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Adrift in Seadrift

Destination: Seadrift/Port O'Connor

by Larry D. Hodge

Travel time from:

  • Austin - 3 hours /
  • Dallas - 6 hours /
  • Houston - 2.5 hours /
  • San Antonio - 2.5 hours

The water off Indianola is green to the beach, always a good sign when you are fishing for speckled trout and redfish

But my quarry this afternoon is more elusive: history. Of all the historic places in Texas, Indianola is one of my favorites. At midday the curving white oyster-shell beach is mostly deserted, but just south of the last deep blue picnic shelter, an old man and a boy tend four surf rods from the shade of a camper shell on their pickup. Near this same site some 300 years earlier, Karankawa Indians, using fish traps woven from cane, looked up from their catch to see a strange sight: three boats, far larger than the dugout canoes they used, with white sails puffed out and the French flag snapping in the February breeze.

Today a statue stands where the explorer LaSalle is believed to have stepped ashore that day. After LaSalle - and the Spanish who arrived a few years later seeking to eradicate the French presence, a job already taken care of by the Indians - little happened here for nearly two centuries. Boatloads of German immigrants began arriving in 1844, on their way to found New Braunfels and Fredericksburg. In those days, history moved at a glacial pace incomprehensible in today's world of instant messaging and voicemail. The contrast goes far to explain the charm of this spot.

Later arrivals included members of the United States Boundary Commission, on their way to survey the line between the United States and Mexico after the Mexican War; two shiploads of camels used as experimental cargo carriers by the U.S. Army for a time; and blocks of ice quarried in New England and shipped south to alleviate the brutal heat of the Texas summer.

Indianola, with a population of 5,000, boomed as the second-busiest seaport in Texas until September 16, 1875, when a powerful hurricane wiped it out. The city was rebuilt, but little more than 10 years later another Gulf storm, accompanied by fire, wreaked total destruction. Vestiges remain: a few tombstones in the cemetery, remnants of concrete cisterns using oyster shells for aggregate. But you walk on the bones of history here.

I stop by and visit with the fishers I'd spotted, Henry DeDear of Kenedy and his grandson, Steven Miller of Ingleside. Fishing is slow except for the hardhead catfish and eels stealing the shrimp off their hooks. Bottle-nosed dolphins cruise the shoreline, but the trout and redfish seem to be on vacation, although a small red darts at my spinnerbait on my first cast. I fish for an hour, then head for Guadalupe Delta Wildlife Management Area, almost due west across the peninsula.

The sun hangs low in the west as I reach the wildlife viewing platform (Great Coastal Birding Trail site CTC 036) on Texas 35 overlooking Buffalo Lake. This wetland area is probably the single best birding site in the area. It holds thousands of birds year-round and offers what is at times the best public duck hunting on the coast in the winter. But I'm here for the wood storks, and they are present in plenty. To my surprise, however, they are accompanied by a color guard of roseate spoonbills. The spoonbills' pink is almost shocking compared to the wood storks' black and white.

The next morning I head for the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge under skies black with both night and rain. Drops pound my windshield as I pull into the visitor center parking lot at 6:45 a.m. The rain slackens in a few minutes, and soon there's enough light for photographs, so I head out on the 16-mile driving loop.

What follows is one of the most magical mornings I have ever experienced. The ending of the rain apparently sparked animals to move about and feed, and everywhere I look I see another animal. In less than an hour and a half I see, by actual count, 68 white-tailed deer (13 of them bucks), one cottontail rabbit, three javelinas, six feral hogs and a turkey hen with four poults. The trip confirms the value of prescribed burns for enhancing wildlife habitat, for fully two-thirds of the deer are on recently burned land.

A rainbow is a welcome bonus, as are the alligators I find when I hike the Rail Trail. A slough runs alongside the trail, and after a couple of double takes, I realize that what looks like a log isn't always one. Sometimes it's an alligator pretending to be a log, waiting for breakfast. I spot four in a 50-yard stretch of the slough, all showing just eyes and snout or part of a tail through the blanket of duckweed covering the water.

But the best is yet to come. I am totally unprepared for what greets me in the parking lot of the visitor center - a young tom turkey, or jake, that seems to have appointed himself official greeter and vehicle inspector for the refuge. I spot him as I pull into a parking space, and I quickly reach for my camera to snap a picture before he flees. I don't have to worry. He dogs my tracks, pecks at the bumper sticker on my truck, poses for my camera, and at one point appears almost ready to jump into my truck. He's still there when I come out of the visitor center.

The visitor center offers explanations of each of the kinds of habitat on the refuge, and mounted animals are integrated with painted backgrounds to show what lives where. It's a good way to start your tour if you aren't familiar with the kinds of animals you'll be seeing. Another good reason to start with the visitor center is that they have loaner binoculars available. Also, if you plan to fish the shoreline, you'll need to talk to a park ranger, who will show you where fishing is allowed. All fishing is done by wading only; no boats are allowed.

I've learned there is a secret to successful fishing on the Texas coast: Hire a guide. You'll pay $250 or so for a day on the water, but guides provide three things essential to catching fish: bait, boat and beaucoup places to fish. Without a guide, you'll run right past the best fishing places; with a guide, you'll prospect a series of probable places until one works. Numerous guides work out of Port O'Connor, Port Lavaca and Seadrift, the three principal towns in the area. (If you're a diehard do-it-yourselfer, pick up a copy of the Calhoun County Guide to Good Fishing from the Port Lavaca Chamber of Commerce, or take the Texas Parks and Wildlife ferry from Port O'Connor out to Matagorda Island State Park. During the trip you can get fishing tips from the crew.)

The downside to fishing with a guide is the hours they keep. Most prefer to be fishing when the sky first begins to lighten, requiring you to be on the water by 5:30 a.m. during summer months. But the sight of a speckled trout blowing up on a topwater lure, or the singing of a reel as a redfish strips line, makes the early hour worthwhile. I fish out of Seadrift with Captain T.J. Christensen of Bay Flats Lodge, and we are into trout before the sun comes up. A shower drenches us to the skin, but fishing with water running down your back while you are battling a fish is a refreshing experience. When a 20-inch trout smacks the croaker on my hook and then makes a break for the Conti Lake shoreline, I forget all about being wet.

Already soaked, we slip over the side and wade in water up to mid-thigh. Wade fishing is like swimming without all the work and with the added fun of being able to catch fish. Mullet are going crazy in the water all around us, and T.J. comments that the fish are feeding. Our catch in the next half-hour proves it, as we pull in not only trout but also a flounder, some hardhead and gafftopsail catfish, and a 27-inch redfish.

The redfish itself is a minor miracle. During the so-called Redfish Wars of the 1970s, Seadrift was the epicenter of resistance by commercial fishers to efforts to end commercial harvest of red drum. Today the redfish are back in numbers and sizes undreamed of prior to passage of the law, and Seadrift welcomes recreational fishers while still supporting shrimp and oyster boats. Murals on buildings around town portray various facets of community history from happier times. I exit Barkett's Restaurant - where I've just discovered fried softshell crabs - in time to see the latest mural going up on the wall of the Bay Motel across the street. Owners Gaye and Ken Corwin answer my query as to whether I can take pictures with, "Sure, if you'll help put it up." Minutes later, artist Betty Moone appears to point out little secret touches in the mural: Gaye's name on one of the boats, the motel's phone number as the boat number on another. By the time you see it, Betty promises to have fixed one detail she overlooked: white rubber boots on the deckhand of the shrimp boat.

From Seadrift to Indianola, this whole peninsula, hemmed by San Antonio, Esp'ritu Santo, Matagorda and Lavaca bays, is full of little secret places waiting to be discovered and savored. The Port O'Connor Chamber of Commerce calls the area "the natural place to be." That's more truth than hype.

For More Information

Port Lavaca/Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce
P.O. Box 528, Port Lavaca, TX 77979; (800) 556-7678; www.calhountx.org
Coastal Bend Guides Association
www.cbga.org
Bay Flats Waterfowl and Fishing Guide Service,
(888) 677-4868; www.bayflatswaterfowl.com

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