SOMEWHERE BETWEEN THE OUTSIDE HOPE of shimmering green and the inside sandbar of rolling surf runs a fleeting school of speckled trout.
Intercepting such a bounty is the dream of every beachfront wader on the Texas coast. And late summer can be a great time to be there.
Hitting a school of surf runners is exciting and inexpensive; no boats, no guides, no elaborate camps are necessary. The drive-to and wade-out potential is within reach of able-bodied anglers all along our crescent of barrier islands.
I have waded the surf for more than 50 years, and this simple, elemental approach remains one of my favorite types of fishing—especially when “plugging” with levelwind tackle. The long cast and solid strike are all the richer by the uncluttered contact of the open Gulf.
It’s a high quality experience, at least when conditions are right. Surf wading always is available, but sadly, not always good.
The critical factors for bent rods out on the third bar are green water, moving tide, and concentrated bait. Getting all three to align in delicate balance isnever a “gimme.” However, barring the temporary disruption of a tropical storm, September and early October provide lingering weeks of promise.
If nothing else, the gradually cooling temperatures are a break from the stagnant swelter of July and August. So also, are the pushes of rich Gulf water associated with the autumnal equinox (September 22).
Water clarity is critical for plugging success in the surf. So-called “trout water” is murky green with a visibility of about two feet. “Mackerel water” is super-clear. The wader can see his boots scuffling along the waist-deep bar.
Take your pick; what you don’t want is a sandy tide stirred by a mutinous south or southwest wind blowing right-to-left up the beach and stirring side-shore sediments. The “sweet southeast” that hits almost straight onshore tends to favor fishable clarity.
Regardless of wind direction, a forecast calling for velocity of more than 15 or 20 miles per hour should be regarded with extreme suspicion. Sustained wind over whipping and popping flags will build the surf and almost certainly roil the inshore clarity.
Too much breaking surf on the outside bar can be downright dangerous, but weak one- to two-foot surf can be a supercharger. The recurring lines of foam provide rolling “cover” and help oxygenate the water. These elements encourage roaming schools of fish to move tighter to the beach.
Also important, the lines of small waves cresting and spilling, define the shallow bars (which typically run parallel to the beach) and serve as a roadmap to the soggy wader.
That flat day that looks so inviting can fail to mark any abrupt “hat floater” channels. It all looks the same. Shallow fish become increasingly skittish on a calm, clear beach once the bright sun showers down. As another potential setback, the lack of wave action over a period of several days can promote stagnant water.
Under super-calm conditions, early morning is usually best (especially during the heat of summer), and the first day or two of a run of “green to the beach” is prime.
Moving tides is the second element for success. On a day of marginal surf clarity, a strong incoming flow might push offshore green water within reach of a long chunk with a desperate 52M MirrOlure. The parades of predatory species feel increasingly confident in the rising water level.
Conversely, along the open beach, a sustained outgoing tide takes the bounty away (although good surf fishing can be had near the mouth of a free-running pass as bait is funneled through the channel from the nearby bay).
The best surf fishing usually occurs during the two or three hours preceding the peak of the full tide. This window of “medium high” piles water onto the beach while providing sustained flow to keep roaming schools active.
If this ice- cream period occurs an hour or so after dawn, prospects don’t get much better. Late afternoons also can be good, especially as late-summer water temperatures start gradually dropping.
The first two or three hours of outgoing tide certainly can be productive; but once the water really drains the inshore, conditions become increasingly stale.
Green water and moving tide are critical components for a stringer of gleaming specks, reds and mackerel. However, the salty wader will scout for the presence of massed bait. An abundance of concentrated forage helps stack and hold restless predators along a given stretch of beach. Put another way, the absence of bait can downgrade even a green tide.
Rudy “The Plugger” Grigar told me way back in the ’70s, “If I don’t see bait, I don’t stop.”
The old man was right. Yes, a seemingly lifeless surf might yield the occasional fish, but the jackpot is the chain of life boiling within reach of the next cast. Drive the chosen stretch of public-access sand until you (hopefully) spot feeding activity.
Rafts of nervous mullet or menhaden scattering through the lifting swells, or tight pinwheels of gulls and terns dipping and diving within reach of the outside bar are what you want. Failing these obvious indicators, a pair of binoculars can be a good ally to search for subtle signs such as popping shrimp or flashing minnows.
Assuming these three factors align, the average angler with suitable equipment has a great chance of stringing at least a few fish. The simplicity of surf wading is one of its real virtues.
So, too, is the satisfaction of whipping a long cast across the open shimmer and the excitement of feeling that abrupt jolt of life. As they say, “The tug is the drug.”
The surf beckons but here’s one final observation: Be cautious around any free-running pass and always wear an approved flotation device amid the uncertainties of the outside bar. They don’t call it a “life jacket” for nothing.
Email Joe Doggett at [email protected]