Hunting for Surf Trout

Hunting for Surf Trout
Green dye used to illustrate how a rip tide works. Fish the edges. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

Fishing the Texas surf on days when conditions are right, with unlimited trout and redfish grabbing on, is a day to remember. The fish out there are hungry for anything flashy or colorful, they’re not too picky. A long cast into green water can make all the difference, that’s why the heavier surf spoons really shine, so to speak. Anything with good ballistics helps; you don’t want some puny bay lure.

Longer rods are helpful; my ideal is a medium/heavy 8-foot graphite spin rod, with a reel full of new 12-pound line. Falling short of green water, splashing the lure instead in “chocolate milk” surf wash may well leave one singing the blues later on in some coastal shuffleboard honky-tonk. You don’t want that, after people on both sides of you were “bowed up” with solid trout, because their tackle had more reach.

I recently talked about surf fishing with Mike Spencer, a high school classmate from back in the day in Port Arthur, who is still slinging spoons and plugs in the surf. He’s  spent decades watching the surf from boat or truck with binoculars, driving slowly for miles and making lots of mental notes. The seagulls have nothing on this guy. Well, except for wings and altitude.

Spencer says on choppy days with murky water and no hope left for finding green water, they look for tide rips. They’re easy enough to spot, where surf water flows back offshore. An old Cajun taught him to drag plastic shrimp tails right on bottom, like the shrimp is walking. Drag it on both sides of the rip tide, not in the middle where the current runs. It seems that murky water trout are content to park on both sides of the current, snapping up bait as it washes by.

Other days when fortune smiles and green water beckons, they hunt for signs of fish. It’s all about hunting for trout. Not wading in front of your rental cabin, waiting for a bite. Watch the weather, you want several calm days in a row. A flexible work schedule helps; don’t expect this to happen on a Saturday. They look for calm weather and schools of bait, whether menhaden, mullet or shrimp. By doing so, they’ve seen solid action on 2-4 pound trout. But not always.

“Two summers ago, seven of us racked up 316 trout in one day. Not big ones, a keeper every five or ten fish. I had a bunch of young guys with me who wanted to set a record. Kept count out loud and released them all. The fish were moving and we’d jump in the truck and get ahead of them again, and then it was fish-on with every cast. I clamped the barbs down on the spoons, so some fish could shake off within arm’s reach. They were so thick, if you dropped your spoon in the water for another cast, another trout would grab on, like four feet away from your rod tip. And this went on for five hours…There were lots of big shrimp in that surf and I had a three-foot shark swim past my elbow. That’s the cool thing about schooling trout at the beach, it can get wild at times.

“We also use Bomber Long A’s or suspending Rapalas. Twitch those plugs! You can see big trout follow the plug almost to the rod tip, waiting for a twitch before striking. If you see a menhaden or mullet school cruising the surf, cast in front of the school, not behind it. Menhaden may show a mud streak in green water, their only sign.

“You need an artificial bait with good ballistics. A shrimptail jig is often too light to reach productive water, which is quite often beyond the last sandbar. We like a spoon weighted near the treble hook, that will throw a long ways. One-ounce Tony Acetta or Kastmaster or Mr. Champ, the genetic term is a slab spoon. Silver or gold, it doesn’t matter. Out in those untamed waters, gamefish will hit almost any color. Use a more steady retrieve, when casting way out there. With the right tackle you can reach 60 yards, which can make all the difference if that’s how far out the green water is. You need range: Twelve or 15-pound line is the right window, between breaking off on the cast or not sailing far enough. A short 30-pound mono leader will do. If you reel it too slow near bottom, you’re liable to hook a big gafftop (called snot-shark) that will knock you out of action for 15 minutes.

“Another advantage of the spoon, is that the classic multi-hook plugs like the MirrOlure have nine different hooks that can snag you, while you wrestle with a fish trying to unhook it in waist-deep water. Meanwhile your buddy has landed three trout to your one. I don’t carry extra lures, just pliers, then wade out there and go. The truck is right on the beach.

“There’s a lot of surf and a lot of fish, but not enough fish to cover the entire beachfront.

Those trout are moving and you have to keep up with them. Watch for diving birds, they love those big shrimp, and I’m talking about eight-inch jumbos. Green water is so important. When driving, keep going until you find either jumping bait or green water.” Spencer says.   

These surf trout have their sanctuaries where truck traffic can’t go.

“From Sabine to High Island, there is almost no road. Or beach, most of the time. If you drive on the vegetation, they’ll write you a ticket because it’s McFaddin Wildlife Refuge. The sand beach has eroded away from too many recent hurricanes, but the Feds have a grant to restore the beach to protect the Refuge, by dredging in sand from offshore.    

“These surf trout really do move. And so do the bait they’re after. Once you find them you have to follow, often marked by diving seagulls. Ignore diving terns, often called liar birds. A seagull won’t waste his time over little glass minnows, which the terns prefer. The average guy standing in one spot at the beach in front of his cabin is not going to catch the numbers. Maybe they never even got wet, casting from dry sand at waist-deep water. Meanwhile we’re driving 20 miles of beach, always looking for sign,” Spencer says.  

If you’re going to keep fish out there, use at least a 20-foot stringer that will keep those yummy trout away from your leg. The sharks are mostly small “ankle snapper” blacktips but you don’t want to run afoul of a bigger blacktip or bull shark; you’re in their element.

One year in June we’d launched a 14-foot jonboat at Port Aransas’ fish pass, south of town. The water was flat and emerald-green. Guys on the beach were chest deep, catching trout. Several released, undersized dead trout floated 50 yards offshore. We stopped to make a few casts and nearby, a tall fin rose from the water, a fin so long that it drooped; we assumed it was a manta ray’s fin. It headed toward us, and moments later a huge hammerhead shark cruised just underneath, longer than our tin can boat. Its hammer was 4-5 feet wide. We kept real still. It was nice of that shark, not to bother those wade fishermen; instead it was politely cleaning up any floating trout. I’ve never heard of a hammerhead grabbing a person, but would not care to have one tugging on a short trout stringer tied to my belt. For surf fishing, a quick release stringer is highly recommended.