Breaking Down 2023

Breaking Down 2023
Gregg Pratka released this solid 24-incher on a recent Galveston Bay trip. Would love to see more trout in this age class!

The year started off with patches of decent sized trout congregated in their typical winter haunts over scattered shell and mud bottom near deep water. Wading and drifting both Galveston and Matagorda Bays were productive for trout and reds. January has always been a good month for larger trout and January 2023 was no different. Both of our biggest trout for the month came in the first ten days of January. One of my clients caught a 6-pounder in East Matagorda on January 6th while we were drifting mud streaks over scattered shell in 4-foot depths. Three days later I caught a 6 ¼ pound speck in Galveston Bay drifting over mud and shell in 3 ½ feet of water. Both fish came on 5-inch Chicken-On-A-Chain rattail Bass Assassins.

That day in East Matty was a microcosm of most of my trips down there. We caught 55 trout that day and 8 slot reds. 25 of the trout ranged from 17 to 26.5 inches while the other 30 measured 15 ½ to 16 ¾ inches. This was still during Texas Parks and Wildlife’s freeze-related emergency regulations of 3 trout at 17- to 23-inches. For anyone who thinks rods and reels don’t have an impact, just look at the number of “just under” trout that were caught during that period. Galveston was not part of the emergency rule. Most of the legal specks we caught here were 15- to 17-inches with a handful 20- to 22-inchers in the mix. A typical Galveston trip in January was 15-30 trout with half of them in the legal range. Guess how long the majority of the throwbacks were. If you said 14 to 14 ¾ inches you would be correct. It's funny how that works.

In February I ran about half of my trips here in Galveston and the other half in Matagorda. Overall results were less consistent compared to the month before, but the quality was above average on our Matty trips. Weather played a major role as it always does. We caught fewer trout overall in both bays but also fewer undersized fish. One of our best days was on February 7th in Matagorda. I had one client that day. It was a couple of days after a pretty big cold front. Mornings were still very chilly, and tides were super low during the first half of the day. As we do quite often this time of year, we met at noon with plans to fish the incoming afternoon tide, hoping our fish would pull in tighter to the warming shorelines as dusk approached. Our plan came together beautifully. We caught over 30 trout and reds with the largest trout measuring 27 inches and the majority of the reds ranging from 25 to 28 inches. Most of the action took place within a two-hour window between 4:30PM and 6:30PM. We caught them on MirrOlure MirrOdines and Corky Devils wading in waist deep water over soft bottom near deeper water. As the bite began to wane, we switched over to Top Dogs and Skitter Walks and drew agitation strikes to trick a few more before it finally faded.

I had several other days similar to the one on the 7th but the other one that stands out the most was on February 24th when we had similar results but we were drifting instead of wading. Solid oyster reef in 4 to 5 feet of water was the ticket on that particular day when we caught trout to almost 7 pounds and reds to 27 inches on Bass Assassins and MirrOlure Lil Johns.

Our results for March were almost a carbon copy of February for both bay systems with the exception of two things. We wade fished more and we caught more slot reds, especially in Matagorda. There were a few days where redfish saved the day. I split time between here and there. The quality of trout overall was solid, just nothing to write home about. Our drifting trips were spent primarily over late winter/early spring staging areas around shoreline ledges, coves and small finger reefs while chunking soft plastics. When wading we focused on back bays, bayou drains and coves where most of our better fish came on Texas Custom Lure’s Double D’s and Borboleta LeLe’s. Our biggest trout of the month was caught in East Matagorda on March 27th on a small patch of shell near a bayou drain. It measured 25 inches.

By the time April rolls around I’m finished running to Matagorda until the fall. I was only able to run 14 trips (9 wading and 5 drifting) in this particular month because of late cool fronts and high winds, but the ones I did run yielded good results by April standards. Our best trip was April 18th when we were wading West Galveston Bay. I had two awesome clients with me and we landed 35 legal trout to 6 ¼ pounds, 2 upper slot reds and 2 big flounder while wading guts with wind-induced color streaks holding concentrations of mullet, glass minnows and shad. Rat tail Assassins, Lil Johns and Double D’s were responsible for all of the fish. Drifting was not as fruitful for the month mainly because of the wind. We had a few decent drifting trips where we caught 12 to 15 legal fish but I also had a couple of duds where only a handful of fish were caught. Wading is typically more productive than drifting in March and April.

May seemed to be our last hoorah before the big summertime blow. After two months of high winds everything seemed to come together in perfect fashion. It got calm. Our tide runner trout started coming into the bay and we had quite a bit of fresh water coming down the Trinity River which created a little bit of a stack up. In addition, our fishing is pretty much always good during May because forage species are getting larger, water temperatures are rising and fish start feeding more frequently because their metabolism is increasing with the water temperature. We had many 50 and 60 trout mornings before 9AM before pulling off of them to go find redfish. None of the fish were big compared to years past but many were in the 17- to 21-inch range and very fat from gorging on all the newly hatched shad. I did catch one 5-pound trout on May 1st. It wasn’t long but it was very chunky. This is typical for Galveston Bay in May. Soft plastics, LeLe’s, Double D’s and Super Spook Jr’s were our go-to baits as we waded and drifted shell-lined shorelines and coves.

The first week of June was similar to May. It was excellent fishing. We had just started catching good numbers of trout over mid-bay reefs while working slicks. Then, on June 11th the southwest wind started blowing. I only ran 8 trips over the next 20 days of the month. This was very unusual for June in Galveston Bay but anyone who knows anything about our bay knows that every major part of the complex lies on a northeast/southwest axis, which means that a hard wind from either of those directions offers no protection. This creates a chocolate milk situation making it very difficult to catch fish on lures.

Most of June, all the way through mid-September, presented us with these challenging conditions but I was able to make enough adjustments to pull a rabbit out of the hat most days. As I mentioned earlier, the southwest winds had most of the bay torn to shreds but there were a few areas holding decent enough water (and fish) to make it worth the effort. Wading these areas saved my bacon on these windier days. Wading in thigh to belly deep water over sand while chunking tails yielded us 15 to 20 fish most days. On the rare calm days, we would venture out onto mid-bay deep shell and well pads to catch good numbers of trout on tails, Rat-L-Traps and 52 Series MirrOlures. However, those days were few and far between.

I don’t think I’ve ever looked forward to October through December more in my life! It started to cool off and catching started getting easier. Cold fronts and rainfall cooled the water temperatures, which spurred bait migrations and subsequently created trout concentrations. Fishing became easier and easier with each passing front. This pattern held true all the way through November. Surface slicks were not as prevalent as they were during the warmer months, but we were able to focus on funnel points such as marsh drains and bayou mouths with plenty of visible bait activity. Lots of trout were caught during these months but nothing with any real size. Most of our trout ranged from 15 ½ inches to 20 inches with some 21s and 22s in the mix. Our two biggest trout during this time period were 24 and 25 inches. A wide variety of baits were used as we waded and drifted shallow shell-littered flats near deeper water to catch our fish. Soft plastics were king. MirrOdines and Corkys tricked the larger specimens.

To summarize, 2023 was very similar to 2022 here in Galveston Bay in that we caught large quantities of barely undersized specks mixed in with fewer numbers of legal ones. My estimation is that our overall ratio for the year was about 50/50 with the majority of the keepers being less than 3 years old. My assessment of East Matagorda is a tad more positive as we were able to catch quite a few trout in the 3- to 5-year age classes with an occasional 6- or 7-year-old female in the mix. The emergency trout regulations that were in place south of FM 457 (sunset date was August 31, 2023) for almost two years was a real shot in the arm for our trout spawning biomass, as was the intent. The large numbers of trout that measured just under 17 inches that were allowed to stay in the system and spawn was proof of this. I believe new statewide slot limits (15 – 20 inches or 16 – 20 inches) that are currently being discussed will greatly benefit our fishery and eventually provide us with older age classes of trout down the road, barring any natural disasters. In addition, salinities for both bays maintained at a level conducive to healthy spawning April through September, and even into October. With regards to redfish, we caught twice as many slot reds in East Matagorda compared to Galveston. Galveston Bay continues to be overrun with schools of oversized redfish.

Some folks may wonder why I give a recap of each year’s fishing in my January article. My reasons are twofold; I feel that it’s important to look back and understand where our fishery has been so we can get an idea of where we may be headed, and then discuss any possible changes that could improve our fishery. The other reason is that I feel like it is our responsibility as contributors to this fine magazine to offer some insight into our daily and monthly routines as patterns change so that our readers can hopefully gain enough knowledge to enjoy more successful days on the water. I wish everyone a happy and prosperous New Year. Cheers!