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Out in the cold

January 1st, 2017

winter marsh redfish Out in the cold

Capt. Steve Soule with a 37-inch winter marsh red caught on a MirrOlure She Pup.

By Capt. Steve Soule | www.theshallowist.com

Winter weather has arrived on the upper Texas coast and so comes the arrival of some very different fishing. Colder air, colder water, reduced number of prey species and a different range of comfort zones dictate the location and feeding patterns of redfish and trout during the cooler months.

Finding patterns that hold through winter will increase your fishing percentages, and of the long list of factors involved, I’ve consistently found a few that truly make a difference.

mullet baitfish 300x166 Out in the cold

Mullet are largely on the menu for winter redfish and trout.

Winter Food Sources

First and foremost, in finding predatory fish in cold water is understanding the primary food sources that they feed upon. Most of the shrimp have either left the bays or will spend the majority of the winter buried in the mud. Crabs similarly disappear from the shallows, moving to deeper waters and also burying themselves in the mud. Many of the small species of bait fish will remain, though they won’t stay in water as shallow as they do in warmer months.

There are numerous species of marine worms and other small creatures that remain in the bay, though we rarely see them other than when found inside the bellies of the fish we catch. So, the primary food sources for predatory fish are the remaining small baitfish, such as mullet, mud minnows and others that hang around the shallows.

Finding fish during winter is isn’t always easy, but understanding the food sources makes a huge difference. Mullet or other bait fish species that frequently swim at or near the surface and jump, are easy targets and help anglers in locating fish. This isn’t uncommon during warming trends. When water temperatures are colder or trending down, baitfish tend to stay closer to the bay bottom and move towards deeper, warmer water, making them much more difficult to locate. Much like every other season, native guides and even seasonal natives can shed some light on the location of the food sources and of course, the predators are usually close by. What I mean by native guides is birds.

American White Pelican

Winter Bird Signs

The birds that are good indicators are much different during winter than summer or fall. The gulls and terns that were such great indicators of migrating shrimp over the past few months are typically not the birds to follow or watch for during the cooler months. My focus changes to some larger birds and some that only arrive after significant cooling. Both species of pelicans, brown and white, are voracious fish eaters and will often gang up when they locate large schools of mullet or other baitfish. And if you find large concentrations of bait in winter, odds are good that you will find predators as well. My favorite migratory bird to watch during winter is the Loon. This bird at a distance may look like the common cormorant, but when you get a little closer, its not hard to tell that they are much larger and have a large white patch on their chest. They also make a very distinct crying sound. They are incredibly adept diving birds that can swim fast and stay under water for several minutes. Finding more than one in an area diving is a great indication of schools of baitfish and predators.

I’m always on alert for shore birds such as egrets, herons, and ibis, though you won’t typically see them along the banks feeding unless we have a good warming trend going.

Winter is BIG trout time. Capt. Steve Soule caught this 27-inch trout on a Corky Fat Boy.

Temperature and Tide Factors

Most fish and marine animals spend their lives following just a few things; food, comfort and safety from predators. Temperature plays a huge role in the location and movement of both bait and predatory fish during winter. Temperature effects the food species and their movements, which in turn effects the movements of their predators. Much like us, if it’s cold, they seek warmth, which is why they inhabit certain areas during cooler weather, yet their range can spread widely when water warms. A great basic rule to understand is that if water temperatures are falling, fish will tend to mover to deeper water and as water temperatures warm, they will return to shallows.

Adding to that, this is driven by air temperature which takes time to impact the water. If temperatures are relatively stable, or the changes in temperature are not dramatic, the fish won’t feel the need to move as much as they will during more notable changes in temperature. There is an added important note, and one that we can feel and use to our advantage. As the air temperatures increase above the water temperatures, shallow water will warm fastest. As soon as this process begins, baitfish will begin to move to shallow, muddy and darker bottom areas.

Another important pattern to remember is that tides will still move fish, and can also adjust the temperature of the water in specific areas. If the air is notably warmer than the water, outgoing tides will carry warmer water out to deeper areas. In colder conditions, the opposite is often the case; incoming tides can wash more stable water temperatures into the shallows.

During the passage of winter fronts, especially those that have north or northwest winds, tides will fall sharply. The extreme low tides of winter tend to concentrate fish into very specific areas. In the marshes, the fish will fall into deeper creeks and bayous. In open water, guts, channels and soft mud near the edges of shallows will be the places to look.

Once you’ve found the fish, keep in mind that they are primarily feeding on other small fish, so use lures that imitate mullet or other bait species. Note the temperatures and the direction they are trending, either up or down. Knowing this will help determine the speed of retrieves when fishing. Like any other time when fishing, it may take some experimenting to determine exactly where the fish are and what type of presentation will work best. The good news is that once you find fish in the winter, they are typically concentrated in good numbers. Also noteworthy, if you find bigger fish, you often won’t find the smaller fish mixed in, and vice versa.

Braving the elements in winter is often rewarded with spectacular catches. Dress appropriately, take your safety and that of any passengers seriously. Dress in layers that can be removed or added as temperatures change, and get out and catch a few fish.

Galveston Redfish and Trout Tactics in September

August 31st, 2016

lightfoottrout Galveston Redfish and Trout Tactics in September

Tom Lightfoot with a fat trout caught on a Slammin’ Chicken Bass Assassin Sea Shad.

By Capt. Steve Soule | theshallowist.com

September probably isn’t the first month that comes to mind for most people when it comes to great Galveston redfish and trout fishing on the upper Texas Coast. Most of us have other things on our minds, like avoiding the heat, or getting back in the swing of things with the kids back to school. Given these distractions, fishing doesn’t usually come first.

Yes, the heat can still be oppressive in September, but unbeknown to many, the fishing can be every bit as hot. Most years just surviving July and August is enough to slow down the average angler around the bay, with high temperatures and light winds. These dog days of summer can be very tough, if you’re a drift fisher; there is not much to move the boat, or if you pole a boat in shallow water it’s just downright hot. If you like to wade fish, you might find an advantage of at least being a little cooler.

The hot and dry temperatures of July and August can truly make anglers work for their catch. There are some definite differences in where the redfish and trout will be when we hit drought conditions. It’s quite frequent that the fish will move from open bay shorelines, where salinities sky rocket, to marshes, creeks and rivers where salt levels in the water are more comfortable and food is more abundant. The extreme hot and dry conditions common in July and August help set up the subtle changes that September brings.

Even though we may see some high temperature days, there are some notable differences that seem to bring fish back to open water flats and create even better conditions for fish to feed consistently. September tends to be a month when we see a good bit more Gulf moisture coming onshore. This rain helps a great deal in not only bringing down the salt levels across the bay, but also by cooling the water several degrees during the peak heating hours of the day.

These late summer rains do a great job of lowering salinity without the harm of runoff, which carries dirty water to the bay that is often contaminated with everything from our streets, lawns and anything else that is upstream. This also differs greatly from spring rains where we often see huge amounts of river and creek run off which can have an adverse effect on the bay. The major difference with summer rains is that they fall directly on the bay, causing an immediate temperature and salinity drop that seems to excite shrimp and small baitfish activity and in turn, accelerates predator feeding.

So, we’ve managed to cool off the bay temperatures during the highest heat of the year, we’ve also lowered the salinity, just after peak salinities. Those two changes alone would help kick up feeding activity a good bit. We also see the peak of baitfish and crustacean growth and activity. Shrimp crops have grown, crabs come out of the marsh, numerous small species of fish are reaching sizes where they migrate out into open water and this all adds up to some great fishing.

lightfootred Galveston Redfish and Trout Tactics in September

Brenda Lightfoot with a marsh redfish caught on a weedless gold spoon.

Pick your species and pick your poison

There aren’t many techniques that aren’t effective in September, whether you choose to fish with live bait, artificial, or even fly, the bays are alive both shallow and deep. I don’t really spend much time out in open or deep water, but the change in the shallows is nothing short of exceptional. Early September is almost always a great month for finding tailing redfish, not just single fish, but schools that are often bigger than other months of the year. September is also one of the peak months for me to find larger trout in shallow water.

My approach changes little throughout the year, but for those who aren’t as familiar with shallow water, take your time in your search. Don’t run your boat directly up onto the area that you intend to fish. Come off plane early and use a troll motor, push pole or wade into the area. When looking for signs of activity, shore birds are a great sign, with active mullet being equally important. Often times these fish will slick, and redfish will stir up mud. When you get into the area you want to fish, continue to take your time and cover the water thoroughly. There are a lot of days when schools of feeding fish just don’t make a big commotion. If you’re looking for tailing reds, keep in mind that they don’t usually make much noise and the surface disturbance is minimal.

One last thought, having a shallow water boat is a great thing and opens up lots of new territory that isn’t available to many people. Keep in mind that fish are shallow for several reasons; availability of food sources, protection from larger predators and possibly at the top of the list is shelter from the noise and danger of all the boats that run in open water. So, if you choose to operate your boat in shallow water at speed when looking for fish, remember that even though you may gain some short term satisfaction, in the long run you are doing more harm than good to both the fish and the habitat. Fish tend to operate mostly on instinct, but they do get conditioned to their environment and repeatedly getting run off of their shallow feeding grounds only moves them to areas that afford greater safety.

The Importance of Galveston Sea Grass

August 8th, 2016

27troutgrass The Importance of Galveston Sea Grass

This 27-inch trout came from a mix of widgeon and shoal grass.

By Capt. Steve Soule

www.theshallowist.com

Galveston Bay doesn’t have a large amount of sea grass. Prior to 2008 we had very little at all, with the exception of Christmas Bay and three areas where grass had been planted by the Galveston Bay Foundation during the late 1990s.

Galveston’s West Bay did historically have sea grasses, like much of the Texas coastline, but they had long since been wiped out. During the 1990s, when I moved to the Galveston area and started fishing, Christmas Bay was the only area where I could consistently find sea grass beds to fish. Though, there were years when certain coves in West Galveston would grow sea grass, it was primarily widgeon grass. It might grow well one year and then not be seen in the area for several years. Back then, I didn’t really realize why this grass was here some years and not others. I did however always know the benefit of the sea grasses and the incredible habitat that it provides for sea life.

Enter the Galveston Bay Foundation and their efforts to restore the bay in the mid to late 90s. They had already been involved in some shoreline restoration projects where they would replant shoreline grasses (Spartina). They also planted sea grass in three areas along the south shoreline of West Bay at Dana Cove, behind Galveston Island State Park, Snake Island Cove and at San Luis Pass behind the old water treatment plant. All of these areas still grow grass well, with Dana and Snake Island probably being the most prolific, and these grasses still thrive today. The type of sea grass that was planted at these areas is shoal grass

These patches of planted grass were a fantastic improvement for the bay. Prior to these plantings, there was only sporadic grass growth along the north shore spoils, primarily widgeon grass. Due to these grass projects and an interesting set of recurring circumstances, the shorelines of West Bay have been transformed.

All of us who fish are well aware of how breezy Galveston can be during spring with wind directions predominantly from the south or southeast. There are many days when 15-25 mile per hour winds are the norm. Stepping back and taking a look at the big picture, and remembering the three areas where grass was planted and thriving, add some powerful south winds and a seeding period in late spring, and the result is spotty grass growth along north shore spoils. The first area that I remember seeing it was west of Karankawa cut. This long flat filled in with grass rather quickly while other areas took slightly longer to grow. Next was the stretch from Greens Cut to Karankawa Cut. Over the years since, this grass has spread and now covers nearly every inch of the West Bay spoils.

Types of Galveston Sea Grass

We don’t experience the same level of grass growth every year, nor do we have the same grasses appearing. We have high and low salinity years, and as it turns out, some grasses are more adept at growing during each of these types of years.

spartina The Importance of Galveston Sea Grass

Spartina grass

Spartina grass (Spartina alterniflora) along our shorelines grow in both high and low salinity and don’t seem to be effected much by annual changes.

Shoal grass

Shoal grass.© Hans Hillewaert

Shoal grass (Halodule wrightii) grows well during higher salinity years and has some interesting characteristics. This species, native along nearly all of the Texas Coast, is a straight bladed grass with small fibers along its blades. These fibers do an amazing job of filtering small particulate matter from the water column. This is the grass that gives us very clear water by trapping suspended silt in the water column so common in the Galveston area.

Widgeon grass

Widgeon grass

Widgeon grass (Ruppia maritima), grows prolifically in lower salinities and it is very different when compared to shoal grass. Widgeon grass has multiple offshoots along the length of the plant stem, grows rapidly during low salinity periods and grows much taller than shoal grass. This grass will continue to grow rapidly during spring and will often grow to the water’s surface. Interestingly, as we often experience high tides in spring in conjunction with higher south winds, widgeon grass will grow to the level of the water during these high tides. This sounds great, and as it benefits the environment, it is. Due to the multiple offshoots, greater height and the density of its growth, this grass makes for an exceptional cover structure for all of the small prey animals that inhabit these areas, and the predators that follow them.

Not that it makes much difference, nor can we change what mother nature sends our way in terms of weather, but it will help you to understand when and where these grasses grow and how they will impact the water where they are present. Shoal grass is an incredible water filter and provides very good cover and habitat for small fish, crabs and shrimp that redfish and trout frequently feed upon.

Widgeon grass on the other hand, does not tend to filter the water column nearly to the degree that shoal grass will. Widgeon grass will definitely grow much thicker and provide a great habitat for both prey and predator, but will not give us the clarity of water that shoal grass provides.

For those who have been fishing the grassy areas over the past few years, you are quite aware that 2015 and now 2016 have not been great water quality years. The underlying case has been low salinity. Though we do have some areas with shoal grass, for the most part the bay floor has been taken over by widgeon grass and will stay that way until late summer when salinities are higher. Unfortunately, this is in my experience typically too late for the shoal grass to recover and grow as the early season growth of the widgeon will choke out and prevent photosynthesis.

One last note about sea grasses and Galveston Bay, and well the entire Texas Coast for that matter. Don’t quote me on the exact timing, but two-to-three years ago, Texas Parks and Wildlife department passed a law prohibiting the intentional destruction of sea grasses. These grasses are a valuable and limited part of the overall habitat, providing cover structure for numerous animals both predatory and prey. This resource can be damaged and frequently is by boaters either unaware or not concerned. Given the rate of growth and expansion of the areas with sea grasses over the past ten years, we can only hope to see a continuation of this trend. With some cautious stewardship from all who operate boats in these areas, this may be a trend that continues and provides excellent habitat and fishing for many years to come.