“So you are sure there aren’t any sharks here,” I said, preparing to don my wading boots and slip over the side of Brandon Shuler’s Texas scooter skiff.
“I can’t say for sure, but we’ve never had a fisherman have a problem in the 10 years we’ve been running our lodge,” Shuler said. “But there’s always a first time,” he added, smiling.
We were getting ready to start the day on a shallow flat just outside Port Mansfield, Texas, on the southern end of the famed Laguna Madre. My innate fear of the man in the gray suit notwithstanding, over the side I went for my first crack at South Texas redfish.
“We don’t have the numbers of sharks that other top Gulf Coast redfish hot spots have to contend with,” said Shuler, referring to wading spots where routine interactions with blacktip and bull sharks result in missing stringers and wounded egos.
But even if they did have that many sharks, the reward would be well worth the risk. I say this none too lightly – at the risk of my trailer tires getting slashed the next time I park at a ramp along East Central Florida’s Mosquito or Indian River lagoons – but South Texas might just have the finest redfishing in the world.
Over three days, Shuler and fishing buddies Jeff Samsel and Mark Schindel from Pradco and Bomber lures caught and released more redfish – literally – than we could count. And all came on artificials. In fact, just about any type of artificial you could imagine. Everyting from YUM! soft plastic jerkbaits to traditional Zara Spooks to radical new popping topwaters like the Bomber Poppin’ Shrimp led to double-digit-per-angler days for three days running.
The Laguna Madre runs more than 130 miles from Corpus Christi to Port Isabel on the southern end of the Texas coast. Separating the mainland from Padre Island and the Gulf of Mexico, the lagoon covers more than 609 square miles of coastal estuary.
In Spanish, the name means “lagoon mother” – and the name is appropriate. In addition to being home to its world-class redfish fishery, it is home to arguably some of the best spotted seatrout fishing anywhere. In fact, the region is considered one of the three places to go when targeting gator trout over 10 pounds (the other being Florida’s Indian River and Louisiana’s Calcasieu Lake). The reason? It is an incredibly productive marine estuary. Researchers estimate that the hyper-saline (more salty than the ocean) grass flats hold on average 1,200 shrimp and other crustaceans per square yard. The well-protected nursery produces shrimp, crabs, mullet and a host of other forage species that help stoke the biological engine that is the Gulf of Mexico. In addition, it is an important wintering ground for redhead ducks and other species of waterfowl. No major freshwater tributaries feed into the lagoon, and the only access to the ocean on the southern end is the so-called East or Mansfield Cut.
**We only caught a few small trout on our trip, but the redfishing was spectacular. And being a diehard redfish angler (and former guide), I noticed a couple of differences in the fishing – even though the terrain is very similar to what we fish in Florida. Most noticeable is that topwater lures produce all day long; in Florida, they are usually restricted to early morning or late afternoon, generally low-light scenarios. In Texas, they plug ’em sun up to sun down.
“We fish topwaters about 90 percent of the time,” says Shuler. “Usually the only time we’ll switch to a jig or soft plastic is after a big blow when there is a lot of floating seagrass. The grass gets snagged and makes them near impossible to fish. We’ll also go subsurface if the wading isn’t paying off and we have to fish deeper holes and cuts.” But even then, Texas topwater aficionados prefer to time their casts, looking for open lanes between the floating grass before changing to subsurface baits.
The weapon of choice for serious topwater anglers?
Not so sure about using one? Then ask yourself this simple question: Would you rather put up with good-natured ribbing because you insist on using a spinning outfit (referred to by Shuler’s father, Bruce, as “cross-dressers” because you can switch the handle one side to the other) or because the guide can spit farther into the wind than you can launch your baitcaster. You’re going to get it either way.
I opted for the latter, and after the first couple hours, I finally got to a point where it didn’t take me 15 minutes to undo a professional overrun after each cast. In fact, I got pretty good at it, thanks more to the reel than any skill on my part.
The average water depth throughout the bay is about 212 feet, and although the bottom types vary from hard-packed sand to “ploof” mud, in all, it’s very comfortable wading. Texas strategies are pretty similar to wading elsewhere; use the boat to get yourself into position and work downwind, fan-casting and covering as much ground as possible.
“A lot of times, what we’ll do is set the anglers up and then drift the boats down to the other end or have a second boat down there to pick us up so we can walk with the group,” says Shuler. “We have so much fishable water that we can pick and choose based on clients and what they want to fish and what type of wade they want to do, based on any physical limitations.”
When fishing topwater lures on braided line, many anglers tie directly from the braid to the terminal eye or split ring on the lure. Although it gives a more direct connection, adding a short trace of fluorocarbon leader (15- or 20-pound test) can help improve the action of your baits. The higher-density fluoro actually sinks in the water, creating a different line angle. In the case of Spook-style walking baits, this means a better side-to-side motion; for poppers, it translates into a louder fish-attracting pop. Also try making the connection with a fixed loop knot to give the lure more action.
Texas has a lot more to offer than cattle and oil, so if you’re a redfish nut like me, head to the southern end of the Laguna Madre. You’re bound to strike it rich. And you don’t have to worry about the sharks.
- Rods: 712- to 812-foot light- to medium-action spinning and baitcasting rods.
- Reels: Spin and baitcasting models holding 150 yards of line.
- Line: Monofilament or braid, 8- to 12-pound.
- Lures: Topwater lures, including the Zara Spook Jr. or Bomber Poppin’ Shrimp. Soft plastic jerkbaits, including the YUM! Houdini or Samurai shad, either rigged weedless or on jigheads.
- Other: Wading boots and a chest pack or utility belt to hold pliers, stringers and a BogaGrip.
- Fishing the Laguna Madre involves a lot of wading, with the boat acting primarily as a transport vehicle from spot to spot. During the winter months, Shuler recommends that fishermen invest in waders, but most of the time, anglers can get by with quick-drying shorts and wading shoes.
- Quailty salt water wading boots like Patagonia’s Marlwaker ($140; patagonia.com), Orvis’ Wet Wading Shoe ($89; orvis.com) or Simms’ Flats Sneaker ($99.95; simmsfishing.com) are solid investments that your feet will thank you for after a long day on the flats.
- A pair of neoprene wading socks with gaiters is another good investment. The neoprene flap serves as a shell guard, keeping unwanted debris out of your boots. Some of the better ones include Chota’s Gaiter Sock ($29.95; chota.com), Simms’ Guard Socks ($29.95) or Patagonia’s Insulator Socks ($30).