ROCKPORT, Texas — You can’t touch it, taste it, smell it or even see it, but it’s there looming just below the shimmering surface — a rare fishing catch.
You can call it the great unknown.
It’s the masked uncertainty dripping with luminous anticipation that drives anglers of all ages to plumb the depths longing for confirmation that our efforts will be rewarded with a sweeping curve in the rod and the ensuing splash and dash at the other end.
Quite frankly, it’s why we fish.
A spring saltwater fishing outing reaffirmed a number of things in my mind, mainly that the greatest aspect of our angling pursuits is that you still can plunk an imitation into the water and bring back a surprise from time to time – even spectacular ones you couldn’t have envisioned in this lifetime.
The morning that started with promise and held the potential for topwater tactics in the stalk of speckled trout and redfish quickly morphed into a day that would call for another approach plucked from the goodie bag. Blustery conditions on an otherwise radiant, sun-kissed day forced Ron Coulston, Loy Moe and I to adopt a different approach as we waded a variety of sandy slopes marked with gesturing seagrass in Aransas and Redfish bays. For whatever reason, the specks and reds were finicky for much of the morning, though we did find pockets of willing trout that thumped Assassins of the Cajun croaker flavor.
The stage was set for better fishing as morning gave way to afternoon, especially since it appeared the trout bite was turning on and we’d found enthusiastic specks after gliding under the 361 bridge into an area frequented by a variety of shallow-water crafts.
After a short run back to the shallows just off Traylor Island near where we’d started our morning, we decided to again hop out and stroll the stingray shuffle in search of increased activity. It took a dozen casts or so, but we soon found a couple of chunky sow trout that gobbled up our offerings and exceeded 20 inches.
We fanned out in a wider arc in our sweeping exploration for more keeper-size specks all the while buzzing out long casts into tranquil surroundings that had become even more hushed as the pesky winds that had been a minor annoyance died down. It wasn’t long after thinking to myself that the ambiance – even without an impressive clutter of scaly delight – couldn’t get any better.
Then it did.
Off to my left about 50 yards away, Ron reared back and set the hook on a quality fish, exclaiming that fact aloud as the braid on his baitcaster shot out in strident spurts. As is the case when a veteran angler knows instantly that they’ve barbed a hulking specimen sporting shoulders, the others wading nearby stopped their efforts and took notice.
Ron did his best to work the quarry in for a closer inspection, but the critter was more than a little shy, opting to remain in the depths at a distance while mocking the drag. A couple of more minutes passed that included witty banter about sharks and porpoises, and as the fish finally rose about 50 yards out, a curved brown fin crept into the sun before gliding back down.
Speculation at this point ran rampant, but anything with serious teeth would have shredded the line amid the pulsing runs, we established, and Ron kept working his magic. Eventually the fish rolled up on its side and actually woke up – applying a generous splash to the surroundings and a clue to its true identity.
“Cobia!” was the common call as the ling continued to thrash about near the surface, and the excitement only grew as the most atypical of fish in this locale kept perpetual pressure on the drag. Another couple of minutes passed before the bruiser got close enough for a BogaGrip bite, allowing Ron to finally get a handle on the stout fish.
It’s safe to say this was one fish tale that elicited a variety of intriguing questions.
Rare fishing catch is a hefty surprise
If you’ve ever headed into the big blue horizon or earned your stripes at the jetties you’ve more than likely either caught ling or been in the midst of the curious fish. Lemon fish, as they also are called, are well-known for their desire to frequent oil rigs and lurk under other surface objects in open water. I’m also told that the fish are suckers for shrimp boats, swimming near the surface as scraps and other edibles are dumped during the trawl haul.
However, hooking – much less finding – one of these impressive critters in a bay system while wading in waist-deep water is a once-in-a-lifetime experience I’m told.
Karen Meador, former Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Aransas Bay ecosystem leader, and Kyle Spiller, former TPWD Upper Laguna Madre ecosystem leader, who have more than six decades of saltwater fisheries experience combined, have said that discovering a nice ling inshore remains a curious incident to say the least. Spiller said he can count on one hand the number of ling he has come in contact with outside of the gulf, and those all were juvenile fish. He said biologists occasionally have caught them in gillnets while conducting surveys over the years but they were fish that measured a foot or less. He said it’s not unusual for these youngsters to migrate into bay systems from time to time but it’s exceedingly rare for larger fish to do the same.
Meador previously pointed to some interesting figures gleaned from a database containing more than 30 years of TPWD gillnet survey data. She said that in that timeframe, only 20 ling were caught coastwide from Port Arthur to Port Isabel in gillnet surveys, including only two in the Aransas Bay ecosystem. One was caught in 1984 behind Mud Island and the other was caught in 1996 near Long Reef. She Meador also said that only two ling were accounted for in creel surveys from area bays.
Meador said the largest ling caught in gillnet surveys came from the Lower Laguna Madre in 1979, and that fish was tallied at about 27.5 inches.
Spiller said that one locale where ling have been caught is down around the Rocky Slough area and along the Kenedy Ranch shoreline where the shallows give way to deeper water and the underwater landscape is marked with rock formations.
Meador noted that offshore fish sometimes creep into bay systems when tides are high as they have been recently and in other years. However, with salinities being fairly low in Redfish Bay compared to figures in the gulf, it makes the catch of a hefty cobia by a wading angler – one measuring 42 inches – that much more baffling.
Are there other unlikely swimmers frequenting known saltwater hot spots up and down the coast skulking below just a cast away?
No doubt about it.
And while there’s nothing better than targeting areas tailor-made for reds, specks and flounder this time of year and into the summer, the great unknown makes things that much more interesting.
It’s why we fish, and more importantly why you can never have too many witnesses.