Adventure & Finally Retirement: Part IV

Jim Dailey

Some of the work we did in the early days was pretty exciting. Net sets were predetermined by the department and all the field stations on the coast sent crews out at the same time. Weather advisories were nothing like we have today and we sometimes got surprised. We had a set to make right around Thanksgiving and Lex Sutton and I took the Snook, our 27-footer that had a small cabin, and towed two net skiffs. We were planning to make an overnight stay on Matagorda Peninsula which was normal and we also took fishing tackle, shotguns and floundering gear.

Back then when we made a set we stayed with it overnight, fishing and maybe a quick duck hunt at daylight were usually part of our plan before we worked the net. On this trip, we got surprised by a huge nor'wester and it blew like I'd never seen. We had the Snook anchored about 100 yards offshore when that thing hit and the bay was full of water. Naturally the water all piled onto the south shoreline and the breakers rolling in there were huge and dangerous.

We decided during the night that we needed to move the Snook as the sea was still building. Lex was running the boat and the anchor had buried so deep that I couldn't pull it by myself and Lex had his hands full at the helm. Finally we tied the anchor off to a bollard and used the boat to pull it and that was pretty wild but we managed. When we got the anchor up it was bent badly and pretty near useless. We were really in trouble at that point because there was no way to set it again and we had no spare. It was impossible to attempt a bay crossing.

Now Lex was just something else, he was a fine man and knew more than anybody I ever worked with. He knew every inch of that bay; he worked that big boat in behind a bar that had a deep gut behind it and that put us in a safe harbor. We finally went to bed and rode out the rest of the storm. We had a small stove going for heat and I guess we were becoming asphyxiated as I awoke about 2:00am with an awful headache. I got up and started looking around and there were lights flashing everywhere. The guys at Palacios tried to get us on the radio but we had shut it off to save the battery, that's when they sent the Coast Guard. They came in a big cutter to see if we wanted a tow but we had our skiffs and all our gear. Lex already had us behind that bar so we decided to stay. It was all pretty wild but a great adventure none the less.

We got started early trying to get everything cleaned up and back in working order. My skiff had taken a pounding and was filled completely with shell and sand. We cleaned it out and found there was no damage so we got it running and took off to get our net.

I learned immediately that there is no time like a big norther for net fishing. That set caught more fish than I ever saw. It took a while to get it untangled and gathered and under the conditions we couldn't even count the fish. That was one Hell of an adventure and I'm not ashamed to admit that storm really scared me. Old Lex took it right in stride though, he was quite a man and if he was scared it never showed.

Our entry into the hatchery program was another assignment that brought lots of hard work but also a lot of fun and adventure. Bob Kemp had taken over as the Director of Fisheries and he had a great vision for what we could accomplish on the coast. Kemp orchestrated the demise of the commercial net fishing industry and set the groundwork for much of what we have going on today. Walter Fondren and the GCCA did a fantastic job of pushing the legislature to declare trout and reds game fish and we were entering a new era. Prior to this time, all the fish were considered most valuable from a commercial perspective and little management effort was expended to build a recreational fishery. Kemp changed all that.

As soon as the netting was stopped we began to see an increase in the number of larger trout and reds, but Bob Kemp wanted more. His background was in freshwater fisheries and stocking programs were the backbone there. Naturally, he wanted to develop a hatchery program for the coast.

We had the facility at Palacios that eventually became the Perry R. Bass Marine Fisheries Research Station. In the beginning, this facility worked mostly on shrimp culture and it had almost forty acres in ponds and lakes of various sizes for raising and studying shrimp. Back then, the management of the shrimp fisheries was one of TPWD's primary projects.

Kemp had Connie Arnold come up to Palacios and he got us lined out on our first projects. We wanted to build a redfish hatchery but God Almighty we were green, it's a good thing Connie knew what he was doing. They sent me and Bob Calura down to Matagorda Island to catch some bull reds that were ready to spawn. The Army base was still open and we built a holding pen there at their docks. We had an old Dodge Power Wagon and some 150 quart ice chests and our rods and reels. Now that was fun, I never took vacation back then because I didn't want to miss any of it.

We'd run down the beach until we found a likely spot and we'd get out and try to catch some mature fish. About the only thing we knew in the beginning was that we needed big ones, breeders. We caught lots of reds but the big ones were hard to come by. We knew they spawned in the surf but little else. We spent nearly the entire fall catching the fish we used to set up the first experiments. We'd run a -inch nylon rope through their lip and throw them in the ice chest and come flying back up to the Army base as fast as that old Power Wagon could go. We'd dump them in the holding pen and run back down hoping for another. Those fish were so wild by the time we got ready to move them to Palacios we'd have to drug them to prevent them hurting themselves while we loaded them on the Snook. Little did we know that Pass Cavallo and the Matagorda Ship Channel Jetties were full of bull reds; but that would have taken most of the fun out of it.

Connie had us build some tanks, the first ones were out of plywood with seawater running through them. He taught us how to check the redfish to see if they were ready to spawn and then how to get the eggs and incubate them. It was all very crude by today's standard but it worked and it lead to what has grown to become the finest marine hatcheries in the whole country. Almost all the other state agencies that have set up marine hatchery facilities came to Texas and patterned their facilities after ours. Today we are stocking about 25 million redfish fingerlings every year.

There is no doubt that the hatchery program has contributed positively to our redfish stocks but there is still so much yet to be discovered. The one question that we had just began working on when I retired was how to measure the impact of the stocking program. We had begun placing micro-chips in some of the fish and Bob Calura's team at the Perry R. Bass Research Station were looking into genetic markers, anything that would help us discover how many of the fish swimming in the bay and breeding in the gulf originated in our hatcheries. Where these programs will eventually lead us is yet to be seen but they are the best in the country and the fishermen who come to the coast are the beneficiaries of all that TPWD has done.

Looking back over my career I can say that it was great. I joined the department at the time when the focus was shifting from commercial fisheries to recreational. We had no idea at that time how the popularity of sportfishing would explode and how many people would benefit from our work. I watched as many young biologists came through the system, some moved on and found other jobs and made fortunes. For me though, I was an outdoorsman, a hunter and a fisherman and I loved the coast, leaving really wasn't really much of an option.

And so today as a retired Parks and Wildlife biologist, all I want to do is fish and hunt, kind of right back where I started. I'm proud of the work we did and I wouldn't trade the memories for anything. Right now it's time for me to say good-bye and go fishing. If you're ever down along Green's Bayou or Cotton's and see an old up in knee-deep water with a fly rod, it might just be me. Good Luck and Good Fishing!