Spring Speck Fishing on the Lower Laguna
"The fish are out front." Those are magical words for anglers fishing Texas' southernmost stretch of inshore saltwater -- the Lower Laguna Madre between Port Isabel and South Padre Island. During early spring, Lower Laguna regulars await the time when trout begin to cover up the bars and fill the potholes in the portion of water "out front" of the town of Port Isabel. When those fish move in, it creates one of the best periods of speckled trout fishing of the year. Throughout March and April, anglers can expect regular limits of fish over 20-inches. There will also be plenty of two-foot-plus trout taken from this area during the spring. All in all, anglers would be hard pressed to find such fast action on "solid" specks anywhere else, at any other time.
The area in question is the western portion of the Lower Laguna Madre just above the Queen Isabella Memorial Bridge, running along the ICW to the south end of Long Bar and across to the western shore. This roughly triangular patch of water encompasses a number of fish holding bars, channels, guts and drop-offs. The ICW spoils are perhaps the best known. Areas like Community Bar and Long Bar, as well as numerous unnamed spoils have good fishing on both the channel side, as well as on the backside. The back (west) side of these spoil islands slope to the deep water trough of the western portion of the bay. Along the way, there are several "steps" where the flat will drop a foot or two. Fish will move up and down these grass covered flats and drops based on weather conditions and water temperatures. Additionally, anglers can often find semi-protected water behind the spoils on windy days.
Smack in the middle of this triangular area is Submarine Bar, a shallow, grass covered bar which rises quite literally in the middle of a deep water flat. Because it is so exposed, Submarine Bar can be difficult to get to on windy days. But, under the right conditions, it can offer extremely good speckled trout fishing.
Further south, a number of grassy bars have risen from the depths along the PI Small Boat Channel in recent years. Many of these bars have steep faces, dropping suddenly into deep water. On cooler days, anglers can do really well deadsticking baits along the face of these bars.
For the most part, anglers drift over these bars or along the breaks and drops. At times, anglers will also pole the channels and edges of the spoils or anchor up around the deeper bars. Wading can be effective, but is generally not practiced much in this area of the Lower Laguna. While the mucky bottom that attracts trout to this area can make wading tough, it certainly is possible -- especially behind the ICW spoils.
When the fish are "out front," there are a variety of ways to catch them. Most often, lure choices are going to be dictated by prevailing conditions and available prey items. At the onset of the spring trout bite, mullet are the primary forage item available to trout in this area. Therefore, mullet imitating lures are generally going to draw the most strikes. As spring wears on, shrimp begin to appear and take a place on the spring trout menu. By the time the bite ends in early summer, glass minnows will generally appear and become the primary target for schools of feeding trout.
As for conditions, during spring and into early summer, anglers can expect one of four prevailing water conditions -- rough and muddy, rough and green, calm and muddy or calm and clear (green). While fish can be caught in any of these conditions, lure and bait choices need to be adjusted accordingly.
The ideal conditions are a few days after a hard blow, when the bay surface has calmed and the water has turned to a translucent emerald green. There are very few times of complete calm during spring, so fishermen can usually count on having enough wind to drift, even if there isn't enough to rough the bay surface. In this situation, when the water's surface is fairly calm, the water itself is clear/green and the drift speed is slow enough to allow a methodical retrieve, the absolute best bait to throw is a soft-plastic jerkbait. Baits like the 4-inch straight tail jerkbaits offered by DOA and GULP! are outstanding in this situation, as is the "hybrid" Down South Southern Shad, which has a small paddle tail attached to a jerkbait body. Slow-sinking plugs like the Bomber Badonk-A-Donk SS are also good choices in these conditions, if trout are feeding on mullet. If shrimp are around, shrimp imitating baits like the Egret Vudu Shrimp are good choices, while soft-plastic grubs, like the Hogan Rat Tail grub, are good bets when the fish are feeding on glass minnows later on.
While light wind and clean water will usually result in fish being more active, that doesn't mean they will be hitting more aggressively. Unless there has been a string of unusually warm days, anglers should expect subtle strikes. Considering the lack of aggression by feeding fish, anglers should use a dead-stick or, at most, a slow lift and fall retrieve. If using hard-plastic jerkbaits, allow for a long pause between twitches. With these retrieves, often a slight tap or the sideways movement of the line is all that will indicate a fish has taken the bait.
If fish are striking more aggressively, anglers can up the tempo of their retrieve in order to cover more water. They may also consider switching to a topwater plug. Again, given calm and clear conditions, small dog-walkers such as a Heddon Spook Jr or Rebel Jumpin' Minnow are the best choices. Floater/divers such as Cordell Redfins will also produce in these conditions.
The first day a strong north or south wind begins to blow, the bay surface will become rough, while the water remains clear/green. In this situation, anglers can continue to use the same soft-plastic baits mentioned above, but will most likely need to pin them beneath some sort of popping cork. Anglers wishing to go sans cork are best served switching to paddle tail plastics like the YUM Money Minnow or Egret Wedgetail Mullet.
Once the wind has been blowing a day or so, the water will not only be rough, it will begin to turn murky. At times, depending on the wind direction, anglers can push up into the shallows and still find "decent" water. However, if the fish are holding in deeper water or on the edges, fishermen will have to find a way to tempt them in the murky, rough water. This is usually best accomplished by using either jumbo paddle tail plastics in dark color patterns such as Morning Glory or pinning dark or glow plastics under a noisy popping cork. In this situation, anglers should "slow roll" soft-plastics that are not hanging beneath a float. If using a cork, fishermen should allow several seconds between "pops" to allow fish to locate the bait.
Finally, as the wind subsides, the water's surface will calm sooner than the depths will clear. So, the first day or two of light wind following a big blow, anglers will often find themselves with just enough wind to drift, while fishing relatively calm, but muddy water. Believe it or not, this is actually the second best set of conditions for fishing out front of Port Isabel. While the water clarity is less than ideal, the light wind and slow drift speed allow anglers to be methodical in their retrieves. Noisy topwater plugs like the Heddon Chug'n Spook can produce well for patient fishermen. Paddletail plastics will also produce fish when slow-rolled, as will patiently popped artificial shrimp/popping cork rigs. Actually, anglers can still have a good bite on soft-plastic jerkbaits in murky water, but they need to be extremely patient with their retrieves and expect to feel only the softest of bites when a fish takes.
While fishing "out front," in full view of the city of Port Isabel, town of South Padre Island and the Queen Isabella Memorial Bridge may lack the "adventure" some anglers long for, it is magical for those fishermen who are satisfied with hooking into dozens of over-20-inch trout after a five minute boat ride. The one downside is the ever-present possibility of a blowout. And, although the fishing in this area can be par excellent during spring, anglers do need to watch the weather. Strong spring winds can make crossing to the bars and/or fishing them rough, sometimes even dangerous. And, while the temptation of outstanding fishing can certainly tempt anglers to take unnecessary risks, it is always better to err on the side of caution. But, given the right conditions, anglers can expect to have a memorable trip without burning more than a few dollars of fuel.