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Texas Fishing Regulations For Speckled Trout

Fishing Regulations in Texas

Saltwater fishing in Texas is unique due to the barrier islands which separate the mainland from the Gulf of Mexico. An aerial view of the Texas coastline exhibits a long chain of barrier islands stretching from Galveston Island to South Padre Island. Near and dear to South Texas, Padre Island is one of the largest barrier islands stretching across 113 miles from the Corpus Christi area to South Padre Island. Padre Island not only provides vacationers with a great weekend destination, but the island also protects and contains the waters of the Laguna Madre. 

The Laguna Madre is one of the few hyper-saline coastal lagoons in North America. The salinity of the Laguna Madre often exceeds that of normal seawater due to low freshwater inflow, little rainfall, and high evaporation. Despite the perceived harsh conditions imposed by high salinity, the Laguna Madre is a highly productive bay system and is renowned among anglers for its world-class fisheries. The Laguna Madre is a popular fishery for anglers targeting gamefish regulated by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (“TPWD”), including, but not limited to, Red Drum, Black Drum, Spotted Seatrout, Flounder and Snook.

What are the Texas Fishing Bag Limits?

Texas fishing bag limits on fish to help reduce fishing pressure on particular sizes or species while also spreading out the harvest, so more anglers have a chance to catch fish of legal size. In addition to fishing bag limits, size limits are also regulated to allow some species to spawn at least once before they are caught. The combination of bag limits and size limits can increase the quality of fishing by either providing more caught fish or creating a trophy fishery.

At the top of the list of Laguna Madre fisheries is the Spotted Seatrout, also known as “Speckled Trout.” Texas Fishing regulations have proven to be a success because the TPWD has reported that spotted sea trout in the upper Laguna Madre have increased over the past ten years. The normal limits for Speckled Trouts include a daily bag limit of five (5) fish, a minimum length of fifteen (15) inches, and a maximum length of twenty-five (25) inches. However, an angler may keep only one Speckled Trout over twenty-five (25) inches in length.

The following specific size limits are proposed and adopted by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission (“Commission”). Appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Texas Senate, the Commission adopts policies and rules to carry out all programs of the TPWD. The Commission is currently and primarily composed of a chairman and eight (8) commissioners, among others. 

The severe winter weather that occurred during the week of February 14, 2021, led to the death of many fish along the Texas coast, including an abundance of dead Spotted Seatrout. Although severe freezing weather along the Texas coast is rare, extreme cold temperatures can kill fish. If fish do not take refuge in deeper waters with more temperature stable water during a freeze, they may die when water temperatures reach a certain threshold. This occurrence is known by the TPWD as a “fish kill.”

What are the Texas Fishing Regulations in 2021?

After the first fish kill in February of 2021 was reported, the TPWD’s biologists began the process of assessing fish kills across multiple bay systems for approximately two weeks. An estimated minimum of 3,800,000 fish was killed throughout the Texas coast during the February 2021 freeze. This fish kill consisted of at least sixty-one (61) fish species including non-recreational species contributing to 91% of the total fish kill. While not sought after by anglers, non-recreational fish are ecologically important and play a significant role in the overall health and diversity of marine ecosystems. The fish targeted by anglers are predatory, hence their affinity to chase bait and fishing lures. The fish kill affected this delicate ecosystem by wiping out a portion of the food source for Spotted Seatrout and other gamefish. 

The Laguna Madre, split between an upper and lower portion, was hit hard by the freeze. The highest mortality rate was in Lower Laguna Madre. At least 104,000 Spotted Seatrout were killed, encompassing 65% of the total estimated Spotted Seatrout killed when combined with the upper Laguna Madre. Further, the upper and lower Laguna Madre’s Spotted Sea Trout fish kill comprised 89% of the total estimated Spotted Seatrout mortality along the Texas coast. The high percentage of killed Spotted Seatrout in the Laguna Madre prompted the Commission to temporarily change the bag limits and length regulations for Spotted Seatrout in the Laguna Madre only.

Robin Riechers, the Coastal Fisheries Division Director stated: “The Spotted Seatrout mortality in the combined Upper and Lower Laguna Madres is comparable to the events from the 1980s, despite those events seeing a larger number of fish killed on the entire coast. Luckily, we saw Spotted Seatrout populations bounce back in approximately two to three years in the 1980s due to TPWD and angler conservation efforts.” After reviewing the fish kill assessment report from the Coastal Fisheries Division, the Commission took emergency action during a March 24, 2021 meeting to temporarily change bag limits and size regulations for Spotted Seatrout in the upper and lower Laguna Madre.

As of April 1, 2021, the Texas fishing regulations for Spotted Seatrout have been updated and modified. From a daily bag limit of five (5) fish, the limit was reduced to three (3) fish per day. Keeping Spotted Seatrout previously required a minimum length of fifteen (15) inches, but the minimum increased to seventeen (17) inches. Further, the maximum length of twenty-five (25) inches was reduced to twenty-three (23) inches. Finally, the Texas Saltwater Fishing Regulations state that no fish over the size limit may be kept and must be returned to the water.

For anglers, the size limits are known as “slots” and the slot determines what size of fish may be kept. Before the freeze, the slot was 15-25 inches, and the angler was allowed to keep one oversized fish. After the freeze, the slot was modified to 17-23 inches, and no oversized fish may be kept at all. As of July 21, 2021, the modified Spotted Seatrout regulations have been extended until September 27, 2021. Only time will tell how the freeze and the modified Texas fishing regulations affect the Spotted Trout fishery of the Laguna Madre.

An image of Pete Morales.
Pete Morales, Associate Attorney
J. Cruz & Associates