THE DISTURBANE had come off the coast of Africa. That’s not unusual for this time of year, and in years past would not be given a second look.
This hurricane season, however, any cloud larger than a city block seemed to garner much attention. The storm followed the same track as the hellacious Harvey, so even those who didn’t know the difference between weather and whether, had now become storm watch fanatics.
Ominously, the now growing tropical depression made its way across the Yucatan Peninsula and into the Gulf of Mexico as all eyes in Rockport watched with dreaded anticipation. Fortunately, the conditions that revved Harvey up were all but nonexistent. We were in for some rain, but little else.
The Rockport and surrounding area folks breathed a deep sigh of relief, wiped their brows and went back to work. The prediction was rain and a lot of it, up to 9 or 10 inches. A welcome relief to the heatwave which had now spread across most of the nation, and rain it did for four days, pretty much nonstop.
The rain system would progress northward and into the area rivers which feed into our bays, the result being a washing effect for our bay systems. Experienced guides knew this meant lean times ahead, for the influx of lots of fresh water can all but shut fishing/the bite down for weeks to come.
St. Charles Bay and Aransas Bay looked like large fresh water lakes. The ominous light brownish tint of fresh water was literally everywhere. A day after the rains, my phone started ringing, mostly guide buddies and anglers trying to figure out what was up. Fishing hot spots were now dead areas and soaking a bait or chunking a lure for hours produced little more than sore shoulders and sun burnt arms.
“The fish are all gone!” “I can see them but they won’t bite!” was the argument at a local bait stand.
“What can we do to get them to bite?”
One bait stand owner replied, “Sprinkle some salt on their tail?!”
“Here we have the mighty voice of wisdom with some smart aleck comment when what we need is some real advice!”
“He’s not too far off the mark,” I piped in as the newbie guide looked my way.
“AH yes, the OLD MAN IN THE SEA is now going to enlighten us” came the comment.
“Are you from around here?” I asked. “No,” the newbie quickly responded. “But I’ve been here for about three years.”
“Then you know just about enough to get yourself in trouble,” I told him.
The bait stand owner started laughing.
“I’m not saying I know it all, but I would like to know what happened. I’ve been slamming the fish for weeks. Now my last two trips were big zeroes,” the young man said.
“See that bait filter screen over there?” I pointed, “and all the dead bait in it?”
“Yes,” came the response.
“Now open this freezer. See all that fresh dead bait?”
“It’s dead, as most of this bait is going to be, because, and I’m putting it simply, it drowned due to lack of salt.”
The newbie just walked off, shaking his head, none the wiser.
“You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink,” the stoned-faced bait stand owner commented as the young man drove away.
“Sorry about your bait” I said, “I wish I could help.” “Gotta a salt shaker?” he quipped.
So, what really happens to fish when the salinity levels change drastically, and how can an angler who has to fish in these conditions make the most of it?
In past articles I have talked about salinity levels and how paying attention to them can make you a better angler, but again, what impact do fluctuations in salinity levels have on those fish we so desperately love to catch?
When huge amounts of fresh water from rain or fresh water rivers inundate our bays, three things happen to fish stock: they migrate out of the area into higher salinity areas, they stay in the area and lethargically try to survive, or they die. Why?
It’s important to understand fish cells are semi-permeable, meaning some elements can pass through them. In a chemical process known as osmosis, water in saltwater fish is continuously pulled out of their bodies into surrounding water because their bodily fluids require lower concentrations of salt.
Much like us, too much salt can make them unhealthy and sick. Since fresh water is always moving through their bodies, saltwater fish drink constantly. Their kidneys process and retain water, then expel the remains (which is largely salt) in their urine.
Because the saltwater species physiology is to drink constantly, if placed in a freshwater dominant environment, their cells will not filter fresh water in the same manner. Instead of out, the water now moves in to the higher salt concentrated areas of their bodily fluids.
The fish is now retaining water it does not need and becomes over hydrated, or water intoxicated. Electrolytes are pushed outside livable limits, and the fish will become sick.
If not remedied with acceptable levels of saltwater, the fish will die. For fresh water anglers, this process is reversed for fresh water fish. Put a fresh water species in saltwater and it becomes desiccated (meaning to remove moisture/fluids) or dehydrated.
“Now hold on!,” some reading this are saying. Some of you have heard or have caught saltwater fish in fresh water lakes.
Yes, it is true, in some Texas lakes like Lake Braunig and Lake Calaveras, the Texas Parks and Wildlife have for years stocked millions of redfish. These fish are put and take only, meaning they must be stocked and do not reproduce in the fresh water lakes.
Some of these fish, because they don’t reproduce, can weigh 40 pounds. They taste a bit different in my opinion than a saltwater red as well, but are still very tasty. It is important to note black drum seem to be more adaptable to the fresh water inflows here than just about any species. Again the science is there to back that up, but that’s an article for another day.
Where to fish? is the question when you’ve been “freshed.”
When fresh water is prevalent, I highly encourage my clients to pick another day a few weeks out, but one cannot always do that. If that’s the case I put all my WHERE knowledge away, and I hunt for saltwater lines.
If you can’t tell the difference between saltwater and fresh water, look for color changes in the water. Usually, but not always, this means a light brownish color with a transition to a greenish color.
Many times, the fish will move just beyond the brown color only far enough to stay away from the fresh water (brownish color). A salinity refractometer can be used as well that tests saltwater levels if you want to get scientific.
I do not recommend tasting the water as some have seen me do (do as I say, not as I do). You get a gut full of bay bacteria, which could include Vibrio vulnificus, and you’ll wish to God you’d listened.
Or, if you happen to know where the saltwater congregates on these fresh days, that’s the place to be. A good place is where fresh gulf water enters our bays such as jetty systems or areas far away from the mouth of fresh water inflows, such as rivers.
Keeping bait alive can be a challenge as well. I seldom turn my circulator pump on unless I know I have saltwater around the boat. Freshest is not always the bestest, but look to add saltwater as a spice to your fishing recipe and there are fish to be caught!
As we envision cooler days ahead after a long hot summer, it’s still plenty warm, so shorter days on the water is usually the right approach. I like to keep it simple this time of year and often opt for cut bait, the fresher the better.
Fresh mullet cut in sections or menhaden can serve you well and it can usually be found pretty easily without getting up at 3:30 a.m. to procure. This is slow pace bottom fishing and can be enjoyed while you sip your favorite cold beverage.
Copano Bay: Shell Bank Reef is holding some keeper trout with free-lined croaker being the preferred bait. The shell reefs adjacent to Hannibal Point are a good place for reds using free-lined finger mullet. Cast the bait on the shallow tops of the reef and be patient. There are also some trout in this area.
St. Charles Bay: Some reds may be found in East Pocket on high tide. Mud minnows or finger mullet on a very light Carolina Rig works well here. McHugh Bayou is a good place for reds and a few black drums on a high tide using live shrimp. Free-lined is best here.
Aransas Bay: The shoreline of Blackjack Point is a good place to wade for reds and trout. Spoons in gold and red colors work well here. This is also a good spot for top waters in bone and white or electric blue and silver colors. Scotch Tom Reef is a good spot for trout using croaker free-lined.
Carlos Bay: The west shoreline just off Dunham Island is a good spot for reds using cut mullet on a light Carolina rig. This area is best fished on a high tide late in the evening. Cedar Reef has some keeper black drums with peeled shrimp under a popping cork being the best choice.
Mesquite Bay: Drifts across Bray Cove is good for trout and a few flounder using free-lined live shrimp jigged across the bottom. Some keeper reds are just off the shoreline of Roddy Island. Finger mullet works well here free-lined.
Ayers Bay: Wades on the east shoreline using a popping cork and shrimp are good for trout and some keeper black drums. The Second Chain Islands are a good place for reds and trout using croakers and live shrimp. Free-lined or a light Carolina rig works best.
The south end of the LBJ Causeway is a good spot to wade for reds and trout. A bait bucket with live shrimp is a good choice here. The trout tend to be on the east side of the causeway and the reds, the west side. Early morning is best.
Email Capt. Mac Gable at [email protected]