White Shrimp in the Colorado Cut

When the search for tarpon doesn’t pan out

On the heels of tarpon

Coming back up the Texas Coast from a week of chasing tarpon out of Port Aransas, I’ve got the whole family in tow. To say they are excited about seeing their first school of migrating Tarpon is an unfair-understatement. They weren’t with me the week prior, but weren’t far off either due to the unusually high volume of texted videos and pictures I sent. Typically I’m not much for correspondence while out on adventures, however, I love getting my kids fired-up about wildlife and tarpon makes that job easy.

My kids are spoiled, at least in the sense that a parent always wants to give their kids a little more than they had, but they are not spoiled when it comes to fishing. We started at the bottom, from ditches in Houston, to creeks in a state park, and when it comes to the coast they stick it out with me for all the scouting and exploratory trips. That’s what we are doing here,. As around Matagorda, my experience with tarpon here is a little different than when on the middle coast (POC to Corpus), and different from the upper Coast (Galveston to Sabine). I think of it like a transition zone, though it may just be the subtle difference I make up in my own mind. Anyhow, once we get settled at our small ranch we are going to go find the wonder that is migrating Texas Tarpon.

Missed opportunity: cows and gators

Fishing trips hardly ever go as planned anyhow, but I can assure you that those odds are stretched to zero when coupled with ranch work. Our first full day back and we spent it pushing cows back to our southerly neighbor. Thanks to a recent drought and the nearly 2.5 miles of fence that’s in constant need of repair or replacement, cows had worked their way up to the front pasture where our brand-new water well is set and waiting for power. Before that well could ever supply the much desired convenience of running water to our ranch house we call a camper, it’s broken, and we are on a mission to fix the fence. The fence in question is through a low-spot that separates the front pasture from the river pasture and as it happens also holds the last remaining puddle of water. That puddle of water wouldn’t be big enough for a spread of duck-decoys in the winter time, but it has more alligators (not too big except one) than I could count. It could have been a bit frustrating to work around, but we chose to make it a learning moment for the kids: our soon-to-be home is pretty wild. First day of fishing pushed.

Running out the jetties

The next morning we are back out on the water, back after tarpon, and back in our familiar comfort zone. Leaving the Matagorda Harbor just after sunrise and heading down what I call the Colorado Cut. This is the cut that connects the Intracoastal waterway with the gulf of Mexico. Tourists often call this the Colorado River, as this is where all the rental houses advertise “Riverfront”; old-timers just call it the cut. It’s amazing to me how it’s almost lost that this cut is a man-made feature that has significantly changed how people and wildlife interact, fortunate for some and maybe less fortunate for others.

Eventually this cut leads out past the rental houses, past the LCRA Matagorda Bay Nature Park, and out past the jetties. Unfortunately, the weather is not like it was the day before and I can feel the onshore wind building. Water clarity is dirty-brown around the jetties, with clear visible line that change to green. When we clear the jetties, seas 1-2’ are evident with an occasional 3’ swell. Not the best conditions for a shallow-running bay boat boarded with a 4 and 8 year old. Either way, and still very curious, we push to check the bait balls eddied around the jetties, then on to the color changes, specifically where the dirty water changes to green and the green water changes to blue. Not much is happening, and momma is ready for a change of scenery (I don’t blame her one bit). Time for plan B.

Back to cut

We head back into the cut, and to a spot a couple miles inside where it widens into a shallow cove ringed with shore grass. I’ve passed this spot up plenty and never really gave it much thought because it’s fairly high-traffic and accessible by kayaks. Typically I try to leave places like this for the crowds. Today is different and it has definitely piqued my interest. On one side of the cove we have a windblown shore line, on the other side a nice eddy trapping lost bait between the 6”-2’ shallow and the 15’ deep cut. This is the perfect spot to try something I have been wanting to do for quite a while with my kids, catch bait with a cast net and catch fish with that bait.

Cast net medium

It’s almost embarrassing to think about how far I’ve traveled from my roots, that I probably haven’t thrown a cast net seriously in 15 years. To absolutely no surprise my first toss is exactly what I pictured in my mind, a giant tangled ball of net splashing into the water. Taking a breath and trying my best to produce a now long-lost memory, the second cast is actually pretty decent. To my relief, it wasn’t just a decent cast, it also produced some very healthy looking white shrimp. Now almost as surprised as my kids, I start barking orders and they stay fully focused on the jumping shrimp. Thankfully my wife is to the rescue and gets the baitwell filling and a bucket of water nearby for the kids, who now start tossing shrimp inside. My cast net performance is about as medium as medium gets, but we do end up with a nice selection of bait, all the different kinds allow the kids’ minds to wonder and learn. Some of the things I noticed that, without my kids to point it out, would have remained forgotten in my grown-up head: how long the whiskers of shrimp can get and- in a pinch- work great for tossing into the bait bucket, the colors of a croaker and how the hard, sharp gills make the perfect finger hold for inspecting the dorsal spines, and lastly how robust finger mullets are, as one is now a personal pet for my son (who did manage to keep it alive and use it as bait).

Catching and pondering

As if the cast net wasn’t enough I started to rig up a couple rods for live bait. Thankfully for regular trips I’m not above gulp with a popping cork when times are tough so it’s a pretty quick swap and we are fishing. First fish of the day was a reminder that I don’t think I’ll ever forget now. After a couple missed sets I let the little fish toying with the bait really eat on it and get the hookset. There is no weight or fight behind it and a little frustrated I rip the fish in about as fast as I can reel. It’s this moment I look back and see nothing but smiles. Instantly I slow down, take part in the moment and really enjoy the time on the water. It’s a little sand trout that I unhook as I sit on the side of the boat. Letting my kids touch, inspect, hold, and just generally marvel at the fish. I remember they don’t care what type of fish it is or even that they have seen them before, it’s special because it’s the moment and they are present.

We stay in this spot for a while, mostly small fish stealing bait, but action nonetheless. The downtime gives me time to think. I get to watch the busy cut, with boats constantly running by. Do they think this is a fishing guide who is often hired by clients for “bucket list trips” or just another clueless weekender in a big fancy boat? If it was me, and I didn’t have kids to keep me grounded, I’m sure I would have assumed the latter. Eventually we head home, hot and tired, but very happy.