Texas’ Middle-Coast Spotted Seatrout Fishery

Everett Johnson
Seven years ago TPWD-Coastal Fisheries created Spotted Seatrout Work Group, a panel of key stakeholders selected to assist the agency as they sought to enter an era of proactive fishery management. Hal Osburn, then division director, advised that spotted seatrout populations were showing signs of growing recreational harvest pressure. Reducing pressure before spawning biomass fell into greater decline could forestall need for sweeping regulatory changes in the wake of the next fish-killing freeze. Regulatory measures (bag limits) employed to that time had largely been agency reaction following freezes in 1983 and 1989.

Hal cited explosive growth of rec angling and advances in angling efficiency. The combination, he said, created the greatest fishing pressure the resource had ever faced. The upshot of SSWG, it was hoped, would be popular support of more conservative regulations to insure swift recovery from natural events and enhanced future viability, all the while maximizing the socio-economic benefit that could be derived from the resource. Hal said we needed to reduce the daily bag limit from ten trout to seven and increase the minimum length from fifteen to sixteen inches. He called it a "best fit" for the whole coast at that time.

Though the stakeholder panel eventually supported Hal's plan during their final session, it gained little support in the outdoor press, with too few fishermen, and too few fishing guides. The backlash crushed the message.

So it is now seven years later, sagging trout populations in the Lower Laguna brought a five fish daily bag in 2007, while the ten fish limit has remained for the rest of the coast. According to TPWD stats; sales of saltwater licenses grew 25% and angling effort increased 50% between 2001 and 2008 coastwide. Locally, population density surveys signal significant decline of the seatrout fishery in Aransas and San Antonio bays for the same period.

Should we have listened better? Veteran mid-coast guides and anglers are reporting the worst trout fishing they can recall, including freeze years. Mid-coast boat ramps are uncommonly quiet, except perhaps on major tournament weekends. Mid-coast guides striving to put clients on decent catches are flocking to the Upper Laguna and Baffin Bay.

It concerns me that we have snagged all the easy pickings and are now drilling deeply into the mother lode, the backbone of the mid-coast trout fishery. We are twenty winters without a freeze and no red tide, our bays should be brimming. But where are the trouthiding in secret holes not yet divined?

Managers say they're not sure; more data is needed to better understand the trend.

My personal suspicion is that we may have tricked too many into accepting rides in Igloos.

I just returned from Florida where spotted seatrout are managed via a combination of tight bag limits (by Texas standards), narrow slots, and closed seasons. A view of what has transpired there and what we now find on our mid-coast refreshes my memory of Hal and his plan for proactive fisheries management.

I pray we never see a closed season for specks here in Texas. So while TPWD seeks to solve the mystery of the missing trout, maybe we should practice a bunch of C&R until they can. If you feel you need some to fry, just keep five.