Here's how our top five saltwater game fish are faring along Texas' Gulf Coast, and where and how you can catch them. (June 2009)
If some organization ranked salt-water fishing destinations like coaches and sportswriters do college football teams, Texas would be a contender for No. 1 every season.
"Texas is one of the great saltwater destinations, no question," says Robin Riechers, science and policy resources manager for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. "Red drum and spotted seatrout are at all-time highs, at least since we started doing gill net samples in 1978."
While there may not be a formal poll listing great places to enjoy saltwater fishing, numbers do exist to back up the fact that Texas is a major national player when it comes down to coastal angling.
Every five years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service releases its "National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation." The last report came out in early 2007.
With a fairly small margin of error, that report estimated that Texas had more than a million saltwater anglers with enough out-of-state license purchasers thrown in to pretty much fill a football stadium. Of the 50 states, only Florida reported more anglers, and only by a couple of hundred thousand. Where there are people fishing, there are fish.
The non-resident anglers trek to the Lone Star because of what the locals have come to take for granted -- 367 miles of coastline and a wide variety of available species from offshore billfish to the Holy Trinity of shallow saltwater: trout, redfish and flounder.
Though 2008 survey data was not yet available, findings from the previous year showed the highest numbers of trout in six years. In fact, the count approached record numbers. Red drum gill net catches were the second highest on record. Numbers for both trout and redfish were up in all of the state's bay systems.
In Galveston Bay, trout numbers were the highest reported in 23 years. Which brings up an important question: What effect did Hurricane Ike have on Texas' Upper Coast?
"As a whole, fisheries came out pretty well, at least from a fishery perspective," Riechers says. "Fish are used to hurricanes and other localized events."
Infrastructure necessary for fishing, however, did not fare as well. Ike destroyed boat docks, boat ramps and bait camps. When the numbers for the year are compiled, they likely will show a decline both in fishing activity and in fish caught, simply because fewer people were able to get on the water following the storm.
Despite the disaster and its aftermath, Parks and Wildlife did not miss a gill net sampling area. "We're proud of that," Riechers says.
Of the so-called "Big 3" species, the arrival of warmer weather and warmer water temperatures signals the start of the best of the shallow-water saltwater fishing in Texas. Once the water temperature hits 70 degrees, fishing begins in earnest.
Here's an overview of the trout, redfish and flounder outlook for the rest of 2009, plus a look at two other popular Texas saltwater species, red snapper and a surprisingly resurgent tropical species, the snook.
I'll never forget a 1966 Labor Day weekend fishing trip with my granddad, the late outdoor writer L.A. Wilke, and Billy Disch, who owned the Evinrude dealership in Austin. We were fishing the Laguna Madre out of Port Mansfield.
"We might just catch some redfish," Granddad told me.
Of course, we didn't. We landed some keeper trout (though a keeper back then would not be a keeper these days), but no spotted-tail fish.
The reason was that this classic, tasty game fish had been so heavily fished -- and caught -- over the years that it had become almost a rarity to catch one by the 1960s.
Redfish started on a comeback in the 1980s, thanks principally to state-imposed conservation measures, and to private and state-funded stocking of hatchery-raised fish into Texas' bay systems.
Now, the red drum is not only back, but the fishery is as healthy as it's ever been, at least since before overfishing sent them into decline.
Anglers usually look for redfish in the flats, often spotting them when their tail is projecting above the waterline like a miniature version of Captain Nemo's Nautilus in Twenty Thousands Leagues Beneath the Sea.
Part of the skill involved in catching them in shallow water is getting near enough for a cast without spooking them -- perhaps as close to still-hunting as fishing gets.
In the fall, big bull reds range the surf and hang out around the jetties.
The daily limit is three fish that must be at least 20 inches long but no longer than 28. With a redfish tag, or bonus tag, you can keep one fish a year that is longer than the regular maximum.
Spotted seatrout have always been the mainstay of Texas inshore saltwater fishing. They are common from Sabine Lake to the Lower Laguna Madre. They put up a lively fight and are good to eat.
Their population is believed to have doubled over the last two decades. To put it another way, the catch rate seen in TPWD gill net surveys grew from a statistical half a trout per hour in 1985 to a whole trout per hour in 2005.
The only downside to the trout picture has been a decline in large trout in waters around Port Isabel and South Padre Island, but Riechers says the reduction of the bag limit from 10 to five fish in that area two years ago seems to be working. Fortunately, research by the state indicates the problem was probably nothing more sinister than fishing pressure, and not a dire environmental issue that would threaten the long-term status of the species in the lower Laguna Madre.
"We looked at it extremely hard," Riechers says of the drop in big trout numbers. "We looked at certain habitat reasons, but the real thing that came to us as we looked at all data was that these trout are a real targeted fishery. People have been pulling out of that system quicker than the fish can grow. We think by going to five fish it will allow us to get back to bigger sizes."
Since the life cycle of a trout is seven to nine years, he says, the agency expects to see the numbers for the bigger trout back up within another three or four years.
But few fishermen are going to carp at getting to keep five good specks, even if that's only half of what they once could take along the Lower Gulf Coast.
Elsewhere along the coast, the limit is still 10 trout. They have to be at least 15 inches to keep, but even though you can't put them in the ice chest, those 13- and 14-inchers put up just about as much of a fight.
When you do release those not-quite-ready-for-prime-time specks, be careful. They have tender mouths, which not only makes them more of a challenge to keep hooked, but also demands extra care in getting the hook out once it's in. Using a de-hooking tool is the best bet. Also, dip your hands in water before picking up a trout. What feels like slime to you is actually a protective mucous that helps keep a trout disease-free. Trout slim is good. Keep it on the trout.
Trout can be taken on live shrimp under popping corks, with speck rigs or on a wide variety of artificial lures. Fishing for trout is particularly good at night under the lights, which attract baitfish that in turn lure in the specks. But you catch them while wade-fishing, from docks and jetties, from bay boats and more traditional boats, from kayaks in shallow flats -- just about anywhere along the coast where you can get to salt water.
For big trout, thinking big helps. Basically, big trout hit big baits. While the classic popping cork on a treble hook or speck rig (two white jigs or glow-in-the-dark jigs) is always dependable, especially for night-fishing, using large artificial baits is the way to attract trophy-sized specks. Also, the bigger trout tend to feed at night. Finally, big trout are more likely to be taken while wade-fishing, which allows an angler a greater element of stealth.
One morning last summer, tossing a golden spoon at Matagorda and hoping for a trout, as I retrieved I felt my line hang for a moment. Then it went slack again and I started turning the crank once more. Moments later, it hung up again and stayed hung. Figuring I had gotten my lure caught in some submerged riprap, I gave it a good jerk, halfway expecting the line to snap. To my relief, I started getting line again. But something continued to put steady pressure on the line. It wasn't zigging and zagging, so I knew it wasn't a trout or redfish.
Suspecting I might have foul-hooked a trash fish, or maybe "caught" some piece of submerged debris, I was more than a little startled when I got enough line in to see that I had hooked a nice flounder, well beyond the 14-inch limit. About 3 inches beyond, as it turned out.
Summer isn't the best time for flounder, and I only caught that one fish, but it sure tasted good with a baked potato and salad. At that time of year, most flounder are caught incidental to fishing for something else. But in the fall, your odds of success increase.
The annual fall run -- when the flatfish head from shallow water to deep water to propagate -- is still as important as Thanksgiving dinner to many of Texas' coastal anglers.
Even so, flounder numbers have been trending downward since the 1980s and TPWD biologists have become increasingly concerned about the well being of the species in Texas.
"We've been watching it for many years," Riechers says of the flounder situation, "and the commission has taken several management actions, but we still haven't seen flounder at levels we like to see."
Earlier this year, the TPWD was pondering a recommendation to the commission to decrease the flounder limit and to put into place seasonal closures around the flounder run.
Though the likelihood is high that stricter conservation measures will go into effect this fall, fans of broiled flatfish should not give up hope, as my summer meal-sized catch indicates. Flounder may not be as pervasive as they once were, but there's a lot of habitat in which to fish for them.
Flounder will hit live bait or plastic jigs that look like shrimp or minnows. Fishing around structure or over flats is best except during the fall run (assuming flounder fishing still is legal during that time), when ambushing the fish at passes and channels is the thing to do.
Speaking of ambushing, that's how flounder get their food. They hang around on the bottom, keeping a wary eye out for something edible to wander by. Then they attack
When one does strike, it's not likely to get hooked right off. Give it time to take a second bite. That's why I was fooled when I caught that flounder last summer. But that's the kind of surprise I'll take any time.
Having a keeper red snapper on your line feels like you're trying to raise a small submarine off the Gulf floor. It's just a steady, hard pull.
Snapper is the mainstay fish of the offshore party boats that operate from South Padre Island to Galveston, but both the number you can keep and the amount of time you can fish for them has been shrinking faster than a punctured air bladder in recent years.
In federal water, which begins beyond nine nautical miles, red snapper fishing is confined to a short season, which last year ran from June 1 to Aug. 5 -- all of 66 days. The limit is two fish over 16 inches. That hardly seems worth the two- or three-hour boat ride it takes to get to the best snapper spots, but other species of snapper -- the vermillion snapper especially -- are as fun to catch and don't taste any different to me from the protected red snapper. And there's no limit or size restriction on them.
While red snapper are more common farther offshore, they certainly can be caught in Texas waters. Inside the nine-mile line, the limit is four fish over 15 inches.
Riechers says TPWD is not currently considering any change in that limit, but the federal regulations may get tighter as the government continues to cope with the pressure commercial fishing brings on this delectable species.
The party boats typically anchor over shipwrecks, artificial reefs or near oilrigs. They usually use cut squid, but any cut bait will do. The bait is attached to a sturdy circle hook (required so as to enhance survival of fish that have to be thrown back) and carried to the bottom courtesy of a substantial weight.
When you're on fish, it's not unusual to catch something every time you drop a line.
Snook is a small town in Burleson County, population 568. It's also the name of a legendary saltwater game fish once virtually extinct in Texas. In fact, when most sportsmen think of snook, they think of Florida. But these days, the population of snook in Texas has grown well beyond the number of residents in the town of Snook.
Identifiable by the sporty black strip down their silvery sides and by their yellowish tails, Centropomus undecimalis once existed in such abundance that commercial fishermen along the Lower Coast harvested them by the hundreds of pound
s. In fact, a commercial fisherman standing on one of the jetties at South Padre Island landed a 56-pounder in 1937 that still stands as the world-record catch.
Unfortunately, because of that heavy fishing pressure, by the 1940s, the fishery had waned enormously, and after 1961, no snook were reported as having been caught in South Texas waters.
Starting in the 1980s, however, the snook began a slow comeback. A succession of mild winters has enabled them to expand their numbers and their range even more. They still are not a fill-your-ice-chest kind of fish, but you can keep one snook inside the 24- to 28-inch slot.
So, while snook are not likely to become a mainstay of your diet, the fish have become increasingly attractive as a catch-and-release sport fish. Port Isabel antique dealer and outdoorsman Rod Bates has become an avid snook fisherman, perfectly content to catch and release these excellent game fish.
Snook are catchable year 'round and have been reported as far north as Port O'Connor. The fish will hit whatever you'd use for trout or reds. In the spring and fall, they are found on shallow flats. In the heat of the summer and on the coldest days of winter, snook leave the flats and jetties and go to deeper inland water, like the Brownsville ship channel, in the ports of Brownsville and Port Isabel and in Brazos Santiago Pass. Whatever type of water they are in, snook will be hanging around structure.
A super-hard freeze in far South Texas could hurt the snook population as well as trout and redfish numbers, but as long as that doesn't happen, Riechers says, this should be another good year for Texas saltwater enthusiasts.
Beyond that, the economic crisis some are calling the Great Recession makes a saltwater fishing trip this year look all the more attractive. It's relatively easy on the wallet, it's easily accessible, it's a great stress reliever, and especially in these times, a fun way to put food on the table.