Another Reason to Conserve

Everett Johnson

For those who live and breathe trout, January and February always bring a great mix of emotions. This is the traditional kick-off to trophy season, yet no other months are as scary to spotted seatrout aficionados. The history book says if Texas is going to freeze up, it'll probably happen between Christmas and St. Valentine's Day.

Two years ago when the mid-coast received a white blanket at Christmas, we saw a localized freeze here at Port O'Connor. We had deluge rains in the Hill Country during November and the Guadalupe flooded beyond historic levels. Texas Highway 35 between Green Lake and Tivoli was closed for weeks. TX-DOT said the river level covering the roadway was the highest on record. Naturally the bays all went fresh and literally tons of trout sought salty refuge in the lakes of Matagorda Island. The stack-up was substantial and fishing was awesome until it snowed!

The water temperatures in Pringle and Contee lakes fell below the magic number of 42-degrees for two days and quite a few trout went the deep six. When it warmed and they started to float it was hard to assess the damage because the pelicans were eating all the fish they could swallow. The big ones though, they broke my heart. The pelicans couldn't eat them and they collected on the shorelines. I counted almost two dozen between 26 and 30-inches in the west end of Pringle, and that was only a fraction of the damage. Some were being scooped up by fishermen and the ones that floated ashore in the dark were eaten by 'coons and coyotes. We will never know how many actually died. No matter the number, fish of this size are very rare here; we hated what Nature had wrought.

As I write this, we on the cusp of another scary season. It has been seventeen years since the last big coastwide freeze back in 1989. Texas weather stats show a serious freeze every seven years or so; you could say we're way overdue.

And what if we do get a freeze of '89 proportions this winter, what shape will this leave us in? Back in 2002 during the Spotted Seatrout Work Group meetings, Hal Osburn proposed a coastwide daily bag limit of seven trout at 16-inches minimum length. His data showed that reducing recreational harvest to this level would conserve our fisheries and better position us for recovery following the next natural disaster. Well, a whole bunch of people balked at the idea and Hal's great experiment of inviting the public to help manage the resource pretty much crashed and burned. They simply weren't ready to buy into pro-active management.

Much has transpired since the days of SSWG. Gill net surveys are now showing a decline in the seatrout fishery in the Lower Laguna Madre and TPWD Coastal Fisheries is considering a regional management plan to address the situation. Already some of the old anti-SSWG bunch are oiling the wheels on their bandwagon. Their cries are familiar. "Your data is flawed." "Open the passes and address the water quality issues and the fishery will take care of itself." "If you reduce the limit here and not up the coast you'll put us out of business."

Will TPWD set a regional bag limit for the LLM? Will reducing bag limits really destroy coastal economies? Nobody can answer these yet, but one thing is certain; if Mother Nature gives us the same icy stare she did in '83 and '89, you can bet your last dollar we'll see some emergency measures enacted. Just Keep Five could change overnight from the trendy slogan of a handful of conservative diehards to the law of the land. Let's just hope we've conserved enough along the way that we will not have to suffer closed seasons.