WHETHER THE DAILY BAG LIMIT on speckled trout needs an overhaul depends on who you ask and what they know. Change or no change, count on half of Texas’ coastal anglers getting their feathers ruffled every time the subject arises.
I’ve lived long enough to see daily bag limits on speckled trout go from all you can carry, to 20, to 10 and, along the lower coast, currently five. I witnessed firsthand, from Galveston to Port Mansfield, devastating blows dealt the species by major freezes in 1983 and 1989.
For years after each of those events, we found speckled trout few and far between along the entirety of Texas’s long, long coastline.
Behind the 1989 deep-freeze, some folks wondered if the species ever would recover. Of course it would. Nature doesn’t like voids.
I reaped the benefit of that fishery’s long-term rebound in the late 1990s, on a late-January afternoon in Baffin Bay with Capt. Cliff Webb. In maybe two hours fishing, under cold fog and rain, we caught more than two dozen trout heavier—much heavier—than eight pounds.
By length, five of those fish were longer than 30 inches. The last fish I released, with Webb insisting we head home or risk having to do so in darkness, was 32.25 inches long and fat as a football.
It’s worth noting, those fish were feeding on their own kind and mullet in the 12- to 14-inch range—and still grabbing our plugs. Did I mention we caught them all on topwaters?
Fast forward to now, because today matters far more than an old man’s “fishtory” lesson. How many trout should we be allowed to catch now—Today? Or tomorrow, for the forward thinkers?
Before we debate limits on modern terms, however, let’s not consider historical trends resulting from freeze or drought or flood—or chemical runoff or petroleum spill. All of these upset the short-term population trends of trout and every other marine species.
Natural disasters happen every few years. Man makes fishery-wrecking goofs, too, although not as frequently. Over time, however, throughout history, damage from both has been repaired either naturally or by restocking.
This year’s perceived sag in trout numbers, based on what I’ve heard from people I most trust, was a shortfall in keeper trout. Loads of undersized keepers were and are in Texas bays.
In time, barring any major issue, those fish will mature at least to the state’s minimum length. Give it two years, said one guide I’ve known for decades, and we’ll be covered up with catchable trout.
A currently popular blame catcher for trout numbers and, thus, trout limits, is the use of croakers as summertime bait. Veteran bay guides—even some who use the little finfish to keep customers happy—are convinced that baiting with croakers could slap a long-lasting dent in the trout population. The method targets prime spawners in the population, fish in that prolific two- to four-pound range, and that’s worrisome.
Painting with the broadest of brushes, an obvious reason for fewer available trout is more fishermen on the water who are exponentially more skilled (Thanks, Internet) than those from a single generation earlier.
The boats are better, the motors, the rods and reels and braid and fluorocarbon. Trolling motors, the ability to anchor with the push of a button, side-scan sonar, even secondary things, such as quality sunglasses and lightweight foul-weather gear all add up to a better fishing experience and, in theory at least, more fish caught.
According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, however, even all that new gear still hasn’t moved the needle much on the average fisherman’s stringer. Last time I looked, the dedicated pursuit of spotted seatrout in Texas results in the taking of fewer than two keepers daily.
That consistent result among amateurs—remember we’re already wagging fingers at charter guides for their croaker-soaking hauls—leads us to yet another front-burner question. Would the upper Texas coast benefit the same as our lower coast has from a five-fish daily bag limit on speckled trout?
Probably yes, almost without doubt, yes.
By simple math, leaving more fish in the water cannot help but bolster the population, come rain or shine, drought or freeze. Furthermore, I don’t believe that any competent, conservation-minded fishing guide’s business would suffer in the least from the reduction.
I support a move toward five trout daily as a statewide mandate, but I want the idea to be delivered with the full support of scientists at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. It is they who have studied decades of data. They have no financial dog in the fight.
There’s credence also in the opinions of fishing guides. Their hands-on, day-to-day interactions with the resource are every bit as credible as gillnet or boat-ramp surveys logged onto clipboards and laptops.
I’ve never been one to blindly agree with departmental suggestions or the musings of any specific guide. However, I’ve known professionals from both camps well enough and long enough to believe they want the same thing. It’s what we all want—more and bigger trout in our bays, plus more reds and flounders.
So will limits change soon? Probably not, at least not until 2018’s bumper crop of yearling trout gets a chance to show its true size and scope.
Do they need to change soon? Probably not, unless nature swings a giant, unexpected hammer and lands it squarely on the coast.
We all want the same thing.
It doesn’t matter whether we wind up a year or three from now with a five-fish statewide limit, a slot limit for trout similar to that in place for redfish, some new rule that’s yet to presented and turns out to be genius, or no change at all.
We simply disagree sometimes on how to make it happen. Sometimes, it’s okay for folks who disagree to just gas up the boat, set the debate aside for a while, and fish.
Email Doug Pike at [email protected]