Autumn opportunities abound for anglers, hunters

October 14, 2017

Which way to turn?

That was the choice and the happy challenge on this mid-October morning as it is so many days this time of year if you equally enjoy angling and hunting.

On this October morning, we had idled out of a little bayou and into east Galveston Bay, finding the reach stretched like a sheet of nearly seamless silver under the last weak breaths of north wind behind the front that a couple of days before had swept the sky of clouds and humidity and left a welcomed coolness to the air.

Over there, a glitter of flashing wings hung low over the water. A flock of wheeling, diving gulls were shadowing a school of feeding fish that were tearing into swarms of white shrimp migrating from summer homes in the estuary to winter homes in the open Gulf.

And over there, another bunch of gulls were bird-dogging a feeding school of fish, with some of the birds pitching headlong into the water to poach shrimp that fish had pushed to the surface while others swooped and snatched one of the fleeing crustaceans as it frantically skittered away from the pursuing piscatorial predators.

Perhaps a quarter-mile behind that flock of gulls was another. And another to the east. And another to the south. We could see at least a half-dozen groups of working gulls, each of them pinpointing the location of a feeding school of fish. Probably speckled trout. Maybe sand trout. Or gafftop. Or some combination.

Pick a flock, motor close, drop the trolling motor, ease within casting range, heave a jig/soft-plastic combination into the melee and expect an almost instant hookup.

So many choices

But that wasn’t the only choice. Down the shoreline, a big bayou drained into the bay. That bayou, winding through thousands of acres of coastal marsh, was a pathway transporting shrimp and crabs, bay anchovies, silversides and other small marine life into the bay. Around the bayou’s mouth, we knew, flounder lay in wait, snugged tight on the bottom of the shallow flats either side of the bayou, darting from their ambush whenever the current brought a potential meal within range of their startlingly quick and deadly attack.

Then there was that stretch of the bay’s shoreline where packs of redfish were roaming, rooting in the shallows and nosing among the flooded oystergrass and more than willing to pounce on a spoon or blast a topwater.

And out in the open bay, around what is left of the submerged oyster reefs, schools of speckled trout hung deep near the structure where they preyed on the smorgasbord of forage drawn to the structure and were more than willing to greedily gobble a live shrimp hiding a hook.

Sitting there, trying to decide which way to go, which of so many great options to pursue, a remembered line from William Blake made me smile.

“You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough,” the English writer/poet penned.

Blake almost certainly never wielded a fishing rod or lifted a shotgun to his shoulder and never spent a day in Texas. But his words fit for any Texan who enjoys fishing, hunting or, heaven forbid, both when October arrives. There are so many outdoor opportunities, all of them first rate, that it is almost paralyzing when you are forced to chose.

Coast also beckons

Coastal fishing? It can be the best of the year, and not just because autumn’s cooler temperature make it so comfortable.

Yes, the lingering effects of Hurricane Harvey have been a problem in some areas. Freshwater runoff still has part of the upper bays too fresh and too off color to hold fish like they do in drier years. But that is changing.

With the exception of much of Trinity Bay, upper Galveston Bay and portions of East Bay, salinity levels are either back to normal or salty enough for marine fish. Salinities in the 8- to 12-parts-per-thousand range are pretty common in much of the bay, and even jumping to 20 ppt in areas of the lower bay.

Fishing has been good. Even great. Shrimp are moving out of the marshes from Sabine Lake to West Matagorda Bay, triggering some solid bird action. A lot of those feeding schools under diving gulls are specks, albeit smallish fish. But expect to see plenty of sand trout and gafftop, too.

Reefs - shallow and deep - have been producing good catches of larger specked trout, with more than a few redfish, too.

The annual spawning run of “bull” redfish - adults, most measuring 30-35 inches but some going 45 inches or more and weighing 20-35 pounds - is happening in and near bay and Gulf passes, along jetties and off the beachfront. And it will only get better over coming weeks.

Then there is flounder.

This has been a great October for flounder. Over the last couple of weeks, anglers have reported finding outstanding flatfish action in traditional early-autumn flounder spots. During the recent (and currently ongoing) run of “bull tides” - the much higher than normal tides associated with the autumnal equinox - anglers have found flounder stacked at the mouth of bayous, drains and other such spots in the bays. Those fish soon will begin moving along the shorelines, heading for bay and Gulf passes where they will further concentrate as they funnel though those passes, heading for winter spawning grounds in the Gulf.

Flounder fishing in Texas bays is good, even great, right now. It will get even better in coming weeks.

Freshwater fun

The same goes for freshwater fisheries, and definitely the under-appreciated river fisheries in the central part of the state. Texas holds dozens of rivers offering tremendous light-tackle fishing for largemouth, smallmouth and Guadalupe bass as well as redbreast, redear and bluegill sunfish along with truculent and colorful Rio Grande perch.

Early autumn - October through Thanksgiving - is the premier time to make a float-fishing trip on rivers such as the Llano, South Llano, Guadalupe, Frio, Brazos, Colorado, Blanco, Nueces, Sabinal, San Saba and a dozen other smaller waterways.

The weather is fine, the cooler weather has the fish especially feisty, the gallery forests along the rivers are alive with migrating songbirds and butterflies as well as deer, turkey and other wildlife.

This autumn, thanks to what as been a wet summer, water levels in many of the state’s premier river fisheries are up, making paddling easier on some waters that are usually quite low this time of year. There is no better time than now to be on those waters.

Plenty of action afield

And hunters have just as many options.

While many of the state’s million-plus hunters are focusing their efforts on getting food plots in and blinds and feeders ready for the Nov. 4 opening of deer season, those who seize the current opportunities can enjoy some of the finest days afield of the year.

October can provide some of the best dove hunting of the season as resident birds are joined by migrants moving down the Central Flyway. Last week, a friend reported he and a partner had a fine dove shoot near East Bernard. They played a hunch that the most recent cool front pushed some mourning doves down the flyway. They were right.

It was a classic October dove hunt.

The birds were piling into a field of ripening croton, gorging on the seeds the “dove weed” were dropping - a behavior common in October. They took a couple of dozen birds, all of them the big, long-tailed mature bird with that purplish sheen on the side of their heads and necks that many hunters, rightly or wrongly, ascribe to “northern” doves. They had the field to themselves.

And, as an bonus, my friends got to see and hear the first flocks of white-fronted geese - specklebellies - arriving on the coastal prairie.

Dove season runs through Nov. 12 in the state’s North Zone, Nov. 5 in the Central Zone and Nov. 8 in the South Zone. These final weeks could be - will be, for those who play it right - some of the best and certainly the most enjoyable of the season.

The first weeks of squirrel season in East Texas have been as equally good. A friend from Panola County reported this year’s crop of squirrels and the hard mast they love look outstanding.

He has made a handful of hunts, easing through the hardwood bottoms along the Sabine River, where this year’s crop of oak acorns, hickory nuts, beechnuts and other mast has a thriving population of “cat” squirrels fat, happy and active. He and his .22 easily could have taken the 10-squirrel daily limit. But he likes to take just a few at a time - enough for a couple of meals of fried squirrel or a pot of squirrel and dumplings.

Squirrel season opened Oct. 1 in the 51 East Texas counties holding the state’s highest concentration of squirrels and squirrel hunters.

The early season can be tough hunting, what with the trees still holding most of their squirrel-hiding leaves. But few things can be as rewarding, educational, illuminating and just downright enjoyable as ghosting through a hardwood bottom on a cool, clear, calm October morning.

For those of use who love to fish or hunt or both, this time of year can be a most pleasant misery.

Do we head to the bays? Maybe plan a weekend trip to the Llano or the Brazos for the best light-tackle fishing of the year? A late-season dove hunt? A morning in the river bottom, matching wits and patience with twitchy cat squirrels while scouting for deer scrapes or feral hog wallows?

So many options. Which way to turn?

If you are a hunter or angler in Texas in October, there is no wrong answer to that question.