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The South Texas Slam
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The definition of a saltwater slam changes wherever you go. Deep in the Laguna Madre, you can chase the Lone Star version of fly-fishing’s triple crown.

Throughout most of Texas, it is an accepted fact that the Big Three of coastal sport fish are speckled trout, redfish, and flounder. However, in deep South Texas, the flatfish is replaced by a more tropical species—snook.

And although South Texas has historically supported a viable snook fishery, recent years have seen a resurgence of that species’ numbers along the Mexican border. Not coincidentally, an increasing number of fly fishermen are heading to the Lower Laguna Madre in search of a South Texas Slam, which consists of catching a snook, a speckled trout, and a red drum all in a single session.

A slam is achievable year-round in the Lower Laguna Madre, but the changing seasons do alter the locations that each fish will be found, and the fly patterns and techniques necessary to take them. For those willing to do a little advance planning, adding a South Texas Slam to your angling achievements is well within reach.

Snook First

While South Texas snook may not have the boastful proportions of their Central American cousins, there are plenty of quality fish around. Both fat and common snook are available in these waters, with the average snook being around 22 inches. Fish above 30-inches are not uncommon.

To increase your odds of catching a South Texas Slam, it is best to target snook first. They are not necessarily more difficult to find than the other two species; however, they do become notoriously tight-lipped as the sun climbs higher. In fact, for all of their unpredictable behavior once hooked, snook are extremely predictable when choosing their locale.

Generally, South Texas snook are found in one of three habitat types—gulf passes, shallow flats, or deep-water structure. In the Lower Laguna Madre, this translates to the Brazos Santiago Pass and adjacent jetties, the south end of the Laguna and South Bay, a small offshoot of the main bay, and the docks and pilings along the Brownsville Ship Channel and in the Port Isabel Shrimp Boat Basin.

Although there will be a resident population of snook in or near each of these areas the year around, the densest concentrations of fish will vary by season. From late fall through early spring, the majority of the linesiders will be located within the Port Isabel Shrimp Boat Basin and Brownsville Ship Channel. As the spring sun warms the water, the fish will begin filtering back toward the flats and the Brazos Santiago Pass, where they will remain throughout the summer and into the early fall. They repeat this seasonal migration in reverse once the water begins to cool, usually in late October or November.

Like trout and redfish, snook are predators adept at changing their diet based on available forage items. Along Texas’s lower coast, this results in a diet heavy in baitfish—mullet and menhaden— during the winter. Shrimp is the top menu item during spring and fall, supplemented by baitfish during summer.

Fly patterns should be chosen with these dietary swings in mind. Tried-and-true saltwater patterns, such as Clouser Minnows and Lefty’s Deceivers, will get the job done when snook are feeding on finfish. The Haines Pilchard is a popular, locally tied baitfish pattern. A variety of shrimp flies, most notably the Cactus Shrimp and the East Cut Grass Shrimp, will produce good results when snook are snacking on crustaceans. Poppers will consistently draw attention whenever linesiders are feeding near the surface—regardless of the season.

When found on the flats, South Texas snook can be subdued on an 8-weight rod paired with a matching reel loaded with 150 yards of backing. However, when the fish are around the jetties or sheltered by deepwater structure in the ship channel or shrimp-boat basin, the heavier the stick, the better. In this scenario, a 9-weight is the minimum requirement, and a 10- or 11- weight is not out of place.

Unless sight-casting to snook or throwing poppers, anglers should avoid floating lines. An intermediate line is the best allaround choice. Fast-sinking lines can be an advantage at times, especially if the fish are sulking near the bottom of deepwater structure. In each instance, a 20-pound class tippet and short 40- pound shock tippet are mandatory.

The one exception to the above mentioned low-light snook bite is contingent on water movement. With a strong tidal flow, the snook bite can happen at any time, day or night. However, the only consistent daytime bite occurs during the early morning and late-evening hours, making snook the sensible first choice to check off the South Texas Slam list.

And Then Trout

Once the sun gets up, it is time to move on to the second step of the slam—whether or not you have caught a snook. If not, don’t waste the rest of the day trying. It is better to move on to the other two species and go back for the snook once the sun begins dipping over the horizon.

During these early to midmorning hours, logic says it is time to seek speckled trout. Like snook, the majority of the area’s trout population tends to undergo a slight shift in location based on the seasons. However, the difference between a trout’s spring and summer homes is not near so drastic as that of snook.

During the heat of summer and cold of winter, the majority of the trout will tuck into deeper water (four to six feet) to avoid the wild temperature swings of the shallows. Spring and fall find almost all the area trout in three-feet of water or less. The exceptions tend to be on the opposite ends of a measuring stick. Smaller trout tend to stay deep the year around, whereas trophy trout will remain in—or at least near—shallow water, regardless of the season.

Blind casting for specks is an almost mechanical routine, as anglers need to repeatedly fling flies as far as they can cast in order to cover as much water as possible. The sight-casting option is much more of an aesthetic experience, with fishermen casting either directly to fish or to the many sandy pockets that dot the shallow grass flats. And, while fishing the flats, there is always the possibility of running across a trout of epic proportions. The Laguna Madre historically yields more 30-inch-plus specks than any other Texas bay.

Both options are available year-round. However, at times, especially if a slam is the ultimate goal, it is better to choose function over form and settle for taking a keeper-size schoolie speck. Any fish over the legal minimum of 15 inches, while perhaps not so glamorous as a “leg long” speck, counts toward completing a slam. And since the third step in the slam involves getting up on the flats to look for redfish, there is always the possibility of adding a larger trout to the bag later in the day.

Anglers choosing to blind-cast for specks should stick with an 8-weight loaded with either floating or intermediate line. Sightcasting fishermen may choose, and wisely so, to downsize to a 6- or 7-weight rod. The heavier stick will allow you to cast with ease the bulkier flies required for blind casting, while the lighter rods will minimize surface disturbance when casting to spooky specks in shallow water.

Poppers, deer-hair sliders, and streamers, such as Sea-Ducers, are good choices for blind casting. Sight-casters will want to go with smaller shrimp and baitfish patterns. Haines Supreme Hair Shrimp is also a deadly pattern for trout.

Finally Redfish

Redfish are without a doubt the crown prince of Texas coastal waters. And, thanks to efficient fisheries management and an aggressive stocking program by Texas Parks and Wildlife, bays across the Lone Star State are loaded with reds. However, nowhere along the Texas coastal curve are there more miles of shallow, clear water than in the Lower Laguna Madre—making it a perfect sightcasting destination for redfish.

Due to their abundance and their hardy nature, which allows them to remain in shallow water under all but the most extreme weather conditions, redfish are best left as the last fish to scratch off the slam card. In fact, during the relatively chilly conditions of winter and spring, redfish actually become more active on the flats as the water warms later in the day.

Spotting reds in the clear water of the Lower Laguna Madre is simple enough. And at times redfish make this task easier by sticking their tails and even their backs out of the water. However, lest anyone believe taking a skinny water redfish is a sure thing, these fish can be somewhat temperamental. At times, reds will aggressively rush forward to gobble any fly thrown within the same zip code. Other times, you must hit the fish practically on its head with the fly. And sometimes, the fish become so skittish that any presentation causing much more than a ripple will send them scurrying.

But, all in all, redfish remain the most consistent fly-rod target in Texas. Anglers lacking only a red to complete a slam should feel good about their chances of accomplishing the feat.

Although reds of substantial proportions do roam the shallows of the Lower Laguna, there are a minimal number of obstructions in the bay, negating the need for heavy tackle to subdue these fish. As a result, most fly rodders opt for a 6- or 7- weight rod in order to minimize the surface disturbance caused by the delivery of the fly. Floating lines, 150 yards of backing, and 9-foot leaders with 10- or 12-pound tippets complete a redfish- ready outfit.

Aggressive Texas reds will readily inhale poppers, as well as a variety of streamers, and baitfish, shrimps, and crab patterns. Capt. Eric’s Mr. Pinky Bendback is a local favorite that can be used under a variety of situations. If the fish become spooky, small shrimp patterns, such as the East Cut Grass Shrimp, which land softly and sink slowly, are the best bet.

Like any angling pursuit, a South Texas Slam is never guaranteed. However, any fly fisherman who can cast relatively well certainly stands a chance of getting it done. And most visiting anglers are pleasantly surprised that if they accomplish the trifecta early enough in the day, they will have time to take a shot at a South Texas tarpon and make the slam a grand slam.

Danno Wise has lived along the gulf coast of Texas his entire life and is a guide on the Lower Laguna Madre. He is the publisher of The Port Isabel-South Padre Press.

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