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Cast & Blast at Matagorda Island

There’s no better way to spend a day than duck hunting and stalking redfish on the Central Coast.

Text and photography by Larry Bozka

“An ideal duck day is one with a cold north wind, low cloud, and maybe a fine drizzle. What we usually get is clear, warm weather when a man ought to be fishing instead of shooting. And we have been known to take our tackle along on some of our trips for redheads and come back with more trout than ducks.

— Excerpted from Hunting and Fishing in Texas by Hart Stillwell, First Edition © 1946, Alfred A. Knopf: New York.

Stillwell would have loved a day like today. We’ve already seen small herds of redfish rustling through the shallows surrounding the decoys, and we’ll get to them just as soon as the duck hunting slows down.

No one is in a particular hurry for that to happen.

We spotted the birds just a few seconds ago. They’re riding high on a whimsical wind, the same whistling cold front that only a few days ago nudged them further south down the Central Flyway toward the grass-fringed refuge of Matagorda Island.

They look like giant bees. Densely bunched but in a random formation, the incoming birds approach at a blistering pace that belies their short tails and stocky build.

“Redheads,— Jeff Larson confirms.

For the first time this morning, we touch the shotgun safeties and feel the hard-rushing jolt of adrenaline that’s always the precursor to ducks landing among decoys.

“Looks like we might get a shot,— Larson whispers.

“About time, too,— Mark Hall answers. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think the pintails know their season is still closed.—

Maybe they do. The rocketing “sprigs— have been buzzing us all morning long. A few even landed in the decoys.

Beautiful as they were to watch, their appearances were also frustrating.

Now, finally, a wad of redheads is clearly intent on visiting our spread. They’re legal birds, and after an hour of hunkering low behind the leafy cover of our makeshift blind, we have yet to put a single duck on the strap.

The determined birds bear downward, synchronized and unwavering; they circle low, bank steeply into the wind, cock their scaly, white-gray legs and, with wide-spread wings, initiate a rapid, wobbling descent.

Three shots ring out; two ducks fall and smack the chilly saltwater. Hall’s 3-year-old yellow Lab, Pearl, bounds from the blind and homes in on the farthest bird with the occasional assist of her now-standing owner’s hand signals and whistles.

Moments later the excited dog triumphantly returns. In her soft, wet mouth is a fully plumed redhead drake that she eagerly plops into Hall’s waiting hands. She looks him in the face, as if to warn him, and then shakes her body from moist, pink nose to long, dripping tail. We’re showered with frigid droplets of saltwater. There’s a collective gasp and then a chorus of laughter.

Like an orchestra conductor, Hall extends his right hand and barks an abrupt command. Energized, Pearl lunges forth in search of duck number two.

No one’s willing to admit the miss. More importantly, no one really cares. Not only do we have more shooting to do; once the decoys are gathered, the gear is packed and Larson’s airboat is loaded, we’ll exchange still-warm shotguns for lightweight trout tackle. Then, casting quarter-ounce shadtails and bright gold spoons, we’ll scratch out a limit of keeper-class redfish before finally returning to camp.

Throw in a pint of oysters and a pound of fresh crab claws from a dockside stand, and tonight we’ll feast on hearty duck gumbo and fresh redfish before exhaustion finally sends us to the bunks.

It’s a fortunate coincidence that the same submerged carpet of shoalgrass, wigeon grass and turtle grass that magnetizes hungry flocks of redheads, pintails, teal and other ducks is also ideal habitat for foraging redfish and speckled trout. No place in Texas affords a more suitable example of double-duty “cast and blast— habitat than the remote maze of marshes and sloughs that meander through the inside shores of Matagorda Island outside of Port O’Connor and Seadrift.

The beach-to-bay panorama is an almost mystic paradox, two distinct worlds equally calming and corrosive. Across the narrow finger of this desolate barrier island, the Gulf of Mexico surf relentlessly chews away at a barren and sandy beach. The landscape is littered with the fragile, bleached-white wafers of sand dollars and a hodgepodge of ark clams, whelks and pen shells.

Early this morning, we set out the decoys and listened to waves tumble ashore as a small but vocal pack of coyotes far down the beach sang an off-key chorus to the rising November moon.

Meanwhile, on our side of the island, mosquitoes droned in our ears as we unzipped gun cases and, carefully stepping overboard, shined our flashlights into the oil-black mud of the tide-washed flat. Tiny snails, delicate marsh periwinkles with translucent amber shells, desperately clung to waving blades of spartina. The water looked like a thick, gelatinous skin, pocked now and then by tail-snapping grass shrimp and side-swimming juvenile blue crabs.

I stood for a moment in knee-deep water, flashlight turned off and eyes closed. It sounded as if the marsh were one vast, conjoined organism, the surf its steadily pounding heartbeat and the wind its gentle sigh.

“Can you hear something rusting?— Larson asked with a chuckle.

He was only half joking.

Every moment, the salt gnaws through another layer of metal or wire. This is no place for dad’s heirloom over-and-under if you intend to pass it on in decent shape to the next generation. To hunt and fish Matagorda Island, you either have access to a boat or you hire a guide. Outfitters like Larson commonly use specially rigged airboats to transport parties from dock to blind to flats and back.

Waves kicked up by cold fronts hammer the boat hull and rudely rattle everything inside. Gear must be constantly maintained, lest the salt-impregnated environment take it away like one of the sunken shrimp-boat wrecks that litter the beachfront below Pass Cavallo.

Nevertheless, it’s a price that Jeff Larson is happy to pay. A 36-year-old accident investigator for the Houston Police Department, Larson has been casting and blasting Espiritu Santo and San Antonio Bays since the late 1980s.

“Port O’Connor used to be called —The Best Kept Secret on the Gulf Coast,’— he says. “It’s not that way now, but it’s still plenty secluded. There is some great fall fishing over the bay’s reefs and in the channels and Intracoastal Waterway. Popular spots like Contee Lake, Pringle Lake and the Army Hole can get crowded on weekends, but if you spend some time scouting, you can almost always find decent schools of redfish and trout. As coastal duck hunting goes, for pintails and redheads, I’d rank this area as the best in the state.—

The numbers jibe with the guide’s offhand assessment. Between 80 and 90 percent of North America’s redhead ducks — roughly a half-million birds — winter on the lower half of the Texas coast.

Numbers of redheads, and particularly pintails, have declined in recent years. Some attribute the trend to decreases in the shoalgrass upon which the birds feed, others to the increase in boat traffic that comes with the growing popularity of coastal waterfowling. Well over half of the state’s duck hunters regularly frequent coastal marshes.

Still, the typical cast-and-blast outing affords an exciting, and occasionally phenomenal, shooting experience. Aside from the bread-and-butter fare of pintails and redheads, waterfowlers also enjoy a mixed bag of wigeon, scaup, gadwall, buffleheads, mottled ducks and teal.

In accordance with population trends and assessments, waterfowl season dates and bag limits can vary substantially from year to year (for current dates and regulations, consult the 2004-2005 Texas Waterfowl Digest, published and distributed free of charge by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department).

“There are probably 20 miles of marsh from Pass Cavallo to Panther Point,— Larson says. “About the time the duck hunting slows, the water has usually warmed up enough that you can find quality concentrations of fish in some surprisingly shallow areas. The trick,— he explains, “is to look for pods of baitfish. Where you see mullet breaking the surface, you can bet the redfish and trout are somewhere nearby.—

According to Larson, the Intracoastal Waterway and adjacent flats comprise some of the most overlooked fishing in the area.

“I especially like Welder Flats, between Seadrift and Port O’Connor,— he says. “There is a network of marsh interspersed all the way through there. High tides push the fish into the marsh; lower tides tend to concentrate them, and really cold temperatures push them toward the deeper waters of the Intracoastal and the Army Hole. Whether it’s incoming or outgoing, a moving tide always tends to improve the fishing action.

“Watch the horizon closely,— Larson continues. “And I don’t mean for ducks. It’s not uncommon to run into —working’ birds, roaming groups of seagulls that you’ll see diving into the water to pick up shrimp and shad pushed to the top by feeding speckled trout. The warmer the weather,— he says, “the more likely the bird action is to last. This past winter was a mild one, and we enjoyed fishing under the birds well into December.—

Winter’s cooler waters tend to be noticeably clearer. Coastal Bend bays are, as such, excellent sight-casting locales when duck season is underway.

It’s a classic picture, the kind of scene that’s inspired countless pieces of coastal sporting art. A fisherman poised on the high-swept bow of a boat to the north of us looks every bit the part, his long-billed cap shadowing his face and masking his features. I suspect, from his elevated vantage point several hundred yards away, I look more like a flats-walking heron than a fisherman.

I’ve waded perhaps a quarter-mile from the boat. Larson and Hall are somewhere on the other side of the shoreline point, and for the moment I am alone, with the exception of the large, dark shadow looming on the fringe of a nearby pothole.

Like me, the 26-inch redfish is a predator. My amber-lensed polarized sunglasses clearly define his profile, and I feel the same anticipation that preceded the redheads’ arrival just a few hours ago.

A quarter-ounce spoon hangs loosely from the end of the 7-foot graphite rod, gold-plated metal gleaming bright in the mid-morning sun. A quick cast fires a soaring arc through the salt-tinged breeze and the spoon splashes down with a gentle plop perhaps a yard in front of the still-lurking red.

As fast as a snake striking a mouse, the fish nails the lure hard. The water erupts in a white, frothy boil. The 10-pound test monofilament stretches tight, the little baitcasting reel surrenders line and it suddenly occurs to me, once again, that stalking the flats like this is every bit as much hunting as it is fishing.

A gusting wind propels broken blades of grass across the rippled bay surface. The shriveled, hay-like strands foul the hooks and require constant clearing, but it’s worth the effort.

Another hour of cat-and-mouse casting yields two more redfish and an undersized trout that I carefully release before I rejoin my companions. Persistence and patience pay off.

The same can be said for duck hunting. It’s not unusual for late-morning shooting to outshine the sunrise scenario. In some cases, the birds simply wait that long to move and feed; in others, they are spooked to flight by passing boat traffic.

Either way, hunters who wait tend to be rewarded.

Homework is essential. Novices should thoroughly study maps and explore the terrain in advance of season. Strong cold fronts push water out of the bays and virtually drain the shallows, greatly exaggerating low tide phases. As a result, an intimate knowledge of the area’s deeper channels is essential for safe navigation.

“Even as productive as this place can be, for consistently successful hunting and fishing, you have to do a good bit of scouting,— Larson says. “Every year is different, depending on weather and freshwater inflow. June’s heavy rains changed the landscape in 2004, especially in terms of the grasses. So, if you’re really serious, you need to get out there early and check it out.

“If nothing else,— he adds with a grin, “you’ll have a great excuse to do some fishing. After all, you’ll already be there.—

Watching seagulls dive-bomb a nearby cove, while just beyond the wheeling flock of shorebirds, a long and winding raft of redhead ducks sails close to the edge of the hazy bay horizon, I find it extremely difficult to argue with his logic.

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