THERE IS NO SPECIES more controversial than Cynoscion nebulosis, the speckled trout, at least along the Texas Gulf Coast.
Well, it’s not really the species that is so controversial, but the means of harvest, catch-and-release versus throwing in the grease and bag limit changes.
In my 26 years as a wildlife journalist, no issue in Texas has come close to stirring controversy like any mention of changes to speckled trout regulations or simply means of pursuing these important sportfish.
The early 2000s saw what I call the “Trout Wars” centered in Lower Laguna Madre with friendships lost, legislation introduced that would have effectively banned croakers as bait (by making them a gamefish) and just straight up ugliness on all sides of the issue.
The last major move on trout came five years ago as part of the 2014-15 Statewide Recreational and Commercial Fishing Proclamation.
That is when the Texas Parks & Wildlife Commission adopted rules to extend a five-fish bag limit already in effect in the Lower Laguna Madre up the coast through the Highway 457 bridge near Sargent. The Commission modified the original proposal to set the possession limit on spotted seatrout for the area from the Lower Laguna Madre to the Highway 457 bridge at twice the daily bag limit (10 fish in possession).
That passed. With it came a five-year sunset provision. That means TPWD must examine the rule this year to see whether it’s still effective and viable.
Will the rules need to be rescinded and go back to 10 trout? (doubtful). Or within a few years, will we see a five fish limit proposed for the Upper Coast? (more likely).
The following are some observations of the speckled trout fishery in Texas, fallout of the “trout wars” and a pondering of the future.
Although reducing the bag limit was controversial to some extent, no issue upset people more than the use of live croakers as baitfish. A variety of people wanted to ban croaker as a baitfish and in fact influenced someone in the state legislature to introduce a bill that would have made croaker a gamefish, thus being illegal to use for trout or anything else as bait.
This is not to argue one side or the other, but to say feelings were and still are to some extent super-heated on this issue. However, much bigger issues got left out of the trout discussion.
When is the last time you saw a thread on social media or fishing forums about problems with trout habitat?
How about loss of seagrass on the Middle and Lower Coast? What about the huge loss of nursery areas that grow baby trout on the Upper Coast due to erosion? I will probably get dozens of emails on this article, but they will likely all be centered on the word “croaker,” none on habitat.
If we want to look at the real future of speckled trout and all marine life along the Gulf Coast, habitat must be at the epicenter, but for some reason the majority of anglers tune out on this issue. The “trout wars” did nothing to help put habitat in the spotlight.
Pollution: The fact that speckled trout in large areas of the Upper Coast have a consumption warning because of dioxin contamination should be highly alarming.
We have published three articles on the issue in a span of five years and gotten zero response. Did the “trout wars” coach us only to care about whether we are killing off big trout, or whether fewer trophy fish are caught?
Seems to me that potential cancer-causing agents in a sportfish might be a little more important than how many guys are catching 30-inchers or whether the state deems it necessary to reduce the bag limit from 10 to 5.
All of these measures are, after all, about the quality of the fishery, not its existence. Speckled trout are nowhere near threatened, endangered or even in any kind of major decline.
Hatcheries: The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department has done an amazing job of enhancing the speckled trout fishery through Sea Center Texas and other facilities on the coast.
How much grassroots support have they gotten from the fishing public to raise funds, catch broodstock and move the fishery forward?
Hatcheries need to be more of a focus for those claiming to be trout conservationists because we are only one major freeze event away from setting back 25 years of all trout efforts. Hatcheries can and will be an important part of restoration, but during the early 2000s debacle they were rarely mentioned.
Trout Tournaments: For the most part speckled trout tournaments have failed to grow beyond isolated events. They are of course nowhere near the level of bass tournaments and don’t even reach the popularity of redfish circuits.
The reason is the mortality of trout at such events.
However, is it possible the type of catch and release format popularized by Major League Fishing could come into play and revive trout tournaments?
If someone could come along with the funding to pull something like this off and contribute a good portion to hatcheries or seagrass habitat restoration, it would be a major win for trout.
It would also be a major win for the sportfishing industry.
All of us who wrote on the “trout wars” and certainly who participated at a deeper level missed the boat at some level. The good news is Texas’s trout population is not going anywhere and we can move forward with better ideas for the future.
Croaker is not the devil. Neither are people who do not want it legal for bait.
The devil in this issue is in the details. After careful study, this reveals that the emotionally-charged topics of bait preference and fighting like crazy over bag limit reductions takes the really important issues of the table.
Let’s put them back for closer examination for the sake of trout and Texas trout fishermen.
—story by CHESTER MOORE
Sea Center Texas is the largest redfish hatchery in the world. Now biologists hope to replicate that success with spotted seatrout.