The Writing’s on the Wall

The Writing’s on the Wall
Melissa Samperi with her first trout on artificials!

I’ve always had a tendency to recap our fishing by season because it just seems to make sense. With summer soon coming to a close I look back on the highs and lows and the reasons for both. While June 21 was the official first day of summer, I generally include the month of May because that’s when our water temperatures begin to stabilize and fish begin to exhibit more consistent warm-water behavior patterns.

May was by far our most productive month for catching trout, so far this summer. The majority of the legal trout ranged from 15- to 18-inches with the highest percentage averaging 16 inches. The majority were females. There were some days when we would hit patches that included fair numbers of healthy 19- to 22-inch specks. The largest Galveston Bay trout on my boat this summer was a 24.5 inch female caught while wading a West Bay shoreline. I also remember releasing one very chunky 23-incher that weighed almost 5 pounds, caught while drifting live oyster on the west side of Galveston Bay. We had many mornings where we caught 30 to 40 legal trout before 9AM. I’d say it was pretty good by today’s standards, on our part of the coast, anyway. Now, let’s dig a little into some of the reasons for our May success.

Prior to April and May, the Trinity and San Jacinto rivers dumped large amounts of fresh water into the back of Trinity Bay and Upper Galveston. The majority of the fresh water came from heavy upstream rainfall events. This scenario concentrated fish along the east shoreline of Trinity Bay, the west shoreline of Galveston Bay proper, and into portions of Lower Galveston Bay. To some this created the perception that we had millions of trout. The reality was that it was a combination of three things.

1. Resident trout being stacked up by fresh water as they fled from low salinity areas.

2. Tide-runner trout beginning to come in from the Gulf.

3. Light winds afforded anglers the opportunity to go catch them.

Everything came together. It was awesome to experience. However, it lasted only about five weeks.

All of June and continuing through July 26 as I am writing this article, has been a very humbling experience for me and my clients, and many others. Not only have we been plagued by near constant southwest winds and low tides, but the areas where we could traditionally catch trout in such conditions seem to be void of life other than a few undersized trout. And, as for those west side stretches of water that held so many fish for the five weeks prior…well, they vanished overnight as bay wide salinities rose and the fish spread out.

Wading and drifting near passes has been our saving grace as tide-runner trout in these areas traverse back and forth from the beach to the bay. The key phrase of the day here is “tide-runner trout.” In other words, they are not resident fish. It’s important to know the difference when trying to understand how to manage a fishery. Some deeper areas along the Houston Ship channel have been holding decent numbers of 10- to 14-inch specks, but very few legal ones. The only exceptions have been some wells and other deep water structure (10 to 14 feet) but those trout are being caught mostly on live bait and are few and far between. Catching 16 or 17 legal trout on lures is a good day for me right now. I remember when I used to apologize to clients for those kinds of days. The bar has definitely been lowered.   

With the sunset date (August 31, 2023) of TPWD’s emergency trout regulations on the middle and lower coast fast approaching, discussions of spotted seatrout size and bag limits have once again become the hot topic up and down the Texas coast. For those not aware, TPWD implemented an emergency size and bag limit change roughly two years ago as a result of the February 2021 freeze. The impact of the freeze with regards to spotted seatrout mortality varied among bay systems with Matagorda and San Antonio being hit the hardest.

On September 1, 2023, spotted seatrout size and daily bag limits will revert back to 5 per day with 15 to 25-inch retention slot, while also allowing one per day greater than 25 inches. The emergency regulations allowed only 3 trout per day between 17 to 23-inches with no trout over 23 inches allowed. The emergency rule was implemented from FM457 southward to Brownsville. Galveston Bay and Sabine including their adjacent satellite bays were never part of the emergency rule.

Very recently, there have been petitions popping up and public outcry from concerned anglers to keep the “emergency limits” in place for not only the previously affected areas but also to include the Upper Texas coast. For the record, I’m in the same camp as those “concerned anglers.” It is my understanding that this will not happen because there was a sunset date already established. However, I’ve also heard that TPWD will be holding scoping meetings in the near future to revisit spotted seatrout limits, among other things.

I’ve read tons of comments on social media and I find it interesting that a lot of folks have recommended a limit of 5 trout with a 15-20 inch slot. Their justification is that the larger females, say those 17-23 inchers, are some of our most prolific spawners. While this is certainly true there are far fewer specks in that range in the overall trout population. This is precisely why TPWD elected to protect the trout below 17 inches with their emergency rule. The 17-23 inch female trout are 2.5 to 4.5 year old fish. The 12-17 inch females are 1 to 2.5 years old.

Age Structure Percentage of Spotted Seatrout Population Coastwide:

 Age % of Population

  • 39.28%
  • 27.52%
  • 17.28%
  • 8.82%
  • 4.13%
  • 1.59%
  • 0.72%
  • 0.48%
  • 0.15%
  • 0.03%

Source: TPWD Coastal Fisheries     

Initially, I was thinking what most people probably were. Why would TPWD want us to retain trout that spawn so many more eggs than a 15 inch female? After having it explained to me by a TPWD biologist and then actually looking at the data, I realized that they were correct and had made a smart decision with regards to the emergency rule. In addition, I know what I witness day in and day out on the water (Galveston and Matagorda Bays). My observations on daily trips have been that we catch many more 12 to 16.5 inch specks than 17-23 inchers. It all started making sense.

Here is my take on how to manage our trout fishery:

Multi-Tiered Trout Management Plan

From a regulatory standpoint, a multi-tiered coastwide trout management plan should be implemented as soon as possible. This plan would focus on increasing our biomass first, and then once healthy resident populations of trout are re-established, we’ll look at managing our way towards a trophy trout fishery. This being said, not every bay system is the same. For example, the Lower Laguna Madre may need a different management plan than say, Galveston Bay. I know that here on Galveston, for whatever reason, there seems to be very few resident trout in some areas where they were once incredibly abundant; i.e. Trinity Bay, East Bay and West Bay. We have never fully recovered since Hurricanes Harvey’s flooding in 2017. Furthermore, as soon as our trout hit 15 inches they get harvested because there’s nowhere to hide. There are no secrets anymore.

Limited Entry/License Buyback for Fishing Guide Licenses 

I don’t know what the exact number of Texas saltwater fishing guides might be currently, but it’s my understanding that there are somewhere around 1,700 and maybe more. I wouldn’t doubt it as I’ve personally seen the number of guides increase around here (Galveston) especially since we’ve gone to a 5 trout limit. We also experienced an increase during the COVID pandemic. There were 929 saltwater guides licenses sold in 2006 (“Limits-Food for Thought” Texas Saltwater Fishing Magazine, Steve Hillman, 2016) so the added fishing pressure should be obvious. With a drastic increase in guides and fewer fish, it’s safe to say that there needs to be a limited entry/buyback program for saltwater guides’ licenses similar to what was established for the inshore shrimp fishery in 1995.

Sanctuary Areas

My good friend Mickey Eastman and I talk quite frequently about our trout fishery along the Texas coast but more specifically here on Galveston Bay. He has told me for years that the waters north of the Fred Hartman Bridge in Baytown need to be established as a sanctuary area for trout. I couldn’t agree more as the waters north of the bridge hold really good numbers of trout and other species year-round (especially during the winter months when they become easy targets), and furthermore, this is one of the areas with a fish consumption advisory.

“Houston Ship Channel and all contiguous waters north of the Fred Hartman Bridge, State Hwy 146 including the San Jacinto River below the Lake Houston Dam.

Chemicals of Concern: Dioxins, Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)

Advisories: Persons should not consume blue crabs or any species of fish from these waters.” - Source: TPWD

Establishing sanctuary areas like this and possibly others will provide a serious boost in our spawning and recruitment numbers, which will ultimately help us re-establish resident populations of trout throughout the entire complex.

Atlantic Croaker

Atlantic croaker populations and size continue to decrease year after year. They once provided loads of fun and excellent table fare for those (me included) who targeted them during the fall croaker run. Croaker also afforded folks who were landlocked the opportunity to spend time with their families catching these hard-fighting, delicious fish. I’ll never forget me and my cousins dangling our feet off our pier on Dickinson Bayou catching 12 to 17-inch croaker and having my mom fry them up for us. Oh my God! Talk about delicious! I’ll take a croaker over a trout any day of the week.

A 10-inch minimum on Atlantic Croaker needs to be established ASAP in an effort to begin restoring our croaker populations.

Fishing Tournaments

Most of us in the fishing world are somewhat competitive; it kind of goes with the territory. I used to fish a lot of tournaments. Some were kill tourneys but most were live weigh-ins. Nowadays there are more tournaments than ever. Some are to raise money for charities and some are simply for the glory of taking home a trophy and some cash. Either way, with modern technology, there’s no reason to continue to have kill tourneys. My friend, Chad Peterek, has proven this with his Legends Tournament where every fish is weighed on the spot, videoed, and then released. There are other tournaments that have followed his lead and I believe there will be many more in the future. In the meantime, for those who choose to go the old school kill route, I think there they should pay restitution to TPWD for every fish killed. In addition, the days of large tourney creels like 5 trout and 2 reds should come to an end. I actually heard of a fundraiser tournament the other day where the creel was something like 5 trout, 3 redfish and 5 flounder. That’s just dumb.

Dead Dock Shots

We’ve got guides with 20-40 years of experience posting dock-shots of dead trout during a time in which we should be heavily promoting conservation. I would kind of expect some of the “younger” guides who perhaps don’t know any better (or don’t care) to spend time on TikTok or wherever doing silly stuff like that but not the old-timers. Hell, even some of the lure guides are doing it now. What an embarrassment to the profession! One of the issues with these types of posts are that they attract the type of clients who expect to go out and harvest as many fish as they see in the pics. And while this may be perfectly legal, it doesn’t mean it’s right or helping our fishery. The bottom line is that it’s not only a bad look for our industry but it’s simply out of style for these days.    


We’ve been heading down a slippery slope for a while. We’ve dealt with habitat destruction from hurricanes, massive erosion, and many other natural and manmade problems. It continues to be an uphill battle. We all think we have the answers but there’s no silver bullet when it comes to managing our speckled trout fishery. I keep using the word manage but I think rebuild is more appropriate, especially here in the Galveston Bay Complex. If things don’t improve soon everyone will suffer; fishing guides, lure companies, hotels, boat dealers, etc. Not to mention our kids and grandkids not getting to enjoy the bounties of Mother Nature.

I remember all those years I spent growing up in the commercial oyster industry. Some of the oyster dealers truly cared about sustainability but there were others who didn’t look past the next day. I feel very blessed to be able to make a living for me and my family from the resource God has provided. Unfortunately, I see many fishing guides who are only looking at today. I saw the writing on the wall then (in the oyster industry) and I hate to say it, but I see the same mentality when it comes to our speckled trout fishery today. I see fishing guides (lures and bait) who fish the same two or three spots every day and talk about how good it is as they whittle away on their little patch of trout, all the while knowing they are slowly fishing themselves out of business. It’s sad.

Unfortunately, we can’t control all of the environmental changes that occur year after year. That’s one of the reasons it’s so important for us as stakeholders to do everything in our power to not only stop the bleeding but improve our fishery. There’s got to be a common sense element. We know that some folks are going to want to keep a few fish, but when I see a group of four guides on their day off, going out dragging Flow Troll buckets full of live croaker and killing 20 trout just for a Facebook post, that to me is a problem. Last time I checked, hunting whitetail deer at night with a spotlight was illegal because it gives the hunter an unfair advantage. To me, grown men dragging buckets of live croaker are the same.

I’ve said it before but I guess I’ll say it again. It’s time we get our act together if we care anything at all about the future of speckled trout fishing here on the Texas coast. The writing is on the wall but I believe we have the ability to erase it if we care enough.