South Texas' Star Lakes For Freshwater Reds

South Texas' Star Lakes For Freshwater Reds

Be prepared when you come after freshwater redfish at lakes Braunig or Calaveras. These are our state's top lakes for catching reds, and your chances of landing a monster are real! (April 2010)

The quest for big, line-stripping redfish so highly prized by saltwater anglers has a freshwater twist. That's especially true for those anglers familiar with two lakes less than 20 minutes from the Alamo City's downtown area.

Lake Calaveras fishing guide Manny Martinez hefts a strong freshwater red just landed by William Simmons. Note Simmons' stout fishing tackle; these are strong fighters!

Photo by Ralph Winingham.

For more than 30 years, the waters of lakes Braunig and Calaveras have been stocked with millions of redfish by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department; many of those fingerlings and fry have grown to be sleek, powerful monsters of the freshwater deep.

Although the underwater predators are more commonly sought by fishermen venturing into their saltwater domain along the Texas Gulf Coast, the freshwater stocked redfish action goes on year 'round at Braunig and Calaveras. Anglers fishing both from the shore and from boats bring home their share of reds, and big bulls in the 20-pound range are not uncommon.

Someone who knows where the big reds can be found in both lakes, and who has been cruising the waters for more than a quarter of a century, is veteran guide Manny Martinez of L&M Guide Service.

Martinez holds the lake-record redfish at Calaveras -- a bruiser tipping the scales at 30 pounds and measuring 41 inches. It was brought into his boat on a warm afternoon on Oct. 23, 2008.

"I was fishing by myself, just killing a little time casting for reds that were trying to spawn in the shallows," he said. "I had been watching the area for a while and knew there were some big bulls in there.

"I saw a slick (a smelly film that comes to the surface when feeding redfish regurgitate bait) come up just off the dam and chunked my spoon right into it. The red grabbed that spoon as it hit the water. I set the hook, and he took off for a 50-yard run like blue smoke.

"When I finally got him close to the boat, he made another run, and then he did the same thing again. He made run after run after run. I wasn't sure he was ever going to get tired."

About 30 minutes into the fight, Martinez said he managed to work the now tired redfish close enough to the boat to attempt to guide him into his net. Because he was alone, he had to try to net the fish by himself.

"He was beat and I must have had the man upstairs watching out for me, because when I scooped him up, my net broke in half. For some reason, the red just didn't try to get away and I managed to get him in the boat. That's when I realized just how big he really was."

Photos of his record catch on 12-pound-test line can be viewed at www.fishingwithmanny.com.

The record redfish caught at Braunig Lake was also in October -- a 30.25-pounder measuring 35 inches caught by Jack Talbert of San Antonio on Oct. 14, 1989.

As Martinez points out, late summer and early fall when redfish are attempting to spawn is the prime time for hooking into big fish and big numbers of reds.

"When the big reds are schooled up, you will see them in the hundreds. I have seen a lot bigger fish than my record -- there must be some 50-pounders out there," he said.

"It is 100 percent more fun fishing (in the late summer and early fall). That is when you can cast out spoons and catch one on nearly every cast. Your arms just get feeling like they are made of lead."

When the spawn is on, the tails of the redfish can be seen in about any shallow-water cove or along the rocks of the lake dams, Martinez said.

Gold and silver spoons are the ticket for casting action with the spawning redfish, and Martinez favors lighter tackle than he uses when employing downriggers at both lakes the rest of the year. Medium-action rods with baitcasting reels filled with 12-pound-test Cajun Red line are used while casting for reds, with heavy-duty 7-foot surf rods sporting Abu Garcia 6500 baitcasting reels filled with 17-pound Cajun Red line making up his downrigger gear.

The lures he uses with downriggers, heavy weights on a retractable wire that keep lures at a selected depth include Salt Water Assassin soft plastics (chartreuse or green with a yellow tail are one winning combination) on a 3/8- to 1/2-ounce Redfish jighead, Rat-L-Traps and Hogue soft plastics.

"When you have the right baits at the right depth, you can slaughter them," he said. "But these reds really take off, and if you don't have the right gear, you just can't hold them."

Even during the spawning season, using downriggers to get rattling lures down where the redfish are chasing bait or where bulls are chasing females is a good tactic.

"The crankbaits make noise and the reds can only stand it for so long before they make a run at the bait. The trick is to find out where they are schooled up," Martinez said.

Most of the time, Martinez has four downriggers trailing lures behind his boat. Each rig is set at a different depth until the schools of redfish are located by the use of a fishfinder, and then he adjusts all the downriggers to the same level.

When the bite is on, it is not uncommon to get two or three hookups at the same time, resulting in a mad scramble by anglers trying to keep lines from crossing as they battle the big reds.

"If the lines cross, they have a good chance of snapping and you will lose both the fish," he said. "It can get pretty hectic at times when the hooked-up reds are making runs all over the place."

What makes both the lakes such havens for big redfish is an aggressive stocking program by TPWD biologists. Calaveras and Braunig are two City Public Service Energy power plant discharge lakes just south of downtown San Antonio.

Calaveras is the larger of the two, covering about 3,624 acres with a maximum depth of 45 feet. The lake was impounded in 1969. Since 1976 when the TPWD stocking program began, Calaveras Lake has been stocked with more than 7.5 million redfish fingerlings and fry -- about 1 million more than any other freshwater lake in the state.

Another 148,634 fingerlings were released at Calaveras in October during the lake's latest stocking.

At nearby Braunig Lake, more than 4.5 million fingerling and fry redfish have been stocked during the same period. Braunig Lake was impounded in 1964 and covers about 1,350 acres with a maximum depth of 50 feet.

Normally, the fingerlings or fry stocked by TPWD fisheries biologists take about three years to grow to the minimum keeper size of 20 inches in the bait-rich environment of the two discharge lakes.

"It is a lot easier to find the reds at Braunig than at Calaveras because Braunig is a smaller lake," Martinez said. "They move around all the time, and all you have to do is find them."

The warm waters of Calaveras and Braunig, which are loaded with calcium and other dissolved minerals, have also provided an added benefit of offering up the right conditions for redfish to make freshwater spawning attempts each year. They go through the motions, but do not reproduce.

"Years ago when they first started putting power plants on reservoirs, there was a concern that we would be creating places where fish can't live," said John Dennis, a fisheries biologist based at the TPWD office in San Antonio. "Texas Parks and Wildlife began experimenting with a lot of different fish and red drum were put in a lot of different reservoirs. Here at Calaveras and Braunig, they worked out really well."

The other top stocking sites have been Tradinghouse Creek Lake near Waco, which has received about 6 million redfish over the years, and Fairfield Lake in East Texas, which has been stocked with about 5 million redfish fry and fingerlings.

"The reds like the warm water (produced by the power plant discharges) and there is an abundant source of forage fish. That results in some tremendous catches," said Dennis.

While the stocking efforts have been cut back at other reservoirs across the state, both Calaveras and Braunig normally receive a fresh supply of fingerlings or fry each year. The only time the stocking is curtailed is when young fish are not available from saltwater hatcheries.

Dennis explained that the only difference between saltwater reds and freshwater reds is that the freshwater fish do not use their large intestine to filter the salinity out of their environment like their saltwater counterparts. Even fish in salt water must maintain a freshwater environment inside their bodies to survive, he said.

Fingerlings and fry hatched and raised along the Texas Gulf Coast undergo a five-hour tempering process to allow the saltwater fish to adapt and thrive in a freshwater environment.

"The redfish do go through the motions of a spawn in fresh water, but the water does not have enough salinity for the eggs to survive," Dennis said. "Otherwise, the reds here are exactly the same fish as those caught at the Coast."

As avid redfish anglers have found, the tackle-testing lunkers from both saltwater and freshwater normally sport a single large black spot on the upper part of the tail base. Having multiple spots is not uncommon, but having no spots is extremely rare. While the most common color of redfish -- giving them their name -- is reddish-bronze, their color can range from a deep blackish, coppery color to nearly silver.

The Texas record for redfish, caught in the Gulf of Mexico in January 2000, was 54 1/4 inches long and weighed 59 1/2 pounds, while the U.S. record is 94 pounds and was caught along the North Carolina coast.

Texas anglers land an estimated 225,000 red drum each year, with the average fish measuring 23 inches and weighing about 4.7 pounds.

Kyle Spiller, an ecosystem leader, Upper Laguna Madre Coastal Fisheries Division of TPWD, said: "Rarely has a single fish so strongly captured the imagination, dedication and admiration of so many anglers as the red drum. Revered for its power, speed and delectable flavor, red drum have become one of the most popular game fish in Texas marine waters."

According to TPWD officials, the state's hatchery program is one of the most visible marine stock enhancement programs in the world. Annually, some 25 million juvenile marine finfish (averaging 35 millimeter total length) are produced in the hatchery program and released into the wild to supplement the natural population.

Both Braunig and Calaveras lakes have become extremely popular locations for redfish anglers, supplemented by those fishermen looking to land a few catfish or largemouth bass.

"When we are conducting our angler surveys, we will generally find about 40 to 60 people come through a weekend with their boats. During that same period, we will normally have about 200 shoreline anglers," he said.

Fishermen attempting to hook into the big reds from shore have adopted a simple technique that has become quite successful.

In order to reach the deeper spots where the big reds are lurking, bank-fishermen will wade out into chest-deep water and cast out tilapia or gizzard shad as far as they can toss the baits with surfcasting rods. Then the anglers walk back to the shore and prop up their rods in holders, waiting for something to grab onto their baits.

"Most of them will have a number of rods out at a time along the bank, and all of them have their favorite spots to fish," Dennis said, adding that the bank-fishermen are out, rain or shine, heat or cold, every day of the year.

Although tilapia and shad are the most common baits for shoreline fishermen, crawfish have also proved to be redfish magnets during the spring and early summer.

"That is one of the good things about the reds. Even during the middle of July when it is as hot as it can be, you are going to catch reds -- they just love the warm water," said Dennis.

While the minimum length for keeper reds at Calaveras and Braunig lakes is 20 inches with a three-fish-per-day limit, there is no maximum length like the 28-inch cutoff for saltwater redfish. Any redfish taken from the Texas Gulf Coast area that measures more than 28 inches requires a special trophy redfish tag.

That's just one more advantage to fishing for the freshwater version of these great saltwater game fish!

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