ARANSAS BAY — The top fishfinders in the world don’t come with built-in GPS. Nor do they offer crystal-clear displays or boatloads of programmable options.
In this dog-eat-dog ecosystem, one of the best ways to entice scaly delight to the end of your line is to follow the food chain, most notably feathered critters from above, and the occasional toothy submarine from below.
And it’s a sight to behold when breakfast is on the minds of the aforementioned parties and school of any kind is in session.
The hazy morning started with a run from Cove Harbor across to Mud Island, where veteran Rockport fishing guide Ron Coulston previously had found speckled trout and redfish lingering above sloping sand flats before midday temperatures climbed and the fish moved off. The first dip into the water for morning wade fishing in May often can be crisp, but you quickly get acclimated and soon Ron, my father and I were zinging croakers rigged on circle hooks into the murky depths hoping to see spots of some kind.
After wading about two football fields worth of firm bottom without so much as a bump on the wriggling croakers, Ron headed back to fetch his center-console Haynie to pick us up and head to another previous hot spot. However, on the way to said locale, the birds — namely laughing gulls and terns — started working an area and it soon proved that bait fish and shrimp had been had from above and below.
No sooner did we pull near to the fracas and anchor did the first keeper trout — and then another — slam a lively croaker tossed at the edge of the fray. But then our braided lines fell silent, except for a decent-size gafftop and a couple of hardheads, even as the birds and a pod of porpoises corralled watery inhabitants above the shallow reef into a bustling buffet.
We then headed to San Jose and waded a few different locations up and down the barrier island, picking up a few trout here and there and as many hardheads. But by the time we went back across the choppy bay and reached a well in hopes of finding schoolies, the midday sun was straight above us and no distinct fish pattern had emerged. After a short stay anchored in the chop without any specks, the wheels were turning at full tilt in Ron’s head as he contemplated all things trout and where the rascals could be as the mercury rose.
I had fished with Ron on a previous April day in howling winds but we still managed to find some nice trout and reds in protected water early before the fishing simply turned off about mid-morning, and this outing certainly looked like it would follow suit.
Ron ultimately decided we should head back to the area near where we started — even though we hadn’t found but a couple of keeper specks. After motoring for a few miles, the fluttering mist on the horizon soon materialized into a gaggle of birds, unlikely the same ones from earlier, but there’s no way to know for sure. And again there were porpoises, including a big, scarred male that occasionally would shimmy to the surface and sulk on top with an eye out of the water, much the way one of his cousins might in a theme park, before slipping below in a splashing arc.
The anchor hadn’t taken root in the muddy bottom but perhaps half a minute before the first rod – incidentally mine — peeled over with the weight of a keeper trout. Soon after, every croaker that splashed down near the shallow reef in front of us was quickly gobbled up by a solid speck, and we even had one genuine triple hook-up, the perfect sign you’ve found a wad of hungry fish.
What still amazes me is all the while we were bringing in fish, we were nearly hitting cruising porpoises on the head with baits, and the trout still were obliging us. The toothy devils would follow a hooked speck right up to the boat but never tried to take one, instead opting to surface close enough to touch with an outstretched rod for a puff of air and then disappearing below. Eventually, our croaker ration dissipated and we resorted to Gulp! shrimp imitations, which seemingly worked as well as the croakers as we pulled the anchor and followed the schoolies down the reef.
Eventually, we had to come back to reality and decided to head in, but not before reflecting on the day. Had we not followed nature’s signals and the ultimate fishfinders, perhaps we would have chalked it up to a tough day of fishing. Instead, we left fish we could have caught, we brought home enough for some fine eating and we enjoyed a superb coastal day on the water.
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Working the birds also is a first-class technique for a number of freshwater species, including stripers, hybrids and white bass, which all eat bait fish including shad that will school up near the surface during coming months. Birds can key you in to the location of these bait fish and right below them will be hungry predators looking for an easy meal. The topwater bite already has started on some lakes and it should get better on early mornings as temperatures slowly climb into June and July.
No matter where you are, it’s a great time to be on the water!