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August 12, 2011

Five Fishery Bright Spots

Five U.S. success stories — fisheries that regained health through conservation

Texas Redfish
By Calixto Gonzales

Some Texas coast anglers will tell you they got rooked when the state legislature voted to christen the Guadalupe bass the state fish. A dinky little bass that barely reaches three pounds labeled the official finned critter of the Lone Star State? By Travis and Bowie, an average-size specimen would barely qualify as bait for the true state fish: the redfish.

Granted, some Texans are prone to a tiny bit of hyperbole, but not when it comes to the state’s red drum fishery. After flirting with buffalo-style extinction in the 1970s, redfish populations have rebounded to where Texas Parks & Wildlife Department officials consider the state-sponsored recovery project a resounding success.

Redfish carry a long and storied history in the Texas bays and surf, and they hold a certain mystique. The largest redfish, or “bulls,” didn’t collect in schools; they traveled in “herds.” Redfish were big, plentiful and available.

“The fishing was excellent,” says Albert Rutledge, a spry 92-year-old who has fished Laguna Madre with his friends for more than 75 years. “We always caught our share when we went. Back in the 1930s, we used to go to Port Mansfield and rent a big wooden boat, hook up a 9-­horsepower outboard, and go out to the sandbars and camp. There were four of us. One night, we caught so many redfish, we barely fit in the boat with them.”

After World War II, combat-weary Texans began pursuing a variety of recreational activities, fishing among them. Redfish remained a popular target until the 1960s, when overfishing and, even more so, commercial gill-netting took a toll on stocks. By the 1970s, the fishery had collapsed.

The passage of House Bill 1000 in 1981, which granted redfish game-fish status, began what TPWD head marine fisheries biologist Mark Fisher calls a “multiyear recovery effort.” TPWD gained the power to impose bag and size limits on all fish (ultimately resulting in the current threefish daily bag and 20- to 28-inch redfish slot). The bill also led to the establishment of a fish hatchery and extensive restocking program. The result, according to Fisher, was the recovery of redfish numbers to “near-record levels in both quantity and size.”

Redfish have come back so well, in fact, that some anglers hunting trophy speckled trout and other quarry almost consider them a nuisance. Fisher recounts that at January scoping meetings, one angler complained that “he couldn’t catch any trout because there were too many redfish.”

Texas has plenty of redfish out there, affirms Capt. Rick Bailey (956-369-5090). “We have a variety of habitats to fish up and down the coast, and that’s what makes our fishery so unique. We have marshes, deep shell, grass flats — you name it. Our surf fishing is second only to the Carolinas.”

Bailey says he sees a lot of large redfish too. On a November trip through Mansfield Pass and along the Padre Island beachfront, he and his fishing partner caught more than 20 reds from 29 to 44 inches. “If I were going for a state record, I’d fish Mansfield. Port Aransas and Port O’Connor are great (for trophy redfish), but I’d fish Mansfield.”

Fisher believes that the current 59-pound state record, caught out of Sabine Pass in 2000, easily could be broken. “There are some 60-pound fish out there,” he says. Texas might eventually challenge the current world-record 94-pound, 2-ounce brute some day.

“It’s entirely possible,” Fisher says. “There are some huge fish out there.”

About the Author: Longtime Sport Fishing contributor Calixto Gonzales has lived near the Texas coast his entire life. His base of operations is the Lower Laguna Madre, which is among the premier destinations for red drum anglers in the United States.