On fall and winter nights through the better part of the twentieth century, Rudy Grigar would wade into Galveston Bay and listen to the roar of the redfish. Swimming in schools up to five hundred strong, they sounded to him like freight trains churning through the dark. “The closer they got,” he recalled in a 1997 memoir, “the louder the noise.”
Occasionally, the schools would plow right into Grigar, a pioneer of wade-fishing in Texas, thumping against his legs and chest as he cast in the moonlight, trying his best to land two or three on a silver spoon lure before they swept past. Then he’d wait for another school to come along. “I’d repeat the process until I had a full stringer,” Grigar wrote in Plugger: Wade Fishing the Gulf Coast, a book that remains a saltwater-angling bible long after Grigar’s death in 2001 at age 86.
Grigar, who owned a tackle shop in Houston, had been fishing the state’s shallow bays and estuaries since the Great Depression. In the early seventies, he was still landing countless bounties of redfish, also known as red drum, and up to a hundred speckled trout in a day. By the end of that decade, though, the glory days had come to an end. Trout were in steep decline, and more than half of the redfish had disappeared.
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Grigar blamed one culprit: commercial fishermen wielding lethally effective nets. “Netters,” he called them. Convinced that reds and specks were on the verge of extinction—the bison of the bays—Grigar hosted a gathering of fourteen anglers at his tackle shop on February 15, 1977. The movement that grew out of that meeting would quickly spark an ugly fight between recreational and commercial fishermen and ultimately spawn a conservation revolution that would change Texas fishing forever. The Redfish Wars had begun.
Calling themselves the Gulf Coast Conservation Association, the recreational anglers who’d convened at Grigar’s tackle shop that day began raising money and lobbying state lawmakers to protect red drum and trout. They were powerful and well-connected. The group tapped Walter Fondren III, a former star of the Texas Longhorns football team, to serve as founding chairman. Fondren was an avid fisherman whose grandfather was the founder of Humble Oil. Early GCCA members included Perry Bass, an oil heir whose family owns all of San José Island, a barrier island near Port Aransas, and Bob Brister, then the influential outdoors editor of the Houston Chronicle.
GCCA set its sights on the commercial netters whose fence-like gill nets they reviled for emptying Texas’s bays and estuaries of redfish. Hundreds of miles of nets, they argued, were plucking thousands of mature “bull reds” from the water before they had a chance to produce enough offspring. Today, many people also blame the Gulf’s plummeting numbers of red drum on the late New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme, who launched a culinary craze for blackened redfish when he invented the recipe in the early eighties. In fact, red drum started vanishing from the coast years before Prudhomme thought to sear butter-drenched filets on smoking-hot cast iron. From 1976 to 1979, Texas’s commercial harvest of redfish dropped 65 percent, while trout landings fell more than 40 percent.
“Quite simply, there are too many people fishing a depleted resource,” Bob Kemp, TPWD’s fisheries director and a GCCA ally, concluded at the time. “There no longer are, or will be again, in my opinion, enough trout and redfish to meet the demands of both the commercial finfish industry and the recreational fishing industry.”
The sport anglers comprising the GCCA (later named the Coastal Conservation Association after the group spread to the East and West Coasts) promptly scored a modest victory when the Texas Legislature passed the Red Drum Conservation Act of 1977, which capped the daily harvest of red drum at ten per recreational angler and two hundred pounds for commercial fishermen, the first time in the state’s history that Texas had established daily bag limits for fish. Even so, the redfish and speckled trout catch didn’t seem to improve all that much. In the subsequent legislative session, the group kept asking for more, including a ban on gill nets. Two years later, the GCCA lobbied hard to ban the commercial harvesting of red drum and spotted sea trout by classifying both as game species, like white-tail deer.
Pitted against wealthy sportfishermen, scores of workaday commercial netters erupted in bitter protests. They used their boats to form aquatic picket lines in an attempt to close the ports in Houston and Corpus Christi. The crew of a U.S. Coast Guard vessel, surrounded by commercial fishermen shouting obscenities at them, blasted fire hoses to break through a picket line at the harbor entrance of Port Mansfield. “No way in hell we’ll quit fishing,” Bill Praker, a spokesman for a picket line along the Galveston Ship Channel, told Bob Brister, the outdoors writer and GCCA member, for a story in Field & Stream. “This is our livelihood. Some of our people can’t read or write.”
Grigar and others fielded death threats. Kemp found a pair of shotgun shells in his mailbox. “The netters wanted him to know they knew where he and his family lived,” speculated Pat Murray, who watched the redfish wars unfold as a young angler and later became president of the Coastal Conservation Association. One of the group’s officials from Corpus Christi endured repeated warnings that his home and restaurant would burn if he testified on behalf of the game fish bill, which had been introduced in the Legislature in 1981. “He testified, and someone set fire to his restaurant,” Brister wrote. Others reported having their boats sunk and cabins vandalized.
The netters insisted that cyclical weather patterns, including frigid cold fronts and droughts that raised the salinity levels in the bays, had caused the redfish decline. Their fishing practices were in no way at fault, they said. Some biologists familiar with the controversy agreed with the netters, arguing that TPWD biologists had based their recommendations to outlaw the commercial harvest on faulty or incomplete research. “There aren’t any data to support the ban,” Ronald Ilg, a former researcher at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute, told Texas Monthly’s Dick Reavis. “The problem, I think, is that we have a lot of fishermen who don’t know where the redfish are.” Added Donald E. Wohlschlag, the director of the Marine Science Institute, “I don’t know of any basis for the law. It’s a matter of people wanting something done and having the votes to do it.”
If nothing else, Wohlschlag had correctly gauged the political climate. There were only a few hundred commercial fishermen in Texas at the time, a number dwarfed by the hundreds of thousands of recreational anglers. “We’re going to run out of redfish,” warned state representative Joe Allen, a Baytown Democrat and ally of the recreational fishermen. “I think it’s damn selfish of an industry only generating $2 million a year when the sportfishing industry is bringing in $223 million a year.” The game fish bill sailed through the Legislature. In defiance of the new commercial ban, some fishermen persisted for a time—Reavis’s April 1983 cover story for Texas Monthly, titled “The New Rustlers,” chronicled a dying breed of coastal poacher—but many of the netters had already turned to more lucrative careers as recreational guides. Fisherman Ernie Butler put away his nets and bought a small bait stand and burger joint on the Intracoastal Waterway on the back side of Padre Island, which eventually grew into Snoopy’s Pier, a venerable open-air seafood restaurant celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year.
Likewise, red drum have had nearly four decades to recover, a “redfish revival” widely touted as one of Texas’s greatest conservation victories. “Texas has some of the best fisheries there are because of good science and good management,” said Greg Stunz, who directs the Center for Sportfish Science & Conservation at Texas A&M–Corpus Christi’s Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies. When he started joining federal commissions and learning about the fisheries in other states, he added, “I was surprised how good of a job Texas is doing, because some states aren’t like that. You go over to Louisiana, and the spotted sea trout are in big trouble right now.”
But the commercial ban and tighter recreational limits were only two components of the redfish revival. A few years before the opening salvo in the Redfish Wars, a scientist had begun to take a different yet no less ambitious approach to save the fish.
Connie Arnold vowed to spawn them in an artificial setting. “They were really in trouble, so something had to be done,” he recalled. “I always had the idea that if you could raise them in large numbers, maybe you could make a difference.”
In the wild, red drum spawn near the mouths of coastal passes from mid-August until the weather cools in October or November. Although no one had been successful in rearing a red drum in a laboratory, Arnold thought that he could use the well-equipped National Marine Fisheries Service research facility, in Port Aransas, which opened in 1973, to manipulate conditions that induce spawning, primarily by adjusting the temperature of the water and the hours of sunlight in a given day, called the photoperiod.
“That’s what triggers it in the wild,” Arnold, now 83, told me. “I just had to duplicate it in the lab. When it got into their normal photoperiod and temperature, they started chasing each other. We maintained that temperature and photoperiod; lo and behold, they spawned.”