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June 2011 cover image Those Remarkable Reds

Remarkable, Resilient Redfish

Sporty red drum have run a gauntlet of adversities in order to survive.

By Larry Bozka

Recently, when a fishing buddy asked me what I would include in a list of my most unforgettable catches, I realized three of the memories revolved around the same species: redfish.

The sizes of the three fish were radically different. Ironically, the smallest of the lot was the most sensational. The largest was my first bona fide “big fish,” one caught on my last outing with my grandfather. The midsized fish baptized me with a jolt of pure adrenaline into one of saltwater fishing’s most explosive styles.

I caught the big one in the spring of 1966. More than 38 inches long, it picked up a peeled dead shrimp from the 40-foot-deep base of the North Galveston Jetty and taught me how it feels to be overwhelmed by a fish, to watch 30-pound-test monofilament melt like hot wax from a maxed-out fishing reel when the only plausible strategy is to stranglehold the rod handle and fervently pray that the line won’t break.

I crossed paths with the midsized fish, a 26-incher, almost 20 years later. It pounced like a starving stray cat on a cigar-shaped topwater plug and erratically danced atop a ragged patch of 3-foot-deep oyster shell on the southern end of San Antonio Bay. That fish vividly demonstrated why topwater lure strikes are called “blow-ups” by experienced surface-fishing fans.

But again, with all due respect to the other two, the memory of the third fish remains the most intense. It was late summer of 1995. I was wade-fishing Port Mansfield’s East Cut on a blessedly calm but brutally hot day of whispering breeze and slightly wrinkled flats. Rooting the spackled marl bottom just a few feet from shore, the fish abandoned a small school of near-identical specimens to launch a singular assault on a tiny shrimp-imitating streamer. A 21-incher that I watched for almost a minute before executing a carefully targeted cast with trembling hands, that one little fish forever hooked me on saltwater fly fishing.

Three fish, three distinct memories. Where they were caught, the tackle used to capture them and the baits and techniques that motivated each of them to strike were all distinctly different. They shared only a single common trait — they were all redfish.

The species known to biologists as red drum (and to anglers as redfish) is arguably the most diverse resident of Texas’ coastal waters. The incredibly vast range a redfish covers in the course of its tenuous lifetime is a mirror image of the myriad opportunities it provides to recreational anglers. Foraging inside shallow estuaries, riding outgoing tides through the congested funnels of jetty channels and beachfront passes or ranging at large throughout the vast inner space of the open Gulf of Mexico, the redfish is a study in contrasts throughout its amazing and arduous life.

Arguably no other saltwater fish means so many different things to so many enthusiastic anglers. If the value of the redfish were ever in doubt, those reservations were laid to rest in the mid- to late 1970s.

At the time, Texas’ redfish population was being decimated by illegal gill netting. Monofilament gill nets in the hands of a few commercial fishing outlaws were devastatingly effective. Placed at the mouth of a shallow-water cove that held concentrated numbers of fish, particularly during the winter months, one well-placed gill net could wipe out an entire school of reds in a single night. The scene played itself over and over again, taking a collectively greater toll on the species, until recreational fishermen brought the issue to a head in the Texas Legislature via House Bill 1000, known today as the Redfish Bill. Their mission was to protect both redfish and spotted seatrout as game fish, off-limits to commercial harvest within state waters.

The then-fledgling, Houston-based Gulf Coast Conservation Association (GCCA) led the charge. Now known as CCA, the Coastal Conservation Association, the group has grown exponentially, working throughout the Gulf, Atlantic and Pacific Northwest coastlines to help shepherd and monitor a host of invaluable saltwater species.

But it all began in Texas with the appearance of countless pickups and center-consoled bay boats bearing prominent bronze bumper stickers with the simple but succinct slogan “Save the Redfish.”

With the passage of HB 1000 in 1981 — along with progressively tightened recreational fishing regulations, the creation and designated funding of saltwater fishing stamps and, perhaps most notably, the construction of a world-class saltwater hatchery complex — Texas anglers, working in tandem with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, paved the path for a dramatic recovery. Today, redfish populations are both healthy and stable. Despite being offered the opportunity to liberalize redfish size and bag limits on three different occasions in years past, the state’s coastal fishermen have ardently refused the option.

The daily bag limit stands today, as it has for decades, at three fish. All fish retained must measure inside a slot limit range of 20 to 28 inches, and only one fish a year greater than 28 inches may be retained through the use of a special trophy tag that’s carried on saltwater fishing licenses. According to veteran marine biologist Lance Robinson, TPWD regional director for the Coastal Fisheries Division, it’s a management strategy that works remarkably well.

Robinson is a walking coastal fisheries database, a center-field player in an increasingly high-tech world with an unerring knack for translating highly technical jargon into a parlance that the average person can comprehend.

Determining the age of fish is a surprisingly exact process, Robinson says, thanks to the existence of a pair of bones known as otoliths, located just behind the brain in the ear cavity of the fish.

“Otoliths are surrounded by a pocket of fluid, within a shell of sorts that encloses it,” he explains. “As the fluid moves, it sends signals to the brain, enabling it to remain upright as it swims.

“When you take an otolith and section it, and shoot for its centermost section, it will have light and dark alternating bands,” he continues. “Darker bands represent wintertime, when in accordance with its metabolism the fish’s growth rate is substantially slowed. Lighter bands represent summer, when the fish is consuming more and laying down more calcium along that structure.”

Marine biologists determine the age of fish much the same way that forestry experts gauge the age of trees through the rings in the trunk. “You can count back to the center point,” Robinson says. “With smaller juvenile fish, you can even determine daily growth.”

The oldest redfish that Robinson and associates have discovered was determined to be 35 years old. A fish of that age, swimming offshore today, would have hatched out in 1976. For me, the redfish’s longevity is especially significant. I was 10 years old when I cranked that big, bronze-scaled bruiser up from the depths of the Galveston Ship Channel. In all likelihood, my first “bull red” was conservatively at least twice as old as I was.

That’s a humbling thought.

It was the norm, back in those days, to take fish of that size home to eat. They were about as easy to butcher as a feral hog, though they yielded far less edible meat. By the time the head and entrails were removed, the fish was filleted and skinned, its rib cage was cut free and the dark-red meat was sliced out of its lateral line, there was relatively little left. Furthermore, what did remain was coarse and woody, nothing like the delicate and savory fillet of a 25-inch-class red.

For that reason, and even more in deference to conservation concerns, more and more saltwater fishermen are becoming steadfast practitioners and supporters of catch-and-release.

“Catch-and-release has come into vogue in recent years throughout the coastal fishing community,” Robinson says. “And that’s a very good thing, given the red drum’s spawning traits. Unlike spotted seatrout, which usually spawn at least once before they reach the minimum legal length of 15 inches, and flounder as well, female redfish have to reach at least four or more likely five years of age before they are capable of reproduction.”

The unique red drum management strategy involves harvesting the animals as juveniles. With fish like spotted seatrout and flounder, the minimum size is typically designed to protect the female so she has the chance to spawn. The red drum is the exception. By the time they’re ready to spawn, most red drum have moved out of the bays and into the Gulf and have become less valuable as a food fish.

“We are protecting a slot of sub-adult fish,” Robinson says. “Males and females are equally protected. The slot limit is designed so that once the fish reaches a length above the upper-end slot size of 28 inches, the majority move out into the Gulf and become part of the spawning population. We achieve an escapement rate of 30 percent, meaning 30 percent of those juveniles we manage make it through the inshore gauntlet and become part of the sexually mature Gulf population.”

Virtually everything in fisheries management hinges to a great degree on carrying capacity, Robinson notes.

“You can only carry so much biomass in an ecosystem,” he says. “It’s all based on what they can eat, the available forage. If you lose forage, then it’s going to trickle up to apex predators. There is not enough for them to eat; therefore, their population is going to drop. If you track it over time, with increases in forage fish populations, you subsequently see a proportionate increase in predators. It usually lags a year behind the forage changes, and it’s an alternating cycle. The carrying capacity only allows for so much.”

Accordingly, the physically powerful but environmentally sensitive redfish needs to be constantly monitored both offshore and inshore — from the massive influx of spawning fish that venture close to the beach in September to their current-carried, fertilized eggs that hatch out in grassy estuaries to the young fish that, with an incredible degree of luck, live to survive the roughly five years required to grow large enough to migrate offshore and repeat the reproductive process.

The odds of a microscopic redfish “fry” dying before attaining the 2- to 3-inch fingerling stage, Robinson says, are “staggeringly high.” Luckily, a large female redfish can deposit 3 million eggs or more during the spawning season.

Curiously, even though the biggest of big redfish are almost exclusively females, the term “bull red” applies to both sexes. Meanwhile, large female spotted seatrout, red snapper and select other saltwater species remain “sows.” Go figure.

As for the male redfish, its most obvious characteristic is its “drumming” sound, a booming and guttural thump that’s startling to hear the first time. It serves to attract mates, says Robinson.

Vulnerable red drum live under the incessant threat of natural predators and diseases as well as unpredictable algae blooms and lethal, fish-killing freezes. In addition, their young are extremely reliant on river-borne infusions of fresh water, the sometimes restricted and often erratic runoff that’s the virtual lifeblood of coastal estuaries. It only makes sense to be extra-protective of this highly prized and sometimes intimidating brute of a sport fish.

Every redfish that makes it through the gauntlet, regardless of when, where and how it’s eventually caught, is a priceless commodity. It is, after all, impossible to gauge the value of a lifelong memory.

Or, if you’re lucky, three.

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