Post-Freeze Assessments and Game Plans

Post-Freeze Assessments and Game Plans
Great pic of a washout; note there is nice trout barely visible lurking near the bottom of the image.

The most frequent question since my last article has been, “So Jay, tell me honestly, how badly was our trout fishery affected during the February freeze?”

I tell everyone the same thing, “The scientists (TPWD) tell us that Aransas and Corpus Christi bays were not hurt as badly as bay systems to the south of the JFK Causeway.”

Reports from fellow guides and friends come in almost daily but I will comment only on places I am fishing. I will tell you we are currently catching trout on a daily basis when we are targeting them. After the ‘83 freeze and ‘89 freezes trout were very hard to come by. I emphasize this by saying I caught only 61 trout in all of 1984!

Honestly, I feel there are many areas within all our bay systems that took a harder hit than others. Fish in areas of flats close to deep channels, bays, harbors, subdivision channels, etc., seemed to fare better than fish that had little to no deep water refuge. No doubt, TPWD closing these areas to fishing during the coldest days and voluntary suspension of barge traffic contributed to the survival ratio. I personally observed hundreds of trout, redfish and black drum leaving the deeper harbors and subdivision canals as air and water temperatures began to warm.

It was an awesome sight with my son Jay Ray and Jeff Steckler onboard. There was a mutual sigh of relief, knowing that we at least had some decent numbers of quality fish that had survived, fish that will be responsible for the rebuild. Knowing this we still felt then and even more now that we must put the fish first and release all the fish we can in order to kickstart the upcoming trout spawn.

Jay Ray and I already have a great following with clients in the catch and release of trout, especially 20-plus inch fish. Today I am proud to say that our following is growing and all of our clients on the books for 2021 have agreed to release ALL trout. Most have agreed further to release all gamefish in 2021. Might have to keep a few drum here and there for a few dinners at the yacht club but even this will be on a limited basis.

Please know that I have zero problem with anglers keeping enough reds and drum for dinner. I do however think that it would be in the best interest of the fishery overall to release as many redfish and drum as we can. All species were hurt and the more we help, the faster we will start to see a recovery.

Rockport area fish populations were definitely reduced. My slot-sized trout catch is currently running 60% below normal but I am seeing decent numbers of small trout that survived, something I did not see much following the freezes of ‘83 and ‘89.

So, Jay Ray and I are back to fishing, back to teaching and stressing the importance of allowing what we have out there the chance to spawn by releasing them. Now, let’s get down to what I am doing to catch the trout I am catching. By the way, it might be the absolute best time to book your favorite trout guide and sit back and watch and listen to him work. Toughest times require the toughest brain game and the ability to recall all the knowledge obtained in the previous big two freeze events.

First off, I am targeting areas where I know trout survived. I feel that spoils and shallow flats drop-offs that lie adjacent to deeper, warmer waters are where the trout are right now. I believe that as water temperatures warm into the mid- to upper-70s, mullet and menhaden will migrate into the bays from the Gulf. This food source is critical for the upcoming spawn so trout will begin to move up from deeper water to intercept the migration. I personally believe that some trout that might not normally move to the deeper and warmer Gulf waters might have done so during this freeze event. This would be especially true of the fish that live near Gulf passes. I believe (hope) these fish will eventually return, probably following alongside the mullet and menhaden.

Bait has been hard to locate the past several weeks but each day I feel like we are seeing more and more. I am working shallow near shoreline guts that run both parallel and perpendicular to shore, and what I call “pinch points” early in the day where we find baitfish activity. Then, as the sun rises higher into the morning sky, I move to the deeper submerged grassbeds along the shoreline drop-off.

Since Hurricane Harvey my area shorelines have what I refer to as “washouts.” These are areas where the force of wind and water literally washed out large holes in the shoreline. Some of these washouts continue to have water depths that do not allow me to walk across them in waders. The deeper darker water adds some security for the trout and it also allows them to setup very close to the shallow areas in which they prefer to feed during major or minor feeding periods.

The washout game plan allows me to hit numerous areas that don’t take too much time to discover whether or not fish are present. It’s kind of the “aim small miss small” theory in application. On spoils, the trout are holding tight to any type of submerged grass or parallel shoreline guts. Some slicking is helping us here and there but we are still about a month away from consistent slicking activity.

The trout I am catching right now are holding primarily on submerged grass edges along barrier island shorelines and sandbars. You have to bring your lure right up to the grass and literally bump the grass to get a reaction. Once we get a few bites and get the pattern established it becomes a sightcasting to structure gig and can become very productive in a hurry for those that can accurately cast to the edges and keep the lure in the strike zone. I have a great mental picture of how the trout are setup on this type of structure and that is definitely a plus for me and my clients.

Shell ridges around our reefs are also good targets this time of year and how you approach is everything. I approach from offshore, working from deep to shallow. This is the subject of this month’s video clip so be sure to view it. Windward sides of the shell ridges are my preferred side to work but with narrow ridges it is not uncommon for fish to be on both sides. Trout like to setup facing into the current, so casting up-current and windward are suggested.

A bite should stop you in your tracks. Once a fish is caught, continue to cast to the general area where you caught that first fish. What one fish likes, so will another. I call it reloading as fish move in and out but you have to be prepared to be patient and continue to cast to that particular area. Moving water will not only bring baitfish to the trout, it’ll bring the trout to you as well.

Never will the mind game and your ability to move and work slowly and thoroughly when in an area where you know trout to be present be more important. With decreased numbers of trout, bites will be less frequent and we must therefore be very thorough in our work, not walking through the area of bottom structure that we believe the fish be holding on.

I am using two types of lures right now. My soft plastic selection consists of MirrOlure Lil John and Lil John XL, along with 5” Provokers and 5” Shad Bass Assassins. Watermelon, Golden Bream, Bone Diamond, Plum and Cajun Croaker are good color choices. Couple the soft plastic with a 1/16 ounce 2/0 Texas Custom’s watermelon/red glitter jighead for best action. Texas Custom’s Double D Series is killer when working grass edges and reef ridges. I bang my lure down to the edge of the grass or shell, maybe even bump the structure, and then let the lure pause, suspend and slowly rise. It’s a deadly combination of lure and presentation, I promise. This often draws a reaction strike from fish that might not be interested in eating much of anything.

Good luck, be positive, think positive, and release them if you can.

 May your fishing always be catching!  -Guide Jay Watkins

Late Spring Reef Strategies