February 21, 2012
Fishing on the Rocks
It’s not just what you catch, but what you might encounter, that makes Texas jetty fishing such an incredible experience.
By Larry Bozka
In just the short time we’ve been here, the waves of the Galveston ship channel have doubled in size. The breakers are chest-high now, charging past the boat like determined soldiers only to fall headfirst into the rose-colored rocks of the North Galveston Jetty.
An eye-burning mist nervously swirls in the rising southerly wind. Water crashes onto granite, a rhythmic but lulling monotone. We might as well be riding a 21-foot-long bobber. Yet, we wait, confident that the redfish will eventually come our way.
Waiting is a trademark of ship-channel fishing. It allows an angler plenty of time to think, and more than enough to remember. To this day, some 20 years later, I can still smell the old man’s cigar smoke. My father, with no disrespect, called him “Old Man Hall.”
World War II was unmade history when he first learned how to fish the Galveston jetties. He had his own way of finding the hot spots, triangulating landmarks and constantly scanning the rocks for the distinctive etchings he called “the stripes.”
Actually, they were blasting marks. Permanently etched after drilling and detonation, the half-round creases remain today, though layers of algae can make them difficult to see.
To workers who labored in Hill Country quarries at the turn of the 20th century, men who every day loaded Galveston-bound railcars with massive granite boulders, the stripes were merely mundane byproducts of dangerous and exhausting work.
To Old Man Hall, they were signposts.
I don’t know who, if anyone, taught him the significance of the stripes, the way certain configurations advertise the jetties’ best fishing holes. Perhaps he learned through trial and error. Or maybe he did like the old-school offshore skippers and meticulously probed the bottom with a heavy iron sash weight and a hundred-foot length of cotton rope.
A careful drop of the sounding weight could tell him a lot, the peculiar way it landed atop a rock at the jetty base, clanked against its barnacle-encrusted edges and plummeted into an obscure bottom break. Distinct thumps signaled hard mud. A hole like that literally “breaks” the current, attracting baitfish in droves.
It also sets the table for predators.
Finding such a place was, and still is, the mark of a seasoned jetty angler. Today we use synchronized GPS receivers and electronic depthfinders to pinpoint the same spots. A few hundred bucks worth of plastic, wire and silicon accomplishes in a couple of minutes what often used to take half an hour.
The old man’s beloved stripes will always be there, reminding us of countless mornings spent riding the swells and catching untold numbers of fish from the churning and mostly unseen universe of the world’s largest jetty system.
At 35,587 feet — more than 6 1/2 miles of meticulously stacked granite — the Galveston jetties are listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest jetties on the planet. At their bases they’re roughly seven times wider than at their wave-washed peaks, a ratio that’s typical of most major jetty systems.
The deeply dredged artery of the Galveston Ship Channel cuts a narrow swath between Bolivar and, on the east end of Galveston Island, the South Galveston Jetty. Fish, crustaceans and invertebrates regularly hitchhike the currents between Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
When I watch the ship channel on a changing tide, I sometimes think of the vacuum tube that whisks deposits to the teller at my bank’s drive-through window. The effect is almost that pronounced.
The channel is a thoroughfare. We’ve caught it all here. Once, it even caught us.
It happened on the last trip to the jetties my brothers and I made with our dad before he died.
It was a remarkable coincidence that a docile but frighteningly powerful creature center-punched our anchor line so precisely. A few feet to one side or the other and we’d have never known it was there.
Even now, it hardly seems possible.
When the boat began drifting, Dad assigned me anchor duty. I clambered to the bow and pulled on the rope.
To my amazement, it pulled back.
I’d be lying much worse than the average fisherman if I didn’t admit I was scared. Something you can’t see is bad enough; something you can’t imagine is considerably worse.
The first surge of resistance dragged me to my knees. I’d struggled with the rope for perhaps 5 minutes, battered and baffled, when the distinct black shadow of a full-grown manta ray suddenly loomed below.
The triangular flukes of the anchor were perfectly wedged on the creature’s head, halfway between its long and leathery cephalic lobes. Its eyes were the size of silver dollars, coal-black and expressionless.
Clueless travelers, a cluster of remoras rode atop its back. Our anchor chain trailed down the middle, where a wide and darkened marking gradually tapered into the thrashing whip of a long and spineless tail.
Against all probability, the unsuspecting ray had intercepted the rope. Propelled by the outgoing tide and its own unstoppable momentum, it trailed the line 7 fathoms deep before picking up the anchor and resuming its seaward journey.
My younger brother, Bob, joined me on the bow. Brother Bill manned the throttle while Dad looked on more amused than concerned.
Exactly how remains a mystery, but we eventually freed the anchor from the manta ray’s back and speechlessly watched as a lumbering beast with a wingspread half the length of our hull sank unharmed and then disappeared altogether into the dark green waters of the ship channel.
In seconds, it was gone.
It was September 14, 1986. Manta rays commonly live 18 to 20 years, so our giant friend may well be alive today. I’d gladly give my best boat rod to know.
In the galaxy of life that flanks Texas jetty systems, the food chain is the limit. That fact, the element of the unknown and completely unexpected, is at the core of jetty fishing’s appeal.
You may be fishing for common fare like speckled trout, redfish or drum. What you catch can be another matter. Jetties are smorgasbords with sometimes-exotic leanings.
Cases in point: One of Texas’ rarest of sport fishes, the snook, frequents the jetties at Port Mansfield and Brownsville. Farther north, at Port Aransas, the local jetties host an early-summer influx of king mackerel. Tackle-busting kings, tarpon, cobia and even the occasional juvenile snapper sometimes surprise jetty anglers at Port O’Connor, Freeport, Matagorda, Galveston and Sabine Pass.
Back in the 1930s, Galveston Jetty anglers regularly caught triple-digit grouper. Legendary Galveston fisherman Gus Pangarakis’ 551-pound goliath grouper, caught June 29, 1937, remains a state record today. (Taking of the species is now prohibited.)
Despite their impenetrable appearance, jetties are surprisingly porous. The water remains in a constant state of flux, coursing freely through the granite curtain. With the flow comes and goes marine life of all imaginable sizes and species. It’s a world where angelfish mingle with tiger sharks, and every cast can result in a broken line or mangled tackle.
Jetties exist for industry, preventing the silting-in of deep-dredged channels and sheltering shipping traffic. Their ancillary value to the sport-fishing community is inestimable.
Jetty boaters have an edge, due to mobility more than anything. Fishermen who walk the rocks, careful to avoid slipping and falling on grease-slick algae spots, nevertheless manage to consistently take quality catches.
Either way, sharp-edged jetty rocks can consume their own weight in terminal tackle. Heavy-test leaders help prevent cut-offs, but are sometimes impossible to break when weights become wedged in crevasses.
Rock-walkers generally use long fishing rods, accelerating their retrieves and raising rod tips high to lift terminal rigs over structure when bringing in their lines.
Boaters are again at an advantage here, as they make their retrieves away from the rocks. Short, heavy-action rods, stout levelwind reels and 30-pound-test line are all standard boat-fishing tools. It sometimes takes bottom fishermen a half-pound of lead to counter the current and hold baits in place.
It’s ironic that rock-walkers usually try to cast their baits as far as possible at the same time that their boat-fishing counterparts are placing their offerings up against the granite. Most gamefish species, from pan-sized sheepshead to 40-pound redfish, tend to hold close to the structure.
For jetty fishermen, a moving tide is imperative. No other saltwater locale is more affected by the direction and intensity of the current than the waters near the rocks.
Old Man Hall taught us to fish the channel side on a falling tide and the beach side during the incoming flow. Feeding gamefish roam the shallows as the water rises. When the tide turns outbound, those same species move offshore to patrol the rocky ledges and pursue current-carried forage. There is, regardless, no absolute rule, and no real substitute for an educated eye and long-term experience in “reading” the water.
Dad and the old man would have loved this trip. It’s classic jetty fishing all the way, one line-stretcher after another.
A single 27-inch redfish gobbles my buddy’s bait and bolts just before the water gets too rough for comfort. He lands the fish, and we move. It takes only a few minutes to motor around the end of the North Jetty, select our spot, drop the anchor and get back to fishing.
A change of gear is in order.
In the next few hours we’ll use light spinning tackle to catch Spanish mackerel from the washout between the rocks and the old concrete ship. It’s relatively shallow here, the south-wind-sheltered “Gulf side” of the jetty, so we’ll be protected from the channel’s angry waters. The razor-toothed mackerel are suckers for gold spoons, and they fight for freedom with a drag-sizzling intensity all their own.
Before dark, three more 38-inch-class redfish will pick up our live-baited circle hooks and prove once again why, regardless of gender, big female reds are always called “bulls.” The keeper-sized mackerel, all respectable 18-inch-class fish, will be filleted at the Galveston Yacht Basin cleaning table. The oversized reds are always carefully unhooked and released.
We’ll find none of the trout we’re after, but that’s not unheard of. Specks are unpredictable at best, but the rocket-fast mackerel literally pick up the slack.
At the dock, we recall the fat-bellied gafftop catfish that ate a live baitfish, three vividly striped sheepshead caught on shrimp near the rocks, the acrobatic ladyfish that attacked my buddy’s beat-up gold spoon, and of course, the inevitable Big One That Got Away.
Could have been a shark, we surmise, maybe a big blacktip. No, it must’ve been a bull shark; after all, blacktips jump. So do tarpon.
Jack crevalle? No, it didn’t run near as fast as a jack.
A 50-pound black drum, perhaps?
My friend looks at me and grins.
“Maybe it was your old friend the manta ray.”
I pause to tell him that’s impossible, that there’s absolutely no way. Then I rethink the response long enough to remember where we’re fishing.
“Not impossible,” I answer. “Not impossible at all.”
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