Seeing Red: Texas Red Drum Fishery - A True Success Story
Article by Nate Skinner
Photos by Ashley Fincannon, Nate Skinner, Scott Sommerlatte, and Todd Steele
The bronze torpedo came seemingly out of nowhere. The redfish, also known as red drum, resembled a submarine emerging from the depths as it engulfed the floating fake I was chunking. In an instant my rod bowed, line began to peel off of my reel and the morning’s serenity turned into adrenaline-filled commotion.
After a few runs back and forth across the shallow flat, the fish finally gave up. The red drum shimmered copper as I began to free my lure from the fish’s mouth to release it.. It only took a few seconds to remove the plastic hardware from the fish’s lip; however, I held onto the brute for a little longer.
Admiring my catch was a surface response. Deep down I knew that the red drum was an iconic symbol of our state’s prestigious coastal fisheries. Every single time a Texas angler lands a red drum, he or she should feel a bold sense of pride.
The red drum is extremely popular among recreational anglers ranking as the number two targeted coastal species in the state, coming in second only to spotted seatrout. The species is thriving, and collective efforts from Texans are largely responsible for this success. Our state’s red drum fishery is one of the best in the nation, and the species has come a long way over the past five decades.
At one time, redfish were commercially targeted as excellent table fare. As they became a hot commodity, the red drum population declined significantly, leading to the species becoming all but extinct along the Texas Gulf Coast during periods of the 1970s and 1980s.
Fast forward to present day. Collective efforts from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA), numerous NGOs, other agencies and organizations and conservation-minded Texans have resulted in a strong and steady redfish population.
According to TPWD Science Director of Coastal Fisheries Mark Fisher, coastwide gill net survey data proves that red drum populations and have remained high and steady for more than two decades.
“The fact that red drum aren’t commercially harvested, plays a huge roll in the species’ ability to maintain a plentiful population,” Fisher explained. “The designation of the redfish as a gamefish back when the population was struggling, was a big win for our coastal fisheries. It eliminated the commercial selling of the species, and the population quickly began to rebound.”
Another factor helping to steady the red drum population is that most anglers don’t keep large quantities of their catch.
“The average bag distribution for the species for both guided and non-guided fishing trips is only about one redfish per person per day,” Fisher said. “Folks are just not keeping a ton of red drum. They are catching plenty of them, but they are also releasing quite a few.”
Fisher said that redfish are tough and highly adaptive, which allows the practice of catch-and-release for the species to succeed.
“Redfish can handle a lot,” he said. “They are resilient, and that’s why the amount of fishing tournaments specifically designed to target red drum have not caused strong decreases in their population. The fish are caught, weighed in and released, and many of them survive.”
Fisher said that coastwide data shows that the majority of redfish caught by recreational anglers are in the 20- to 24-inch class range.
“Most of these fish are around 3 years old,” Fisher said. “Larger reds tend to be older. This means that anglers are on average, retaining fairly young age classes of red drum, allowing mature adults to continue to spawn and further sustain the population.”
During the first three years of their lives, red drum live in the bays or in the surf zone near passes. According to TPWD Matagorda Bay Ecosystem Leader Leslie Hartman, they prefer waters that are 1 to 4 feet deep along the perimeter of the bays.
“Juvenile red drum are found over a variety of bottom types, but they seem to prefer areas with submerged vegetation and soft mud,” Hartman said. “These fish are also commonly found around oyster reefs, coves, points and jetties. Old pier pilings and guts tend to attract them as well.”
As red drum mature, they move from the bays to the Gulf of Mexico where they remain for the rest of their lives, except for periodic visits back to the estuaries.
TPWD Aransas Bay Ecosystem Leader, Dr. Chris Mace said that although there is little evidence of seasonal migrations, anglers tend to find concentrations of redfish in rivers and tidal creeks during the winter.
“Daily movement from the shallows to deeper waters is often influenced by tides and water temperatures,” Mace said. “During the fall, especially when stormy weather occurs, large adults concentrate along Gulf beaches, possibly for spawning, where they can be caught from piers and by surf anglers. This is commonly known as the Bull Red Run.”
Young red drum feed on small crabs, shrimp and marine worms.
“As they mature, they begin to feed on larger crabs, shrimp, small fish and sometimes their cousins, the Atlantic croaker,” he said. “Red drum are generally bottom feeders, but they will feed throughout the water column when the opportunity presents itself.”
Between the ages of 3 and 4, redfish reach sexual maturity.
“Their spawning season is from mid-August through mid-October, and spawning takes place in Gulf waters, near the mouths of passes and shorelines,” Mace said.
The incubation period for red drum eggs is approximately 24 hours.
“Once larvae hatch out, they are carried into tidal bays by the current,” Mace said. “They move to quiet, shallow water with grassy or muddy bottoms to feed on detritus, which is dead or decomposing plant and animal matter.”
Habitat and Salinity
According to TPWD Corpus Christi Bay Ecosystem Leader Brian Bartram, the key components of redfish habitat include healthy estuarine surroundings, like seagrass beds, for young and juvenile red drum to forage on small crabs, shrimp and finfish.
“Larger, sub-adult red drum will occupy a variety of habitats, including shallow seagrass flats, open water with mud bottoms, and oyster reefs,” Bartram said. “Potholes in seagrass beds provide ambush points for redfish where they can attack prey that is lingering along the edges of the seagrass.”
In 40 years of gill net sampling across Texas coastal waters, red drum have been observed from zero parts per thousand (ppt), all the way to 70.8 ppt.
“For comparison purposes, average seawater is around 35 ppt,” Mace said. “The most common salinity for nets set inside our bays over the years that have contained red drum was 22.7 ppt. About 90 percent were caught in nets set in water with a salinity of 36 ppt or less.”
TPWD does not set nets in the Gulf of Mexico, so this data is somewhat skewed by the environmental conditions found in generally brackish Texas bays. It’s safe to say that red drum are extremely adaptable and can live in a wide range of salinities.
Freshwater is Essential
Red drum respond favorably to freshwater inflows, and they depend on them. Unlike some species that prefer higher salinities, red drum do quite well in lower salinities and are able to occupy waters that other marine predators and finfish may find unfavorable.
“One of their favorite forage species is the blue crab, which also thrives when freshwater inflows are consistent,” Bartram said. “Freshwater inflows provide the necessary balance in our estuaries to buffer high salinities and provide favorable conditions for growth of shrimp, blue crabs, small fin fish and other favorite food items of the red drum.”
The estuarine habitats maintained by freshwater inflows are important for providing optimal conditions for red drum at their early stages of life when they occupy estuaries.
“Redfish use the bays as a nursery because the presence of freshwater inflows ensures that nutrients are being deposited throughout the water column,” Hartman said. “These nutrients trigger biochemical responses that permit algae and other critters at the base of the food web to thrive. This creates the healthy foundation necessary for juvenile redfish to grow into mature adults.”
The TPWD Coastal Hatchery Program produces approximately 15 million red drum fingerlings each year and releases them into estuaries spanning the entire length of the Texas coastline. In 2018, TPWD marine hatcheries stocked more than 16.4 million red drum fingerlings in coastal bays.
TPWD’s Coastal Hatchery Program uses three marine hatchery sites to facilitate stock enhancement efforts which supplement the state’s red drum population. These sites include the CCA Marine Development Center in Corpus Christi, Sea Center Texas in Lake Jackson and the P.R. Bass Marine Hatchery in Palacios.
“We have adult brood stock on site that consists of a mix of both male and female red drum, totaling to about 60 fish,” said Facility Director of Sea Center Texas David Abrego. “Our red drum production stage takes place from March through November each year. During this time period we subject these mature redfish to various photo periods and temperatures in order to mimic a year-long cycle of conditions in about 150 days.”
Abrego said that the fisheries professionals basically are manipulating specific environmental cues in order to induce spawning between the adult red drum.
“Once spawning occurs, the eggs that are produced are transferred into an incubator tank,” Abrego said. “Within 24 hours, the redfish fry hatch. At the 72-hour mark, these fry have developed digestive organs, as well as eyes and a mouth, and are now considered feeding larvae. At this point they are stocked into a pond that already has a well-established food web so that they may begin feeding and growing.”
According to Abrego, it takes about 30-35 days for the redfish larvae to grow into the target fingerling size.
“Once they reach 35-40 millimeters in length, we drain the pond, harvest the fingerlings and stock them in coastal bays,” he said
Bridging the Gap
Although the Lone Star State’s red drum fishery is steady and productive, Texans, including those who live inland and upstream, must be vigilant and mindful of the collective efforts necessary to continue to promote a healthy and sustainable redfish population.
Texas Wildlife Association Director Craig Williams said that it is essential for Texans to bridge the gap between inland and coastal ecosystems.
“Landowners and residents from both geographic regions should work together to promote the healthy, natural flow of water from inland areas to the coast,” he said. “This will help ensure that freshwater inflows provide coastal bays with necessary nutrients, as well as prevent pollutants from invading our estuaries, all of which will continue to further enhance our red drum fishery.”
CCA Texas Advocacy Director Shane Bonnot said that CCA has established several inland chapters to help motivate landowners to employ management practices that promote land stewardship, resulting in positive effects downstream along coastal bays.
“The natural absorption and flow of water downstream is vital for the health of coastal ecosystems,” Bonnot said. “That’s one of the main points that we try to convey to our inland chapter members, while educating them to become effective land stewards.”
CCA continues to support and provide funds for TPWD hatchery operations. “CCA is also engaged in various habitat projects across the Texas coast each year, such as marsh and oyster reef restoration,” Bonnot said. “We work with many NGOs and other partners, and understand that a collective effort to preserve the health of our coastal estuaries will in turn promote the sustainability of our precious red drum fishery.”
The success story of redfish across our state’s entire coastline is a prime example of how the combination of effective management and the collective efforts from a variety of key players can produce incredible results. With plentiful redfish at our fingertips, it’s time get out on the water and experience this phenomenal fishery first hand. Locating a few of the bronze-backed fish shouldn’t be too difficult.