The Texas coast endures all sorts of hardships—flooded rivers send dirty freshwater down the beaches, storm tides crash into the dunes, and red tides bloom. These represent just a few of the many expected disasters. Another has been virtually absent from our beachfront waters for nearly a decade, though it regularly provided a menacing presence in the past. This nemesis, a living organism, attracts other forms of life, but anglers generally despise it. To get an idea of the effects this enemy of the surf exerts on anglers, imagine conducting a normal surf fishing adventure. As a first step, anglers deploy baits, some large, some small, either using kayaks or by casting. In this puzzling, frustrating scenario, lines become wiped sideways with the current within minutes. Soon, the culprit reveals itself—seaweed, specifically Sargassum weed.
Sargassum is a genus made up of several species of macro algae seaweeds. First described by Portuguese sailors who navigated the Atlantic, in a relatively calm, warm area now known as the Sargasso Sea, Sargassum weeds occur in temperate and tropical oceans across the globe. Numerous free-floating forms of the genus, with gas filled bladders on their branches, thrive in tropical oceans. Offshore of the Texas coast, clumps of Sargassum weed organize on the surface into mat-like structures, which act as oases in the surrounding aquatic desert, often attracting great numbers of both prey species and the predators that consume them, like mahi mahi, wahoo and sailfish.
These weed lines help anglers fishing the waters offshore of our state, and that's a positive thing. On the negative side, large amounts of all things plankton and trash in the Gulf of Mexico wind up washing onto Texas beaches. Winds and currents do what they will, sending most floating things onshore somewhere. Sometimes, this means we see large invasions of Sargassum along the coast.
Most of the weeds we see on our beaches likely originate in the Sargasso Sea, before currents bring them into the Gulf. During recent years, fate has pushed more Sargassum into the Caribbean Sea than the Gulf. I was in Puerto Rico three years ago and saw an epic amount of seaweed storming their beaches. It was not something I expected in a tropical oasis. Puerto Rico, The Dominican Republic and other island republics also suffered through the onslaught, though we did not.
But this nuisance weed is nothing new to coastal anglers in Texas. We've seen it before, and will likely see it again. In the surf, Sargassum weed is public enemy number one for anglers, making it nearly impossible to fish long rods. Clumps of the weed float in the currents driven by steady southeast winds in late-spring and summer.
Once a clump becomes wrapped on a tight fishing line, winds and currents create a bow in the line. If much weed is present, more and more clumps quickly stack up, and their heft pulls the weight on the end of the line free, starting a process which washes the bait down the beach. In great enough abundance, Sargassum weed can render miles upon miles of beach 100% unfishable. This frustrates shark fishermen like me.
Many people new to the sport of shark fishing or surf fishing in general don't have experience with mass amounts of this plaguing weed washing in like we had ten to twenty years ago. Back then, for many weeks in the spring, coping with a Sargassum invasion was the norm. Weeds piled up on the beach in mats two or three feet deep, In some places creating “walls” over four feet tall.
These mats and walls create more than a hazard for drivers, they begin to rot and stink. While it decomposes under the warm sun and gives off noxious fumes, grains of sand begin to cover the layer of weeds, creating a hazardous form of a sink hole, which can swallow passing vehicles. Many trucks and jeeps have been lost in these pits.
Luckily, for the better part of the past decade, we've been spared from seeing these hideous scenes. In some recent years, we received nearly zero weed, and anglers could fish free of frustration and keep baits out with confidence. In others, a light dusting of weeds washed in, which allowed us to keep fishing, with line maintenance.
Despite all its detriments, a major biomass of Sargassum does offer benefits when present in our waters. First, it offers structure and refuge for fry and small species of fish, creating a unique floating habitat that introduces species to new locations. Inside clumps of the weed, an array of crabs, shrimp, triggerfish, juvenile mahi mahi, and even juvenile billfish reside.
Because so many small creatures call these floating havens home, they also attract larger predators to hunt around the structures. When a congregation of Sargassum moves close to the beach, it can bring pelagic predators with it. Some of the few cobia I've seen caught from the beach were landed during heavy Sargassum invasions. I'm sure other exotic and unexpected species make their way toward the beach while following the weeds.
Currently we've been reintroduced to a fair amount of Sargassum, for the first time in years. If it remains present, some anglers will probably become frustrated and angry enough to sell their gear. Often, though, several days of consistent south and southeast winds will push all the weeds in. Weather patterns typically free things up down south first, moving the weeds farther up the coast during summer.
Patience is key when fishing around Sargassum, sometimes requiring traveling twenty or thirty miles to get away from ultra thick concentrations and find fishable water. Remaining persistent and keeping the spirits high despite the seemingly apocalyptic conditions helps, as does acknowledging the importance of this normal occurrence in nature, one full of benefits to the marine ecosystem.
Light amounts of weed can prove great for trout fishing in the surf. When it comes to shark fishing, some incredible specimens have been caught during peak Sargassum events. The fish will be there; patient, determined anglers who best cope with the conditions stand the best chance of catching them.