Snook moving up the Texas coast.
By Brandon Shuler
Listen to a bunch of Texas fishermen sitting around after a day on the water and you’ll endure endless tales aggrandized with the standard “everything’s bigger in Texas” hyperbole.
When the subject at a recent gab session turned to snook, Aaron, one of my dearest and most trusted friends, dropped a tale about one particular granddaddy Texas snook. I decided a little investigation was in order.
“No. I am totally serious,” Aaron swore, as he saw my look of doubt. He slammed his fist down on the coffee table to punctuate the story’s validity and importance. The inflection and tone of his voice and my experience with Texas snook almost sold me on his story about Louis Rawalt and the Texas giant caught in 1937.
Picture a more genteel era and sepia-toned photographs. Just south of Corpus Christi near the present-day Packery Channel on the Padre Island National Seashore, the story unfolds.
A commercial fisherman, Rawalt was doing what he did every day—fishing for a few pounds of fish to deliver to the local fishmonger for an honest day’s living. However, on this day, Rawalt was snook fishing, in a manner quite unlike what we do today. His rod was a cane pole. His lure a strip of white cotton t-shirt tied around a hook.
From a local jetty, Mr. Rawalt was simply plying his trade, and after a morning of fast action, so the story goes, the bite suddenly died off. Rawalt lazily doodled his “bait” in a figure-eight motion, as was the custom of the day, and his 12-foot cane pole suddenly doubled over with a whale of a tug.
After chasing the monster back and forth along the jetty, Rawalt finally landed his storied state-record snook, which still graces the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s (TPWD) record board. Moreover, the huge common snook (Centropomus undecimalis) still beats the current world-record 53-pound, 10-ouncer, which was landed in Costa Rica.
Sadly, for Mr. Rawalt, the International Game Fish Association (IGFA) did not start documenting official world records until two years after his monster was landed. The official weight of Rawalt’s aforementioned monster: 56 pounds even.
Upon delivery of the day’s catch, the fishmonger weighed in the total catch and to his and Rawalt’s surprise the total for the day of fishing was a mind-blowing 994 pounds…of snook! Rawalt is recorded as saying he wish he would have known earlier so he could have one more fish to break the half-ton mark.
Upon further research into Aaron’s tale, I made a number of phone calls to Texas Parks and Wildlife officials, noted Texas marine biologists, and a few noteworthy, and reliable, old-timers. Not surprisingly, Aaron’s story not only held water but the most commonly repeated phrase about Mr. Rawalt was his integrity and honesty.
And we thought all good fisherman were storytellers. So, with Rawalt’s lofty standard set, what and where is the state of Texas snook fishing today?
The State of the Fishery
Texas’ Lower Laguna Madre is famed for her sow trout and abundant ankle-deep tailing reds, but a snook fishery? When most folks hear we are catching snook in Texas we get a number of odd looks and/or outright guffaws. Yeah, most of these naysayers are from east Texas, or Florida, but the naysaying goes out the window upon their first blow-up on a Heddon Super Spook or a glance at the silver-green flash nailing a small crab fly.
The Lower Laguna Madre, where the most consistent snook fishing in Texas takes place, is roughly on the same latitude as Miami’s South Beach. Due to its normally clear waters and flats, it is commonly referred to as the Texas Keys. The shorelines are punctuated with stands of red and black mangroves and isolated back lakes. With mild south-Texas winters, the Lower Laguna Madre is ripe for an awesome, and heretofore, secret snook fishery.
Florida snook anglers would actually feel somewhat at home given the abundance of docks, mangroves and seagrass flats in proximity to deep waters of the Intracoastal Waterway, the Port Mansfield East Cut, the Arroyo Colorado and the Brownsville Ship Channel where snook can hunker during cold snaps. Needless to say, there is an abundance of structure for snook to haunt and grow more baby snook.
At present, the majority of snook catches in Texas are incidental, but a few guides and anglers are targeting them with great success. Capt. Eric Glass of Port Isabel does well on the flats of South Bay and along the industrial docks of the Brownsville Ship Channel. Slightly up the coast, in Arroyo City, Capt. Larry Shriver probes the steep drops of the Arroyo Colorado and works the overhangs of south Texas mesquite trees with success.
And on the northern end of the Lower Laguna Madre, Capt. Steven DeVries targets snook in old oil ditches and dredged channels. True pioneers in a burgeoning fishery, these guides are developing this new and exciting snook fishery deep in the heart of Texas.
Summer snook like to stalk the flats right alongside reds and trout. Typically when poling exposed shorelines looking for tailing reds, a rogue shadow will slip off the shoreline and betray a hunting snook. To find signs of summer snook, look for pods of exploding bait along exposed shorelines close to deep water.
Most commonly, we find that the biggest fish are “lone rangers.” Look for these solo snook dorsaling, that is, grubbing with their backs partially exposed. Snook behaving like this in extreme shallow waters can be quite receptive to a small crab fly, a plastic shrimp or jerkbait.
When the winter blues set in on south Texas, we change our tactics and fish the deeper waters that snook hunker in when the temps plummet. Though a typical south-Texas winter is mild, it is punctuated by bluebird skies indicative of extreme high pressures which can keep fish out of the shallowest water.
We turn to the deep channels of the Brownsville Ship Channel and the Arroyo Colorado, and true to our southwestern dialect, we fish deep and slow. In winter, snook like to hang out in the deeper waters to find thermoclines typically a few degrees warmer than the surface water.
With dredged channels our only venue for “river” fishing, the BSC and the Arroyo offer snook some steep drops of 6 to 8 feet within a few feet of the shoreline. Look for deep points with moving tide and chances are a nice linesider will be haunting the bend waiting for unsuspecting baitfish, or your lure, to get washed around the corner.
Welcome to the Mix
With fishing pressure on targeted species such as speckled trout and redfish on the rise in Texas, adding another species to target and relieve some of the pressure is a godsend. Responsible fishing is still the exception on the Texas Gulf Coast.
Although a number of guides and anglers are practicing catch-and-release or simply keeping only what they can eat that night, Texas still needs a concerted educational effort emphasizing proper fish-handling skills and conservation practices. Texas Parks and Wildlife, the Coastal Conservation Association, and guides really ought to get together and design an education campaign.
The future of snook in Texas is in good hands with guides like captains Eric Glass, Larry Shriver, and my dear old dad, Bruce Shuler. Moreover, with the efforts of the Snook Foundation and Mote Marine Laboratory, maybe one day, my children, or yours, will be relating a story about a rod bending leviathan like Mr. Rawalt’s. But, let’s keep the half-ton daily catch in the water.
Studies and Stocking
Mark Lingo, TPWD Lower Laguna Madre Ecosystem Leader reasons, “Given the low relative abundance of snook in Texas waters, we have not completed a stock assessment for snook.” However, the news is not all bad and TPWD has taken strides to protect the Texas snook fishery. Lingo does say that regulators are seeing an increase in snook landings in the Lower Laguna Madre and have received reports of anglers catching snook as far north as Port O’Connor.
“If the lower Texas coast continues to experience mild winters with no freezes or extended periods of cold weather, the snook population should continue to grow,” he said.
In 1995, TPWD established the first protection for snook, with a one-fish possession limit and a fairly restrictive 24- to 28-inch slot. Since then, reported catch rates have increased. Moreover, with fairly restrictive limits and a stretch of very mild winters since the last killer freeze in 1989, brood snook have experienced very little environmental pressure other than pollution and angling pressure.
The 1989 freeze was in fact the impetus for the first-ever Texas snook regulations. Upper coast bay fishermen awoke to ice-encrusted bays and the Lower Laguna Madre’s shallow waters dipped to a fish-killing 38 degrees. Provoked by pictures of “fishermen” dip-netting and literally filling boats to the gunnels with snook, TPWD wildlife biologists and a handful of concerned individuals lobbied for and won the new regulations.
Although making a resurgence, the Texas snook fishery is still tenuous. Currently, there are no restocking programs available to TPWD—nor to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission either, for that matter. And you would think Florida would be stocking snook by now, given the bag limit on the Florida Atlantic coast was just tightened to one fish (as is already in place on Florida’s Gulf Coast) and an already strict slot was shortened to 28 to 32 inches in an effort to bolster the spawning stocks. Fortunately, we have the technology, and it keeps getting better.
The Snook Foundation, Mote Marine Laboratory of Florida, as well as as Dr. Joan Holt of University of Texas, Port Aransas, Dr. Kevan Main and Dr. Ken Leber are working to create successful aquaculture programs for this priceless, and most sought-after gamefish.
Dr. Ken Leber, board member of the Snook Foundation (www.snookfoundation.org), sees the future of snook aquaculture and the efforts of Holt Main as extremely promising.
“Its great to see the progress in snook aquaculture that Kevan’s team has made recently. People have been trying to mature and spawn common snook in captivity for over 20 years with no luck,” said Leber. “But Kevan attacked this problem systematically, calling in some of her friends at other universities such as the University of Maryland Marine Biotechnology Institute. And low and behold, last summer she got snook to mature and spawn in her tanks at Mote Aquaculture Park and in the winter of 2007 actually had them maturing and spawning out of season (March) and they’ve been spawning ever since.”
Dr. Leber continues with even better news and calls Main’s efforts a “major breakthrough in snook aquaculture. But they’re not done yet. The next problem to tackle is to increase survival in the larval rearing phase to finally develop a snook mass-culture capability.
“It’s going to take a few more years before the aquaculture technology will be developed to a point that it’s economically feasible for stock enhancement,” said Leber. That’s definitely good news for snook and for Texas anglers obsessed with catching them.