It was a sight I will never forget. My cousin Frank Moore and I were cruising across Old River Cove on Sabine Lake in a 16-foot flat-bottomed aluminum boat on a brutally hot August afternoon in 1996.
We saw mullet busting all over the surface and stopped to grab our rods and cast into what we suspected was a school of redfish. Instead, a big tarpon busted out of the water and left us in absolute awe.
I had seen tarpon in the Gulf but this was in Sabine Lake and interestingly it was not the only “silver king” incident in the area that year.
There were several tarpon sightings in the lake that year and then the same thing happened a few years later. Tarpon are like that. There are years where there are numerous sightings in the near-shore Gulf and perhaps a couple in the lake and then they aren’t seen anywhere in the area for a few more.
Officials with the state’s Tarpon Observation Network (TON) note that overfishing and loss of habitat have contributed to a significant reduction in population levels over what they once were.
“While current populations are not what they once were,” TON officials said, “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.”
That means now is the time tarpon start schooling in areas like the stretch between High Island and Galveston, around Port O’Connor and Port Mansfield.
According to TON, most tarpon 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.
“Tarpon are opportunistic carnivores, feeding on a variety of prey,” TON advises. “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. Due to the presence of sharp gill plates, anglers typically use long 80# 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.”
The best thing about tarpon is they do not necessarily require a huge boat to pursue. In fact I do all of my fishing on the beachfront and jetties from an Xpress aluminum rig.
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 tarpon.
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. 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 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 purposefully 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.
Fshing 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 that was 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, and 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