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Summer prospects appear good for fishing Texas’ upper coast bays

June 24, 2017 GMT

The speckled trout, redfish, flounder, gafftop, black drum and other top-of-the-food-chain predators in bays along Texas’ upper coast should not go hungry this summer. Neither should the anglers who will target those tasty marine species over the coming months.

Heading into summer and the annual peak of recreational fishing activity, populations of almost all principal sport fish in the Sabine Lake, Galveston Bay and Matagorda Bay systems remain strong and healthy, with most at or above long-term averages for relative abundance. A bounty of menhaden, one of the most important forage species for many inshore finfish, is available to fuel those fish through the coming months. And the same environmental factors that may be responsible for boosting menhaden abundance - heavy inflows of nutrient-rich freshwater over the last three years - also could be playing a role in what appears to be a welcomed uptick in blue-crab numbers.

Those are some of the anecdotal observations that Texas coastal fisheries managers offered in the wake of the latest round of standardized fisheries research programs conducted annually in Texas bays for more than three decades.

“It will be a while before all the data are crunched and we have hard numbers for this year,” Carey Gelpi, Sabine Lake ecosystem leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s coastal fisheries division, said of the just-completed, 10-week, gill net sampling program conducted in each bay system every spring for the last 32 years.

“But based on what we’ve seen, most of the signs are positive. Trout and redfish - the fish most people fish for - are doing well, and above their long-term average. Overall, it looks pretty good.”

That assessment was echoed by Gelpi’s contemporaries on Galveston and Matagorda bays.

“Our finfish populations are doing pretty well,” said Glen Sutton, TPWD’s Galveston Bay ecosystem leader. “Some seem to be doing really well. And there were some interesting things showing up.”

Leslie Hartman agreed.

“We’ll see what the numbers end up saying, but, from just general observations, most fish seem to be doing quite well,” said Hartman, Matagorda Bay ecosystem leader.

Specks, reds doing well

Based on what Mata-gorda Bay coastal fisheries crews saw in the 45 gill net sets they made between mid-April and mid-June, the bay system’s speckled trout and redfish fisheries continue strong. The number of redfish taken in the randomly set nets was “about average,” Hartman said. That is good news for anglers; Matagorda Bay’s redfish population, like that of most bays along the Texas coast, has been at, and often above, the long-term average for several years.

The number of speckled trout seen in the gill nets was “a bit higher,” she said, noting crews encountered several large female fish.

“There’s some ‘big girls’ out there - some very impressive trout,” Hartman said.

Sabine Lake crews saw what appear to be slight declines in catch rates of speckled trout and redfish. But those impressions should not worry anglers.

“For trout, the catch rate was still above the 32-year average. They’re doing just fine,” Gelpi said.

And the same applies to Sabine’s thriving redfish population.

Matagorda Bay gill net sets also indicated the bay’s populations of gafftop and black drum are “doing very well,” Hartman said.

“We saw large black drum - fish up to about 40 pounds - in a lot of places,” she said.

Those species appear to be maintaining strong populations in the Galveston Bay and Sabine Lake systems, with Gelpi noting an increase in drum numbers this spring compared to last year while Galveston Bay’s drum population looks relatively stable, Sutton said.

Galveston Bay’s gafftop abundance, as gauged by gill net sampling, is good and has been increasing over the last several years, Sutton said.

This spring’s gill net sampling in Galveston Bay yielded some impressive numbers of redfish, Sutton said.

“We had some nets in Trinity Bay that were just full of red drum,” he said.

The bay’s speckled trout population appeared “about the recent average,” based on anecdotal observations, Sutton said. But that’s good; Galveston Bay’s trout population, like those of other bays along the upper coast, has been riding a wave of higher-than-long-term numbers for most of the last several years.

Those Galveston Bay trout and the fish in Sabine Lake and the Matagorda Bay system should not lack for forage, this summer. All three bay systems are holding a booming population of Gulf menhaden.

“This looks like a great year for ‘pogies,’?” Hartman said, employing the common name most coastal residents use for menhaden. “There are huge schools of menhaden in the bays and packed in the lower part of the Colorado River.”

The same applies in Sabine Lake and Galveston Bay, said Gelpi and Sutton. The abundance of menhaden, a small, thin, deep-bodied forage species rich in fat and other nutrients, should provide a fine larder for trout and other predator species through summer.

The booming menhaden population could be a result of upper coast bays seeing massive charges of nutrients over the last two or three years - a period marked by heavy floods pouring down the rivers feeding those bays. Those nutrients, carried into the bays by flood waters, fuel blooms of phytoplankton on which menhaden feed.

Blue-crab numbers up

That influx of freshwater and the nutrients it swept into the bays also could be behind what appears to be an increase in the bays’ blue-crab population.

“Over the past three or four years, we’ve seen blue-crab numbers inching up,” Sutton said, noting the increase coincided with the breaking of what was a decade-long drought followed by three years of much wetter than normal weather.

Similar increases have been noted in Sabine Lake and Matagorda Bay. The charge of micro-nutrients as well as the lower salinity levels in large portions of upper coast bays during the last couple of years almost certainly benefited blue crabs, Hartman said.

Whatever its causes, the increase in blue crabs is welcomed. The crustaceans are a crucial component of the bay’s ecosystem and a target of recreational and commercial crabbers. And Texas’ blue-crab fishery has been suffering.

“We’d seen a long, slow but steady decline in blue crabs until over the past decades,” Sutton said. “But they’ve been doing better for the past few years, and it looks like they are doing better this year.”

The recent wet years also may be behind one of the most surprising things coastal fisheries crews encountered during this year’s spring gill net sampling season.

“We saw alligator gar everywhere. More than we’ve ever seen, in places we never see them” Hartman said. “It was really amazing. Not something you expect to see in the bays.”

The same phenomenon occurred in Sabine Lake and Galveston Bay, Gelpi and Sutton said.

“The number of alligator gar we saw this spring was really surprising,” Sutton said. “We’ll usually catch a few in the upper parts of the bay, close to freshwater. But this year, they were all over the bay, in places we normally don’t see them and in numbers we don’t see.”

Added Gelpi: “We saw a boom in the number of alligator gar. Really big ones - fish 5 and 6 feet long.”

Alligator gar are a freshwater fish but do just fine in brackish water. They can survive for extended periods in waters with typical bay salinity levels of 15 to 20 parts-per-thousand.

Why the influx of alligator gar into the bays?

It almost certainly is tied to the last three years of heavy freshwater inflows into the bays, flooding that kept much of the bays and the surrounding marshes awash in freshwater for weeks and months. That could have encouraged the gar to relocate to those marshes and bay edges, where they found habitat to their liking.

“Those big rain events we’ve had in the past couple of years could have pushed them out of their normal areas and into the bays,” Gelpi said.

Why the gar remain after flooding subsided and bay waters have returned to more typical salinity levels remains a mystery.

Salinity levels stabilizing

And Texas’ upper coast bays have returned to a more normal salinity gradient this year, especially when held against conditions over most of the last decade or more.

Those bays have bounced between extremely high salinity levels during the nearly decade-long, record-setting drought that peaked in 2011 and the extremely low salinity levels that held sway in much of the bay systems since the drought broke with a series of record-setting wet years that began in 2013.

This year is the first in many that upper coast bays were not affected by drought or long-term flooding.

“It’s the first time in maybe a decade that water conditions - salinities - during the spring were what we think of as ‘average,’?” Hartman said of Matagorda Bay.

And, with a few exceptions, the anecdotal evidence gleaned from this spring’s annual gill net survey appears to indicate Texas anglers are looking at an “average” summer of fishing in upper-coast bays. That’s a good thing. An “average” summer on Texas bays can be spectacular.