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DOGGETT AT LARGE by Joe Doggett – May 2019

B-Team Trout

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s old monthly magazine, Texas Game and Fish, did a remarkable thing for the cover of the August 1961, issue. They ran a full-page image of a sand trout.

Even more impressive, the image was not a photograph. It was a fine painting, an underwater scene of a predatory “sandy” turning with open mouth to grab a free-lined live shrimp. According to the cover credits, the illustration was done by Henry Compton, a marine biologist stationed in Rockport.

Along with compiling marine statistics, Compton obviously had a talent for wielding a watercolor brush. The long-ago painting easily stands alongside similar works by established sporting artists. Also, it promoted Compton’s feature article, “Salt Water Sandies.”

Cynoscion arenarius, a.k.a. sand trout.

To the best of my knowledge that is the only time, before or since, that the lowly cousin to the speckled trout received star billing on the cover of any outdoor publication in Texas. During my 35 years on the Outdoor Desk of the Houston Chronicle, I recall only once writing a major feature devoted entirely to sand trout.

Back in the mid ’70s, several friends and I heard of a winter run of big sand trout at the Galveston Jetties. We took two boats and fished on the channel side of the North Jetty and used “fresh dead” on the bottom. We killed ‘em, filling two 48-quart Igloos with one- to two-pound fish.

I documented the trip with several photos. We strung the fish on long surf stringers for a staggering group grip-and-grin. Thanks to a tolerant Bob Brister (the outdoor editor) and probably because not much else was going on, I had the top of our full Thursday page. 

I doubt the exposure created a mad rush to the jetties that weekend, but at least I threw the speck’s lesser relative an editorial bone.

On occasion, other outdoor scribes have written specifically about sand trout, but such articles are scarce and seldom-touted—certainly not promoted front-and-center to help sell publications.

Come to think of It, I do not recall ever seeing a cable fishing show devoted to sandies, That’s a shock, given how many shows are out there and how hard-up some of them are for material.

Sand trout are B-team game, no question, but they deserve more credit. According to a scientific text, Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico, two strains are available—the sand seatrout (Cynoscion arenarius) and the silver seatrout (Cynoscion nothus). The latter, also known as the Gulf trout, typically is found in the open water off the beachfront.

The sand seatrout is the one most inshore light-tackle anglers encounter. On the upside, they are plentiful and easy to catch, especially near the bottom in deeper water along jetties and channels and off surf piers.

Dead shrimp works well, an inexpensive alternative to costly quarts of kicking brownies. This makes them a great target for casual family-type outings, and no length or bag limits are imposed on the lowly sandies.

The downside is that sand trout are small. A decent keeper weighs a bit either side of one pound, and anything pushing an honest two is exceptional. They do get larger (the state record is a bit over six pounds).

Years ago, I topped a box at the Galveston Jetties with a brace of four pounders. I don’t expect that to happen again anytime soon. They were weighed at Tucker’s Camp on the South Jetty.

Many sand trout are downright puny. These runts can be frustratingly plentiful under flocks of gulls chasing shrimp in the Galveston Bay complex. Often they are mixed with “jug specks” of similar size.

Sand trout are fine to eat, with white, flaky fillets, but the flesh is soft. They should be iced as soon as possible and do not freeze well. In truth, a big haul of no-limit sandies (as glorified by my long-ago article) constitutes shameful waste. However, a short string of keeper-sized sandies is a totally legitimate source for several fresh meals.

In recent years, fellow TF&G contributor Doug Pike and I have enjoyed scattered success with sand trout while “walking the rocks” of the Surfside Jetty. Frankly, they have been an appreciated reward more than once; especially when their spotted cousins were loathe to cooperate.

Pike and I usually chunk lures off the rocks, and the go-to choice for sandies is a 1/4-ounce shrimptail jig worked slowly near the bottom in the channel. Off surf piers, dead shrimp is excellent, especially if the surf is sandy. It’s not for nothing they are called “sand trout.”

As Compton’s long-ago painting suggested, the sand trout is an aggressive predator. Lure or bait, a decent fish usually hits with a surprisingly solid pull. Whoa! Here’s a good one!

The light rod bends with authority, but sadly, the subsequent fight doesn’t amount to much. Unlike the speck, a hooked sand trout seldom shows at the surface.

But a “keeper” is a worthy fish. Despite the haughty attitude of some hardcore pluggers, a one- to two-pound sand trout is not much different weight-wise than the typical speckled trout, based on sport fishing catch surveys.

No, it’s not as special as a big speck. But when you think about it, a five- or six-pound speck isn’t so hot when stacked against a 10- or 12-pound snook.

It’s all relative. Given the resource that the sand trout represents for average anglers, it certainly deserves more positive exposure than it receives.

 

Email Joe Doggett at ContactUs@fishgame.com

 

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