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June 2010 cover image 12 Out on the Pier

Pier Pressure

Out on the pier, good fishing and interesting characters can be found

By Rusty Middleton

A grizzled, elderly fisherman (and former university professor) calling himself by his “nom de fishing pier,” Baitshack Ben, stood at the end of Bob Hall Pier looking at his line angling off into the Gulf of Mexico. When asked if he ever goes out on fishing boats, he says, “Boats! We don’t need no stinking boats,” laughing at his own lame take on the bandits in the classic movie Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

“Oh, I use a boat once in awhile,” Baitshack Ben admits, “but most of the time I don’t bother with all the expense and trouble. There is plenty of action on the piers and jetties. Besides, I kind of like the atmosphere. I’m out here to catch fish, but I like the people, too.”

Photo by Earl Nottingham

Those are familiar sentiments on the saltwater fishing piers dotting the Texas coastline. The fishing is often good, and people are relaxed, friendly and generally helpful to one another — in fact, Baitshack Ben’s moniker comes from his habit of giving away bait. And sometimes that help can come in more dramatic ways.

Only a little earlier, everybody on the end of the pier began hearing the hiss of line flying off a reel. They knew instantly that somebody hooked a big one.

The angler who caught the fish reacted with an instantaneous gut-level yank to set the hook hard, but it didn’t appear to slow the hard-charging fish down much. “Jacko, let him run,” someone yelled. “He’ll break the line.”

Jacko, an intense young man in a ragged Aggies T-shirt, didn’t listen. He pulled back hard, almost bending the rod in half. Everyone looked up to see if it would snap. Finally, he eased off and began moving in the direction the fish was running, but there were other people in the way. In fact, Jacko’s line was already crossed with another fisherman’s. They quickly changed places, untangling their lines while Jacko tried giving up more line and yanking back on the rod at the same time. Suddenly, the fish changed directions and seemed to be coming back toward the pier.

“That’s got to be a jack-crevalle,” someone yelled. “They can bite your line right in half.”

Jacko’s line immediately got tangled again, only this time changing places didn’t help. “Cut it, cut it,” Jacko appealed to the other fisherman. When he hesitated, Jacko said, “I’ll give you more leader — just cut it.”

It was cut, but then Jacko’s line went slack. For a moment, no one knew what happened. Then it suddenly went tight again. The fish had passed right under the pier.

“He’s headed offshore,” said Jacko. The problem now was that Jacko was trying to play the fish with his rod in the wrong direction from the wrong side of the pier.

“We can pass it under; we’ve done it before,” yelled one of Jacko’s friends. They tied a rope to the handle of the rod, and someone on the other side of the pier picked up Jacko’s line with a hook on the end of a chain. They passed the rod under the pier. Jacko grabbed it and resumed the struggle, finally landing his fish. People cheered. It was about a 30-pound jack-crevalle, and it was still fighting mad. Jacko threw it back. They aren’t good to eat.

Saltwater fishing piers attract a wide variety of anglers. Many are occasional visitors or tourists trying their luck. Many are truly dedicated, hard-core fishermen who come fully equipped with folding chairs, ice chests, big tackle boxes and various rods and reels, all of it brought out with some form of pushcart. They stay out on the piers for hours or even days, and they are the ones who catch most of the fish.

Cecil Tackett falls into that category. A tall, easygoing electrician, Tackett and his wife got tired of coming all the way from Fort Worth to go fishing every month or two. They would fish the whole weekend and then drive home exhausted. So they solved the problem by buying a house in Flour Bluff, near Corpus Christi, just so they could go saltwater fishing more often.

Tackett knows the waters around Bob Hall Pier like a farmer knows his fields. “I’ve caught just about everything,” he says, without a hint of bragging. He has reeled in black tip shark — “they’re good to eat; they’ve got their own flavor” — pompano, ladyfish, trout, mackerel, drum, snook, “you name it.”

“The fish sometimes run in big schools in different layers of the water,” says Tackett. “The jacks will swim above the sharks. They can come cruising through all at once like a big herd, and then, in a flash, they’re gone. There’s some fish you are only going to catch about halfway down the pier. In certain conditions, you can hook ladyfish and tarpon in the surf area.”

In early February, Tackett and his wife were out fishing Bob Hall Pier in what is probably the slowest time of the year. The tip of his rod nodded slightly, but it was only the pull and tug of the swells. “Not much happening right at the moment, but you never know,” he said with a smile. Perry Trial, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department fisheries biologist for the Corpus Christi region, agrees. “With a few exceptions of fish that migrate seasonally up from the south, you can pretty much catch anything anytime of the year on the coast,” he says. “We have people drop by our offices all the time wanting to identify some critter they’ve never seen before.”

Photo by Earl Nottingham

Fishing generally improves in the spring, when the water begins to warm up. And that brings out another pier specialist, the shark fishermen.

“They are a whole different clan of fishermen,” says Bryan Bartram, TPWD fisheries technician and avid shark fisherman. Usually their sole focus is on shark or even certain types of sharks. Their equipment is scaled up to suit their quarry — some sharks can weigh hundreds of pounds. They use huge reels that can measure 10 to 11 inches across. These rods are often custom-built, heavy-duty rods with ultrastrong lines and leaders. Bait can be a whole mullet or stingray. Shark fishermen looking for really big ones like tigers will sometimes take their bait offshore in a kayak and drop it off.

“Shark fishing is a waiting game,” says Bartram. “Over a couple of days you might get three pulls and actually hook only one shark. But it’s worth it to me. There is just no comparison to hooking and fighting, say, a 5- or 6-foot black tip shark and catching a 16-inch trout.” If it’s more than about 3 feet, Bartram lets it go.

Just about anything can be caught from most saltwater piers, but, like people, fishing piers can develop their own special characteristics. Horace Caldwell Pier at Port Aransas is only about 20 miles from Bob Hall, but anglers tend to catch different numbers of different species there. Part of the reason is that Horace Caldwell is less than a mile from the Corpus Christi ship channel. The ship channel is at least 40 feet deep and is not only a busy passageway for shipping and boat traffic but also a major fish highway.

Photo by Earl Nottingham

The ship channel is “a main route for black drum, redfish and flounder migration offshore,” says Trial. This means that Horace Caldwell has a much closer proximity to very hungry migrating fish. The fishing pier at Charlie’s Pasture, just west of the ferry landing and the Brundrett Pier on Station Street in Port Aransas, can be a real hot spot.

Even in one of the slowest times of the year for fishing, January and February, there were folks out on Horace Caldwell who had driven down from San Antonio and Austin just to fish the piers and jetties. They were catching mainly stingrays and catfish on the pier, but elsewhere around Corpus Christi Bay there were black drum, redfish and speckled trout being taken.

Some people, like Greg Kellogg, were out just to enjoy the day. A former computer expert for the Department of Defense, Kellogg says he has caught just about everything. “I just like to be out here. Fishing is relaxing. Catching them is work,” he laughs.

One thing that successful pier and jetty fishermen have in common is a sharp eye on the weather and water conditions at any given time.

“Conditions vary from year to year and place to place along the coast,” Trial says. “No two years are exactly alike, but you can depend on some generalities about coastal fishing. The redfish spawn offshore and their young will move into the bays. When they get old enough, they, too, will migrate offshore. When you catch a legal redfish it is going to be a juvenile. Redfish also will gather in great spawning aggregations along the gulf shoreline. These schools move up and down the beach. Trout do not migrate much. They tend to hang around where they were born. Flounder will move offshore in the fall to spawn and begin coming back into the bays in winter/spring. Those huge black drum will start moving offshore in late February and early March.”

That’s when hundreds of fishermen will start lining the Intracoastal Waterway and the jetties and piers looking for their first big catch of the year. “Mackerel will migrate up the coast from more southerly water in May, as do some sharks,” says Trial. “Fish respond to water temperature. When the water is cold, their metabolism slows down and they don’t eat as much.”

In winter, the fish are more likely to bite in midday or afternoon, especially a day or two after a cold snap. “As the water warms up in spring, fish become much more active until the water becomes too warm,” Trial says. “Very warm water also impacts fish metabolism, and thus fishing slows noticeably during very hot summers. All the rest is experience and good old-fashioned luck.”

A note about saltwater piers

    There are saltwater piers pretty much all along the Texas Gulf Coast from Port Isabel to the Sabine River with one glaring and unfortunate exception — the Galveston area. Of the eight piers in or near Galveston, seven were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Ike in 2008. Seawolf Park, within the city of Galveston, has the only pier left functioning.

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