Texas dodges Florida freeze

It wasn't until I talked to a couple of good friends in Florida that I realized how fortunate we were when a nasty freeze rolled down the continent this past winter.

The same storm that scored barely a glancing blow on the Lone Star State's coastal fisheries socked Florida's premier marine gamefish right in the nose.

Water temperatures there, all over the state, flagged into the mid-40s and stayed there long enough to kill some untold number of snook. A few estimates put the total at a million-plus of this magnificent gamefish, which through two decades of relatively warm winters has established a strong foothold along much of the Texas coast.

The best post-freeze news savvy Texas anglers received was that there weren't many dead snook. There were some, but the worst of the cold was brief, and subsequent sunshine breathed life-giving warmth into our bays and beachfront.

Worth noting, statewide, tug and barge operators voluntarily suspended operations along the Intracoastal Waterway during coldest weather. By not disturbing already stressed fish in the deep refuge of the ICW, by not forcing colder surface water to bottom with their passing loads and turning wheels, those men and women and companies surely saved thousands upon thousands of fish.

In short, Texas dodged the punch that knocked Florida out. Guides and recreational anglers here should brace for another excellent summer fishing season, one that almost certainly will include more stories of snook coming from places where snook haven't been caught in decades.

One of the rare snook casualties from that recent freeze came from Galveston Bay. Few Texans would have dreamed a snook could find its way that far north (despite the Texas coast having once supported a thriving commercial snook fishery).

I witnessed one snook caught from the Surfside jetty and know of at least two more. The majority of those great fish are still caught much farther south, but bittersweet proof of their northward migration floated to the surface just a couple of months ago.

Now that I know one was up here, I'm betting there are more.

Beating the drum

Big Ugly is in town. Catch him if you can.

Along the upper Texas coast, there is no more reliable signal of seasonal change than the annual, lumbering run of spawning-class black drum through the Galveston jetties and into the bays. The jumbo fish make soft, easy marks.

Despite their size — spring-caught drum often exceed 40 pounds, and 30-pound fish are common — these fish are pushovers on the line. Think of them as the saltwater equivalent of walleye and about 10 times that freshwater species' size.

It is their unusual combination of size and relative weakness, actually, that makes black drum such popular targets with fishing families. Even small children can brace their scrawny knees against the gunwale, give it their all for a few minutes, and come face to face with a sea monster.

I've had several pictures sent to me recently from proud parents who shuttled theirs and sometimes the neighbors' kids to deep water along the jetties, set the hook, dropped chunks of fresh crab over the size and in no time been hooked up.

Standard rigging for this bite is a reasonably stout boat rod and reel loaded with 30- to 40-pound line. On the business end, hang enough weight to hold the bait on bottom against the current, then finish with a circle hook and slab of crab. Unless you miss any of several traditional "drum holes" in the area by a mile or more, it shouldn't take long to see action.

The plus side, for what it's worth, is that this steady procession of boxcars with fins lasts five to six weeks (and should continue this season at least through tax day). The flip side is that none of these fish are pretty, acrobatic of worthy of space on any dinner plate. While small drum can be quite tasty, their parents and grandparents are shoe-leather nasty and often loaded with parasitic worms.

Big drum generate squeals of delight from young anglers and gape-mouthed exclamations from adults unfamiliar with the beasts. And because most of them get released within seconds of capture, there should be plenty for years to come.

Editor's note: Doug Pike spent 23 years as the outdoors columnist at the Houston Chronicle, nine years and counting on radio (he's the host of the Doug Pike Show on 790 the Sports Animal), two years and counting as back-page humor columnist for Saltwater Sportsman, 10 years and counting on the masthead for Field & Stream, two years and counting on the masthead and as columnist for Texas Fish & Game, 10 years editor of Tide magazine for CCA. He has won more than 100 state and national awards for writing, photography, broadcast and editing.