FOR MANY TEXANS, their annual offshore fishing experience begins and ends with the brief federal red snapper season in the summer.
However, with frosty conditions looming and many sportsmen hunting instead of fishing, dedicated offshore anglers often find themselves alone over the best spots and enjoying some of the best action of the year during the winter.
Texans don’t need to wait for the federal government to tell them when they can fish for red snappers. In state waters, which extend out to nine miles from shore, anglers can catch red snappers any month, but check the regulations for more specific guidance.
“Winter is an awesome time to fish for red snappers,” advised Capt. Mike Kubecka of Reel Rush Charters (979-240-9490, www.reelrushcharters.com) in Bay City. “The big sows come into shallower waters in the winter. In February, we normally fish in water 60 to 70 feet deep about eight miles from the coast. I’ve had winter days when we didn’t catch anything weighing less than 20 pounds in state waters.”
Snappers love hard structure such as rocky reefs, petroleum platforms and sunken vessels where they can snatch bait. In many places along the entire Texas coast, anglers can find good structure in state waters. Frequently, anglers in smaller inshore boats can easily reach places that might hold snappers, redfish, black drum and many other species. A quick internet search could reveal the coordinates of many structures that could hold good fish all year long.
“We usually fish in 45 to 50 feet of water, looking at the beach the whole time,” remarked Capt. Kevin Martin with Surfside Beach Saltwater Charters (979-299-4771, www.surfsidebeachcharters.com) in Freeport.
“In shallow waters, snapperss often swim right up to the surface. Even when the current is moving, I try to use the smallest weight I can. We usually fish the East Bank, Middle Bank and West Bank out of Freeport. We can get there in 20 minutes.”
Over a good reef, most snapper anglers simply drop a tempting meat chunk to the bottom. Popular baits include cigar minnows, menhaden (also called pogies), mullet chunks and squid. Anglers can also catch their own bait. Sand trout make excellent bait for snappers, tuna and many other species.
“We drop down sand trout, Spanish sardines and squid,” Kubecka said. “Sand trout are not considered game fish, so they are legal to use for bait in Texas. They are really soft and snappers like soft baits they can chew up easily.”
From Sabine Pass southward to Brownsville, Texas anglers can find deeper waters nearer to shore as the continental shelf comes closer to the coastline. For instance, Brownsville anglers can find good snapper waters not far past the jetties. An artificial reef sits about five miles from shore. In addition, the state began construction on a new reef in Texas waters about 12 miles north of Brownsville.
About 13 to 20 miles north of Port Mansfield, anglers can fish some natural rock formations only three to four miles from shore. The state also established an artificial reef about seven miles from the jetty. These structures hold snappers and many other species.
“Our success rate for snappers is extremely high in the winter,” stated Capt. Chad Kinney with Bamm Bamm Charters (956-802-2269, bammbammfishing.com) in Port Mansfield. “We limit out about 99 percent of the time. Around here, we have a lot of natural structure in state waters 50 to 90 feet deep. When a norther blows through, we can’t go fishing offshore in the winter, but two days after a norther, the fishing is much better.”
When the water calms down after a winter storm, snapper generally move higher in the water column. Kinney tempts them with free lines or by ripping jigs through the water. While fishing for snapper in state waters, Kinney also catches sharks, other reef fish and occasional grouper, depending upon the water depth.
“The snapper population is so good that sometimes it’s hard to catch anything else,” Kinney said. “If we find some good blue water without current ripping too badly, we use naked jigs or tip them with squid or belly strips. The lighter the jighead, the better. If we can get away with it, I use a one- or two-ounce head tipped with a paddle-tail. Every once in a while, we might catch a gag or strawberry grouper when fishing state waters. We’ve even caught a few Warsaw groupers.”
Except during the federal season, anglers can’t take red snappers more than nine miles from shore, even if they catch them legally in state waters. Therefore, many anglers maximize their day by heading farther out in the morning to find groupers and other fish in season. On the way back to port, they hit a few snapper holes to complete the trip.
“Many groupers move shallower in the winter, but it’s hard to get away from snappers because there are so many big ones out there,” Kubecka explained. “When we’re targeting groupers, we need to use bigger baits and heavier weights that get to the bottom fast before a snapper can eat it. We try to jig up some blue runners for bait. That’s my favorite grouper bait.”
For the best gag grouper fishing, start looking for hard bottom structure in about 225 feet of water, although anglers do catch some gags, and even Warsaws in shallower waters during the winter. Warsaws generally prefer water at least 250 to 400 feet deep. Anglers might also catch some yellowedge groupers, scamp and other species.
“For big groupers, we have to go at least 30 miles out,” Kinney said. “February is a good time to fish for Warsaw groupers. In January, February and through early March, some big Warsaws move into shallower water. I’ve caught a few smaller Warsaws, those in the 40- to 50-pound range, in state waters.”
Even farther out, anglers might tangle with blackfin or yellowfin tuna and other large pelagic fish. Currents naturally circulate through the Gulf of Mexico in a clockwise pattern. The Loop Current flows through the warm Caribbean Sea and then pushes northward through the Yucatan Channel between Cuba and Mexico. Some of that warm water flows westward along the Yucatan Peninsula and up the Mexican coast into Texas waters.
“If we can catch the water temperatures at 78 degrees or higher in the winter, we have a chance at catching some big pelagic species,” Kinney advised. “It’s definitely a good time for wahoo and yellowfins. We generally catch bigger yellowfins in the winter than in the summer. It’s not uncommon to catch yellowfins averaging 60 pounds with several in the 100-pound class or bigger.”
For tuna, Kinney heads to floating rigs about 150 miles from the coast on overnight trips when the weather remains calm for several days. At the floaters, he chums or jigs for tuna at night. During the day, he trolls big cedar plugs or rigged ballyhoo. Sometimes, he catches dolphin, wahoo or billfish while trolling.
“On the sounder, we’ll find tunas about 100 to 400 feet down and start chumming with bonito cut into one-inch squares,” Kinney explained. “Then, we’ll free-line a live bait or bonito chunk in the middle of the chum. Sometimes, we turn on the underwater lights. If tunas get really aggressive, they’ll come up behind the boat. Sometimes, we get really lucky and a tuna starts busting things on top. That’s when we throw topwater baits and really have a good time!”
Flying fish also come to the lights at night. To a tuna, nothing tastes better than a flying fish. Keep a dip net handy and watch for flying fish to come near the surface. With a flying fish, put a black 7/0 to 9/0 live bait hook through its nose and free-line it into the chum slick. When a tuna takes a bait, let it run four or five seconds before setting the hook.
Always bring a variety of baits to see what fish want to eat that day. Besides flying fish, anglers could also use mullets, squid or pogies. Anglers can also catch bonito and cut them up for bait or chum. For big fish, use big baits.
“For tuna, I like to use sand trout or cut pogies,” Kubecka said. “I’ll fish around the piers at night and catch a bunch of sand trout to take offshore for bait. Tunas really love them.”
—story by JOHN N. FELSHER