The tiny village of Port Mansfield is paradise for anglers seeking solitude and spectacular sight casting.
By Larry Bozka
Four days. For four long, insufferable days in August of last year, the wind outside the condo bordering Port Mansfield's secluded harbor blasted sand through the front door, rocked boats in their moorings and howled like a rabid alley cat frantically trying to claw its way through a rusty tin roof.
Another few miles an hour, we joked, and the National Weather Service would have to give it a name. I already had a few monikers in mind, none of them printable.
Wind is no stranger to the tiny, remote South Texas village of Port Mansfield. Gusts to 20 knots are as commonplace as the squabbling flocks of brown pelicans that every evening hold court atop the nearby dock pilings and channel markers.
Day after day, the locals catch fish, anyway. While Galveston Bay anglers sit in coffee shops off I-45 sharing wistful tales of what might have been had the wind not blown so hard, Mansfield fishers are out on protected and grass-filtered flats casting soft plastic jerkbaits, weedless quarter-ounce spoons and even the occasional sinking fly to the dark, swimming shadows of speckled trout and gently wagging tails of bottom-rooting redfish.
Then again, maybe my previous Port Mansfield expedition had been a cruelly calculated set-up. It was too good, slowly stalking the meandering calf-deep shoreline near Gladys' Hole, knowing that the fish were bound to be there somewhere. One trio of tailing reds appeared, then another, and I started shaking like an anxious 15-year old kid on the way to pick up his first date. Call it, if you will, the flats fisher's equivalent of "buck fever." Whatever the term, it brutally jangles your nerves while simultaneously sharpening your senses.
The chartreuse Clouser Minnow fly landed just over a yard in front of their blunt, rounded noses. Seemingly synchronized, the predatory flats fish raced to the lure. A hard pull on the line, the hook was set and the eight-weight Austin fly rod bowed deeply under pressure. Twenty-four inches of copper-colored bad attitude angrily rocketed fluorescent yellow fly line through air-clear water no deeper than my stingray boots.
The Port Mansfield paradise heals the soul of a dedicated saltwater sight-caster. It's utterly strange how a fish one has caught so many times in so many different scenarios suddenly can seem so unbelievably different. Part of it was the fly rod, the other part the terrain. But that particular late-summer morning, that particular redfish and the unforgettable way it was encountered, caught and released were anything but typical for a fanatical wade fisherman who grew up probing the deep and oft-crowded waters of the Galveston Bay system.
Carefully "palming" the reel to wear down the runaway red, I swore that moment that I would return as soon as possible.
So I did. This, however, was not wind, but a full-blown gale. And despite the most optimistic of hopes, it stubbornly refused to lessen.
Feeling more than a bit sorry for myself, I ambled over to The Outpost late one evening to commiserate with other folks who might perhaps understand the inconsolable frustration of a blown-out flats fisherman. About 15 other anglers and tourists were there already, excitedly awaiting the arrival of the popular convenience store's most celebrated visitors.
"They'll be here any minute now," an elderly man told his wife.
"I know that, Harold," she answered, fidgeting with the settings on her video camera. "You think I just moved here?"
Harold looked at me and shrugged.
Sure enough, "they" showed up a few minutes later. Their deep ebony eyes reflected the sparkling glint of a brilliant orange sun as, one after another, an ambling parade of white-tailed deer nonchalantly trotted across the two-lane highway. They cut a tight circle behind the store, stopped for a second or two and, as always, sensing no danger, moved in to feed.
For years, these deer and their ancestors have been coming to enjoy dinner at The Outpost. Any thoughts of fishing-related frustration vaporized when, like wild and silent ghosts, the evenly mixed herd of bucks and does stopped to eat less than 20 yards away.
There easily were two dozen of them. Almost half were middle-aged bucks in the 4-year-old range. Their striking 10-point racks, heavily magnified by dense gray coats of nutrient-carrying velvet, etched sharp silhouettes in the rapidly setting sun.
Elsewhere about town, deer young and old converged on their customary evening haunts. At least a quarter of Port Mansfield's 600-plus permanent residents had settled into plastic lawn chairs and quietly creaking porch swings to relish the ritual. Long-bearded Rio Grande turkeys, many of them mature old gobblers with flaming red heads and wattles the size of buckshot, joined the hungry whitetails beneath the tall aluminum tripods of long-standing backyard corn feeders.
Back at The Outpost, a local fisherman noticed the camera body and telephoto lens strapped around my sunburned neck.
"You down here to write a story?" he asked.
"Great place to fish," he answered. "I moved down here in '89, right after I retired, and I ain't left since. Don't plan to, either.
"But," he cautioned, wagging a long and leathery index finger, "don't make too big a deal of it, okay? There's enough people knowing about this place as it is. It ain't like the old days; it's starting to get crowded out there."
I wasn't about to argue with him. What he doesn't realize, though, and what I didn't tell him, is that saltwater anglers on the upper Texas Coast usually see more fishers at the boat ramp on a single morning than a Mansfield flats caster encounters in a week. From Sabine Pass to South Padre Island, with the exception of the occasional stopover tournament, Port Mansfield's inshore angling is as private as it gets.
My finger-wagging friend likely would disagree. And admittedly, all things are relative. Compared to a decade ago, Port Mansfield now is a bustling port of call. Nonetheless, to this day it still stands in a remarkably quiet class of its own.
Charles R. Johnson, a local journalist, politician and entrepreneur who - believe it or not - actually fished these waters from horseback in the 1920s, once predicted that Port Mansfield someday would evolve into "a great coastal city" with a thriving industrial complex. Johnson and others did much to develop Port Mansfield, back then known simply as "Red Fish Landing." He was instrumental in establishing the Willacy County Navigation District, the governmental entity that to this day regulates the leasing and usage of Port Mansfield real estate.
Perhaps most noteworthy of all, Johnson didn't rest until the completion of an 18-foot-wide concrete road that linked Port Mansfield with the "big-city" town of Raymondville some 27 miles to the west. Highway 186, though vastly improved, remains the sole connecting vein between U.S. 77 and Port Mansfield.
Johnson's thriving port never blossomed. For that, we should all be immensely grateful. The more things have changed, the more they've remained the same. Where the highway ends, the fishing begins.
The Lower Laguna Madre is so consistently thin that innovative boaters of yesteryear eventually designed highly specialized craft to conquer the unforgiving shallows. Though now common to other Texas flats fishing locales, tunnel-hulled "scooters" hold historic roots in the sprawling, hypersaline waters outside Port Mansfield's harbor.
It was here that South Texas angling legend Capt. Bob Fuston developed the noisemaking "Mansfield Mauler" clicker cork in the early 1980s. Fuston designed the bright orange float with a stiff wire core to enhance both the action and sound of soft plastic shrimptails and shadtails. Today, generically known as "The Mauler," Fuston's novel angling accessory is regularly used by fishermen coast-wide.
A retired engineer who could live and fish anywhere he likes, Fuston and his wife Fran still call Port Mansfield home. "I reckon we'll be here 'til we die," he says, still sporting a thick, salt-and-pepper beard and his trademark red bandana over a banana republic tan. "Seeing as how fishing is my life, there's no reason to go anywhere else."
Local entrepreneur Bruce Shuler and his wife, Shirley, enthusiastically concur with Fuston. Owners of Get-A-Way Adventures, the area's newest fishing lodge, the Shulers realized several years ago that Port Mansfield is arguably the sole remaining "sleepy little fishing village" on the Texas Coast.
Bruce, a Houston-area construction contractor, says the need for a full-service fishing lodge in such a remote and resource-rich area was glaringly apparent. "The demand was definitely here," he recalls. "Not only for flats fishing, but for birdwatching and even offshore fishing as well. You have to remember, this isn't anything like the upper coast. Break out of the Mansfield jetties and you'll be in blue water no more than 20 miles out."
Redfish or red snapper, speckled trout or strutting turkeys, white marlin or white-tailed deer, there is no better locale in Texas from which to pursue, photograph or simply view such a remarkably broad spectrum of wildlife species.
"There are probably four deer for every full-time resident of Port Mansfield," Shuler says with a good-natured laugh. "The crowds love them. As for Shirley and me, we love 'em, too. But," he adds, "we have to keep the fence around the lodge in good shape or we'll lose our landscaping work overnight."
Its ageless ambience aside, Port Mansfield is gradually joining the modern world. Satellite dishes protrude from the roofs of everything from travel trailers to elaborate waterfront estates. Residents have access to DSL computer hookups. Rental condos are plentiful, and more are in the works.
Yet it's highly unlikely that this colorful coastal community will ever lose its inherent wildness. That untamed essence has always been, and always will be, the core element of the community that keeps visitors coming back time and time again.
Sure, even Port Mansfield can get "blown out" now and then. But if the price of fruitless fishing efforts is watching a mind-boggling array of wildlife stroll about carelessly on powder-white sand that's perpetually kissed by what may be the cleanest and clearest saltwater in Texas, then so be it.
Just be sure not to tell anyone else.
For more information on fishing the Texas coast, visit Larry Bozka's Web site coastalanglers.com
For a village its size, Port Mansfield offers plentiful fishing guides and accommodations. For complete information, contact the Port Mansfield Chamber of Commerce at (956) 944-2354. Send mail to:Tricia Buchen, Port Mansfield Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 75, Port Mansfield, TX 78598
- John Alvarez, J&J Guide Service: (956) 944-2639
- J.W. Bremer, Capt. John's: (956) 944-2766
- Charlie Buchen, Tailchaser Charters: (956) 944-2434
- Will Bullock, Laguna Charter Service: (956) 944-2552
- Dan Coley (Arroyo City), Dan Coley Charters: (956) 748-3255
- H.T. Daye, Lucky's Charters: (956) 944-2203
- Roy Lee Evans, Blue Cyclone Charters: (956) 944-2633
- Jack Ficklen, No Problem Charters: (956) 944-2369
- Bob Fuston, Red Bandana Charters: (956) 944-2519
- Rene Hinojosa, Jr., Shallow Charters: (956) 689-3531
- George Hull, Butch's Charter Service: (956) 944-2327
- Get-A-Way Adventures Lodge (Bruce Shuler and guide staff): (956) 944-4000
- Walt Kittleberger, Walt's Charters: (956) 944-2387
- Roger Kohutek, Rooster Charters: (956) 944-2150
- Adam Gomez Lively, Laguna Flats Guide Service: (956) 423-5094
- Ken Griffith, Lil Spoon Guide Service: (956) 944-2106
- Troy Monjaras, Performance Charters: (956) 944-2879
- Terry Neal, Terry Neal Charters: (956) 944-2559
- Ken Nolte, Seawatch Charters (offshore): (956) 944-2800
- Steve Oeller, Steve's Guide Service: (956) 944-2575
- B.J. Powell, B.J. Powell Charter Service: (956) 944-2624
- Ed Ragsdale, Ed's Guide Service: (956) 944-2653
- Ray Rankin, Triple R Guide Services: (956) 944-2584
- Frank Romano, Long Drift Charter Service: (830) 663-4653
- Milton Snell, Fish Finders: (956) 944-2277
- Wayne Stark, Wayne's Guide Service: (956) 944-2508
- Howard Steussy, Sunrise Charters: (956) 944-2339
- Marsh Steussy, S&S Guide Service: (956) 944-2816
- Riles Steussy, S&S Guide Service: (956) 944-2661
- Charlie Stewart, Flyfishing the Laguna Madre: (956) 944-2400
- Frank Vasquez, Capt. Frank's Charter Service: (956) 248-5981
- Kenneth Walker, Porky II Offshore Charters: (512) 388-2981
- Jeff Waugh, Big Foot Charters: (956) 944-2868
- J.D. Whitley, Whitley's Charters: (956) 944-2801
- Bayview RV Park: (956) 944-2313
- Casa De Pescadores (condos): (956) 944-2333
- Casa Grande Motel & RV Park: (956) 944-2182
- Cathy's Bayhouse Rentals (houses and condos): (956) 944-2575
- Fisherman's Inn (motel): (956) 944-2882
- Get-A-Way Adventures Lodge: (956) 944-4000
- R&R RV Park: (956) 944-2253
- Seaside Rentals: (956) 944-2635
- Sunchase Condos: (956) 944-2635
Some good fishing can be found at the Port Mansfield Liberty Ship Reef, located 15 nautical miles from Port Mansfield. Three World War II Liberty Ships have been placed on the bottom in 50 to 60 feet of water, along with eight sections of obsolete petroleum platforms.
To request a brochure about this site, and to learn more about Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's Artificial Reef Program, call (512) 389-4686.