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High Plains Outdoors: My Buddy, The Fishin' Mortician

Luke Clayton
Trey Schmidt, preparing to fillet some sheepshead.

During the past several years, I’ve had the opportunity to fish with my friend Trey Schmidt many times. Trey has a coveted ‘fin fish’ license on the Texas coast. He spends three nights each week ‘gigging’ for flounder, the majority he sells to Nate’s West End Bar and Grill, a popular ‘off the beaten path’ restaurant near just west of Jamaica Beach on the road heading from Galveston to Freeport. Trey can also harvest sheepshead (a great eating but often overlooked saltwater fish) stingray, crabs and a few other species.

Trey’s ‘day job’ the remainder of the week is the funeral business. His family has been in the funeral business in Katy for over 70 years. My friend takes great pride in his work, regardless if that is comforting a grieving family or ‘gigging’ his daily limit of flounder. As Trey puts it, “these three nights each week out on the bay gigging helps me do my primary job better. I’m out in the great outdoors getting lots of exercise and getting paid for what I would gladly do for free.

The daily limit of flounder with a commercial license is 30 fish and Trey seldom comes back to dock with fewer fish. Last week, I met him at his family get away home on the water in the early evening, just before dark.

“Luke, the tide has been low and the past couple nights, gigging has been exceptional. I expect we won’t have any problem getting on the fish”, says Trey as we board his 24 foot Long Beach boat rigged and ready for a night of gigging. A flounder boat has to be shallow draft because the water is often only a foot or 18 inches deep in the bays. The craft has a powerful outboard for getting from place to place but also a 24 hp. engine on the stern for turning the prop that propels the craft along the shallows.

The bow is elevated with powerful lights mounted below, directed to the waters just ahead of the boat. Controls for the prop engine are in front of the elevated ‘gigging scaffold’ in the front of the boat. There is a rudder to control the direction of the boat but Trey makes minor adjustments to the course by using his gig/pole pushed down into the mud.

We eased out of the harbor just after the sun had set, just at twilight. Fishing boats and Kayakers were returning to dock after an afternoon of fishing and the lights on the many docks were coming on, some of the residents of the homes were prepping their gear for a few hours of trout fishing under the lights. As we entered the bay, darkness had fallen and the lights along the coastline were twinkling from several miles away. There is something very tranquil about being out on the water at night, whether it’s running a trotline in an East Texas creek or heading out to gig for flounder on the coast. It’s very obvious why my buddy chose flounder gigging as a second career years ago.

Trey knows the bay system like the back of his hand but a handheld GPS and Google Earth is a great aid on a dark night. It was interesting to look at the GPS and see a reef or island and have Trey point into the blackness and says something like, “One of my favorite spots is off to the right, it will be visible in a few seconds. See the little pockets along the reef and that low point? Water moves through this drain and flounder like to stack up on the edge and feed on mullet”. 

Bait was so thick here that the flounder lying flat on the bottom only had to flip up and grab their dinner. Like largemouth bass, flounder are ambush feeders. Bass rely on cover to conceal themselves and attack food that swims by. Flounder are perfectly camouflaged and when lying on bottom, are very difficult to spot. 

I’m not very good at spotting flounder that are lying motionless on the bottom, this takes practice. Most of the flounder I’ve gigged were pointed out to me.

“Luke there is a big one laying next to the bank, see him?” Truthfully, I usually had to look for several seconds to spot the flatfish, even when they were pointed out to me.

Trey’s catch is sold to restaurants, whole.  His goal is to spear the flounder in the head with one or two prongs of his gig. I did good to hit the flatfish, ‘somewhere’ with the gig! I’ve been with pros doing all sorts of specialized things in the outdoors but successfully gigging flounder ranks very high on list.

Watching my friend poised with his gig in hand like a heron in pursuit of a baitfish, starring into the lights just ahead of the boat and then plunging the gig down into what appears to be only a sandy bottom. Ninety nine percent of the time, Trey hoisted a flounder or sometimes a sheepshead or blue crab into the awaiting buckets. Occasionally he would strike at what appeared to be a target and then jokingly comment that “You can’t strike gold every time!”

One thing I have learned about spending an evening gigging founder, a bit of sleep will be lost and an afternoon nap prior to fishing is highly advised. Make sure and plan to ‘sleep in’ the next morning as well. Trey sometimes gets his limit by midnight or one but he is always prepared to go the distance until weather conditions cause for an early return to dock or, a limit is put on ice. It’s a rarity when he doesn’t gig his limit After all, he has to keep his restaurant supplied with tasty flounder, and those seafood hungry Galveston vacationers travel a long way to eat fresh flounder!

Contact outdoors writer Luke Clayton via his website.

Outdoors writer, radio host and book author Luke Clayton has been addicted to everything outdoors related since his childhood when he grew up hunting and fishing in rural northeast Texas. Luke pens a weekly newspaper column that appears in over thirty newspapers.