As the winter season sets in and water temperature begins to dip, it can become tempting to enjoy the comforts of home and avoid the elements. Nevertheless, this is the time of year that one of the tastiest saltwater delicacies that the Texas coast has to offer, the oyster, comes into season. “Cooning”, or gathering oysters by hand, is certainly a labor of love, which likely contributes to the historic underutilization of this recreational oyster fishery. Although known as a beloved winter tradition for many coastal Texans, sport oystering trips are rarely documented in creel surveys conducted by TPWD staff. Armed with a little bit of information and the right tools, you can hit the reefs this season with confidence that your efforts will be handsomely rewarded.
First, there are a few regulations and some recent changes that you should be aware of. Your Texas Recreational Fishing License with a Saltwater Endorsement entitles you to two “sacks” (defined as 110 lb of unshucked oysters) per day. Your oysters must also be of “market size”, which is defined as 3 inches or larger as measured along the greatest length of the shell. Oyster harvest cannot begin before sunrise, and it must conclude by 3:30 PM each day for both recreational and commercial operations. These harvesting hours are in place all week except on Sunday when recreational oyster harvesting is closed.
Some additional regulations have gone into effect recently, including the prohibition of oyster harvest within 300 feet of a shoreline (as it shifts with the tide), and the closure of six minor bays along the coast (Christmas Bay, Hynes Bay, Carancahua Bay, Powderhorn Lake, St. Charles Bay and South Bay). These new regulations are largely in response to depleted oyster populations, which drew commercial harvesting operations onto shallow-water reefs that serve as incredibly valuable nursery habitat for a wide variety of ecologically and economically important species. These highly productive nearshore reefs were rarely exploited by commercial harvesters in the past. While this recent increase in commercial harvest warranted the implementation of new regulations, these regulations apply to all harvesting activities, including recreational cooning. Be sure to check the Texas Department of State Health Services website (https://www.dshs.state.tx.us/seafood/shellfish-status.aspx) for any additional closures.
As for gear, you will want a rugged pair of gloves and some good waders and/or boots with hard rubber soles. Cotton gloves and neoprene wade boots with softer soles will not hold up very long on oyster reefs, as the shells can be sharp. A hatchet or culling iron fashioned from a sharpened length of flat iron will help break up large clusters and allow you to retain legal-sized oysters while returning the undersized ones back onto the reef for future harvest. You can also add notches 3 inches apart to whatever style culling iron you choose to help gauge whether an oyster is legal or undersized (Image 1). Buckets work well for stationary cooning, but a standard shrimp basket tied to your waist and floated in a throwable life ring is ideal for keeping your bounty near and accessible. A full shrimp basket is a good rule of thumb for the 110 lb limit, and if you choose to sack your oysters, a basket with the bottom cut out can be placed inside the sack and lifted up when full to allow the oysters to fall cleanly into the sack.
Once you have your gear, you will need to find a good reef to work. Finding a good reef means you should consider the biology and life-history of an oyster so that you can find the best oysters for your table. Oysters move water over their gills to get oxygen and food, and in doing so, filter particles including bacteria and other contaminants from the water. For the cleanest and tastiest oysters, target reefs further from civilization where pollutants and runoff are less of a concern. When you are scouting a new location, it can be easy to spend too much time over dead oyster shell. Perform a quick assessment of the location, and if you do not find plenty of legal sized oysters, move along until you find the right spot.
It is best to plan your outings around low tide on days with very light winds, and in clear water that is about knee deep or less, since this will help with visibility. Cooning at low tide also ensures the oysters you pick have been constantly submerged in saltwater, just remember to make sure that the oysters you harvest are more than 300 feet from the shoreline. Working against a current will also help maintain good water clarity where you are cooning, since the mud that is stirred up in the process will be carried away behind you and out of your path.Whether you are a seasoned cold weather enthusiast or simply looking for a fun and delicious new winter tradition to enjoy with family and friends, consider giving oyster cooning a try. It is great exercise, and with the market price of oysters rising consistently each year, a good day’s harvest is becoming quite valuable. Whether you prefer them fried, baked, grilled, or even raw, once you crack into your first batch of delicious, salty oysters that were hand-picked fresh from a bay, you and yours will agree the juice was definitely worth the squeeze.