Survey shows lower trout limit has support
More than 75 percent of Texas anglers who target speckled trout in the bays along the state’s upper coast and the guides who take many of them fishing rank their satisfaction with speckled trout fishing in their home waters as moderate to extreme. Fewer than one in 10 isn’t satisfied at all.
A similar majority usually eat the fish they catch. But more than half are just as happy if they release the trout they land, and a quarter of them actively practice catch-and-release.
The largest percentage of trout anglers on Galveston Bay, Sabine Lake and adjacent waters fish from boats although a considerable number wadefish. They use live bait and artificial lures almost equally in their pursuit of the state’s most popular inshore sport fish.
And a slight majority — about 54 percent — of those anglers and guides support decreasing the 10-trout daily bag limit currently in effect for all inshore waters on the upper coast to the five-trout limit that since 2014 has applied on all Texas waters south of FM 457 in Matagorda County.
That latter nugget may be the most significant insight gleaned from a recent survey by state coastal fisheries managers of private anglers and guides living and fishing along the upper coast. The survey’s results, aimed at gauging attitudes and practices of upper-coast anglers who target speckled trout, give those managers a sense of how anglers could react as fisheries managers consider a proposal to extend the five-trout daily bag limit to the entire coast in a move to try to maintain a currently healthy trout population.
“We wanted to get out and look at what the public who uses and fishes those areas thinks,” Robin Riechers, director of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s coastal fisheries division, said of the survey. “Those anglers are our customers. Their input is important, just like biological data are important, when we’re considering management decisions.”
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The survey, conducted earlier this year, focused on licensed anglers and guides who live in a 14-county region along the upper coast. Surveys were mailed to 2,342 anglers who, according to TPWD’s license database, held a license that allows them to fish in coastal waters. They also sent the same survey to 358 individuals in the 14-county region who held a state-issued, all-water fishing-guide license.
Completed surveys were returned by 630 individuals, including 440 anglers and 153 guides.
The survey results paint a demographic picture of upper-coast saltwater anglers, where they fish, how they fish and their opinions on their recreation and the question of halving the current 10-fish trout limit on the upper coast.
Those anglers account for a large chunk of Texas’ saltwater fishing community, which totals about 1 million licensed anglers. Almost a third of the annual fishing pressure on Texas inshore waters is aimed at upper coast waters, with the sprawling Galveston Bay system seeing 25 percent of all fishing trips on Texas coastal waters and border-straddling Sabine Lake accounting for about 8 percent.
The non-guide anglers who responded to the survey averaged spending 40 days fishing for speckled trout over the previous year. Most of them (69 percent) often fished in the Galveston Bay complex, with 12.4 percent targeting Sabine Lake.
Most (86.3 percent) were male, and ranged in age from 18 to 91 with a mean age of 54. Fifty-seven percent reported using live bait to target trout, and 55 percent reported using artificial lures, indicating many anglers use both live bait and lures. The largest number of persons responding to the survey (22.5 percent) live in Galveston County.
Anglers responding to the survey indicated they are pretty satisfied with the current state of trout fishing. In response to the question, “Overall, how satisfied are you with spotted seatrout fishing in Texas?” half reported being “moderately satisfied,” 23.2 percent picked “very satisfied” and 4 percent chose “extremely satisfied.” Only 9 percent reported they were “not satisfied at all.”
When it came to the question of their level of support for changing the speckled trout bag limit on upper coast waters to five fish per day from the current 10-trout limit, more than half reported support, with 32 percent “strongly supporting” the change.
Almost a quarter — 23.2 percent — said they were neutral on the issue. A similar percent opposed the change, with 12.1 percent saying they simply opposed the limit reduction and 11 percent indicating they “strongly opposed” the change.
Strongest support for reducing the trout limit on the upper coast came from fishing guides who answered the survey. Almost 61 percent “strongly support” and 16 percent “support” a five-fish trout limit for the upper coast, while 17 percent of guides participating in the survey oppose the change.
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Non-guide respondents to the survey reported less enthusiastic support for a change to a five-trout limit. A little more than 45 percent of non-guide anglers said they support or strongly support going to a five-trout bag limit, with 25 percent opposing or strongly opposing the move. Twenty-nine percent were neutral to the idea.
The move to a lower trout bag limit has been an issue among Texas angler and fisheries managers for more than a decade. In the wake of a multiyear decline in the speckled trout population in the Lower Laguna Madre — a decline anglers reported anecdotally and TPWD fisheries managers confirmed through the agency’s long-running gill net and bag-seine sampling programs — TPWD in 2007 imposed a five-trout bag limit for the Lower Laguna.
Within three years, the trout population in the region stabilized and improved.
A similar concern over multiple years of poor recruitment of speckled trout along the middle coast triggered a move in 2014 to extend the five-trout bag limit to the rest of the state. That idea met stiff opposition from upper coast anglers, with upper coast fishing guides being among the most vocal opponents to the lower limit. The five-trout bag limit was extended to its current boundary at FM 457 in Matagorda County in 2014, with the upper coast left with a 10-trout bag limit.
Texas’ speckled trout population, up and down the coast, currently is almost universally healthy and stable, according to TPWD data. While the populations in bay systems have seen short-term ups and downs, the general trend over the last three-plus decades has been positive, Riechers said.
“After the catastrophic events in the 1980s — two freezes that killed tens of millions of fish — the trout population has been on a general upward trend. We’ve seen some record numbers in some bays,” he said. “But we think we can do better and help ensure we maintain those populations. We’re one major freeze away from hard times.”
While trout stocks in Texas upper coast bays are comparably healthy and stable, reducing the bag limit to five fish has the potential to increase trout numbers and spawning potential, boosting the fishery and helping buffer it from effects of detrimental environmental conditions (such as massive, long-term freshwater runoff), habitat loss and steadily increasing fishing pressure. Texas’ population and coastal fishing pressure have more than doubled in the 30 years since the current 10-trout bag limit took effect in 1984 in the wake of a freeze that took a huge toll in Texas bays.
In 2014, Texas fisheries managers estimated the lower limit placed in effect for the lower half of the Texas coast that year would reduce trout harvest in the affected area by about 13 percent while building trout numbers by 4 to 5 percent and increasing spawning biomass (total weight of spawning-age female trout) by 16 percent. A similar positive effect could be expected for the upper coast.
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That improvement would come with little impact on most anglers. The huge majority of coastal anglers don’t catch even five trout per day now. Data collected through TPWD’s creel survey program, which includes staff meeting and interviewing anglers at boat ramps, piers and bank-fishing sites along the coast, indicates 91 percent of non-guided anglers interviewed landed fewer than five speckled trout on their fishing trip. The number is only slightly higher for guided trips, where 86 percent of anglers interviewed during the creel surveys landed fewer than five trout.
The results of the recent survey of upper coast anglers is part of the package of data TPWD fisheries managers are considering as they look to bringing the issue of a potential change in the trout bag limit to the agency’s hierarchy. Currently, Riechers said, the agency plans to brief the nine-member Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission on a potential proposal to extend the five-trout daily limit to the entire coast during the commission’s next work session scheduled for Nov. 6.
If the TPW Commission gives approval to bring the issue forward, TPWD will set a series of “scoping” meeting along the coast this fall to discuss any potential proposal and seek public input.
Any official proposal to change the trout bag limit on the upper coast would come in January, with further public hearings and a final decision by the TPWD commission in spring. Any change in the trout bag limit would not take effect until September 2019.