Gone fishing in Galveston!

I flicked the metal U over the spool of line, held the line against the cork, and cast. The hook and sinker didn’t go far into the surf, but as the day wore on I got better at it. Besides showing me the mechanics of it, and casting for me the first few times, Owen made no comment on technique or distance. I got to learn by trying and watching, the way I like it. We fished in the surf and in the bay from just after dawn to midday.

At first it felt a little odd to wade into the surf fully clothed, the water chilly, then warm. The waves hit surprisingly hard, so I stood sideways and looked across the Gulf of Mexico, imagining Yucatán, seeing gliding pelicans, shrieking laughing gulls, and the occasional purposeful ruddy turnstone, all flying along the shore, neither out nor in. I felt a tug at the line, a few urgent snaps, and reeled in the empty hook. Owen pierced another shrimp through its thorax and I cast again. This shrimp lasted longer, and the false tugs were mostly sargassum. I reeled it in, not pausing to inspect its unique fauna, all colored the same watery rust as the host. Sargassum is a brown alga that is overwhelming the Texas beaches, like the mulch in May overwhelms St. Louis gardens. In dying piles on the beach it is unsightly, but the floating clumps in the water can be fun to explore.

Owen leaves the surf if he gets no fish in the first half hour or so, and so we left. We had parked on a spot in a little subdivision past Galveston Island State Park, past Jamaica Beach. Owen found the round beachfront dead end on Google Earth! We shielded his leather car seats with towels and drove right down to San Luis pass to fish the bay. Another subdivision provided paved bayside parking. Owen transferred the shrimp from the canvas bag with bubbler to the yellow trap that dragged through the water with him, keeping the shrimp alive. We walked through the reeds into the water, taking care to shuffle our feet and scare away stingrays. Surprisingly, the water was a little cooler than the surf had been, maybe because the tide was coming in from the deeps. We were just an hour or so from high tide, a good time for fishing the bay.

Across the water closer to the actual pass, I heard the happy sounds of Spanish. A family was camped on the beach, the children playing in the muddy shallows, and the men pulling in throw net after throw net of glistening mullet. I don’t know if they were going to eat them, or use them for bait. IStrangely, only the latter is legal. We were strictly legal, me with my new saltwater fishing license from Academy, and Owen with his, and his tape measure to be sure of the fish sizes, though he guessed correctly every time. I looked up mullet and it seems they are fine to eat and are eaten a lot along the Mediterranean, and are best fresh.

There seems to be an etiquette on fishing close to others, and we followed it, keeping far away from the other wade fishermen. If they seemed to catch something, Owen could check them out with small waterproof binoculars. One solitary fisherman came close to us, looking for a shallow passage far out into the bay. He found it, and we saw him catch a couple sea trout in the far distance. Coming back, he had trouble finding the shallow passage, but ultimately found it, and came close again. He was happy with his trout, bigger than anything we caught, though all admire a flounder. And then he asked if we wanted the trout! We did. I was surprised he offered them, and viewed this as another little window into fishing culture. I asked Owen if he had ever given up fish, and he had. I guess sometimes it isn’t worth bringing a little bit home.

It was so pleasant standing in the water, watching the birds, looking across at the horizon, peeing whenever you needed to, casting, waiting, bobbing, reeling in, casting again. A reddish egret did its dancing, jerking hunt between us and the shore. White ibis, roseate spoonbills, forster’s terns, royal terns, peeping least terns, all flew by. Even in the heat of summer this must be pleasant, with a hat, long sleeves, and the rest of you under water. The fishing almost seemed incidental. Maybe we could go out with a fake rod and no hooks, just to stand in the water and look across the bay.

But fishing is not to be underestimated as part of the joy. By that little hook and cast we connect with what is underneath. The mystery of the shallow, the hidden. We see the occasional jellyfish and the frequent flying mullet, ejected like a cork at a crazy angle from the water. What else is under there we fear or desire. The shuffle keeps the stingrays from our feet. The hook and shrimp lets us sense the urgent hunt for food going on all around us. It would not be the same without actually fishing. I asked Owen how much of it was the experience, and how much was getting fish to eat. He answered half and half. He said it was against his religion to buy fish, and I could see that. I would for a time buy no produce I could have obtained at the farmer’s market. But for him, maybe this rule helped bring him out to the coast.

I have to say it: I love the gear. I love specialized equipment, and Owen had just the right things. He had the canvas bubble bag for the shrimp, and the yellow plastic box with holes for the shrimp in the water. He had a net with a float in case we caught any fish. He had a white plastic tube on his belt to park his fishing rod. He had weights (hopefully not lead), bobbers, hooks, pliers, clips and other gear I didn’t even see. He had two excellent fishing rods that spun out tangle free line, even in my hands. I think he also had a throw net, though we didn’t use it.

Fishing in the bays and surf from boats, piers, or wading is what thousands of Houstonians do every weekend. Our open horizons, and free expanses are not on land, they are over the waters. How many people bring a slightly briny, fishy scent with them to work on Monday morning? How many see the slow beat of brown pelican wings, in a line of seven over the surf, when they shut their eyes? How many are eating more than the recommended number of meals per month of sea trout, tainted by PCBs?

There is an argument for crucial stages of human evolution occurring on south African beaches, where food was plentiful. Maybe the ocean has an ancient stain on our DNA, just like the savannas of Africa, and Africa itself. I feel bad for the fish, but if we eat them, isn’t that part of our nature? I threw the remains on the compost heap so they could stay in the chain of life, probably next passing through the guts of a possum or raccoon. I’m in town for the rest of the week, but hope to feel the lap of the bay on my belly soon again.


We bought a pint of live shrimp from this guy. This man only recognizes Owen’s bait bucket, not him. The bait store owner has a tracheotomy, therefore only whispers.


These Forster’s terns are paired up and fishing away over Rollover Pass!


Owen says brown surf like this has fewer fish than green or blue surf, but we tried it anyway.


So we moved to the bay side, right down by San Luis pass.


The first fish was a nice redfish, too small to keep.


Have to get the hook out before we release him!


Croakers do actually croak, and can be kept! Note all the practical gear.


This flounder was a keeper, only barely!


No, I didn’t catch either the sea trout or the flounder, but we did eat them! I caught a little croaker.


Galveston Bay, no hurricane in sight.


The fish. How can you not feel a little sad?


If you fillet them, then cook scales side down, no need for any further cleaning.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Birds, Environment, Galveston, Gulf of Mexico. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Gone fishing in Galveston!

  1. Danny says:

    Looks like a lot of fun, wish I could have gone-do you think you’ll want to go one more time before you move? Its always a lot of fun fishing with Owen, he really knows his stuff.

  2. Wow, every part of this post spells fun and adventure. It made me appreciate Fishing more. I went fishing for the first time 2 weeks ago with my son. It was a thrilling, learning experience. Have a great day.

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