Fresh crab: some of the best seafood around

July 1st, 2017

Blue Crab is common in the Galveston Bay Complex and delicious when fresh.

By Capt. Joe Kent

The Upper Texas Coast and in particular Galveston Bay is home to two of the best seafood catches anywhere. I am referring to the bounty of both blue crabs and stone crabs. Both are easy and economical to catch and offer superb table fare.

The Galveston Bay Complex is full of both types of crabs and that has been a big, positive change from only a few years back.

For newcomers to this area, let’s take a look at what has taken place with the stocks of both species of crabs over the years, how and where to catch them, how to handle and cook them and how to make the most out of a fun family outing.

Crabs were plentiful in just about every body of water around the Galveston Bay Complex until the mid-1980s. Up until then, fishermen considered them a nuisance as they would steal both live and dead bait off their hooks. Shrimpers also looked upon them in much the same way as they would take up space in their nets while displacing shrimp and finfish that brought more money at the markets.

As a child, crabbing was one of my family’s favorite warm weather activities, and during that time big blue crabs were about it, as stone crabs were not plentiful.

During the 1980s several events combined to drastically decrease the number of blue crabs in the Galveston Bay Complex. Three of the most notable were over fishing by commercial crabbers, bycatch loss in shrimping and a virus that spread through the male crabs that rendered them sterile.
In a relatively short period of time, we went from catching all of the big blues we wanted to sparse catches of mainly smaller crabs.

Families still enjoyed crabbing and, while the kids were entertained by just dipping up the crabs, the numbers that went home for the boiling pot dropped off considerably. Crabs never have been listed as a threatened species and up until the problems began there were no regulations on crabs.

When it became apparent that a problem existed, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department initiated rules that eventually helped bring the stocks back.

Among the rules was a 5-inch minimum on the size of blue crabs. Only the right claw of stone crabs can be retained ,and it must be at least 2½ inches long.

Egg bearing crabs are off limits, recreational crabbers are limited to six traps and shrimpers could not drag their nets after 2 p.m. each day.
After a number of years, the results of the regulations began to show, and today our crab stocks are healthy.

For the last three years, heavy spring rains helped with the reproduction and today we are back in business as far as recreational crabbing goes.
So, now that crabbing is back, how do you take advantage of it? The two most popular ways to catch crabs are by use of a crab trap and, for the most fun, using crab lines with a chicken neck or fish carcass on it and a dip net.

For families, the dip net and crab line is the most popular method and is enjoyed most by the kids. Almost anywhere there is salt or brackish water, crabs will be present. Blue crabs are more widespread while stone crabs are most likely going to be found around structures offering shelter from predators. Rocky areas such as the groins and jetties all along the coast and around clusters of pilings near docks are preferred locations for stone crabs.

Both crabs are found in shallow waters and are aggressive feeders.

Once you catch your crabs, keep them moist and out of the direct sunlight; however, do not place them in buckets of water. The summer heat quickly eliminates the dissolved oxygen in containers, and when it goes, so do the crabs.

Crabs have mean pinchers or claws and can easily cause severe pain when a hand or foot is in their grasp. Use crab tongs or heavy gloves when handling them.

Cook the crabs live or just following removal of the shell (for blue crabs). For stone crab claws and for blue crabs after the shell is removed, keep them on ice until cooking.

Cook in boiling water with spices such as bay leaves, red pepper and crab boil added for about 10 minutes and then let the crabs sit in the hot water another five minutes. Place the crabs on ice and allow to chill.

Wow! A crab feast! What a great way to end a fun family outing!

A Clear and Present Danger for Coastal Fisherman and Swimmers

June 1st, 2017

Vibro Vulnificus

By Capt. Joe Kent

We often discuss the dangers that exist for fishermen, and while sharks tend to be the one people think of most, they are the least of the dangers.  Lightning is far ahead in the pecking order.

There is another hazard that takes more lives than sharks on the Texas Gulf Coast and that is the deadly flesh eating bacteria known as Vibro Vulnificus.  Each year there are several cases reported and a few die from the infection.  As a coastal fishing writer, I feel that I would be remiss to not address this at least once each summer.

According to Scott Packard with the Galveston County Health District, the bacteria is described as follows:

“Vibro Vulnificus is present in salt and brackish water anywhere you go. So if you have ever been to the Gulf of Mexico, you have probably been exposed to this bacteria, and you probably didn’t have a negative reaction.”

Although medical experts say that there is only a slim chance of contracting this deadly bacteria, I have known two victims.  One was a Houston dentist who died from the infection and the other, the cousin of a friend who resides in Victoria, who survived a living hell during his recovery.
Closer to home, a resident of the Bayou Vista Subdivision near Galveston contracted the bacteria last year while cleaning crabs.  While a survivor of the infection, he sacrificed a leg to the disease along with a painful recovery.

Experts say that the only people who are at risk are those with immune system disorders or diabetics, the individuals with whom I was personally familiar did not fit into either category.

Before getting alarmed about all of this, let’s take a look at how the infection occurs and the places offering the highest odds of exposure.
According to the Galveston County Health District, there were 26 reported cases between 2013 and 2015.

The infections almost always occur during the warm summer months and the most likely spots are areas where the water does not change often with tidal movements.  Marshes and shallow areas along the bay shorelines are good candidates for breeding the bacteria. The presence of the bacteria increases following heavy rains that reduce salinity in the bays and surf.

A scrape or open sore or wound is where the bacteria enter and a preventative is to wash the abrasion with an antiseptic or Clorox.  If after a day on the water, you notice a darkening around a cut or sore, you should promptly get to an emergency center and tell the paramedics or doctors your suspicion.  Early treatment can spare fingers, toes, limbs and yes, your life.

Infections can and do take place in the surf.  Several years ago while fishing near the end of the North Jetty, I jammed my hand with a 7/0 hook. I was not initially concerned about an infection since I was well out from shore.

The next morning, the wound started turning dark brown and I went to my doctor who ran some tests to determine that it was not anything serious.  Money well spent to tell me every thing was OK.  If it had been the Vibro Vulnificus infection, it likely would have been a life-saving visit.
While Vibro Vulnificus is the most commonly discussed flesh eating bacteria around the Texas Gulf Coast, it is just one of several flesh eating organisms.  Another that is mentioned on occasion is Necrotizing Fasciitis.

The good news is that all of these infections can be prevented by quick response with an antiseptic.  If alcohol or hydrogen peroxide is not available, soap and clean water will work and in an emergency gasoline (though not recommended) can be used on the wound or abrasion.

As you prepare for the summer fishing season, be alert and be prepared to protect yourself from this clear and present danger.

Surf fishing starts in May

May 1st, 2017

By Capt. Joe Kent

May is the month when we start seeing the average wind velocities drop on coastal waters.  It also is a month when the surf turns on for the first time each year.

Old timers on the fishing scene, who love surf fishing, usually wait until May to get excited about fishing the beachfront.  By Mother’s Day Weekend, the water temperature is usually pushing 80 degrees and the surf is ripe for wade fishing.

While May is the month, it is not a time when the surf produces continuously.  At some point during the month we almost always have one of the last of the winter cold fronts pass through and following its passage will be light northerly winds that flatten the surf.

It is during those May events that some of the best surf fishing of the year takes place.

During this time, the water is warm enough to wade fish without insulated waders and the action tends to be “off of the charts” as one seasoned surf fishing guide described it.

For the purpose of those who are either new to coastal surf fishing or have had limited experience on this topic, we will attempt to give some pointers and recommendations that will enhance your chances to have a successful fishing experience.

There is an old adage that says 10% of the fishermen catch 90% of the fish.  Well, there is a reason for this, especially when it applies to surf fishing.
Some of the key elements that affect success in the surf are wind direction and velocity, ability to predict when good fishing conditions will arise and knowing the baits and how to fish them.

Often, there will be pictures in the paper showing heavy stringers of fish being hauled in by wade fishermen in the surf.  Those individuals most likely did not rely on pot luck for their catch but their ability to predict the window of excellent conditions that resulted in their success.

Wind and its direction and velocity are most likely the key elements.  When fishing the surf, it is most desirable to have a flat surf which results from a light northerly wind or light southeast breeze.

When those ideal conditions arrive, seagulls, pelicans and other seabirds will be seen just beyond the wading areas working schools of jack crevalle, sharks and other predators chasing mullet and other bait.

So, how does the average angler predict the arrival of such conditions?  The first thing is to watch the forecasts.  Following periods of strong southerly or easterly winds, there is usually an event that changes things.  A mild cold front is one of the best.

When that occurs, the beachfront and surf are usually calm for a short time.  Once the calm waters set in, it does not take long for the water to clear.

Tidal movement is a very important aspect, but not as important as good surf conditions.

Now, when all of this comes together and presents that window of golden opportunity, how is the best way to take advantage of it?

Wade fishing is the best option and the baits of choice are determined by whether your preference is natural (live) or artificial baits.

Popping corks baited with live shrimp are probably the most popular and productive way of fishing the calm, May surf.

Anglers often choose artificial baits due to the ease and convenience of not dealing with a live bait well hooked onto one’s waders and the need to keep the bait alive.

Soft plastics and spoons, both silver and gold, are likely the most popular of the artificial baits.

The choice is up to the angler and is usually based on individual preference and past success with a particular type of bait.

Watch for those windows of excellent conditions and also be alert when in the water to keep your distance from schools of jumping mullet.  Often those mullet are a sign of sharks feeding and a time when some of the rare shark bites occur along the upper Texas Coast.

Tips for Fishing the Winds of April

April 1st, 2017

By Capt. Joe Kent

Often April is mentioned as a transition month for coastal fishing. Wintertime patterns give way to springtime fishing, with some of the largest trout of the year caught during April.  This month can be a very frustrating time for anglers as it has the dubious honor of being the windiest month of the year.

April also is one of the spring months and continues the ever changing weather patterns with warm fronts setting in followed by another cold front.  Fortunately, we are out of the woods as far as any severe freezes are concerned, so that is a relief to all coastal fishermen.

Surf fishermen wait with great anticipation as the beach water temperature climbs to sustained 70-degree readings and higher.  April normally is the month in which that occurs.

April is known around the Houston and Galveston area for April 21. Yes, it is the day when Texas won its independence from Mexico at San Jacinto; however, the day has another meaning for old timers in the area.  It is the day when anglers considered saltwater fishing to be underway.

One of the reasons for that date is that it coincided with the San Jacinto Day state holiday that was especially recognized in Harris and Galveston Counties.  Anglers used the holiday as a time to fish the coast with many making their first trip of the year.

Now that we know a little about the month, let’s discuss how to best handle the biggest obstacle for fishing during April, and that is the wind.

One of the best ways to handle April’s wind is to find windows of light-to-moderate southerly winds. Using our modern and sophisticated weather forecasts, we can often predict the days that are easily fishable. Planning trips around them is well advised.

Often the best laid plans go awry with anglers finding that what was forecast to be light winds for their trip turns out to be the opposite. The month of April is full of such surprises.

Now, if you find yourself battling the wind, here are some suggestions on how to make the most of it.

Find protected waters whether on the leeward shorelines or back in coves, creeks and bayous that are less affected by the wind.

Warmer waters are part of April and for that reason the shallower areas will be holding more fish than during winter.

Wade fishing is one of the best methods for fishing the shallower areas.

Afternoon fishing tends to be favored over morning fishing, as the water warms during the day and that sends trout and reds into a feeding mode as bait tends to be more prevalent.

A change from slow sinking winter baits to swimming and top waters are part of the transition.  Still, live shrimp is one of the best choices for bait unless you are targeting a trophy trout, a prime time fish for April. Fin fish and fin fish imitation baits are the choices of many trophy trout hunters.

Now, where are a few of the spots that have a good chance to be fishable during moderate to strong southerly winds?  Areas along the Galveston Ship Channel, the Intracoastal Waterway, the Clear Creek Channel between Kemah and Seabrook, Moses Lake, the south shoreline of both East and West Bays and Dickinson Bay are all good possibilities.

What species are caught during April?  Besides specks and reds, black drum still are in their annual run, gafftop start showing in greater numbers and toward the end of the month the surf usually produces its first ling of the year along with jack crevalle and sharks.

April is truly a transitional month and just about all of our summertime fish are going to be making their way to the bays at some point during those 30 days.

Just don’t let the wind interfere with your fishing.

Is Fishing Still an Affordable Outing for Families?

December 1st, 2016

Eight-year-old Aden Viet Johnson with an impressive redfish.

Eight-year-old Aden Viet Johnson with an impressive redfish.

By Joe Kent

Fishing has always been one of the favorite pastimes for a large percentage of our population.  If you are a fisherman or, more appropriately phrased, fisherperson, then we can skip reciting all of the fun and benefits of this sport.

A concern of many on the fishing scene today is whether this sport is still affordable to families on limited incomes?

This question cropped up again recently when one of the favorite family fishing parks, Seawolf Park on Pelican Island in Galveston, raised their admission fees.

The increase applies only to non-residents of Galveston Island; however, that includes a large number of the park’s visitors.

Beginning Dec. 1, 2016, non-residents of Galveston Island will see an increase of 50 percent for adults and 33 percent for children and senior citizens.  Prior to enactment of the increase, the rates were the same for both residents and non-residents and were $6 for adults and $3 for kids and seniors.

Today non-residents of Galveston Island pay $9 and $4 respectively while Galveston residents did not see an increase in their admission fees.

This added burden on families and other groups of anglers is just another straw added to the camel’s back and raises the question of when will that incremental straw finally breaks its back.

For the benefit of the younger readers, let’s take a look at how recreational fishing has evolved over the past 60 years.

During my childhood, fishing was my greatest joy.  I looked forward to my parents taking me to the water to enjoy a day or an afternoon of fishing.  There were almost endless numbers of piers and docks available for fishing and just about every dock or pier owner had no problem with families and children fishing and crabbing from their facility.

For me, using natural baits purchased at the bait stands was a real luxury, as my family balked at paying 50 cents for a box of dead shrimp or squid.  Often generous anglers fishing near me on piers would offer a few pieces of dead shrimp after seeing me try to catch fish with chicken parts.

So for the Kent family, an afternoon spent on fishing piers from Seabrook to Galveston was an inexpensive way of enjoying a Saturday or Sunday.

As the decades rolled on, more and more of the piers and docks were lost to storms and other events leaving less and less affordable fishing spots for families and others on limited income to enjoy.

Today the situation is worse than ever, with few pier and dock owners willing to allow the public to fish from their facilities.  The reason is obvious, fear of liability.

While there are a few free fishing piers around, the more popular public fishing piers are commercial and require an admission fee.  So, let’s take a look at what it costs a family of four on a limited budget to go fishing for the day versus to a movie or other recreational activity.

The cost of admission is anywhere from free, meaning free fishing piers, beachfront, or anywhere they can access water without being considered a trespasser to say the rate at Seawolf Park which would be $26 for two adults and two children.

Gasoline from Houston (round trip) would be in the five gallon category which based on today prices would be about $10 or less and bait could cost from $3 to $10.

Most likely a picnic lunch or dinner would be carried, so we will not place a price tag on that.

The other big cost is for fishing licenses.  The adults would need fishing licenses if they fish, kids under 17 are exempt.  That cost would be in the range of $70 for two adult saltwater fishing licenses for the entire year.

How about going to a movie? That cost could easily run $26 or more and the attraction of popcorn and candy would be hard to resist, so out comes the wallet.

Other activities likely would cost at least that much or more, so while hardly anything is free of cost today, fishing outings can still be integrated into the family budget as one of the less costly activities. This is especially true when considering that other activities usually take up just a few hours while fishing can be a day-long experience with memories attached. Let’s all work to keep it that way!

Galveston Bay Winter Fishing

December 1st, 2015

Travis Haight with a seven pound trout caught on Corky Devil.

Travis Haight with a seven pound trout caught on Corky Devil.

By Capt. Joe Kent

For the last decade there has been an increasingly later start to winter.  December once signaled the end of good bay fishing for the season; however, now we are seeing the fall fishing patterns continue well into the last month of the year.

It normally takes a number of serious cold fronts to change the pattern and by serious I mean strong northerly winds and temperature drops into the 40s.  After a few really cold northers pass through that lower tides levels a couple of feet, fish will move into their wintertime mode.  Speckled trout especially will move into deeper waters and then move out during periods of warmer conditions, usually during the afternoons for feeding.

This is a trait displayed during the latter part of the winter season when the effects of the cold fronts have taken over.

A few of the areas that are popular with winter fishermen are Burnet Bay just above Baytown, Sylvan Beach and parts of Trinity Bay.

During December and January, anglers need to be aware of duck blinds and keep a safe distance away.  This is especially true for those fishing in shallower waters where most duck blinds are located.  Too often there are exchanges of unpleasant remarks between the hunters and fishermen in addition to the dangers of getting pelted by shots at decoying birds.

Another issue with fishing that time of year is sudden and vicious cold fronts that crop up faster than expected.  Should you be caught unexpectedly in a strong norther and returning to the boat ramp requires crossing open waters, consider safety first and head to the nearest dock that does not require crossing the bay.  It might be an inconvenience to have someone pick you up and drive you to your vehicle and trailer; however, there are many families that wish their deceased love ones had taken that initiative before attempting to win the battle with a mean cold front.

This December we might be seeing changes brought on by all of the rain throughout the spring and fall.  In November, Trinity Bay and areas of upper Galveston Bay were continuing to see influxes of fresh water that moved trout out of those areas.  If a dry spell or small amounts of rain follows, then the waters of Trinity Bay likely will shape up for some excellent trout action during December.

For years now, December has been one of the best times to fish Trinity Bay and upper Galveston Bay.
So, what can anglers expect in the way of action this winter and what methods will work best?

Speckled trout action should be excellent until the water temperature drops into the low 50s.  Reds and pan fish, especially whiting, are among the more common catches from mid to upper Galveston Bay.

Wade fishing with insulated waders is usually the preferred method, with slow retrieval of baits a must when the water is cold.

Look for the Seabrook and Kemah Flats to turn on and don’t forget about Sylvan Beach.

Late in the winter, trophy trout are the target of many anglers, as that is the best time to aim for a “wall-hanger” sow.

The annual black drum run takes place beginning about mid-February and reaches its peak about St. Patrick’s Day.

Remember to use Type 1 PFDs this season as they are the best and will keep an unconscious person’s head above water.

This article will be taking a winter vacation and returning with the April edition of Bay Area Houston Magazine.  Good luck and good fishing!