Winter Bliss

Winter Bliss
Hard fighting for their size and famous as table fare, Florida pompano are popular among surf anglers during December.

One truth cannot be denied—Texas weather is unpredictable. From year to year, things change dramatically, often without discernible, consistent patterns. For the last few years, Texans have experienced short, almost non-existent spring and fall seasons. Basically, the weather just jumps back and forth between the coldest season and the hottest one, without much moderate weather between.

The lack of mild weather has disrupted traditional migrations and patterns in the surf. While history would suggest we should have some stellar fishing in October and November, things in recent years seem to get delayed by warmer than normal weather. Sometimes these lingering Indian summers can keep the fish in holding patterns. During a sluggish start to fall, the action for anglers is normally fair at best. Surf anglers can go stir crazy, just waiting for the seasonal fronts to arrive.

While these delays do cause anglers frustration, a silver lining adorns the dark cloud of this coastal curse; we're usually compensated with something excellent in the end. When we finally get a truly cold blast, and rapidly dropping water temperatures spark the migrations, chaos of epic proportions often follows. This can be a great treat for beach fishermen, and this year's weather seems to set up this scenario again.

Among the great variety of fish we're fortunate to have in our waters, quite a few thrive during the triggering cold-weather events. From the smallest baitfish to the largest sharks, all kinds of creatures become active while brisk winds whistle. Predators are motivated to feed on the massive amounts of prey making their coastal treks. Here in the South Texas surf of Padre Island, most anglers target the same few species during these opportune times.

One impressive brute of a fish storms the beaches in December, ambushing mullet—the jack crevalle.  Jackfish are undoubtedly at or near the top of the list of pound-for-pound strongest fighting fish in the inshore ocean waters. Built for power and speed, they can chase down nearly any forage species found in the shallows. Anglers relish seeing them cruising the waves in fighter-jet formations, seeking their prey. When this happens, these powerful fish will crash into large topwaters, spoons and hefty swimbaits with extreme force. Sight-casting specimens exceeding thirty pounds can be a welcome reward for anglers who may have waited months for just such an opportunity.

Folks who wish to take a more relaxed approach to catching jacks toss live, medium-sized mullet into the waves and wait for bites. Jackfish cannot resist devouring the mullet. While the jacks are not suitable for table fare, they appeal to shark fishermen, who use their bloody flesh for bait. These days, more and more people are practicing catch and release with the big jacks, targeting them for sport and commemorating their catches with photos.

The iconic red drum also ranks high on the list of species sought for sport in the Texas surf during the Christmas month. During this time of year, with just the right conditions, mayhem can break out for anglers targeting redfish. While some reds fall into the keeper slot, the rule of thumb in the surf is the cooler the water gets, the larger the reds will run, on average.  Early-December is definitely one of the peak times for catching oversized reds in the Texas surf.

The best thing about this early-winter run is the high percentage chance it presents for catching a trophy redfish. Many anglers pay big bucks to hire guides to take them fishing in the bays to catch reds. On most of these charters, the fish caught measure in the slot; anglers aren't nearly as likely to encounter giants in the bays as they are in the surf. The adult reds are not legal to keep without tagging, and generally aren't considered worth eating, but they provide great thrills to kids looking to land their first really big fish. This can stimulate wide smiles for the both youngsters and their parents. Cut mullet or whiting will produce plenty of strikes from the bronze bullies. Live mullet will also work well, but they're more likely to attract mackerel, jacks, and bluefish.

December also brings great numbers of perhaps the tastiest fish into our nearshore waters—the Florida pompano. People flock to the Texas coast from all over the country to take advantage of the winter pompano bite. Similar to the jacks, pompano are like miniature versions of the famous permit. Their silver/yellow/green skin is smooth as silk, and their cooked flesh looks like white porcelain. Commercially, these fish fetch astronomical prices, for good reason. While pompano average somewhere between two and three pounds, they can run twice that size. Even a four-pound pompano can put up a fight nearly on par with a small jack.

When these pompano are running in the clear surf after a strong cold front, they are often present in staggering numbers, providing ample opportunity to stock up the freezer. We all need to remember to harvest responsibly and keep only what we can utilize. The easiest way to target pomps is simply to deploy a double-drop rig with 3/0 circle hooks baited with shrimp and/or Fish-bites. My leader preference is the POMP-Master leader.

When water temperatures finally drop significantly, many species actively invade our surf waters, some more highly prized than others. During this timeframe there is something on the beachfront to thrill almost everyone, from targeting trophy reds to seeking giant sharks feeding on large jack crevalle to harvesting tasty trout and pomps. Ideally, the calm days falling two or three days after the passage of a cold front provide the optimal conditions for catching.  Then, the pristine inshore waters fronting the beach can become a kind of piscatorial war zone.

Additionally, human traffic on the beaches usually runs light around the holidays, creating ironic tranquility on the sand.  These things combine to make this one of my favorite times of the year for fishing the surf, and my charter clients can usually get in on a trip with as little as two weeks’ notice. Given the wide variety of options and so many ways to have fun, I'm willing to schedule charters with avid anglers and also families who have less angling experience, tailoring the outing to fit their needs.