Fishing The Flats For Specks & Reds
October 04, 2010
Having fished the Texas Coast since childhood, the author has the experience it takes to point you towards some great places for taking these popular game fish right now. (May 2007)
Larry Leschper, the author's brother, caught this 28-inch speckled trout from the Land Cut south of Corpus Christi.
Photo by Lee Leschper
Almost 40 years ago, my Mom and Dad gave me a gift that keeps giving to this day: They took the family for a long weekend visit to Rockport, borrowing a friend's bay house -- more like a shack, really.
The first morning, we fished an old Aransas Bay pier. A then-legal 14-inch redfish inhaled a dead shrimp my mom was floating under a popping cork and changed our lives. Compared to the channel cats and sunfish we'd caught in the past, this seemed like big game! And thus began my love affair with Rockport and the Middle Texas Coast.
Mom and Dad bought that little fishing shack, and we spent the next decade wading the flats of Aransas and Copano bays surrounding Rockport and Fulton. To this day, those remain among my family's most cherished memories, and the Middle Coast remains among our favorite places on earth.
And forget about the good old days! The fishing is far better today than it was 40 years ago.
Today, regardless of whether an angler is planning his first visit to salt water or is already an Old Salt, it's hard to find a more productive place on earth than those bay systems. Both north and south of the "Toast of the Coast" stretch hundreds of square miles of clear, shallow bays and flats from a few inches to a few feet deep -- all rich in habitat for forage and game fish, including trout and reds.
Today the focus has also changed for bay anglers -- from quantity to quality. In the 1970s, we never thought about catching trout and reds as anything more than a fun way to fill a cooler, freezer and frying pan. Our focus was to catch and keep as many as possible, usually school trout and forearm-length reds. We keyed on reefs, wells and piers where the younger fish gathered. A good day was a 100-trout-in-the-cooler. We seldom caught a fish over 16 inches.
In those days, they were still commercial fish, and commercial fishermen were using gillnets and trotlines to harvest them by the truckload. That all changed with the help of far-thinking groups like the Gulf Coast Conservation Association, which got trout and reds reclassified as game fish and lobbied the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to impose the first meaningful size and bag limits.
Then Mother Nature raised the ante: Freezes in the winters of 1983 and 1986 killed millions of game fish along the coast, creating the right atmosphere of concern for tighter regulations, including 10-fish limits, and a 15-inch minimum size limit for trout, and slot limits for redfish.
The next step, hatchery production and stocking of fry, especially redfish fry, really took Middle Coast fishing from being in real jeopardy to being good, even great. Once small pods or individual reds had been the norm, but management made it possible to fish vast schools of the bronze beauties sometimes.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
While the number of anglers on the Texas Coast has increased, Mother Nature has, aided by the wildly successful stocking program, refilled the flats and bays with tremendous populations of both trout and reds.
Enough history. If you're heading to the Middle Coast this summer, here are some favorite spots and tips, based on half a lifetime of happy fishing memories.
GET PROFESSIONAL HELP
For anglers willing to invest in a quick education and better odds at filling a cooler, Rockport has more licensed guides than does any other port on the entire coast.
When hiring a guide, don't just ask for references: Talk frankly about what you want to accomplish. If catching a limit as fast and as easy as possible is on the agenda, don't restrict the guide to tactics or locations.
Expect to pay $300 to $600 for a day of fishing. But if you choose your guide wisely, you'll learn more in those six to eight hours than you'd learn in a couple of summers on your own. But if you have a favorite tactic or tackle, spell that out, too.
In summer, many guides have come to rely on live croakers almost exclusively for taking big trout. Whether you believe this is because the sow trout are trying to kill a potential predator on their eggs, or if they just see a loud and slow-moving meal, a wiggling croaker is not long for this world if there's a big speckled trout nearby. Big reds love 'em too!
The best of these professional anglers will travel as far as it takes to find you fish. For years, my favorite trip outside Rockport was to meet Capt. Don Hand in Corpus Christi, then run 30 to 40 miles south to Baffin Bay or the Land Cut. We caught more big trout and redfish on those trips than on any others I can recall -- and often the run took longer than the time to catch limits of fish!
One incredible May morning, my son Will, Don and I anchored in one spot in Baffin Bay and caught limits of big trout up to 30 inches and redfish in less than three hours -- without ever moving!
Speaking of boat rides: Some Rockport guides also specialize in running north through the shell-and-reef-infested waters of St. Charles Bay to Cedar Bayou. This sometimes-open pass to the Gulf can provide incredible action on a moving tide.
One real benefit for occasional anglers fishing the Middle Coast is the amount of water: Hundreds of thousands of acres are accessible to the shorebound. Just park on the shoreline and hike a few feet or yards, and you can be casting to reds and trout.
One great, easy-to-reach wading spot for shorebound anglers is Goose Island State Park. From the park's pier, several stairways provide easy access to the shell reefs at the entrance to St. Charles Bay and prime redfish territory.
I remember the first time my family fishing Goose Island, 35 years ago on an early-summer afternoon. We were chunking live shrimp from the pier when a weary angler came staggering up the pier under the weight of a truly mind-boggling stringer of speckled trout. In those pre-limit days, he'd found a school of big sows working the birds just off one of the Goose Island reefs. We were too polite to stop him and count, but it appeared he had 25 or 30 specks weighing from 3 to 6 pounds on that stringer!
Goose Island remains a great wade-fishing destination. Wear stout shoes to fend against the sharp oyster-shell reefs, and shuffle your feet to ward off stingrays.
Another easily accessible spot is the Intracoastal Canal that cuts through the entire Gulf Coast and is often accessible from shoreline pullouts. While there's less distance to wade along the Intracoastal, it also concentrates the fish. You'll want to fish live bait or soft plastics along the dropoff from deep water and back into the shallows.
Right in the heart of Rockport, Little Bay remains an excellent wade-fishing spot for beginners. It was here that my family learned to wade-fish in the early 1970s, and it's still productive for reds and, occasionally, schools of trout. Keep moving until you find the fish -- and don't expect to have the site to yourself.
The flats on each side of the highway from Aransas Pass to Port Aransas offer vast and easily accessible flats as well. You can virtually "walk to Port A," catching trout and reds the whole way.
If you're going solo, consider following the pros by going with high-percentage live bait. But you don't need croakers or live shrimp to catch trout and reds. I've had more glorious days than I can remember, catching limits of both trout and redfish on soft-plastic baits, especially my personal favorite -- the Cocahoe Queen.
This soft mullet-shaped plastic bait -- in two reliable colors: red with a white tail and avocado with red metal-flake -- remains the one bait I flat won't fish without. Its light jighead enables you to swim it through ankle-deep flats. With a heavier jighead, it'll cut through rides on the jetties or in deep flats, equally effective. And with a 1/4-ounce jighead, it's unbeatable for hopping the sandy potholes that hold trout and reds waiting to ambush an unwary baitfish. If you can't find the Queens, there are several similar versions.
FROM YOUR OWN BOAT
A huge difference in today's bays, compared to my childhood, is the watercraft plying these waters.
In the 1960s and '70s, a bay angler fished an aluminum skiff or a wood-hulled flatbottom. Except for a few enterprising souls building the first flats boats out of single sheets of plywood, those serious about getting shallow went to an airboat.
Today there are hundreds of designs of flats boats, and hundreds of dealers offering every variation of tunnel hull and center console and jack plate and overpowered outboard to take you into any territory damper than a wet sponge.
These new rigs corresponded with the improving fishery, bringing thousands more anglers into popular bays, sometimes both crowding each other and ripping bottom grasses to a muddy pulp.
One substantial advantage that a flats boat gives you is access to more isolated pockets of water that have seen less fishing pressure.
The Lighthouse Lakes near Aransas Pass are a prime example. These knee-deep flats stretch for hundreds of acres, but are accessible only with a shallow-running boat and then are too shallow to run -- ideal territory for kayakers.
A number of very shallow lakes -- really tertiary bays -- are in the backside of St. Joseph's Island. At high tide these little white-sand bays will flood knee-deep, often with redfish and sometimes trout following baitfish into the bays. This can create sight-casting action to rival the best the Florida Keys can offer. Creep along, watching for tailing reds or the wake or shape of feeding trout.
Early in the morning, the Aransas Bay side of St. Joe's can offer superb trout fishing, as schools of specks move shallow to feed on mullet and shrimp. An angler wading waist-deep, casting into deeper water and then working back into the shallows can fill a stringer on most summer days.
Off the south tip of St. Joseph's, Mud Island is another excellent spot for both trout and reds. Schools of trout will range along the bay side. On the backside of Mud Island, potholes can be excellent places to search for both trout and reds.
The bottom can be boggy, so you have to pick and choose your wading spots. And do shuffle those feet: Once I followed a friend into a boggy flat there, only to discover we were surrounded by hundreds of stingrays! We managed to shuffled our way out, scattering the poisonous pancakes in every direction and not getting struck. But I swore my 14-year-old to silence, so his mom would never know what I'd taken him into!
You don't have to wade to catch big trout. In June and July, schools of big spawning trout will stack up on the Aransas Bay side of Traylor Island. Savvy anglers anchor just off the outside beach dropoff and pitch live croakers into the shallows, where schools of sow trout are cruising.
Inside Traylor, Estes Flats may be one of the most heavily fished stretches of flats on the entire Gulf Coast. But its grass-and-pothole bottom sometimes will hold great numbers of trout, redfish and flounder.
Because most of the bottom is very boggy, wading is out of the question, but it makes for ideal drift-fishing. Catch the right breeze and cast ahead of your drifting boat, dropping a bait into each sandy spot. Plastic baits, gold weedless spoons and broken-back topwater plugs can be deadly.
It's peaceful and beautiful, watching the constantly changing water show pass beneath your feet. Often you'll see redfish, flounder, rays, crabs and a host of other fish fining calmly as you drift past.
Or if you want to take it easy, anchor up where you're in range of a number of potholes and cast out live mullet, croakers or piggy perch. And hold on. While this may seem like lazy fishing, when a school of reds moves through and fills three or four lines at once, it can be a real rodeo!
DEALING WITH COMPANY
A word about fishing pressure, and the associated competition: Get used to it. In the past 25 years, the rebounding Texas bay fisheries for speckled trout and redfish have returned to their rightful standing as the best on earth. And that's corresponded with an equal explosion in tunnel hull flats boats that will run on a wet washcloth and require no more expertise than the ability to write a paycheck.
If you want to avoid rubbing elbows with too many of your fellow anglers, plan your trip for midweek instead of weekends. And instead of hitting the most-traveled spots, look for out-of-the-way pockets of water away from boat traffic. A school of reds or a pod of sow trout will seek out such spots, and if you slip in and wade quietly until you find the fish, you can score in spots that most anglers overlook.
I recall a tiny pocket of muddy and shell-pocked water just off the Intracoastal Waterway south of Aransas Pass. It's so nondescript that hundreds of boats zip past each day. The bottom is mostly too boggy to wade, and the wind seldom provides an adequate drift. But schools of reds love it. And if you can find the few hard spots of bottom to wade, or get
a favorable wind that allows a decent drift, reds ready to slam a gold spoon or a broken-back plug are always ready for action.
If you want to learn more about fishing success in different bays along the Texas Coast, there's an intriguing new online tool available from the TPWD that provides detailed catch rates for most popular species on every Texas bay system. Called the "Catch Rate by Minor Bay Web Application," it was created by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's Coastal Fisheries Division and Geographic Information Systems lab with funding from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service State Wildlife Grant. It's online at a href="http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/landwater/land/maps/gis/ris/catch_rate.phtml" target="_blank">TPWD.State.TX.US.
According to a TPWD release, the application covers every bay system in Texas, and it shows some of the most popular boat ramps and access points on each of the bays. The application allows users to query by fish species and year to see what bays have high, medium, and low catch rates. Catch rates are based on gill net surveys conducted seasonally since 1981 by the Coastal Fisheries Division.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
For more information on fishing the Middle Coast, contact: Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce, 404 Broadway, Rockport, TX 78382, (361) 729-6445, or 1-800-242-0071, www.rockport-fulton.org; Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce Tourist & Convention Bureau, 403 W. Cotter, Port Aransas, TX 78373, (361) 749-5919 or 1-800-45-COAST, PortAransas.org