COASTAL BEND, Texas — Redfish may fight harder.
Flounder may taste better.
And black drum is everyman’s fish.
However, for inshore saltwater fishing die-hards and even the average weekend angler, the speckled trout in Texas is hands down the game fish of choice along the coast year round. Whether it’s chunking free-lined croakers in the summer along sloping flats lined with sea grass or flipping a topwater plug in the dead of winter to find large females aggressively feeding before the spawn, the speck is a mainstay in almost every angler’s bag when the bite is on.
The speckled trout hasn’t been without its own rollercoaster of a ride though.
From the days of anglers boxing almost every fish they caught to the implementation of more rigid bag and size limits, the fish’s future always has been tied to the ebb and flow of conservation measures. For the most part, those actions have been successful in aiding recruitment of fish and ensuring what has remained a solid fishery up and down the sprawling coast.
In December 2010, an interesting trickle of news turned into a river of speculation as it was announced that Texas Parks and Wildlife Department coastal fisheries division staff would host meetings along the coast to gauge interest and get input on what were termed potential “conservation measures” for speckled trout. Included in that discussion were length limit alterations and the lowering of the daily trout bag limit in places where it currently was 10 to five.
A month later, after multiple meetings, including one in Corpus Christi that had a turnout of more than 100, the agency proclaimed that it would not recommend changes to any speckled trout regulations. The department cited no urgency on biological issues and split reactions to any number of alternatives that were received at public meetings and online.
Speckled trout in Texas by the numbers
Robin Riechers, coastal fisheries division director for TPWD, previously noted that speckled trout recruitment remained stable or increased in a number of bay systems while angler surveys showed that they continued to be satisfied with their trout fishing pursuits.
It should be no surprise, but TPWD received about as much feedback as it ever has on the speckled trout issue, with more than 1,200 comments split almost down the middle. There were 621 in favor of keeping regulations the same while there were 608 in favor of some type of alteration, ranging from implementing a five-fish limit to changing the minimum length limit.
As part of their ongoing research, TPWD officials projected the reductions in speckled trout harvest expected as a result of changing the daily trout limit from 10 fish to five, and those figures show some interesting trends. This especially is true in regards to guided fishing pursuits in some notable Coastal Bend bay systems.
Aransas Bay would see a 9 percent harvest reduction during non-guided trips and a 13 percent reduction from guided trips, according to TPWD projections, while Corpus Christi Bay would see a 3 percent harvest reduction during non-guided trips and a 27 percent reduction from guided trips. The Upper Laguna Madre seemingly would benefit the most from a bag limit change, with a 14 percent harvest reduction during non-guided trips and a 30 percent reduction from guided trips, according to department data.
Coastwide, the halving of the daily bag limit would elicit a 12 percent reduction during non-guided trips and a 22 percent reduction from guided trips.
According to more data gleaned on the Lower Laguna Madre by TPWD officials, non-guided anglers on average return from a day of fishing with about two trout. Meanwhile, anglers who pay to utilize the services and know-how of fishing guides typically bring home an average of more than twice that. It’s clear that when you fish with someone who spends lots of time on the water you’ll have a bigger impact on the trout population.
In 2007, the TPWD Commission voted to lower the bag and possession limit in the Lower Laguna Madre below Marker 21 in the Landcut to five fish as a result of a downward trend in spawning-age specks, something that ran counter to the increasing populations on the rest of the coast as a whole.
Mark Lingo, TPWD Lower Laguna Madre ecosystem leader, has said that the decrease in the trout limit hasn’t elicited an increase in numbers either in angler harvest or in TPWD gear, but he said he has observed a significant increase in size of specks there. In that regard, it would seem that a standard bag limit would be a good thing.
Kyle Spiller, former TPWD Upper Laguna Madre ecosystem leader, previously noted that fish-killing freezes in the 1980s and a subsequent increase in minimum size limits and a decrease in the bag limit afterward showed that an alteration in regulations can help a fishery recover not just from those types of events but also from overfishing.
Fishing pressure only continues to increase on the Texas coast, which likely fuels most of the worry among concerned biologists and anglers. Hal Osburn, then coastal fisheries division director, noted at a 2003 TPWD Commission meeting that the state had seen about a 300 percent growth in guides from two decades prior and those guides accounted for about 40 percent of the million trout annual harvest. He also noted that the ratio of trout larger than 25 inches was declining. Subsequently, the department would go on to implement a 15- to 25-inch slot with anglers only allowed to keep one oversize fish per day while guides were prohibited from keeping their limits on paying trips. I would argue that the latter has made the largest difference, especially when you examine the harvest reduction figures associated with guide trips.
TPWD gillnet surveys actually show a dip in the trout population in a few bay systems, including a large decline in Aransas Bay, but even with the agency’s data showing that we could essentially replenish our stocks rather quickly, it appears there won’t be a change anytime soon to the daily bag limit. If every angler who went out kept their full allotment of one of our state’s most sought game fish every time, we’d be in trouble, but that simply doesn’t happen, according to creel surveys and anecdotal evidence.
Regardless, the pursuit for speckled trout in Texas will remain at the forefront of outdoors pursuits — as it should.