March 29, 2021
As many anticipated, in the aftermath of last month’s winter weather assault between the Red River and the Rio Grande, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission has enacted emergency saltwater fishing regulations along portions of the Lone Star State’s lower coastline.
Thanks to the February 2021 siege of severe winter weather that brought unusually deep snow and sub-zero cold to various portions of the state, the end result was the costliest natural disaster in Texas history with at least $195 billion in damages calculated as of this writing.
Thanks to severe power grid issues across most of the state, as many as 4.5 million Lone Star State residents shivered in the cold and dark. By the end of the winter weather siege, the Austin American-Statesman newspaper indicated that as many as 111 people reportedly had perished either directly or indirectly from the winter storms.
Add in a tremendous loss of landscaping vegetation, flooded homes after pipes burst, broken water mains in towns all across the state, and uncountable numbers of potholes that city and state workers are now repairing, and it’s easy to see that this is the worst invasion of arctic air that the Lone Star State has seen in the 21st Century.
Toll on Wildlife
But as deadly and costly as the winter assault was in human terms, there was severe damage in the outdoors world as well. Uncountable numbers of birds and wildlife perished in the severe freeze, as did nearly four million fish along the state’s upper, middle and lower coastline.
And it’s that fish kill—the worst since the destructive freezes of December 1983, February 1989, and December 1989—that forced the TPW Commission to take emergency action last Thursday, March 24, 2021.
That emergency regulatory action will change the current bag and size limits on spotted sea trout—speckled trout as many anglers know the popular species—for the upper and lower Laguna Madre, the estuaries behind Padre Island National Seashore between Corpus Christi and South Padre Island.
According to a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department news release, the new and temporary regs for trout in the bays and beachfront of the Laguna Madre include:
- 3-fish bag limit
- Minimum size length of 17 inches
- Maximum size length of 23 inches
- No fish over 23 inches to be retained by anglers
Those changes will take effect on April 1 and are valid for up to 120 days. But TPWD also warns that they could be extended for another 60 days this summer if that proves to be warranted.
Worst of 21st Century
Last week’s decision by the TPW Commission comes after several weeks of hard, smelly work as TPWD coastal biologists have gone about the task of finding, counting, identifying, and documenting what fish species were killed and where those fish kills took place along the Lone Star State’s lengthy coastline.
In the aftermath of the freeze in late-February, it didn’t take long before those coastal fisheries biologists knew the hard truth: while not the worst fish kill ever seen in Texas, it was indeed the worst one that has happened since the 21st Century dawned.
"An estimated minimum of 3.8 million fish were killed on the Texas coast during the Feb. 2021 freeze event," stated TPWD in a previous news release about its assessment efforts.
"This fish kill consisted of at least 61 species. Non-recreational species contributed to 91 percent of the total mortality in numbers of fish. This includes species like silver perch, hardhead catfish, pinfish, bay anchovy and striped mullet. While not sought after by most anglers, non-game fish are ecologically important, providing food for larger game fish as well as adding to the overall diversity of Texas bays."
Game fish species were less affected, but they obviously weren’t immune either.
"Recreationally important game species accounted for the other 9 percent of the total," noted TPWD. "Of that 9 percent, the dominant species included spotted seatrout (48 percent), black drum (31 percent), sheepshead (8 percent), sand seatrout (7 percent), red drum (3 percent), gray snapper (2 percent), and red snapper (less than 1 percent).”
Snook, Tarpon Impacted, Too
While not noted in TPWD’s various news release, social media accounts—particularly from the state’s enthusiastic saltwater fly fishing community—also showed that there was some mortality for juvenile tarpon and snook.
Those two species aren’t extremely common in Texas coastal waters, but they have made major inroads and have expanded northward from the Brownsville Ship Channel and South Padre Island region since the disastrous freezes of the 1980s. They are also highly prized by anglers casting flies and conventional tackle in the state's more tropical waters between South Padre Island and Rockport.
If you’re familiar with the long curve of the Lone Star State’s coastline—which includes upper, middle, and lower sections between Sabine Pass in the north and the Rio Grande River in the south—you might have noticed that ironically enough, some of the worst fish kill damage actually happened the further south one went. The emergency regulations put into place last week are all south of Corpus Christi.
"Both the upper and lower Laguna Madre bay systems were hit particularly hard by this event," stated TPWD. "The lower Laguna Madre had the highest mortality of spotted seatrout with an estimated 104,000 fish killed. That comprised 65 percent of the total estimated spotted seatrout killed and when combined with the upper Laguna Madre, it comprised 89 percent of the total estimated spotted seatrout mortality along the Texas coast.
TPWD says that the emergency action that the Commission took will be reevaluated once the agency gains additional data gathered by its coastal biologists during spring sampling efforts. That information will give the agency a better view of the freeze and its overall impact to the state’s saltwater fish populations.
"I am confident that our spring sampling will help us get a better picture of the impacts to fish populations since the February fish kill event," said TPWD coastal fisheries division director Robin Riechers.
"In the meantime, the Commission took the action to help conserve the fish we have now and accelerate recovery."
What will these emergency regulations accomplish? TPWD biologists indicate they expect this type of management action to result in an increase in population numbers since more mature fish are left in the water to spawn during the spring through summer spawning season.
With any luck, this natural reproduction, along with spotted seatrout production at TPWD’s coastal fish hatcheries, will accelerate recovery up and down the coastal waters region.
And one day, the Great Freeze of February 2021 will be a distant memory that people will find hard to imagine as they wade and fish in warm saltwater locales where the fishing is really good again.
And with a little luck, maybe even Texas-sized good again.