Alternative Drain Strategies

Alternative Drain Strategies
Redfish have been very reliable; Robert Moll releases a big one.

The first real cold front of the season is passing through the Coastal Bend as I write. The temperature is 53° with NNW wind gusting to 36 mph – a drop of 27 degrees since yesterday. Glad I’m not on the water. It feels like we are transitioning suddenly from a fall pattern (that never developed fully) into a winter pattern. Hopefully, the fishing patterns associated with this one will be easier to predict.  

Tides have remained higher than high the past three to four weeks, causing many (me included) to struggle with the patterning process each day. Establishing patterns for each day of fishing is critical and I sometimes have difficulty conveying to my clients just how important this process is. In my last article we talked about change or transition. I spoke about my belief that change occurs constantly throughout each fishing day. This could never be truer than what we are seeing right now, and what we are sure to experience behind this front with water temperatures and tides falling over the next 24 to 36 hours.

During frontal passages that reduce water levels and water temperatures, a pattern develops that I have always called the Drain Thang. It is the easiest of patterns to understand and utilize as fish can be literally stacked in the mouths of the drains at certain times. The productivity potential of this pattern is no secret; over the years it has become increasingly difficult, when the timing is right, to locate a drain where somebody is not already fishing.

Drains, for any not familiar with the term, are waterways that connect back-lakes and marsh areas with larger bodies of water. Growing up we called them creeks. In fall and winter, baitfish and small crustaceans migrate from backwaters to bays via these waterways. Naturally, gamefish congregate to take advantage and both ends of the drain can become feeding zones. Sharp bends and troughs within the drains can also be very productive and I fish these features often when my clients are capable of wading some soft stuff. Chances for success in any part of a drain are always greater when the water is moving during a solunar feeding period.

Like I said, the drain thing is probably the easiest pattern for this time of year. But what about days when the water isn’t moving or the solunar periods do not align with our ability to be there? And what about the days when you pull up and water is pouring out of the drain but nothing happens? These are times when knowledge of adjacent bottom structure and the general nature of predators can come into play. Here are some things to think about the next time you run into a day when the drains look right but simply aren’t producing.

First thing, in my home waters, Cedar Bayou can be a huge player in the drain game. Cedar Bayou creates strong circulation through the marsh of San Jose Island via Vinson Slough. It is incredible the amount of water movement we have when fronts push through or whenever wind velocity reaches 20 mph or more. Hurricane Harvey failed to scour Cedar Bayou as we had hoped and we have since seen some major changes in the drain patterns in the area. That is the bad news.

The good news is that Harvey created tons of smaller drains along the St. Joe shoreline that help provide circulation to the area’s backwaters that would otherwise become nearly stagnant. Without the tidal influence through Cedar Bayou, wind is the major player in creating these flows and circulation. I find myself focused on learning and establishing patterns on the smaller drains these days, and leaving the major drains to the general public.

What I have learned is that the smaller drains tend to have stronger currents, due to their narrower funnel points. Behind these drains is mostly flooded marsh grass, which is a great refuge for small baitfish and crustaceans, a favorite food of just about all gamefish. I think the life of crabs and shrimp must be very stressful this time of year.

On many occasions over the past several weeks we observed strong currents pushing through these small drains but would find few bites in or close to them. Tides have been extremely high and winds strong, so waters have been slightly off-color. Normally the waters around Rockport are some of the clearest on the middle coast. Knowing that the fish were using the moving water to make for easier feeding, it would only stand to reason that they would not venture too far from this primary feeding grounds.

Over the three to four week period of extremely high tides, the drain pattern in my area became almost nonexistent as bait scattered and water flow to and from the backcountry was occurring almost everywhere. I have always been of the belief that I am good enough to make them bite even when they do not truly want to eat. I know it’s a cocky attitude, but I still have that belief. With that said, I started looking at the outsides and offshore areas surrounding the drains, searching for areas with scattered grassbeds and lots of sand. Any amount of bottom contour (ridges and humps) makes it even better.

The only way to do this was to fish longer hours and use the lure and my feet to establish what the bottom was like. In most years I would have been able to see the bottom but that has not been the case this fall due to high water and higher winds. Your feet can tell you a lot and a properly worked MirrOlure Lil John XL or 5” MirrOlure Provoker will confirm that fish are present. A single bite can be the beginning of establishing a pattern, a pattern that can be repeated in other areas that hold the same bottom conditions.

Over the past week I have discovered a half-dozen areas offshore of secondary drains that have good bottom contour and scattered submerged grassbeds. These are not directly adjacent but lie within a hundred or so yards of the secondary drains I have been describing. All are rather obscure and probably overlooked by the majority. All have proven very productive.

Yesterday we landed a dozen or so trout from twenty-two to twenty-five inches over submerged grass about 75 yards out in front of a small drain on San Jose. I have definitely noticed that the trout holding over areas of hard sand bottom with scattered grassbeds and humps are better quality fish. All the fish were holding tight to the bottom over grassy humps your feet can detect when your eyes can’t see them.

The grass is short and soft in texture, so we can literally dust the soft plastic through the grass. The bite was not aggressive – more of a soft take than a strike. I told my group they might not feel the grass through their rods, so any resistance on the line was likely a fish. I’m a huge fan of the 2/0 size – 1/16-ounce Texas Custom’s jigheads in this situation, but an 1/8 or even a 1/4 can be effective if water depth, wind, and/or current prevent getting the bait down where it needs to be.

This new pattern I have established is definitely effective and transferrable to other places with similar conditions and bottom structure. I proved it yesterday – leaving an area with fish in the belief that we could find more fish by applying the pattern in a similar area. It worked.

Always remember that what is good for one group of fish will typically be good for another, so long as those fish are holding over similar bottom structure and under similar conditions. I hope you will be able to use this example to expand your drain fishing knowledge the next time the normal DRAIN THANG seems to be failing you.

It is exciting for me to continue learning after all these years, and be able to pass on what I have learned to my fishing clients. The chase is what makes fishing enjoyable to me. At this stage of my career I find myself enjoying the fish’s victories equally as much as my own. Please keep what you need and release the rest to fight another day.

May your fishing always be catching!  -Guide Jay Watkins