SPECIAL SECTION: State of the Outdoor Nation

TEXAS FRESHWATER by Matt Williams
December 25, 2017
COASTAL FORECAST: Lower Coast
December 25, 2017

Texas Outdoor Nation

Welcome to the Texas Outdoor Nation.

It’s a place with as many ecosystems as some countries and more wild game than most. Whether it’s hunting or fishing, Texas is tops.

It almost goes without saying that whitetail hunting in Texas is stellar. With nearly three million deer statewide, hunting is rock solid in every region of the state.

The 2016-17 estimated harvest was 720,645 deer. You can compare those statistics to the 2010 season, one of Texas’s better seasons. Total deer harvest  in 2010 was estimated at 647,975 deer.

Deer hunting is on the upswing after prolonged drought  put a hit on overall numbers.

Feral hogs are the second most popular game in Texas and for good reason. With nearly three million of them roaming from border to border there are massive hunting opportunities. There is no season or bag limit, and they can be hunted at night and even out of helicopter.

Texas is bringing in tens of thousands of out of state hunters annually who watch reality TV programs based on these potentially vicious Texas residents.

Texans are now killing more than 750,000 hogs a year according to Texas Agrilife. There are more hogs killed in Texas than the entire population of hogs in any other state other than Florida.

Texas has several species of doves, all of which are similar in appearance and habits, but that each has its own unique attributes.

Texas has the longest deer season in the U.S.

Mourning doves are the most common, and they prefer a mix of wild and agricultural settings. In most of the state, their preferred foods are milo, wheat and corn, and they feed heavily on wild plants such as dove weed (croton) and ragweed.

Whitewings are more of a city- loving species. Although they were once relegated to the southern half of the state, their numbers have increased dramatically, and the range now includes parts of East Texas. Hunters also take Eurasian-collared doves in fair numbers in certain areas.

The dove population in Texas is the largest in the nation, and hunters can always expect more doves than any other state offers—even in a bad year.

During winter our duck hunter numbers are strong and Texas still winters the bulk of the ducks in the Central Flyway.

Something else in Texas is on the rise—the popularity of crossbow hunting. 

As a lifelong bowhunter, I believe we will see a major crossbow boom in Texas over the next decade. There are several key reasons why.

Long Deer Season

Texas has the longest deer season in the nation. With a full month of archery-only hunting, this will inspire many hunters to buy a crossbow, learn how to shoot it in the field and hit with it.

Additionally, there are numerous key public-hunting areas in the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers systems that are “Bow Only” throughout the nearly four-month deer season. Since many of these areas are located within a short drive of key metropolitan areas savvy hunters will proably get with the program.

Off Season Options

Texas never really has an “off” season as there are legal hunting opportunities 365 days a year with the nation’s largest population of feral hogs and exotic animals to be found anywhere. Many hunters who pursue these creatures enjoy something a bit more challenging than rifle hunting so crossbows are a perfect alternative. In fact, there are many archery-only exotic ranches and hog hunting operations in the state that have already opened their gates to crossbow hunters. 

Texans kill more than 750,000 feral hogs a year… more hogs than deer!

A hunter in Texas does not have to use a crossbow only during bow season, as in many other states. We have an entire calendar year of opportunities, and they are increasing all the time.

Some metropolitan areas are legalizing archery equipment within the city limits to help decrease feral hogs, which are causing major problems. Most states are cutting out hunter opportunities while Texas is increasing hunting opportunities in many areas.

Graying Population

According to the Texas Department on Aging, baby boomers number 5.6 million in Texas or 28 percent of the population. Many older hunters have expressed an interest in crossbow hunting instead of traditional bowhunting because of physical limitations. Surveys show Texas has lots of older hunters but most of them use guns. By giving these older hunters, (which often have plenty of disposable income) a chance to take a more challenging hunting route, the crossbow industry could fare very well.

Another growth area is the popularity of public hunting. Much of that has to do with the actions of TPWD. They are doing something that allows families not only to continue time-honored hunting traditions, but also, to engage a multitude of access points at a very affordable rate.

For $48, hunters can purchase an Annual Public Hunting Permit (APH) and have an opportunity to pursue their outdoor passions on more than 900,000 acres of land.

The Fishing in Texas is Tops

Let’s start with bass fishing where the state is host to professional and regional tournament events, and the number of truly giant fish is second to none.

The Toyota Sharelunker Program since 1986 has given anglers a replica of their catch if they bring in a live bass weighing 13 pounds or more.

David Roulston of Frisco caught Toyota ShareLunker 558 on Lake Fork.

At the time of this writing, 570 of these monster fish have been weighed-in, and over the years the program has accomplished much, putting Texas as the leader in the bass fishing world.

According to TPWD the program has:

1. Improved knowledge of proper handling and care of big fish

2. Developed and communicated to anglers recommendations for handling fish in ways that improve their survival

3. Established weigh and holding stations at major reservoirs around the state to improve the survival of big fish by providing the proper environment for them until pickup by trained TPWD personnel

4. Generated nationwide interest in Texas bass fishing and increased tourism, as evidenced by 82 ShareLunkers having been caught by residents of 22 states other than Texas

Coastal fishing in Texas is stronger than it has ever been, and the fishery is more widely researched and understood than any in North America.

Let’s take speckled trout for example.

A study by the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission (GSMFC) report shows that one researcher tagged more than 2,600 trout and received 50 returns. Of these, 20 came from the release point. Similar findings were reported by researcher Rogillio with 98 percent of the returns coming within 1.5 kilometers of the release point.

Speckled trout migration on the Texas coast has been thoroughly researched.

Their report details that of 20,912 tagged trout released in Texas marine waters, 1,367 were recaptured. About 84 percent were caught in the same bay where released; eight percent were caught in another bay; and five were recaptured in the Gulf. Of 588 spotted seatrout tagged in the Gulf surf, 14 were recaptured, 12 in the Gulf and two in Texas bays.

Researcher Laura Payne wrote a thesis on trout migration within the Laguna Madre system.

“Anecdotal information suggests that spotted seatrout migrate from near-shore waters into bays to spawn and that these migratory fish may sustain populations of spotted seatrout within the Laguna Madre system,” she wrote. “To further explore spotted seatrout movement patterns laboratory tagging trials and acoustic tracking technology was employed to investigate movement patterns on a large-scale.”

In the study a total of 81 spotted seatrout were captured via hook and line between December 2009 and October 2010 and implanted with acoustic tags: 31 within bay waters, 30 fish from surf zones, and 20 live-release tournament fish. 

Texas red drum populations have skyrocketed in recent decades.

“We found an overall minimal survival rate of 70 percent between angler recaptures and receiver detections,” Payne wrote. “Many long distance travels were recorded and movement patterns varied greatly. Seventy-five percent of fish tagged in surf waters were detected on our receivers in tidal inlets, and two fish from the Upper Laguna Madre were detected leaving the Laguna into CC Bay.”

“These data suggest Gulf-bay and inter-bay mixing of spotted seatrout populations. The high percentage of angler recaptures validates previous studies that determined catch-and-release practices are viable to help maintain healthy fish stocks.” Texas is not only leading the way in trout fishing but in trout conservation.

Redfish populations have skyrocketed in recent decades, and we are learning much about them.

The species is fast growing, reaching approximately 11 inches and 1 pound in its first year; 17 to 22 inches and 3-1/2 pounds in two years; and 22 to 24 inches and six to eight pounds in three years. The world record red drum weighed 96 pounds and hailed from North Carolina. The current Texas record is 55 pounds.

A red drum reaches sexual maturity between their third and fourth years when they are about 30 inches long. They spawn in the Gulf, possibly near the mouths of passes.

On the Texas coast spawning occurs generally from mid-August through mid-October. Eggs hatch within 24 hours and are carried into the bays by tidal current. The larval red drum seeks quiet, shallow water with grassy or muddy bottoms, according to TPWD.

For the first three years, redfish live in the bays or in the surf zone near passes and jetties. Evidence from TPWD’s tag returns show that they remain in the same area and generally move less than three miles from where fisheries officials tag them. I know this firsthand.

In June 1999, while fishing the Texas side of the Sabine jetties with Bill Killian of Orange, I caught a redfish that I had tagged more than three weeks ago at the cluster of rigs located just east of the jetties. I was hoping other anglers would catch some of the fish I had tagged, but never thought I would.

Among the many inshore species available to Texas anglers are sheepshead, southern flounder and snook.

Nasty green algae covered the tag, but it was easy to read after I wiped it off. The tag’s number was 31. The big red was caught and released like all others that day. Perhaps it would be caught again by another angler. The chances of catching one’s own tagged fish has to be miniscule, but it proved these fish do not always move much.

TPWD notes that as they mature, they move from the bays to the Gulf of Mexico where they remain the rest of their lives, except for infrequent visits to the bays. Although there is little evidence of seasonal migrations, anglers find concentrations of red drums in rivers and tidal creeks during the winter.

Another phenomenon is “tailing,” which involves the reds tails sticking out of the water as they feed in the shallows. In some areas, anglers should call this “backing” because you see a lot more back and dorsal fin than spotted tail at a 45-degree angle. Either way, it is awesome.

TPWD has successfully stocked them in several freshwater reservoirs including Fairfield, Braunig, and Calaveras. They cannot spawn in these lakes, but they grow to immense size and take to the habitat like, well, a fish takes to water. Instead of feeding on crab, they eat crawfish and terrorize the perch, shad, bass, and other wimpy freshwater species.

Redfish are highly adaptable, and this allows them to survive in many habitats and live to great age. According to the North Carolina Department of Environment and Fisheries, the oldest recorded specimen was 62 years old, caught in the Atlantic Ocean.

The Texas coast is also home to a strong population of southern flounder, black drum and sheepshead along the bay systems along with snook in the southern reaches of the state.

Offshore anglers can connect with red snapper, king mackerel, ling, shark, dolphin (dorado, mahi mahi) and a host of other fish.

When it comes to the great outdoors there really is no state like Texas.

Nothing even comes close.

 

—story by TF&G STAFF

 

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