“What is that?”
My fishing partner and (now former) Texas Fish & Game sales rep Nicole Becka asked me and our boat captain Robert Scherer.
As she pointed toward the tip of the Port Aransas Jetties, several long black fins stood out of the water. At first, I had no idea, but when a flash of silver caught my eye it became obvious.
A school of silver kings were feeding on mullet about 50 yards south of us, and now our attention switched to them. As we cast everything in the tackle box at them Nicole finally got a hookup on a topwater. It didn’t last long but we got a big thrill watching the four foot tarpon bust out of the water and show its deep red gills as it shook its head.
Tarpons are a fairly common sight at the Port Aransas Jetties and also at the jetties in Port Mansfield and Port O’Connor.
Officials with the state’s Tarpon Observation Network (TON) note that anglers annually target Texas tarpon nearshore with some degree of success.
“While current populations are not what they once were, a major effort to conserve the species has led to more opportunities for Texas anglers. Each year, typically in the late summer and early fall, anglers target tarpon with some degree of success.”
Now is the time tarpons start schooling in areas such as the stretch between High Island and Galveston, around Port O’Connor, Port Mansfield and in other locations.
TON advises that most tarpons are often hooked incidentally while fishing for other species. However the tarpon’s habit of supplementing oxygen intake by gulping air (often referred to as “rolling”) can alert anglers to their presence.
Tarpons are opportunistic carnivores, feeding on a variety of prey. Anglers typically use dead or live fish for bait, such as menhaden or mullet, but live crab, live shrimp and artificial baits (including flies) that resemble baitfish or shrimp can tempt a hungry tarpon as well.
Hard bony plates in the mouth make tarpon difficult to hook, but circle hooks have been found to provide the best hookup ratios. Owing to the presence of sharp gill plates, anglers typically use long 80-pound test or heavier leaders as insurance against cut offs. Nevertheless, hooking a tarpon and bringing it to the hand is easier said than done, with most hookups resulting in the tarpon winning the battle.
Although admittedly, contact with tarpons is rare for us, another acrobatic oceanic predator is abundant and we catch many of them. I’m talking about sharks.
Sharks, particularly blacktips and their close cousin the spinner sharks will put on extremely impressive displays on acrobatics arguably outdoing even tarpons.
The easiest spot to find sharks is around jetties or nearshore oil and gas platforms. Bring along some chum such as menhaden oil or throw out chunks of pogey to attract the big fish. Canned jack mackerel also makes great chum, and it is very inexpensive. All you have to do is punch holes in the can and put it in a lingerie washing bag or fish basket tied off to the boat.
Another economical chumming method involves taking a five-gallon bucket, punching it full of holes and rigging weights in the bottom. The bucket should be tied to the boat with enough rope to sink at least 10 feet down and fill it with fish guts, old shrimp, cut menhaden or any kind of smelly stuff. This will create a chum slick that will draw in sharks from all around.
A few years ago, two of our fine law officers, Jimmy Owens and Jason Loughlin invited me out to chase sharks at the jetties. When we arrived, there were few big ones to tangle with but the rocks were swarming with hundreds of blacktips from two to three feet in length.
We decided to try our luck with topwaters and had a blast for several hours watching the feisty predators, chase and occasionally destroy our Top Dogs, She Dogs and Super Spooks.
If you think you had fun with topwaters, try catching sharks on them. It takes things to a whole new level. If you want to get sharks to come to the surface to hit topwaters, try taking out a pail of wet sand or mud and live glass minnows or finger mullet.
Take several of the baitfish, clump them up in the sand, and throw them overboard. The fish will escape at different depths and it will drive sharks crazy. Once they start surfacing you can skip the sand and just throw over the live bait to keep them surfaced.
Over the years, fishing jetties has provided some of the most interesting experiences of my life. There was the time my father hooked into a stingray that weighed well over 200 pounds. It took him and my cousin Frank Moore on a two-mile ride.
I was in another boat and lost contact with them after we started catching fish. After a frantic search, we approached Frank’s boat to find my Dad lying in the bottom, drenched in sweat and Frank now fighting the behemoth, which was now flapping on the surface.
“What are you going to do with it?” I asked.
“Son, I fought it for two hours, we’re going to eat it.”
That may be one of the greatest answers of all time. By the way the meat was great. Nowadays we would not kill such a big ray but it was hard to argue with Dad’s logic back then.
Many of you have had amazing jetty and other near-shore Gulf encounters as well. There have been millions of man hours spent chunking spoons and fishing shrimp under a popping cork along these fish super highways.
Don’t think for a second that you can’t enjoy these kinds of encounters in an aluminum boat. You must exercise extra caution in any smaller craft, of course; but as you can see my adventures have been many.
The first day my schedule meshes with calm winds, you can bet I will be there, chasing hard-fighting fish and expecting the unexpected.
—story by Chester Moore