TEXAS SALTWATER by Calixto Gonzales

Bench Depth

I am an unapologetic piscavore. I love eating fish, often to the chagrin of some of my more “enlightened” fellow anglers who think keeping, filleting, and eating fish like trout, snook, and redfish is some sort of mortal sin that Pope Francis should publicly condemn.

The fact is that Texas Parks and Wildlife does a superlative job of managing and regulating our fish stocks, and the size and bag limits are designed to ensure that anglers can retain a moderate number of fish for the skillet (yes, even snook, which some treat like a mythical beast of medieval lore). Fish are an excellent and healthy source of protein. No one need apologize about keeping their limits (as long as they are abiding by state laws and regulations).

Though stocks are well managed and some are at historically high levels, even the most dedicated angler isn’t going to have piscine success every time on the water. No matter what you sometimes try, there is no joy in Mudville.

Any successful coach or sports general manager will tell you that a team’s success doesn’t hinge on their starting lineup, but on the depth of their bench. If you can have a number two left tackle that can pick up the slack when your high-priced starter is down with a blown knee, you have a better chance at maintaining a high level of success than if you were stuck with some ham and egger you grabbed off the street. The same principal holds for fishing. whether your trip is successful or you end up stopping at the seafood section of HEB can depend on your plan when the specks and redfish have a case of lockjaw.

When the main target species aren’t cooperating, that’s when the astute angler looks to his bench and gives the call to some capable backups. The three fish that make up this second string are underrated quarry both in sporting ability and gastronomical quality. Under the right conditions, they put up a stiff fight, are actually challenging to catch, and acquit themselves well in the kitchen.

First in the lineup, and a fish that should be welcome in any cooler, is the black drum. TPW surveys show that numbers of slot-sized black drum—between 15 and 30 inches—are at an all-time high, especially in the Upper and Lower Laguna Madre. Many an angler from the Coastal Bend and Southern tip of the Texas Gulf Coast will tell you about the giant schools of black drum that cruise the flats in both halves of the Laguna Madre. Many boats eschew running around and finding moodier trout and redfish to hook up on the schools of black drum that roil up the water.

The most popular method to catch one of these feisty cousins of the more glamorous species is to pin a fresh, dead shrimp on a ¼ ounce jighead and cast straight into the school (which isn’t difficult to locate; just look for the disturbed water or the flotilla of boats chasing the school). Bounce the bait a couple of times until it’s picked up, set the hook, and be ready for a surprisingly stiff fight with some decent runs and lunges.

If you want to avoid bait, these feeding drum will strike artificials. A 3-inch Gulp! Shrimp pinned on the same jighead will get eaten. Twin brother captains Danny and Jeff Neu are noted for getting drum to strike a 4-inch Norton Sand Eel, Jr. in LSU colors (purple body/chartreuse tail). For a benchwarmer, the black drum can be a top-flight starter on any team.

Next to the black drum on the pine is the sheepshead. The convict fish is considered an incidental catch to most inshore fishermen. However, anyone who goes after the feisty striped fish finds a brute thug streetfighter who can test light tackle like a trophy speck or oversized redfish. 

The key for sheepshead is structure, because these fish prefer to graze on barnacles and eat small crabs and other crustaceans that congregate around rocks, pilings, and bridge supports. The cables that anchor ICW buoys and the channel markers that are mounted on wooden structures are sheepshead magnets.

A live shrimp pitched right up against the structure won’t last very long. A good strategy is to use a cork to suspend the bait and serve as a strike indicator. Once the cork disappears, you set the hook hard, palm the drag and bull the fish away from the structure so he won’t break you off.

The fight that follows is up close and personal, like trading with a body-puncher. (Do not be surprised if you run into a tripletail; those hoodlums love the same structure as sheepies).

Finally, the last benchwarmer is the one with the biggest chip on his shoulder because he has the skills and qualities of an All-Pro, but none of the respect—the mangrove snapper. Most mangoes are not very large, 12 to 13 inches, but what these diminutive battlers lack in size they more than compensate in sheer ferocity. A 1 to 1 ½ pound mangrove will try to snatch the rod right out of your hand and pull you into the structure so fast the fish is gone before you can register what happened.

The same structure that holds sheepshead will hold a population of these punks. They’ll nail a shrimp just as readily, too. Some of the larger ones—they can approach 10 pounds—will also hit a Gulp! or Live Target shrimp that is allowed to slowly sink next to structure. Using lures, however, requires an almost bass-like fishing touch. Watch for the line to jump to the side and set the hook hard and pull the fish away from structure before HE knows what’s happening.

One of the wildest fishing experiences I ever had was with Captain Jimmy Martinez. We went up in the Brownsville Ship Channel looking for snook and throwing topwaters. What we found were five-pound mangroves that were blasting our Super Spooks so hard that they would straighten the trebles.

Like I said, they have a chip on their shoulders, as do the other two members of the bench. That’s not bad depth.



Email Cal Gonzales at ContactUs@fishgame.com


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