T he combination of a green tide and a bent rod can bring many pleasant surprises along the Texas coast. But an unexpected catch might pose a difficult question: Is it legal?
Several years ago, while wading the Galveston surf, I drew a sharp strike on a live shrimp under a popping cork. The fish was not large but it pulled hard, similar to a small jack.
It plodded close, flashing bright in a lifting swell. It was a small pompano. The delicious pompano are not unheard of in the Texas surf, but neither are they particularly plentiful. At least, I’ve seldom caught them.
This one looked about 12 or 13 inches in length. Naturally, I didn’t have a bloody, freaking clue if it was of legal length, and it was a bit on the runty side. I eyed the dapper little fish uncertainly then reluctantly flipped the No. 8 treble free with a pair of pliers.
Back at home, I was dismayed to discover that the “Bag and Length Limits for Saltwater Fish” in the Texas Parks and Wildlife Hunting and Fishing Regulations booklet did not even list pompano. You could have filled an Igloo with them. Or, if you just got a raise, maybe a Yeti.
Does the confusion sound familiar?
Chances are, once you get past the basics of speckled trout and redfish, the “regs” get a little muddled. For example, what are the limits on tripletail?
I “disremembered” until I consulted the 2015-16 booklet—three per day, 17-inch minimum with no maximum length limit.
How about Spanish mackerel? It’s a generous 15 per day with a 14-inch minimum. That’s a bounty for the jetty or surf pier angler.
On the subject of the spring surf, what’s the limit on the gafftop catfish targeted by beachfront bait-soakers? There is no bag limit but a 14-inch minimum length is imposed.
Quick, let’s have the lowdown on sheepshead. Frankly, I didn’t know until I cheated with the booklet. It’s five per day, with a 15-inch minimum. I assumed the minimum would have been less, maybe 12 inches, but there you go.
Down south, you might luck into a snook while fishing for specks and reds off the Isla Blanca jetty or maybe in the Brownsville Ship Channel. Well? One per day is allowed, with a slot-type length between 24 and 28 inches.
On the subject of slot limits, it probably doesn’t hurt to re-rack the red drum regs: three per day between 20 and 28 inches (one over-sized fish allowed per license year when affixed with the properly completed Red Drum Tag).
And, now that we’re dealing with drum, how about the red’s glum cousin, the black drum? It’s five per day between 15 and 30 inches (with one over 52 inches per day, counting as part of the bag limit). Again, I’d forgotten most of that until I peeked.
For many of us, It’s a good idea to obtain a free copy of the regs and study up. Even at that, the many specifics are easy to forget or confuse. Running a photo copy of the two pages of saltwater limits sounds good in theory, but the chances are excellent you won’t have the information within reach when a mysto-fish comes to hand.
By the time you can find the tattered, folded cheat sheet in the boat console or tackle bag, the poor fish probably will have expired. No, probably better to trust to memory—and an accurate measuring device.
Measurements are easy enough in a boat or on a pier, not so simple when wading or rock walking. Many anglers place marker wraps on their rods—a great idea for a quick and handy measurement. Of course, we’re talking here about specks (15 and 25, with one over-sized fish per day permitted) and reds. That’s already a total of four marker wraps.
The obvious problem arises with all the oddball fish. Now you’ve got all sorts of wraps altering the clean cosmetics of your high-dollar rod, and no small problem trying to figure what is what and which is which. Color-coding might help but, again, this does nothing for the looks of the stick.
It’s worth emphasizing again that some reasonably abundant inshore species are not regulated as sport species by TPWD. Joining my reprieved pompano are bluefish, croaker, sand trout, whiting, ladyfish, and gray (mangrove) snapper.
The latter semi-tropical species is becoming reasonably common in South Texas, and the recent mild winter only should increase the population and distribution of this inshore snapper. The same, happily, can be said for snook.
While considering legal length limits, be advised that TPWD permits the bending or squeezing of the tail fin to attain maximum length. This dodge will gain a fraction or two, perhaps allowing a “short” fish to legally slip into the bag. I suppose this makes sense since it’s still all fish against a flat surface or a straight marker.
But, at the opposite end of a slot limit, the tilted tail might cost you. In other words, a 28-inch red taped with a normally fanned tail might grow into an over-sized 28 1/2 incher in the hands of a squeeze-happy warden. This is something to consider.
Of course, you’ve got the one-over card to play. Well, this is assuming a 30 incher isn’t already in the box.
The savvy angler should spend some time reviewing the likely regulations pertaining to the water within reach. Several guys riding together to the beach could do worse than to quiz each other.
But, eventually, most of us will be caught with a question mark flapping on the end of the line. The best policy is to turn the mysto-fish free. To the best of my knowledge, no one yet has been cited for prompt catch-and-release.
Email Joe Doggett at [email protected]