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Pearls on the Prairie

Destination: El Campo

By Larry D. Hodge

Travel time from:

  • Austin - 2.5 hours /
  • Dallas - 5 hours /
  • Houston - 1.5 hours /
  • San Antonio - 3 hours

As I round the bend in the road bordering the rice field, I have to look twice to make sure I am not seeing things. Has it really snowed at the Texas coast in November?

In a way it has, for white snows blanket the field - lesser snow geese, to be exact. Through binoculars I can see thousands of individual snow geese. Around the edges of the mass of feeding birds appear dark spots, clumps of white-fronted geese, also known as specklebellies because of the broken bars that stripe their chests. A variety of ducks dot open areas of water.

Camera in hand, I step out and slam the car door, inadvertently sparking a spectacle as the nearest birds take wing and are followed by the remainder of the flock in a wave-like motion called a roll. As I click away, the geese circle the field and immediately begin landing again, eager to continue feeding. They have recently completed their annual migration from Canada to the Texas coast, and like most travelers at the end of a long journey, food and rest are their top priorities.

El Campo sits in the center of a three-county area that hosts one of the largest concentrations of wintering waterfowl in the United States. I have come not only to see the geese and ducks but also to hunt them. My next stop is the comfortable lodge of the South Texas Hunting Company, a dozen miles or so from El Campo.

Hunting Camp

Randy Stacy, co-owner of the outfitting and guide service, greets me at the lodge. Through the afternoon other hunters trickle in and claim bunks in one of the lodge's four bedrooms before gathering in the common area to watch television, shoot pool, visit with old friends and make new ones. By 9 p.m., stuffed with Randy's lasagna, most of us are turning in, since the wake-up call at hunting camps comes at 4 a.m. As more than one sleepy-eyed hunter has observed, it doesn't take long to spend the night in El Campo.

The next morning, other occupants of the bedroom where I sleep claim my snoring was so bad it drove them out. This is a vicious lie. Their failure to bring earplugs was the problem. But be aware that while some hunting camps offer private rooms, at most you will have to bunk with others. Prepare accordingly.

Well before dawn the next morning, my hunting group slogs through knee-deep water and mud as we help our guide set out duck decoys. Chest waders are essential if you want to keep your feet and bottom dry; ducks and geese go where the water is, and hunters must follow.

One of the chief pleasures of waterfowl hunting is watching the rising sun wake up the world. Ducks begin to fly when it is still so dark that you never see them as they swoop overhead - only the swooshing of their wings making their presence known. When legal shooting time arrives, the guide begins sending out a serenade of quacks and whistles, and soon our shotguns add a bass line. Widgeons, green-winged teal, gadwalls, lesser scaup and pintails fill out limits for all hunters by midmorning.

After lunch and a nap at the lodge, I head into El Campo to check out the El Campo Museum (at the El Campo Civic Center, www.ohwy.com/tx/e/elcampo.htm. The museum displays about 150 mounted animals from around the world in natural settings. Full-body mounts of an Alaskan brown bear, white rhinoceros and musk ox seem out of place here, but the waterfowl exhibit and the South Texas exhibit display species familiar to hunters. Several of the exhibits feature touch-screen computers that teach about the animals as well as let you hear the sounds they make.

A little pre-trip research on the Internet also steered me to another of El Campo's attractions, a collection of murals on buildings around town. The murals depict the rice and cotton culture of the area as well as other aspects of local history. You can print out a map showing the locations of the murals and take a virtual tour at www.elcampochamber.com/hmurals.htm. Most of the murals are in the downtown area and are best seen by walking.

Coastal Scenery

After the second morning's hunt, clear blue skies and a warm sun remind me that El Campo is less than an hour's drive from the coast. I head for Palacios, which calls itself the "Shrimp Capital of Texas" and is a stellar site on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail. Palacios has its own mural tour, which you can learn about at www.palacioschamber.com. But on this trip my objective was the bayfront, where a fishing pier juts 400 feet into South Bay, and fishers catch speckled trout, redfish and flounder. Nearby is the Texas Baptist Encampment, which also has a free fishing pier. The beach between the two is lined with shaded picnic tables with barbecue grills, and walkers and joggers enjoy the sidewalk atop the seawall.

Had I not been booked for a second night at the South Texas Hunting Company lodge, I would opt to dine on fresh seafood at a local restaurant and spend the night at the Luther Hotel, a 1903 structure that is billed as "The Palace at Palacios." The Luther Hotel once boasted of having the longest front porch in Texas. Time, fire and hurricanes have taken their toll on the structure, but it still offers charming accommodations just across the street from the bay. Monarch butterflies feasting on the hotel's flower garden - still in full bloom in mid-November - catch my eye, and I take advantage of the photo opportunity.

As the sun nears the horizon, heralding the time of day photographers refer to as "the golden hour," I head back toward El Campo, winding my way along farm-to-market roads and watching for wildlife along the way. I am not disappointed. Geese, ducks, and sandhill cranes dot the landscape, and I stop again and again to peer through binoculars and camera at these feathered winter Texans. By the time I arrive at the lodge, stars are popping out, a hearty meal of chicken breasts stuffed with wild rice is being served, and my soul is refreshed.

El Campo - Pearl of the Prairie

El Campo began as a shipping point for cattle from area ranches. The New York, Texas and Mexican Railroad, financed by one of the owner's profits from the Comstock Silver Mine in Nevada, laid track from Richmond to Victoria in 1881. Built by Italian laborers who clung to their traditional diet of pasta, it was dubbed the "Macaroni Line."

A set of loading pens was built at the site where El Campo now stands, but the initial name was Prairie Switch. Local Anglo cowboys called it "Pearl of the Prairie" because the light from the railroad section house shone for miles over the flat coastal prairie. However, Mexican cowboys called it el campo (the camp), and the latter name was adopted when the town was laid out.

Wharton County is one of the top three rice-producing counties in the state, and waterfowl hunting is also an important industry. Grains of rice and the waterfowl that feed on them are now also considered to be "pearls of the prairie." A list of area hunting outfitters is on the Internet at www.elcampochamber.com/hunting.htm, or you can call (979) 543-2713 for information on all area attractions.

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