Gulf Coast rains create a river’s burden, but a bay’s prize

Dozens of blue crabs scuttle sideways out of the shade of the boat, enjoying the population benefits of months of heavy rain that have sent tons of fresh water down Texas rivers to spew into coastal bays.

The Guadalupe, Brazos and Colorado rivers and all their associated creeks and bayous still are running high and muddy as they unload the extra water. But a river’s burden is a bay’s prize, and the extra flow from upstream on top of the constant rain has raised water to nearly unknown levels and inundated previously dry areas on offshore islands from Port Lavaca to Brownsville.

Crabs, shrimp, glass minnows and other baitfish are luxuriating in the extra water, and the whooping cranes migrating in this fall will find conditions so ripe with food that bellies will be bursting. It’s good for the full-time residents, too, as redfish and trout slash and pound on schools of bait as they cruise the shallow waters of the Laguna Madre.

The only residents finding things not exactly to their liking are the anglers, especially the fly anglers, who like to fish the shallow lakes and shorelines of offshore islands like San Jose. The waters there, which create shallow lakes perfect for redfish, have risen to levels old-timers like Chuck Naiser can’t recall.

“I’ve never seen this much water back in these lakes,” Naiser says as he poles us across a sandy flat that just a few months ago had been dry for years. “It’s really changing the fishing down here right now.”

All the lakes have ingress and egress points — for anglers and for fish — that carry water up into the shallow areas, where the red drum can be seen tailing and chasing bait as they feed. But with the much higher water, the fish haven’t had enough time to find the new habitat and begin feeding there.

Redfish can tolerate water with very low salinity levels, and that helps them adapt to the changing conditions. As Naiser and I ease across one lake, we glide over a very large alligator gar, another species that leaves the rivers at high flow times and ventures into bays along the coast. The prehistoric-looking fish pays little attention to us, silently moving away to put some distance between himself and the boat.

Minutes later, across a newly inundated island, a small school of redfish pops up from nowhere, splashing and tailing and pushing bait in front as the fish move toward the sun in the east. Naiser maneuvers the boat into position and coaches me on when to launch the cast.

“Not yet,” he says, as I begin shifting line through my fingers and on to the water beneath the bow. “OK, go left to stay in front of them.”

I can see three backs completely out of the water. They are dark orange in the sun and seem to be larger fish than one might expect. The fly lands just in front of the school, but the leader snags on heavy grass growing up from the bottom. I am stymied, and the school changes directions and heads back to the southwest, out of range.

“Those small schools aren’t as reliable as they used to be,” Naiser says, moving the boat back to the southeast, keeping the sun in just the right position for the best visibility from the casting and poling platforms. “I think we’re going to have to adjust how we fish and where we fish because of all this water,” meaning he expects water levels to remain elevated in the future.

Our next target approaches from the northwest, after we’ve skirted the edge of an island and headed back toward the open bay. A single redfish aims directly at us and takes the chartreuse Clouser as soon as it’s presented. The fish shoots up onto nearly dry land and hangs itself in the grass, forcing Naiser to leave the boat to retrieve it.

We release that one and move to a new group of reds feeding happily in very shallow water. I make a cast that lands in front of the school, and one fish shoots forward to take the fly before any of his brothers sees it.

After releasing that fish and taking a break for a sandwich and a bottle of water, Naiser begins the long pole off the island and toward open water where there’s enough depth to drop the big engine and head back toward Goose Island State Park.

We pick up another redfish before exiting the lake, one that creates a nice bookend for the morning and our first fishing trip of the season.

“I think it’s just going to get better through the summer,” Naiser says as we pull up and tie at the dock. A boatload of anglers is cleaning a mess of redfish there and feeding the remains to a pack of pelicans and gulls.

“There are lots of fish right now, and that’s always a good thing,” Naiser says.

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