The span of 50 years has substance. It sounds definitive, comprehensive. In this case, it pretty much encompasses the modern evolution of inshore saltwater fishing in Texas.
And, not coincidental to this discussion, I have been actively fishing the bays and beachfronts for approximately one-half century. My first speckled trout was caught on a live shrimp under a popping cork during the spring of 1961.
The upside to this connection is that I have first-hand experience during the five decades of change; the downside is --- well, look in the mirror, Old Timer.
I do not presume to be the end-all authority on this complex issue, but for 35 of those years (72 through 07) I was a full-time outdoor writer for the Houston Chronicle. That desk was in great position to monitor the ebb and flow of coastal fishing.
The on-going and often-simmering gumbo of information and opinion was provided by pro-class anglers, top fishing guides, casual weekenders, commercial fishermen, tackle "reps," marina and bait camp operators, marine boat dealers, state politicians, and TPWD biologists.
Here are a few recollections on where we were and a few observations on where were going:
The 60s were a golden era for inshore fishing. We had free-spool reels, hollow fiberglass rods, and monofilament lines, all major advancements in performance over the direct-drive reels, bamboo rods, and braided lines of the early- to mid-50s.
The Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 5000 casting reel was the gold standard --- well, make that the red standard. The anodized "Red Reel" dominated the entire decade. It actually was introduced from Sweden to the U.S. market during the mid-50s, but did not gain cult-status popularity until the early 60s.
Rudy Grigar, the "Plugger," was one of the classic coastal fishermen during the 60s and 70s. Photos: Joe Doggett
I submit that the Ambassadeur 5000 was the most significant single advancement in the modern history of coastal fishing. It was, admittedly, a bit of a clunker compared to todays fast-lane models, but all subsequent casting reels were spawned from this original concept.
I purchased my first 5000 during the spring of 64 for the ruinous price of approximately $45. And I was not alone; by the end of the decade Texas was the top market in the world for Ambassadeur reels.
Popular coastal lures during the 60s were spoons (Dixie, Johnson, Tony Accetta) and hard-plastic sub-surface plugs (MirrOlure, Bingo, Hump). Few anglers north of the Laguna Madre put much stock in topwater plugs, and nobody on the coast seriously used soft plastics. The latter stance was remarkably short-sighted, since soft-plastic worms were killers on the bass lakes.
Commercial fishing was unregulated during the 60s but overall commercial pressure was light. And sport fishing traffic was a mere fraction of what it is today. Lots of specks and reds were within easy reach and great expanses of seldom-fished water beckoned for the salty "corps of discovery."
For example, I first drove from Houston to Port OConnor during the spring of 67. Two school friends and I trailered an 18-foot center console. I recall the place was almost deserted. And we "killed em" two days straight on live shrimp at the big jetties.
Port OConnor seemed like a frontier. Port Mansfield? Wheres that?
Major improvements in boats added to the potential. Hulls were constructed of fiberglass rather than wood, and outboard motors were gaining in horsepower and reliability. You could turn the key on a 50- or 75-horse Mercury or Johnson and zip from POC all the way to Pringle Lake, even Panther Point.
Unregulated beach seining for speckled trout was rampant during the early 70s at places such as the Bolivar Pocket.
Bottom line: Tackle and boats were improving and tremendous opportunities were available during the 60s. Crowds certainly existed, especially at easily accessible venues such as the Galveston Jetties, but this was the last of a naive time when, as we all knew, the bounty of the Gulf was endless.
The decade of the 70s was the most pivotal period in the modern history of our coastal fishing. During that short span we went from the "endless bounty/no limit" mindset to realistic sport fishing limits on specks and reds, and the first laws protecting those primary species from commercial harvest and sale.
Incidentally, the concept of a 20-trout, 10-red daily sport limit (79) might sound preposterous now, but it looked pretty progressive against the days when a good fishing trip the Galveston Jetties or the Trinity Bay wells was measured by how many 48-quart Igloos you could fill.
Commercial pressure was on a dramatic increase, with gill nets, beach seines, and trotlines literally strangling the coastal finfish resource. The inshore fishery was on the path to ruin but conservation efforts by anglers and legislators reversed the trend.
The movement started in Houston in the winter of 77. Following a small gathering several months prior, a group of 40 fishermen met at Rudy Grigars Pro Tackle Shop and signed a petition forming the Gulf Coast Conservation Association. My signature is on that list (as reproduced on page 30 of CCAs Change of Tides book).
Space does not permit a blow-by-blow account of the sport/commercial "Redfish Wars" that raged during the next five or six years but, trust me, the coastal fishing that flourishes today was directly spawned by that commitment.
The 70s witnessed two major advancements in tackle. The first was the graphite rod --- first successfully marketed by Fenwicks HMG (High Modulus Graphite) series. The hollow fiberglass blanks, which effectively ruled since the Eisenhower administration, were dead.
The second was the wildly successful spread of soft-plastic shrimp "tails." The first to reach Texas during the early 70s was the Tout Tail by Boone Bait Co. of Winter Haven, Fla.
Within a few years, Texas lure manufacturers were offering a kaleidoscope of tweaked tails but, giving credit where its due, Boone started the Gulf Coast craze. Its enough to say that among many old salts "Tout" became a generic term for all soft plastics.
A growing emphasis on conservation marked the 80s. The early decade saw the construction of GCCA-funded marine fish hatcheries, and red drum were successfully spawned, reared and released by TPWD biologists. Sport limits were cut from 20/10 to 10/5, with a "slot limit" on redfish to protect mature spawners.
And commercial fishing for reds and specks effectively was finished in state waters.
These were major advancements that helped reverse the serious decline of fishing. Stocks of reds and specks all along the coast rebounded --- and none-too-soon.
Two major freeze kills rocked the 80s --- the first (and worst) during the winter of 82-83, the second during the winter of 88-89.
More emphasis also was placed on the environment. Stiffer water-quality regulations were implemented; for example, the Houston Ship Channel no longer caught fire and the "tar balls" of high-tide goo common along Gulf beaches all but disappeared.
And anglers increasingly became "shallow minded." Bay flats along the middle and lower coast saw significant increases in fishing pressure. The focus on shin- to knee-deep water was fueled by the shallow-draft South Texas scooters and a growing influx of Florida-type flats skiffs. Push poles and/or electric trolling motors became standard equipment for the "skinny water" boaters.
Not coincidentally, topwater fishing exploded for specks and reds all along the coast. Zigzagging "dogwalkers" and floating/diving "broken backs" were go-to plugs for anglers that only a few years earlier never had seriously chunked a floater. Fly fishing on the flats really took off --- another story entirely, but one that certainly marked the decade.
The 90s were a time of plenty. Standout tackle innovations were the gel-spun "superbraid" lines and slow-sinking, soft-plastic plugs (originated by Paul Browns Corky). Impressive numbers of large specks were showing in all primary bay systems, and Baffin Bay was back on the map in a big way, yielding numerous double-digit sows. No major fish kills during the decade certainly helped.
But sophisticated fishing pressure probably hurt.
Unfortunately, anglers were getting too good. Better tackle, better boats, better electronics (GPS, for sure) simply made the average fisherman superior at locating and catching quality fish. The increased use of live croakers for big trout added to the drain. A given bay system can produce only so many trophy-class specks.
Growing numbers of anglers began embracing the concept of catch-and-release on larger fish. And the state wisely placed the one-fish daily limit on trout longer than 25 inches. The daily redfish limit was cut to three (20-to-28 inches) and the minimum trout length was raised to 15 inches.
Recent years have seen additional push for environmental protection. Programs such as bay shrimper buy-outs, abandoned crab trap clean-ups, sea grass restoration projects, and "no prop" zones continue to improve habitat and resource. A significant trend to paddle power, mainly tricked kayaks, reduced the footprint along many bayshores.
The daily trout limit was cut from 10 to five in the vulnerable lower Laguna Madre region. Sport fishing pressure continues to grow and, increasingly, shallow fish have no place to hide. But most saltwater anglers recognize the needs for restraint and, well, play by the rules.
On-going surveys by TPWD biologists confirm healthy stocks of the major inshore sport species in bay complexes all along the coast. Barring a catastrophic environmental disaster, the future looks positive. We dont have the open horizons of 50 years ago but were doing a fine job of protecting what remains.
Most important, one thing is as real now as it was one-half century ago. And that is the sparkling promise of the next green tide.