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The Big Laguna

The long, shallow and pristine Laguna Madre serves as the lifeblood of the gulf.

By Joe Nick Patoski

Late one afternoon in February, close to a thousand people streamed into bars and restaurants by the backwater bay side of South Padre Island to engage in the popular ritual of sunset watching. A few blocks farther north, kiteboard instructor Phillip Money was online looking at the weather forecast, hoping for wind speeds in excess of 20 mph.

In nearby Port Isabel, several fishing guides washed off their boats and fishing tackle while listening to the TV weather, hoping for calm waters clear as glass, perfect for sightcasting. In Austin, photographer Bob Daemmrich telephoned his friend Arturo Amaya in Riviera to see if Arturo was still up for a boat ride out of Port Mansfield in search of redfish and speckled seatrout in the flats, even though a norther was supposed to be blowing in. Arturo, an old-school fisherman who believed fishing in the Laguna Madre of Texas never improved until the third day after a cold front, said he was ready to go.

In Corpus Christi, John S. Adams reserved a boat for the next morning before he left his campus office at the Conrad Blucher Institute for Surveying and Science at Texas A&M University - Corpus Christi; some water temperature gauges needed monitoring.

Other fishermen, boaters, sailors, windsurfers, kayakers, birders, jet skiers, hunters, sightseers and scientists were debating the weather forecasts, too, because they wanted to be on the laguna as well. It holds that kind of sway.

Texas being a land of superlatives, it should come as no surprise to learn so many would obsess over a long, skinny body of water 130 miles long and no more than 5 miles wide that runs behind Padre Island, the longest barrier island in the United States, and fronts the southern third of Texas' mainland — the Wild Horse Desert — across Nueces, Kenedy, Kleberg, Willacy and Cameron counties.

The most frequently invoked superlative: the Laguna Madre of Texas is one of only four hypersaline bays in the world. Combined with the Laguna Madre of Tamaulipas, which begins below the Rio Grande, it is the biggest hypersaline bay complex on earth.

That may not mean much to you or me, but it translates into the Laguna Madre being the most unspoiled bay system in Texas, with rich seagrass meadows harboring more finfish than anywhere else on the coast. It is literally the life force of the Gulf of Mexico.

Superlatives don't come to mind at first sighting, which is typically from a bridge at either end. From the north, most people heading to Bob Hall Pier, J.P. Luby Park, Packery Channel or the Padre Island National Seashore on the John F. Kennedy Causeway don't give the Upper Laguna Madre a second look because they're busy anticipating arriving on the island. The view of the laguna from atop the Queen Isabella Causeway (linking Port Isabel to the resort of South Padre Island at the southern end of the Lower Laguna Madre) is more expansive and informative, especially with a fly fisherman standing knee-deep in transparent pale turquoise water a mile from shore for perspective. With an average depth of 2.5 feet, the Laguna Madre is exceptionally shallow.

The shallow depth is a contributing factor to the laguna's hypersalinity, meaning it's saltier than the gulf, averaging 35 parts per thousand. That's not as salty as the Great Salt Lake of Utah, where you can't help but float on the surface, or the Dead Sea, which is so salty, it hurts the skin, but it's salty enough to make the Laguna Madre one of a kind, aided by a persistent hot and dry climate and the fact that no major river drains into the bay. Formed 4,500 years ago when the shoreline stabilized following the last Ice Age, the Laguna Madre relies on infrequent bursts of heavy rainfall, tropical storms and hurricanes to freshen its waters. Despite those harsh conditions (or because of them), the Laguna Madre contains 80 percent of all the seagrass in Texas bays and estuaries. The vast meadows of Halodule wrightii are a nursery for crabs, shrimp and significant populations of spotted seatrout, redfish (red drum) and black drum.

The fish and other sea life attract large numbers of shorebirds and wintering waterfowl (more than three-quarters of the population of redhead ducks in North America winter on the laguna, which is located within the Central Flyway for migratory birds), as well as significant numbers of endangered peregrine falcon and piping plover. Also found are several thousand hardcore fishermen, boaters and sailors, along with tugboats pushing barges loaded with refined sugar, benzene and caustic soda up and down the southern extension of the 125-foot wide, 12-foot deep Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, the least-traveled segment of the manmade channel.

Every now and then, the crowd is joined by a pair of wandering eyes like mine that prefer watching the Laguna Madre show as a quiet, passive observer. There is plenty to be dazzled by: distant golden dunes on Padre Island levitating above the water like a mirage, three great blue herons picking their breakfast out of the shallow grasses next to colonies of roseate spoonbills, curlews, cranes and egrets, a loose V squadron of brown pelicans gliding overhead riding the wind without bothering to flap their wings for added effect. When conditions are just right and the sky is cloudless and the bay placid, the horizon disappears and water and air merge into a single mass. If the condition persists long enough, you instinctively start scanning for a manmade object like a channel marker, a crab buoy or a cabin on a spoil island to get your bearings and affirm you are where you are. I have to admit, though, that in a world where there are too few precious places like this, being lost on the Laguna Madre is a good feeling.

The Laguna Madre is divided into two parts, the Upper and Lower, which were historically separated by a 21-mile-long mud bank called the Saltillo Flats. Most of the western shore on the mainland is cordgrass prairie distinguished by dunes, tall yucca, century plants, prickly pear and occasionally a low, wind-sculpted oak motte. The wide open spaces and the relatively pristine condition of the laguna testify to the stewardship of the King Ranch and other large landholders over the past century and a half, which has left most of the shore undeveloped and unspoiled.

Mankind's fingerprints are found throughout the laguna nonetheless. The Gulf Intracoastal Waterway joined the Upper Laguna Madre to the Lower Laguna Madre in 1949 by dredging a channel through the flats, while Padre Island became two Padre islands in 1962 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers carved the Port Mansfield Gulf Channel, known as the East Cut or Land Cut, 8 miles east of Port Mansfield.

The cuts have lowered the bay's salinity, which in the minds of most sportsmen is a plus. "Before, the salinity was something like 80 parts per million, when 70 would kill a fish," said David Sikes, outdoors writer for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. But the same cuts and waterway are responsible for doing the most harm to seagrass, the basic building block of marine life, through dredging.

The dearth of freshwater inflow and reduced circulation was blamed for the appearance of an algae tide known as brown tide in the mid-1990s, dense enough to block sunlight and kill seagrass as severely as dredging does. Since then, a small part of the JFK Causeway was raised while Packery Channel was dug to the gulf at the northeastern tip of the laguna to improve circulation. Yet the brown tide persists, especially around Baffin Bay and at Bird Island.

The water in the Lower Laguna may be saltier, averaging 45 parts per thousand, yet it harbors more snook, tarpon, jackfish and mackerel. In addition, visitors can spot the top two sight casting objects of desire: tailing redfish and spotted trout, feeding on shrimp in the seagrass bottom, their tails wagging out of the water.

I got a close-up view of the tailing phenomenon near the mouth of Baffin Bay, the linchpin of the Upper Laguna. About 200 yards west on the mainland, I could see cattle, white-tailed deer and nilgai antelope, introduced on the King Ranch more than 50 years ago, grazing around low dunes. I was accompanying John S. Adams, a nearshore research specialist at the Blucher Institute, which along with the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies (also at Texas A&M University — Corpus Christi) and the University of Texas Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas, is one of the hubs of academic research on the laguna.

We'd bypassed the JFK Causeway, the Central Power and Light plant, the fish hatchery run by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the adjacent Texas A&M shrimp farm in order to launch the old 21-foot Monarch aluminum trihull at Bird Island on the Padre Island National Seashore, an inlet favored by wind surfers and kiteboarders. The winds were too light for windsurfing as Adams headed down the Intracoastal toward the Land Cut, about 20 miles south of the JFK Causeway, to check on two water temperature gauges he'd installed in the laguna. The gauges use solar panels and a satellite to relay real-time temperatures back to the Blucher Institute, but they require annual maintenance. Another scientist, with funding from TPWD and the Coastal Conservation Association of Texas, was trying to determine if water temperature stacking occurred in the laguna, in order to better anticipate fish kills.

"When it gets super cold, most fish will die at 45 degrees water temperature, speckled trout especially," Adams said. "Sometimes fish will go to the bottom, where the water's warmer. Personally, I don't think there's a warmer layer here. It's too shallow."

The science provides valuable information to better manage the fishery. Sea trout, red drum and black drum have been studied extensively in the Laguna Madre, long enough to justify TPWD's recent reduction of the daily limit of trout caught in the Lower Laguna from 10 to 5. Some believe the trout population has suffered because of the high number of "croaker soakers" — fishermen who use live croaker, the equivalent of crack cocaine to redfish and trout, to catch their daily limit.

Adams and I had been talking about tailing redfish when we sighted the swarming, churning school of redfish. A few minutes later, nine bottlenose dolphins showed up to play in the wake of Adams' boat before peeling away and swimming north.

Somewhere just south of Baffin Bay, Adams dipped a handheld refractometer into the water, then pulled it back up to read the digital results. "Salinity is 32 ppt." Not bad. "Last summer, we had so much rain and so much river flow, it was in the twenties and snook and tarpon showed up in the bays," Adams said. "That hasn't happened much in the Upper since dams were built on the Nueces River."

Eight miles north of the Land Cut, he pointed out the concretion rocks formed by fossilized sediment. Near Yarborough Pass, a natural channel opened by hurricanes, he scanned the mainland. "There were artesian wells on the Kenedy [Ranch] where Spanish explorers drew water," Adams said. There are also middens up and down the shoreline of the Kenedy, King and Yturria ranches indicating that previous residents enjoyed their oysters. A few fishing cabins dotted the eastern edge of the Intracoastal Waterway, with floating cabins scattered from near Corpus to Baffin Bay.

As we passed a sheeny slick in the water about 100 yards wide, Adams asked, "Smell that?" A distinctive scent reminiscent of watermelon filled the nostrils. "That's fish puke, that's all it is," Adams said. "They do that when they eat too much."

If there's a heart of the bay, it's somewhere below the Land Cut and north of Port Mansfield, Texas' purest fishing town, where one of every 10 residents in the village of 700 is a fishing guide. The port was created from a slice of a land grant issued by the King of Spain in the 18th century to the El Sauz Ranch. It was known as Redfish Landing until it was upgraded to a port by the Willacy County Navigation District, established in 1949, about the same time the Intracoastal Waterway was finished.

My friend Bob Daemmrich keeps two boats at his place that are built for the laguna — a 24-foot Dargel Skout Pro shallow water fishing boat made nearby in Donna and an 18-foot Alumacraft. We took the Skout out on a blustery morning following an overnight cold front, along with Arturo Amaya from Riviera, and headed east to the East Cut channel, which is slowly silting in since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stopped dredging the cut in the late 1990s because Port Mansfield lost its Harbor Refuge designation. We then headed north up into the Land Cut channel, whose bordering spoil islands are occupied either by bird colonies or rustic fishing cabins that are leased by the General Land Office.

Arturo Amaya was the only one to reel anything in, a non-keeper redfish 1 inch under minimum size. It was late in the day and the wind had stirred up small whitecaps on the water. Arturo said he had been wade-fishing Baffin Bay, the major inlet in the Upper Laguna Madre, since he was a boy, which was some years ago judging by his weathered skin and pure white hair. He remembers the laguna well before the East Cut or the Intracoastal Waterway were dredged. Baffin Bay, he said, "was always chocolatey brown and dense. Now, it's clear more often than brown and there don't seem to be as many fish kills in winter."

Channels, dredging and freshwater have been bones of contention ever since sizeable numbers of anglers began showing up around the Laguna Madre. Walt Kittelberger, a Port Mansfield fishing guide and the executive director of the Lower Laguna Madre Foundation, took the contrarian position. Fish kills were part of the natural swing between fish population booms and busts before there were channels, he said. Increased freshwater circulation introduces invasive species of marine life, including manatee grass which outcompetes the native shoal grass. "This bay did just fine for 4,000 years," Kittelberger said. "It's the last 500 years that have tested it. Hypersaline is not as hyper as some people think."

Kittelberger formed the foundation in the 1980s to fight the planned development of the northern part of South Padre Island, just south of the East Cut, by the American General Insurance Company. When locals learned the refuse from the planned resort was to be dumped in a landfill next to Port Mansfield, the fight was on. Eventually, The Nature Conservancy stepped in to put most of the area into conservation easements to prevent construction.

Since then, the Lower Laguna Madre Foundation has addressed the damage to seagrass caused by the Intracoastal Waterway channel, pollution from agricultural runoff, a shrimp farm in the Arroyo Colorado that drained into the laguna, brown tide, and oil and gas seismic drilling. Kittelberger is proud to have lobbied Valero Corporation to build a pipeline from their Corpus Christi refinery to the Rio Grande Valley, thus eliminating the need to ship gasoline by barge on the waterway. He is neutral on the East Cut silting in.

"The channel is not a good thing or a bad thing," he said. "It just is. It gave the public access to some really good fishing, but environmentally, it did more harm than good, the seawater bringing in oyster beds that are replacing seagrass meadow."

His latest battle was fighting two giant wind turbine farms planned for the Kenedy Ranch overlooking Baffin Bay. He's been joined by the neighboring King Ranch, which opposed the wind farms, claiming they would negatively impact their hunting and eco-tourism business. Also, they were concerned about placing the turbines in the middle of a major migratory corridor for birds and bats. At wind farms elsewhere, there have been documented cases of birds dying from slamming into the turbines' huge blades.

"What would you say if the same people wanted to ruin the Grand Canyon with wind turbines?" Kittelberger asked. "It feels the same to me what they're threatening to do to the laguna."

For Kittelberger, speaking up for the laguna is a small price to pay for the pleasures of puttering along about 500 yards from the western shore of the King Ranch before first light, tracing the outlines of century plants, the lomas and the oak mottes in the dark in order to be in the middle of nowhere on the bay for sunrise. "The thought of seeing strobing lights [from the wind turbines] instead makes me cringe," he said. But not to worry. "I have great faith in geologic time. We'll do just fine as long as there are species left."

I thought kayaking a bit of the laguna along the length of the town of South Padre Island would be a whole other perspective, dipping the paddle past a parade of very expensive homes. One hundred yards offshore and anywhere north of the convention center, it was laguna au naturel. I was far enough away from the people action to shift my interest to watching ducks, egrets, cranes, and pelicans standing in the water, utilizing their variously shaped beaks to either scoop, skim or spear their prey, while bigger fish chased smaller fish and an occasional mullet leapt above the surface.

I rented the kayak from Phillip Money, from whom I'd taken windsurfing lessons 15 years ago. Phillip has since gotten into kiteboarding in a big way. ("Without it, I wouldn't be here," he said.) He'd also become an alderman for the town of South Padre and was preparing a presentation for that night on an artificial reef program in the gulf as a means of slowing down beach erosion and improving surfing waves. The presentation examined a successful artificial reef project in Narrowneck, Australia, and one not-so-successful project in New Zealand. "Where these things are sited makes all the difference in the world," Money said.

Those issues felt another world away across the bay at Stover Point on the western shoreline of the Laguna Madre within the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. The bay there had been ceded to the wild. I saw mostly shorebirds, an osprey and an aplomado falcon, but no alligator, rattlesnakes, Texas tortoise or ocelot — although several sightings of the cats had been reported that week. Still, it looked exactly as a Tamaulipan thorn forest should — appropriately inhospitable to human interlopers lacking armor or protection.

At that moment, the Laguna Madre, lapping gently against this harsh land, never looked so inviting.

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