The fisheries of the Texas Gulf Coast are in better condition than they've been in more than 30 years. (June 2006)
The fisheries of the Texas Gulf Coast are in better condition than they've been in more than 30 years.
Our coastal sportfish populations have benefited from prohibitions on commercial harvest, restrictive recreational bag and size limits, stocking, and wetlands restoration from Port Isabel to Port Arthur. Anglers have responded to this saltwater bounty by becoming increasingly knowledgeable about their quarry, and by learning that fishing on the Texas Coast can be productive the year 'round.
The five species discussed here are found across the spectrum of coastal fishing venues -- from back bays to sites far offshore, and everywhere in between. As you'll see, there's something exciting to catch in our coastal region 365 days of the year.
Summer brings some of the most consistent action for speckled trout to the jetty systems along the Gulf Coast. Either live shrimp fished on a Texas Rattling Rig or a similar popping-cork/treble-hook combo can be deadly on specks.
"During the summer, the specks will sometimes just almost shut down completely to lures out at the jetties and you have to adjust your game plan," said Steve Walko of Houston. "A popping cork and shrimp will allow you to 'see' what you're doing and adjust the depth at which you're fishing easily. Depth is very important."
Walko says that pitching a live shrimp along the jetty wall and letting it float down it can be an exciting and nerve-wracking experience. "Seeing that cork go down always gets you," he stated. "Sometimes it'll bob just a bit and come back up, and then sometimes it will just dive straight down. It's a lot of fun."
For anglers wanting to catch truly big specks during summer months, the spoils in the Houston Ship Channel are top spots to fish, especially for anglers using live croakers. "A live croaker fished over those spoils can produce more big trout than almost anything this time of year," said Capt. George Knighten.
As summer fades to fall, most of the action occurs on the main body of the bays with schools of trout working under the birds. Soft-plastic shrimp and menhaden imitations are top baits; topwater lures and lipless crankbaits also catch fish. This also is the time of year at which lots of small trout are feeding aggressively near the surface. If you want to catch the truly big ones, fish a heavier lure on bottom to get past the small ones.
Look to the Matagorda complex, Corpus Christi Bay, Trinity, East Galveston and Sabine Lake for the best action under the birds. When winter arrives, the action slows tremendously, but the chances of catching a truly big speck increase.
On warm, clear afternoons with tides running high, shallow mudflats adjacent to the Intracoastal Canal can give up impressive catches in January, February and early March. The dark, muddy bottoms warm the water to a temperature a few degrees higher than that of the nearby ship channel, where most of the big specks are hanging out. The baitfish are drawn to these heated areas; so are the specks.
Slow-sinking plastics like the Corky, Chatter Tube and MirrOlure Catch 2000 are the best lures as the metabolisms of these fish slow to a cold-weather crawl. Topwaters can produce, but stick with the slow-sinkers if you're serious about catching a wallhanger.
Redfish populations are at or near historic levels in most bay systems, and are extremely healthy at all destinations.
For anglers targeting reds during the summer months, the open bays are the best bet. During hot, calm days, redfish begin to school up, and abandon themselves to a feeding frenzy that has to be seen to be believed.
"What anglers need to do is to start out fishing when everyone else is going home," said Sabine Lake guide Capt. Skip James. "When we get the midday 'slick-offs,' these reds bunch up in the middle of the bays and start chasing around menhaden. Sometimes you see them feeding like piranha or something on the surface, and then sometimes you will just see a hint of bronze below the surface. But when you find them, the results are all the same: intense fun."
The veteran guide recommends that anglers use their trolling motors to approach these reds quietly and then cast with soft plastics on heavy jigheads, or use 1/2-ounce gold spoons. "You want something you can cast pretty far, because sometimes they will spook easily," said James.
As autumn arrives, the action shifts toward the surf when the big bull reds start to spawn. All surf and jetty systems along the Texas Coast play host to this phenomenon, some of the top locations being the Galveston, Surfside and Port Aransas jetties.
Anglers should use long surf rods baited with cut mullet, live croakers or blue crab. When using crab, pop off the shell and rig the hook through the joint of the paddle-like back leg. It'll hold firmly there.
Be mindful of tidal movements when you seek these big bulls, as high tides bring more of them close to shore and within reach of your rods. You can cast to them from either the surf or the many piers along the coast.
When winter arrives, reds often concentrate in the warm water of power-plant discharges present in or around most saltwater bay systems. Look for the reds to hang out in the deep holes in these drainage canals and, on high tides, where shallow flats meet the deep. These transition zones are great places for intercepting baitfish.
Artificials purists can catch reds here on Rat-L-Traps and gold spoons, while bait-fishermen should stick with cut bait or live finger mullet. Crab is good, too -- but lots of sheepshead swim these canals, and they can pick a whole crab clean.
Summer is the slowest time of year for catching flounder, but they don't shut down completely then. Most of the action is found in the big, flowing cuts in bay systems like Chocolate Bayou in the Galveston complex and Johnson Bayou on Sabine Lake.
Fish incoming tides in the first 100 yards of any of the larger cuts with a curlytail jig tipped with shrimp or live mud minnows on a fishfinder rig. This consists of an egg-shaped slip-weight rigged on about a 12- to 18-inch leader and finished off with a hook. Drag it slowly; when you feel a thump, count to 10 and then set the hook. With lures, cut the wait down to about two seconds.
During the fall, flounder start feeding heavily before exiting the bays toward spawning grounds in th
e Gulf of Mexico. Most anglers call this migration the "fall run." The activity actually starts to pick up in late August and early September, when some flounder start staging along the mouths of cuts and along shorelines lined with roseau cane.
In the cuts, fishing the incoming tides is best for taking good numbers of flounder. Along the cane-lined shorelines, however, the first hour of a falling tide is best. Roseau cane has a very intricate rooting system within which baitfish hide on high tides. Flounder, appearing to have figured this out, lie in ambush, waiting for the waters recede.
As fall moves on and the full run begins, passes and channels leading from the bays to the Gulf become the place to fish. Rollover Pass on the Bolivar Peninsula is probably the most well-known and heavily fished location. The area around the JFK Causeway in Corpus Christi is good, as are the causeway bridge on Pleasure Island on Sabine Lake and the Port Isabel jetties.
In these areas, fishing live mud minnows or finger mullet on a fishfinder rig is the best move. Some anglers are starting to wise up to the fact that they can set out several rods with live bait so that they can get more action as more flounder move through their area. Look for outgoing tides to provide the best bites, especially after a cold front passes through.
Most anglers don't fish for flounder during the winter, but the action can be fair around the warmwater discharges. Not all flounder leave bay systems, and the stragglers that stay behind often are willing to bite when concentrated in such tight areas.
During the spring, flounder start returning to the bays; things start to pick up around the second week of February and peak in early April. The passes again become the best spots at which to intercept the fish as they make their way back in. As the flounder disperse into the bay systems, the cuts and drainages along the main body again become the center of action.
Anglers have a limited window of opportunity to catch red snappers -- and summer's right in the middle of that timeframe. The season runs April 21 to Oct. 31 in the federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately for sportsmen, that's not the prime time to catch them.
"You can catch plenty of snapper this time of year," remarked young snapper fishing addict Ryan Warhola of Port Acres, "but the best time is actually during the winter -- when we can't catch them.
"We have to live with what we're dealt, and that means fishing when you can."
Warhola advises anglers seeking trophy-sized snappers to avoid a lot of the rigs, especially those near the shipping lanes in the Gulf. "Those areas are pressured extremely hard," he said, "and by summer it can get difficult to catch the bigger fish there. You have a lot of recreational guys, and the commercials hammer them too."
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Fishing wrecks, rocks and pieces of hard bottom off the beaten path figures prominently in Warhola's strategy for success. "Snapper are not just fish that hang around the rigs," he noted. "Small wrecks and areas where you simply have a harder bottom than surrounding areas can hold lots of big snapper, and that's what everyone wants to catch -- isn't it?"
Warhola fishes with Snapper Slapper Pulsator jigs tipped with cigar minnows or Spanish sardines. He's also a proponent of chumming as a means of coaxing snapper off the bottom.
"What you want to do," he explained, "is to throw chunks of cut bait out there. Don't use oil like you would for bringing in king mackerel because that's what it will do €¦ bring in kings and sharks. And that is not good for snapper fishing: Both of those species eat snapper, and when they're around, the snapper get nervous."
Most of the snappers are hanging out about 30-plus miles offshore at this time of year, but during the fall they start to move in closer, and October is the peak month for catching snappers closer to shore. Strategies remain pretty much the same. Pressure on rigs is lighter this time of year, so they can possibly become a bit more productive.
When the season reopens in April, anglers typically are faced with horrendous conditions, seas being rough and dangerous. When the seas are calm enough to fish, the rigs are apt to prove productive once again, as they won't have been targeted by recreational anglers for months. Something to keep in mind is to target not just the main body of the rig but also the smaller satellites, which sometimes, albeit rarely, feel no significant fishing pressure and can produce plenty of big snappers.
You might want to find fish with cut bait and switch over to a bottom-bouncing jig. Any hint of blood in the water can bring in sharks this time of year; when you're seeking snappers, that can be frustrating.
Shark fishing has become extremely popular along the Gulf Coast, especially with surf-anglers who find the superior fight in these brutes highly appealing.
Summer is peak shark-fishing time, with species like blacktips, spinners, Atlantic sharpnose, bulls, bonnetheads, lemons and hammerheads turning up at distances from shore ranging from offshore rigs to the beachfront. Landbound anglers should consider targeting the piers along the Texas Coast on high tides, fishing preferably with oily cut bait like jack crevalle or bonita. Cut mullet and sting rays are also high on the shark's list of favorites.
Large circle hooks rigged on steel leaders are the most popular terminal tackle for bagging sharks. Sharks can cut a line not only with their teeth but also with their skin, which is sharp in its own right. One quick slap of the tail can cut even heavy-duty line with no problem.
Offshore, sharks are easy to find around the oil rigs. Simply pour out some menhaden oil or squeeze a few pogies and you'll find yourself amply supplied with these voracious predators.
For targeting blacktips and spinners, my favorite among chumming methods involves bringing along a bucketful of small menhaden, grabbing a handful and squeezing. Some of them will float, others will sink quickly, and others slowly. This creates a feeding frenzy situation with sharks that can allow you to sight-cast to them with cut bait.
I once had more than 50 blacktips and spinners feeding behind the boat and ended up catching and tagging 30 of them for the Mote Marine Laboratory. These two species are highly acrobatic, rivaling billfish in terms of tail-walking. I believe the spinner to be equal to the tarpon in that department. The ideal setup for this kind of fishing involves having one b
ait on the bottom for species like bull sharks and Atlantic sharpnose and a couple of free lines to get the ones that feed in the upper level of the water column.
Jetties also are good spots for targeting sharks, especially bulls and Atlantic sharpnose during the summer. Fish with big chunks of cut bait on incoming tides as they bring sharks from out around the short rigs. Chumming works great at the jetties as well, although you tend not to get as many of the smaller schooling blacktips and spinners that way.
Shark fishing slows with the coming of fall, but there's still some action to be had. Capt. Billy Sandifer says that some of the largest tiger sharks can be caught in the Padre Island surf during November, with possible action for sandbars and blacktips. And if anyone should know, he'd be it: He once guided a friend to an 820-pound tiger in the surf, and has put customers on numerous sharks weighing more than 300 pounds.
"There are some big ones still out there," he said. "We catch and release most of these fish so they can fight another day and thrill someone else."