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Sunken Treasures in the Gulf  at Cabela's

Sunken Treasures in the Gulf

Author: Capt. Mike Holmes

The Western Gulf of Mexico has a flat, relatively shallow slope with little to break its relief from the beachfront to the edge of the continental shelf - 50 to nearly 100 miles offshore, depending on which point on our coast we depart from. Looking for fish in this vast expanse of flat, featureless bottom can be a long and arduious process without a plan.

Huge red snapper are regularly taken off of wrecks in the gulf.
The Western Gulf of Mexico has a flat, relatively shallow slope with little to break its relief from the beachfront to the edge of the continental shelf - 50 to nearly 100 miles offshore, depending on which point on our coast we depart from. Looking for fish in this vast expanse of flat, featureless bottom can be a long and arduious process without a plan.

Basically, there are three forms of structure that hold baitfish, and the larger species that eat them. Since natural structure is almost non-existant between shore and the continental shelf, man-made structure is your best option for action close to shore.

Oil production platforms in the Gulf have become popular fishing spots in the past two decades because both fish and fishermen recognize them as man-made structure on an otherwise barren undersea landscape.

This structure provides food and shelter for bait species, which in turn attracts larger creatures in the marine food chain. There are some natural bottom formations, in the way of rocks, ledges, drop-offs and holes, but underwater structures in the class of the Flower Garden reef systems and Stetson Rock are both limited in number and far from shore. Rigs, however, are easy to find. Their towering structures extend high above the water's surface and can be seen from miles away. The down side to these platforms is also their good point as well. They are easy to find, and therefore heavily fished.

Most natural bottom formations have been on the charts since soon after men began to search the gulf for food fish - in some cases, hundreds of years. Fishermen who have tired of the often-crowded conditions around popular platforms and over charted structure now have other options. They can become modern day treasure hunters, using sophisticated bottom finding equipment to search for the many shipwrecks scattered along the Texas coast.

The majority of the "fishing" wrecks in our waters are the remains of shrimp boats lost in bad weather or due to mechanical problems. In addition to sunken shrimpers, crew boats, barges, and pleasure vessels are scattered all over the gulf's bottom where they attract sea creatures almost as soon as they go down. Novice wreck hunters were given access to a tremendous pair of reference volumes last year when Capt. Carl Christoph of Houston published two books of fishing locations that took him 20 years to compile. Although natural bottom formations are included, Capt. Christoph lists nearly 100 wrecks out of Galveston and Freeport from 9 to 121 miles offshore. Twelve are within 30 miles of the Galveston beachfront, which makes them easily accessible by the average angler. Out of Freeport, Carl shows 24 wrecks inside of 32 miles, and the closest only 4.6 miles offshore.

These are documented wrecks, and locations are given in miles from shore and a compass heading for "rough" navigation as well as both GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) coordinates and LORAN (Long Range Radio Assisted Navigation) TD's, or Time Differences. Even before Carl's books hit the market, savvy skippers had been sharing the "numbers" for a lot of these wrecks, with some fairly well known to even weekend fishermen.

The development of affordable electronics for small boat fishermen has been a boon for wreck hunters. GPS units receive signals from government satellites once reserved only for the military. GPS receivers are much easier for the average fisherman to operate successfully than LORAN, and can be much more accurate. Originally a "scrambler" called "Selective Availability" limited non-military accuracy to within about 300 feet. This was supposedly for national security (it kept the communists from stealing our fishing holes!). When the scrambler was off, or when a differential receiver were used in combination with the GPS, accuracy was possible to within a few feet. Earlier this year, Selective Availability was turned off for good; however, differential receivers still increase GPS accuracy.

The sonar screen displays the bottom and fish suspended over a wreck.
The older LORAN system uses a grid of shore-based radio transmitters, and is often affected by atmospheric conditions or other interference. LORAN's accuracy is not as good as GPS, but many savvy skippers prefer its repeatability for finding small wrecks or bottom formations. Once on location, powerful sonar based "fish finders" with color screens and zoom features allow positive identification of wrecks in most cases - and an indication if fish are in residence. Although I fish one wreck that plainly shows the remnant ribs and "skeleton" of an old wooden shrimp boat on my sonar's screen, most will appear as just a mound rising up from the bottom. This is especially true if it's an old position that has been covered with mud and silt over the years.

Once a promising wreck has been located, the most common technique is to drop a weighted buoy to mark the spot from the surface. On large wrecks, it might be profitable to buoy both ends. Some fishermen like to anchor over the spot, while others hold the boat over the wreck with constant manipulation of their engines. Drifting across the wreck can also be productive if the currents are not too strong. Try trolling over them against the current if drifts go too fast. Bottom fish, such as red snapper and various groupers are the most popular targets of wreck fishermen off Texas, but some really large amberjack will also be found prowling from the submerged wrecks to the surface. Surface feeders like kings and ling (cobia) will cruise a wreck picking off bait species, and barracuda will often be present. "Exotic" species like dog snapper (cubera) and African pompano might also be in residence on a wreck. It has been my experience that wahoo will often be hanging around the vicinity of wrecks surprisingly close to shore. Wahoo are the largest of the mackerels and a prized bluewater game fish, normally caught by anglers trolling for marlin. Last year, one of my customers hooked a good one over a shrimp boat wreck 18 miles out of Freeport in less than 100 feet of water.
A happy wrech fisherman holds up a 50-pound amberjack.
Sharks are also frequent wreck visitors, and locations closer to shore will also harbor "bull" redfish, large black drum, or Gulf trout. Of course, triggerfish and spadefish will be on most wrecks, as well as various small tropical species. That's one of the most interesting aspects of wreck fishing -you never know what you're going to hook up with.

To make wreck fishing even easier, the state of Texas has participated in an artificial reef program which started when twelve Navy Liberty ships were sunk at five different sites in the gulf during the mid seventies. The best known of these is the V.A. Fogg ship reef, 31 miles off Freeport. The Fogg itself was a benzene tanker which exploded and sank during cleaning operations offshore. Two Liberty ships and other reef material, such as huge blocks of fly ash donated by Houston Lighting & Power, and pieces of dismantled oil rigs have been added over the years to create a large reef area popular with both fishermen and divers.

The George Vancouver is a 441-foot Liberty ship that sank off the mouth of the Brazos River while being towed to the Freeport Liberty Ship reef site in 1976, and is only 9 miles from the Freeport jetties. Relatively easy to find, and sitting in 46 to 60 feet of water, the Vancouver is a good dive spot when the water is clear and also a good fishing destination for small boat operators.

The hundreds of wrecks off the Texas coast help create fish holding structure on a flat bottom that would be much less productive otherwise. It is also an unfortunate fact of nature that the number of wrecks is sure to increase each year. Each wooden shrimp boat, dragging the gulf bottom and destroying countless pounds of small fish as unwanted by-catch, has a good chance of ending up as a perfect home for all sorts of the denizens they've been destroying. Given half a chance, nature often evens things out. Considering the destiny of demised boats, she has a sense of humor too!