spring run, when overall fishing pressure is light.

According to highly regarded fishing guide Capt. Skip James - (409) 886-5341 - Sabine Lake is probably the all-around best flounder-fishing destination on the Gulf Coast. "All you've got to look at are the facts on Sabine to see its flounder potential," he said. "It produced the Texas state-record flounder, a beastly 13-pounder, in 1976, and continues to give up nice catches to this very day."

Capt. James advises spring anglers to target the eastern shoreline (which is actually in Louisiana). Its more than 20 cuts empty more than 100,000 acres of marsh. "Those Louisiana banks are my go-to spots," he offered, "but they're certainly not the only option. In fact, one of the best areas is accessible from the bank. It's the revetment wall. For some reason the baitfish really bunch up at that area, making it kind of a flounder buffet."

Other key areas: Bessie Heights Marsh, Black Bayou, Coffee Ground Cove, East Pass and the outfall side of the Entergy Canal. Chocolate Bayou in Brazoria County is a serious flounder spot, partly because it consists of many sloughs, cuts and marshy shorelines with plenty of roseau cane to attract the flatfish. One of the best spots here is the point at which where the bayou empties into Galveston Bay.

By virtue of sheer size alone, the East Galveston/Trinity Bay complex offers an overwhelmingly varied array of flounder habitat. One of the hottest spots is Rollover Pass; accessible from the bank only, it empties into East Galveston Bay off Highway 87 in Gilchrist.

The Anahuac Refuge shoreline is another sure bet for flounder, as are Smith's Point, Chocolate Bayou and the south shoreline of East Galveston Bay. The Texas City flats on Galveston Bay proper also promise fruitful flounder fishing, as do the boat cuts in the jetties.

The Corpus Christi Bay and surrounding waters contain flatfish in plenty. Giggers prowling the clear waters on calm nights regularly string limits of big flounder. On the main body of the bay, rock jetties line the shoreline. Accessible to bank-fishermen, these spots can prove to be high-yield sites at certain times. The JFK Causeway is good for intercepting migrating flounder in the spring. Look for strong incoming tides to produce the largest stringers.

Flounder expert Capt. Don Hand - (361) 993-2024 - ranks the Laguna Madre as one of the real sleeper spots for flounder fishing on the Texas Coast. "Anglers who learn to fish the Laguna can find lots of flounder," he observed. "They've just got to rethink some of their fishing strategies."

According to Hand, the best spots are around the Land Cut and in the Intracoastal Canal, where shallow shorelines meet a steep dropoff.

KING MACKEREL

The king mackerel fishing off the Texas Coast is unbelievable from summer into early fall. Anglers seeking big kings can expect to fish for them several different ways, as they'll hit anything from dead shad to live shrimp to topwater plugs.

The general practice is to troll around oil rigs, starting with the areas holding the largest concentration of baitfish. When you start trolling, it won't take long to find the kings, because when they're around, they'll usually oblige by hitting.

The entire Texas coastline is loaded with big kings, but the prime spots for catching huge specimens are at the two ends of our coast: Port Isabel and Sabine Pass. Freeport's another spot known for its numerous fish in the 40-pound class.

Kings migrate out to deep water during the winter months, typically running to 60 miles or more offshore. Some of the winter spots favored by bluewater enthusiasts include the Flower Gardens off Freeport and the famous Stetson Rocks out of Galveston.

Capt. Artie Longron of Angler's Choice Guide Service says that anglers seeking big kings can expect to fish for them several different ways, as these fish will hit anything from dead shad to live shrimp to topwater plugs. "We're starting to use more lures," he noted, "because it's difficult to keep the sharks off of your line using bait."

The usual procedure involves trolling around oil rigs, starting with the areas holding the largest concentrations of baitfish. "When you start trolling it won't take long to find the kings," Longron said. "When they're around, they'll usually oblige by hitting."

Once he finds the fish, he'll often throw chunks of menhaden into the water to whip the fish into a frenzy-like state; then he grabs the casting rods. "Put on a topwater plug or a hard-plastic subsurface lure and you can have more fun catching kings than you would imagine. You will lose more fish, but it is too much fun not to do. A lot of my clients prefer this over any other kind of fishing."

BLACK DRUM

Black drum are hard to beat either in the fight department or, despite their ugly looks, in the frying pan. And perhaps the best thing about these big brutes is that they're easy to find and to pattern in Texas' coastal waters.

Jetties, offering a virtual buffet of the blue crabs and other crustaceans that drum love to eat, are the best places to find them during the winter, which I consider the peak time of year to catch them. The largest concentrations of drum are at the deep holes at the southern tip of jetties, but if for some reason the deeper holes are inaccessible, back off and look for dips in the rocks. These dips are indicative of the presence of deep holes, and that's where the drum will be. Another sign to be on the lookout for is vegetation growing on the bottom of the rocks. These areas are home to small crabs, which drum gorge on.

I prefer to fish for drum at the jetties with line in the 15- to 17-pound class. My favorite bait is blue crab, broken in half and hooked through the carapace. It has a long hook-life, and is irresistible to drum: good stuff.

The surf is also a promising place in which to target drum during winter, especially if you want to catch a big one. Yes, I know - most anglers say the "drum run" doesn't start until spring. But there are lots of bull drum in the surf from December through March.

A FEW LAST WORDS

Texas' coastal fisheries are in excellent shape because of wise use: Anglers care about the conservation of our natural resources. Speckled trout have nearly doubled in population and, on average, have doubled in weight during the last 20 years - and this in the face of highly increased fishing pressure.

True, some species aren't doing that well. Flounder, for instance, have been subject to a high rate of by-catch from the shrimping industry and are currently being regulated on the basis of some problema

tic science. But as long as there are anglers to pursue fish along the Texas Coast, the resources should stay in great shape. Recreational anglers have shown they'll do whatever it takes to maintain the well-being of the fish whose pursuit they so passionately enjoy.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

Believe it or not, Texas also offers some great fishing for billfish, especially for blue marlin and sailfish.

These beautiful fish roam the blue water, which is closest to Port Isabel and most of the Lower Texas Coast, but depending on the amount of rainfall and storm activity, they may move in considerably on the Coastal Bend and Upper Coast as the summer progresses.

Billfish hang around the 40-fathom curve, where typical fishing tactics involve trolling along weedlines, rips, color changes and otherwise disturbed water.

Veterans like Capt. John Cochran look for any of those combinations, all the while keeping a close eye on the fathometer and the chart. If it's possible to find one or more of these conditions, it can pay to troll a grid pattern thoroughly before moving on.

"You've got to pay attention to the little things out there," Capt. Cochran said, "and sometimes those little things are a lot less pronounced than a novice might notice. In the deep Gulf, where there is little hard structure, even slight color changes in the water could lead to tremendous catches."

In particular, some of the most exciting fishing on the Upper Coast will be found around select deepwater oil platforms. Rigs like Auger, Cerveza and Tequila are magnets to billfish and thus legendary among Texas bluewater enthusiasts.

"The technology that allows more deep-water oil exploration has helped angling prospects for billfish in the Gulf," noted Capt. Cochran. "You certainly do not have to fish rigs to find them, but the rigs sometimes serve as the only real structure around for miles. That draws in the baitfish, which in turn draws in the billfish."

Too, logs, wooden pallets, chunks of plastic and floating oil drums often hold baitfish, and usually dolphin or wahoo, and hold out the possibility of billfish lingering nearby.

"You can also find fish under the birds sometimes," said Capt. Cochran. "It is not like trout fishing, of course, but frigates and other seabirds are good natural indicators. They will hover high above bait schools and indicate when the bait is around. And in the blue water, bait can mean big billfish."



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