Most Texas outdoorsmen and women dream of big whitetail bucks this time of year, but it’s time to give thanks for winter inshore saltwater angling opportunities and take part in what could be some of the best fishing of your life.
Texas’ Gulf Coast stretches from a state border with Louisiana to an international one with Mexico and features a variety of amazing ecosystems teeming with a number of species that always make great table fare.
While speckled trout remain in coastal bay systems all year, redfish and flounder will migrate along deeper routes into the Gulf of Mexico to spawn, meaning they’ll swim right by anglers waiting at jetties and other passes. Black drum also will migrate into the Gulf into the winter. However, many of those fish also will stay in the bays all year. Some of the larger ones, dubbed “big uglies” by veteran anglers, will migrate right past piers in coming months with a large appetite for freshly dead shrimp and mantis shrimp (sea lice).
Here’s a look at the ins and outs of winter saltwater fishing and species you should plan to catch.
■ Flounder: A couple of flatfish always are a welcome addition to a daily bag limit when you’re wading during the sweltering summer, but this time of year they’re a common sight in many areas if you know where to look. Their mass migration lowers the daily limit from five to two from November 1 to December 15 with a 14-inch minimum. They also may only be harvested by fishing pole from November 1-30. The always fruitful tactic of gigging — sticking flatfish with a long spear while using high-intensity lights to find them — is banned in November. Flounder will skirt along edges where deeper channels meet shallower bars and will take a number of lures, especially of the freshly dead variety. One common approach is to fish jigs and other baits on the bottom tipped with a piece of shrimp.
■ Redfish: These brawny battlers are the No. 1 sight-casting target up and down the coast. The fish often will school up and get into water so shallow that their backs are exposed as they feed. “Tailing” is a glorious sight for any angler and even though temperatures have started to cool down, there still are plenty of options for catching fish in skinny water. Once the mass migration begins and the larger fish move toward the Gulf, they are susceptible to a number of offerings. Shrimp and crabs are the main delicacies in their diet, but they also will slam spoons and other artificials. Dedicated pier, jetty and surf anglers salivate this time of year at the thought of oversize “bull reds” in droves only a cast away. There is a slot limit of 20 to 28 inches and anglers may keep three fish per day. Anglers also may keep one redfish over that slot limit, in addition to the daily bag with the special red drum tag on a fishing license.
■ Black drum: These cousins of the redfish 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 with steady runs, and the fillets are as good as it gets in many fish recipes. Drum are the calling card for many fishing guides into 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 like 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 those fish’s flesh is coarse and can contain parasitic worms, so it’s not advised.
■ Speckled trout: The dead of winter features the hottest fishing opportunities for really big fish, 8- or 9-pound specks that reach into the 30-inch class. From now into the New Year, female trout feed aggressively to pack on weight for their looming spawn and will take a number of artificial offerings, including topwater plugs, which can be an astounding sight. Other baits to consider are paddletail plastics in natural colors, such as bone, and larger spoons. You may keep 10 trout from 15 to 25 inches from the Louisiana border to the Upper Laguna Madre, while the limit is five south of the area known as the Landcut. Anglers may keep one trout over 25 inches per day as part of their daily bag but most big-speck chasers believe in releasing those fish to spawn.
For the kayak angler, there’s no better time than the present to hit skinny water locales such as those in the Lighthouse Lakes area along State Highway 361 between Port Aransas and Aransas Pass, and other Coastal Bend hot spots that feature thousands of acres of sandy or mud bottoms marked with swaying sea grass. The scorching temperatures of summer gradually have given way to cooler days where highs might not reach the 80s and winds have died down, making sight casting downright phenomenal in many scaly circumstances.
Cold fronts have a tendency to alter fish behavior drastically, and while they’ll move into deeper holes at the first hint of extended cool weather, they’ll also move back out into the shallows when it warms up for a few days.
There’s no better time to breathe in the salt air and take in a sunrise on the bay while enjoying some of the best fishing of the year in the state. With a little effort and know-how, you might enjoy the kind of success that can take your mind off what has shaped up as a tough hunting season in many locales.