Adventure & Finally Retirement: Part II

Jim Dailey

There were almost no fishing guides when I came to the Matagorda Bays and to be honest there were only a few recreational fishermen by today's standard. We had some commercial fishermen, mostly trammel netters, and the ones I got to know were all pretty good people. They were hard workers those guys were; and they really understood the movements of the trout and redfish. Most of them came from families who had been at it for many years so they knew what they were doing. We were all new to net fishing and without their help we'd have had a rockier start than we did.

I was accustomed to doing all of my fishing up shallow back when I came here. Today we are chasing them all over the place and catching most of our trout out much deeper. I think the pressure runs them off the shorelines. You could hit the bay side of Matagorda Peninsula anywhere from the Cullen House all the way down to Tom and Jerry's, anywhere you decided to stop you could catch fish. You might have to move around and work up into those old wash-over cuts that were left from old tropical storms. The trout loved to hang in what was left of those old channels and guts and we had very good fishing. Even though the trammel netters took a lot of trout and reds it could never compare to the pressure that is on our fisheries today. I believe we are taking even more. The gill netting that came later was harder on the fish than trammel netting, but I don't believe even that pressure could equal what we see today.

My work in that early period was very different than the work Coastal Fisheries does today and we were more or less inventing it as we went. We were not yet set up to manage concentrate on the recreationally important species near as much as they have become over the years. Our work was more oriented toward research and management of the commercial fisheries and was more project related. We had a variety of projects for oysters, crabs, shrimp and finfish. In September 1967 Hurricane Beulah hit between the Rio Grande and Brownsville and then turned and came straight up the coast. It hammered the coast for quite a ways north and made a bunch of cuts. More important from a fisheries biology viewpoint was the way the storm stalled as it moved slowly inland. Beulah dumped just tons of rain and the runoff to the bays was remarkable.

South Texas in those days was just cotton field after cotton field. For years the farmers down there had been pouring tons of DDT and DDE on those fields to fight the boll weevil and other insects and improve their yields and it just built up in the soil and in the watershed. The Arroyo Colorado is the natural waterway to the bay and of course all that rain came rushing through and into the Lower Laguna Madre and it carried all those pesticides with it. Joe Brewer was the biologist down there in the lower Laguna and he saw it first; we were losing our juvenile seatrout and brown pelicans.

When you see a dramatic change in a short time you have to act, so that's when they started the pesticide project to study the effect those chemicals were having and the whole coast was included and I worked extensively in it. By Joe Brewer's calculation he was missing three or four years of recruitment in the Lower Laguna on spotted seatrout, there just were no little ones to be found. And then they started to see a big decline in the brown pelicans and then the osprey. We began collecting trout all over the coast and examining ovaries and that's when they started to put the whole thing together.

Ray Childers was the head biologist for San Antonio Bay at that time and his office was at Swan Point over there by Seadrift. Ray was named the head of the whole project. We would take all the trout we could get from trammel nets and remove the ovaries and send them to Ray. Ray then sent them to the federal wildlife and fisheries people and they ran them through their laboratory. We also did a lot of sampling of the oysters and shrimp and other fish to see what effect it was having on them.

It was really something, the die-off of the brown pelicans. Prior to that huge pesticide load coming into bays we had lots of brown pelicans; the Laguna Madre really did get hit the hardest. The DDT and DDE were beginning to move up the food chain. It took the ospreys too. It took several years for the pesticide load to diminish because that stuff has an incredible half-life, it doesn't disappear overnight, but eventually we did start to see the recovery beginning to occur.

At the same time we were working on the pesticide project we also had what they called our finfish project. The work we did in the finfish project was the beginning of the programs used today to keep track of the trout and redfish populations but our methods were crude, very crude in fact, nothing like today. Our target species were the trout, redfish, sheepshead and drum and our main sampling gear was the trammel nets. We would go out and set our 1200 foot nets and then come back and tell them how many sets we had made and how many fish we caught. We didn't know the acreage we sampling or fish per hectare or anything like that, we just picked what we thought was a good area for a net and got after it; we caught all we could and counted them.

We also had our shrimp project. Shrimping was a big piece of the coastal economy back then and so naturally it got a lot of attention. None of the field stations were equipped the way are today and each office used whatever boats they had available at the time to do the work. We used little 10 foot trawl nets and at our station there in Palacios we pulled it with a 27' inboard; that was our big boat. We also used smaller outboard powered boats with 18 to 25-horsepower engines on them.

The department was set up very different in those days. Bob Calura and I were at Palacios and they called us Level-II biologists at the time. There were Level-III biologists above us and they were all project leaders. The Level-III's were spread out up and down the coast. They were in Brownsville, Corpus, a couple were in Rockport and two or three were up in Seabrook. The coast was divided into two main districts back then. Rockport and Seabrook were the headquarters; Rockport for the lower coast and Seabrook for the upper coast. At that point in time we were not sampling Sabine Lake. The sampling work was all done in the Galveston, Matagorda, Espiritu Santo, San Antonio, Aransas, Corpus, and Laguna Madre bay systems. We had biologist teams on each of those bay systems. We had the pesticide, shrimp, crab, oyster, salinity and finfish projects to gather data on and each team gathered data from their system and sent it in to the various projects leaders located up and down the coast.

Even though some of the methods were crude by today's standards, we had a sampling scheme we followed. We had to set so many trammel nets and we had to pull so many bag seines at set stations and we took so many hydrographic samples at other set stations.
Hydrographic samples are measures of salinity, temperature, dissolved oxygen, turbidity and temperature of the water at the test station. The stations were all pre-determined and we always took our readings at the same location. Those hydrographic data turned out to be very valuable down through the years and a lot of that data was used to form the basis for the work that continues out there to this time.