To this day, the only thing I remember is how cold it got and how quickly it happened.
It was a nice afternoon that late December day in 1983. It was the first day of Christmas Break and I was walking the half-mile home from Edinburg Junior High after the student council Christmas party. Dawn Stapleton was my Secret Santa, and she had gotten me a Bomber Mud Bug as a present (actually, Dawn could have gotten me a pound of fried liver and I would have been glad for it, she was that pretty). The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and I would have two glorious weeks without school. I was pretty sure I could talk my Tio Mike into a fishing trip or two to the coast in that time. Life was going to be really grand.
The wind was starting to blow out of the north as I was leaving school, but I didnt really notice. What 13 year old does? By the time I had cleared the parking lot and crossed 2nd Street, a little over 100 yards (Ive measured it), it started getting cold. By the time I reached my neighborhood, it was really cold. When I finally reached my house, I never thought Id be warm again. Thirty minutes and the temperature had fallen from 70 degrees to close to below 40.
Temperatures kept dropping, too, until they dipped way below freezing and stayed there for 8 days. The entire state of Texas was throttled by a blast of Arctic air that stampeded as far south as Tampico and malingered for close to two weeks through Christmas and into the New Year. It wreaked havoc throughout the bays and ports in Texas.
Port Lavaca recorded freezing temperatures for 77 straight hours. Bays systems up and down the Texas Coast iced up. There was even ice in the mouth of the Rio Grande, the southernmost body of water in the state. The Freeze of 83 was what meteorologists called a "100-year freeze." It was the single most ecologically catastrophic event to strike Texas in its totality in a century (hurricanes such as Allen, Beulah, and Carla were equally devastating, but more limited in scope).
The Freezes greatest effects were on coastal fish populations. Texas Parks and Wildlife marine biologists figure the total marine life mortality for the entire Lone Star Coast at 20 million, including 14,392,700 fish. Redfish and trout stocks, already struggling through historic low numbers over the past decade, were decimated. State figures provided by Lower Laguna Madre Ecosystem leader Mark Lingo, peg the losses at 103,800 red drum and 623,900 spotted seatrout. Other species such as snook and gray (mangrove) snapper, who are especially vulnerable to cold water suffered particularly badly. Even the lowly hardhead took a whack from the cold weather. Beaches from Beaumont to Boca Chica were littered with the usually hardy critters.
Consequently, the fishing was pretty bad on the coast following the freeze. I caught my first speckled trout when I was 12. I didnt catch another one until I was 14, and not from a lack of trying. Summertime trips with my Uncle Bob Renaud along the Humble Channel and Cole Park in Corpus Christi didnt produce much of anything either, and we usually caught a few fish on every trip. Reports up and down the coast werent much different. TPWD gill net surveys from the spring and summer of 1984 revealed a drastic decline in catch rates, down to almost no fish per hour of effort.
Redfish were simply gone.
If there was a silver lining that came from the ice and wind of the Freeze of 83, it was the dramatic, wholesale changes to management and regulation that came from the massive fish kill. The first steps were the imposition of bag and size limits for both species that have been revisited and adjusted as necessary, ultimately leading to the set of management regulations we currently have. The regulations encourage anglers to retain fish for a fish fry or two, but underscore the need to maintain a viable biomass to ensure that both trout and redfish stocks remain healthy.
As important as the bag limits was the boost in the then-fledgling coastal stocking program that Parks and Wildlife had developed in conjunction with the Gulf Coast Conservation Association (now Coastal Conservation Association). The program, which started in 1982 on a modest scale, developed a new urgency after the fish wipeout of 1984. Stocks not only needed help recovering from the freeze, but a contingency plan needed to be in place in anticipation of the next major cold snap (which came in 1989, again in 1997, once more in 2005, and as recently as 2010). Millions of trout and redfish fingerlings have been stocked into the bays and estuaries of the Texas Coast over the past 30 years, and millions more will be stocked in the future.
Looking back to where the state of Texas saltwater fishing was after the Great Freeze and comparing it to now, the recovery is remarkable. Redfish are at historic levels, and a capable fisherman with the right tackle in the right place at the right time has a reasonable shot at not only getting his limit of specks and/or redfish, but also hanging a truly memorable fish. As noted earlier, other major freezes have waffled the our coastal water---the 2005 Christmas Freeze even dropped 6 inches of snow on the Rio Grande Valley for the first time in 80 years---but the team effort of anglers, TPW, and interest groups such as CCA have helped fish stocks absorb the cold blows.
Its no surprise that there are still anglers who still kvetch how fishing for trout and redfish is nowhere near where it was in the Good Old Days. I can safely say that, compared to my Good Old Days, the fishing is more than pretty good.
Then again, what I remember about back then is how cold the wind was.