Friday, November 24, 2006

Yak shopping? Try before you buy

[This piece is one of a series, and first appeared in Texas Sporting Journal.]

In my last column, I said that paddlers these days have plenty of good choices when it comes to finding a boat they’ll enjoy. A quick look at the offerings from five leading U.S. manufacturers of plastic kayaks, and I see something on the order of 40 different models that could credibly be used for fishing.

Most are sit-on-top boats suitable for a wide range of recreational activities. A few are the more traditional decked models, also known as “sit-inside” boats.

Settling on the right boat for you is actually pretty straightforward – go out and paddle one, or two or a dozen. Retailers and manufacturers host “demo days” throughout the warm months in Texas, and most reputable sellers will always let you “try before you buy” any day of the week. Good retailers will insist on it.

Decide how you will use the boat most of the time: do you want to do long trips and carry lots of gear? Or are you more likely to throw the boat into the water on a moment’s notice for an hour or two of fishing?

The rule of thumb is that longer kayaks are generally faster and track straighter. Like all displacement hull forms, a kayak’s top speed is dictated by the length of its waterline.

Boats like the Malibu Extreme, Ocean Kayak’s Prowler 15, the Hobie Mirage Adventure and the Wilderness Systems Tarpon 160i lead the pack.

Shorter boats, especially boats with pronounced “rocker” – the curve in the bottom of the boat from bow to stern – are more agile and often are favored on Texas’ shallow and sometimes narrow streams.

The Wilderness Systems Tarpon 120 and 100 (12- and 10-feet long, respectively) are popular river boats. The Ocean Kayak Frenzy, at 9-feet, is popular with surf anglers who use the easily transportable, nimble boat to paddle baits beyond the third bar. The Scrambler XL and Drifter also are popular, smaller boats.

This spring sees the introduction of Malibu’s “Mini-X,” another 9-footer which has many freshwater anglers reaching for their wallets, judging by recent traffic on the kayak fishing message boards.

Shorter boats also fit better between the gunwale and console of a bay boat.

Many paddlers successfully navigate even the smallest rivers in “big” boats, and you won’t have to look hard to spot a 12- or 13-foot kayak on the coastal flats any given weekend.

For those who don’t want to commit to either end of the spectrum, a range of mid-sized boats – including the Ocean Kayak Prowler 13, Tarpon 140 and Hurricane Phoenix (also 14 feet long) – offer good, all-around functionality, but miss the high notes the longer and shorter boats can hit when used in their respective niches.

Some boats are particularly good for specific pursuits: the Malibu X-Factor, for precisely the reasons one might not want to use it for a 40-mile expedition, is an excellent fly fishing platform. Super stable, you can actually stand on the boat and sight-cast to fish with relative confidence.

Many of the Hobie models come equipped with the company's proprietary "Mirage drive," a pedal-gear-paddle configuration that works something like a penguin's wings. The Mirage drive really works and adds the option of a full-body workout or hands-free maneuverability.

Something else to think about when considering a kayak purchase is volume and weight. The volume of the boat (basically the amount of interior space) makes a difference in how dry you'll be in the seat and how much gear the boat can carry. Larger paddlers should consider higher-volume hulls.

Voume and length both translate into weight, not a big concern when in the water, but can you really lift the boat on and off your vehicle multiple times in a day? What about portages?

Stated weights on nearly all manufacturers’ web sites are for stripped-down hulls in geographic areas of low gravity.

The best advice on choosing a new kayak bears repeating: try before you buy. It won’t take you long to narrow-down your choices.

With so many capable models from which to choose, the differences in performance within a class (shorter boats, touring boats) of boats likely will be small. Take home the one you look best in.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Message in a bottle

[This one first appeared in the Taylor Daily Press, later in Texas Fish & Game magazine. The postscript is that my brother used the prize package, just this summer, for his honeymoon.]

It has been said that neither time nor tide wait for any man. In March 2003, my brother and a friend of his disproved that maxim with a startling discovery.

While casting for finger mullet in a slough near Conn Brown Harbor in Aransas Pass, Sean Gilbert noticed a bottle bobbing between the roots of a mangrove. There appeared to be some sort of paper sealed inside the bottle and he threw it in the 5-gallon bucket he was carrying. My brother and Gilbert loaded the bucket with bait and returned to the boat.

"I took my pocket knife and tried to scrape off the tar that was around the neck of the bottle but it was real hard," Gilbert told me. "So I just broke the neck off with my knife and pulled the paper out."

"Look! I just won a trip," Gilbert laughed to my brother.

"We both just started cracking up," he told me. "We thought it was a prank, a joke someone put out there."

While the bottle was launched lightheartedly, it was no joke. A dozen rum bottles were emptied, sealed and cast into the Caribbean June 13, 1987 by Cayman-based Tortuga Rum Company. It was a promotion sponsored by the then-new bottler, Cayman Airways and Sunset House Hotel.

Four of the bottles were found within the next 18 months, all on South Padre Island.

The other eight disappeared - for nearly 16 years.

"It's unbelievable," said Robbie Hamaty, a Jamaica native and president of Tortuga Rum Company on Grand Cayman. "Every now and then it comes back across my mind. I was in Miami not even two or three months ago, and I said to myself, 'I wonder whatever happened to those bottles?' I figured a ship must have hit the rest of the bottles and they went down. I thought the promotion was all over."

My brother, John, said there were actually three pieces of paper in the bottle, in addition to the rum label entitling the bearer to a free case of rum.

One letter, on Cayman Airways letterhead, offered a free, one-way, coach ticket to the Cayman Islands. Another offered a four-day, three-night stay for two at Sunset House.

The offer's still good, and Hamaty got Cayman Airways to increase their bid to a round-trip for two. The airline offers non-stops from Houston to the Cayman Islands.

Still, the question remains: how the heck did a bottle launched from Grand Cayman in 1987 end up on the shores of Redfish Bay in 2003?

Dr. Bill Johns, an oceanographer at the University of Miami, said the most likely scenario is that the bottle, after sweeping through the Yucatan Channel, got caught in a loop current rather than shooting around Cuba, through the Straits of Florida and into the Atlantic.

"Sometimes that loop gets so large that it pinches off a big eddy," he said. "That eddy then propagates into the western Gulf."

Johns said he was surprised that all of the Tortuga Rum bottles found so far have been in Texas.

"If you were to randomly release particles into the Yucatan Channel, I would say chances are only one in 10 that they would end up on the Texas coast," he said.

Tony Amos, an oceanographer at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute at Port Aransas, has collected close to 70 bottled messages over the years. Some have traveled as far as 4,000 miles, he said, but none has taken more than two years to reach him.

Wind would have helped drive the bottle toward shore, Amos said, and once it was swept into the bay system, the chances of it getting out again would be very slim.

Amos said all kinds of messages turn up on Texas beaches.

"Everything from the whimsical to the obscene to people drinking too much on a boat out on the Gulf of Mexico to kids who want to see where the bottles end up," he said.
Every message he finds with a return address gets a reply.

"I've found a really interesting one, a kind of beautiful one after 9-11," Amos said. "It was written by a father to his two sons. He was obviously a merchant mariner and he wrote how he loved them. He used only initials. Such a beautifully written message. I think he was kind of influenced by 9-11."

Both my brother and his buddy say they were just excited to find something that had traveled so far and waited so long. They're not going to turn down the rum, of course, and I understand a sort of bidding war has broken-out over the airline tickets; still ... to be the recipient of something so random - something sent into the unknown as a hopeful act of faith - borders on magic.

"It's just nice to find something like that. Really nice," Amos said. "It's an interesting connection to the maritime world at large."

Sunday, November 12, 2006

A bit more war and peace

Well, that last post and a long, quiet weekend at home got me thinking. It took me back a decade and more, back to Bosnia-Herzegovina ... and it reminded me of the reception we (U.S. soldiers) got as we traveled around the country.

What is it with kids and G.I.s? In most places, even in areas that were controlled by the largely hostile Bosnian Serbs, children would run out to wave at a passing convoy, would surround soldiers as we got out of our vehicles, would try their few words of English and ask for "bon-bons."

In some places, often in the Bosniak or Muslim areas of the country, adults would approach to thank us for coming, for stopping the war and giving them a chance to rebuild their homes and their lives.

In some places, again usually in Srpska, we were met with sullen stares, profanities and threats.

Kids are kids are kids, and the swarms of young Bosnians always lifted our spirits. They reminded us of home, I guess, and also gave us some sense that what we were doing was worthwhile.

My feelings when speaking with the adults were more complicated. In the face of their heartfelt gratitude, their friendliness and offers of hospitality, I most often felt ... ashamed.

I remember distinctly President George H.W. Bush telling the nation, during the first Gulf War, that our involvement wasn't about oil, it was a stand against agression.

He said it repeatedly, but here's just one instance. In Oct.. 1990, at a fundraiser in Burlington Vermont, Pres. Bush said:

"You know what happened in Kuwait the other day? Two young kids, mid-teens, passing out leaflets -- Iraqi soldiers came, got their parents out and watched as they killed them. They had people on dialysis machines, and they ripped them off of the machines and sent the dialysis machines to Baghdad. And they had kids in incubators, and they were thrown out of the incubators so that Kuwait could be systematically dismantled. So, it isn't oil that we're concerned about. It is aggression. And this aggression is not going to stand..."

The incubator story, by the way, was later demonstrated not to be true. And the argument that our government's military intervention in Iraq -- then or now -- was not about oil is nonsense (see this story at for more).

But back to Bosnia. In 1992, the United States got a new president and Bosnia was plunged into the bloodiest fighting Europe had seen since World War II. Over the next four years more than 100,000 citizens of the former Yugoslavia would die in Bosnia, and many hundreds of thousands of people were displaced under a policy called "ethnic cleansing."

The atrocities committed in that war, predominately by Bosnian Serb forces, were truly horrific. In Srebrenica, Bosnian Serbs rounded-up some 8,000 men and boys and massacred them. Captured combatants -- and sometimes civilians -- were held in concentration camps. The Serbs engaged in systematic rape of Bosnian women. Rape, as a policy of warfare.

In America, we watched the reports on CNN and listened to the BBC and clucked our tongues and shook our heads sadly. But it took three more years before we finally sent in Air Force jets and bombed the Serb artillery beseiging Sarajevo. Shortly thereafter we strong-armed the Bosnian, Serbian and Croat leaders to the peace table at Dayton.

Half a year later I was in Bosnia.

Meanwhile, Rwanda experienced a start-and-stop civil war that, in the spring of 1994, erupted into full-scale genocide. Estimates of the number of Rwandans massacred in a few short months range from 500,000 to one million.

Again, we watched it on the news, but did nothing very useful.

In neither instance, Bosnia nor Rwanda, were critical U.S. economic interests immediately at stake. And, let's be fair, oil is important ... it lubricates the entire American economy, literally and figuratively. Jobs and families' livelihoods depend on it. And maybe that's a good enough reason to go to war -- let's just be honest about why we're doing it.

I'd like to think I went to Bosnia because my country was committed to relieving suffering, to human rights, to the pledge inscribed on the wall at Dachau: "Never again."

I suspect that, in the end, our intervention in Bosnia was mostly a bid to resuscitate a flagging NATO -- a military alliance whose reason for existence had collapsed with the Berlin Wall.

At any rate, I was often proud of what we were doing there -- I thought it worth my time, worth my small sacrifice. But sometimes the gratitude of everyday Bosnians, the victims of the West's long indifference, shamed me.

Here's another view on it, written (and later performed) by a British Army officer during his tour of duty in neighboring Kosovo -- same fight, same methods, same part of the world -- a few years later.

And I'll stop it with the YouTube videos. I just figured out I can import them into the blog .... but this will be the last. For a while.

[Images courtesy DoD and Cesar G. Soriano. For an excellent and very readable overview of the U.S. Army's involvement in the Balkans, see: Bosnia-Herzegovina: The U.S. Army's Role in Peace Enforcement Operations 1995-2004]

War and peace

Yesterday I received a card from a friend, thanking me for my service to our nation. Several thoughtful cousins and uncles sent e-mails ... it's a Veteran's Day tradition in my family, to remind each other that donning a uniform still means something.

I'm not the kind of guy who wears his feelings on his sleeve, but these things bring tears to my eyes every time: a heartfelt rendition of the national anthem; a military funeral; photographs of soldiers departing for a war zone; photographs of soldiers coming home.

My service was not heroic. I have a drawer full of decorations, but they're all of the "been there, done that" and "hey, you did a pretty good job" variety. In Central America I helped clean up the mess Hurricane Mitch left behind. In Bosnia, I spent nine long months helping enforce an uneasy peace, then went back a couple of times just for the heck of it.

On five widely separated occasions, my military leave and earnings statement reflected an extra $150 for serving in a combat zone, but I never saw combat.

I've seen the aftermath of combat, to be sure. And I've witnessed the evidence of genocide. I've picked my way through minefields one careful step at a time; I've ducked at the sound of AK-47s on full automatic. But, so far as I could tell, those weapons were never aimed at me.

My experience in uniform in many ways was very different from my cousin Mikey's ... Mikey, a small, wirey Cajun and one of the sweetest guys you'd ever hope to meet, spent a large part of his tour of duty in Vietnam with a flashlight in one hand, a .45 in the other, searching out the enemy in a warren of tunnels.

I can only imagine how terrifying that must have been, and the courage it took to do that particular job.

The men and women serving in Iraq right now are in a no-shit war. Every day they go outside the wire, they can be sure that someone is going to try to blow them up or take a shot from a sniper's hide high over the street.

What I have in common with them, and with Mikey, is ... well, not much, probably. But there is this: the central feature of military service is the complete abnegation of the service member's will.

We call that order and discipline; it doesn't much matter if you'd rather not go down that tunnel. If your platoon leader says go, you go. It doesn't much matter if you'd rather not join a foot patrol through Sadr City. If you're told to saddle-up and hit the street, you go.

It doesn't matter if you're a reservist with a life and a job and a family; when the deployment order comes and you're sent off to some godforsaken corner of the world for close to a year, you go.

When a service member takes that oath and dons that uniform, he or she gives up the ability to choose. That sailor or Marine or airman or soldier doesn't have the luxury of saying "yes" to this war or operation or patrol, and "no" to that one.

No matter one's personal feelings about the rightness or wrongness, the effectiveness or usefulness, of an assigned duty, one acquiesces. It's what you do when you've signed on to become part of the terrible, swift sword of your nation's foreign policy.

To my mind, that implies a sort of social contract. Politicians, who decide when and where and how to employ this nation's armed forces, have a moral obligation to do so wisely -- to do so judiciously, for only the clearest reasons and in accord with whatever values we can all agree we share.

The civilian leadership in this country has an obligation to provide the military with the tools it needs to do its job. Those leaders also have an obligation to make sure the sacrifices our men and women in uniform make count for something ... that they're not in vain.

It's a tall order, and a heavy burden. But no heavier than a year on the ground in Iraq, or a year in the tunnels of Vietnam.

I am troubled that so few of the members of Congress -- about one quarter, today -- have themselves served in the armed forces. Even fewer of their sons and daughters go to war ... or peace.

It should be no surprise that military service in the United States peaked during the mobilization for World War II. Some 76 percent of American men today between the ages of 70 and 74 are veterans. Less than 10 percent of men under 30 are veterans.

In 1994, for the first time, the percentage of veterans in Congress dipped below the percentage of veterans in the population at large.

Historically, military service was a prerequisite for high political office in this country. It should be, still.

Vice President Dick Cheney, a former Secretary of Defense, has been quoted as saying that, during the Vietnam War, he "had other priorities."

Congressmen and senators and presidential advisers should know first-hand, should feel in their bones, what their antiseptic decisions in a hearing room or office in Washington mean to the young men and women in uniform.

Often enough, those decisions mean life and death.

In 2004, a civilian employee at Dover Air Force Base (whence nearly all overseas casualties arrive home) sent a photo of a flag-draped coffin to a newspaper. A Freedom of Information Act request ensued, and hundreds of like photos were released to the public.

That was a mistake, according to the Pentagon, and the U.S. Senate shortly thereafter joined the Bush Administration in banning the release of such photos.

Ostensibly, the reason was to protect families' privacy. That, of course, is as absurd as it is transparent.

Sen. John McCain, a thoughtful veteran, put it this way: "These caskets that arrive at Dover are not named; we just see them," he told the New York Times. "I think we ought to know the casualties of war."

In the national discussion about whether or not our military interventions are achieving our government's policy; as we debate what that proper policy should be; as we count the enemy dead and the civilian casualties; as we tally the costs of war and peace, we should never lose sight of the human cost paid one soldier -- one mother, father, daughter, son -- at a time.

It may be that we, as a nation, agree it is a fair trade; we may count the cost acceptable. But we owe it to our troops -- the living and the dead -- to add each forfeited life, each broken family, every orphaned child into that equation.

However that math comes out, there is no doubt in mind that we owe our men and women in uniform -- those who serve today, and those who served before -- our heartfelt thanks.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Slacker's tight line leads to riches

[This story was first published in Lone Star Outdoor News.]

Al St. Cyr has finally graduated. At first glance, it’s a stunning accomplishment. The 24-year-old, on-again, off-again student had – effortlessly – molded himself into that proto-Austin phenomenon: the slacker.

Richard Linklater, who popularized the term in his 1990 film of the same name, has lamented in print that the term “slacker” (“one who shirks work or responsibility,” according to the American Heritage dictionary) is used in such a negative way.

“It’s a film of 100 people, and they don’t work, and they don’t do anything,” he told an Austin Chronicle interviewer in 2001. “And my whole point was: No, they do a lot. A lot of people in the film, they’ve all got their projects, they’ve all got their activities.”

Al’s project, his activity, is fishing. Carp fishing, to be specific.

“I was briefly a student, before fishing season started,” he says. Learning, he liked. It was the sitting in class while the fish might be biting that put a damper on things.

His family – happily at first, and less happily as time went on -- supported him. Maybe, in part, because they somehow thought he was still … well, in school or something.

His grandmother in particular, says girlfriend Sally Malone, was after him to graduate, get a job. One or the other. Both, if he could manage it.

Sally, who works a regular 40-hour week at a busy downtown law firm, says the quiet, lanky young man was up-front with her from the beginning.

“He told me: ‘I fish. You’re going to have to accept that,’” she says. “And it was okay, because he was just so sweet.”

She’s supportive, if not enthusiastic. Sometimes – especially in the early days -- Sally tagged along with her boyfriend.

“It’s nice, to sit by the lake and read and talk,” she says. “It’s a good way to get to know someone.”

On the night Al graduated – at the penultimate moment, in fact, as he stood on the cusp of his new life – he was on the phone with Sally. She had just left work and wanted to know if he needed anything.

“Yeah, bring me a monster taco and a Mountain Dew,” he remembers telling her.

A little while earlier – 15 minutes earlier, maybe – he’d been awakened by a couple of “bleeps.” That’s the sound the bite alarm on his fishing rod makes when the line moves.

It was the next-to-last day of a six-day carp fishing tournament on Lake Austin, and Al had moved his hundreds of pounds of gear 11 times. He was wiped-out. Crashing at midnight and getting up at 4 a.m. was really taking a toll.

Earlier in the week, a rumor had swept the contestants that Al was dead – drowned when his inflatable boat, loaded with about 200 pounds of bait, capsized in a thunderstorm.

Sally heard the rumor and called to verify: “Are you dead?” she asked.

“No, just stuck,” Al told her. Wind and water had conspired to trap him behind an island, hundreds of yards from shore. It would take about two hours for him to make it back to dry land.

Now, though, it’s the next-to-last day of the tournament. The alarm goes off. Al rises from his nap, reels into the fish and begins fighting it to shore. It’s a big fish. Maybe the record-breaker, the one worth a cool quarter million dollars. The one every angler in this American Carp Society event is hoping to catch.

Just under his rod tip, the fish wraps up a dead tree in the water. The line goes slack. Al’s phone rings. It’s Sally. He sets the rod down and places his fast food order.

After he hangs up, he pulls “for the break.”

“I was just trying to break the line,” he recalls. “Then, I felt it move a little bit and could tell the fish was still on there. I saw how big it really was and I went crazy. I started screaming and yelling. Believe it or not.”

The “believe it or not” isn’t rhetorical, not if you know Al. With his Prada shades and casual, slightly unkempt clothes, he possesses the effortless cool that teenage rebels aspire to. It’s not hard to picture him dong something with intense, even fierce, concentration. Like fishing. But it’s a stretch to imagine him jumping up and down in excitement about anything.

After the 43.125-pound common carp was weighed, released and duly certified as the new Texas state record, Al got a check. It was his first real payday in a long time, and it marked a turning point.

The richest prize in catch-and-release carp fishing history – and however nascent the sport is in the U.S., Europeans have been carping for centuries – instantly made Al a professional.

He had graduated, finally, from the ranks of the many avid, if accomplished, amateurs to the rarified world of those who are paid to fish.

Has that changed his life?

“Not at all,” he says, after a thoughtful pause. “I guess I really was a slacker. Now I’m just a slightly wealthier slacker.”

A slacker some previously skeptical family members are now proud of, by all accounts. A slacker who says his hard-won windfall will just give him more freedom to do what he loves most.

“Carp fishing basically is my life,” Al says. “It consumes most of my thoughts.”
For more on carp fishing, see this post.

Queen of rivers

Sneer not, ye tournament bass angler. Have some respect, kayak fisherman. And thou, O Master of the Long Rod, tip your hat to he who angles after the “golden bone” from the bank.

Carp, and the men and women who pursue them, suffer from an image problem. It’s an image problem based on a little bit of truth (yes, the hardy common carp can tolerate waters that will float other fish belly-to-the-sun), and a whole lot of myth (carp are scavenging sucker fish of no table or sporting value).

The truth is, the common carp (an overgrown member of the minnow family native to Asia) are edible, abundant, feisty, and -- at least potentially -- really, really big. They are omnivores that feed throughout the water column, and the big fish prefer clear, clean water.

Carpers pursue the large specimens for the same reason anyone wets a line: it’s a good time.

“It’s real easy to call them a trash fish if you haven’t caught one,” said Brian Nordberg, a Dallas resident and president of the international Carp Angler’s Group.

Usually, Nordberg said, an angler’s first carp is an accident.

“They think: ‘Wow, that was fun,’” he said. “Then maybe they go out and try to catch a big one.”

In the United States, the big ones famously occupy two bodies of water: the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York, and Town Lake in Austin.

Izaak Walton gave an entire chapter over to carp in his 1653 The Compleate Angler :

"The Carp is the queen of rivers; a stately, a good, and a very subtil fish ... the Carp, if he have water-room and good feed, will grow to a very great bigness and length; I have heard, to be much above a yard long.

"... If you will fish for a Carp, you must put on a very large measure of patience, especially to fish for a river Carp: I have known a very good fisher angle diligently four or six hours in a day, for three or four days together, for a river Carp, and not have a bite."

Al St. Cyr, who holds the current Texas state record for common carp, got hooked on the subtleties of carp-fishing years ago when he saw a fisherman catch one – by accident – while fishing for white bass near his Denton home.

“It took him so long to get it in, I just thought it was the coolest thing,” he said.

St. Cyr estimated he has caught something on the order of 50,000 carp in his fishing career. Lately, they average about 26 pounds each.

Like many anglers, St. Cyr fishes pursues carp by choice. He’s an experienced fisherman, with five bass better than 13 pounds (two from Lake Ray Roberts and three from Lake Fork). He hooked his personal best bull shark while swimming a bloody bait over the third bar on a Texas beach.

“Probably not the smartest thing to do,” he admitted.

Dedicated carp anglers can spend $5,000 or more for specialized equipment, most of it imported from Europe. A basic, three-rod set-up can be had for about $500. Long rods and spinning reels are the order of the day. A budget angler can get started with an Okuma Baitfeeder reel and Cabela’s Predator casting rod for about $120.

Nordberg said that “Euro-style” carp anglers routinely cast their baits 80-100 yards.

St. Cyr, he said, is “a monster.”

“Al has the technique, and he’s not afraid to push his equipment to the limit,” he said. “It’s not unusual for him to cast 150, 160 yards.”

Carp baits, called “boilies,” can run $10-$20 per pound. Given that a carp angler may use 200 pounds of bait in a tournament, it’s not surprising that many make their own. Recipes -- with ingredients like bananas, pineapples, Big Red and more – are closely guarded secrets.

In Texas, as across the nation, carp angling is on an upswing.

In what may have signaled a “back to the future” scenario, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Inland Fisheries Director Phil Durocher briefed TPW Commission members in April on the status of the fishery.

The agenda item posed the question: “Fishing for Common Carp – Is This the Future for the Urban Masses?”

“The potential for carp fishing is considerable,” said Durocher. “We need to be prepared in Texas if the sport takes off.”

Common carp were introduced into the state in 1881, and Texas’ first fish hatchery – at Barton Springs in Austin – was devoted to the species.

Carpers take the disdain of their fishing brethren largely in stride.

“I just think they’re ill-informed,” said St. Cyr. “You’ve got to respect everyone’s opinions, but if they’re opinions are founded on nothing, you have to let it go.”

The Carp Anglers Group president agreed.

“Right now, we're thrilled there's some newfound respect for the species and they're beginning to be noticed as a fun and challenging sporting resource,” said Nordberg.

For more information:

Carp are indisputably the most popular game fish in the world. In the United States, two organizations promote the sport. The Carp Anglers Group is a non-profit organization that focuses on education. The American Carp Society, which sponsored the Texas Carp Challenge – the venue for St. Cyr’s state record catch – is a for-profit organization that focuses on competitive carp fishing. Both associations offer a wealth of information for anyone interested in getting involved in the sport.

Consider the lowly sea hare ...

My first encounters with sea hares came during my early childhood in Ingleside. My dad delighted in showing me the strange creatures washed-up on the shores of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.

Even as they melted in the hot, South Texas sun, they could emit copious amounts of purple ink.

Fascinating, eh?

Much later in life, after a summer watching these critters gracefully and ever-so-slowly dodge anglers, boat wakes and juvenile sea turtles at a Gulf pass near Corpus Christi, it occured to me they look like nothing so much as ... well, camouflaged, swimming vulvas.

Sea slugs -- the "hares" (so-called for their purported resemblence to a sitting rodent) are one type -- are quite common, as it turns out. There are hundreds of species, and they are found in all the world's oceans. They also are quite variable.

Some, like the Aplysia brasiliana (mottled sea hare) pictured above are herbivores, some are carnivores and a few are even able to co-opt chloroplasts from the plants they eat and continue photosynthesis within their own bodies.

Sea hares, like all sea slugs, are mollusks -- related to clams, squid and other such critters. Sea slugs are marine snails (mostly) without shells. Sea hares, unlike their relatives the nudibranchs, retain a vestigal shell within their bodies.

Sea hares are hermaphrodites, each sporting a penis on the right side of the head and a vagina in the mantle cavity. It's a cosmic joke that the critters ... well, they can't quite reach.

Still, the arrangement leads sometimes to a rather freewheeling sex life, with male-female pairings, male-female/male-female ménagerie à trois, female-male/female-male ... oh, you get the picture.

Anyway ... very beautiful animals, especially as they glide through the water.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The name game

Getting ready for work this morning, I tried desperately to remember the last name of a colleague, TPWD's aquatic education coordinator. I know her well, work with her frequently, but found myself muttering: "Ann .... Ann ...."

Just wouldn't come to me.

Our email address list at work -- the "global" we call it -- is artfully arranged and alphabetized by first name. Purposeful? I'd like to think so. I' d like to think one of our IT whizzes consciously decided to humanize our bureaucracy by forcing us to correspond with our colleagues on a first-name basis.

That's probably wishful thinking on my part, though a sort of collegial informality does reign in my workplace.

There are, I think, cultures of address; ways of naming and addressing the people with whom we come in contact that vary widely based on history and tradition, relationship and age, geography and status.

In my youth, I "sirred" and "ma'amed" anyone old enough to vote. My parents insisted on it, as their parents had taught them, ad infinitum into the dim mists of history, I suppose.

Friends' parents were always addressed by their last names preceded by an honorific: "Mr. Sbrusch," and "Mrs. Friebele." Never mind that they may have been so familiar with us, known so long as to be nearly surrogate parents.

That became something of a sliding scale; as I grew older, the minimum age of an individual deserving of formal address also shifted. Though old habits do die hard; I would still find it difficult, I think, to call Mr. Sbrusch "Frank," or Mrs. Friebele "Betty."

In some distinct social milieu, even within this broad "culture" we mistakenly assume to be monolithic, forms of address are quite different from what I sometimes expect. An elderly black couple I once knew referred to each other -- in each other's presence -- formally: "Mr. Jones crushed his foot under a refrigerator," the wife might tsk.

I don't know enough to divine whether that is a "black" thing, an old-fashioned thing, a southern thing, or just some thing my particular white trash background didn't adequately prepare me to recognize.

In the Rio Grande Valley, hard on the Mexican border, formality also is the rule rather than the exception. Office workers dress like professionals and supervisors and strangers often are referred to -- and addressed -- by title and last name.

Spanish and other Latin languages of course allow a little more room to maneuver. In both the second and third persons, one may signal the nature of a relationship by the use of the proper pronoun.

English, on the other hand, has largely divested itself of the formal and respectful "thou" and "thine." We use the all-purpose "you" for everyone from the President to the kitchen help, for siblings and strangers alike.

In the military, informality trickles down the chain of command, but rarely up. A major might call a captain or even a sergeant in his command by his first name, but barring a pre-existing relationship (say, for instance, they were Cub Scouts together) or a whole lot of off-duty fraternization, it's unlikely the subordinate will call his superior by his first name; certainly never in public.

The Commander-in-Chief, of course, can call anyone anything he likes, and frequently does. Pres. Bush has dubbed poor Karl Rove, alternately, "Boy Genius" and "Turd Blossom."

This week, I suspect, he's answering to the latter.

Former FEMA Director Joe Allbaugh was "Big Country," and the president's own father was dubbed by his son "Forty-one." Michigan Republican Rep. Fred Upton, to the president, is "Freddy Boy;" Rep. Dennis Hastert, until this past Tues. third-in-line in presidential succession, was simply "Speak."

Dana Milbank of The Washington Post, a long-time critic of the Bush administration, allegedly is referred to by the chief executive by a name Milbank says is "unprintable in a family publication." Some reports say the president calls Milbank "Chickenfucker."


Reportedly, "Forty-three" refers to the president of Russia as "Pootie-Poot." That's almost mind-boggling to me; that the head of state of one nuclear nation refers to the head of state of another in baby-talk.

But I suppose you can do that when you lead the sole remaining superpower. And that's probably the point.

I answer to a couple of nicknames, "Schlop" and "Running Dog" among them. Neither arose out of particularly flattering circumstances, but as they were assigned by my friends and peers -- who bear their own, equally laughable appellations -- it's okay.

Boston psychiatrist Ronald Pies, M.D., makes a persuasive argument that George W. Bush's penchant for assigning nicknames to friends, foes and staff members is much more than good-natured frat boy ribbing. It is, Pies argues, an assertion of dominance. It's Alpha male behavior, dick-measuring taken to an extreme.

On the one hand, it's flattering to be close enough to the president of the United States that he calls you anything more than once; on the other hand, who can possibly gainsay the leader of the free world when he calls you something outrageous?

"Nicknames," Pies writes, "serve an important function of dominion for all of us ... they define and delimit another's powers and status. Nicknames put people in their place(s)."

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Lone Star state of mind

The hubris of Texans is legendary. "Everything," a Lone Star native might say, "is bigger in Texas."

Bigger. Better. Prettier. Nicer ... Finer. Easier. Kinder.

The stereotypical Texan wears a 10-gallon hat, boots and an attitude as big as his native state. Texans' braggadacio and self-promotion inevitably leads to a certain amount of resentment north of the Red River and east of the Sabine.

Wisconsinites might press cheese curds into the shape of their state's political boundaries, but where -- other than Texas -- do folks commonly tattoo their state's outline or symbols on their bodies?

Of course, it's more than just the geographical sense of Texas we're celebrating; it's also a "state of mind," we're fond of saying, and that state of mind no doubt arises from our unique history as a soverign nation that fought for its own independence and the unique priveleges our annexation by treaty gives us among the states.

As with many stereotypes, there is a kernel of truth to the oil-pumping, cow-punching Texas of myth. But Texas, to my mind, is no one thing. It is, without a doubt, vast. And in that vastness, there is great variety.

My Texas has always been more Jimmy Buffet than Waylon Jennings; more flip-flops than cowboy boots; more southern than western.

Truth be told, my Texas doesn't have the best of much, but it has some of just about everything and the most of some things.

In the early 19th century, the northernmost point in Texas was in today's southern Wyoming. By treaty, the state's westernmost boundary extended from the Gulf of Mexico to the headwaters of the Rio Grande. Texans claimed a bit of Colorado, a good chunk of New Mexico (including Santa Fe) and the Oklahoma panhandle.

The Okies, by all accounts, still want in.

Two wars, a couple of boundary disputes and some political wrangling later, the Lone Star State has been whittled down to about 261,797 square miles of land and 6,784 square miles of water; about as large as New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and North Carolina combined. Somewhere along the line, we got screwed-out of a mighty fine trout stream and a couple of decent ski areas.

Even now, in our much-reduced state, the longest straight-line distance from north to south is 801 miles; the greatest east-west distance is 773 miles. Once, during a brief sojourn in New England, I heard a woman explaining that she and her husband got down to New Milford, Conn., to visit their son only about once a month.

"We live all the way up at the Mass. border," she said, by way of explanation. About 60 miles, from what I could tell on the map. Hell, in Texas we drive an hour for dinner sometimes.

Some years back, a professor of Malthusian persuasion insisted to me the world was about to founder under the weight of humanity. I did a little figgerin' and figgered this: The entire population of the world could fit inside of Texas with every man, woman and child esconced in a comfortable 1,300 square-foot living space. And Texas would still be less densely populated than the island of Manhattan (which, you'll recall, includes Central Park).

Some more numbers to consider:

Texas contains more than 22 million acres of forests -- an area larger than the state of Maine. Much of that forest is found in the state's share of the great Southern pine forest that stretches across the southeast portion of the nation.

Texas boasts 3,700 named streams, 15 major rivers and some 3,300 miles of tidal shoreline along the Gulf Coast.

The Dallas-Fort Worth area has more residents - 5,221,801 - than each of 31 other U.S. states. For example, Arizona has about 5.1 million residents.

Texas is home to three of the nation's 10 largest cities.

Texas has more than 90 mountains over a mile high; in fact, a whole bunch of mountains taller than anything east of the Mississippi. As best I can tell, we have only two ski areas (both artificial), but, hey ... Riudoso (once part of Texas) is only a couple hours drive from our border.

I invite anyone who believes our beaches to be only the brown sand and brown water of Galveston to spend a late summer day on Mustang or Padre Island. With cool green water and 20-foot viz, they look a lot like Destin or Fort Walton Beach sometimes.

Austin is the self-proclaimed "live music capital of the world." Not so sure about that one, but, man! There is some great music to be found in the River City. Tues.-Thurs., one can catch Kacy Crowley and Will Sexton at Momo's and turn around and hear Jon Dee Graham and James McMurtry the next night at the Continental Club. All for less than $20 total.

From Texas, we sent forth into the world the likes of Buddy Holly, ZZ Top, Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Meat Loaf, George Strait, Freddie Fender, George Jones, Stephen Stills, Don Henley, Lyle Lovett, Ernest Tubb, Lightnin' Hopkins, Boxcar Willie, T-Bone Walker, the Dixie Chicks, Norah Jones and a host of others.

Of course, we also spawned Christopher Cross, Barry White, Beyonce, Nelly, LBJ and the political ambitions of los dos presidentes Bush. We may still be in karmic debt.

Steve Martin, Carol Burnet and Bill Hicks (check him out on NetFlix, the man was truly funny) all hail from Texas.

For a while there we had a lock on the nightly news: Sam Donaldson, Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite, Stone Phillips and Bob Schieffer all are Texans.

Really these sorts of lists are a bit of a cheat; after all, if a state so large, so populous, did not produce at least a few over-achievers, something would be amiss.

Perhaps it's the droughty years, or maybe we just lean that way, but here in Texas we seem to be well-aquainted with the sulfurous pit: we can take you to the Devil's River, show you Devil's toenails (fossilized oysters) and Devil's claws (wicked-looking seed pods), hike through Devil's Hall (a rock formation), gaze into Devil's Sinkhole (a famous bat cave), party at Devil's Cove and drive across the Devil's Backbone dodging dust devils.

Oddly enough, Farm-to-Market 666 will take you to none of these sites. It's way the hell down south.

I can find no corresponding references in the Lone Star State for heaven or the Heavenly Father.

That's not to say that Texas is actually hell. There's ample historical evidence that at least some folks consider them two distinct geographical locations.

"If I owned Texas and Hell, I would rent Texas and live in Hell” said Gen. Philip Sheridan in 1866.

The famous frontiersman and two-term U.S Congressman from Tennessee, Davy Crockett, also made a distinction between Texas and Gehenna: "You may all go to hell and I will go to Texas," he said, after quitting politics and his native state in disgust.

A popular bumper sticker around here these days reads: "I wasn't born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could."

Lyle Lovett assures us that even if you're not from Texas, "Texas loves you anyway ..." So, come see us. You'll have a hell of a good time.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Fishing La Pesca

[This story first appeared in the June 2003 issue of Texas Fish & Game magazine.]

It's not every day one gets to introduce a new word into a foreign language. Like, "dinkas," for instance. As in "truchas dinkas."

Here at home, we don't even bother to specify "trout." When you mention "dinks," everyone knows you are talking about undersized specks.

In May 2002, I drove 10 hours from Austin to La Pesca, Tamaulipas, to fish some new water.

La Pesca sits at the confluence of the Rio Soto la Marina and the Gulf of Mexico. To the south, the shallow, mangrove-lined Laguna Morales opens off the river at its mouth. To the north, another shallow estuary provides a nursery for shrimp and fishes before sinking into a series of salt pans that end in sand and thorny desert shrub before the land gives way to Laguna Madre.

It is a landscape at once intriguing and forbidding--enough like the Texas coast to seem familiar, yet touched here and there with exotic hints that you are, after all, only some 40 miles north of the Tropic of Cancer.

Hints like the hills on the horizon beyond the bay, and the flocks of parrots that forage noisily along the river banks. And citrus and papaya trees, coconuts, and mangos for the picking in carefully tended gardens.

I approach every bit of new water with a sort of nervous excitement. Anything, I think, might be lurking under the surface. A 13-pound trout (like the one a local guide said he once caught in Laguna Morales), a monster snook … maybe even a trout rod-sized tarpon.

The nervousness, of course, comes from the fear that there may be nothing lurking under the surface of the water, or, at best, only truchas dinkas.

That first trip, a year ago, we caught the heck out of those little trout. They were beautiful--spotted nose to tail--and feisty, attacking topwater lures twice their size.

The snook and tarpon fishing was best later in the year, I was told, November through March or thereabouts. So, in February, we saddled-up for round two, loaded a truck and a van, and headed south.

This time, we crossed the border at Nuevo Progresso, near Weslaco. This dusty little border town is a low-stress gateway (it avoids the seemingly endless, speed-bump-ridden suburbs of Matamoras) to Mexico 180 and points south.

Plus, the crowds at immigration here are typically light. With two vehicles and five fishermen, we got through the formalities in about half an hour.

The Mexican highways are generally in excellent shape between the border and La Pesca, and drive time was a manageable 4 hours, 20 minutes. We arrived after dark and settled in at Hotel La Quinta, a charming (and clean) establishment right on the river.

Humberto Hernandez, the owner, is an American-born missionary who has fished the area for more than two decades.

The day after our arrival, we opted to wade Laguna Morales, and through the hotel arranged for a guide to pick us up at the dock. Lupe arrived just after lunch, and an hour later, we were knee-deep on some of the prettiest, grass-covered flats you have ever seen.

Perfect, as my friend Danny pointed out, except for one small detail: no fish. Actually, we did pick up a few fish, spotted seatrout in the 14- to 17-inch range, but not what one would expect for five experienced coastal anglers fishing hard for four hours.

Over fajitas and cervezas back at the hotel that evening, we decided the next day we would head up the beach north of town to Paso Corriente, the southernmost pass on the Mexican Laguna Madre.

We met Lupe at 5:30 in the morning and loaded up our buddy Charlie's Ford quad-cab four-wheel drive. Lupe brought a 25-hp outboard.

Some two hours and 35 miles of hard driving later, we arrived at the jettied pass. Along the way, we drove through some of the most remote and unpeopled beach I have ever seen, and that includes Padre Island National Seashore.

At the pass, we split-up. Half of the group ferried over to the north shore to try their luck wading, and Danny and I headed into the Laguna with Lupe. As we motored into the bay, Lupe pointed at two lanchas in the channel and shook his head disapprovingly.

"Nettas," he said. Seems the season on white mullet, or lisas, as they are called locally, was closed, but that didn't stop some commercial fisherman.

"Corvina (red drum) usually are very good here," Lupe said in Spanish. Not too long before, he said, he had guided a Mexican television crew to the area and loaded-up on big bull reds."The water was very clear," Lupe said. "It was beautiful."

Not so for us. A brisk north wind and opposing, incoming tide imbued the water coming through the pass with a latte-like color, streaked here and there with cleaner green.

As we threaded our way through the charrangas, or fish traps, that choke the entrance to the lagoon, we decided to take our guide's advice, abandoned artificials, and began fishing with live shrimp under popping corks. When that failed, we threw fresh-cut mullet.

Still, nada. Mid-afternoon, after trying the action on the jetties and catching a few hardhead catfish, we decided to call it a day. On the way back, we stopped to beach comb and picked up some beautifully weathered chunks of coral, and the shells of two recently deceased sea turtles tempted us.

Humberto seemed sincerely surprised--and dismayed--that we got so thoroughly skunked in one of his favorite fishing holes. He questioned us closely on where and how we fished, and finally shrugged.

"I just don't know," he said. "That's very strange that you didn't catch anything."

And so it was; the Gulf Coast around La Pesca seems to have everything a great fishery requires; easy access to the Gulf, strong freshwater inflow, tremendous amounts of cover and forage--we saw evidence of plentiful shrimp, crabs, and baitfishes.

The one thing it does not have is effective fisheries management.

In his book, Plugger, legendary Gulf Coast wade-fisherman Rudy Grigar talks about fishing Mexico's "eighth pass" in the 1940s and 1950s. It was, he writes, snook heaven.

As late as the early 1970s, he reported incredible catches of snook, redfish, flounder, and trout. Grigar wrote that he also caught "thousands" of tarpon in the 6- to 12-pound range. In the 1940s, locals dynamited the fish for fertilizer.

There are some tarpon left. A friend from Rockport jumped and eventually landed one in the 50-pound range a year ago near Punta Piedra (Rock Point) on the Mexican Laguna Madre.

During a visit several months after that incident, we saw the butchered carcass of a large "Silver King" resting atop a gill net.

After our disappointing foray up the beach, Humberto made a flurry of phone calls and told they were catching snook near the confluence of the Rio Palma and Rio Soto la Marina, 15 to 20 miles upstream from the hotel. We opted to pass in favor of an early start back to Texas the next day.

Later that night, as several of us teased the occasional trout from beneath the dock lights, and caught dozens of small mangrove snapper on light tackle, Humberto admitted that fishing in La Pesca is not what it used to be.

"We have laws in place to protect the resource," he said. "But the government doesn't enforce them like it should. Fishing here used to be incredible."

It can still be good--if you catch it at the right time. locals told us.

After two attempts, some in our party probably will not give La Pesca another chance--but I will.

It is still "new water" to me, and until I have tried every trick in my bag, in every season, I will not be convinced that it cannot fulfill the promise implicit in those grassy, bait-filled flats and winding, mangrove-lined channels.

Even if the fishing continues to disappoint, there are far worse ways to spend a weekend than watching pelicans and ospreys fish as the sun sets beyond the Sierra de San Jose de las Rusias on the far side of the river.

My father, who was skeptical about the last trip even before we came up empty-handed, ended up having a wonderful time.

"Sure, it's nice to talk about all the fish you caught," he said. "But isn't it also nice to be able to have an adventure, even if you couldn't have fresh grilled fish flavored with the juice of hand-picked limes?"

"On second thought," he added, "It would have been awfully nice to have that fish to go with the adventure."

La Pesca Logistics

La Pesca is not Cancun. Fishing is the main industry here, and while quite a few Mexicans from Monterey and other inland cities make the trek to the beach on weekends and holidays, very few Americans find their way so far off the beaten track.

English is not widely spoken, and U.S. dollars are truly foreign currency. The upside of all this is that prices remain reasonable, and border- and tourist-town hassles from peddlers and other locals are virtually non-existent.

Hotel rooms go for about $35-$45 per night for a clean double with air conditioning and hot water at any of the dozen or so establishments lining the river on the way in to town.

Reservations typically are not required except during Holy Week (Easter) or in August. There are several decent restaurants in town, serving primarily seafood.

Several "super-minis," or convenience stores, provide everything from bait to beer to fresh fruit and vegetables. Most of the hotels have on-site kitchens and will make meals to order, and allow guests the use of grills on the property.

There are three checkpoints manned by various agencies heading south, and two on the return trip. We were treated courteously at each on both of our trips, and in most cases were waved through with only a perfunctory inspection.

U.S. authorities perform the most thorough searches upon re-entry.

The possession of firearms and ammunition by tourists is strictly prohibited. Hunters can make prior arrangements with lodges in Mexico, but for the average tourist or angler, getting caught with an errant shotgun shell or handgun brings immediate incarceration.

La Pesca has a number of boat ramps, and experienced fishermen may want to consider taking their own boats. Navigation is fairly straightforward and, in our experience, the biggest service local guides provide is transportation.

Guides can be booked very reasonably through any of the hotels; our five-hour trip to Laguna Morales cost a total of about $58.
Sanborn's Mexican Insurance, sold by the day (it's a criminal offense to be involved in an accident without insurance in Mexico), has up-to-date entry requirements on their website,

To contact Humberto at the Hotel La Quinta, visit his home page at

Friday, November 03, 2006

Lone Star linesiders are back

[Ah ... snook: my favorite saltwater gamefish. I wrote this for The Snook Foundation's newsletter. Look for more about linesiders on this site.]

Austin kayak angler Arnold "Liverdog" Wells was fishing on the Corpus Christi Bay side of Packery Channel in November 2005 when he hooked-up with what he thought was the trout of a lifetime.

"I cast up directly along the side of this barge with a popping cork and a speck rig," he said. "No sooner than it hit the water, the fish took it. I was thinking 30-inch trout."

Nope. Try 23-inch snook, something Wells said he knew was a special treat.

"I heard it was a once-in-a-lifetime deal to catch a snook in Texas, and even then you usually have to go to Port Isabel or South Padre to do it."

Not anymore.

Reports of "keeper" fish, in the 24-28-inch slot, have been coming in with increasing frequency from Port Mansfield to Freeport. The new Packery Channel jetties in Corpus Christi, between Mustang and Padre Islands, last summer and fall yielded daily catches of robalo – some close to 40 inches.

And the fish are back for the 2006 season.

David McKee, a biology professor at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, sent some of his graduate students out to the rocks with masks and snorkels this spring for a look-see.

“They told me there was a snook in every crevice and crack out there,” he said.

Rockport angler Bill Hoffman (pictured above) found his 37-inch snook that way, while hunting gray snapper with a speargun in September of this year.

"There were some big caverns under the rocks, and those big old snook were just laying up in there," Hoffman said. "Two of those snook were probably from my shoulder to my foot, over 4 feet long."

Hoffman spent the next two weeks throwing everything he had at fish he knew were there. His big fish finally fell to a live finger mullet on a dirty, outgoing tide.

"To catch one of those, you have to be persistent," Hoffman said.

“There’s some evidence of an increase in abundance in South Texas, which is encouraging,” said Randy Blankinship, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist who manages the state’s fisheries in the Lower Laguna Madre. “In particular, what’s encouraging is larger numbers of snook showing up in bay systems farther north than they’ve been in any numbers in the past couple of decades.”

Blankinship said the resurgence of snook catches on the middle Texas coast is reminiscent of the 1930s and 1940s, when there was a thriving commercial snook fishery in the state.

Louis Rawalt, a legendary denizen of Texas’ barrier islands, caught the state record snook on New Year’s Day in 1937. The 57.5 pound fish was part of a 999-pound single-day catch he sold in Port Aransas. The big fish came from the beachfront very near a historic pass – Packery Channel – that had closed nearly a decade earlier after the dredging of a large ship channel to the north.

In 1893, more than 20,000 pounds of snook were harvested for market from Galveston Bay, on the upper Texas coast. In 1928, commercial fishermen landed nearly a quarter million pounds of robalo statewide.

For reasons that still are not clear, by the early 1960s, commercial snook fishing in Texas had collapsed completely.

Over-fishing, disease, periodic climate change, agricultural development and the damming of Texas rivers all may have played a role in the disappearance of linesiders from vast swathes of the Lone Star littoral.

Whatever the reason for the decline of snook over the second half of the 20th century, it appears they are now making a resurgence, along with tarpon and an unprecedented abundance of gray snapper.

Biologists speculate that a series of mild winters has allowed the semi-tropical gamefish to thrive in increasing numbers north of the species’ stronghold near the mouth of the Rio Grande River, and there is even some evidence that the fishery is enjoying recruitment of juveniles of at least one of the three endemic species in mid-coast creeks and rivers.

“It’s real encouraging to see evidence of even a slight increase in abundance in bay systems farther north,” said Blankinship. “The fisheries management strategies under which we operate today are much more conducive to their continued success. I would be very optimistic about the future of snook, and continued abundance, not only in the Lower Laguna Madre, but also throughout South Texas and the Coastal Bend.”

You should know ...

Recreational size and bag limits for common snook in Texas were tightened in 1995, from a daily bag of three fish between 20 and 28 inches to a daily bag of one fish in a 24-28-inch slot. That conservative slot virtually ensures that any common snook retained by an angler is a male.

Despite snook’s well-deserved reputation as tasty table fare, many Texas anglers eschew keeping any of the fish, preferring to release their linesiders to fight another day. It’s an approach Texas fishing guides promote.

In extreme South Texas, where the snook fishery is well established, several guides target the species. Among them are Capt. Ernest Cisneros
for pluggers and Capt. Eric Glass for those who prefer the long rod. Getaway Adventures Lodge, a Field & Stream magazine “Top 10” fishing destination, also puts together snook packages for fly anglers out of Port Mansfield.

Update on snook science

Snook aficionados in Florida and Texas have long shared tips on how to best pursue the elusive gamefish. Now scientists in the two Gulf states are collaborating on research to better understand the animal’s life history and to help ensure its future.

As part of the state’s ongoing fisheries monitoring, Texas biologists collect fin clips from all Texas snook captured in TPWD gill nets and bag seines. The fin clips provide valuable genetic information that one day may shed light on where snook caught in different areas along the coast originate.

A recent agreement between Florida’s FWC and its Texas counterpart will allow geneticists to share information about populations in both states.

In another development, aquaculture researchers at Mote Marine Laboratories in Sarasota and the University of Texas Marine Science Institute at Port Aransas are collaborating on several projects that they hope will lead to cost-effective stocking programs in both states.

[Note: All photos, except for the underwater shot, are from the Corpus Christi area. The second and final two photos are of fat snook, one of three snook species found in Texas. The first and fifth photos are courtesy of the BreakawayUSA forum. For more Texas snook photos, go to]

Littlest friends do the most amazing things

[This story first appeared as a newspaper column nearly four years ago. Since it first was published, Gumbo again went on walkabout. When he came back, he'd grown (see the second picture, below) -- but so had Patrick.]

A giraffe called Gumbo is my 4-year-old son's best friend. They're inseparable.

Well, almost.

A couple of months ago, Gumbo went missing. Patrick was sure he was in the car or maybe under the bed or at school. When the 10-inch-high stuffed animal didn't turn up, Patrick's mother assured him that Gumbo was likely on a trip - perhaps visiting relatives in another city.

"Missing" signs went up around her office, at our son's day care center, even around the neighborhood.

Gumbo didn't come home.

A few weeks went by and Patrick still asked after his giraffe every day. Patrick's mom implemented a contingency plan; she had located an identical giraffe at a toy store across town and one day at lunch she bought it.

When she presented Gumbo to our boy, he hugged the animal and then said: "Why is he so clean?"

Well ... he must have taken a bath.

My boy didn't like the clean Gumbo quite as much as the well-worn version that had disappeared. A conversation ensued about liking our friends no matter how they look.

Once over that crisis, Patrick decided Gumbo must indeed have been visiting family somewhere. The giraffe's parents live in France - Gumbo was born there, but has lived in this country for quite some time.

He simply forgot to call or send a postcard and let us know where he was. Gumbo has two brothers, as it turns out, who look just like him.

That's handy, because if the "real" Gumbo ever turns up, someone will have some explaining to do.

It's amazing what these little animals are capable of. In addition to being able to navigate long distances, my son's giraffe talks (sign language, don't you know - apparently hooves are no impediment to communication) and even has distinct preferences when it comes to things like peas versus spinach, and what video he'd like to see next.

He likes to be hugged and kissed good night, and has to have the covers tucked up to his chin when he goes to sleep.

Even though he'll always be too little to drive, Gumbo plans to be a fire fighter when he grows up. Not coincidentally, so does Patrick.

A co-worker's son, about the same age as Patrick, had a bad night last week because his plush "Puppy" kept him up all night barking.

Bad dog.

Madeleine, a calico cat that was once my boy's constant companion, now spends most of her time snoozing in a corner of his room. She's not nearly as playful as when she was a kitten but I suppose that's only natural for cats as they grow older.

The aptly named "Pony," like Gumbo, is a traveler. Pony rode off into the sunset about the same time as Gumbo and hasn't been seen since.

Lately, Gumbo sports a snug-fitting, green kitty collar with a tag etched: "Gumbo" and his home phone number. Given his penchant for wandering, it seemed prudent.

Last week, Gumbo disappeared again after a trip to Walgreen's. A return visit turned-up nothing and it appeared he may have been giraffe-napped while my son's attention strayed. Or, perhaps, he had gone visiting again.

A couple of days after Gumbo's most recent disappearance, the phone rang.

A kindergarten teacher at a nearby school had purchased a number of stuffed animals for her class. As she was sorting them she noticed that one had a collar. An odd touch, she thought, and checked her receipt.

No giraffe listed there, so she called the number. And Gumbo came home.

Little river, big fun

[Texas has scores of great streams; great paddling, great wildlife viewing, great fishing. The San Saba River in Menard Co. is one of my favorites. This story first appeared in the July 2006 issue of Texas Outdoors Journal.]

When I heard the “whoop!” I knew something big had happened. I picked-up my pace and paddled for the bend in the river.

Rooster shouted again, and as I came into view he swung a fish into the air. A big fish.

“I was targeting the shady area near the bank around the lily pads, and I saw a submerged tree on one side and tried it out,” he said. “As soon as the bait hit the water the big girl took it.”

When you meet someone with only one name, you figure he’s either already famous or about to be. Rayford “Rooster” Sells (it wasn’t until my third fishing trip with him that I learned his real name) falls into the latter category, I think. For a former bay rat from the shores of Copano and self-professed catfishin’ man, he’s heck on bass.

This one came in at 20 inches and tipped the scales at four pounds, a lunker by stream standards and a solid fish anywhere. And it’s about half the size of some of the bass that anglers here say they land on a fairly regular basis.

The San Saba River, a 100-mile-long tributary of the Colorado that winds along the northern edge of the Edwards Plateau, is a fantastic bass stream. It’s one of a dwindling handful of Hill Country rivers with pure-strain Guadalupes. They like the edges of the fast water, while the big bucketmouths lurk in the lily pads and deep pools.

“The best bass go about 8 pounds. There are lots of 3-4 pound fish, and there’s a decent number of fives and sixes,” said Menard Mayor Johnny Brown. Brown, an avid paddler and angler, has been fishing the San Saba for about two decades.

On a recent trip, Brown and three companions boated about 30 fish on a five-mile stretch of river.

“Usually I’m fishing for big ones, so if I catch half a dozen I’m doing good,” he said. “We had a half dozen that would go five pounds.”

Stream fishing, for me, has always been a numbers game. The Hill Country’s incredibly productive rivers have schooled me to expect a strike on every other cast. On the San Saba, I’ve also come to expect high numbers on a hand-held scale, too.

Here’s the secret: I hate to say it, but size does matter.

“My brother-in-law is going to kill me for saying this, but I take just what I would when I fish Amistad or anywhere else,” Brown said. “I fish with a 6-inch plastic worm, sometimes a 10-and-a-half inch plastic worm.”

That’s if you’re going after big fish.

“If you want to just have fun on this river, take an ultra-light,” Brown said. “Use a little inline spinner and you’ll catch Guadalupes and big bluegills in moving water.”

On three recent trips to the San Saba at Menard, I caught most of my fish on a Bass Assassin 2-inch curly-tail shad imitation or a small topwater popper. I also found Brown’s analysis to be correct. Although the odd 19- or 20-inch fish fell to the small soft plastic, Zoom lizards consistently produced bigger fish.

While fishing is the main attraction here, it’s just part of what makes this little river such big fun.

Another is that the stream is so … well, unlikely. There are no grand vistas over deep river valleys, as in Kerrville or Junction. No “water recreation area” signs or theme parks or tube rentals.

In fact, the river is so neatly tucked away between the low hills, you could drive right past it without knowing it’s there. I like to think of it as God’s doodle.

It’s as if – occupied with some more important but not very demanding act of creation – He allowed His finger to rest here, at what would one day be the Schleicher-Menard County line.

Clear, sweet water gushed from the ground, and green blossomed on the sere landscape at the northern edge of the Edward’s Plateau. Intrigued, He drew the line out. He traced elegant curves, lightly twining braids of water over limestone. And everywhere the river went, the green followed.

Like any river in a semi-arid land, the San Saba at the edge of the Texas Hill Country is the giver of life and the arbiter of fortunes.

The Spanish settled here midway through the 18th century, hoping for riches both spiritual and temporal. Their success on both counts apparently was limited.

In 1758, Commanches burned Mission Santa Cruz de San Saba, despite the presence of a nearby fort. Soldiers and priests alike abandoned the area for good in 1770. The fort, Presido San Luis de las Amarillas, became a popular camping spot for Indians and the occasional adventurer searching for the still-lost San Saba mine.

The ruins of the old presidio still brood on the western bank of the river above town.

After the Civil War, buffalo soldiers from Fort McKavett, at the headwaters of the San Saba, pushed the frontier back and made the land along the stream safe for pioneers from more settled regions.

The river must have seemed to them an oasis in this near-desert. It at least made life here possible. The newcomers would harness the river, slaking their thirsty fields and livestock with its waters.

Their descendents today treasure the stream for the same reason, and use it much the same way.

“Typically the water levels are high until people start irrigating about mid-May,” said Brent Frazier, owner of San Saba River Adventures. “Even then, trips are still possible in the western part of the county. During the fall, the water level rises when people stop irrigating crops and the river runs good all winter.”

Frazier’s favorite river segment is from the Bois d’Arc road crossing about eight miles west of town.

“Cow lilies and other vegetation provide good bass habitat, and it’s a stretch anyone can paddle,” Frazier said.

Wildlife viewing also can be quite good.

“We see whitetails, turkey, armadillos, beavers, nutria and a wide variety of birds,” he said. “On that segment you’ll pass under a heron rookery and right past a black vulture roost.”

“There’s a lot of uncharted water on this river,” Brown seconded. “The crossings are a long ways apart. It’s a pretty wild river in places and you’re liable to see anything.”

Anything but another angler. It’s unusual to see anyone on the San Saba River, and unheard of to run into more than a couple other paddlers on a day-long trip. It’s just a little too far off the beaten path, a little too little, to have caught kayakers’ attention.

That’s changing, though, since Frazier opened his business a little more than a year ago. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is considering designating a portion of the stream near Menard a Texas Paddling Trail, and buzz on Internet message boards has already inspired more than a couple of kayak anglers to make the trek to Menard.

Brown said he welcomes the company.

“Here’s the thing about kayak fishermen,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of them aren’t going to remove a fish. They’ll take a picture and put it right back where they caught it.”

Besides, he said: “If the fish get a little shy, I’ll just work a little harder.”

If you go ...

Menard can be found about half-way between Eden and Junction, near the very center of Texas. U.S. Hwys 83 and 190 run through town, as does State Hwy. 29. Brent Frazier at San Saba River Adventures
offers guided fishing trips for $150/person for a full-day trip, $25 each additional paddler. He rents boats from his stable of a dozen Wilderness Systems Tarpon 120s and Tarpon 140s for $25/day. Shuttle service anywhere in Menard County is $20.

Menard has three mid-range motels in town – two advertise free wireless internet service. For a real treat (and even more fishing), try Hat Creek Cabins,
just east of town. Rates for two-bedroom cabins on this ranch start at $120. Be sure to try the Sideoats Bakery & Café, on the main drag in Menard. Sideoats offers delicious, homemade food and truly stellar coffee at reasonable prices until 8 p.m. each day.

[A note about the photos: Rooster with his big bass; a Guadalupe bass that fell to a beadhead wooly bugger fly; a Bald cypress growing alongside the San Saba; Rooster running the falls between 8-mile and town; Brent works a slow stretch of river.]