by Sam Hudson (This article first appeared in Sport Fishing Magazine May 2014 www.sportfishing.com )
Travel time’s not an issue when targeting the most popular coastal game fish in the Southeast — they’re always in your backyard. The red drum, widespread in its range, doesn’t care about structure, water depth or clarity, as long as there’s plenty of food available. That’s not to say reds don’t adjust to environmental factors, just that they thrive in so many conditions.
I learned just how adaptable redfish are when I hiked a trail along Florida’s Indian River Lagoon. Scouting among the overgrown mangroves, I spotted redfish tailing in a mosquito ditch not more than 5 feet wide. The drum favored the mud-bottom canal instead of lush grass flats refreshed regularly with tidal movements on the other side of the berm. Still, these redfish — the biggest in the area — chose a 1- to 2-foot-deep trough, even with access to the lagoon via drainage culverts at high tide. I had to cast to them, among the spider webs and branches, even if I didn’t understand what they were doing there. When I convinced a big red to bite, the maze of mangroves I crisscrossed to land and leader the fish was ridiculous, but it was completely worth it.
From the Chesapeake Bay to Texas, anglers have abundant opportunities to catch red drum, Sciaenops ocellatus, commonly called redfish, bull red, puppy drum or spot-tail bass. Redfish of all sizes inhabit brackish creeks, marshes, grass flats, mangroves, oyster beds, bridges, passes and beaches of the Southeastern states. Pick the structure that fits your favorite style of fishing. Or target new waters that have gone unexplored.
I interviewed local captains from different spot-tail epicenters to highlight fishing strategies for five unique habitats that attract redfish.
1. Jetty Juggernauts: Fishing Inlets and Passes
One of the most dangerous places to cast a line in Texas is also the fishiest. Trophy redfish hang around sudsy jetties year-round, taking advantage of tidal flow like a conveyor belt delivering food. “Strong tidal currents at the jetties create waves as current floods and ebbs in and out of the bay,” says Capt. Brad Stanford, of Pirate of the Bay Charters in Rockport. “If seas are running 2 to 3 feet offshore, and you have a very strong outgoing tide, the waves could be even bigger at the mouth of the Port Aransas jetties. Pay close attention to your surroundings as you fish the rocks to minimize risk.”
Late summer into early fall is when the bulls start showing regularly around jetties, increasing in numbers through fall and early winter during annual spawning runs. That’s the best time of year to catch the big boys, says Stanford. Use your depth finder to mark drop-offs near the jetty.
“My best spots tend to drop off from 8 to 30 feet,” he says. “The strong current washes bait across the shallows over deeper sections, where big reds wait to ambush baitfish.” For big reds, live baits like mullet, croakers and mud minnows are the top presentation. “In early fall, mullet congregate around the jetties for their spawn, coinciding with the bull reds running. Typically, a 4- to 8-inch mullet works, but it’s a trade-off. The bigger the bait, the bigger the redfish, but you’re a lot less likely to catch much else with the bigger bait.” Artificial-lure anglers attack the jetty differently.
“Cast to smaller reds early in the mornings along the rocks,” says Stanford. “Waves and current can make it hard to see at times along the jetty. When you can’t spot the reds, cast suspending lures such as Corkys (now Paul Brown’s Original Series, part of MirrOlure’s lineup) and Rat-L-Traps,” the guide advises.
2. Bar Hopping: Casting Along the Beaches
Good luck finding a spot more consistent for bull reds than Dixey Bar, a man-made mound that lines the ship channel entering Alabama’s Mobile Bay. Located off the point where Fort Morgan stands, the lengthy bar and nearby Dauphin Island beaches are a mecca for oversize red drum. “The bar’s as shallow as a couple of feet, and sometimes you can see the reds schooling on top,” says Capt Kevin Olmstead, of Point Clear Fishing Adventures in Mobile Bay. “That makes for truly exciting fishing. I usually fish the drop from 7 to 16 feet with 20- to 30-pound gear during an outgoing tide.”
Fall and early winter, when bunches of bait are flushed out of the bay, is a prime time to fish, even though all year can be productive. Light north winds seem to bring the fish to the top to feed, says Capt. Barnie White, a charter captain and tournament fisherman from Brewton, Alabama, and member of the White Fishing Team.
“These fish will push a ‘mullet ball’ to the surface, and when they get into that mode, double and triple hookups are not uncommon,” says White. “Watching those big fish blow up on a Badonk-A-Donk [a surface lure by Bomber] is a blast. The big reds on the beaches usually target mullet, so a popping cork with a soft plastic offers another option.”
Reds range in depths up to 30 feet deep — watch for birds and for blowups at the surface. The bulls also cruise in the surf, right along the breaks. The translucent blue tail always gives them away. Fishing from a boat with a strong trolling motor is effective.
“Most of the time they are in small packs of three to five fish,” says White. “They’re not spooky but are moving fast, and it takes a good eye and quick reactions to stay ahead of the fish for a cast.”
3. Silent Stalkers: Sight-Fishing the Grass Flats
Tails, you win, when fishing at Flamingo in Florida’s Everglades National Park.
“Reds tail in singles and schools,” says Capt. Jason Sullivan, of Rising Tide Charters, who fishes park waters regularly. “They will push big head wakes too. I have seen them in schools of 10 to 150, both tailing and cruising.” Local knowledge is necessary to navigate the shallow flats, pole-and-troll zones, and shoal areas that make up northern Florida Bay. “If you spend enough time poling the flats and paying attention to the tides, you can definitely catch redfish on your own,” he says. “Where I fish on the flats, it takes a very shallow-draft skiff.”
The best areas are based directly on the tide. Some spots are better on the falling tide, and some are better during incoming. “I really want clean water when I’m looking for reds,” he says. “The right depth is when my skiff drags a little when I am poling.”
Sight-fishing for reds on the flats is the technique du jour in the Glades, but blind-casting in potholes or around islands is successful too. Tackle up with a 7-foot, medium-light rod and a 3,000-size reel spooled with 10-pound braid. For pothole fishing, Sullivan throws the popular hard-bodies Rapala SkitterWalk redfish lure or a ¼-ounce spoon. The top lure for sight-fishing is a soft bait rigged weedless on a worm hook.
When reds are tailing, throw it past the fish and reel it to their nose. If the fish are cruising, cast in front of them along their forward path.
“It’s hard to beat poling up to a fish, making a presentation, and watching the bite,” admits Sullivan. “The other day my angler cast at a fish, and the red sucked down the Gulp! shrimp like a trout sipping a dry fly.”
4. On the Hunt: Working Spartina Grass on the Flood Tide
Flood-tide redfishing is all about timing. Occurring just eight months out of the year in South Carolina, and only about 10 to 15 days each month, high waters allow red drum to explore mud and flats that are usually dry. “Your tide logbook is your best friend,” says Capt. Owen Plair, who runs charters out of Bay Street Outfitters in Beaufort, South Carolina. Plair capitalizes on the Low Country phenomenon each year, targeting the short-stalked spartina flats.
Peak tides cover mud flats that grow spartina grass, allowing redfish to target otherwise unmolested numbers of fiddler crabs. April through November represent the optimum months, says Plair. After that, water temperatures drop below 65 degrees, signaling fiddler crabs to burrow into the mud. “It’s a four-hour window of opportunity,” he says. “The key time to fish a flat is two hours before and two hours after. You want to spot fish as they’re first moving onto the flat from feeder creeks — that’s when these reds feed most aggressively. Fish can pop up anywhere on the flat, which makes this trip almost like a hunting expedition.”
With their noses in the mud and tails wagging in the air, flood-tide redfish are a hard-hitting bunch. Cast gold spoons or scented artificial baits rigged on a weighted weedless hook. “I use a Berkley Gulp! Peeler Crab with a chartreuse tail because the tail mimics a shrimp lighting up in the grass,” says Plair. Use a 4- to 6-foot section of 30-pound fluoro leader.
Presentation is key to catching flood-tide reds — you want to make sure your bait is in a fish’s vision. “Once you spot a tailing fish, you want to cast your artificial about 5 feet in front of the fish and 4 feet past it,” says Plair. “This will give an angler the opportunity to adjust the bait to the path of the fish. Slowly move the bait along the bottom like a crab or grass shrimp; a slight twitch with the rod tip is all you need to get an aggressive strike.”
5. Marsh Madness: Chasing Pond Pumpkins over Mud Bottom
From Venice, Louisiana, to the Biloxi Marsh, Capt. Greg Dini, Jr., of Fly Water Expeditions, can’t think of a better landscape to sight-fish for giant redfish. There’s a reason the countless acres of wild marshland and mud bottom is often referred to as the Land of the Giants. Fishing out of Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes, Dini never has to fish the same waters two days in a row. “Keeper redfish are always around because of our light fishing pressure,” he says. “In the summertime, we’re fishing for reds up to 15 pounds. From mid-August to February, we see 20-pound fish up to 30 pounds on average. Conditions pending, it can be great year-round.”
Dini guides mostly fly anglers to the pond pumpkins but recommends 15- to 20-pound tackle for spin anglers, including 7-foot rods that cast jigs and topwaters precisely. Around the marsh, reds get their moniker from vivid-orange coloring on their sides in the backwater creeks and ponds in which they’re caught.
“The reds will be over mud, oyster, sand and even some grass,” Dini says. “Always watch where you’re running the boat because there are obstacles leftover from storms.” If the reds are near baitfish or sitting motionless, throw poppers. Free swimmers at the surface, floating “high and happy,” make easy targets. When reds are moving with purpose, cast baits out in front to make sure they see them. Sometimes redfish will be in water so skinny that their back sticks out. Still, those fish readily eat well-placed soft plastics.
Marshes closest to the open Gulf of Mexico see fresh numbers of redfish moving in from deep water. The only downside to this fishery is reds’ sensitivity to weather changes, Dini says, since they might head back offshore as quickly as they came. Play the weather window right, and eager Louisiana redfish will leave your arms and hands sore but begging for more.
by Grant Alvis
Redfish, Puppy Drum, Spot Tails, Pups or Reds. Whatever you call them one thing remains the same, everyone loves to catch them! Once Mid-April arrives the thought on many of Virginia’s inshore anglers minds is catching these hard fighting fish. Redfish arrive in the Chesapeake in the Spring each year and head south out of the Bay in late Fall to early Winter with a few fish hanging around in the marshes and inlets all year long. My favorite way to target these fish is on a fly rod but I will cover that in another post. For now, I will be touching on some of my most effective ways to target redfish on spinning and casting gear.
First, you need to know where to start looking. Redfish prefer to cruise the shallow flats and marshes in search of crabs, shrimp, finger mullet, bunker, mud minnows and whatever else they can get their mouth on. Most of the first few miles of Virginias tidal rivers (where they meet the bay) will hold Reds, but it’s not rare for Reds to be caught well up river. Bass fishermen often catch a few each year in the Chickahominy River just off of the James. I wouldn’t recommend going looking for them this far inland though. My favorite places to fish for them is in the salt marshes around Mobjack Bay. Mobjack is known for having a massive population of Redfish throughout the season and it would be pretty hard to pound the grass lines in any random area and not catch at least one.
Mobjack is a large area but it can be easy to rule out areas to look for these fish. Yes, drum love grass flats, and Mobjack is full of them…(miles and miles of them). I prefer to look for the flats that are close to a channel edge. I have found over the years that I seem to catch more and larger Reds around a flat with quick access to deeper water, especially on a falling tide. As the tide drops they can forage for food easily on the flat and if they get scared or the water drops too low they can retreat to the channel and wait out the low water. Although it is not rare to see reds practically belly crawling through inches of water munching on crabs.
Sometimes you are in a location that has nothing but 3-5 foot deep grass flats. No problem, there are Redfish there too. The easiest way to locate them in these areas is to look for the sand pockets in the grass. The drum use these grass pockets as ambush points where they sit and wait for bait to swim over the grass and be exposed. In a location like this you basically must hop from one pocket to the next and it can be frustrating but very rewarding as well. In all these situations I prefer a falling tide, but fish can be caught on an incoming tide as well.
Now that you know where to look, you probably want to know what to throw. The good news is Reds aren’t too picky. They will take a variety of baits from soft plastics of many styles and colors to modified saltwater spinnerbaits and buzzbaits to hardbaits such as MirroLures and Bomber’s Badonkadonk. Redfish aren’t shy about topwater either, even though it can be hilarious watching them head butt a bait 3 or 4 times before finally getting hooked. I will talk about each bait in the way that I find it most appropriately used.
When you arrive in a new location, you should first be thinking about covering some water, a good bait to do this with would be a swimbait like a Salt Water Assassin 4” paddle tail or a Gulp Alive 4” Pogy. I prefer to put the SWA on a 3/0, 1/8oz. keel weighted swimbait hook if there is a lot of grass for a more weedless presentation. I put the Pogy on a Jig head when I am fishing grass lines and channel edges. With both of these baits I do a combination of a swim and hop retrieve. I like to swim the bait 3-5 feet or so and them allow it to hop on the bottom for about the same distance and then repeat. This is a medium speed retrieve and Reds love it!
Another good bait for searching for Reds is the very popular Redfish Magic Spinnerbaits. I cast these long distances and cover area on the flats, either slow roll them or speed it up, but I have found that a steady retrieve with only a very few pops thrown in tends to work wonders. For these baits I prefer to use a 6’6” or 7’0” medium action rod with a fast tip and a 2500 size reel spooled with 10-15lb. braid with a 10-15 pound fluorocarbon leader. The fast tip allows for a more sensitive feel because a lot of the strikes are not bone crushingly hard. Some strikes can be a simple sip and just feel like weight on the end of the line.
Fishing Feeder Creeks:
A lot of the bays and rivers Reds tend to inhabit have many feeder creeks coming into them with many being wide enough to paddle into and fish both sides comfortably. These creeks are always best on high tide due to how shallow they tend to be. In these areas I really enjoy fishing a popping cork. A popping cork is a cupped cork that slides up and down a wire. I buy the Billy Bay Clacking Popping Corks which have two brass beads that produce a little louder sound. The cork is tied to the main line and a leader is tied below about 16-24” in length depending on the depth of the water (you don’t want your bait to be on the bottom). Tie a light jig head to the leader and slide on your favorite soft plastic.
I like to use a Gulp 3” Swimming Mullet or Shrimp. If the water holds a lot of Croakers, Bluefish, or other bait stealers I like to use the Z-Man ShrimpZ with Pro-Cure scent. The Pro-Cure is just as strong of a scent but the Z- Man baits have elastic plastic, so they can handle the abuse. Once the cork is rigged, I prefer to cast it tight against the grass and let it sit for a few seconds, then pop the cork 2 or 3 times then let it sit for a few seconds again. However you like to retrieve the cork I STRONGLY recommend you keep a rhythm with it. Fish can hone in on a sound a lot better when it is repetitive. Only after you have a small strike do you stop the cadence and add just a slight pop. This can trigger the fish to engulf the bait.
I like to use a 7’0” Med Heavy Spinning Rod with a very fast action and a 2500 size reel spooled with 20lb. braid. I opt for the Med Heavy because of the extra backbone needed to set a popping cork. Since the cork is cupped and under the water when you set the hook, that produces a lot of drag and thus requires a little bit more backbone. This bait basically must be thrown on a spinning rod because of how it flies through the air, it topples end over end and pulls line unevenly, basically making it impossible for you throw it on a bait caster without backlashing.
Another very successful bait for these creeks is a Gulp Shrimp on a jig head dragged on the bottom. In the very small creeks sometimes a cork can be too much commotion and a softer slower retrieve can be better. Basically, fish the shrimp as if you were fishing a shakey head for Bass with a slow drag and a hop here and there.
Since there is so much floating and loose grass in these areas, I tend to throw a weedless Swimbait or Jerkshad. I like a 7’0” medium spinning rod with a fast action and a 2500 size reel with 15 lb braid. I use a 10-14 pound fluorocarbon leader and I tend to swim lures more across grass just to keep it above the grass and just barely clipping the tops. This allows the bait to barely move some grass around and catch the attention of any fish nearby. Be prepared, the hits when on grass flats can be vicious! This is because there are so many places for the bait to hide, they don’t want it to get away. They will often practically rip the rod out of your hand.
Oyster Bars and Rip Rap:
Reds tend to congregate around oyster bars and rocks throughout the tides due to the amount of food. Not just oysters and crabs, these locations offer protection for many species of baitfish and the Reds like to patrol them. This is where I pull out the larger baits. These locations tend to hold mullet and Bunker. Due to these being two of the largest baits the Reds eat in the bay, I like to throw larger hardbaits like Mirrorlures or Paul Browns. I throw them on a 7’0 Medium casting rod with a moderate action with 20 lb braid and a long 12 lb fluorocarbon leader. The moderate action of the rod allows me to not over-work the bait and with the treble hooks it helps not to tear them out of the fish’s mouth as they headshake. I like to slow retrieve them after letting them sink with a heartbeat thumping retrieve. Most of the hits will be brutal and will be on the fall in between pops.
Redfish love structure for everything from protection to an ambush point and docks offer them just that. I usually only use two baits when fishing docks - the popping cork around the edges to try and pull fish out and a Gulp Swimming Mullet on a jig head pitched under the dock and slowly pulled out to imitate an escaping baitfish. Be sure to bump up a rod size to be able to pull these fish out of the structure because they will try their hardest to turn tail and get into the dock and as soon as your braid rubs the barnacles, you will be broken off.
Occasionally I am lucky enough to stumble upon a school of Reds chasing bait. In this case I am going to take advantage and catch them on the most fun way possible – TOPWATER! I like to throw either a Mirromullet or a Zara Spook Junior. These are both walking baits which tend to be a retrieve that Reds just can’t resist. I like to throw these on the same set-up as my MirroLures, a moderate action casting rod to allow me not to over work the bait. Also that moderate action allows you not to rip the hooks out of their mouth in the hookset. Cast the bait about 5-10 feet in front of the fish as they swim along and work it across the school. You will get blown up on then wait until you feel weight - then set. Whatever you do, DO NOT set the hook before you feel the weight of the fish because chances are the fish doesn’t have it completely in its mouth.
So, as you can see, these fish can be in a bunch of different places, they have a very diverse diet and they can be spread out. This doesn’t mean they are hard to catch. It just might take some time to get your bearings and figure these fish out. I hope I have been able to give you a good foundation to start your search. In my opinion of all the summer species that flood the bay, the Redfish are by far the most rewarding. The effort you put in will directly affect the output. These fish are eager to please, and I can assure you as soon as you get one on your line, you will catch the Redfish Fever like many Virginia anglers do!
by Brian Irwin
Visiting Arroyo City, Texas, feels like you’re at the end of the earth. The small hamlet rests at the terminus of Texas Farm to Market Road 2925, and is adjacent the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. There is no gas station in town. The only option for supplies or booze lies in a few shops, which serve up all you need sprinkled with an occasional attitude as prickly as the pear cactuses that line the road. Signs like “HIPPIES USE BACKDOOR” [sic] and “NO CHANGE, NO EXCEPTIONS” dangle from weather-beaten shingles or from rickety cash registers. When I made my $3.50 purchase, the cashier shot me a bristly look and said, “Four dollars. Unless you have change, we round up.”
While some of Arroyo’s denizens might have a barb or two under their capes, overall they are a very pleasant bunch. With a boat on every other lawn, many of them are in Arroyo City for the same reason I am—to fish the adjacent Lower Laguna Madre, a lagoon of staggering proportions that holds what is arguably the most expansive white sand redfish flat on the planet. Other Gulf states offer stellar redfishing indeed, but the unique environment, breadth of species, and amount of vast terrain make the Lower Laguna a redfishery that is without peer.
Ben Paschal is a confident guide. A mere 26 years old, he is my pipeline to the reds, his specialty on the flats of the Lower Laguna Madre, Spanish for “Mother Lagoon.” The sole fly-fishing-only guide who actually lives in town, he’s cut his teeth on the waters of Alaska and Patagonia, but these days, guiding exclusively in his home state, Paschal pursues all things redfish.
The Lower Laguna Madre is a 6-mile-wide, 50-mile-long estuary with an average depth of 3.6 feet. It’s flanked to the east by South Padre Island, most reputable as a bastion for misbehavior during Spring Break season. But on the Laguna there’s no MTV fanfare nor raucous partiers, rather a slice of raw wilderness that stands in ironic contrast to the aforementioned.
The western border of the Lower Laguna Madre is largely comprised of wilderness. The Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge stretches for scores of miles along this border, fading into a string of private ranches like the King Ranch, which is almost three quarters of a million acres of brush country, wandering javelinas, and swirling shorebirds.
Paschal and I were on the flats by sunrise each morning. Roseate spoonbills, giant herons, and swooping ospreys flirted with the coastline or hovered over clumps of vulnerable baitfish.
Mullet occasionally rocketed out of the water, fleeing from hungry reds, black drum, and the occasional monster spotted seatrout. Everything is just a little bigger in Texas than elsewhere, and the trout are no exception. Trout in the 2-foot range aren’t uncommon, but getting them to eat is difficult, arguably as challenging as landing permit on fly. The Lower Laguna Madre is home to the “big girls” and holds the Texas state record on fly: 15 pounds and 37 inches.
The Lower Laguna Madre is a salty place, more so than the ocean. As one of only a half dozen hypersaline lagoons in the world, it’s considerably more saline than the open sea. There’s a paucity of inflowing fresh water, and this fact leads to the estuary’s designation as a negative estuary, one where seawater flows into the lagoon to water it down, rather than the opposite. Its shallow depth and arid shorelines promote brisk evaporation.
The eastern half of the lagoon consists of Bahamian-style hard sand flats with little vegetation. The western half is more verdant, the floor cloaked with fragile seagrass. Over 80 percent of all the seagrass in Texas resides in the Laguna Madre system, which is comprised of the Lower Laguna Madre and the neighboring, and similarly sized, Upper Laguna Madre.
The evening of my arrival we hit the sand in search of reds. The sun was setting and the birds were clustering over pods of tailing reds. I’d never caught a redfish before, nor even seen one, but was awestruck at their positions and behavior. They were clustered in a pod of a dozen or so, their tails waving in the wind as they churned up the bottom and burrowed for dinner. A pack of gulls hovered overhead, gliding in classic opportunistic fashion. I cast to the pod, stripped, and came up empty. The second cast I laid down with a gentler forward stroke. As my line unfurled and the fly popped over my terminal loop, my line came tight—and shot off into the sky.
I’d hooked a gull. But the fish were still there. Paschal, with calm collectedness, passed me another rod and said, “I’ll deal with the bird. They’re not spooked yet. Get a red.” As he cut the bird free, unharmed, I led the fish less generously this time. My frame of reference was bonefishing, and although these fish are anything but easy, you don’t lead them with quite the distance. With a cast and a strip I again came tight, this time with a redfish.
My loaner line twanged as it ripped toward the horizon. The skunk was washed away.
I pulled yet another red out of the same pod and landed a third before we retired to my rental house, one Paschal sublets on the cheap. It’s a nice place, with fish lights on the dock to allow for seatrout plucking over cold beers. It sits on the shore of the Arroyo Colorado River, a few minutes’ ride upstream from the Laguna, and only one house down from the entrance of the wildlife refuge.
While this is a remote, quiet town, my neighbors were celebrating someone’s quinceañera, a traditional Hispanic celebration of coming of age, akin to a bar mitzvah. My housekeeper had left a sheet of fresh enchiladas and tostadas on my table. And so I nibbled, sipping a Modelo beer under the dock lights, with the sound of authentic cultural music in the background. In front of me, moths swarmed. Baby tarpon rolled in the river. And the anticipation of the next day was rife within me.
In the morning we were on the water at first light. The wind was up, and on it sailed sheets of various birds. They piled onto small islands in the Laguna, picking at insects or dissecting mullet they’d caught. Despite 20 mph winds, we were able to feed a few reds, some nice ones in the 28-inch range. They ate discriminatively, and like other flats species, required patience, as only a small percentage of your shots would be successful. We got more than 30 shots a day, and by midafternoon most of them were on the hard sand flats of the eastern Laguna.
The sun was high and the water tepid as I released a nice redfish, which is the colloquial term for red drum. They’re named that because when they become excited, or spawn, they belch a baritone noise that thumps like the sound of its namesake instrument.
As I dipped the fish back into its home water I contemplated the fact that this broad pan of a lagoon has very little water exchange. There are few inflowing fresh water sources, a primary one being the Arroyo Colorado.
The Laguna is bordered on the east by the Padre Island National Seashore; its namesake is purportedly the largest barrier island in the world. Only a few land cuts through these islands allow seawater to exchange with the lagoon’s water, and so the health of rivers like the Arroyo Colorado largely determines the health of the water in the Lower Laguna. And they both are at risk.
In 2001, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department studied the fauna of the Arroyo Colorado, collecting over 23,000 vertebrates. They found that in the upper reaches of the Arroyo Colorado, the concentration of fish was alarmingly lower than the lower river. According to Mark Lingo, the department’s Lower Laguna Madre Leader, “…water quality may be an issue in the upper portion of the study area.” He cited low oxygen content as a primary factor in restricting the population of fauna in this area.
“Major increases in the amount of phosphorus entering a watershed can cause rapid increases in algal growth rates that can lead to the formation of algal bloom,” stated Lingo. Phosphorus levels rise as a result of agricultural runoff, as it’s contained in fertilizers, which are frequently used on the region’s citrus groves and other farming plots. The resultant algae blooms consume oxygen and threaten the river, and subsequently the lagoon’s, fish population. As a major fish nursery for the Laguna Madre’s trout stock, and a water supply for the reds that spawn near the river’s mouth, this ecosystem was once on the tenuous brink of irreparable injury.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has implemented a water protection program in response to threats to the river. A long-term project, the goal is to achieve decreased pollution of the waterway through a series of partnerships with landowners, habitat restoration, and implementation of projects “intended to reduce storm water runoff, reduce sediment load and reduce the volume and velocity of the flow of the runoff in drainage ditches and the Arroyo Colorado.” And although much has been done, the project has far from completed full preservation of the river. Today the Arroyo Colorado and the downstream lagoon still remain at significant risk. According to Lisa Wheeler at the TCEQ, despite valiant efforts, “An increase in the level of dissolved oxygen in the tidal portion of the Arroyo Colorado has been observed since the WPP was finalized in 2007.”
The Laguna Madre is an exceptionally unique area. It’s a region thick with wildlife, finned and otherwise. From the birds that throng the fragile islands that spot the lagoon, to the reds and trout that thrive beneath the surface, it’s a true wilderness treasure. Unspoiled and unvarnished, the Madre is unlike any other coastal waterway in the United States. And once it’s altered, it may never return to the pristine state it quietly boasts today.
When I loaded my rod to fire my last cast of my last day on the Lower Laguna Madre, I double-hauled a short bit of line to pierce the wind, and placed the fly inches in front of a single cruising redfish. Two quick strips and the creature spun on a dime, ate, and yanked my line deep toward the sunset, my backing arcing in the wind like the twine on a flown kite.
I pulled the fish to my feet, unhooked the fly from its mouth, and lowered it to aerate its gills. As I slid it back into the water, it released a single drum. As if singing its song, or perhaps making a plea to return to the clear water where it lives and spawns, the subtle drumbeat faded into the wind.
The fish swam off toward the mouth of the Arroyo Colorado River. And when she arrives there, and if the water is adequately saturated with soothing oxygen, her progeny will survive to later roam the sand flats. And perhaps someday they will, if I’m lucky, again find my fly.
*All photos by Brian Irwin
Capt. Ben Paschal
Laguna Madre Outfitters
Capt. Troy Nowiczewski
Texas Backcountry Fishing
Capt. Eric Glass
The South Texas Fly Fishing Co.