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The Great Saltwater Piñata

Get to know the unsung heroes of nearshore fishing.

By Larry Bozka

Unpredictability is the essence of saltwater fishing.

Any doubts I might have had about this particular concept were erased during a trip I made with a couple of neighborhood kids to a Galveston beachfront fishing pier about 10 years ago.

One of the boys, a precocious and energetic kid with a fanatical affinity for angling, was busy fighting a fish when he asked a simple question.

"What is it?"

I looked at the tip of his erratically thumping spincasting rod. "Could be a croaker," I told him. "Or, it might be a whiting."

The reel drag stuttered and squalled. His dark-brown eyes wide and curious, his white-knuckled right hand squeezing the rod handle tight, the youngster asked again.

"What is it?"

"It's hugging the bottom, so it might be a big puppy drum. Then again," I rambled, "being that we're right over pier pilings, it could possibly be a sheepshead."

He peeked at the reel, still surrendering erratic spurts of line, and with a loud and accusatory tone leveled the charge.

"You don't know, do you?"

"You'd better keep that line away from the railing," I replied. "You'll get cut off if it touches the barnacles."

Changing the subject is the only tangible option when you've been busted by a 9-year-old kid.

Then again, age doesn't really matter. When a freshly baited hook hits the bottom of a Texas bay and is immediately picked up by a passing predator, there's going to be at least a moment of doubt before the attacker is identified. Often, positive identification isn't made until the fish swims within sight of the boat, bank or pier.

Therein lies much of coastal angling's inherent allure. It's like a big pinata. Until the bat is swung (or, in the case of fishing, the landing net) the reward remains a mystery. Inshore saltwater fishing epitomizes movie character Forrest Gump's proverbial box of chocolates.

You never know what you're going to get.

"Serious" saltwater fishermen like to believe they can always anticipate their catches. Using specialized gear and rigging, they're often correct. Still, there's not a suspending plug in the world that isn't as apt to attract a hungry redfish or flounder as it is a big speckled trout.

Problem is, for many inshore fishermen, the equation ends right there. Based on their exclusive outlook, you'd think there are only three hook-worthy species swimming in Texas saltwater.

Specks, reds and flounder are the undisputed "Saltwater Big Three." People spend enormous amounts of effort and money to succeed at catching those fish, and those fish alone.

Nonetheless, Texas saltwater fishing enthusiasts can enjoy the benefits of a plethora of less-sought but sporting and often-tasty species with a significantly smaller outlay of both time and cash. Better yet, with only minimal skills and gear, most anyone can locate and land any and all of these under-appreciated fish.

Most are caught by casters who approach the coast with the simple and non-selective goal of "catching fish." There's a lot to be said for steady fishing action, especially when the anglers are novices or impatient youngsters (a redundancy if ever one existed).

With a fundamental understanding of the coast's numerous unsung species, even the least polished of bait-dunkers can return home with both great fish stories and a delectable fish fry in the making.

Each possesses its own unique characteristics.

All are a blast to catch.

And the list goes on ...

Not to be confused with the venom-finned hardhead catfish, gafftop catfish are both strong and delicious. It's not uncommon for anglers who target "working birds" - seagulls diving to consume shrimp pushed to the surface by feeding trout - to instead encounter the flat-nosed, brawny whiskerfish. Those who get past the species' judicious coating of slime discover that they are as delectable as any catfish.

Spanish mackerel, smaller cousins of the gulf-roaming king mackerel, thrive in surf and jetty waters from spring through fall. The rocket-fast fish with razor-blade teeth sever monofilament leaders without missing a tail stroke. A 3-pound Spanish mackerel makes a sizzling run on light tackle. Freshly bled and filleted, it also does a great job of sizzling on the grill.

Tripletail hiding in the cooling shade of bay platforms, surf-running pompano cruising beachfront sand bars, sharp-toothed bluefish in deep jetty channels and surf guts, gracefully finned spadefish amid the legs of piers and an increasing number of mangrove snapper migrating northward from South Texas only add to the expansive list of Texas coastal fishing oddities.

These species and more are the in-between colors of the saltwater fish spectrum. They provide unexpected thrills throughout the year and, more often than not, outstanding meals. Most of all, they're mysterious.

Their collective presence and unpredictability provides the flavor to a recipe that would ultimately become boring if limited to a mere three ingredients.

I love catching speckled trout, redfish and flounder. Admittedly, those are often the species I'm after when an unexpected predator smacks the fire out of my lure or bait.

Still, those colorful creatures, big or large, edible or otherwise, will maintain a respected place on my fish-ranking list so long as I'm able to go to the coast, make a cast, and with so many different possibilities swimming before me, simply wonder what's coming next. You never know.

Atlantic croaker

(Micropogon undulatus)

Texas State Record: 5.47 pounds

Bag and Size Limit: None

Mention "croaker fishing" and experienced saltwater anglers think of live bait for speckled trout. Yet, granted just a little time to grow, the prolific Atlantic croaker is among the coast's most feisty and palatable residents.

Whether off rock groins and piers, above the reefs and sand bars of expansive bay systems or even inside the waters of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, croakers are where you find them - in oth-er words, virtually everywhere. The whiskered, noise-making species' widespread availability presents an ideal option to opportunistic fishermen who want fun, fast action and great table fare to boot.

During the fall, "golden croakers" of one to two pounds can be predictably pursued along the beachfront, especially in the vicinity of major bay-to-Gulf passes. Most croakers weigh less than a pound, but even smaller fish are pugnacious light-tackle fighters.

Year-round, fresh dead shrimp is the ultimate croaker offering. A long-shanked hook with a relatively narrow gap allows the fish to take the bait but leaves the fisherman sufficient shank-grabbing leverage to successfully unhook and release juvenile specimens.

Much like rabbits in the field, croakers are prime menu items for saltwater predator species. They are prodigious spawners. The fish reach a pound at the end of their first year and as much as two by the end of year two. Relatively few, however, live that long.

A one-pound croaker is a guaranteed grin waiting to happen for the angler who uses featherweight fishing gear.

Sand trout

(Cynoscion arenarius)

Texas State Record: 6.25 pounds

Size and Bag Limit: None

Sand trout don't attain the size of speckled trout. Still, what they lack in size they more than compensate for in quantity. The pink-flanked species is surprisingly abundant. It's also easy to catch, and when fried while fresh, every bit as good to eat as its spotted brethren.

Like specks, sand trout run in schools and have relatively thin mouths. Unlike specks, neither the sand trout nor its larger cousin the gulf trout (silver seatrout) is reluctant to eat fresh dead bait. Both fish are unabashedly cannibalistic. Catch a single sand trout, and there's cut bait aplenty to account for a dozen more.

Gulf trout and sand trout will occasionally school alongside speckled trout, preying upon the same current-carried shrimp and shad. It's not un-common for both species to strike soft plastic lures intended for specks.

Gulf trout grow a bit larger (the state record is 6.91 pounds) and are more silver in appearance than sand trout. Sand trout are especially abundant around bay and inshore gas production platforms, where the fish feed on shrimp and baitfish that hold tight to the structures' manmade shell pads. Deep-water channels, especially near bridges, can be loaded with the fish in the spring and fall. Nearshore Gulf of Mexico oil rigs tend to hold large schools of gulf trout throughout the year.

Both species sport an orange coloration inside their jaws. The only way to distinguish between the two is to count the rays of the anal fin. The sand trout has 11; the gulf trout has eight or nine.

On the line or in the frying pan, it's virtually impossible to tell the difference. The fillets are best eaten fresh, as they don't hold up well during long periods of freezer storage.

Whiting

(Menticirrhus littoralis)

Texas State Record: 2.38 pounds

Size and Bag Limit: None

Properly known as "gulf kingfish," whiting are a more streamlined but just as combative version of Atlantic croaker. Prone to strike in surf and channel waters during cold-weather months, the muscular little fish are an excellent cure for cabin fever.

Anglers who either fish from piers or brave wade fishing the suds when beachfront waters are cool tend to catch the largest fish of the year. Late spring is an ideal period for taking big whiting. Generally, whiting roam in small schools. The fish are primarily bottom feeders, so the same long-shanked, narrow-gap hook that's so well suited to croaker fishing serves effective double duty for whiting rigging.

A short leader topped with a swivel and an egg sinker just heavy enough to keep fresh dead shrimp down on the bottom is all that's required to target the diminutive but rugged panfish.

The southern kingfish, Menticirrhus americanus (state record, 3.62 pounds), carries a copper coloration. Colloquially called "shoemakers," the fish sport dark markings on their sides that help them stay camouflaged above sandy bottoms.

Aside from that distinctive striping, the two species are almost indiscernible, especially in regard to their availability, tenacious fighting characteristics and value as fresh-cooked fillets.

Sheepshead

(Archosargus probatocephalus)

Texas State Record: 15.25 pounds

Bag and Size Limit: Daily Bag - 5; Minimum Legal Size - 13 inches (changing to 14 inches as of Sept. 1, 2008, and 15 inches as of Sept. 1, 2009)

Stripes are only one unique characteristic of the sheeps-head, giving the species its oft-used moniker, "convict fish." The other, more distinctive aspect of the species is its unique set of teeth.

True to its name, a sheeps-head's dental work closely resembles that of a sheep. Both creatures are grazers, with powerful jaws and flattened teeth designed for crunching tough forage.

For dining on small crabs or even barnacles, the sheeps-head's teeth are indispensable. The small size of the species' jaw belies its impressive power. Sheepshead steal fresh bait like ... well, "convicts." A big one can clamp down on a No. 8 treble hook and crush it like cheap tinfoil.

Sheepshead specialists (and yes, they exist) like to walk atop concrete-topped jetty rocks with extra-long rods used to dabble live fiddler crabs between the granite crevasses. Aside from jetties, sheeps-head concentrate near pier pilings, oyster reefs, sunken ships and any nearshore structures that are conducive to shellfish and crustaceans.

Large sheepshead in excess of 4 and 5 pounds are dogged fighters. It takes a fish of that caliber to produce quality fillets, and as such, the species is being carefully monitored and regulated, with tighter minimum size restrictions gradually being enacted (see above).

It's advisable to wear gloves when handling these fish. Like snapper, sheepshead exhibit hard-pointed dorsal spines and knife-sharp plates on the outside edges of their gills. Bare hands are invitations to nasty cuts.

A big sheepshead, carefully filleted, holds its own on the table. Fishermen usually fry the fillets, although some prefer to cook the meat as a unique ingredient in seafood gumbo.

Ladyfish

(Elops saurus)

Texas State Record: 5.25 pounds

Saltwater regulars call the ladyfish "the poor man's tarpon." That duly noted, there is nothing poor about the way these fish do battle. Ladyfish, also called "horse mackerel," are frequently hooked by flats-drifting fly fishermen and bay fishing enthusiasts who throw spoons and soft plastic lures.

In terms of temperament, a fresh-hooked ladyfish is no lady. Like tarpon, the fish have hard-boned jaws and streamlined, cylindrical bodies. Powered by deeply forked caudal fins, they're built for velocity.

Ladyfish are accomplished pros at throwing lures and sometimes even cutting light line. They're also as acrobatic as inshore fish get, sometimes taking to the air a half-dozen times before succumbing to the landing net.

From clear summertime surf waters to expansive shallow-water flats, ladyfish are bona fide party-crashers. Videotape the fight sometime, and a slow-motion playback will blow your mind.

If Cirque de Soleil had a fish act, ladyfish would be the headliners.

Ladyfish have soft flesh and numerous bones. Catch-and-release is therefore the norm. For sheer excitement, the unforgettable thrill of fighting a "mini-me" tarpon on down-sized spinning gear or fly tackle, these hyperactive speedsters are the ultimate performers.