Disclaimer: The regulations for spotted seatrout in the Laguna Madre were changed April 1, 2021 through a Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission emergency action. Please see the Outdoor Annual for the up-to-date regulations.
Heck of a Speck
Spotted seatrout, or specks, are plentiful, great sport and delicious.
We heard they were catching seatrout at the Red Dot Bait Stand, on the Intracoastal Waterway by the big bridge leading from Corpus Christi to North Padre Island. I was a younger man then and it sounded like great adventure, so we immediately made plans to go.
The Red Dot had lights over the water and charged a pittance to fish there. It also sold live shrimp and refreshments. We stood along the bank with other fishermen as darkness fell, casting into the channel.
About every 20 minutes, someone let out a whoop! as the action erupted. Schools of speckled trout moved through, right in front of us. If you were quick and lucky, you could land a couple out of each school. They weren’t large — 1 to 3 pounds — but so plentiful.
We fished until well after midnight. I don’t remember how many we caught, but it was about half an hour too many to clean. At least I had plenty of time to reflect on the fun with a knife in my hand at the kitchen sink, watching as darkness gave way to sunrise and facing work with no sleep. No wonder my buddies let me take the entire catch.
The spotted seatrout (Cynoscion nebulosus), commonly called speckled trout, or speck, is one of the most popular sport fish along the Texas coast, often the first saltwater fish caught by anglers. A member of the croaker family, specks are related to Atlantic croaker, red drum, black drum and sand seatrout.
Its abundance, fine eating qualities and willingness to hit natural and artificial baits make the species extremely popular with rod-and-reel anglers.
Spotted seatrout males average 19 inches in length; females average 25 inches. Males and females weigh 2 to 3 pounds. Anglers long ago recognized that most large spotted seatrout caught are females and appropriately called them “sow” trout. They commonly live to be 9 to 10 years of age and can reach lengths of more than 30 inches. In Texas, the record spotted seatrout caught was 37.25 inches and 15.6 pounds.
Seatrout sport a dark gray or green back and are silvery white below, with distinct round spots on the back, fins and tail. There’s a black margin along the edge of the tail, a soft dorsal (back) fin with no scales and one or two prominent canine teeth at the tip of the upper jaw.
There were no limits on seatrout back in the Red Dot Bait Stand adventure days. Through the years, that’s changed several times, finally bottoming out at the current creel limit of five, in effect along the entire Texas coast. The minimum length limit is 15 inches. The maximum length is 25 inches, although one trout per day over 25 inches is permitted.
Back in 2007, surveys showed a decline in midsize specks in the Lower Laguna Madre. After seeking input from guides and anglers, TPWD proposed reducing the creel limit from 10 to five but keeping the 15-inch minimum length.
After the adoption and success of the lower coast regulations, TPWD biologists, anglers and guides in the middle coast began considering the impact of lowering the limit there as well; the agency did just that in 2014. It made sense to standardize the five-fish creel limit for the entire coast. In 2019, the five-fish limit was adopted for the remaining upper part of the coast, all the way to the Louisiana border.
Growing our own
Annual angler harvest of 407,000 spotted seatrout attests to trout abundance. Three TPWD hatcheries on the coast have kept the bay waters brimming with Texas’ most popular saltwater game fish for years.
Those marine hatcheries release 25 million juvenile red drum, spotted seatrout and southern flounder into the wild to supplement the natural population. TPWD’s hatchery program is one of the most visible marine stock enhancement programs in the world. Sea Center Texas is responsible for producing approximately one-third of the red drum and one-half of the spotted seatrout that are stocked.
Trout prefer the warm bays throughout the summer and fall but move into deep holes or out into the Gulf during the coldest weather. During freezes, TPWD now closes certain deep holes to fishing to protect vulnerable trout congregating there.
Speckled trout are plentiful in all bay systems, around jetties and passes and in the surf but face threats from hard freezes, chemical spills, red tide and heavy fishing pressure. Texas saltwater fishing licenses increased from a half-million in 1987 to nearly 1.2 million in 2019.
Locating trout is challenging. To newcomers, all water looks the same. Fishing guides use electronics to locate reefs and other trout havens. Birds hovering over the water are also a sure indicator. They’re attacking shrimp and baitfish pushed to the surface by feeding trout below. “Slicks” appear on the surface where trout are feeding — oddly, they smell somewhat like watermelon.
Trout are relatively easy to catch on a variety of baits, but they prefer fresh, live bait. Small trout feed on shrimp and small fish. Specks that are 2 to 3 years old prefer other fish, such as mullet. Bait stands sell out of small croakers early each morning; large croakers are the best baits for trophy trout. Many trout are also caught on a variety of spoons and soft plastic lures.
Mark Boyt has fished East Galveston Bay since childhood and recommends it in the spring with finger mullets for bait. He also casts sinking MirrOLures and topwater baits like Heddon Zara Spooks and works the jetties on the surf side.
Boyt prefers wade fishing and advises using the “stingray shuffle” — shuffling your feet to move the rays out of the way safely. As you shuffle along, rays sometimes come in behind you to feed on things you’ve kicked up, so don’t back up. Boyt learned the hard way.
The State of Texas Anglers’ Rodeo Tournament is the annual membership recruitment drive for the Coastal Conservation Association of Texas. The tournament spans the entire Texas Gulf Coast and offers current CCA Texas members the chance to win more than $1 million in prizes and scholarships. Fishing categories include speckled trout, flounder, sheepshead, gafftop, dorado, king mackerel and ling (cobia). The STAR Tournament runs from the Saturday before Memorial Day through Labor Day (May 29 – September 6 this year).
Results from the 2019 STAR Tournament show that large trout (8 pounds or more) are caught in all three parts of the bay system. The lower coast had more specks over 8 pounds entered, and produced the heaviest trout in the tournament by an ounce.
A total of 7,031 young anglers entered the two youth divisions. That speaks well for the future of fishing. Max Garner (17) of Pearland won a $25,000 college scholarship for catching an 8-pound, 5-ounce speck in Matagorda Bay on a pink Down South Paddletail lure. Garner admits his college choice will have to be close to saltwater opportunities.
Back to the bay
I took a saltwater sabbatical after I moved away from the coast and neglected fishing there for a few years. Upon returning, I had to borrow equipment since tackle and technique had changed during my absence. A Florida tackle maker, Mark Nichols, fished with us, providing his DOA lures. Fishing was slow, so the guide, Dean Monroe, tied on an imitation DOA mullet under a popping cork and quickly boated two trout.
The second one got Nichols’ attention.
“If you get one more strike, I’m gonna add a popping cork,” he said, watching the action closely.
The word “cork” was still hanging in the air as Monroe set the hook on a third speck. Nichols and I each added a cork. Monroe advised me to cast it, let it sit for a second or two, then pop it three times by jerking the rod sharply back toward my body.
The first time I tried it, my life changed forever.
The rod nearly left my hands when the fish struck. The race was on!
The fish took the drag so fast. Monroe yelled at Nichols to tighten it; there wasn’t much line left on the reel. Nichols reached around me and doubled the drag.
The world stood still.
Dang. The unseen marauder had snapped the line and broken my heart.
After I caught my breath, I asked Monroe what he thought I’d had on the line. His answer confirmed my thoughts.
“From the way she struck and took off toward Mexico, you had a heckuva trout on there.”
I still think about what could have been. I’ve been back to the coast, several times every year. Just thinking about it, I can feel that Gulf breeze, hear the cries of the gulls and, just barely, smell the watermelon scent of a speck slick.
No time like the present
The Red Dot Bait Stand is gone. There’s a new joint called the Red Dot Pier, located near the bait stand’s former site and still catering to anglers. Still lighted, too.
Many communities have piers or jetties; many are free, and some are lighted. Those are good places to take beginning anglers. Guides are available for a fee, as are headboats that fish the bays or offshore.
If you’ve never fished the Texas coast and its bays for spotted seatrout, give it a try. But beware — you’re liable to get hooked!
Flatsworthy Aims to Protect Our Bays
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