Thursday, January 04, 2007


What a trip! The motel was uncharacteristically crappy, my paycheck was late , and it was kinda chilly.

Even with all that, we had a great time.

The goals were these:

1. Find paddling access on the upper end of the Brownsville Ship Channel. Most of the industry surrounding the Port of Brownsville – even the shrimpboat basin – is fenced-off and patrolled by security guards and homeland security.

2. Danny was gunning for his first-ever Texas snook. A couple of trips to Packery Channel in Corpus Christi this summer turned-up nuthin’, so it was time to head for the species’ stronghold in deep South Texas.

3. Me … I wanted my first snook on the fly, and I wanted to end the year with a snook and begin 2007 with one too.

Mission accomplished, all the way around.

Danny is one of my oldest and best friends, and with his grad school and work schedule, we just haven’t been able to spend much time fishing lately. I think August was the last trip we made – a day trip in the Houston area.

So it was a treat to get to spend some time exercising our fishing muscles. He and I drove in to Rockport together (having arrived in Tivoli about the same time – him from Houston and me from Austin) and spent a delightful evening with our friends Kendal and Gretchen.

Ken and G have the hospitality thing down cold. The drinks, the snacks, the incredible breakfast … and homemade fudge, to boot.

Saturday morning it was up early (relatively speaking, given our hangovers) and off we went. By about 1 p.m., we were in Brownsville. After a quick bite at Taco Palenque, we started scouting the ship channel.

It took us about three hours to find a way down to the water that was close enough to actually fish the areas we wanted to fish without undertaking a Kon-Tiki-like voyage. Our plan at first was to find the access, go check-in and drop-off our stuff at the motel, then come back and fish until late.

When we saw the water, and the bait activity, we decided to chance locking our stuff in the car (turned out the laptops wouldn’t quite fit in the bow hatch of either boat) and hit the salt.

I was bound for one particular shoreline that has always given-up robalo, and for some familiar structure at the western end of the channel. On the way, Danny saw something “busting bait” on a shoreline and hung a right. Shortly thereafter, he hung his first snook – a solid linesider that just hit the 24-inch minimum for the Texas slot.

After that, it was pretty much non-stop. The highlight, for me, was two fish over 30 inches. A 31-inch snook on 12-lb. tackle out of a kayak … well, it doesn’t get just a whole lot better in my book.

We landed 11 robalo by the time the sun went down and left ‘em biting.

Overnight the water fell out of the channel, and Sunday was disappointing. We paddled about 12 miles, total, and caught two redfish, one really nice trout and a whole lot of ladyfish. These fierce little acrobats (and they weren’t all so little -- some of them going 24 inches easy) are a lot of fun for about 30 minutes, and then the slimy, poop-squirting, leader-fraying suckers begin to annoy.

But we also watched ospreys fish (one flew over us with a flounder in its talons) and enjoyed a beautiful sunset and listened to the coyotes sing off to the south.

The Brownsville Ship Channel is like that -- gorgeous water and tons of fish (I even caught a small great barracuda this trip) -- in a most unlikely setting. The shores are littered with the broken hulls of ships in the process of being scrapped, but just beyond the breaker's yards and tank farms is the semi-arid Tamulipas thorn forest. Ocelots and even jagurandis are known to scratch out a living in the narrow strip of land between the channel and the international boundary.

About 10:30 p.m. Sunday, after more than 10 hours on the water, we decided it was time to head in and get some hot chow and a cold beer to celebrate the New Year.

New Year’s Day, my cousin Bob and his son Joey arrived with his 21-foot Carolina Skiff. We loaded the ‘yaks up on the big boat and launched at Port Isabel to make the long run up the channel. When we got to Saturday’s productive shoreline, Danny and I dropped Bob and Joey off on the east end, and we idled around to the west end.

Trap the fish in the middle as we wade, was the thought. Before long, we were seeing schools of mullet being scattered by something big.

With one well-placed cast, Bob hooked-up on a monster snook. The fish came out of the water like a tarpon, gill plates rattling in a display of acrobatic fury.

Turned out the fish taped at just over 28 inches, but I would have sworn it was 30-plus when I saw it come out of the water.

Aside from a small redfish, that was all that particular shoreline had for us New Year’s Day. We crossed the channel and began a leap-frog wade on the cove on the south side – a shoreline choked with mangroves.

About 15 minutes into the wade, the “bumps” I was getting along the shoreline turned into a solid hookset on another heavy 28-inch snook. This one I put on the stringer. I rarely keep fish of any kind, and for a long time I was reluctant to keep any Texas snook.

My friend Randy Blankinship, though, assured me that under the state’s current bag and size limits the fishery is sustainable even if every angler kept one fish a day. Randy was then the Lower Laguna Madre ecosystem leader and helped write the management plan for snook there.

The fish really do eat as well as they fight.

The big news in the Texas snook fishery this past year has been the resurgence of the species into the northern part of their historical range – up into Corpus Christi and even as far north as Freeport and Galveston.

One really hard winter freeze will likely stop that advance cold, but it’s exciting in the meantime.

Down south, relative abundance of common snook seems to be on a steady increase too. It helps that the Rio Grande has been flowing to its mouth for several years now. The border river is a prime nursery for the freshwater-loving linesiders.

One guide, who targets snook in the Lower Laguna Madre, told me that in the last year he’s begun booking strictly snook sight-casting trips for his fly fishing clients. He’s never been able to do that before and be confident his anglers would get a decent shot.

Another local angler said that this past summer he skipped his annual “tropical” fishing trip in favor of staying home and fishing his own back yard.

Florida is still the place to go for sure-thing snook; or, if you have the coin and want an even more exotic destination – Costa Rica. But Texas snooking is pretty damned good lately.

The Texas state record, from the Corpus area, came in just a few ounces shy of the current IGFA world record (a Costa Rica fish), and there’s no reason our waters won’t give up another really big girl one of these days.

In fact, I’ve heard many reliable accounts of snook over 40 inches being sighted and I have one report of a 47-inch fish being caught in Brownsville in the last year. I’ve pinpointed a “community” of fish over three-feet long … I’ve spent hours watching them ignore my baits, but one of these days I’ll figure out how to trick ‘em.

Because snook are such an important fish, recreationally, in Florida, a lot of good research on the species has come out of there. One thing Florida biologists are advising anglers these days is to never “hang” a big snook vertically.

The fish have rough mouths, like bass, and like bass they can be lipped when they’re landed. Pictures of proud anglers holding an 8- or 12-pound fish by the lower jaw are, sadly, pretty common.

How snook are handled while and immediately after being landed is critical to the fish’s post-release survival.

It’s an oddity of snooking that nearly all the fish caught on lures or flies are hooked in the jaw, most often the corner of the mouth. It has to do with the way they attack their prey (see video below for an example ... actually it's not a perfect example of what I'm talking about -- the way snook will hit prey and immediately turn, but it's a cool video).

But a fish that has been hung by the jaw vertically will very likely swim off only to die. In handling fish that way, it’s probable that anglers (who believe they are doing the right thing by releasing their fish) have damaged or even severed the tendons and connective tissue around the jaws, making it very difficult for the fish to eat.

An Australian study of barramundi, a closely related species with very similar habits, found that 50 of 50 barramundi handled that way later died.

So, when you head out to chase some Texas linesiders – and you really should – and when you land that first one, control the fish with your hand on it’s lower jaw but support the fish’s body horizontally when you take it out of the water for a photo.

Good luck, but beware: catching that first Texas snook may just put you off redfish and trout for a while.

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