‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a…Fishing Guide? Well, I’m still awake trying to keep my pipes from bursting from the fridged cold snap that was delivered just in time for Christmas. Although strangely reminiscent of the big freeze in 2021 that killed millions of fish, this time around it’s not quite the same beast. It seems we may have been spared from a repeat of 2021 as of now with regards to marine life. It has been almost two years and I’m happy to say that the entire ecosystem is gradually recovering, it just takes time. Over the past few months, I have seen some of the best fishing in years here in Rockport Texas. Redfish, Black Drum and Speckled Trout of all shapes and sizes have kept the rods bent and smiles on faces.
The best part of being a fishing guide is watching people smile and helping them forget about the trials and tribulations of life. It’s easy to get caught up in the rat race and forget to enjoy life. Believe me, I am guilty of this however, a fishing rod in hand and the beautiful waters surrounding Rockport Texas can help melt the anxieties away. Add a fish to the end of your line, the sound of drag screaming off your reel with the sun on your face… That deadline that you were dreading and those emails that you needed to send don’t really matter anymore, if only for a few hours. Just like any good memory, it never really goes away. It simply fades and gets fuzzy, but it still makes you smile years later.
The intrinsic value of fishing and the resources that make recreational fishing possible are subject to relentless environmental and anthropogenic influences. Hurricanes will always blow, and freezes will always freeze. Fish will have good years and bad. Everything happens in cycles, just as the tide fluxes with neap and ebb. Much of what determines a fisheries productivity is in God’s hands, however a good portion can be influenced through fisheries management. The more populous the world becomes, the more pressure is exerted on our natural resources, thus increasing the need for management. Marine ecosystems around the world, including Rockport Texas, cannot survive a plundering, free for all, tragedy of the commons.
One of the most important resources along the Texas Gulf Coast in terms of habitat and hydrology is oyster reefs. They provide vital habitat for thousands of marine species and function as a filter, cleaning millions of gallons of bay water daily. Commercial harvest of natural oyster reefs has been occurring for decades along the Texas coast. As with any natural recourse, overharvest can lead to cascading catastrophic effects across the ecosystem. Once thriving and abundant live oyster reefs have been reduced to mounds of crushed dead shells. The shrimp, crabs and fish that once called the reefs home are displaced and forced into less suitable habitats.
In November of 2022, Texas Parks and Wildlife unanimously voted on the permanent closure of oyster harvesting both commercial and recreational in Carlos, Mesquite and Ayers bays. This is a big win for the ecosystem and the recreational fishing community. It will take a few years for these oyster reefs to reproduce and create a “living surface”. Over the years I have noticed a significant difference between the productivity of live oyster reefs vs. dead. Living oyster reefs simply provide more habitat by surface area for bait to hide as well as improved water quality, thus increasing the number of predatory game fish.
The November 2022 amendment was a step in the right direction, protecting thousands of acres of vital habitat within the ecosystem. This is only a fraction of what needs to be protected if un-sustainable fishing practices continue in other parts of the Texas coast. Shifting un-sustainable fishing practices away from a damaged ecosystem to another ecosystem is only a temporary solution to mitigate the overall impact of destructive commercial harvest. Ultimately, the answer lies within sustainability; a word that is increasingly difficult to define within this populous world. Part of my job is bringing awareness to the controversies that define my existence. Unfortunately, this is only an example of one. Controversy will always exist when multiple interest groups share the same public resource, hence the need for responsible management.
With regards to sustainability, Texas was one of few coastal states that did not allow for commercial oyster farms to operate within the bay systems. Recent amendments have now made it possible for oyster farms to operate. One of the first farms is operating within the confines of my backyard, Copano Bay. A strange site to see for a local that frequents the waters, but relatively unnoticeable to those not familiar. I will spare you from the exact scientific methods involved but the final product is roughly one acre of oysters that can be harvested year-round in a sustainable matter without disturbing the natural oyster reefs. From my understanding, this single acre farm supplies one of the busiest restaurants in Corpus Christi with a seemingly endless supply of fresh oysters.
For me, many years of education and time on the water has shown me how important conservation really is. Regulations, such as bag limits, do not mean that we need to kill everything until a limit is reached – it simply means this is the most you can legally keep. Instead of focusing on obtaining a limit for the glorified purposes of saying “we limited out”, think about what you might want for dinner tonight, or for a few nights. Are you really going to eat the forgotten bags of fish with freezer burn in the depths of your freezer? If so, great! The real tragedy occurs when those forgotten fillets are thrown away and never given purpose to their existence. The simple message is don’t be wasteful and don’t take our natural resources for granted. You’ll appreciate it when you see your grandchild catch their first fish.
For now, the hustle and bustle of my busy fishing year is subdued by the holidays and brutally cold temperatures, but I can’t complain. It doesn’t take long for me to get the itch though. It sounds like a good stretch of weather is on the horizon for Rockport Texas and these warm lazy cabin days are numbered for me. For those of you that will be out and about fishing anywhere along the Texas coast the next few months there are a few things to keep in mind with regards to finding and catching fish. I will briefly touch base on what I will be looking for over the first few months of 2023 as winter fishing patterns transition into spring.
Redfish and Black Drum will be my focal point however, Speckled Trout fishing should be pretty good through mid-summer this year. Keep in mind Texas Parks and Wildlife has changed Speckled Trout limits to 3/person/day and a 17-23” slot in order to help reverse the effects of freeze related fish kill of 2021. My best advice on trout fishing is get out of the boat and wade fish with lures if you want solid fish. There are plenty of small trout and some larger to be caught on live shrimp and off piers at night if you prefer good action.
Redfish and Black Drum should be abundant through April and winter patterns should persist until cold fronts become less frequent. One of the most important factors to consider is when the fish are most likely to feed during colder months. I find the warm afternoons and early evenings to be consistently productive. It’s simple, when fish are cold, they feed less, just as when they get too hot. Another good indicator is wind speed. Ideal wind speeds during the winter months tend to be on the heavier side, roughly 12-22 miles per hour is ideal. Crystal clear, calm, cold water is a good recipe for scratching your ass and watching fish. Once the wind pics up enough to create muddy or off colored water that is when the fish will feed. Timing when you fish during the day is crucial. You can learn a lot by simply eliminating some of the time forecasted to be less productive.
We just covered when, so what about where? The answer also has to do with water temperature. Finding the warmer water usually means finding fish this time of year. Think about what absorbs heat…Dark surfaces, concrete, wood, shell and mud. Most importantly, shallow water, as it warms the fastest. By combining structure within structure, you also increase your odds. For example, shallow mud and shell with a wood structure nearby. The fish can and do exist in deeper water, especially during extremely cold conditions when shallow water becomes too cold and deep water harbors more heat. As water temperatures drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit most gamefish will begin to retreat into deeper warmer water. Until then, think shallow, for the most part.
If by chance you are fortunate enough to be on the water at the right place and right time, you still must figure out how to catch them. Fish watching is a great pass time activity, one of my favorites, but I prefer catching. For Redfish and Black Drum, I like to use live or dead shrimp of the larger size during warm spells and smaller chunks of dead shrimp during cold spells. Same goes with crab. My philosophy is simple during winter months; in warmer weather the fish are more aggressive and will more readily chase or eat a larger bait while in colder weather the fish are lethargic and more likely to eat a smaller dead bait. Simply downsize your bait and hook the colder it gets. I prefer a size 4-5 hook with whole table shrimp on warmer days while colder days might demand a size 3 hook and half a shrimp. Anticipate a very light bite, and don’t set the hook too soon. That is one of the biggest mistakes I see.
It’s been a few days since I began writing this and the new year is upon us. It is now time to say goodbye to any grievance, annoyance or hard feelings against this past year. Life is full of ups and downs, just as in fishing. Remember the ups and learn from the downs. It will make you a better person and a better fisherman. During the trying and unforgiving times that we live in, don’t forget that stress relief can exist in simple places. The smell of salt, the sound of waves, the sun shining from above and reflecting from below, can help ease the tensions of life. 2023 is looking to be one of the best years of fishing that we’ve had in a few years here in Rockport Texas and I’m looking forward to it! Remember, good memories, smiles and fishing are just a cast away so feel free to give me a shout with any questions. I wish everyone a safe and happy New Year!
-Capt. Johan Coombs