Good science and sometimes-controversial rules have helped create a world-class spotted seatrout fishery.
By Art Morris
Spotted seatrout, speckled trout, specks or simply trout by any other name are the most celebrated member of the Texas inshore fishing fraternity. The number-one species landed by inshore anglers coastwide, about one million spotted seatrout are brought home each year. The species contributes significantly to the state’s $1.3 billion recreational marine fishing industry. Today, any angler, on any given day, fishing anywhere on the coast, has the potential to catch a trophy spotted seatrout.
However, it has not always been that way.
In the 1970s, spotted seatrout populations were being overfished. A growing sport fishing industry, along with a significant commercial trotline and net fishery, was taking its toll on spotted seatrout. There were laws governing spotted seatrout, but county commissioner courts often used their veto power over Texas Parks and Wildlife Department regulations whenever they saw fit. In some southern counties, there were no bag limits. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission implemented a coastwide 12-inch minimum size limit and a 20-fish bag limit in December 1978. However, the rule did not apply to three counties bordering Galveston Bay and one along the San Antonio Bay system because TPWD did not have the authority to regulate fisheries in those counties. Nevertheless, the next year the legislature imposed the limits on those four counties. Two years later, an unprecedented battle at the state capitol ensued.
In 1981, the proposed House Bill 1000 would make it illegal to sell red drum and spotted seatrout. Some considered this a landmark law, while others thought of it as a sign of the apocalypse. Data collected by TPWD indicated that spotted seatrout and red drum populations were in a serious state of decline. A Federal Court decision would come into play. In the end, it would boil down to simple economics — both species were worth orders of magnitude more to the state as a sport fish then on the lunch menu. The law would eventually pass, marking a victory for sport fishing interests and helping to create a premier recreational fishery.
Despite careful management of size and bag limits, a troubling trend began to emerge in 2006. TPWD biologists started to see a long and slow downward trend in spotted seatrout spawning stock in the Lower Laguna Madre. Spotted seatrout longer than 20 inches were showing up less frequently in the sample nets, while large trout in other bay systems were increasing.
While the fishery was still healthy overall and in no danger of collapse, concerns about over-exploitation of seatrout indicated that some action should be taken to improve the situation. After eliminating water quality issues, escapement and recruitment problems, too much fishing pressure was considered the underlying cause. The answer was to take a hard look at the historic coastwide bag and size limit tactic. In this case, perhaps the “one size fits all” approach was not working.
Regional management is not new to Texas fisheries. Inland lakes are managed on their unique characteristics and commercial fisheries have been managed under this strategy for decades. The idea is simple. Formulate fisheries regulations to match the idiosyncrasies of a particular bay system. Texas bays range from almost fresh to hypersaline, and the species that inhabit those systems have evolved a lifestyle to fit the conditions distinctive to each.
In the Lower Laguna Madre, everything pointed to a simple solution: reduce the bag limit to five. Over time the fishery should respond favorably in greater abundance, higher spawning stock biomass and more trophy-sized trout. The rule will have no effect on 90 percent of Lower Laguna Madre anglers, but for the remaining 10 percent who routinely land more than five fish, the sacrifice is about one fish per trip. This regulation went into effect on September 1, 2007.
As a result of intensive and ongoing management measures, anglers from across the country are attracted to Texas’ world-class seatrout fishery. Water body records for each of the eight major bays are all over 10 pounds, with six of those records set since 1999. The Lower Laguna Madre currently boasts the IGFA world record for a fly-caught spotted seatrout, 15.6 pounds.
How to Catch Spotted Seatrout
The old adage that to catch big fish, you have to use big bait holds true for spotted seatrout. A spotted seatrout can swallow something half its length. When they reach about 20 inches, trout switch from a shrimp/fish diet to strictly fish — large fish — like mullet. Casting a foot-long mullet may be a little awkward, but that is a preferred food for trophy-sized trout. To make matters worse, large spotted seatrout probably feed only once or twice a week, so you have to be at the right spot at the right time with the right bait to catch a “career trout.”
Top trophy anglers generally fish with large artificials or use live bait fish. Big topwaters, shallow divers, large fish-like lures, live mullet, pinfish or croaker all can claim a stake in the trophy race.
Another method that works well is to use a popping cork rig. Place a float — popping cork — about 20 inches above a hook. Add a small split shot between the float and bait to keep the bait down in the water column. Most anglers like to use a 20-pound test leader so that the trout do not bite through the line with their sharp teeth. A sharp jerk to the cork imparts a chugging or popping sound that simulates the sound of a spotted seatrout hitting the surface, thus drawing attention to the bait. In the early years, the popping cork was made from real cork, and then Styrofoam was used. Today, while both of the older types can still be found, molded plastic floats with built-in rattles are commonplace.
In the early 1980s, Bob Fuston, a fishing guide from Port Mansfield, invented a variation on the float style called the Mansfield Mauler. These floats are narrower, with a stiff wire running through the middle of the float with plastic or metal beads on each end. The same retrieve method is employed, but it makes a softer “clicking” sound and is often used in more delicate presentations in shallow water where too much noise might scare the fish. These “clicker corks” have become a mainstay in most spotted seatrout anglers’ tackle boxes.