JANUARY CAN BE a squirrely time on the Lower Laguna Madre. Fishing can be surprisingly productive, or surprisingly barren.
Water temperatures are too cold, or just warm enough. The weather is inconsistent. Tides are too low. There’s no bait. The fish disappear.
You can find plenty of reasons to stay home in a nice warm bed. A fishermen needs only one reason to tiptoe out of that snug house and out into the dark January early morning—speckled trout, and lots of them.
Fishing can be quite good during the first month of the year. In fact, if you’re willing to put in the effort, you can have quite the memorable trip to Lower Laguna Madre.
Speckled trout are poikilothermic, or cold-blooded. They rely on environmental factors for thermoregulation. A late winter cold front—the sort that blows in just in time for the weekend—can lower water temperature on the flats and keep them in the mid-50s to low 60s for days. This is slightly below the speck’s comfort zone, and they move off to find more moderate temperatures.
The key is deeper water, which retains warmer temperatures. Trout seek out these depths as a haven against chill. Fishermen don’t have to venture too far from Port Isabel or Padre Island to find these deep holes, either.
A good starting point is the Port Isabel Turning Basin, which is at the back of the Port Isabel Navigation channel. This large, man-made basin provides ideal cold-weather habitat for speckled trout. The greater depths (up to 30 feet deep) afford both cover and warmth for specks. The narrow band of shallows that belts the basin from the industrial docks around to the channel point offers an area for fish to forage within easy distance of the drop-off. Shrimp and baitfish prefer the security and warmth of deeper water, too, so they provide the needed protein that keeps trout fat and happy.
Fishermen will want to ease toward shore until they can mark the depth break from the deep water to the flat’ Electronics prove their worth in this strategy. When you locate the drop-off, anchor up on the shallow side and start working both the shallows and the edge.
If you have company in the boat, one angler can fish the shallows with a popping cork rig while another can fish the edge without the float. Usually, trout will hold deeper on cooler days, but they will move up on the shallow flats as the weather starts to warm. “Shallow” is a relative term here. The fish will usually be cruising around in three to four feet of water.
Live shrimp may be hard to find after a cold snap, but some bait shops will have a few quarts on hand. A regular popping cork rig with a 24-inch leader will work well.
White Sands Marina, (956) 943-6161, sells pre-rigged popping corks that come with #4 treble hooks. I usually snip them off and tie on a #1/0 VMC or Owner Flounder hook. The short shank seems to enable the hook to mostly stick in the corner of a fish’s mouth.
A free-line rig with an 1/8-ounce split shot is ideal when fishing the drop off. You can toss to the edge of the drop-off and let the bait fall back toward you. Or you can cast onto the shallows and ease the bait off the edge.
If bait is difficult to find, artificials will work as well. The three-inch Gulp! Shrimp has carved a permanent—and smelly—niche in coastal tackle boxes. What recommends this lure is not just its scented composition, but also its versatility.
The same popping cork rig that works so well with live bait will also work with a Gulp! rigged on an 1/8th ounce jig head. Take the cork off, and you can fish the same jig in deeper water.
Some anglers will fish a Gulp! on the same free-line rig with a splitshot in “Do Nothing” fashion. The most popular colors in deeper water seem to be any of the glow patterns. It makes sense. The relative opacity of the bait best mimics a white shrimp, which is the most common species in LLM during the winter).
If you are fishing on the tail end of a cold front, an effective strategy for fishing the Turning Basin is also one of my favorites. I fish in the deeper water with a Texas-rigged Strike King Zero or Senko in Pearl or Ivory with a ¼ ounce split shot 12 inches in front of it.
I cast parallel to the shoreline in deep water and simply let the bait fall slowly to the bottom. Both the Zero and Senko have a natural wiggle to them that can get the most negative minded trout to strike.
Pay attention! The strikes are very subtle, but a mouse-like tap once turned into a fat 24-incher.
The last few Januaries have included a major cold front that drops temperatures below freezing. Speckled trout can be vulnerable to getting hammered when they’re concentrating in deeper water.
In response to this reality, Texas Parks and Wildlife has imposed emergency regulations that go into effect when temperatures reach below freezing for more than two days. Even if the cold weather is short term, it wouldn’t hurt to practice some moderation and move off these fish after a while.
Remember, a nice warm bed and hot meal are waiting for you at home.
Location: Coast Guard Station
GPS: N26 4.360, W97 10.031
Tip: Fish shrimp/popping cork rigs along the channel edge.
Email Calixto Gonzales at [email protected]