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08. Catches

Species found surf fishing

This section will cover the different species most widely found or fished for in the surf. Probably the best thing about surf fishing is you never know what is out there. Unlike a lake that has a certain species of fish; surf fishing presents many varieties of fish. Almost all are coveted as either bait and/or table fare. Very few are considered trash. Let’s start with the smaller of the species and work up the scale. Please make sure that you are aware of any size restrictions and bag limits on these species.

Catfish:

These fish are actually no different than some of their freshwater cousins and not much need be covered here. There are Hardheads which most anglers consider a trash fish as they will eat anything put on a hook. Just remember, they are still protected and must be released if you are not keeping them for bait or food. Then there is the Gaff Top which color ranges from a gray to blue and has fins that resemble a sail, hence the name. Some anglers consider the Gaff Top great table fare. They also grow larger than other catfish and give the angler good action in the surf.

Word of caution, as with their freshwater cousins, the fins and spines of these fish are toxic and can cause injury if not handled properly.

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Whiting: Officially called the Southern king and/or Whitefish, this species is found in the surf year round and can be caught on light tackle. They are great little fighters and are highly regarded as a food fish. They can also be used as bait for larger fish found in the surf either cut up or whole. Baits used to catch whiting are shrimp, squid and small chunks of mullet. They are also known to eat their own kind so a chunk of whiting on a hook will result in more whiting. Whiting will also hit small lures such as shrimp tails and spoons.

These fish as well as the croaker below are wonderful way to introduce children to surf fishing as they are plentiful and easy to catch

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Croaker:

The Atlantic Croaker also known as the Gulf or Southern Kingfish is sometimes confused as whiting as they look identical. Often referred to as Golden Croaker, or just plain Croaker, they get their name from their ability to make croaking sounds. They have a row of small barbels on each side of the lower jaw. Young Croakers are silvery, while the older fish are brassy yellow with short, irregular brown streaks in the middle of the body. They are one of the most common bay/surf fishes. Croaker feed on a wide variety of bottom dwelling marine creatures such as marine worms, shrimp, small fish, small crabs, and other small crustaceans. The best bait for Croakers is fresh dead shrimp fished on the bottom.

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Sand Trout:

The Sand Sea trout and Silver Sea trout are distinguished from the Spotted Sea trout or "Speck" by the absence of spots. The Sand Trout has a pinkish sheen on the upper sides while the Silver Sea trout is grayer. Sand Trout are found in deeper bay areas, channels, and in the shallow Gulf. Silver Sea trout are primarily found in the Gulf in 3 to 10 fathoms of water. Both species feed on small fish and crustaceans. The best baits for both species are cut fish and shrimp fished near the bottom. They are attracted to light and many fishermen catch them using jigs under lights.
These trout make excellent table fair, but should be put on ice immediately to retain the firmness of the flesh.

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Speckled Trout

Probably one the most sought after fish on the Gulf coast, many anglers devote all of their time to catching these fish. They are caught in the surf, bays and off of piers especially at night or early morning. Feeding mainly in schools it is easy to spot them in the surf as usually there will be birds everywhere they areas they hit schools of bait fish. They grow in lengths of over thirty inches and are prized for their fighting ability as well as table fare. Specks will hit almost any kind of live bait such as shrimp, finger mullet, mud minnows etc. They will eagerly hit artificial baits such as spoons, jigs with plastic shrimp tails or shad bodies, top water lures etc. These fish are excellent table fare

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Flounder:

This is another highly prized fish for both sport and food. These fish can be caught all year round but the spring and fall migrations are when they are abundant. Mainly caught in the bays and passes, there are times when they are found in the surf as well. During the spring these fish migrate back to the open waters to reproduce but the fall migration which brings them back to the bays is by far the most productive time to catch them. Flounder start their lives as a normal looking fish with eyes on both sides of their head but after the first year a transformation starts taking place and one eye will travel to the flat side of the fish until the fish has both eyes on top of its head. Primarily an “ambush” type of fish, Flounder will bury their self in the sand and wait for a victim to swim by them where they will lash out and strike. Flounder will be found where water has a tendency to “flow” such as a pass or inlet or a depression (gut) where water will flow freely. They will bite any small fish that swims near them such as shrimp, finger mullet and mud minnows to name a few. They will also hit artificial lures retrieved slowly in front of them. They normally range in size of one to five pounds but larger ones have been caught on occasion. Filleted and fried or baked whole or stuffed, this is some of the tastiest fish found.

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Ladyfish:

The Ladyfish is found inshore inhabiting the bays and estuaries and occasionally will enter fresh water. It is often found in large schools chasing small bait fish. It is similar to a juvenile Tarpon in size and the most common weight caught is about 2 to 3 lbs

To catch this species you need only light tackle. It is suggested the angler use fifteen to twenty pound line Fresh baits seem to be the best to use. They can also be caught using top water plugs and jigs.

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Pinfish:

Silvery in color with green to black and yellow striping along their sides. These little fish have a voracious appetite and can be caught almost anywhere you can throw a hook. Using a small hook and small pieces of shrimp are the best way to catch this species. They make great bait for larger species of fish whether whole or cut.

Word of note: when these fish are around it’s a great way to keep children entertained and catch bait at the same time.

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Sheepshead:

Gray in color with five or more black bars on their sides, this species is mainly caught near piers and jetties but these fish also roam the surf looking for food. The Sheepshead’s main food source are fiddler crabs and barnacles but will often eat shrimp and small chunks of cut bait. Some anglers also use “brined” sand crab as bait. Caution should be used when handling these fish as they have very sharp spines on the top, bottom and side fins as well as teeth that include grinders, molars and incisors. They range in size of one to five pounds onshore with larger ones caught on occasion. Although hard to clean, they make a good meal.

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This section is going to start us on the larger species caught in the surf. We are going to start discussing Redfish, Black Drum, Tarpon, Jack Crevalle (Jacks) Kingfish and Spanish Mackerel. These are the “Big Boys” of the surf. When a surf angler has one of these fish take a bait, there is no mistaking them. They will bend your pole over double, your reel will scream and make your heart start pumping from the moment they hit your line. Battling these fish can take anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour or more. These fish will make you a surf fisherman for life. This is what you have been waiting for and why you have been reading this hand book so let’s get started.

Redfish:

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Ask any surf, pier or jetty angler what their favorite fish to catch is and this species will definitely be on their list. Redfish (hereon referred to as reds) range in size from juveniles to “slot” reds to Bull Reds. Juveniles (sometimes called rat reds) are simply a red that has not reached maturity or slot size. When referring to slot reds for this discussion, we are talking about reds that can be kept by an angler as food. In Texas a slot red is considered twenty to twenty eight inches long. This simply means that any fish under or over this slot limit must be released. There is an exception to this law in Texas in that an angler may keep one red over the maximum length limit providing the angler properly tags the fish. The tag is included as part of the fishing license. An optional bonus tag can be purchased. If you live and/or fish in another state, please be sure to check that states laws governing these limits along the Gulf coast.

Most surf anglers release bull reds simply out of respect for the fight they have given them and the fact that they are breeders for the repopulation of the species. Any red over thirty inches in length is considered a Bull Red and are the granddaddies of the species. You will often hear anglers refer to them in terms of inshore or offshore red. The reason for this is only due to their color which ranges from a gray with reddish pink hues along their sides to a beautiful shade of gold. All redfish have one to multiples black dots in the areas of their tails. They swim in schools as well as loners and they will feed on crab, live or cut mullet, croaker or whiting. When, where and how do you catch bull reds?

Let try to answer this one at a time.

When: Bull reds can be caught year round in the surf, jetties and piers. The fall migration commonly starts in September and lasts through December and can be some of the most exciting times on the upper Texas coast. Most anglers will see a slow down after December only to see it pick back up again in late April or early May.

Where: Redfish can be caught anywhere on the Gulf coast but in Texas most experienced redfish anglers will mention the upper Texas coast as prime area for bull reds.

How: Here is where it can get tricky. This is one of those situations where if you ask one hundred anglers, you will get one hundred answers. There is no definitive answer here. The simple truth is you have to get bait in the water and use the techniques you have hopefully learned here. This will also apply to the rest of the species covered here.

A red fish has a downward projecting mouth and will easily take something off the bottom of the surf. This is not to say they will not turn and grab something floating above the surface but they are mainly bottom feeders. When a bull red picks up your bait, he turns and runs. Once hooked, they fight very hard and don’t give up until they are landed.

Whether you are fishing for them on the beach pier or jetties, you will need to have a strong leader tied to your main line with preferably a 12/0 to 16/0 circle hook and spider weight in the four to six ounce variety depending on the current. You will want a strong leader as occasionally you will run across a shell bed. On piers, you have barnacle encrusted pylons to contend with. Fishing on a jetty presents huge slabs of boulders, barnacles and shells. Wade into the surf and get your bait somewhere near the second or third cut or sometimes referred to as a gut. Once your bait is on the bottom, tighten your line up, set your drag (and clicker if equipped) and get ready to hang on. When a Bull Red picks up a bait, let him make a run with it before setting the hook. Remember, if using circle hooks, most reds will hook themselves.

On a pier, try to keep the fish from wrapping around a pylon. If the fish does become wrapped around, wait him out a bit. Sometimes it will circle back around and you will have another chance. Learn to use a pier net or ask someone to help you with the net. Once the pier net is lowered into the water, simply drag the fish to the net and raise him up. Once the hook is out and pictures and measurements have been taken, it’s time to get your catch back in the water if you are releasing it. The ideal way is to put him back in the pier net and lower it back in the water however they can be dropped back into the water providing the pier is not so high as to injure the fish as he hits the water. You will need to use your own judgment here.

One word of caution when fishing jetties: Jetties are extremely slippery. This is due to water, algae and other substances being washed up on the rocks. A good idea when on a jetty is to wear a pair of baseball cleats with the metal cleats or an old pair of golf shoes. These provide extra traction when getting down on wet rocks to land a fish.

Black Drum:

One thing for sure, Black Drum are not the prettiest fish in the sea but pound for pound are one of the most determined fish once hooked. Many anglers refer to them as “Big Ugly” because of their appearence. They don’t have great speed or agility but they make up for it in brute strength. When fighting this fish, be prepared for a battle. Even when applying pressure to a big drum, the battle can last 30 minutes or more. They simply do not give up until the battle is won or lost.

Once landed, you will hear a thumping noise coming from them that sounds like someone tapping a drum hence the name. The reason you hear this sound is they have grinding teeth in the back of their throats that they grind and the air bladder resonates this sound.

Feeding mainly on shrimp, squid and crabs they will readily take cut bait such as mullet, croaker and whiting. Drum will often mouth bait before swallowing it so you have to wait until the fish moves off with it before setting the hook.

One other note to be made here is during cold weather and a lengthy battle with a black drum, you might see that the fish has distended his air bladder through his mouth. There is both pro and con regarding this condition. There are some that will tell you to lay the fish on its side and using a sharp knife, poke just behind the pectoral fin to release the air built up inside so the fish will survive when released. Some will say that due to the shallowness of inshore gulf waters that this is not necessary. This is not meant to start controversy but merely to provide the information to you. Only you can decide if the fish is in distress and needs help to survive. The flesh of a black drum is edible but some people become turned off when they see the parasites wiggling in the flesh. These will cause no harm and die off upon refrigeration or cooking. This is a natural occurrence in the larger fish.

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Jack Crevalle:

With the exception of a shark, this fish is without a doubt one of the fastest and meanest in the surf. Commonly referred to as Jacks they are voracious scavengers and love an easy meal. A large Jack may weigh twenty five to thirty pounds or more and does not know the meaning of quit once hooked. It will run up and down the beach and do whatever it takes to get off the hook. Found in schools, they will corner bait fish and hammer them relentlessly. This makes the water look like it’s boiling and is very exciting to watch when this occurs. If you ever see a school of mullet scatter, there is a good chance that Jacks are around. Once they start there is a good chance you can get hooked into one with fresh shrimp, cut bait or an artificial. If you want a hard fighting game fish, pound for pound these are the ones.

Their flesh is a very dark red and bloody and are not considered edible but they do however make excellent shark bait.

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Tarpon:

Although mainly caught on the lower or southern coast of the Texas Gulf they are occasionally caught on the upper coast so they will lightly be touched upon here. These fish will also give you the hang on to your hat kind of lifetime thrill few ever get to experience surf fishing. Once hooked, a tarpon becomes an acrobat making numerous spectacular jumps out of the water shaking its head in an attempt to get the hook out of its mouth. Feeding mainly on large fish or crustaceans they have a large cavernous mouth and rarely mouth a bite before running with it.

Tarpon are a game fish and not edible.

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Stingray:

Stingray are very abundant in the surf along the Gulf as well as in bays. There are several species of stingray. The most commonly caught on the upper coast is the Southern Sting Ray and the Cow-Nose Sting Ray. They will eat almost anything they come across such as squid, shrimp and cut bait. Once hooked, they have a tendency to “hunker” down on the bottom. Most anglers think they are hung up on something when this happens and end up breaking the line. When this happens, wait them out. They will eventually move and you can start reeling in again. Some anglers will “strum” the line like the string on a guitar. The vibration sometimes gets the stingray moving again.

The wings of a sting ray make great shark bait and the flesh is quite tasty resembling the taste of scallops when prepared properly.

Word of caution: Be extremely careful when handling a Stingray. They have a sharp barb in their tails and they can whip the tail around at will. Getting stung by one of these is very painful and will most likely result in a trip to the emergency room. Most anglers will secure the tail and remove the barb with pliers before handling the fish any further.

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Spanish Mackerel:

Spanish Mackerels are members of the large family of fish that include the Tunas and other Mackerels. Although these fish vary greatly in size, they share many common characteristics including being very fast, powerful swimmers. The average size of Spanish Mackerel is from 2-3 pounds, while a weight of 9-10 pounds is considered large.

Spanish mackerel are extremely speedy fish with excellent vision.

The preferred lures are shiny casting spoons and/or colorful lures. These lures come in an array of colors, and these fish don’t seem to have a preference, sometimes homing in on pink/white, sometimes on white/silver, often just a lure with a shiny or hammered silver finish.

As far as rods are concerned, surf-spinning or bait casting rods with a lively tip, but enough backbone to throw a couple of ounces of metal, are a plus. It doesn’t hurt to be able to cast a country mile and reel as fast as you can. That’s about all the technique that’s involved.

A very edible fish

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Kingfish or King Mackerel

The king mackerel is a slender, streamlined fish, slightly flattened from side to side with a tapered head. Its color ranges from an iridescent bluish green on its back to its silvery sides. Two dorsal fins can fold back in to a groove to enhance speed, short pectoral fins on each side just behind the head; pelvic fins below the pectorals and a row of small finlets extend from the dorsal and anal fins to the tail. The lateral line starts near the top of each gill drops sharply below the second dorsal fin and ends near the tail.

The mackerels are true members of the tuna family and are Western Atlantic species. Although the Kings don’t have the endurance of the tuna, they are unmatched for their speed and agility. They are found both near shore and offshore. The King Mackerel is a schooling and migrating fish.

King mackerel are constantly feeding carnivores that can attack with high speed, powerful jaws and razor-like teeth. They feed on all and any available food but favor jacks, sea trout, and sardine like fishes, ribbonfish, herring, shrimp and squid.

King mackerel are a highly sought after game fish. They are a challenging catch that puts up a spectacular fight by leaping and sky rocketing out of the water. They are taken on hook and line gear with both live or dead bait and artificial lures. They can be caught from shore or pier, from a boat at anchor, drifting or trolling. Some of the baits used are pogies, thread herring, Spanish sardine, ballyhoo, mullet, etc. Lures that have shown to be productive are spoons, jigs and other flashy sub-surface lures or large fish like plugs.

Fishing gear should be no less than 20-pound line and tackle. Higher rated tackle may be recommended if you are targeting larger kings. Usually a heavier wire or mono leader is required to survive those sharp teeth.

As they are members of the tuna family, they are quite edible

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Bluefish:

Bluefish are a popular game fish and can be caught by a number of means, including trolling, chumming, and jigging. While bluefish are generally not regarded as a food fish, due to their dark, oily meat, and very “fishy” taste, the smaller ones (under 2 lbs.) are actually quite good eating as their meat is still mostly white. To many anglers the best part of a larger bluefish for table fare is a nice chunk of white meat found on the cheek of the bluefish.

The Bluefish is one of the world’s premiere light tackle fish. When hooked, it’ll leap, often consecutively. And then it bears down, turning its powerful body against you. A feeding bluefish is fearless, fights to the end, and then considers your fingers for dessert. Since these ravenous fish are distributed in most warm temperate waters, they are popular quarry.

There are many ways to catch these voracious schooling fish. Take into account that their teeth are razor sharp and their jaws are powerful. So, wire leader is essential. A 2- or 3-ounce crocodile spoon is the lure of choice, especially if the blues are schooling and within casting distance. If you’re surf fishing, a pyramid sinker rig with wire leader, baited with a live pinfish or other small bait-fish will catch bluefish. Dead or live shrimp will catch blues as well. They love cut bait with mullet topping their menu. The bluefish is a strong fighter and you must be very careful removing the hook once you have landed one, or they could give you a nasty bite. A pair of pliers is a necessity to unhook your catch. Remember that these fish are generally found in schools, so after landing one, cast out as soon as possible for another hookup. Although most blues weigh in the 3- to 5-pound range, they can weigh as much as 14 pounds. Bluefish are outstanding fighter at all sizes. Strong runs and frequent jumps.

TACKLE AND BAITS: Light casting and spinning tackle is adequate in most instances, along with surf tackle for beach and pier fishing. Many big fish, during those aforementioned unpredictable runs, will put light trolling tackle to a good test. Heavy leaders are usually necessary to prevent clip-offs by the Blue’s sharp teeth. Stout monofilament leaders usually suffice, but wire can be used too. Bluefish are ravenous as both predators and scavengers and will take virtually any popular bait and cut fish, cut squid, live shrimp. Fast-moving artificials work best, with the nod going to noisy surface plugs, jigs, spoons and swimming plugs, in about that order. Often, though, feeding Blues will slash at anything thrown their way.

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The purpose of the fish identification section was not meant to show every species of fish you might come across while surf fishing the Gulf coast. The species mentioned above are the most common found in the surf. There are many more you will see or hear about that are mostly found offshore but occasionally caught in the surf, on piers and jetties. These include Dolphin (not to be confused with a porpoise), Cobia, Barracudas, Snapper, Grouper, Pompano, and Snook etc. These are mainly offshore species but occasionally get caught in the surf.