|Winter on the Gulf|
Pack the shotgun, don't forget the fly rod, and leave the passport and the overextended credit card at home.
by E. Donnall Thomas Jr.
From the Expedition and Guides 2011 Issue
Out of San Antonio, marveling at the live oaks’ green winter foliage and the absence of snow.South and east to Goliad, where Mexican troops captured and summarily executed Col. James Fannin and his troops in 1836, an event no true Texan has ever been allowed to forget. On to Victoria, where my mother was born to a Texas ranch family that foundered and dispersed during the Great Depression. Then on to the east where the trees disappeared, gulls replaced turkey vultures soaring overhead, and the warm smell of the sea began to permeate the truck. We had reached the Texas Gulf Coast during early January, right when we needed it most.
Our friend and host, Dick Negley, can trace his Texas roots back to the same War of Independence that claimed Fannin and his men, and his attachment to the land and its history became apparent as soon as we unloaded the vehicle and walked into the family hunting quarters just above the high tide line on San Antonio Bay. Vintage maps and charts lined the walls; faded documents and old portraits traced the region’s history all the way back to the days of Albert Burleson, Dick’s ancestor and the first Vice President of the Republic of Texas. By evening, when Lori and I walked out onto the veranda in our shirtsleeves to study the waterfowl trading back and forth across the vast tidal marsh, the busyness of Big Oil and the Houston Space Center could have been light-years away. So, too, could the Montana winter we’d left behind two days earlier.
Despite a dense fog, we were still in our shirtsleeves at the boat ramp the next morning. Throughout the evening our party had grown, as Texas hunting parties inevitably do, and with nearly a dozen guns to distribute about the marsh, veteran airboat pilot Jimmy Mills was encouraging a predawn start. Eager for the lonely flats, Lori and I volunteered for the first run along with Marshall Davidson, another old friend, and his black Lab, Glory. The airboat engine, I noted with disconnected déjà vu, was the same model Continental with which I’d blasted off from countless Alaska lakes during my days flying up north. With headphones in place to shield our ears, we were soon rocketing down a narrow slough toward a mosaic of tidal lagoons.
The year before, similar runs with Jimmy had left me with profound respect for his navigational abilities, but that fog took dead reckoning to new levels. We couldn’t see the bow from the stern, but Jimmy never backed off the throttle. GPS can make a pilot out of anyone, they say, but Jimmy isn’t that kind of guy. Running purely on knowledge, or instinct—or something—he deposited us at our blind after a 20-minute run during which I saw nothing beyond the gunwales but fog.
I stepped out of the boat with no concept of direction, but by the time we’d finished pitching our decoys out into the soup—faux teal in one corner of the cove, divers in another, and a half dozen snow goose blocks behind us for good measure—light began to suffuse the sky from a direction I had to assume was east. Then the marsh began to awaken, first with a chorus of croaks and cries from long-legged silhouettes that morphed into spoonbills and ibises in the gathering light, and finally with a familiar whistle of setting wings.
“Shooting light!” I whispered after a glance at my watch.
“Yeah, but at what?” Marshall replied. This wasn’t an academic question. The slim Texas limit of five ducks allowed no more than one canvasback, pintail, mottled duck, or hen mallard.
“They’re . . . ,” Lori began.
“No, I think they’re . . . ,” Marshall chimed in.
“Bluebills!” I bellowed as the flock came around for a second pass, and when I drove my barrels past the lead drake and watched it cartwheel across the water, I remembered all over again why I love hunting waterfowl in coastal marshes.
Unperturbed by my overexcited breach of etiquette, Marshall gave Glory the line while Lori called our attention to another inbound flock of waterfowl still too distant to identify. Another day on the Texas Gulf Coast had begun.
Few concordances are more traditional than waterfowl hunting and rotten weather. Wind, rain, and cold are trophic to waterfowl in countless subtle ways, and veteran duck hunters soon learn that clear skies and balmy days are simply good excuses to stay home. Lori and I should know: where we live on the high plains of Montana, late-season duck hunting is invariably a marrow-chilling affair conducted over steaming spring creeks. That’s why waterfowling, much as we love it, has never ranked high on our list of midwinter escapes to sunshine and shirtsleeves. Until our first visit to San Antonio Bay, when I learned that a trip to the Gulf Coast when the snow was flying at home could mean shotguns and retrievers as well as fly rods and Clousers.
But old habits die hard, and by the time I’d watched Lori and Marshall add a brace of teal to the bag, I realized I was sweating inside my oilskins. The coat went first, and then the wool sweater. By the time another flock of teal rocketed across the decoy spread, I was down to my undershirt and swatting mosquitoes—in January. Fortunately, there were so many birds in the air, I didn’t really notice.
By the time we returned to the dock in late morning, the fog had burned off. Mystified by our fog-blind early-morning run, I asked Jimmy, “How did you know where you were going?”
“Know where I was going? Lord, Don. I never been so lost in my life!”
The long, shallow waterway between the Texas Gulf Coast’s barrier islands and the
Locals will tell you that winter isn’t the best time to fish for Texas drum, and no doubt they’re right. But winter is when I need to feel warm salt water against my legs, and over the course of a dozen off-season trips to the area, I’ve found this conventional wisdom suspect. Besides, how many places can you can step out of a duck blind midmorning and add a brace of redfish by afternoon?
Lori and I did just that on a trip to Dick’s place a few years back. When we waded into the bay with our 7-weights, Jimmy, an infinite fount of local knowledge, swore it couldn’t be done. Even Dick and Marshall, both accomplished fly rodders, were skeptical. But Lori and I can be remarkably stubborn, and when we returned to headquarters with enough redfish for ceviche all around, the collective I’ll be damned probably carried halfway to San Antonio.
But our best midwinter redfishing has come farther to the south, in the midsection of the Laguna Madre, where the water is shallower and clearer, and an ambitious angler can usually wade all morning uninterrupted by anything but fish.
One balmy March morning a few years back, Lori and I slipped over the gunwales of Dick’s flats boat and set off through the glassy water toward the sunrise over South Padre Island. Experienced flats anglers know how tricky spotting fish can be when the sun strikes tangentially to the water—unless the fish are tailing. After 20 minutes of gorgeous but unproductive wading, I spotted what looked like a rose petal floating 60 feet ahead. When I pivoted to locate Lori, I saw her double-hauling a hundred yards away to my right. Relieved of any obligation to act the gentleman, I worked out a loop of line, dropped the fly in front of the fish, watched the water boil, and strip-set the hook into something soft and heavy. Once I’d recovered my backing, I looked around to see Lori fast to a fish of her own. By the time I’d backed the hook out of my fish’s lip, redfish tails were sprouting across the flat like mushrooms.
That morning over coffee, we’d watched the national weather map on television and noted a low laden with sleet and snow bearing down on Montana. That alone made my eight-pound redfish feel twice its size. And the day had just begun.
Reds aren’t the only fly rod game along the Texas coast. The same waters hold plenty of speckled sea trout, including some true “alligators,” the biggest I’ve ever seen. I’ve also taken a variety of less glamorous game fish on the fly rod, including acrobatic skipjack (the regional term for ladyfish), sheepshead, flounder, and a black drum that probably would have set some kind of record if I cared about such things. But if you enjoy wading and sight-casting with a fly rod, you’ll have trouble tearing yourself away from the reds: blue-collar bonefish on a shoestring budget, no passport required.
From Dall sheep to beluga whales, thoughtful observers have always been fascinated by animals that come dressed entirely in white. Herman Melville devoted an entire chapter to the subject in Moby-Dick, and I have little to add to “The Whiteness of the Whale,” except that few sights from a waterfowl blind are more compelling than a line of snow geese flashing through the soft morning sun.
I know there must be sound reasons why the smart biologists with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service limit coastal Texas hunters to five ducks daily, but after multiple trips to the area, they’re a mystery to me. Snow geese are another matter. Now that the prolific little devils have overgrazed the Canadian arctic plain in a manner that would embarrass a herd of cattle denuding public Forest Service land, the regulators have pulled out all the stops on snows. I’m not sure what the daily limit is in Texas now, but I know it’s more geese than I want to pluck.
On a recent trip to Dick’s place, we enjoyed an opportunity one day to do our part to preserve arctic wetlands. Snow geese are notoriously difficult to decoy, and with thousands of them wintering in the area, we’ve never exercised a lot of science hunting them. If the birds raft up out in the bay, no decoy spread in the world will entice them within range. But when they’re trading about, you can usually shoot your share from any unembellished duck blind with nothing but a handful of decoys to attract the stragglers.
And the birds were certainly flying that morning. Marshall, Lori, and I had a half dozen green-wings resting on the bench when I first heard geese in the air. The birds were lifting off in huge, wheeling flocks, and I doubt our token decoy spread and furious calling did much to influence them. But over the next hour, enough low-flying singles passed overhead to keep our shotguns—and Glory—as busy as they needed to be. When Jimmy picked us up in the airboat later that morning, a grinning Dick Negley sat behind a bow that looked as if it had been buried by a snowplow: a pile of geese to which we gladly added a dozen or so of our own.
Skeptics put off by snows’ undeservedly shaky reputation on the table could have learned something from the dinner Dick whipped up for the hunting party that night. Granted, the first course of redfish and local oysters would have made a memorable meal on their own, but I’ve never enjoyed waterfowl more than those snow geese breasts—marinated in something sweet and tangy, and grilled quickly so they were crisp on the outside and blood-rare in the middle.
When you live in the north, a midwinter break to somewhere warm is more than another hunting or fishing trip. Human beings can take only so much uninterrupted cold and darkness. Working as a physician in the Far North, I quickly learned that cabin fever was real. Take away the sun’s healing rays long enough, and normally rational people eventually begin to eat their young.
Given all this, a waterfowl expedition seems an unlikely remedy for what is now officially known as seasonal affective disorder—unless you’re willing to think outside the proverbial box. Put the duck blind on a warm saltwater marsh, and throw in some intriguing nearby fly-fishing, and you’ll be well on your way to a cure. And I know just the place. n
Although the product of a long line of Texans, Don Thomas has lived his adult life in rural Montana and Alaska, and he and his wife, Lori, now divide their time between homes in both states. His latest book, How Sportsmen Saved the World reviews the contributions hunters and anglers have made to wildlife conservation.
If You Go
The little coastal hamlet of Port Mansfield has always served us well as a fly-fishing base of operations. Rentals are remarkably affordable during the winter off-season—even though that’s the Texas winter in-season. Contact Glaze Realty, 701 Bayshore Dr., Port Mansfield, TX 78598; (210) 944-2355. Contact www.rio-grande-valley.com/portmansfield/business/fishguides for charters. Interview prospective guides before booking, Most are far more conversant with conventional tackle than with fly rods.
Since our last visit, the Gulf has faced a major environmental disaster. The good news, for Texans at least, is that the BP oil spill largely spared their coast. At this writing, there’s no reason for that event to deter visitors.