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Galveston Island State Park Family Adventure

Even In Summertime Heat, Panfishing The Surf And Scouting For Shorebirds Is Downright Cool.

By Larry Bozka

High school boys have many priorities, most of them beyond the grasp of clueless parents.

“Being cool” ranks No. 1.

From music to hairstyles to the way one’s pants fit, coolness has evolved. Fast cars and girlfriends, however, remain critically important.

I had neither in the summer of 1971.

My older brother Bill was another story. He could grow sideburns overnight. He had a girlfriend, and his lime green ’62 Impala ran a pretty decent quarter-mile.

I was skinny as a cattail and still too young to drive. I wore glasses that, held at just the right angle to the sun, were thick enough to start a campfire.

Bill and I nonetheless shared a mutual passion for outdoor sports. We still do. Our father gave us that gift.

Things were different then. A child could take antlers to class the Monday after opening weekend of deer season and not be ostracized. A sawed-off rack with six points or more evoked considerable envy. Big-fish photos occasionally even made the yearbook.

At Pearland High, strange as it seems now, successful outdoorsmen were cool. Not stone-cold cool like star quarterbacks and wide receivers, but cool all the same. I picked up on this very early in my education. The Cold War was ablaze. Fifties-era black-and-white films explaining how to “duck and cover” under classroom desks were still being shown to fearful first-graders.

Catch was, these films never addressed how we were to live in the event the desk trick worked and we miraculously survived the mushroom cloud. I therefore assured my classmates that avid and knowledgeable outdoorsmen like me would heroically save us all.

First, we’d go to the beach and catch loads of fish (never mind the radiation; this was grade school, OK?). The fillets would be salted, smoked and dried for future consumption. Then we’d head for the woods, where we would forevermore “live off the land.”

I had infinite faith in the bountiful nature of the Galveston Island surf. It was based on experience.

Since Bill and I tended to invite too many friends to fit in our leaky, 16-foot Lone Star aluminum, Dad often opted to take us surf fishing. To others, the beach was a place to swim, sunbathe and build sand castles. To us it was, and remains, a place to fish.

When West Galveston Beach was announced as the site of our freshman class Memorial Day field trip, I was jubilant. The other students boarded Bus Three in the pre-dawn haze, toting multi-colored beach balls, huge cotton towels and various plastic implements known only to veteran sand castle architects.

One guy carted a 6-foot surfboard to the back of the bus. His name escapes me, but I recall with the razor clarity of self-concious adolescent memory how he razzed me about my sizable collection of fishing gear — an old Ambassadeur 5000, orange-topped popping corks, pre-rigged hooks and leaders, a foam ice chest, a bait bucket on a dime store stringer and a pound of frozen shrimp.

I almost left the hardware at home. At the last minute I tossed in a couple of half-ounce Johnson Sprite spoons, a red-and-white MirrOlure 52M and a pink Queen Bingo plug. The lures, I figured, would at least look cool.

The surfer disagreed.

We made it onto the beach without getting stuck. Everyone bailed out and commenced to be cool. I, meanwhile, shuffled out to the first sand bar, extracted a thawed-out shrimp from my shirt pocket and lobbed it just beyond the first sand bar.

The strike was immediate.

The red fiberglass rod, an inexpensive Garcia 7-footer, doubled over. A pound-and-a-half whiting went onto the stringer. In less than an hour it had been joined by at least a dozen other silver-sided “shoemakers” of roughly the same size.

Shocked that there were actually fish out there, onlookers began to gather. But it was the shark that really got their attention.

The agitated blacktip was all of 4 feet long. No matter. For all the commotion it caused it might as well have been a 14-foot hammerhead. Line melted from the little baitcasting reel. Ten minutes of steady pressure and a cruising, gray fin finally appeared.

“Hey, y’all!” someone hollered. “He’s got a shark! A huge shark!”

“A what?” yelled a girl far down the beach.

“A shark!”

“Man, that’s cool!”

The girl disagreed.

I let the tired-out blacktip wallow around long enough for the others to get a good look, pulled my fillet knife from its plastic sheath and cut the leader. The fish eased off into gentle swells that had suddenly become devoid of careless frolickers. I then initiated what I now recognize as my first bona fide “instructional fishing clinic.”

Shortly after the Great Shark Landing, and through sheer luck, I caught a 19-inch speckled trout. Upon announcing its Latin name — Cynoscion nebulosus — I gained the immediate respect of my biology teacher. Even so, halfway through my impromptu dissertation, a wide-eyed lady chaperone insisted that I quit fishing for fear that I might summon from the sea a half-ton tiger shark, great white or other equally ferocious man-eating beast.

I reluctantly gave my remaining shrimp to the gulls and put my gear back on the bus. A wet, sand-coated surfboard was stashed beneath the rear left seat. I got out, found a misplaced toy shovel and ambled down the beach to assist some friends in the much less reckless pursuit of sand castle construction.

Still, my hopes had been wildly exceeded. I’d caught a hefty stringer of fish. I’d seriously freaked out a teacher’s aide and, better yet, had been sternly reprimanded for brazenly endangering the lives of the entire freshman class with a death-defying feat straight out of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.”

Now that was cool.

I still love to teach people how to fish, especially in the surf, where bites are all but assured and no boat is required. And I still return to that same spot, now the site of one of the Texas Coast’s most popular state parks. Around four years after our field trip, in 1975, the same stretch of sand officially opened as Galveston Island State Park.

I’ve gone back with friends countless times since.

Few people realize what a fascinating and diverse chain of life exists and thrives in the shallow waters of the Texas beachfront. In late summer and fall we patrol the breakers in search of big “bull” redfish (a misnomer; they are actually egg-laden females). Caught on wide-gapped circle hooks and released after gut-busting brawls, 30-pound-class red drum are unforgettable trophies.

Ten-foot rods, squidding reels, wire-pronged weights and long, stout shock leaders are the stuff of serious surf fishing. Surfcasting is a tradition, but a physically demanding one. Just as often, we head to Galveston Island State Park and adjacent waters with simple-to-use spincasting rigs in the hands of eager-to-learn youngsters.

My lifelong friend Tom LaCognata of Bacliff is a single father who has his hands full raising a young son and daughter. Last summer we baptized Jennifer, 12, and Jason, 15, in the park’s shallow suds.

We steadfastly adhered to the primary rules of teaching children about fishing.

  1. Keep it interesting.
  2. Keep it comfortable.

Thanks to the dazzling smorgasbord of species, Jennifer and Jason never got bored. Comfortwise, after a breezy island night of playing in the pool at the historic Hotel Galvez, LaCognata’s youngsters were literally up and running long before dawn.

“You can tell it isn’t a school day,” he said with a grin.

The brother-and-sister fishing team scurried about the room, Jennifer admonishing Jason not to forget the sunscreen, while she loaded the cooler with bottled water.

Strikes were steady on fresh-dead shrimp. As always, the species of the attacker remained a constant source of wonderment. What is so special about saltwater fishing with natural baits, and particularly family-oriented angling of this nature, is that fish remain mysteries until landed.

Galveston Island State Park spans a little more than 2,000 acres. Distinctive concrete arches shade sturdy picnic tables and nearby barbecue grills. Laughing gulls roost on the rooftops. Screened shelters, campsites with water and electricity, RV hookups, restrooms with showers, a pavilion and more make this urban venue as comfortable as possible for anglers and nature lovers who thrive on sand and surf.

Come fall, we pitch tents with the best of them. But if that’s not for you, the Galveston Seawall is home to numerous hotels, some spartan, some spectacular. Either way, they are all air-conditioned. They’re also within walking distance of the surf and easy driving distance of the park. An air-conditioned travel trailer or RV is a must for all but the hardiest of summertime beach campers.

Some four miles of multi-use trails are available for hiking and mountain bike riding, along with a 2.5-mile nature/interpretive trail that’s likely to afford glimpses of creatures as diverse as raccoons, coyotes and marsh rabbits, as well as a rainbow of shorebirds, including herons, sandpipers, plovers, roseate spoonbills and the ever-present gulls and terns. Bird blinds and an observation tower are available, and the Mary Moody Northen Amphitheater hosts special events.

Sand dunes, blanketed with resilient and sometimes colorful vegetation, hold the line against erosion. Dunes are essential to the survival of coastal beachfronts. Tropical Storm Frances virtually destroyed Galveston Island State Park’s protective dune barrier in September 1998. Since then, an innovative, volunteer-driven project utilizing disposed-of Christmas trees has restored the small but critically important wind-built mounds to their former prominence.

Today, volunteer projects ranging from the expansion of trails to guided tours attract the assistance of individuals who recognize the inestimable value of family-friendly facilities like Galveston Island State Park.

A recent $2.6 million undertaking — the largest wetland restoration project ever attempted in a Texas state park — resulted in the awarding of a Coastal America Partnership Award to the park’s volunteer personnel in 2002. Begun in May 1999 and completed in April 2000, the innovative operation birthed the first new growth of Galveston Bay seagrass since 1972. More than 100 acres of bay bottom continue to flourish and expand, benefiting everything from nesting resident birds to migratory waterfowl to spawning shrimp and finfish.

To get there: From Houston, take I-45 south into Galveston and exit right onto 61st Street. Stay on 61st Street to the Galveston Seawall; then turn right on Seawall (FM 3005). The park entrance is located approximately 10 miles to the west on the left-hand (beachfront) side.

For complete information on this and other state parks, visit www.tpwd.state.tx.us and click on the Parks button at the top of the page. To make reservations by phone, call (512) 389-8900.

A Park for Everyone

The possibilities are impressive, even to a preoccupied youngster with a typically short attention span. The “big three” glory species — speckled trout, redfish and flounder — occasionally intervene. More often, it’s prolific and tasty panfish like sand trout, Gulf trout, croaker, sheepshead and small black “puppy” drum. Whiting, properly known as “Gulf kingfish,” are especially appealing in that they’re available year-round. They’re also excellent when fried fresh.

Rocket-fast Spanish mackerel are abundant from Memorial Day through Labor Day when winds are light from the southeast. As a special treat, delectable and hard-fighting pompano sometimes ride the same clear-water tides favored by mackerel and trout.

Poor table qualities aside, ladyfish are tremendous sport fish, too. The airborne antics of even a 2-pound-class “toy tarpon” are classic.

Though too red-meated for most cooks, jack crevalle are also phenomenal fighters. Jacks don’t jump; they just go. And go, and go and go. The typical 10-pound jackfish can — and often does — strip a fully spooled reel clean of line while overheating the drag with a single, intimidating run.

In the saltwater fishing family, hardhead catfish are the most despised relatives. Their meat is oatmeal-soft. Far worse, their spike-like barbed fins are toxic enough to cause agonizing pain and nausea. Don’t let youngsters mess with hardhead catfish; the removal of Arius felis is best done by an adult with pliers or hook disgorgers.

Jennifer and Jason still talk about that trip. They remember the small but strong sand sharks in particular — how smooth the fish’s leathery skin was when stroked with the grain, how coarse it was when rubbed forward. Jennifer adored the spadefish; they looked, she said, “like something from an aquarium.”

Access is the key word for family fishing fun, and Galveston Island State Park offers it in abundance. But although millions of Texans live within a two-hour drive of this extraordinary place, where priceless memories can be forged without exorbitant price tags, only a relative few have taken the time to discover it.

Some will love the fishing. Some will stroll the trails and watch skimmers zoom low above flooded marsh grasses while roseate spoonbills lazily wade and sift out meals with gentle, back-and-forth sweeps of their feathery heads. Some will wait for the evening serenades of coyotes roaming the dunes. Others will spend the night, rise early and watch the morning sun climb the Gulf horizon far, far offshore.

High school seniors or senior citizens, they’ll all go home and tell their friends about one very cool place.

Tackle, Accessories and Rigging for Successful Beachfront Panfishing

Beachfront fishing tackle needn’t be expensive. Spinning gear is best for novices, as it is easy to cast and does not backlash like baitcasting gear. Spinning reels, either open-faced “coffee cans” or push-button “spincasters,” are also very easy to “break down” and clean after use. (Upon returning home, wash reels thoroughly with fresh water and wipe the housings clean inside and out with a soft cloth. Then, before reassembly, spray liberally with CorrosionX or another quality rust-preventive lubricant. Add ReelX or Quantum Hot Sauce reel grease and reel oil to appropriate areas — bearings, handles and anti-reverse systems.)

Hammered-in five-foot-lengths of PVC pipe make invaluable holders for keeping rods and reels organized and clear of tackle-eating sand and salt (be forewarned; take along a heavy plastic mallet or you’ll be hunting hard for a stout stick to use as a “pipe driver.”)

Lower the rod handles in the pipes and occasionally rinse the reels and rod guides with fresh water. Always secure stand-by hooks in the wire retainers located at the bases of most fishing rod blanks. Safely stashed hooks and leaders cannot snap freely in the beachfront breeze like bullwhips with barbs.

At any time of year, SPF-30 sunscreen is smart insurance. Ditto for effective insect repellent and quality polarized sunglasses for “reading the water” while minimizing eye-damaging glare.

Rigging-wise, 12-pound-test monofilament main line is standard, as is 15- to 20-pound-test leader material. Use a “fish-finder” rig: Thread an egg sinker weighing 1⁄4-ounce or less on the main line above a small black barrel swivel. Tie a foot or so of leader to the swivel bottom; then attach a narrow-gapped, long-shank hook. The narrow gap of the hook makes small-mouthed panfish much easier to hook. The long shank makes them much easier to unhook and, subsequently, to release unharmed. Though most anglers bottom-fish, a fish-finder rig can be easily fitted with a popping cork if a float is desired.

Hook disgorgers always help. For sharp-toothed denizens like sharks, bluefish, mackerel and ribbonfish, a hook cut at the leader knot on the eye of the shank will rust away quickly (a solid case for non-stainless hooks), protecting both the fish and the fisher from possible injury,

A youngster can learn a lot when fishing at a place like Galveston Island State Park, not the least of which is the concept and purpose of conservation. The surf usually yields enough fish to take home and eat, and even more to catch and release.

The bottom line is: Of all the equipment needed for taking the family fishing, a camera loaded with a full roll of film is the most important. In this promising time of conservation awareness and tightened regulations, CPR — Catch, Photograph and Release — cannot be taught too early.

Plus, you’ll get some cool pictures to take back to school.

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