Catch Your Own Fish

Catch Your Own Fish
Pier fishermen learning the trade at an early age.

A family discussion about where to buy fish had me going on about the checkered options available today in restaurants and seafood markets, for those who don’t catch their own fish. Mislabeling seafood in the industry has been rife for decades, and the word “truthless” comes close to describing some areas of the seafood industry. It’s kept me from buying seafood for the past 50 years, but then I’ve fished that entire period, some would say obsessively. And not always from boats. More on that in a moment.

There are exceptions to buying good seafood, of course. Some seafood markets work hard to earn a good reputation. It’s rare, but some even have their own offshore commercial boats, like in Galveston, where you can buy whole Gulf species easily identified that are fresh and filleted on the spot. In Miami last year, we stopped at a market in Little Havana on a Sunday afternoon, where lady customers in church attire and high heels were hand-picking big snappers, carrying them around by the tails, to be filleted. Fresh, local fish for supper.

On the negative side, restaurants have been busted for mislabeling their fish dinners. One scam is the “grouper sandwich” for $9.95 with the texture of…tilapia. One would hope tilapia is wild-caught from South Florida lakes, but most often it originates from Asia, where they’re fed almost anything, even pig poop. The fish are harvested from crowded ponds and sent off to American restaurants.

Forty years ago, 75 percent of shrimp consumed in America was from faraway lands, mostly Asia. During that same period, most freshwater catfish were raised in Mississippi grow-out ponds. Today, most catfish are from Asia, raised in pens, often in water quality that doesn’t even qualify for “sketchy,” like the crowded Mekong River. (Check out the video on YouTube). There have been stories for many years of restaurants selling saltwater hardhead catfish as channel catfish, fed to tourists. One more tip: in a restaurant, don’t bother asking the wait staff what the “fish of the day” is, and where it came from. If they tell you the truth, they could lose their job.

Recent news about commercial salmon stocks is also disappointing. Wild-caught salmon are one thing, but pen-raised salmon in Norwegian fiords are fed food pellets. That feed is ground up fish and eels from the Baltic Sea, which is almost a saltwater lake, bordered by nine countries. It completely exchanges water with the Atlantic every 30 years, according to one excellent documentary. Recent tests for toxins in salmon fillets showed traces of many chemicals, but the PCBs spiked at the top of the chart. If PCBs won’t give you cancer, nothing will. Think about that, next time you see a big orange salmon fillet in the store.

Fortunately, Texans without boats have many options for catching healthy fish from ponds, rivers and reservoirs, on down to the Gulf of Mexico. On the Gulf (sticking with saltwater here) there are more fish-attracting rock jetties than anywhere in the country. All can be walked and fished, though two of them (Sabine and POC) can only be reached by boat. Which means those two jetties have a higher fish population. The remaining jetties (Galveston, Freeport, Colorado River, Port Aransas, Mansfield and Isabel) can be reached by car. The walking surface of each jetty varies and can be hazardous, so caution is advised. Protective clothes and fishing gloves are highly recommended. Jetties often stretch out to clear green water where the big fish bite. Common summer and fall species include redfish, trout, black drum, Spanish mackerel and pompano.

The Texas coast is also famous for great wade fishing, and some fish can be caught in the bays without a boat, though reaching a productive area near car traffic means scouting, persistence, luck and often a hike past such hazards as stingrays, oysters and mud, even speeding boats in poor lighting. A more sensible solution is to fish our 367 miles of Gulf beach. Some of the coast offers barrier islands that can only be reached by boat, but many miles can still be reached by truck or even car. The biggest stretch is North and South Padre Islands, spanning 113 miles. Though often windy, that area offers the most reliable clear water in summer and fall, which fish appreciate. The wind generally calms down from July through September, even October, offering great trout, redfish and pompano action in the surf.

We used to camp and fish Padre Island where you could see good-sized trout cruising inside those small, clear green waves, a real treat. If the water was choppy and brownish, we’d switch to bait and catch redfish and whiting. I even caught silver mullet for bait with the castnet. Lip-hooking one of those four-inch mullet and tossing it way out there often gave that baitfish a short lease on life. One summer afternoon while tossing a gold spoon, I hooked a small bluefish, whiting and ladyfish and all were attacked by big trout.

On the upper coast there are serious spoon-slingers and pluggers who may have never owned a boat, but who have caught perhaps thousands of seatrout over the years. They wade out armpit deep if need be, ideally making the dawn patrol on an incoming tide, with a light SE wind, aiming for green water. Out there in the Gulf, predatory trout seem eager to grab flashing artificial baits, and serious stringers of fish have been caught. There are times when all factors don’t align and a pre-dawn trip down Hwy. 288 or IH-45 may be for naught. However when it’s right, it’s exquisite action. Today’s cell phones and weather forecasting make it easier than the old days.

Back then, everyone used baitcasting reels, namely the Ambassadeur. Today, I wouldn’t go without my long-reaching, graphite eight-foot spin rod, with a reel that doesn’t backlash. Cast as far as you can beyond the brown shore break where trout and Spanish mackerel cruise the green water.

Easiest of all Gulf fishing is reserved for fishing piers, which are even accessible by wheelchair, so there is no slipping on rocks or getting your vehicle stuck in beach sand. The downside is that action can be slow, depending on water clarity and time of day. Try to fish early mornings when fish are closer to the beach during an incoming tide. A small bait bucket and aerator with live shrimp, carried on a cart or wagon, along with a chair and umbrella, makes for comfortable fishing. Surf piers are subject to hurricane damage and repairs, so check which piers are currently open.

For those hoping to fish from a boat, there are some 1,400 fishing guides and offshore captains in Texas. Browse through Fishing, or try the big Gulf partyboats in Galveston or Port Aransas. There are loads of fish out there of a great many species, and it isn’t hard to catch enough for a number of meals, enough to warrant buying a shrink-wrapper that will preserve fillets for half a year. Shorter partyboat trips aim for snapper or amberjack, while longer combo trips include deepwater tuna and reef fish.

So, there are many ways to eat a healthy diet of fish with memories and adventures thrown in. There’s even a chance your fish may taste better, because you’ve earned it.