Thursday, December 28, 2006


The new year is shaping up to be busy, busy, busy.

A little less than a year ago I started talking with the editors at Texas Sporting Journal about writing a series on coastal kayak fishing. That led to a regular paddling column in the magazine and March 2 – Texas Independence Day – we’ll launch the Texas Kayak Safari.

Over the course of the spring and summer – on weekends, holidays and whatever vacation days I can scrounge – I’ll paddle the nearly 400 miles between the Rio Grande and Sabine Pass.

There will be lots of fishing involved, but I’ll also make time to talk about some of the challenges facing the Texas Gulf Coast in the 21st Century.

It’s a trip I’ve been wanting to take since about the beginning of the decade.

While the coastal voyage was taking shape I was fortunate enough to land a deal to write FalconGuide’s “Paddling Texas,” an inland paddling guide book. So whatever time I’m not on the salt, I’ll be somewhere on a river or stream.

Industry response, to the coastal project, in particular, has been overwhelmingly positive. I’m getting help from my friends at Hobie, Wilderness Systems, Ocean Kayak and Malibu Kayaks. Cabela’s, TFO, Pflueger-Shakespeare and GSI Outdoors Cookware also have signed-on.

Friends in the paddling community have been generous with their offers of information, company, shuttle services and places to crash and get a hot shower.

To help keep track of my busy schedule – and to let folks know where I’ll be any given weekend – I’ve added a calendar feature to this blog. You can find it at the bottom of the sidebar column to the right.

Both projects are going to be mighty interesting, and I’m looking forward to what the next 12 months brings.

If you see a trip that fits your schedule and you’d like to come along, give me a shout.

This weekend I'm headed to the tropical tip of Texas to chase snook out of a kayak with my buddy Danny.

Over the last 10 years we've spent New Year's Eve together in San Salvador, Tuzla and Houston, but I think this will be the first one we've spent fishing.

Not a bad way to cap 2006 and ring in the New Year ....

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

"... one of the most exiting times of my life!"

I began a long post about our great adventure in South Austin today ... full of trivia about caves and caving and karst invertebrates and ... well, after reading my 7-year-old's journal entry on the same topic, I think I'll let him tell the story.

Reprinted with Patrick's kind permission:

I will say this: after the three boys returned from their guided tour of the South Caverns (a couple of us old dads opted for a snooze in the slightly more spacious Travis County Room), they emerged from the passageway exclaiming: "That was the tightest place we've ever come out of!"

A moment of silence, then my brother and I together say: "Second tightest ...."

Here's what it (not the Birth Canal, but some other pieces of our adventure) looked like:

A big thanks to Aimee and Geoff, Patrick and Lauren, for helping make a great day-after-Christmas memory!

Get Wet Quick, Panama-style

[This story -- my first crack at a "destination" piece -- appeared on Dec. 15, 1999. I thought it was lost forever, but waddaya know?! I found it!]

Portobelo. Christopher Columbus named it in 1502, then left. Sir Francis Drake burned it 70 years later, then came back to die of dysentery in 1596. The transshipment point for Spain's South American riches, the city was plundered by pirate Henry Morgan in 1671.

It was pretty much downhill after that.

But after a hard-Iuck half-millennium, Portobelo lives up to its name: beautiful port. And while it doesn't have the rep of the Pacific side's Coiba Island, today it's one of Panama's hottest dive destinations

Enjoy a (dirt-cheap) romantic dive
Part of the allure is this: Portobelo is accessible. For quick jaunts, or for those who want to combine a weekend of reef diving with whitewater rafting on the Rio Chagres or a deep-sea fishing trip on the Pacific, a Portobelo itinerary can help maximize bottom time.

Six U.S. cities offer non-stops to Panama; flight time from Miami is under three hours. Rent a car at Tocumen International Airport, and it's a quick hour and twenty minutes to the dock if you're even anxious to get wet and load nitrogen.

But Portobelo's proximity isn't its only charm. It's the namesake of a lush, 86,000-acre national park that includes Spanish fortifications (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and more than 40 miles of protected coastline. The coral reefs are close to shore and in great shape. Wrecks - spanning four centuries of bad navigation and worse luck -litter the seabed.

Los Farollones, also known as the Lighthouse, is one of the most popular dives here and the plentiful snapper, lobster, and barracuda make it worth the boat ride. Closer-in, Drake's Island and Isla Coco offer shallow dives with lots of reef life, but suffer more during the rainy season when the bay silts up.

But, let's clarify: a really bad day here means 25-30 foot viz. More than twice that is typical, and good days offer 100-plus feet of visibility. Mid-

December through mid-April is officially the dry season, so conditions are best during the months most yanquis are dreaming of someplace better.

If you want to get real deep, real quick, try Punta Salmedina, but check the conditions first -the currents on the seaward side really rip. The inland side is a good dive any day. It stays shallow and offers lots of colorful wildlife

At the end of a three-tank day, or between dives, take a break at El Torre. The bi-Ievel cafe is on the right- hand side of the road between the dive shops and Portobelo, and features a bilingual menu. The friendly staff cooks up a mean $5 smoked chicken in the brick tower that gives the place its name.

Or, you can just kick back in a hammock on the dock or under a bojillo, Panama's ubiquitous thatched-roof gazebo. Watch the coconut palms sway in the breeze. Listen to some salsa or reggae. And reflect that old Chris, who never so much as put his head under the water here, named this place better than he knew.

Paradise at half the price
The mass exodus of the American military from Panama during 1999 has not resulted in greatly reduced prices for Caribbean diving in this country, but it has thinned the number of diving operations in the Portobelo area. With easy access from Panama City, Portobelo remains popular with locals -Panamanians and ex- pats alike. If you want to experience paradise at half the price of many other dive spots, head south before the rest of the world discovers this gem.

The dive shops
The best of the local dive shops is Panama Dive Adventures (011-507-448-2135, e-mail:, a new operation with old Portobelo hands Henry Moran and Fred Clark. Fred and Henry offer Spartan but adequate accommodations for less than the price of a steak dinner, as well as a limited menu. Dives range up to around $20, plus air (the first tank is just over $5 per day, with discount refills).

The equipment here is in good shape, and the friendly staff is committed to quality customer service. Panama Dive Adventures' biggest draw is on-site PADI instruction from a "resort" course that allows you to dive under close supervision, and Open Water through Divemaster and a number of specialties.

Scuba Portobelo (011-507-261-2841 or 4064), an affiliate of Scuba Panama in Panama City, also offers PADI instruction, but only at their Panama City Dive Center. Nautilus Dive Club (011-507 -448-2035), the first operation on the left before you hit the town of Portobelo, does not have instructors on-staff, but like the other two shops has rooms for rent. Javier Freiburghaus is the owner.

All of the Portobelo area dive operations have equipment for rent (non-diving guests can snorkel from the dock or catch the boat to one of the nearshore islands), and if the number of guests at one shop outstrips accommodations, they will arrange accommodations at the other shops or in town. All of the operations listed here offer meals, and there are a number of restaurants in the area. Call ahead for reservations and package deals.

Getting there
More than a dozen domestic and international carriers offer flights to Panama's Tocumen International Airport, and most connect through either Houston or Miami. A curious bonus of the Miami-Panama route is an overflight of Cuba. At five miles high, it's the closest many Americans will get until the embargo is lifted. Be aware that everybody passing through Tocumen –even Panamanians -must pay a $20 airport departure tax.

Both Panama Dive Adventures and Scuba Panama will make airport pick-ups as part of a dive package -be sure to ask about this when you call. Or, if you would like a little more flexibility, Avis,(800) 331-1084; Hertz (800) 654-3001; and Budget, (800) 472-3325, all have
rental operations at the airport in Panama City.

If you're renting a car, here's how to get to the dock: Take the Trans-lsthmus Highway (Highway 3) northwest out of Panama City and across the Continental Divide. About nine miles short of the port city of Colon, hang a right at the El Rey supermarket in Sabanitas. When you reach the end of the road (about 15 miles), you're at Portobelo. The dive shops are actually along a stretch of the road about five miles before Portobelo. Look for them on the left-hand (ocean) side.

The official currency of Panama is the Balboa, which "is freely interchanged with the U.S. dollar." That makes sense, because it is the U.S.dollar. There's no need -or way -to exchange money. Major credit cards are widely accepted.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Santa sucks (or, the miracle of snow)

Oh, not really. I suppose the jolly old fat man's okay.

It's the whole Christmas thing I'm not too crazy about. I have a Grinch t-shirt around here somewhere ... need to go find it and wear it the rest of the day.

A couple of Christmases stand out as memorable, for better or worse ....

The "miracle" Christmas Eve snowfall in the Coastal Bend, back in 2004, for instance. That was a good one. The novelty of snow in South Texas saved the day.

Christmas 1998 was something different: sand provided solace. I spent half the day at the rim of a volcanic crater, the other half I spent playing a pick-up game of coconut football with my buddy Danny and a couple of Navy guys on a Pacific beach near La Libertad, El Salvador.

The first Christmas my son, Patrick, was old enough to really understand what was going on ... that one was pretty cool.

Back in 1996, I spent the day of Christmas -- and I mean, starting at about 06:30 -- touring the northeastern part of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

I recall I was in a foul mood. It was cold and bleak ... well below freezing, but barren. The landscape was all black, leafless trees and frozen, muddy ruts.

The kind of weather where if you were stupid enough to touch your tongue to the barrel of your rifle, it would stick.

I can't actually think of why anyone would do that, but anyhow ....

I had been assigned to accompany the Chief of Chaplains on his round of base camps.

What that meant in practice was something like 10 hours mostly spent jouncing about in an up-armored Humvee, cracking my ass on the "ballistic blanket" (fitted kevlar inserts, supposed to protect us from mine strikes), trying not to succumb to hypothermia.

Chaplain (Maj. Gen.) Don Shea was a short, stocky Irishman with a shock of white hair. Not too bad a guy for a two-star, and not to bad a fellow for a priest either. By the time I met him, Shea had done tours in Vietnam (about the time I was born), in Desert Storm and in lots of other places.

He wore the Master Parachutist badge, and -- on his Class As -- the Silver Star and Purple Heart. At least that's what his bio said, as I recall.

Pretty "hooah" for a padre.

Anyway, so off we go in a four-vehicle convoy, some poor schmuck in the trail vehicle manning a .50 cal. I think we made five stops that day, Shea hearing confessions and offering Christmas mass at each checkpoint and forward operating base.

I was a newlywed at the time and had been stuck in Bosnia for more than half a year and I was angry to still be there. I missed my family, missed my wife, missed the comforts of home.

To tell the truth, I was the sole reveler at my own private pity party. I was just pretty pissed all the way around.

At every stop, Shea turned to me and asked if I'd be hearing mass (he'd established early-on that I was Catholic).

"No, thanks Father. Maybe at the next stop," I'd reply, then hang out with the grunts providing vehicle security while the general ducked into another tent to offer a little spiritual solace to the troops.

Finally, we were waved through Checkpoint Charlie at the zone-of-separation, the no-man's land between mostly Muslim BiH and the self-proclaimed, mostly Orthodox Republika Srpska.

The tan GP medium tent there, with a white plywood steeple afixed to the peak, was our last stop.

Again, I shrugged-off Shea's invitation.

Something, though, made me reconsider, and I slipped past the flap, removing my helmet and taking a seat in the last row of folding chairs.

I don't remember the padre's homily that day, though I remember thinking it wasn't all that bad. I do remember that as I knelt, I felt a loss at what to pray for, what to even say to a God I was having trouble anymore believing existed.

Finally, I prayed this: "Father, take care of my family on this day. Keep them safe, and allow me to return home to them ... And, God, so long as I'm stuck in this hell-hole, could we at least have a white Christmas?"

At the conclusion of the mass, Shea bade us -- the peacekeepers -- go in peace.

I swung my helmet onto my head, and rifle in hand ducked through the tent flap.

As I did, something soft and wet landed on my cheek. I looked up, and a flurry of white swirled around the steeple.

It snowed, and snowed and snowed.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

In which your humble correspondent is induced to ponder the art and science of fly fishing

Casting an Enrico Puglisi streamer on a 7-weight outfit while standing in frigid knee-deep water for hours and hours at some point becomes something like work.

And the more tired I become, the more mistakes I make.

I lose control of my fly line ... a passable loop becomes a tangle, meets itself in mid-air, falls in ruins to the surface of the water .... or, the heavy fly smacks me between the shoulder blades, awakens me to the fact that I need to slow down, take a breather, relax a little.

I've been fishing since I was ... well, at least since I was 3, maybe earlier. I learned to cast on an open-faced reel and have a pretty well-educated thumb.

I learned a lot over the years about lure selection and presentation and the life histories of the species I pursued and when and where to find fish ....

But I was reluctant to even try fly fishing. My Uncle Elmer once told me that fly fishing wasn't about catching fish, it was about "communing with the water column."

It didn't seem terribly efficient to me and -- to be honest -- I was put-off by what I perceived as the elitism of that particular subculture of angling.

It can be expensive, to begin with. The gear is pretty specialized and a lot of the stories I'd read about folks pursuing fish with the long rod involved exotic destinations or "private" waters.

Not for me, I thought.

Really, though, I think I stayed away for so long mostly because I knew I'd like it. Kind of how I've deliberately avoided going to Florida to fish, afraid I'd never come back or that somehow it would lead to long-term infidelity to my own, dear Texas coast.

Rick Roberts of the Snook Foundation said: "Oh, c'mon Aaron, it's not that good." Then, rather gleefully, I thought: "It's better!"

He could have been talking about fly fishing.

Last January, at the ripe old age of 36, I had my first casting lesson. At an angler education area chief's convocation at Oak Island Lodge, TPWD's education chief, Steve Hall, offered fly fishing instruction.

As it turned out, I was the only student for the first lesson and I got about an hour-and-a-half of high-quality, one-on-one help.

I was hooked. A couple of times. Once in the back of the head, once on the sleeve of my fishing shirt .... Seriously, I couldn't put the fly rod down.

That was on a Saturday. Sunday afternoon I stopped on the way back to Austin, with one of the "school" rods, and caught my first sunfish on a popper.

Monday I went to Cabela's and bought a 6-weight outfit. Tuesday after work I caught a pretty nice largemouth bass.

Thursday and Friday were carp days, throwing high-floating steelhead flies (I thought they looked sufficiently like pieces of french fry or biscuit) to trophy-size common carp.

One I caught that week bottomed-out my 25-lb scale and, based on measurements, would have topped the current state fly fishing record for the species.

It went into the record books as a 25-lb. water body record on the fly.

By the end of the day Friday I had broken my 6-weight on a huge fish, replaced it, and decided I was -- if not ready, at least anxious -- for saltwater.

Sunday I landed my first speckled trout on a "Bunny Gotcha" pattern.

Steve called it moving at warp speed. Other people called it obsession.

I felt frustration ... frustration that my loops weren't tighter, that my casts weren't longer, that I was missing strikes.

I still feel that frustration, and, honestly, I could use some more expert instruction.

But I love the long rod and usually at least once an outing, I can find my rhythm and I'm hauling and the line is shooting straight and true and suddenly I can feel the thinner running line between the fingers of my left hand and I can actually drop the fly just there, right where I want it.

In those moments, I find the sport simply sublime.

I've learned, too, that fly fishing has advantages over conventional tackle. A bit of feather and fur on a hook doesn't spook a fish like a half-ounce topwater plug crashing down onto the water.

A quick roll-cast can reposition a fly in front of a moving fish in about the time it takes to even think about retrieving a conventional lure and casting again.

Since I started my fly fishing odyssey, I've met a growing number of other, pretty regular guys who have recognized the same advantages of the long rod ... average folks who aren't necessarily spending weekends matching the hatch on the Bighorn River or stalking bonefish in the Seychelles.

Guys who, like me, think an 8-weight and a spoon fly make a nice addition to their redfish arsenals, or get a jolt out of seeing a lunker largemouth crash a popping bug.

A little company up in Dallas, of all places, has done a lot to break down fly fishing's elitist image. Temple Fork Outfitters began offering their own rods and reels a few years back with the stated goal of setting new standards for value and performance.

When Lefty Kreh signed-on with TFO back in February 2003, here's what the company said:

"Those of us fortunate enough to call Lefty Kreh a friend know that flyfishing is not an elitist sport. Affordability has long been a barrier for those wanting to get started ... Together we will address the needs of the industry and we make the following pledge: 'Our goal is to increase participation in and awareness of flyfishing by offering the best possible combination of price and performance in rods.'”

And that's important, because as much as cost can be a barrier into getting into the sport, so can trying to learn how to cast with a rod that won't load right.

The simplicity of the equipment is deceptive. It's one of the marvels of fly fishing that the science, the technology, is hidden in the modulus of the graphite of your rod, the care with which it was wrapped ... or in the chemical composition of your fly line, or the smoothness of a disc drag.

What I've figured out in the last year is that fly fishing is in the end a very pure distillation of what I've always loved about fishing -- just being "out there," trying to out-think an animal with a brain the size of a nut while soaking up the natural beauty of live water and limestone, of wind and wave and spartina marsh.

I reject the notion that -- within accepted ethical and legal limits -- there is a "right way" and a "wrong way" to fish. Or even a "better" way. I know people who get a tremendous amount of enjoyment out of sitting on the bank of a stream or leaning on the railing of a pier and fishing, with bait, on the bottom.

So long as they're fishing responsibly, taking only what they will use and no more, obeying local conservation laws, I say more power to 'em. It makes me happy to see anyone enjoy fishing, no matter how they choose to pursue the sport.

As for me, I don't think I'll ever give up my topwater plugs and soft plastics, not completely.

But fly fishing is a lot like paddling. It's about slowing down, finding a rhythm and living in the moment.

Uncle Elmer was right, after all: fly fishing is about communing with the water column. Turns out that's all I ever really wanted to do anyway.

Friday, December 22, 2006

The river is calling

Actually, I think it's the stripers I hear. Or maybe the trout. They have tiny, tiny little voices, the trout do, with a trace of a midwestern accent.

I have some free time ... starting in about an hour, when work for the week is officially over, and I thought perhaps I'd go home and do some housecleaning and maybe curl-up with a book and a cup of tea for a while. But ...

But tomorrow is going to be cold and wet, and today is sunny with a high of 67 and there's already a boat on top of my truck and I think I'll fish while I can.

Fishing, even when not catching, is for me a form of therapy. Pretty cheap therapy, even when you factor in the cost of gas, flies, rods and reels ... the more I do it, the cheaper it becomes (on an hourly basis, I mean).

Maybe I'll stop in at Cabela's, visit with RW and Jason and Ryan and Dan ... see what folks have been catching and put some line on my new 5wt outfit.

If I fish for twice as long this afternoon, or maybe go again tomorrow, that should even-out the cost, right?

I'm going to have to come up with a name for "fishing-as-therapy." Not gestalt therapy, not Freudian analysis .... When I go fishing with folks from work, we call it "single-line sampling," and "resource assessment."

If you have any ideas, post 'em in the comments below, will ya?

In the meantime ... the river is calling. Gotta run.

Monday, December 18, 2006

A book deal

Well, the big news this week is a contract to write FalconGuide's "Paddling Texas." I'm still a little floored by the whole thing.

They seem like nice folks with a great line of guide books and they're actually going to pay me to kayak the state's inland waterways. Okay, they're not going to pay me a lot, but you gotta start somewhere, right?

It's funny how things work. This actually isn't my first book deal. A couple of years ago I was going to write a wadefishing book. That fell apart with the rest of my life post-divorce, and I've been kicking myself ever since.

So this sort of feels like a second chance, a shot at redemption. And, oddly, I was pretty sure I was going to be writing a paddling book this year, I just wasn't contemplating this book.

Everything just kind of fell into place ... from the time I sent the first e-mail to the aquisition editor (also the founder of Falcon Press) until the time he put the contract in the mail, something like 14 hours had elapsed.

The book I thought I was going to write this year was a coastal kayaking book, a follow-on to a Texas Sporting Journal series that will take me from Boca Chica to Sabine Pass. And, ironically, Globe Pequot (the press that owns the FalconGuides imprint) was on my very short list of publishers to contact ....

So maybe I'll be writing that book, too, after all.

However it works out, I'm profoundly grateful for the opportunity. I'm going to be doing a loooooot of paddling over the next 12 months. Which means 2007 is probably going to be a pretty good year.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Pleasant day on a pleasant river

For only the second time in my life, I was late for the launch of a fishing trip yesterday. I hate that.

I've gotten used to the sort of peculiar way time stretches and warps in my life, delivering me late to meetings and destinations.

It's a personal oddity. Or maybe some sort of rip in the fabric of relativity specific to ... oh, hell; often I'm just not very punctual.

Except for fishing, especially when I'm meeting people.

The plan was to put in at the Canyon Dam tailrace and float down to 4th Crossing on the Guadalupe River. It's that time of year -- trout time -- and TPWD is stocking every week. Trout Unlimited has been stocking the "special regulation" zone since November.

And, two weeks ago, John Erskine landed the new fly fishing state record striped bass from a pool below 4th crossing.

Reading his account, you get the feeling he earned that fish over the last decade or so.

So, despite the low water and slow flow (only about 60 cubic feet per second, or one-third of "good" flow), hopes were high. Mine were, anyway.

But by the end of the day, I'd seen just two fish: one clutched in the talons of an osprey, and another in the beak of a kingfisher.

That says something else about the day, though, doesn't it?

The osprey and the kingfisher I mean ... It was a lovely day, and despite the nearly solid residential development along about four of the first five miles of the Guadalupe below the dam, it's still a pleasant river with some surprises.

One of those surprises was the fellow who came down to the water, coffee in hand, and asked me and my cousin Ray what we were fishing for.

"Something with fins," I think I answered.

He then stood on the bank and pointed out the areas where he'd seen trout rising and another spot where a lunker smallmouth makes its home. He didn't have to do that, and it was a nice gesture.

Even the signs along the bank warning river-goers not to exit the water on private property are polite.

One thing the Guadalupe between Canyon Dam and New Braunfels is not is wild.

There's some wildness here, to be sure, but there are simply too many homes and too many raft and tube outfitters lining the banks to pretend you're in the middle nowhere.

I first visited this river as a middle-schooler, camping along its banks with my friend Steve's family. It was early spring, and we caught trout as I recall.

I've paddled a lot of Texas water since then, and I find that my preference is for places a little more remote.

But the Guadalupe is fun. It's a pretty river, mostly well-behaved so long as the dam holds, and ... well, I'll say it again: pleasant.

And since there are a few more trout-fed stripers in there, I reckon I'm going to have to return. Soon.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Misty day on Town Lake

Okay, I was just kidding. You didn't really think I was going to quit posting, did you?

Central Texas weather has been a bit sketchy lately; after months of wishing for one cool day, I'm ready for summer again.

Yesterday, I just had to get out of the house. Despite a light mist and a temp hovering around 50 degrees, I decided to go for a paddle. And heck, if I'm going to dump a boat in the water, might as well take a rod and reel along with me, right?

Turned out to be lovely paddling weather when I put in at Redbud Isle Park, just below the dam ... I entertained myself watching a couple of kingfishers and a blue heron (they always put me in mind of crochety old men).

Coming around the island, I saw a likely looking spot against the north bank of the channel and on my third cast hooked up with the little fella pictured at right. A bit farther upstream, I coasted into a shoal of bait and on my first cast hooked the second fish.

As I was fighting the second fish I could see several other bass chasing the baitfish ... one with the tail of what looked like a shad hanging out of his mouth. It was an unlikely afternoon to go for a paddle, but I'm glad I went.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Customizing your kayak

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

If you’re a woman, you might think of it as accessorizing. “Gear guys” will think in terms of customizing. Most of us just call it “rigging.”

Half the fun of having a new boat is rigging it the way you want it – making it truly yours in terms of form and functionality. And let me tell you, the paddle sports industry is here to help you.

A number of manufacturers offer “angler” models of their boats – kayaks already outfitted with rod holders, anchor systems and the like.

My advice? Do it yourself or let the dealer do it for you.

“We can outfit a boat with whatever a buyer wants for the same price or cheaper,” says Steve Messana, owner of Austin Canoe & Kayak. “We try to do what we think makes the most sense for the new paddler.”

The options? Rod holders lead the list, Messana says, either flush-mount “rocket launcher” holders or, increasingly, adjustable post mount holders like the popular Scotty line.

Messana prefers the post mount system because the same mount can be used for a number of different accessories, and, he said, it does a better job of keeping gear on the boat.

“If you’ve got an adjustable mount, you can keep rods down lower to avoid trees,” he pointed out. “What people also realize is that the flush mount is no good for fly fishing.”

Scotty’s post mount system also accepts a purpose-built 360-degree light on a pole – a USCG-required safety item if paddling before daylight or in reduced visibility. Scotty’s basic rod holders run from about $20 to $23, depending on the model. The lights: $37-$44.

The only other state or federal requirements for canoes and kayaks are “an efficient sound-signaling device” (think “whistle”) and Personal Flotation Device.

Oddly enough, anchors aren’t on the list. Messana offers two models – a 3-pound, folding grapnel for $14 and a 1.5-pound plow-type anchor for $16. He recommends the plow for coastal applications, and the grapnel for rocky and brushy rivers and lakes.

“We have a lot of repeat customers on anchors,” he says, with a wry grin.

Open-water anglers may want to invest $27 in a drift anchor, sometimes also called a sea anchor, drift sock or chute.

“A person buying a drift chute has been fishing for a while,” Messana says. “It’s typically not a newbie item.”

Of course, aside from the required safety gear and a paddle, nothing more is needed to enjoy paddling. Paddling and kayak fishing, after all, are essentially minimalist activities.

“If you’re just throwing a rod on the boat and going – and I did that for years – that’s fine,” says Capt. Filip Spencer, a Corpus Christi fishing guide who won Texas and National Kayak Angler of the Year honors in 2005.

After a quarter century of kayak fishing, Spencer started using what is perhaps the most expensive kayak accessory – a rudder – just this year.

“When it comes to turning, when it comes to drift fishing, they’re great,” he says. “It’s a great feature to have, but they do run about $250.”

Spencer says he wouldn’t bother putting a rudder on a short boat.

“A 13-, 15-, 16-foot boat, yeah,” he says.

As Texas kayak anglers follow their California cousins into deeper waters, more and more offshore paddlers are adding fish finders to their boats. Scotty makes a bracket for that, too.

"Last year I installed one fish finder,” says Messana. “This year I’ve done five. I think a lot of people are doing it themselves.”

Other DIY projects feature an amazing variety of milk crates, coolers and the like that have taken-up residence in kayak tank wells.

“You name it,” Messana says. “People will go to Office Depot, the Container Store, or behind their neighborhood 7-11; they’ll get a crate. Then they’ll add rod holders. Or maybe they won’t.”

The point being, of course, that it’s up to the individual.

“The possibilities are endless,” Messana says, but warns that new paddlers should strive to contain their accessorizing exuberance – at least for a while.

“If you’re new to the sport or you just bought a new kayak, don’t rig it out until you’ve paddled it a few times,” he says. “See how much gear you really bring, where you want your rod holders. Don’t spend $300 rigging out your boat if you’re only going to use $100 worth of that rigging.”

[The first and final two photos courtesy of Team Ocean Kayak.]

Friday, December 08, 2006

Wendee probably said it better

This will be my last post for a while. I've been browsing other blogs, and ... well, it's not so much that mine is awful, but there are some other folks doing some really fine blogging out there.

Wendee Holtcamp, for instance. Wendee's a frequent contributor to Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine (among many others) and she's an actual, real-life scientist.

Her blog,, covers everything from religion to hiking the Guadalupe Mountains to writing and divorce and motherhood ....

She writes unironically about the untimely death of Steve Irwin. I couldn't do that.

Wendee's braver than I am, and probably smarter, too. She's certainly a very fine writer and she drives around with rubber boots and waders in the back seat of her car.

But I don't think she fishes much.

You want fishing, check back here. I'll post again. Someday.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

There be (no) monsters here

When I was 13, my folks offered me a choice between a sailboat and a horse. Being young and naive, I opted for the boat.

Boats, I reckoned, don't need to be fed, curried and exercised.


The practical effect of having a boat at my disposal, though, was that -- suddenly -- the 80+ square miles of Aransas Bay were mine to explore.

Looking back, and as a parent myself now, I can't imagine what the heck my folks were thinking when they dropped me off at sunrise and told me to be back for supper.

Oh, yes ... "Wear your life jacket," and "Don't forget to put on sunscreen!"

PFD buckled tight, my lunch, a gallon milk jug of tap water and a fishing rod stowed below the deck ... I'd take off. Sometimes I'd take a friend; sometimes I'd sail off all by myself.

I have wonderful memories of those days ... racing summer squalls off the Gulf, climbing mid-bay oil and gas production platforms and leaping into the cool, green waters ... hunting for mammoth teeth and fossilized sand dollars on the spoil islands; catching trout near an old, wrecked barge ... pacing curious dolphins who wondered, no doubt, just what kind of creature I was.

My mom worried about me, I know, and in retrospect I think it must have been my father who greenlighted those summer expeditions. As a youngster growing up on the shores of the same bay he was the proud skipper of an old skiff powered by a recalcitrant Montgomery Ward's 7.5hp outboard.

"It would usually get me to where I wanted to go," he's often said, "And then I'd row home."

I hope that, if I still lived in Rockport, I would allow my son to do the same at age 13.

I worry about my boy, though. And in that, I am not much different than most parents in the America of the early 21st Century.

Richard Louv, author of one of my favorite books of all time, Fly-Fishing for Sharks: An Angler's Journey Across America, in 2005 published Last Child in the Woods. It's a wonderful, thought-provoking look at what we are doing to our children by separating our kids from the outdoors.

Thought-provoking because Louv brings together a growing body of evidence that suggests the rise in childhood obesity, attention disorders and depression may be directly linked to what he calls "nature deficit disorder." Wonderful because he suggests ways that parents, educators, city planners, developers and others can begin to bridge the chasm between our children and the natural world.

One of the barriers Louv identifies that is keeping parents from allowing -- insisting on -- unstructured "play" time outdoors for their children is simply fear.

It's fear of strangers and fear of natural phenomena. We're afraid of sexual predators and crazed gunmen ... we're afraid of bears and lions, snakes and sharks. We're afraid of ... we're not even sure. We're just scared.

Fear of the unknown is nothing new; it's a fundamental human condition. In the dim, dark past -- four or five centuries ago, that is -- cartographers labeled the unknown: "There be monsters here."

But are there?

Perception and reality

Much of our fear stems not from our own experiences in the outdoors, but from news media reports that are ever more sensationalized. The 24-hour news cycle has networks, newspapers and local affiliates climbing over each other to grab our attention; it allows sensational stories to be reported again and again, and in greater depth than ever before.

A mountain lion attacks a child near Los Angeles, and within days sheriff's departments across Central Texas are flooded with calls about strange sounds in the night, missing pets, and shadowy glimpses of something large and tawny amongst the cedars.

News is the out-of-the-ordinary. News is tragedy. Disaster. Conflict. We don't watch what doesn't happen on TV. We don't hear about a perfectly enjoyable day in the outdoors for the simple reason that it is not newsworthy.

Supporting the notion that false perceptions sometimes outweigh reality, Louv quotes a Children's Defense Fund report from the mid1990s that claimed: "Every year since 1950, the number of American children gunned down has doubled."

The statement was widely reported in the mainstream media, though of course it is demonstrably false.

Prof. Joe Best of the University of Delaware debunks it: Were it true, in 1983, the number of American children gunned down would have been about 8.6 billion that year. In 1987, it would been greater than the estimated total of the world's population since the advent of humanity.

So what are the dangers to our children in the outdoors? Is nature likely to be lethal, or even very harmful?

On Aransas Bay -- and I've written elsewhere that I consider the more than 3,000 miles of Texas tidewater coastline to be a true wilderness, in many respects -- the answer is probably "no" (with a few caveats).

Dangerous people

Let's look at "stranger danger" first. That's the one I worry about most in relation to my own child, a bright, conscientious, level-headed 7-year-old.

The sad truth is, my son is probably at greater risk of falling victim to a predator in a shopping mall, on a neighborhood street or even his elementary school playground than on the waters of a Texas bay.

Predators congregate where the prey is. That's why lions hang out at watering holes on the Serengetti and trout and redfish pile-up at the mouths of sloughs and guts on an outgoing tide.

Since Jean Lafitte sailed away from the Texas coast a century and a half ago, our bays have been mostly free of folks who ply the waterways with the notion of harming others.

Peter Jenkins, the man who walked across the country, piloted a 25-foot Grady White alone from the tip of Florida to the Rio Grande back in the early 1990s.

On his journey around the Gulf of Mexico, he was threatened just once, when a couple of thugs attacked him in an effort to steal his boat as he entered Aransas Bay.

That shameful episode aside, it's almost certain the worst fate a young boater might face on our bays is indifference from a visiting angler unfamiliar with local mores (and international law, come to think of it) that dictate that a seafarer must always render aid to anyone in need on the water.


Drowning, of course, is an ever-present danger when on, in or near the water.

In 2004, 270 people in Texas died due to drowning ... they included infants in bathtubs, children in the surf, boating accident victims and families attempting to drive across swollen waterways.

By way of comparison, the flu took 3,170 lives, peptic ulcers claimed 213 and 1,040 Texans died in falls.

Many of the drownings that occurred on public waters were the result of boating accidents. A quick look at the state's statistics show the coast, though, to be relatively safe. Last year, for instance, Lakes Travis and Cedar Creek each recorded three boating accident fatalities ...

Galveston Bay, one of the busiest bodies of water in the nation, had only two. Aransas Bay and the Gulf of Mexico: none.

No doubt this has something to do with who is using the water and how they're using it. On Lake Travis, it's often college-age partiers, and fast boats and alcohol play a role. On Aransas Bay, it's anglers and sailors.

My approach to keeping Patrick safe from drowning is straightforward: I've insisted he learn to swim; he always wears a life preserver when aboard a boat and when around the surf or dangerous currents I keep a close eye on him. It's the best I can do, right now, but enough to make me comfortable that his risk of drowning is very low.

Sharks and other terrors

Remember Jaws? I do ... it kept me out of the water for an entire summer. Sharks, as very efficient and sometimes very large apex predators rightly inspire respect from those who venture into their native habitat.

In locales where people mimic sharks' natural prey -- where a surfer's silhouette looks an awful lot like a seal on the surface, for instance -- there is some slight danger of becoming un snaquillo de tiburon.

In Texas, we have neither seals nor seal-snacking sharks. Not regularly, anyhow. We do, though, have half-ton tiger sharks roaming our beaches and those suckers can wolf-down sea turtles like popcorn.

In the bays and in our nearshore waters, schools of blacktips hunt mullet and other fish, and bull sharks -- some quite large -- nose through the mud after crabs and rays and redfish.

In Texas, there have been 32 recorded shark attacks. Of those, three were fatal, and the last one of those occurred seven years before I was born.

Even factoring in the entire United States, with Florida's and Hawaii's relatively higher numbers of attacks and fatalities, an individual is 10 times more likely to be killed by a dog than a shark.

Setting aside instances of sheer stupidity and poor judgment -- sailing under the bow of a tanker in the ship channel, or launching a boat in a tropical storm -- I've concluded that the greatest danger on the Texas coast arises not from two-legged villians nor from great beasts lurking below the waves, but from a critter so small you'd need a microscope to observe it.

Bad bugs

Okay, it's not even the greatest danger ... it's just my personal boogeybug because the effects are so nasty.

Bacteria from the Vibrio family include V. cholarea, which causes cholera ... it's a real problem in developing countries but not so much here. Cholera's cousin V. vulnificus, though, touches someone I know, or a friend of a friend anyhow, almost every year.

Vibrio can enter the body either through a wound (cut, scrape, blister) or through seafood. It's a common cause of "food poisoning" from eating oysters.

About a third of the three dozen or so reported Vibrio cases in Texas each year are caused by V. vulnificus, and about a quarter of those are fatal. The bug seems to be limited by both salinity (it likes salinities lower than seawater) and temperature (infections peak in warmer months ... of course, that's when most folks are in the water, too).

Meridith Byrd, a TPWD biologist who studies harmfal algal blooms and keeps up on other little critters, like Vibrio, grew up in the Texas Coastal Bend and she says she never worries about Vibrio.

Should I be concerned, I asked her?

"Nah, not unless you’ve got risk factors: liver disorders (hepatitis, cirrhosis), diabetes, immunocompromising conditions (HIV/AIDS, cancer, autoimmune disorder such as lupus), recent gastric surgery or take antacids for an ulcer, hemochromatosis (metabolic iron disorder)," she told me. "Vibrio is not something that routinely causes problems in a normal, healthy person. Ninety-nine percent of the cases that make the news involve a victim with an already-compromised immune system."

Those cases, though, are horrific.

Two buddies go fishing in Matagorda Bay. A couple of days later each experiences swelling, and redness on extremities and suffer fevers and other flu-like symptoms. They go the hospital and one ends up losing a leg below the knee. The other dies.

Or a fishing guide notices a cut on his hand has become infected. It gets worse, and several days later he's in the hospital with the flesh rotting away from his arm (which is now split open from his wrist to his shoulder). For the next six months, he faces a repeated regimen of surgical debridement.

The killing blow, from Vibrio, is septocemia -- a condition that occurs when the bacteria enters the bloostream and causes a systemic infection. About half who enter that stage of the disease don't recover.

Despite my personal horrified fascination with this littlest monster, the good news is, it's still relatively rare to contract Vibrio. Deer kill something like 50 times the number of people who die from Vibrio in Texas each year. Furthermore, treatment in the early stages is a simple round of antibiotics.

Let us be clear: the Texas coast is in some places a remote and very harsh environment. Anyone who ventures into it should be prepared: take plenty of drinking water and wear sunscreen.

Know how to operate your vessel and wear a personal flotation device. File a float plan and, if you can, make sure you have some means of communication (cell phones work some places, but much better is a handheld VHF radio).

As for Patrick, I'll continue to educate him about the dangers above and below the water and how best to avoid them. A lot of it is just common sense.

I'll prepare him as best I can to safely enjoy the wilderness so near us. And then, I sincerely hope, I'll be brave enough to turn him lose to explore it on his own.

We're already talking about his boat ... it looks now like it will be a 10-foot, stitch-and-glue constructed dingy. He says he'll call it "Rascal."

[The first image is a detail from Sunrise with Sea Monsters, by John Mallord William Turner (1775-1851. It hangs in the Tate Gallery, London.]

Monday, December 04, 2006

A winter beach

Winter is my favorite season on the beach.

Sure, you miss-out on being able to get into the water. The fishing, too, is different ... maybe a bit slower.

But cold-weather beaches are campfire beaches and flotsam and jetsam beaches and beaches without bugs. Often they are beaches without other people.

They're also pompano beaches, and, in the dead of winter, trophy trout lurk between the sandbars.

I go to the beach as I fish: that is, I go when I can. Not when the weather is perfect, nor when the Solunar tables say it's dinnertime for the finny classes.

Looking at my calendar last week, I realized the first weekend in December might be my last chance this year to hit the sand. I asked Patrick if that's how he'd like to spend his Saturday.

"Sure," he said. "Can we fish?"

It made for a long day ... nearly 500 miles of driving, roundtrip, for a couple of cold hours on the rocks, beachcombing 'til dark and a stop at Padre Pizzaria. Patrick outfished me 3:1, and then consoled me by assuring me that, had I used bait and a circle hook, I too could have caught whiting until I was bored.

"Besides, Daddy," he said, "Usually you always catch the biggest fish."

Later -- much later -- as he was crawling into bed back in Austin, I asked him if going to the beach in coat and galoshes was worth the long drive.

"I think it was," he said as he slipped beneath the thick comforter. "It was our last chance to go for the whole year."