Bay fishing outlook solid

Bay fishing outlook solid for summer Warmer weather should boost coastal activity By SHANNON TOMPKINS
Texas inshore anglers wondering when summer and, more important, summer’s hot fishing would arrive got an answer earlier this week.

Monday morning broke with near-stifling humidity, and air temperature climbed to 90 degrees. Nighttime lows — temperature and humidity — barely fell below 70.

Water temperature along the upper Texas coast has risen steadily, with the surf nudging up against the psychologically important 80-degree mark Wednesday.

Also, bays are beginning to “salt up” as rivers feeding the estuaries recede from winter and spring floods.

So summer starts now.

And it should be a good one for the state’s 800,000 or so recreational saltwater anglers, state fisheries officials said.

“Based on what field staff has seen in their samplings over the past year, we’re looking at what should be another great year,” Larry McKinney, director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s coastal fisheries division, told the TPW Commission during a recent briefing on coastal fisheries status.

Despite a skyrocketing increase in angler numbers and heavy fishing pressure (anglers spent about 5.27 million man/hours fishing the bays in 2003-04, McKinney said), bays produced very good fishing this past year.

More fish caught
Coastwide, according to TPWD creel surveys, the number of fish landed from Texas bays rose 6 percent in 2003-04 compared to 2002-03 numbers. Speckled trout landings climbed 11 percent and redfish landings jumped a strong 31 percent.

An unusually long stretch of luck with weather — no major fish-killing freezes in more than 15 years, consecutive years of good freshwater inflow into the bays, decent recruitment of young fish — is a major reason the bays continue to produce excellent fishing.

It doesn’t hurt that Texas for many years has had some of the most conservative recreational and commercial fishing regulations of any coastal state. Those regulations have been able to help maintain a productive fishery in the face of mounting fishing pressure/harvest and the continued slow degradation of coastal wetlands.

So what’s the latest on fishing prospects as Texas heads into its most heavily fished season?

TPWD coastal fisheries staff are in the middle of their biannual, 10-week gill net surveys of Texas bays. Plus, they’ve been conducting ongoing creel surveys where they interview anglers at boat ramps, count and measure the fish they’ve brought.

Results from that research offers some insight into what’s ahead for anglers as summer arrives.

Some notes from the Sabine, Galveston and Matagorda bay systems, the three bay systems along the upper Texas coast:

•The Sabine Lake system is one of the most dynamic systems on the coast, said Jerry Mambretti, head of the coastal fisheries field station on Sabine.
That can be good or bad, depending on which way the dynamic swings.

Runoff making it tough
Over the past couple of years, Sabine has been hammered by heavy freshwater runoff from the Sabine and Neches rivers. That has meant tough fishing for many anglers.

Heavy freshwater runoff, a spring of cooler than normal temperatures and seemingly endless strong winds has made for generally light catches by recreational anglers, Mambretti said.

“The only really good thing we’ve seen in recent creel surveys is tremendous numbers of red snapper being caught offshore, plus some really nice ling,” he said. “Of course, there haven’t been many days when fishermen could get offshore because of the wind.”

Inshore fishing has been tough, but it’s not for lack of fish, Mambretti said. The Sabine Station’s spring gill net surveys have found good numbers of redfish, a thriving black drum population and some pockets of speckled trout.

Keith Lake had shown some “quality” speckled trout, Mambretti said.

Also, surveys indicate a strong population of brown shrimp and menhaden.

“But I’d have to say we’re not seeing anything to really brag about, so far.” Mambretti said. “That could change real fast as the weather warms. But right now, halfway through the gill net season, I’d have to give us a grade of ‘C.’ ”

•Galveston Bay is such a huge system, it’s hard to generalize about its immediate fishing prospects.
But a few things stand out, said Rebecca Hensley, Galveston Bay ecosystem leader for TPWD’s coastal fisheries division.

“From what I’m seeing, it looks like things are about a month behind normal schedule,” Hensley said.

Cooler than normal temperatures get much of the blame.

“That should change with the temperature increasing,” she said. “I expect things to take off in the next couple of weeks.”

TPWD staff working gill net samplings have encountered their best catches of speckled trout in East Galveston Bay, Chocolate Bay and West Galveston Bay.

“We’ve saw some nice trout — 20-25-inch fish, really healthy and fat — along the shoreline of East Galveston Bay,” Hensley said.

Sharks, which were common in spring gill nets sets a year ago, have been much less numerous so far this season, Hensley said. That could be a function of the cooler-than-normal water temperature.

“Overall, things look real good,”she said.

•Looking at recent creel surveys, a person would think East Matagorda Bay held few fish.
They’d be very wrong, said Bill Balboa, Matagorda Bay ecosystem leader for TPWD’s coastal fisheries division.

“We’ve had some phenomenal gill net catches,” Balboa said.”We’re seeing lots of redfish, lots of big trout — 24 inches and up — from East Bay.”

Rough weather — wind and rain and yo-yoing wind direction — has made it tough for anglers to find and catch those fish. But they are there, Balboa said.

“In the eight or nine years I’ve been stationed here, this is some of the highest catches I’ve seen,”he said. “East Bay has a lot of fish in it right now.”

Those fish also have plenty to eat.

“There’s a lot of natural food out there,” Balboa said. “The reds were getting (in gill net sets) are packed full of young menhaden.”

TPWD crews already are seeing tripletails in the bay system, Balboa said. This is early for the mysterious, migratory tripletails — a marine fish that looks and tastes much like a giant black crappie — to show up in the Matagorda system.

“We usually don’t see tripletail until later,” he said. “But this year we’ve already seen them as far up as Lavaca (Bay).”

Mangrove snapper are another somewhat unusual species Matagorda anglers are likely to encounter.

The smallish (8-12-inch) mangroves are a semi-tropical species that has taken advantage of Texas’ long run of freeze-free winters to expand their range up the coast.

The Matagorda system currently holds a considerable population of the tasty mangroves. The best areas to find them have been jetties and other structure.

“I’ve seen kids fishing in the Matagorda harbor catching bunches of mangroves,” Balboa said.

His overall forecast?

“It’s going to be great as soon as it warms up, the wind calms down and people can get on the water,” Balboa said.

That time’s here.

Shannon Tompkins covers the outdoors for the Chronicle
Houston Chronicle – Houston,TX,USA

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