The Texas Bonefish - by Clay Gill
A good question came up at the Sequin Outdoor Learning Center the other day. We were asked during intro class where a newcomer could get coastal action without breaking the bank. Here is an answer. It is sure bet action that will cost very little and be popular with the whole family.
There is an acrobat of a fish that prowls the bays and surf of the Texas Gulf coast that is every bit as fast and sporty as the Caribbean bonefish. The lean and mean Skipjack, also known as the Ladyfish is pound for pound the most explosive and as fierce a fighter for the size, as you will find in the salt. Bar none! They have been called the “poor mans Tarpon” and you don’t need 500.00 dollars for a guide and boat charter. They live all along the gulf beach and Texas bay systems.
This fish is a master at herding baitfish like Dusky Anchovies, which are now grouping in the surf to provide a movable feast of sorts. Lines of baitfish migrate south and the birds signal the action. You can wade these dark parallel bait lines along the beach to near guaranteed action on a fly rod. This is exciting stuff! Keep rigged rods handy on the car top. Foam swim noodles work well cable tied to the car top rack to protect rods and reels. Run a bungee across to hold them.
About the first of October Anchovies, sometimes called “rain bait” from action they create on the surface, become so concentrated you may find them in your pockets after wading. This action draws all types of predators to the tight bait schools in shallow water. Each morning from now to almost Thanksgiving, all along Mustang and Padre Island the show begins with diving bird lines parallel to the beach, hovering over dark clouds of bait. They slurp up surface Anchovies, and become the obvious signal of sure action. You can wait for this, or blind cast a sink tip or intermediate sink line to cut through the waves. Use a weighted fly. Try to stay several days to assure sighting bait runs from late September on to about November.
The best approach is to “road hunt” for action at little and Big Shell driving the National Seashore beaches. Sample all the steep beach drop offs on the way south toward the Port Mansfield Jetties. Driving along, you get out at a run when the action is on. Large Jacks may be obvious in the waves so keep a sharp eye on the water. Be ready as big action starts and stops frequently all day.
The first gut of the surf is deeper past marker 25 or so, and Skipjacks will trap baitfish in the washout guts where they dead-end into the beach. Washout holes concentrate the action and frenzies are very obvious. When it is like this in September and October, many times a cast is almost an instant hookup. Larger fish are on the bottom so bounce off the sand when the top action is slow. This area is called the “Elbow” where the coastal bend curves the most.
What makes these fish fun is the amazing power and jumps they are famous for. If they got to be Tarpon size, they would jerk your arms off! Many times you will get six or eight cart wheeling jumps and long powerful runs that culminate in a fish that just wont say die as you spin around to lip the fish. You can find them right on the Mustang Beach in downtown Port Aransas.
Although the Texas record is only a few pounds, the fish is pure dynamite. They have a large eye, and gorgeous silvery colors. Kathy Sparrow, -guide and writer in the South Padre area has described this fish as a living-breathing prism. Years past, It suffered the reputation of trash fish and/or cut-bait. The Skipjack now stands in higher esteem as a sport fish. For the fly rod, it truly stands tall and proud as an acrobatic champion in my book. Larger “Skips” will take you into your backing, and the jumps are incredible! If Tarpon could do this they would jump 30 feet high.
Pack some food and head for the beach for a day. Give them a try if you have not. It is cheap and easy. These little guys are all along the surf and will get right up in the first or second gut to feed. Fishing is best on high tide and with heavy bait present. Stand on the sandbars and use the prevailing south winds to cast toward shallower guts. The first gut is often best!
We have a ritual now each day after hitting the flats or ocean. A retreat to the beach for the sunset show, slinging weighted Clousers at the first and second gut as the sun melts into the horizon is a great way to end the day. Sometimes everyone is hooked up at the same time with a Skipjack, Blue, Jack, Red, or Trout. Weighted circle hook Clousers entirely of sparse flash material work super well and the circle hook does not kill fish as a j-hook might deep hooking in the gills.
I get excited and go chest deep all the time to hook larger fish. I will tell you don’t do it, but I can’t wait until next week when we go do it again. When the surface is popping and rods are bent over who can stand on the sand and watch. The best part is never knowing what will hit your fly next. It could be anything out there, or -just another great acrobat like the Ladyfish. Don’t wait! The Texas Bonefish is playing at a local beach near you. Admission is free and the show is continuous. The lowly skipjack may move up several notches on your popularity vote.
As Jimmy Buffet sings in his beach songs-“in this life there are no re-runs and no re-plays”, so pack some food, get the sunscreen and come on-lets go!