Trophy reds and specks make a strong comeback in the Lower Laguna Madre.
by Jim Foster
There was a chill in the air as we eased the boat out of the channel and pushed the throttle forward. The boat came on plane and the V wake behind the boat seemed to point over the bow giving us the direction toward some rod-bending action. The sun was just beginning to peek over the condos and dunes on South Padre Island with a pink glow. The slight breath of a southeast wind was just starting to gather it’s momentum for the day. Springtime on the Lower Laguna Madre is as close to a perfect setting as can be found along the Texas Gulf Coast. The promise of good action is what brings anglers back year after year. Large speckled trout full of roe find their way into the bays all along the coast. The Lower Laguna Madre is no exception. During this same time, redfish will be moving toward the flats looking for baitfish and crabs.
There was a time in the near past when the future of spotted sea trout and redfish was shaky at best. Commercial fishing and excessive limits had taken their toll. Saltwater anglers with a keen sense of the environment knew something was wrong. Then came the disastrous freezes of 1983 and 1987 and the problem became evident. But the Texas saltwater angler is a resourceful cuss and within a short time stricter regulations had been passed, limits reduced and sizes increased. The recovery had begun. It seemed slow but in a very few years the difference was reflected in the catches and in the number of fishermen returning to the bays for recreation.
The Lower Laguna Madre has experienced, for the most part, a natural recovery because hatchery stockings for the Lower Laguna Madre fell very short of the stockings received by the bays to the north.
With the recovery only a few years old, the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department has opened the door for anglers who would like to catch a trophy or even a record redfish. These oversize tags should be used by anglers for trophies and potential state records, not just to keep a 29- or 30-inch red for the fillet knife. It is a real shame to kill these prime breeding-class fish. Many of the more conservation-minded guides have set personal size limits and will only use their tag for a fish to be mounted. Every one of these oversized fish that is taken from our Texas coastal waters represents millions of eggs that will never have the chance to hatch and renew the fishery. Use those tags sparingly.
This writer was amazed to learn the GCCA had been in favor of increasing the bag limit of redfish from 3 fish per day to 4 per day in 1993. This action was voted down by the commission after a large public outcry against the increase at public hearings. Again, the GCCA was in favor of the trophy tag passed last year. Why? Have our redfish recovered so well that we may kill that many prime breeders?
As a special note, fishermen should remember the trophy tags have been found not to last very long when submerged in saltwater. The printing and writing fades away. It’s now legal to fill out the tag and keep it in your pocket until you return to your boat. At that time you must attach the tag to your fish. All fish in ice chests must be tagged as well as any dead redfish in your possession.
The spring months of March, April and May provide some of the hottest action of the year. These cooler months find many new arrivals to the Laguna Madre. Big female trout are in search of spawning areas at this time. These big sow trout are followed by schools of smaller males who are also waiting for the proper time to complete the reproduction process.
The spring also finds redfish moving back and forth between deeper water on cool cloudy days to the shallow flats on sunny warm days. These reds can measure from only a few inches to well over the 28-inch limit. Spring reds can be fickle or aggressive during this time of year. Anglers who concentrate on big speckled trout this time of year are at times surprised to have a big red hit his bait like a run-a-way freight train. Of course, every year anglers are shocked after fighting a tough fish to the boat to find a large speckled trout attached to their hook. Many big trout are lost in just this manner.
Fishing for spring speckled trout and redfish is not much different from fishing for these species during the rest of the year with just a few exceptions. Let’s take a look at several ways to improve your chances to net a trophy speckled trout and redfish.
Fishing the flats for springtime specks and reds is really a combination of hunting and fishing. Some anglers have luck spotting fish from the towers of their shallow running flats boats. When fish are spotted the anglers will then move upwind of the fish and drift through the area casting to likely spots or anchor the boat and wade to the feeding fish. Watching for feeding gulls is another way to locate feeding fish. In the flats, a small group of birds will hover over feeding fish. These may be trout or redfish and sometimes a combination of both. If at all possible, wading to these fish will be the best way to hook more than one fish out of the group. A drifting boat will spook the fish as it passes through or over them.
The habit of feeding in the shallow waters around small islands will at times be a dead giveaway. As the redfish nose around the bottom for small crabs and shrimp, their tails extend out of the water. This is called tailing. Casting to these fish has become very popular with conventional and fly fishermen alike. Tailing fish pose a whole new set of challenges.
Approaching tailing fish should be done as carefully and quietly as you can. Any sudden noise or commotion in the water will bring the fish to alert and many times spook them far out of range. If you are in a boat, stop a good distance away. Trying to get closer might save you a few steps, but you run the risk of spooking the fish. Stake out or quietly ease your anchor into the water. When leaving the boat, take special care to be very quiet. Walk very slowly trying not to make a wake or splash water in front of you. The temptation to hurry to these fish is great, but walk slowly. As you approach, resist the urge to make a few early casts; wait until you are in range before flexing your casting muscles. Wait until you can cast well beyond the tailing fish before making a cast. Splashing a big topwater lure down in the middle of a circle of redfish tails will make sure you won’t be fighting even one of those fish. When you are within casting distance, cast well past the tails and work your lure through the fish with light jerks and pauses. Be ready to set the hook when a fish makes a pass at your bait.
If you are fishing live bait under a popping cork, more care must be taken. The cork alone can spook the fish. Again, cast well past the fish and ease the cork past the tails to where the live bait will be under the fish. Now keep the slack out of your line and wait for a fish to pick up the bait. When the cork starts to move, reel in until you feel the fish then set the hook. Many “lure only” fisherman don’t realize that making a solid hook-up in this manner is harder than hooking a red that hit a moving lure, but it sure is. Setting the hook too soon or too late will mean a missed fish.
The top springtime live baits include the old standby live shrimp, pinfish, piggy perch and croaker. Croaker are not as easy to find along the Lower Laguna Madre as they are along the middle and lower coast. Bigger trout do like a bigger bait, however, many 29-plus-inch trout were caught last spring using live shrimp fished under a popping cork.
Wading somewhat deeper water, three to four feet, and fishing the potholes in the grass is another method of finding and catching better-than-average size speckled seatrout. When fishing areas like this, the same care should be taken to move with very little noise. Stand in one spot and cast to all the water you can reach before moving on. In other words, take your time and cover all the water within casting distance. Try and fish the edges of the potholes with your live baits. Make a long cast then retrieve your bait through as many of the potholes as you can. Trout will lay on the edges of these holes waiting for a baitfish to swim into the open.
The same principle holds true for fishing lures. Pause or let your bait drop in or at the edges of the potholes. Topwater lures like Storm Lure’s jointed Thunderstick are a top producer for fishing in this manner. Start with a steady retrieve and try different speeds and action, until you get a strike. Soft plastic baits like touts and shrimp tails are another good choice for this type of fishing. If the fish are interested in a dropping bait or an ultra-slow retrieve, then try fishing your plastic shrimp tail under a float or cork. Some of the all-time top colors are red with a white tail, white with a pink tail and a light green with black and red specks that some fishermen call Cajun Pepper. Keep your baits fresh and change when your bait starts getting ragged. Keeping a fresh plastic on your hook could mean the difference between a trophy trout or red and going fishless.
Spring wadefishing weather can vary from quite cool to damn hot or you can have a combination of the two during the same day. The old saying, “If you don’t like Texas weather just wait a minute and it will change,” was never truer than in South Texas. It’s always a good idea to pack a pair of light waders in with your fishing gear just in case you don’t care to get wet. Many anglers like to wade in shorts or blue jeans until the air turns chilly, then have no problem at all stepping into a snug pair of chest waders for the morning walk through the potholes.
Casting or spinning gear is ideal for this type of fishing and at times a longer rod will be a help in getting your bait farther out and allowing you a better chance of not spooking tailing or feeding fish. Many anglers prefer a 7-foot worm or popping rod like the Silstar LX701SPM or the LX70CA. These rods will get your baits out to where you will find fish and have the backbone to handle the fight and rough treatment saltwater fishing entails.
I do not want to appear to be against fishing from a drifting boat, because I drift fish. The methods are the same as described for the wader. The boat does make more noise than wading and if there is a strong wind blowing, as happens quite often, you will not be able to cover the area as well as would someone wading. At times, drift fishing is the only method to fish a location because of a high tide. When this is the case, try to slow your boat down by using a sea anchor, now called a drift anchor or drift bag. These work well to slow down your drift. If one won’t do the trick then purchase an additional bag or a larger one.
The fishing for redfish and speckled trout this spring should be some of the best in many years, even with the problem of the brown tide. Anglers who spend the time hunting for these big fish will be rewarded with some fine fishing and some rod bending action.