The air is cooling down, but the action is heating up as bait pours out of Gulf estuaries and fish fatten up for winter.
By Brian Holden
Photos by James Fox
Sometimes it is as subtle as a chill in the pre-dawn air accompanied by the pungent smell of dirt. Maybe it is a bit more obvious, like a few days of northeast wind and a swelling of equinox tide that brings the water level up 8 inches. It can be as bold as a howling 40-knot north wind accompanied by 4-foot whitecaps and a 30-degree temperature drop. Maybe it happens in the third week of September, or the second week of October.
No matter how or when it arrives, it is fall.
It is, and should be, the most anticipated event on any Gulf Coast fisherman’s calendar. That’s because the days of sweating in the broiling heat and grinding on the 90-degree water for fish that really don’t feel like eating is over…for now. It means that the air and water temperature will drop steadily, creating a comfort zone for both man and fish, only dreamt about in August. It means that less serious fishermen start filling deer feeders, or stringing duck decoys, or blowing off a weekend wade to watch football on TV.
But we are the anglers, and this is our time to shine.
We all know the parable of the ants and the grasshopper. In the realm of fish, there are no grasshoppers, only ants. Their goal over the next few months is to feed with abandon and put on as much weight as possible for the impending cold. They know that the cornucopia of bait available with soon be disappearing to the Gulf or other deep water, so pigging out now is an investment in an easier winter. Unlike the ants, fish cannot store food. So they eat, and eat some more. Shrimp, mullet, perch, mud minnows, crabs…nothing is off the menu and nothing is safe. So how do we take advantage of this new fish attitude that blew in with the autumn air? Watch for the signs and it will be easy as a fall breeze.
Mother Nature is beckoning the shrimp out of the safety of the estuaries where they hatched several months ago and encouraging them to run a gauntlet of hungry creatures to the slightly safer waters of the Gulf of Mexico. In order to get there, they must leave their thick grass sanctuary and pass through dangerous open water, and lots of it.
They are armed with two lines of defense. The first is sheer numbers, increasing the chance of each individual making it to safety. The second is the ability to jump, a talent that may confuse a hungry fish for a critical second and create an escape opportunity.
Enter Mr. Seagull.
With a keen eye for more than just cheese puffs, he can see fleeing shrimp take to the air from hundreds of yards away. With a few squawks to summon friends, a group of gulls create a commotion that a fisherman can see for a mile on a pretty fall day. The birds gather for the jumping shrimp buffet, the shrimp jump to avoid certain death from reds and trout below, and anglers join the mix to bend rods on the hungry fish. A perfect symbiosis for both bird and fisherman. Not so much for fish and shrimp.
As the migrating chaos passes over the fish-holding structure, more fish may join the party, creating a perpetual feed that may last until the last shrimp is eaten. When fishing birds like this, position your boat out in front of the birds in the direction they are headed and avoid driving through them as that may spook the fish and end the cycle. Live shrimp, and many artificials including topwaters, work great in this scenario, but if fishing a jig unsuccessfully, try a lighter head or put on a cork above the lure. These fish are focusing their attention upward and a fast dropping jig may get out of their strike zone too quickly.
Fishing a cold front may require a miserable boat ride and cold-weather gear made famous by television shows about Alaskan crabbers, but if done safely and properly, the benefits far outweigh the discomfort. Hard north winds and the cold dense air associated with them blow water off the Texas coast faster and more forcefully than anything else in nature. The billions of shrimp and baitfish that populate the shallow lakes and marshes adjacent to our bays, are pushed involuntarily out of the sloughs that feed these marshes like screaming kids out the mouth of a slide at a water park. Predators know this, and will gather where these sloughs reach the bay to take advantage of a buffet that is incredible in both volume and variety.
For the first several hours after the front hits, the water will pour out green and pretty even into the teeth of a north wind, and trout will feed in this green water as well as reds, flounder and drum. Eventually the water will turn muddy and the trout will shut down. Change over to bait, live or dead, and the reds will still respond positively. This feed may last 12 to 24 hours after the front hits, depending on the strength of the wind and the height of the tide at the start.
If wading, be sure to stay on the edges of the slough so as not to scare the feeding fish or get stuck in the boggy silt associated with these areas. If fishing from the boat, be sure not to anchor in water that is too shallow. The tide that creates this feeding frenzy is falling at an alarming rate and you don’t want to be left high and dry when it comes time to leave. If you have several sloughs in the area where you fish, drive until you see pelicans and cormorants working the outgoing water. That one will always have feeding fish. And be careful, those waves can be big and mean.
THE CALMER DAYS
If a cold front is not in the forecast and the birds are scarce, don’t get discouraged. The fish are still around and probably still feeding. Take out your map of your favorite bay, and find the largest shallow estuary connected to it. Now trace your finger from that area down the shoreline to where the shrimp will exit that bay to get to the Gulf. Pinpoint any reefs, sandbars, or near-shore islands on this migration route. These will be ambush points, where reds, trout, flounder and drum will wait for days or even weeks to fatten up on shrimp stragglers.
Wade, drift, or anchor in these areas and work them slowly and thoroughly before moving to the next stop. Small white or bone topwaters, or gold or brown shrimp tails, fished lazily over the structure will get the strikes you are looking for. Shrimp under a cork are always a good bet, especially if drum are on your dinner menu. If you see some birds, run off and chase them, but return to these spots periodically throughout the fall and you will be rewarded. If the southeast wind is cranking and these areas are rough or muddy, try a chunk of crab or cut mullet. A redfish waiting on a meal is not likely to say no to that offering.
As the calendar changes to fall, remember that is a time to take advantage of opportunity. The fish are capitalizing on their opportunity to prepare for winter, and the fishermen should be out there taking advantage of the fishes’ good mood brought on by the beautiful autumn weather. The air is cooling down, but the action is heating up.
Brian Holden has spent the majority of his life chasing fish in both fresh and salt water throughout North America. He now focuses his energy on the central Texas coast where he has been guiding and teaching anglers for the past two decades. He is also the general manager of Redfish Lodge in Rockport, Texas. For more information or to make a reservation, visit redfishlodge.com.