Within Sight of Land

Within Sight of Land
Keeper-sized snapper roam within sight of land along the Texas coast, though we obviously need more artificial reefs to attract them.

Editors Note Mike Jennings column is penned by Joe Richard this month as Mike is totally covered in charter-related work and has also been dealing with illness in his family. Please keep the Jennings family in your prayers this Thanksgiving season.

November is arguably the best month for fishing offshore, but within sight of the beach. As the water chills along the upper coast, bull redfish have finished their spawning duties and have eased offshore. Snapper populations recover, since most fishermen now have their butts glued to deer, duck or football stands. Or the couch, for that matter.

In November, big sand or Gulf trout can be caught three at a time with circle hooks. And watch out for the bluefish this time of year, those puppies bite; we've had them attack and eat hooked sand trout like savage piranhas, before they could be lifted into the boat. With baitfish now scarce, predators are hungry. In November I've seen bonito out there, hungry enough to wolf down a 10-inch dead mullet meant for bigger game. Now is when that frozen, leftover bait from summer comes in real handy.

Our most serious November action out there, where we returned repeatedly every weekend with serious purpose, was catching and hauling bull redfish back to Galveston Yacht Basin. This was 1987, when the state suddenly needed new adult redfish for the hatchery, and I was running around in a 17-foot McKee Craft. For some reason, we didnt get the states go-ahead until Nov. 1, after wed caught so many easy redfish around the jetties in September and October. (One night we boated and released exactly 20 bull reds with Capt. Howard Horton at the Galveston jetties from a big Bertram, while watching Monday Night Football in the salon. Using circle hookstalk about easy fishing. Is that a clicker I hear outside?). Now it was November, and we were faced with a state request for bull reds, and they were all offshore...

So, we headed out to our favorite fall fishing spot, sometimes on glassy-calm, peasoup-foggy mornings, other days in chilly afternoon chops. We anchored at the car bodies artificial reef, roughly 10 miles offshore of Galvestons 61st street pier. It was an old, scattered, reef... no telling how old. Its been a while, after all, since anglers were allowed to dump old cars offshore. We would mark a few bottom obstructions and anchor up, and set out a few rods rigged strictly with circle hooks. Action was dependable, with keeper snapper, big sand trout, bull croakers, and both slot-size and bull redfish. Once, a giant late-season tarpon that spooled a 4/0 reel before we could pick up anchor. Wed box up a few fish for the table, while aiming for bull reds. Frozen squid started the action, and then fresh sand trout or croaker heads worked very well for bigger fish.

Compared to the jetties, catching, caring and returning with bull redfish wasn't so easy. They had to be cranked up through perhaps 50 feet of water, deflated in the boat for barotrauma, and stringered like so many trout. Fortunately the water was chilly, and no sharks around. By afternoon, we often rolled in choppy seas. When it was time to go, using a bucket we filled the 320-quart SSI cooler that lay across the entire front of the boat. We placed up to five bull redfish inside, and kept a live bait pump running on them with a battery nearby. Then, it was pull anchor and head for the jetties, just visible to the northeast. Tired and wet, we rounded the south jetty. One day, a small boat was anchored there, the angler fighting a three-foot tarpon, and we stopped and requisitioned it for the hatchery. On we sped, and soon our load of fish was swimming happy in one of the big shrimp tanks at Galveston Yacht Basin. The hatchery truck from Flower Bluff usually arrived on Monday, to pick up the load. Those big golden beauties, often 42 inches long, were used to spawn a new generation of fingerlings along the coast. (That tarpon did well in Flower Bluff until the 1989 freeze killed him).

The following year, however, demand for hatchery redfish was suddenly cut off. The Dow Chemical plant abruptly took over the project, with their Freeport water channel and outfall supplying all spawner redfish for the state. We were out of business with bull reds, but still kept fishing offshore in November, though with a more relaxed purpose in mind, and without a giant cooler full of water taking up precious deck space. In fact we were still fishing that dependable car body reef in 1990, when a friends 26-foot Mako boat, anchored there, was run down and flipped by a big Vietnamese shrimpboat that had nobody at the helm. All tackle and anything inside the Mako hatches sank straight down and became part of the reef. Some days you eat the bear and other days... why, the bear eats you. Howard and I spent all night in separate boats towing the upside-down Mako back to the dock, where it was repaired and soon running like a spotted ape.

The rich fishing around that scattered, decrepit artificial reef was proof that a number of sturdy concrete Igloo sites or barges could be laid down all along the Texas coast in about 50 feet of water, attracting all manner of fish within sight of land and easy fuel range. Texas can obviously no longer depend on oil and gas platforms for easy offshore fishing; they're being decimated these days.

There are still close-in platforms available, though mostly off the middle and upper Texas coast. From what I've seen over the years, November has always been the best month for action out there. We were very often the only boat in sight, and there was none of that mid-summer jostling for platform position. With flared tempers on hot, sweaty weekends. Hardly any triggerfish or sharks in November, either. Heck, we even caught a nice ling off the beach on opening day of duck season, after deciding we didnt want to spend the morning sitting on a glassy-calm pond in bluebird weather. Our duck hunting buddies were dismayed we did so, but we had a box of fish, while they returned with three spoonies.