Chasing Salt Water Panfish
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Saltwater anglers often get tunnel vision. In Texas that usually means redfish and speckled trout for inshore fishermen. Of course, some chase snook and others will occasionally look for flounder. But, in addition to this quartet of light tackle quarry, there are several overlooked species that both fight hard and provide excellent table fare.
In general this group of rarely sought species is known as "panfish." Probably the best known of this group is the mangrove snapper. Mangroves, it seems, are overfished by one group while overlooked by the other. "Bait fishermen" regularly drag bags and buckets full of them from the jetties and around the bridges. However, pluggers and fly rodders seldom give them more than a passing thought.
These "bluegill of the Gulf" are both hard fighting and good eating. Although mature mangroves - fish over about 14 inches - require stout tackle to pull them from pilings and cover, smaller fish are great sport on lighter tackle. Usually, bucktail jigs, single speck rigs, and a wide variety of soft-plastic jigs will tempt these tasty panfish. Fly rodders do well with Clouser minnows, Gotcha's, Crazy Charlies, and other small baitfish and crustacean imitations.
Another plentiful, but ignored, species calling our local waters home is the lookdown. This odd-looking fellow, which rather resembles a small African pompano, is an irredescent silver, with long anal and dorsal fins and a hatchet-shaped forehead. This tropical panfish strike hard and fight even harder, relative to their size of course. They rarely top a couple of pounds, but use their wide profile to leverage themselves in the water.
Like mangroves, lookdowns are most often found near structure. They will readily take a variety of jigs, small plugs and spoons. And, despite their thin width, they make excellent table fare.
One other overlooked panfish prowling our waters is the triple tail. In fact, the state record hails from here. These unusual - some would say ugly - fish can most often be found around buoys, crab traps and floating debris. In fact, at first glance they often look like floating debris themselves as they hover around various structure.
Although the world record is 42 pounds, most tripletail encountered in our area will be around two or three pounds. Despite their outward appearance - somewhat like a huge, dark brown "molly" - their are delicious when placed on a plate. And, like the others mentioned in this column, they are spirited fighters.
The Florida pompano - commonly called pompano - is another frequent visitor to our coast. They are most often found along the beachfront, but can also be taken on the flats at certain times. Somewhat resembling a jack crevalle, pompano have a bright yellow breast, rounded forehead, bright silver sides and a forked tail. They provide excellent fun on light tackle and even better fillets in the pan. They are most commonly caught on sand fleas or small shrimp, but readily take jigs, small plugs and spoons.
These are just some of the more "glamorous" examples of saltwater panfish. This group also includes sand trout, Gulf trout, whiting, sheepshead, croaker and others. Of course, since these are rarely taken on artificials, they weren't included in the list above. However, like the four examined earlier in this column, they provide good fights when taken on appropriately light tackle and can more than redeem themselves at the plate.