It has taken me the better half of this year to find my words once again. I had to assess the situation here in Rockport, Texas before I concluded anything. After an entire year of fishing in the most extreme and volatile conditions that I have ever experienced in the 15 years of my career as a fishing guide, I can finally say that I understand but I don’t really know anything for certain. From an ecological standpoint, it is not easy to accurately assess the extent of any natural disaster for sometimes weeks, months and in some cases years. It is relatively easy to estimate the impacts of natural events in a closed ecosystem such as a lake. What if the lake had no physical boundaries aside from the entirety of earth and the small parts of terrestrial land that protrudes through the surface? I am speaking of the ocean itself, roughly 71% of the earth’s surface. How does one measure the abundance of anything when boundaries are seemingly endless?
We estimate much of what we know. For example; there is an estimate that one billion trillion stars exist in the observable universe. The key word here is observable. It was the 3rd week of February 2021 when the ultra-freeze hit. For anyone not familiar with this event, you aren’t from around here. South Texas, does not handle sub-freezing temperatures for very long with regards to humans and animals alike. We are not built or prepared to thrive and sometimes survive extreme cold. Temperatures across Texas fell to near or below zero degrees Fahrenheit. Long story short; Texas froze. Humans, fish and wildlife suffered but unfortunately the fish and wildlife took the brunt. This wasn’t the first time I told myself, it had happened before. Nature finds its way.
I had walked miles of shorelines shortly after the freeze looking for life or lack thereof. To my surprise I found mostly dead bait fish, trash fish and only the occasional game fish. Also to my surprise I found thousands of live game fish in the deeper marinas sunning themselves trying to get warm: Redfish, black drum, trout, and sheepshead, many of which were barely moving but still alive. It was good to see that some had survived however much of the devastation was still waiting for me to find.
Then I went fishing, it was my job, I had to go. Curiosity led me to find out what had happened. Personally, I didn’t want to catch the fish even if they were there. I wanted to leave them alone; if there were any to be left alone. I had customers booked and wanting to fish regardless of the situation. All I could do was explain to them what had happened. Ironically, they were just as curious as I was to see the extent of the freeze and fish kill. It wasn’t long after I left the dock that I realized my skepticism was justified.
When a fish perishes due to abnormally low temperatures it takes several days for them to bloat and then float up off the bottom. I suppose I happened to go at exactly the right time to see what I hoped I wouldn’t. I remember thinking that Id’ try fishing the areas that I had left off at before the freeze. I was only about a mile in when I decided to make a U-turn. Hundreds of dead redfish, trout and drum drifted slowly across the surface of the water. It was a haunting image, so haunting that I couldn’t fish there. I made my way in a different direction only to find the same.
Eventually I decided that we had to fish somewhere so I found the deepest area possible and began fishing the oyster reefs surrounding it. I was honestly expecting for us to not even get a bite but it wasn’t long until we hooked into a descent fish. From that moment on and for the remainder of the morning our rods were doubled over with redfish and black drum. It was a humbling and surreal moment. I netted fish after fish while dead fish occasionally floated by. Once again, I was excited that some had survived but I also felt strangely guilty. Many of those fish had not eaten for days and had mud caked to their bodies from burring themselves to stay warm. It was these moments that led me to take a different approach to my mentality and ethics. We only kept enough for dinner and released the rest. I was thankful that my customers understood and at the end of the day we felt good. We had a great time, we did not exploit the resources, we only kept what was needed and we learned a great deal.
I have continued to practice my trade in a conservative manner as it will take some time for the fish populations to fully recover. Over the course of this year I found plenty of fish but had to work much harder and with more patience than usual to be successful. There were slow days that made me question what I know followed by days where it seemed the freeze never happened. Long story short, a estimated 3.8 million game fish died on the low end. What’s difficult to determine is how many fish lived and that brings me back to open ecosystems. Accurately counting the actual number of stars in the universe is just not feasible.
After obtaining my undergraduates degree in marine ecology and working with Texas Parks and Wildlife (TP&W) Coastal Fisheries Division I have some insight into how fish population statistics are determined. I understand that there is a lot of skepticism with regards to the sampling methods used to generate the data needed to manage a resource. I think that some things could be done differently but it is difficult to find sampling methods that are not skewed or biased. Everything must be done at random in order to insure unbiased results. The tools and resources that TP&W uses to determine regulations are the “best known” ways to generate a population trend. Overtime, sometimes years, statistics on estimates generate trends. These trends in population size are what ultimately determine how many fish we can keep and what size they need to be. It is my firm belief that TP&W is doing what they can to manage resources but I also believe that their methods should continue to evolve with a rapidly changing world.
As if the freeze wasn’t enough, when it rains it pours; literally. Over the course of spring and summer in 2021, Rockport, Texas received its yearly rainfall in several heavy doses. 10 inches one day, 7” another, 25” in three days and so on… I had a lot of customers asking me how this will affect the fishing. My best response was thinking back to the freeze we had only a few months earlier, “Well, it didn’t kill them”. That was the truth however it did further complicate fishing for me. In a nutshell, that amount of rain in such a short amount of time took many of our northern bays from brackish to fresh. Long term, the rainfall events this year will lead to revitalized bay systems as all types of flora and fauna depend on freshwater in a saltwater environment. It sounds like a contradiction but freshwater is in fact a necessary component in estuarine environments.
The best way to describe the immediate complications of the floods with regards to fishing and the freeze is that it temporarily changes the typical fishing patterns. The fish were already in disarray from the freeze. Add tremendous amounts of fresh water to the equation and you could say that the pot had been stirred. Throughout this year I have been finding fish in water that was rather unappealing at first glance. Sometimes the water was as fresh as it gets, sometimes the water was of strange color, sometimes there was no bait or sign of life; yet they were there and sometimes nowhere. With lots of experimentation, moving and patience I found fish but not always easily. At the end of this year, regardless of how hard I had to work, I found it to be a success in many aspects.
This year was a tremendous learning experience for myself. When conditions were not ideal, it forced me to think outside of the box and try things that I wouldn’t otherwise have done. I can say that I expanded my horizons with regards to what I know. Hard times allow us to adapt to be better at we do as long as we don’t give up. Over time things could get better, or worse, but I’m better adapted to conquer whatever lies ahead. I am at the end of another year of fishing. With respect to everything that I’ve written, I’m excited to say that November and December this year has been some of the best fishing that I’ve seen in a long time, in fact years. I did not expect it and there’s some irony imbedded within. I’m not exactly sure where these fish came from, I can only guess. With the ocean as endless as it seems, they had to be hiding somewhere; like those tiny stars that you can only see on clear cold nights with no other light around. With the year 2022 on the horizon I am hopeful that everything will progress in all aspects of life. I will be “mending my nets” as my father would say, getting ready for another year. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!
-Capt. Johan Coombs