The dead of winter provides some of the liveliest angling opportunities for anglers willing to spend a day at the beach.
From Sabine Pass to South Padre Island, the Texas coast spans hundreds of miles and features myriad surf fishing options.
Heres a look at whats biting this time of year and how best to hook up.
Bull Reds: The redfish run is among the most amazing sights in saltwater angling, and they are in full force along Gulf beaches during fall and winter. The state record was plucked from the Gulf in January 2000 and weighed right at 59½ pounds.
As these fish mature, they move out into the Gulf where they spend most of their lives. Thats a great thing for surf, jetty and pier anglers, and these brawny battlers will take a number of offerings, including cracked crabs, shrimp and bait fish of all sizes. Theyll readily slam both live and dead bait, but anglers toting artificial lures should always remember to pack heavy spoons, swim baits and other variations that mimic mullet or croakers. Surf rods that are heavy and stiff are standard tackle for anglers who pitch out multiple baits as far as they can and drop them into a holder punched into the sand.
The daily bag on redfish is three fish in a slot limit of 20 to 28 inches, though you may keep one over 28 as long as its affixed with the oversized red drum tag from your saltwater fishing license.
Black drum within the slot limit of 14 to 30 inches always are a welcome sight. Photos: Will Leschper; canstock
Black Drum: The state record is an 81-pound fish caught in summer 1988 from the Gulf of Mexico, but that doesnt mean there arent still brutes skulking around in the winter. These fish will gang up before the spawn that occurs into the spring and its not uncommon to see scores of anglers frequenting beach areas near passes and other manmade flows targeting fish with a variety of natural baits.
Dead shrimp and cracked crabs are among the notable lures and cut bait that always will produce for anglers looking to take home some great-eating fillets. The best surf tactic is to pin the offering to the bottom using heavier weights than most inshore anglers will ever try. Even a "butterfly" drum, one thats within the slot, can peel drag with the best of the saltwater species, and having heavier tackle can be handy, especially if the bull drum are in.
Because of their strength, many anglers utilize a stout leader, which can aid in subduing especially large fish.
Anglers may keep five fish per day in a slot limit between 14 and 30 inches, and drum that exceed that limit quickly become less desirable as their flesh gets more coarse and less edible, and can feature small worms, which look scary, but arent harmful to humans. One drum over 52 inches may be kept as part of the daily bag. Winter drum typically are in better shape and their meat is in improved condition over those fish that are harvested after the spawn or in the heat of summer.
Jack crevalle arent fit to eat, but they will give you a memorable fight. Photos: Will Leschper; canstock
Pompano: This specimen, also known as cobblerfish, is a common find along Gulf beaches and pass areas. They frequent sandy areas where they pick off sand fleas and other critters that find themselves unlucky enough to be near the bottom. Pompano dont get large - the average fish is anywhere from 2 to 4 pounds - but the state record is 6.25 pounds and even small ones are superb at the dinner table. Theres also no size or bag limit on pompano.
Anglers targeting "pomps" typically use rigs fished near the bottom featuring small hooks baited with bits of shrimp, which are easier for them to take. Live bait also will produce when youve located a school of hungry pompano, and the fish also will hit small spoons, jigs and mullet-looking artificials.
Beginning south of Corpus Christi on the beaches of the Padre Island National Seashore, there are miles of suitable fishing locales for anglers targeting pompano, and the farther south you head toward South Padre Island the better the fishing typically gets when its colder.
Whiting/Jacks: Whiting dont grow to the same size as other surf dwellers, but they nonetheless put up a good fight when weighing upward of 2 pounds, especially on light tackle. The ticket to filling a cooler with fillets - theres also no bag or length limit on whiting - is using natural baits including shrimp and cut bait. They usually are found in schools cruising near the bottom and using enough weight to keep your presentation there is key, especially if the current picks up.
Many surf anglers will use whiting as cut bait for other species, including sharks.
Jack crevalles arent fit for eating but can reach 20 or 30 pounds with ease and a fish that size has almost no equal when it comes to a fight. They also run in schools, targeting bait fish such as mullet, and if you find them, hang on. Cut bait is among your best options for jacks since they always are opportunistic feeders.
Sharks: Theres an old saying that if you saw what was past the second gut in the Gulf you may never go swimming again. Numerous varieties of sharks are much closer than you may think, and they almost always are prowling beaches up and down the coast looking for an easy meal.
Many notable surf anglers will target jacks specifically to use as solid shark bait, but other species work as well, including large mullet. Stout tackle is a necessity if youre targeting razor-toothed critters, including wire leaders and a full complement of heavy line. Many anglers who target sharks will employ a kayak to drop their baits out farther than they can cast and then paddle in and put their rods in a holder.
A number of shark species may not be retained. Consult the Outdoor Annual wherever licenses are sold for more on saltwater fishing regulations.
Most outdoorsmen are targeting whitetails right now, but if youre seeking new big game to hunt, look no further than the surf.
Its the perfect time to head to the beach.
Gearing Up for the Surf
Veteran surf anglers rely on gear suited for the task and which may not resemble what most saltwater anglers picture.
A standard "surf" rod generally is 10 feet or longer, featuring a limber end section with plenty of backbone to get the job done with hefty fish. Anglers seeking to keep their natural bait offerings in the same spot employ sinkers that typically weigh about a quarter-pound. These chunks of lead may or may not be classified as "spider" weights, which feature small arms that can be folded out to dig into the sandy bottom when they take root. These typically arent necessary unless the current is ripping.
When youre hurling that much lead, its easy to snap a regular line, so plan on utilizing a shock leader, one thats longer than the length of your rod, and which helps cut down on the stress placed on your tackle. Without that added "oomph," youre likely to snap off your hooks and weights with relative ease, especially if youre trying to hit the second gut or farther. When casting that type of rig you typically should focus on a long, looping motion thats smoother than the quick jerking that you may associate to using a bait-casting reel along shallow inshore flats.
Circle hooks are key to most surf fishing excursions not only because theyre stouter than other varieties but also because fish that may mouth a bait thats sitting there are more apt to hook themselves with that type of barb. It also makes them easier to unhook since theyre also less likely to suck the barb all the way down into their innards.
If youre new to the pursuit, the one sure way to find fish is to find other wildlife. "Working the birds" always pays dividends along the beach since they will frequent any area with bait fish. And wherever there are bait fish there also are game fish not far. One bait to always include in your tackle box is any number of topwater lures. When youve got hungry fish near the surface theres nothing like taking them on plugs designed specifically for the job.