Red Drum Revival
Brought back from the brink by a few true believers, the redfish is now a driving force in coastal economies.
By Scott Sommerlatte
Back in 1972, two men were flounder gigging in the shallows of Christmas Bay from an aluminum boat propelled by a small air motor when one of them spotted a sizable red drum swimming in the lights. One of the men took his gig firmly in his hand and made a decisive stab into the broad shoulders of the large red in an attempt to pin it to the bottom. The water erupted, and the fish proved too strong for the man and broke free, leaving a mud trail across the flat. The two men followed the mud trail and made another attempt to gig the brute and bring it into the boat. Again they failed. Finally, the fish was now showing signs that it had been injured by the previous attempts with the gig, and in one last attempt, one of the men, determined to bring the fish to the boat, decided to grab the fish with his hands. The man eased over the side and lunged at the fish, but his attempt to hold on to the fish was futile. However, once the fish broke the man’s grip, it did not travel far, and in his next attempt, the man dove on the fish and pinned it to the bottom. Reaching his hands under the fish and into its gills, he rose victorious.
Surprisingly, though I was just a toddler and too young to be on the boat that day in 1972, I can remember my father snapping a photo of me sitting on the ice chest with the trophy when he got home. It didn’t bother anyone then that it had been taken in what would be considered an unsportsmanlike (and illegal) way in today’s world. It goes without saying thatneither of us knew, on that day, what was in store for my future.
When I first started fishing for redfish almost exclusively, I chose to fish for them deep in the back-country of the Coastal Bend so that I could get away from the crowds in the bay. Though nowadays, whenever I am on the water, I look at all of the boats running around in the areas that I like to fish and wonder how long it will be before all of my secret spots are secret no more.
One day recently, I had the privilege of spending a day on the water fishing for redfish with Walter Fondren, chairman of the board for the Coastal Conservation Association. He told me that he had once heard a story of how people in the late 1800s and early 1900s would come from Oklahoma and Arkansas to the Texas coast to load up with fish to feed their families and trade for other amenities. They would travel by horse, pulling wagons loaded with barrels of salt for packing their catches of red drum. Of course, back then, people fished to feed themselves, and today we look at fishing as a sport.
A few anglers, however, found great joy in catching red drum and would fish from the banks or anchor their boats in the shallows throwing live or cut baits out.
Back in the early days of the sport, say back in the 1930s and 1940s, most saltwater anglers had their sights set on the speckled trout, a fish that could be caught in great numbers in the deeper waters of the bay and that made fine table fare. A few anglers, however, found great joy in catching red drum and would fish from the banks or anchor their boats in the shallows throwing live or cut baits out, waiting for a school of reds to come by and inhale their offering.
As the years went by, more and more of the anglers began to pursue redfish with artificial lures. As these anglers made the move into shallower water, which incidentally was better habitat to find redfish, they began to catch more and more redfish on the lures that had been designed for trout fishing. Some of these anglers eventually fell in love with the hard, determined and bullish fight of the redfish and abandoned trout fishing almost altogether and the sport began to grow.
In the late 1950s to early 1960s, commercial fishermen began to realize the ease with which they could harvest the large schools of redfish that roamed the shallows of the Texas bays. Within just a few years the commercial over-harvest of the red drum had begun to take its toll, and the situation was getting worse with the introduction of monofilament gill nets and quicker, more reliable transportation to get commercial catches to market.
In the late 1960s, a few anglers were becoming extremely concerned with the commercial decimation of their beloved redfish and began to make trips to Austin to try to convince the legislature to take action. Their voice went unheard, and the devastation continued until the mid-1970s, when a group of about 40 anglers led by Walter Fondren gathered to form the GCCA (Gulf Coast Conservation Association). The GCCA began the long hard fight under the war cry “Save the Redfish,” and in 1977, at the urging of the GCCA and other concerned Texas sportsmen, the Red Drum Conservation Act was passed by the Texas legislature and made into law.
This, however, was only the first of many victories. In 1980 the GCCA led the fight to have single-strand monofilament gill nets outlawed in Texas waters and in 1981 helped obtain game fish status for both the redfish and speckled trout. But, while the GCCA fought the battle to keep the redfish in the bay safe, the numbers of redfish coming back into the bay from the spawning grounds was being reduced drastically, again by commercial over-harvest.
The blackened redfish craze had started in Louisiana, and the demand for red drum fillets soared. The large schools of spawning red drum off the coast of Texas and Louisiana became the target, and the large commercial purse-seining boats began to annihilate the brood stock that put new fingerlings back into the bays. The GCCA had a new fight on its hands and in 1986 won the battle that ended the commercial harvest of adult redfish in the federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
The 1980s also brought several more devastating blows to the redfish population that went way beyond the control of the GCCA or the lawmakers in Austin. In December of 1983 and again in February and December of 1989 the jet stream dipped below Brownsville and deep into the Gulf of Mexico, allowing severe arctic fronts to make it to the Texas Coast. These fronts, which dropped the mercury into the teens and single digits, took a dramatic toll, killing millions of redfish and other species along the entire Texas Coast. These blows dealt by Mother Nature combined with the pressures of commercial over-harvest prompted the GCCA and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to form a unique partnership in the development of several fish hatcheries to help replenish the red drum stocks in our bays.
Since its beginnings, the GCCA, now known as CCA, has been fighting for the redfish and other coastal resources. It has fought and won many battles to ensure the future of redfishing in Texas. And, while it would be a pretty safe argument that Walter Fondren and the group of anglers that he led could be, or even should be, considered the saviors of the redfish, they are also somewhat responsible for turning redfishing into what it is today — an industry that pumps millions of dollars into the Texas economy every year.
Throughout the late ’80s and ’90s, as fishing improved along the Texas Coast, so did the economy, and more and more people purchased boats and flocked to the coast to try to catch a redfish or speckled trout. In addition, boats were becoming better and more efficient, allowing anglers to venture farther away from the ramps and into the extreme shallows.
Another thing that the stronger economy brought with it was a new kind of commercial fisherman — the fishing guide. The economy was doing so well that it allowed numerous individuals to either quit their jobs and cash out their earnings in the stock market or just outright retire early. All they had to do was to take a class and get a Coast Guard license and then buy a state guide license, and they were in business. The fishing was getting better every day, and more and more people were coming to the coast for a taste of redfishing, so many of these guides began to make a good living.
Many of these guides quickly learned that the key to bringing in business was to take advantage of the new tools that the Information Age provided and quickly took to the Internet with reports of their catches, which in turn brought more and more people to the coast. An interesting point not to be overlooked is that many of these anglers were not interested in finding a guide to come down to fish with a couple of times a year. They were thirsty for more information about the sport so that they could buy a boat and do it all on their own. The result — the sport has now become an industry.
The most recent change in redfishing has come by way of big-money televised fishing tournaments. These tournaments, geared to follow the path of big-money bass fishing tournaments, are welcomed by the very few anglers that fish them and those who stand to gain from them financially. Their introduction just a few years ago has already sparked heated debates among fishermen up and down the coast, many angered by the run-and-gun tactics used by the tournament anglers to locate fish in the shallows. And while many may not like it, tournaments are not going to go away and redfishing is an industry that will continue to grow.
With this growth comes some bad news and good. The bad news is that for those, like me, who enjoyed going to the water for peace and quiet, well — those days are over. The good news is, because more and more people are falling in love with fishing for redfish, it helps ensure the future of the redfish — people fight to protect the things they love.