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Texas: Dodged one

1/27/2010

Nature took a mighty swing at the Texas coast in early January but landed only a glancing blow.

It has been more than 20 years since Texans awoke to the reality of a major, winter fish kill in their bays. In 1983 and again in 1989, millions of fish and other marine animals succumbed to the swift and sudden onset of deadly cold. Not every fish died during those events, of course, but it seemed that way in some places.

Huge speckled trout floated and rotted from the Sabine River to the Rio Grand. Mullet and menhaden littered shorelines and stacked in tidal eddies. It was as if some toxic mist had washed across the coast and snuffed the life from all it touched.

This time, however, behind the freeze of January 2010, the outcome was far different.

First, the extreme cold was preceded by a period of relatively cool temperatures. The fish knew it was winter and, for the most part, already were huddled in deep, relatively insulated water.

Also playing a key role in the positive outcome was the tug-and-barge industry, which again (after also doing so during a severe-cold event in 2006) ceased its traffic in the intracoastal waterway. That is a voluntary move on their part. There is no mandate, state or otherwise, that commerce must cease when a cold wind blows. But cease it did, for three days, and that allowed fish at the bottom of the ICW to remain there, undisturbed and unthreatened.

When barges move along that coastal artery, they and the tugs' wheels that push them move a lot of water. Much of that movement sees colder surface water pushed to the bottom and warmer water near bottom rolled to the cooler surface. The exchange may only impact water temperature by two or three degrees, but that slight change can mean life or death to fish already on the brink.

The 2010 freeze did exact a toll. In the Galveston Bay system, its primary victims were striped mullet. Beginning along the middle coast and reaching southward, the cold claimed a high percentage of the gray snapper that had redistributed themselves northward during 20-plus warm winters.

There even was a snook found dead in a bayou that enters Galveston Bay, and other snook were killed farther down the coast, but the overall population of this magnificent gamefish appears to have been spared any serious blow.

Redfish — no surprise to anyone who understands them — suffered on minimal casualties. Whereas gray snapper are goners when water hits the low 50s, and speckled trout perish as readings drop into the 40s, red drum can ride out water temps into the mid 30s (Could they be stocked in Rocky Mountain rivers? And if so, how bad would that news be for rainbow trout?).

On the afternoon this piece was written, the temperature outside was 72 degrees. Fish and fishermen have gotten back to their usual activities, and icy slush that extended 20 yards onto the Gulf of Mexico along the middle coast two weeks ago has been nearly forgotten.

Texas' coastal fisheries dodged an icy bullet this time, mostly because the fish saw it coming. Winter can't end soon enough.

Editor's note: Doug Pike spent 23 years as the outdoors columnist at the Houston Chronicle, nine years and counting on radio (he's the host of the Doug Pike Show on 790 the Sports Animal), two years and counting as back-page humor columnist for Saltwater Sportsman, 10 years and counting on the masthead for Field & Stream, two years and counting on the masthead and as columnist for Texas Fish & Game, 10 years editor of Tide magazine for CCA. He has won more than 100 state and national awards for writing, photography, broadcast and editing.