Plugging the Texas Coast – I Was There! (Part 1)

Plugging the Texas Coast – I Was There! (Part 1)
Herb Purvis, Fenwick fiberglass rod, 5000 reel, and classic 52M MirrOlure, the go-to surf plug.
TSFMag is proud to present a three-part series by Joe Doggett that chronicles the evolution of Texas inshore sport fishing through the eyes of a lifelong plugger. Doggett's outdoor writing career began in 1972 with the Houston Chronicle where he spent 35 years, retiring in 2007. Joe began fishing the Texas coast in the middle 1960s, often wading alongside Texas legends like Rudy Grigar. His perspective on the evolution of Texas inshore fishing is uniquehe was there!

Everett Johnson, Editor

Texas keeps plugging along; in fact, the Lone Star State traditionally has led the nation in plugging. Using a level-wind reel and a two-handed rod to cast an artificial lure is the school of light-tackle inshore fishing known as plugging. The main-line contact, the blend of power and finesse under the "educated thumb," has an aura that whirring, clattering spinning tackle cannot equal. Spinning is effective in many light-line applications, no question, but the clean, classic no-nonsense style is missing - or at least woefully downgraded.

Modern plugging on the Texas coast began with direct-drive reels and bamboo rods following World War II. Great reels of the era included the Shakespeare President, the narrow-framed Shakespeare Sportcast, and the Pflueger Supreme. Popular split cane rods were offered by Heddon, South Bend, and Shakespeare. Plugging really expanded during the late '50s and early '60s, with the widespread use of hollow fiberglass rods and free-spool reels capable of handling the new monofilament lines. I began fishing as a teenager for speckled trout and redfish during this period and feel reasonably qualified to offer some I-was-there perspective on the history and evolution of inshore fishing along the Texas coast.

The A-Team plugger during the '60s and early '70s wielded a 7- or 7 1/2-foot two-handed rod and a Red Reel - the original free-spool, star-drag Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 5000. Everything else was pretty much relegated to the B Team. This is my vivid recollection.

The Red Reel ruled. During the late '60s and early '70s,Texas was the largest market in the world for the Ambassadeur 5000. Admittedly, much of the popularity was spawned by the explosion of Pineywoods bass lakes, but coastal tides and salty "pluggers" carried the momentum.

Popular saltwater rods during the fiberglass era were offered by Shakespeare, Browning Silaflex, Garcia, and, later, Fenwick. My first serious rig, purchased in 1965, was a red 5000 fitted to a white 7-foot Shakespeare Gulf Coast Special. Geez, I was stoked!

The reel was spooled with 17-pound du Pont Stren monofilament. Or maybe it was Berkley Trilene; those were the two main mono choices. Incidentally, most pluggers spooled with 15- to 20-pound line. Ten and 12-pound mono rarely, if ever, was used on casting reels.

Hollow fiberglass blanks were bulky and heavy, and the typical two-handed stick weighed approximately 8 ounces (today's graphite rods scale in the range of two to three ounces). The occasional eight footer might weigh an ounce more. This was not all bad; the added heft helped balance the reel.

The original Ambassadeur 5000 with brass gears weighed approximately 11 ounces. Later models trimmed to 9 ounces, still heavy compared to, say, a new Shimano Curado E at 6.9 ounces. The fiberglass rods suited for casting 1/4- to 1-ounce payloads are slow - excruciatingly slow compared to fast high-modulus materials. Not that this necessarily was a negative. Lures can be "chunked " a long way with the deliberate wind-up and lob afforded by a long, whippy rod. So, for that matter, can a popping cork rigged with a live shrimp. A kicking "brownie" was - and remains - an excellent choice for inshore action, but I primarily am concerned here with the evolution of Texas plugging.

Go-to lures for trout and reds were spoons and sub-surface plugs. Big-name spoons were made by Schumacher/Dixie (Siren, Jet), Johnson (Sprite, Silver Minnow) and Tony Accetta (No. 5 and No. 5H). Fast-sinking hard-plastic plugs were led by Doug English Bingo (Queen, King, and Pluggin' Shorty) and Hump.

Among slow-sinking mullet-imitation plugs, the coin of the realm was the hollow-plastic 52M Series MirrOlure, manufactured by L&S Bait Company of Largo, Fla. The original 52M measures a shade under four inches, with the line-eye rigged in the top the head for a deeper retrieve angle. As an interesting footnote, the hugely popular nose-rigged 51M MirrOlure evolved as Texas pluggers began re-fitting the 52 eye in the nose for shallow running. This was sketchy business with sweaty hands and a pair of rusty needle-nosed pliers. It was easy to screw up - literally. The screw had to seat just right and I recall ruining several new 52's when the twisted eye would slant and the nose would split, allowing the hollow plug to fill with water. After several years of Texas tweaking, L&S introduced the 51M series and never looked back. Among all slow-sinking plugs, it remains a benchmark for big trout specialists on shallow flats and shorelines.

As a plus for the old school, both spoons and sub-surface plugs can be effectively worked with a horizontal rod held approximately chest high. The reel was "palmed" with the left hand (right-hand caster) and the rod butt was placed inside the elbow and braced against the ribs. Longer handles facilitated this technique; the average butt was 10 to 13 inches long, a considerable extension compared to the 7- and 8-inch butts used on most current 6 1/2- to 7-foot graphite rods.

Subtle action with the horizontal rod was imparted with flips of the limber tip and/or a stuttered cadence on the reel. Anchoring the straight butt under the arm relieved the wrist and hand stress common with the 45-degree jiving, jigging action used with most "tails" and dogwalker surface plugs.

A tuned old salt like Rudy "The Plugger" Grigar or Felix Stagno (main man at Houston's old Sporting Goods, Inc.) could wade waist-deep and chunk a gold Sprite all day by using the long handle to minimize arm fatigue.

Over shallow grass or shell, the long handle could be braced at a 45 against your sternum for easy leverage. The high tip combined with a snappy retrieve (not always easy with the slower 3.7-to-1 retrieve ratio on the original Red Reel) kept a lightweight spoon skipping on or near the surface. A brief pause over each sand pothole would allow the lure to flutter down a foot or two - a killer technique.

Hard as it might be for today's young lions to comprehend, soft plastics for specks and reds were virtually unheard of during the '60s and early '70s, and nobody north of the lower Laguna Madre spent much time chunking topwater lures.

Soft plastic worms by makers such as Nick Creme and Tom Mann were hugely popular for largemouth bass on the East Texas lakes, yet nobody of note bothered to utilize the concept in saltwater. Big mistake.

To my recollection, the only soft plastic marketed specifically for specks/reds along the Texas coast was the Bingo Worm, a stiff, stubby 2 1/4-inch plastic fitted on a leadhead hook. It was somewhat specialized for night fishing for small "jug" trout under pier and dock lights (similar to the nylon "speck rig" jigs).

Florida-based Boone Bait Company blew the whole thing wide open during the early 70s with the introduction of the Tout Tail. The original 3-inch shimptail Tout looks pretty lame today, but the molded soft plastic with a flared tail fitted to 1/4-ounce leadhead had the appearance and action of a bay shrimp. Trout and reds and everything else with fins this side of a bull mullet ate 'em up. That one lure changed a lot of concepts. For best results, you needed to jig the thing during the retrieve - not so good with a horizontal rod and a 12-inch handle.

The Tout was so effective that Texas-bred imitations soon started showing. And, as with the 52M MirrOlure, Texas anglers made a good thing better. Longer tails with increased profile and action started dominating. Perhaps the first was the fourinch Original Norton Shrimptail, offered by veteran guide/rodbuilder Bill Norton of Port Mansfield. Right behind, and widely marketed, was the four-inch KellyWiggler Texas Longjohn, by Alpha Industries of Pearland.

Within a few years, dozens of companies were offering soft plastic tails designed for inshore duty. But, as generic tribute to the first Boone product, many old salts still refer to all tails as "Touts."

Overall fishing was good along the Texas coast during the '60s and early '70s. This is surprising when you consider that no size or bag limits were in effect for speckled trout or red drum. None. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the tide line, and both vital species were wide open to sport and commercial harvest. This is astounding, utterly boggling, when viewed from today's conservation-oriented coast.

Shallow-oriented immature red drum increasingly were vulnerable to commercial gill nets and trotlines, and inshore stocks began dipping during the early '70s. By the mid '70s, the red drum fishery in Texas was in serious decline. I remember when catching a single redfish from, say, West Galveston Bay was a big deal.

Your best bet for reds was with shrimp or mullet along the major jetties or maybe with a spoon in one of the remote back bays south of Port O'Connor. Of course, to reach the latter required specialized shallow-water equipment.

Fishing was a deeper game back then. The standard-issue 18- to 21-foot center console Boston Whaler or Mako or Falcon was great for anchoring along the rocks or running the primary bays, but the draft of the heavy V-hull was a tight fit on the flats and in the "lakes." You anchored in reliable thigh- to waist-deep water and bailed out and waded in, hoping you wouldn't walk up the back of a barndoor stingray cozied into the goo-pie bottom.

Poling a flats skiff or paddling a kayaking across the soft muck makes a lot more sense, but nobody wielding a Red Reel in Texas had a clue about such things. A few one- and two-man scooters were used around Port O'Connor, Rockport, Port Mansfield, and Port Isabel, but the privileged mode of shallow-water transportation was the airboat. But airboats are noisy and expensive, not the norm for the average angler.

But that's what you really needed if you were serious about reaching the shallows and chasing the remaining pods of redfish in the Texas bays. Drive-to potential for shoreline reds just wasn't consistent, increasingly strangled in webbing from Sabine Lake to South Padre Island.

But speckled trout fishing during those years was outstanding - open bays, passes, jetties, surf, all held impressive schools on green tides. Boaters chasing the birds or anchored off the Gulf jetties or bay gas wells often measured success not in fish but in ice chests. ("We got two-and-a-half Igloos off the Gulf side of the North Jetty.") An "Igloo," of course, was a 48-quart cooler made by the company of the same name.

Fishermen under pier and dock lights often boxed dozens of 10- to 12-inch school specks per night. All you wanted - especially if you were willing to stay up half the night. The biggest numbers came from the lower coast, where boldly spotted immature trout swarmed over the rich grass beds.

A competent surf wader on a green morning tide near San Luis Pass might literally fill a 12- to 15-foot cord stringer with two- to five-pound trout. These are examples of the excesses that occurred day-after-day with rod and reel. "Sport" fishermen often sold trout and reds to markets and restaurants to defray costs, even turn a profit from a day on the water.

I never approved of this practice and never sold a fish, but some of my good friends routinely did so. And who was I to call foul? The State of Texas didn't care.

Next month, Part Two will review the pivotal period from the late '70s through the early '90s. That span saw the widespread use of graphite rods and low-profile reels, the birth of the Gulf Coast Conservation Association, realistic limits on inshore fishing, and the successful introduction of marine hatcheries.