It used to be a secret, but it is not anymore. One of the best places to catch big snook is the Port of Brownsville. While common in the estuaries of Mexico and Central America, the tropical snook barely edges into South Texas where they have found a year round home at the turning basin.
For years, dedicated snook anglers have drifted the banks along the busy port casting to favorite spots amidst weathered piers and barnacle encrusted pilings. Among the regulars who frequented the area there was a tacit understanding that you did not advertise the port for fear of popularizing it which could lead to over fishing.
Snook are sleek, strong and extremely powerful. They shimmer with a silvery green color and sport a prominent black lateral stripe that runs from just behind the gills to the tail. The exotic "robalo", as they are known south of the border, are spirited fighters renowned for their impressive leaps, and they have attracted a cadre of devoted anglers.
During the initial stories I did about snook fishing with robalo guru Larry Haines and others, we took pains not to reveal exactly where we were. Of course, it was pretty hard to disguise where you were fishing when you had a snook leaping in front of a jack up oil platform under construction. Suffice it to say, I pointed my camera at the water a lot.
Since those early days, there have been dozens of stories in state and even national publications about the abundant snook at the bustling South Texas port, and the good news is that the fishing is still top notch. That is a credit to anglers who have practiced catch and release and kudos to port operators who have kept the water clean enough to support abundant marine life.
The new state record catch and release snook was recently caught at the port. The 38 and a half inch beauty was caught by 14- year- old Joe Jamail of Houston, who was fishing with South Padre Island guide Emilio Villarreal.
"It was just his third cast of the morning when he hooked up," Villarreal said. "He hooked up near the bank, and I quickly started up the boat and idled out into the middle of the channel. I told him, ok, it's you and the fish now."
Hooking a big snook and actually getting the spirited fish to the boat are two vastly different accomplishments, especially at the port where there are lots of hideaways for fish to dart into and break off line. One of the main reasons the port is such a great place to find snook is because of all the structure. Snook are ambush predators, and they specialize in lurking amidst the pilings and discarded debris along the banks. "All the structure is a big attraction," Villarreal said. "That stuff is like snook condos."
"When you get that bite, you have to point your rod tip to the middle of the channel," he added. It also helps if you have a heavy duty leader. "Usually when we come out here to target snook we use 30 to 50 pound leader material, because they have real sharp gill plates."
On the record setting day however, Villarreal's angler was free-shrimping using only 20 pound leader and a mere 10 pound test line wound on a light Shimano spinning reel. Jamail was wielding a G-Loomis rod, and when the big snook leaped the young man was ready.
"If the fish jumps, I told him to bow to the fish, another words point your rod tip to the fish to take pressure off the line, and Joe did it perfectly," Villarreal said. "About 10 minutes into it she gave us one tremendous jump. The tail was at least three to four feet out of the water, and when the fish landed it sounded like a belly buster. We got one more small jump and then landed the fish. We took a few quick photos and released her."
The previous state catch and release record was held by Robert Shearon with a 35 inch snook caught in the Lower Laguna Madre on August 12, 2006. Current regulations do not allow anglers to keep a snook over 28 inches. The long time state record for heaviest snook has been held since Jan 1, 1937 by Louis Rawalt who landed his 57 and a half pounder in the Gulf of Mexico.
The new record category for length only state catch and release records became effective January 1, 2006. "This gives anglers who don't have a certifiable scale available the chance to catch a record fish and release it," said Joedy Gray, who keeps tabs on angling records for Texas Parks and Wildlife.
Gray explained that to be eligible for a state catch and release record the angler must submit a notarized application with a photograph of the fish being measured properly and have a witness to the live release. "The photograph must show the fish being measured with a ruler or marked tape placed beside it, and another photo must show the angler with the fish," Gray explained.
Snook appear to be recovering in the Lower Laguna Madre, but they have a long way to go to reach the plentiful numbers of years ago. "In the early 1900's the snook population in South Texas was much larger than it is now," said Rick Kline, a fisheries scientist at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas. "According to historical catch records the commercial landings in Port Isabel in 1929 were in excess of 200,000 pounds."
The commercial harvest continued into the 1930's and 40's, but began to taper off considerably. It was not until 1987 that snook finally received game fish status, and in 1996 strict regulations went into effect. Snook are excellent table fare, and anglers are only allowed to keep one per day between 24 and 28 inches.
Although snook appear to be rebounding, they are very sensitive to cold weather, and a hard freeze could be a major setback to their recovery. They are also very dependent on healthy estuaries for their survival, and the areas two primary fresh water sources, the Arroyo Colorado and Rio Grande are both very polluted.
While anglers are able to catch snook in various parts of the Lower Laguna Madre ecosystem from the Arroyo Colorado to the River, the Port of Brownsville is perhaps the favorite locale. However, if you choose to fish at the turning basin you need to access the area by boat as bank fishing is restricted. Boaters need to be careful and stay clear of commercial ship traffic and all port activities. There are also several rules you need to follow.
"We monitor who comes in by boat with both cameras and binoculars, and we make sure they are fishing," said George Gavito, Chief of Police and Director of Security for the Port of Brownsville. "At any time you are subject to being boarded by the Coast Guard or port security."
"You are not allowed to anchor, and you cannot tie up, you have to drift," Gavito added. "If you tie to any dock or set foot on any dock that is a restricted area, and you are subject to being arrested for trespass."
Fishing at the Port of Brownsville is a privilege and subject to restrictions including closure if deemed necessary by port authorities. However, as long as anglers follow the rules and do not over crowd the area, the next state record snook is likely to be caught lurking amidst the weathered pilings of the busy port.
Copyright 2007 Richard Moore