January 26, 2015
Our state waters harbor some of the best angling for more species than you can shake a rod at — in freshwater and in saltwater — but there are some that stand out above the rest. These fish stand out for quantity, quality or perhaps even both, and you should plan your year based on hitting these honeyholes at peak times.
Here's a look at 12 months of fishing across the Lone Star State that won't disappoint.
Baffin Bay Speckled Trout
This remote bay system, an inlet of the Laguna Madre southeast of Kingsville, is known in most circles as the top place in Texas to catch a truly massive speckled trout — a fish measuring at least 30 inches, which is the trophy standard for most gator-trout aficionados. And while the bay gets most of its guide and weekend angler pressure during the summer, the true diehards head out to these waters in the dead of winter in hopes of catching some of the biggest sow trout around all year.
The keys to fishing this locale and other hotspots during the winter are knowing the nature of specks in cold weather, and the impact it has on where they're found and their activity levels. Trout react much more slowly in the winter, saving their energy and often looking for larger meals to maximize their efforts. They also will be found deeper, since the water in 4, 5 or 6 feet isn't as prone to major fluctuations as it is in the shallows.
Slow down your presentation and target the depths differently than you might during early summer mornings when fish will be up super shallow looking for prey. Some of the tried-and-true baits that have helped undo untold numbers of big trout include the slow-sinking Corky and jigs and spoons fished vertically. Lures mimicking baitfish typically are the go-to staple for winter trout anglers, but that doesn't mean other offerings won't work, too.
Upper Laguna Madre Black Drum
These redfish relatives are equal-opportunity vacuum cleaners with a penchant for inhaling shrimp. They don't get the same notoriety as the other species but they fight hard and the filets are as good as it gets in many recipes.
Drum are the calling card for many guides in the winter as they seek to put clients on fish. They don't typically hit artificial baits like reds, specks and flounder do, but I've seen and heard plenty of tales of anglers catching their daily limits on smelly lure offerings such as Berkley's Gulp! The daily bag for drum is five fish and, as with redfish, there's a slot limit, this one spanning 14 to 30 inches. You also can keep one black drum longer than 52 inches as part of the daily bag, but the flesh of those fish is coarse and can contain parasitic worms, and so that's not advised.
The places to focus your angling efforts are deeper channels and cuts, especially areas near the Intracoastal Waterway. The easiest way to haul fish in is using live or dead shrimp, sea lice or crabs. One way to fish freshly dead shrimp is to thread it on 1/8- or 1/16-ounce jigheads, which is a perfect offering to fling from one of the many piers that dot the Intracoastal.
Lake Fork Largemouths
The numbers don't lie: Of the 50 heaviest largemouth bass weights in Texas, 33 came from Lake Fork, including the 18.18-pound state record caught in 1992 by Barry St. Clair, who was fishing for crappie with minnows in the dead of winter.
The restrictive slot limit of 16 to 24 inches and phenomenal habitat have made Fork the trophy destination for the world's bass anglers. As temperatures begin to rise, it's easy to see why. Big sow bass will start to move into the shallows to spawn and become their most vulnerable of the whole year during time spent lurking near bedding areas cleared off by the smaller male bass.
The annual Toyota Texas Bass Classic event in 2014 showed just how phenomenal the bass fishing can be, with Keith Combs, of Huntington, hauling in a three-day, 15-fish limit of 110 pounds. The previous record for that limit was set in 2000 at Clear Lake, California, by Byron Velvick with a mere 83 pounds, 5 ounces. And Combs also wasn't the only Lake Fork angler to surpass the 100-pound mark, showing that the lake is chockfull of big bass. His one-day bag of 42 pounds is a staggering average of more than 8 pounds per fish!
Lake Austin Largemouths
This relatively small lake — about 1,600 acres of the Colorado River — has caught fire in recent years, producing numerous big bass for weekend warriors and tournament anglers, including a number of ShareLunkers exceeding 13 pounds. The lake can get rather crowded with its proximity to our state capitol, but during the cooler months, including during the spring spawn, the pleasure-boating crowd isn't as heavy, though there will still be many anglers attempting to land double-digit fish.
One angler's fish tale highlights the possibilities awaiting others hoping to have a big day on the water. Donnie O'Neal, an avid bass angler from Pflugerville, was fishing at the lake April 28, 2013, hoping to find a 13-pound bass to enter into the ShareLunker program. On a single cast he managed 19 pounds of fish, which ended up actually being two huge bass. O'Neal's catches on a YUM Flash Mob Jr. consisted of one bass weighing 7.8 pounds and a second weighing 11.8. Both fish were released.
Among the best fishing locales are weedbeds and weedlines along the shoreline, which harbor fish during the spring and into the summer. The water clarity often is excellent, which also can make fish more wary, especially if they're sitting on nests. Many anglers also have documented their success in catching bass at night, thanks also in large part to water clarity, and have caught lunkers on large spinnerbaits and worms.
Lake Texoma Stripers
This is the prime lake of all prime lakes for striped bass in all of America. The 75,000-acre body of water on the Oklahoma border northwest of Denison features a self-sustaining population of these fish. Stripers migrate up the Red and Washita River arms in February and March; after spawning they move to open-water areas. The best aspect of summer fishing for stripers is that they will take a variety of baits, including live gizzard shad, their preferred meal.
Among the best places to fish is along the river channel in the main-lake area. Anglers trolling crankbaits and other deep-running lures often can be as successful as those chunking live bait. Other lures that have caught untold numbers of fish are slabs and heavy jigs, which can be worked vertically when anglers are not able to locate schools of fish chasing shad.
One spectacular way to catch stripers during summer mornings is with topwater plugs fished near shorelines, which also could produce a hefty smallmouth bass as well as scores of white bass.
Gulf Of Mexico Red Snapper
Red snapper fishing has become a contentious issue, with state and federal fisheries officials and recreational and commercial anglers squaring off over quotas and season dates, but one thing remains certain: the fish is among the most-sought species by everyone. And for good reason — it's among the best-tasting fish out there.
The fishing season in federal waters in 2014 was limited to just nine days, which makes it tough to adequately target the species. However, if you play your cards right and take part in the Gulf Headboat Collaborative, a program that allows only 20 federally permitted headboat captains to fish for red snapper all year as long as they have not exhausted their allocations for the species, you can bring home some great-tasting filets.
And while the Gulf season remains largely hit or miss, it should be noted that snapper options do exist in state waters. The bag limit in federal waters remains two fish that are at least 16 inches long, while the daily framework in Texas' state waters — where fishing is allowed year 'round — is four fish that must be at least 15 inches. However, more than 95 percent of the red snapper landed in Texas come from federal waters, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department figures. Most of that catch, about 80 percent, comes from headboats, which take numerous paying clients offshore. In Texas, federal waters begin 9 nautical miles from the coast and extend 200 nautical miles.
Cooper Lake Hybrid Stripers
Just west of Birthright, nestled among the sprawling thickets of Texas' Post Oak Prairie, sits the best fishery you've never seen. It has only been two decades since Cooper Lake was impounded, but in that time the 19,000-acre reservoir on the Sulphur River arguably has become the best hybrid striped bass lake in the country. However, because the body of water, located 90 miles east of the heart of the Metroplex, sits just north of well-known largemouth lair Lake Fork and striper fishing sanctuary Lake Tawakoni, it simply doesn't get the same kind of boat traffic.
Nearly 2 million hybrid fingerlings have been stocked in Cooper's depths by biologists since 1996, and hybrids are created by mixing the eggs of a striped bass with the milt of a white bass. The result is offspring that easily can grow larger than 10 pounds in lakes with plenty of forage. The fish also run in large, aggressive schools.
Pound-for-pound, the hybrid ranks among the biggest fighters in freshwater and in salt, and the fish's aggressiveness only picks up as the Texas weather gets hotter, which means prime fishing in a place where temperatures will soar into triple digits. The key to finding hybrids without lots of baitfish activity is targeting humps and rises in the main portion of the lake. Among the best lures are chartreuse Sassy Shads on 1/2-ounce jigheads and spoons and other larger baits that mimic shad, the hybrid's favorite meal.
Lake Tawakoni Channel Catfish
When it's hot, head to this 37,000-acre lake to take part in a catfish haul unlike anything you've seen. West Tawakoni was deemed the "Catfish Capital of Texas" by the Legislature in 2001 and for good reason: It sits on the banks of our best bet for catfish angling.
Tawakoni's massive channel catfish population continues to thrive; anglers can use stink bait and cut bait, including shrimp and livers, to haul in easy limits of the good-tasting fish. The real secret is to bring along sour grain of some kind and bait up a few holes you intend to fish.
The easiest channel cat rig is a treble hook below an egg sinker on a swivel, which can be used to hold punch baits or any other kind of offering you have. The daily bag limit on channel cats is 25 fish at least 12 inches long, and if you have a couple of friends or family with you, that generous limit can amount to plenty of filets destined for the peanut oil.
A couple of flatfish are a welcome addition to any daily bag limit when you're wading during the late summer and early fall, but this time of year they're a common sight, if you know where to look.
Their mass migration later in the fall lowers the daily limit from five to two with a 14-inch minimum length limit, and they may only be harvested by fishing pole during that six-week period in November and December. Flounder will skirt along edges where deeper channels meet shallower bars and will take a number of lures and baits, especially of the freshly dead variety. One common approach is to fish jigs and other lures on the bottom tipped with a piece of shrimp.
Jetties And Beaches Redfish
The outlets into the Gulf of Mexico near places like Port Arthur, Port Aransas and Corpus Christi are among the truly amazing ecosystems. If you're looking to find bull reds, the beaches and jetties are at the top of the list of prime fishing grounds. Look for schools of baitfish and you'll find feeding reds not far behind. That holds true whether you're on the beachfront or working from the rocks.
Live bait is a winner in most scenarios, but don't overlook the gold spoon or soft plastics. Jetties feature a variety of unforgiving conditions, especially when it comes to tackle. The depths near the rocks are littered with lost lures of all shapes and sizes. Expect to add to that collection.
Longer surf rods can help launch baits farther, and if you choose to go lighter, it doesn't hurt to use braided line. The edges of jetties are crusted with barnacles and other sharp areas that will slice through mono. Wire leaders can be a good choice, not only to add durability when fighting big fish, but also to guard against those toothy critters that often are closer than you might think.
A number of seasoned rock walkers are religious in the use of spikes, whether on track cleats or golf shoes, and it makes sense if your feet can handle the mashing metal. Never wear flip flops or other slip-on shoes. They increase the chance for injury and don't help provide leverage if you're fighting a beastly fish.
Lake Whitney Smallmouths
Eight of the Top 10 smallmouths in Texas came from Whitney. When you consider they fight harder pound-for-pound than largemouths, it makes this month a great time to head to North-central Texas. Look for rocky structure and you'll find fish not far from it, including along shorelines where creeks flow into this Brazos River impoundment.
Deep-diving crankbaits and Sassy Shads work as good as anything for finding smallmouths at that time of year. The fish also could be ganged up around main-lake points in pursuit of moving schools of baitfish. One hotspot to consider fishing is the rocky shoreline that's part of the lake's state park.
Braunig And Calaveras Redfish
This pair of freshwater reservoirs near San Antonio is known for harboring superb metro fishing for a number of species, but the winter is redfish time, which means anglers don't have to drive all the way down to the Texas Coast to catch what most consider solely a saltwater species.
Redfish have been stocked in the lakes for years, and although they can't reproduce, they adapt well to freshwater and grow quite large, feeding on a number of baitfish and other game fish species. Redfish are thought more as a spring and summer species, but fish in excess of 15 pounds are caught during the winter, notably near heated discharges that flow into the lake.
Among the best natural baits are crawfish and even tilapia and other larger fish, while spoons and diving lures such as crankbaits and even spinnerbaits will help you bring in these brutes when most folks are focusing on other species such as black drum.