S ay goodbye to the baitfish fish in our bay systems. Well, most of them; at least, for a while.
Cold fronts start knocking politely on the Lone Star’s door about Labor Day. The first mention of a cold front is sure to draw belly laughs and guffaws from the weatherman on your favorite news channel, but while early cold fronts don’t affect air temperatures much, they trigger lots of chilled precipitation. The influx of cold water starts the cooling process of lakes and bays and triggers large-scale bait migrations.
Texas bay systems are wonderful ecosystems, containing a myriad of marine species, including a wide variety of baitfish. Some are very sedentary, and others migrate long distances.
Mud minnows and pistol shrimp are definite “home bodies.” Scientific studies have revealed that mud minnows spend their entire lives within several hundred yards of where their eggs hatch. It is unknown how far pistol shrimp actually roam but they can be found year-round hiding in clumps of oyster shell. Pistol shrimp do not migrate, preferring the safety of the hidey-holes where they take up residence.
Finfish and shrimp are often lumped together into a category called “bait” or “baitfish.” A partial list of baitfish found in Texas bays include striped mullet, silver mullet, silver perch, piggy perch, pin perch, spot croaker, Atlantic croaker, menhaden, white shrimp, pink shrimp, and brown shrimp.
Every fall, cooling water temperatures and shorter photoperiods trigger baitfish to migrate from our bays to the Gulf of Mexico, where they will spend the winter and spawn. It is interesting to note that spawning of many species has never been witnessed because it takes place in the Gulf. The closest scientists have come is capturing newly hatched baitfish in fine-mesh net surveys.
As winter is giving up its grip and spring begins taking hold, the hatchlings begin in their inward migration into our bay systems. Strong flood tides help push the fry back into the shallows and out of harm’s way.
I have always been fascinated by this mass migration, and I have a number of questions that remain unanswered. For instance, why do some baitfish migrate to the Gulf and some choose to remain in the bay? Or, what percentage of the baitfish in our bay systems migrate?
Fisheries biologists do not have a definitive answer about why a certain percentage of the baitfish population overwinters in the bays instead of the Gulf of Mexico. When queried regarding the percentage of baitfish that leave for the winter, Texas Parks & Wildlife fisheries biologists provided only a simple answer—a bunch.
The migration pattern can be plotted as a bell curve. The migration starts around September and ends around December with a trickle, with peak movements occurring in October and November. This mass migration decimates the baitfish population in our bays, leaving population levels threadbare during the winter.
So how does this information help coastal anglers? First, understanding the life cycles of our coastal fisheries will help you become a better saltwater angler. You will become more in tune with nature and will notice more small details.
Knowing that a large amount of the biomass that trout and redfish eat heads for the Gulf helps in several ways. As the pages on the calendar turn, large numbers of game fish will concentrate inside and outside of the passes connecting the bays to the Gulf.
When you understand that baitfish populations diminish during winter months, it will change your fishing patterns. Finding bait in an area is far more important than fishing your “lucky spot.” Fishing in barren waters is always a losing proposition.
Fast-forward a few months, and the circle of life begins anew. Those same passes will be flooded with baitfish hatchlings pushed along by spring currents, which are supercharged by pumping coastal winds. As soon as the fry enter the bay systems, they will seek out the safety of inlets and shorelines, with the protective vegetation and oyster reefs found there.
Speckled trout and redfish are genetically predisposed to feed heavily during the fall in preparation for the winter months when meals might not be readily available. November is a prime coastal fishing month. The biggest challenge to catching fish this month is the conscious decision you must make to put down your rifle or smoothbore and pick up your rod and reel.
Email Greg Berlocher at [email protected]