The relentless flapping of bait stand flags and sail boat rigging pinging against masts in the Rockport, Texas harbor will forever haunt my dreams. This happens almost year-round on the middle Texas coast at any hour, however the specific sounds I speak of occur during one particular time of year just before sunrise. The sound of cool north wind in the fall is ominously hollow as there is nothing other than the sound of wind and what it deflects. Darkness only adds to the effect of being alone in a place and time where during other times of year mayhem and calamity prevail. I embrace the solitude as I fill my live well with bait for the day. I have to pinch myself to make sure that this is real as the memories of the ‘dog days ‘of summer were created only yesterday. I realize that this is no dream as I drive toward the boat ramp with windows down, music jamming and AC off.
Today, Saturday September 14th 2019 was a busy day in Rockport, TX. Opening day of dove season, opening day of early teal season, multiple fishing tournaments combined with the usual Saturday crowd left me slightly intimidated during the pre-dawn hours. However, a dry north east wind licked the humidity off of me, just enough to create a sense of pre-fall nostalgia. The NE wind was not the result of a cold front (the one I dream of), but a low pressure systems in the Gulf of Mexico. This brief yet prevalent north east wind was the equivalent of fall hors d’oeuvres for the fish and I: We both had a good sample of what’s to come. The usual fall patterns produced great boxes of redfish, trout and black drum. Over the the next few weeks, the weather and fishing patterns will switch back and forth; one day summer, next day fall.
One of the most common and obvious questions that customers ask me is, “How do you determine where to fish?” There is no easy answer to the question and if there was I wouldn’t have a job. My best short answer is: “I read the water.” I completely agree with you, this is a vague statement. Reading the water… Sounds like strange witchcraft or sorcery from a foreign standpoint. Part of my job is to help others understand the mysteries of fishing; the where, the why, the how. One day summer, next day fall…Yes, it is daunting! What I would like to offer you over the next few paragraphs is my thought process. You can read anywhere, “Where to go”, “What to do”, “How to do it”. None of that matters at all unless you understand the reasoning behind each and every circumstance as every day is different. What I am about to describe is NOT an end all with regards to specifics. It is simply my train of thought on a daily basis when I read the water.
Wind speed and direction? I like to combine the two because one does not exist without the other. In laymen’s Terms, or fishing terms, wind speed and direction is the single most important factor in my decision making process. Year-round, not just in the fall, wind ultimately determines my options. Let’s start with the typical fall wind direction of northeast. Step one, eliminate the obvious: What is impossible to fish? Regardless of reasons, you can eliminate at least 50% of the water based on common sense. Too rough is not only dangerous but non-productive due to the fact that you should be more focused on your safety than the fish. Ironically, windblown locations are almost always my focal point for redfish and black drum during the fall. The trick is to find the safe and comfortable windblown locations. Whether it be windward oyster reef or grassy shoreline, the sweet spot exists somewhere everyday despite the wind speed or direction.
High tide or low? Rather than confuse you with the various combinations or scenarios I have a method that anyone can use at any given location. When you leave a location to fish, there will be a bulkhead, a pier, a tide line or a fixed white PVC pipe in my situation. Regardless of which, there will be oysters, barnacles and algae attached to everything sub-surface that’s stationary and long term. The more that sticks out of the water, the lower the tide. In my case, once the white PVC pipe is underwater the highest of tides have arrived. Ultimately, the tide level determines where I can take my boat and year-round I promise you that it is mostly shallow. During the fall there will be extreme high tides and extreme low. My best advice is to watch the pipe.
This brings me to water temperature. During early fall, the water temperatures in the bay can exist at close to 90 degrees but by late fall the water temperatures can drop into the 50’s. Throughout the fall, my fishing locations remain shallow regardless of temperature but my timing transitions with temperature changes. Let’s take for example; a major cold front. Most people would choose to be off the water before the cold 25 MPH north wind hits. This is where the fish and humans differ in terms of opportunity. The second the wind shifts from SE to NE in the fall and the temperatures drop, the fish eat and most humans run for cover. Resilience, confidence and safety is the only remedy to offset what we see out of the water while fish thrive and see opportunity beneath.
What do I catch them with? In terms of bait choices I will keep it simple because it is. Live/dead shrimp and live/dead mullet. On calmer days with good water clarity I prefer live shrimp and live finger mullet. It is a deadly combination because you cover all of your bases. In general, with lower wind speeds regardless of direction you will find less turbidly in the water. Redfish, trout, black drum and flounder will begin to use their sense of sight in conjunction with smell and sound to find prey. On the contrary, during times of rough turbid conditions the fish will abandon foraging by sight and rely mostly upon scent to hone in on prey. This is where the dead and stinky comes into play. Both cut mullet and dead shrimp provide the scent needed for fish to find there meal when sight is not an option.
By combining wind, tide, temperature and choice of bait I can dramatically eliminate the daunting number of possibilities, therefore allowing me to focus on what is available and productive to fish. The process of elimination helps me and can help any angler to become more productive. Reading the subtle details that nature has to offer is the only way to truly read the water. The more attention you pay, the more you will see. The result is that of a well-rehearsed speech; likelihood of failure or embarrassment diminishes with time and practice.
As of this moment it is October 21st 2019; just over one month since I began writing this article. I have to admit, it’s a bit strange reading what I wrote one month ago and not having to change much. Today is also my first day off in twelve days; just enough time to reflect. I’m happy to say that the patterns I spoke of held true. The fishing here in Rockport, Texas has been phenomenal this fall and I say that without exaggeration despite myself being humble. Tonight a REAL cold front hit. I just stepped outside and the cool hollow north wind licked my dry skin and I heard things pinging and flapping. It feels good and I imagine that the fish feel the same sensations as I despite being in a different environment. With any luck, conditions will continue to favor me as fall transitions to winter and 2019 transitions into 2020. I wish the fish best of luck but I have some advice for them; swim fast and hide well. I won’t be far behind.
-Capt. Johan Coombs
“Most of the world is covered by water. A fisherman’s job is simple: Pick out the best parts.”