Monday, April 23, 2007

The Perfect Weekend

In his gripping, true, tale, The Perfect Storm, Sebastian Junger describes a combination of meteorological phenomena that came together in a way so rare as to create the type of storm seen only once a century, if that.

Thankfully, my perfect weekends lately come more frequently -- if not entirely routinely -- but they also rely on a combination of disparate elements that, together, create something rare.

And unlike the storm that swallowed the Andrea Gail, my perfect weekends are things of great joy. Take this past weekend, for instance.

It included an easy Friday-night dinner date with the adult I most like to spend time with. It was the perfect conclusion to a long work week.

Saturday, we paddled eight miles of the upper Guadalupe River with friends -- work, because it will be one of the stream segments profiled in Paddling Texas -- but the kind of work I'll take any old day. It's one of those perfect second jobs you hear about.

Saturday night it was off to Kerrville for a house concert at the home of cousins Paula and Marty. Bonnie Bishop put on a great show and I'm completely sold on house concerts as opportunities to hear live music. People actually listen!

Plus, Aunt Kathy and Uncle Bob were there, as were cousins Ray and Jordan ... good beer flowed freely and the food was great. Perfect.

Sunday, after a leisurely breakfast featuring the time-honored family recipe, "Snappy Eggs," Tam and I headed out for a Sunday drive.

Initially, I just wanted to see the Hill Country folding in on itself in the mist along the edges of Texas 16 west of Kerrville. From the top of the hill down to Kinky Friendman's Echo Hill Ranch is my favorite part of my favorite drive in the state. And it was beautiful. Perfect, even.

Since we were already there, we stopped at the first Hwy. 16 crossing of the crystal-clear Medina River.

I caught a beautiful 15-inch bass and a couple of sunnies, and Tamara caught two smallmouth bass -- her first. Honestly, we could have stopped right there and it would have been a perfect day.

But we kept going.

At Lost Maples State Natural Area, we hiked through a light rain up to the ponds on Can Creek and fished a little more.

On the way up, we spied a white-lined sphinx moth -- the so-called "hummingbird" moth -- sipping nectar from purple Prairie verbena along the edge of the trail.

Uncle Bob, not a dozen hours before, had described this intriguing little insect (he had seen it in Colorado) as we watched the hummingbirds at the feeders on Paula and Marty's porch. Perfect timing.

On the way back down, we watched for a while an unafraid Scrub jay go about its business, and then saw the jewel-like Indigo bunting on a feeder near the parking lot.

One bird I hadn't seen before, and one I hadn't seen in a very long time. Perfect.

Later, unwinding after the long road trip, I heard an Eastern screech owl trilling its "A" song over Bull Creek. What a lovely night sound, especially with a chorus of frogs in accompaniment. It was kind of the perfect end to a perfect weekend.

Sweet, live water with kayaks above and fish below; glimpses of nature's glory, primarily in blue -- blossoms and feathers; music, soulful and fresh and not 15 feet in front of me; catching up with family -- people I've known, and liked, literally all my life; the company of someone I've met only recently, a beautiful woman I'm proud to call my friend ... these are some of the things that, together, can make for a perfect weekend.

[About the photos: Happy paddlers on the upper Guadalupe River; me, with a Guadalupe bass-Smallmouth bass hybrid; Tamara in front of a spring falling into the Guadalupe; a white-lined sphinx moth sipping nectar from Prairie verbena; raindrops caught in a spider web; Blue-eyed grass, a member of the iris family.]

Patrick 1 -- Daddy 0?

Sunday afternoon, and I decide to take Patrick down to the lake to kill a little time. We belly up to the railing behind the LCRA's headquarters building at the bottom of Lake Austin, and before I have the fly rod unlimbered I see the first carp: it's a big one, playing hide-and-seek with the shadow of the dock at Hula Hut.

Patrick, meanwhile, is busy contemplating an earthworm someone left to dry on the concrete bulkhead. I cast between gusts of wind and one of several large carp -- a couple are in the 30-pound class -- mouths my fly before I strip it away. It will be the nearest-miss of the day.

Patrick decides he'll fish and makes a great first cast, right into the shadow of the dock, alongside a large, waterlogged tree limb. Several cranks into his retrieve and he announces something heavy is on the end of his line. I look down and see a flash of silver.

"Like, maybe a fish?" I ask.

"Oh yeah," he answers, "I have a fish!"

Patrick does a masterful job of keeping his rod tip high and his line tight as he negotiates the steps down to the lake-level landing. By himself, for the first time, he lips the bass and holds it up to be admired.

Lunch-goers at Hula Hut break into cheers and applause. Patrick gives an "aw-shucks" grin. I talk him through releasing the fish. I cast a few more times at the now utterly uninterested carp, Patrick observes the progression of crustiness in the discarded earthworm before deciding to commit it to the lake's food chain.

"You could use it as bait," I suggest. "It might catch a catfish."

"Why would I want to catch a catfish?" Patrick (now a many-bass-redfish-drum-trout-rainbow-and-speckled-ladyfish-mangrove snapper veteran) asks me.

My son has a point, I must concede, and rather than explain that some people fish for catfish, in fact pursue catfish with the fervor of a dedicated snook or striper angler, I silently pack up our gear.

On the way back to the truck, four times Patrick is stopped and congratulated on his catch. The shy grin reappears, and about the time we hit the parking lot he claps me on my lower back, as high as he can reach, and says: "It's okay Daddy. You usually catch a lot of fish."

He's done this before, provided comfort as eau de skunk wafts off me.

He's turning into the kind of angler I'll want to fish with. Not because he's my kid, but the kind -- like my friends Kendal and Dean and Brandon and Bobby -- who rejoices in another fisherman's good fortune and manages to remain modest about his own.

Which really makes the "score" irrelevant; we all win.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Where we are

Late last week I took a cyber-stroll by this site and realized it had been nearly a month since I'd posted anything new.

Kinda made me feel guilty.

So, below, you'll find a recap (with photos) of the most recent leg of the Texas Kayak Safari. Most of that information also lives at, so if you bopped on over there last month you probably already have read it.

There's more, and a different version, coming out in the magazine in the May/June issue. Pick it up at Barnes & Noble or your local news stand, or -- better -- go to the magazine Web site and sign-up for a subscription.

Weather forced a postponement of the Easter weekend paddling leg from Port Mansfield to Yarborough Pass; we had sleet and snow in Central Texas, and gusty north winds and temps in the 40s and 50s on the coast. It was a good weekend to do other things.

Hopefully that will be the last big blast of cold air until sometime around Thanksgiving. Bay waters are warming, spanish mackerel and kingfish already are showing up on the middle coast and with big bait balls moving along the shore the tarpon shouldn't be far behind.

Speaking of tarpon, I recently read an unpublished manuscript by Hart Stillwell. Stillwell was a legendary Texas writer who penned Hunting and Fishing in Texas and Hunting and Fishing in Mexico along with a novel and more. Back in the day, you could find his articles in True and Cosmopolitan (I'm not making this up) as well as Field & Stream and Outdoor Life.

This book, unearthed in an attic box at Texas State University's Alkerk Library by my colleague Steve Lightfoot, was to be titled Glory of the Silver King.

It's a fascinating look at changing conservation ethics and -- especially interesting to me -- the tarpon and snook fishery in South Texas and northern Mexico from the 1930s through the 1960s.

Flotsom and jetsam

From Wikipedia: Traditionally, flotsam and jetsam are words that describe goods of potential value that have been thrown into the ocean. There is a technical difference between the two: jetsam has been voluntarily cast into the sea (jettisoned) by the crew of a ship, usually in order to lighten it in an emergency; while flotsam describes goods that are floating on the water without having been thrown in deliberately, often after a shipwreck.

Lots of folks have questions about various aspects of the TSJ kayak journey, and I thought it might be helpful to provide answers here, and to wrap up some loose ends … bits and pieces of information that have been bobbing about in my brain for the past couple of months.

One question – or maybe it’s an observation, and it often goes unspoken – is whether this is truly an epic journey.

In my view, the answer is both yes and no. More than 380 miles from Mexico to Louisiana under paddle power … well, it’s a long way. Many segments, such as the one just completed, will include multiple days of paddling and camping miles from civilization and supported only by what we can carry in our boats.

But I’m not the first to try something like this. Swedish mountaineer and adventurer Renata Chlumska took just 32 days to kayak from Brownsville to New Orleans as part of her “Around America Adventure,” which began in July 2005.

Gene and Rachel Gore of South Padre Island paddled 404 miles of Texas coastline on the outside in May 2004. They did it in just 19 days. On surfboards. Rachel survived a mako shark attack on her board north of Port Mansfield.

In February 2003, Arthur Hebert and Larry Koenig of Louisiana set out to circumnavigate the Gulf of Mexico. From Grand Isle, Louisiana, they actually paddled as far as Isla Mujeres on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula in 139 days.

Chlumska, Hebert and Koenig all did their paddling in traditional, decked touring kayaks – the kind many folks suggested I use if I want to cover long distances quickly and comfortably.

I admire the beauty, speed and load-carrying capacity of sea kayaks, but they are very few paddlers’ first choice for fishing platforms.

My thought? Do this trip in the kinds of boats most of the nearly 8,000 members of the Texas Kayak Fisherman community use. Do it in a boat someone can go buy for $800 or less, and nearly anyone can paddle.

But, even this has been done, and done big. Just not in Texas. In 2005, “Kayak Kevin” Whitley completed a solo, 1,800 mile kayak fishing odyssey from Big Lagoon State Park in Pensacola, Fla. to his home in Norfolk, Va.

All that said, Dean made an observation as we were sitting around the campfire one night between South Padre Island and Port Mansfield: “Not many people – even people a lot younger than us – do this kind of thing anymore,” he said. “This really is an adventure.”

Another feature of this trip that makes it different – and it’s a decision we just made – is to paddle nearly all of our miles on the “inside,” behind the barrier islands. It’s almost counter-intuitive, but the most remote waters on the Texas coast are in the bays. It also removes from the equation the one variable that’s difficult to overcome: big surf.

Finally – and this has come up a lot – while it would be cool to knock-out the entire trip in 30+ paddling days straight-through, I have a day job. So do my regular paddling partners. So we’re making the trip in segments or legs, mostly long weekends.

What’s the point of all this?

Well, we’re paddling the entire Texas coast for a couple of reasons. The first, and the one that keeps me going, is that it’s just plain fun. I enjoy kayaking. I enjoy fishing. I have a longstanding love affair going with Texas’ inshore waters, and I truly believe there is no better way to experience that environment than in a kayak.

As we began planning this trip, it occurred to us that a lot of folks are going to the same old launch points and paddling the same old water … week after week, year after year. Granted, some of those spots – Lighthouse Lakes comes to mind – are primo paddling areas by anyone’s definition. But they represent just a fraction of the more than 3,000 miles of tidewater coastline in Texas.

We figured that, by paddling the entire coast and writing about it, perhaps we could inspire other kayakers and anglers to sample some of the more remote waters the Lone Star State has to offer.

Finally – and this has been an important consideration from the beginning – I wanted to get a sea-level look at the entire coast at the beginning of the 21st Century. Because changes, they’re a’comin’.

As I’ve hinted before, we can be hard on our land and our water here in Texas. The Gulf coast and in particular our bays and estuaries face some truly vexing challenges in the coming years. Among these are booming development, freshwater inflow from increasingly taxed rivers and streams, energy development and point pollution from industry.

The news isn’t all bad, and the state of our red drum fishery is indicative of that. It’s better now than it has been anytime in the past 30 years.

Yeah, but why you?

Well, I thought of it and then presented the idea to a publication that was just crazy enough to take a shot at supporting the notion.

To be honest, I really don’t have any special qualifications.

I’ve been mucking about in boats and chasing fish since I was in grade school. I’m a second-generation native of Rockport, on the middle Texas coast. I’ve taught windsurfing and sailing, and I’m a state-certified Boater Education and Angler Education instructor.

I’ve been paddling for about the last seven years, much of that time on the Texas Gulf Coast.

But, part of the beauty of this project is that just about anyone in decent physical condition and with moderate paddling skills could do it. That’s part of what I hope to demonstrate.

You could do this. Probably.

What about safety?

Safety is something we are taking very seriously as we paddle up the coast. In addition to carefully planning our pack list to include first aid supplies (and someone who knows how to use them), we also carry GPS units, VHF radios and cell phones.

Prior to each segment, we file a detailed float plan with the magazine headquarters, and provide approximate check-in and landfall times.

We have a powerboat on standby during each segment, too … someone we can call in the event of an emergency, or who will come find us if we go missing.

Even in the Lower Laguna Madre, with average water depths of 3 feet, we habitually wore our personal flotation devices, or PFDs. It’s a good habit to get into, and habits are born of repetition.

Where does the equipment come from?

The only way I can afford to make this journey is with help from sponsors. In some cases, the sponsors also advertise in Texas Sporting Journal. In others, they simply provide products for us to use.

Hobie was first to sign on, and has provided two Hobie Mirage Adventure kayaks for the trip. Ocean Kayak was an early sponsor with the Ocean Kayak Prowler 15 models, and my friend Scott Null at Wilderness Systems arranged for delivery of two Wilderness Systems Tarpon 160i boats.

An off-route, offshore segment will feature the super-stable X-Factor and Mini-X kayaks from Malibu.

As we discussed which models would be suitable for this trip, my focus was on speed (which usually translates into hull length) and load-carrying capacity. That narrows a field of dozens of great sit-on-top plastic boats to just a handful of great, long boats. I think we have the right models.

Paddles were donated by Bending Branches, and the fiberglass Slice and Slice Angler models I’m using are good all-around rec paddles with enough power to brace in big surf and enough flex to be comfortable for hours at a time.

NRS provided dry bags, including their Expedition DriDuffel, a commodious and tough bag that turns a Tarpon tankwell into a secure and watertight storage area.

Temple Fork Outfitters, a fantastic (and not-so-little, anymore) Texas fly rod manufacturer, donated fly rods and reels, and my old friends at Pflueger-Shakespeare sent me some more of the reels I actually buy (Pflueger Presidents and Supremes) to match with All-Star rods.

If they’ll handle 40-pound tarpon and 35-inch snook, both on 12-pound test line, you’re not going to have to worry about how they perform on redfish and trout.

Garmin sent me a GPSMap76Csx handheld GPS unit, along with BlueChart cartography for the Texas coast. It has performed flawlessly.

Cabela’s provided inflatable PFDs and camping gear, including a Deluxe XPG tent and XPG Backpacker sleeping bags. GSI Outdoors provided our camp pots and pans, as well as a hand-powered coffee grinder and French press coffee pot. My footwear was provided by Bite.

In seeking and accepting sponsorship offers, I looked for products I already know and like, or products I believe have a high likelihood of being useful, durable and successful in the field. If it doesn’t work, I’ll let the sponsor know why, and you won’t be reading about it here.

But the fact is, all of the stuff we’re using does work, most of it very well. That’s why we’re using it.

What other fish are you going after?

Ah … the fish. Fishing is a big part of this trip, and we were ambitious when we drew-up the list of species we’re targeting. Happily, we can scratch one of the most elusive – snook – off the list already. My 35-inch linesider from March 2 in Brownsville tied the state catch and release record for rod and reel.

It also was a hell of a lot of fun.

Other fish we’ve already caught include jack crevalle, red drum, ladyfish and spotted seatrout. We’ll be looking for bigger reds and speckled trout as we move north.

Also on the list are: Southern flounder, Spanish mackerel, King mackerel, Blackfin tuna, Bull shark, Blacktip shark, Atlantic bonita, Cobia (ling), Tripletail and Tarpon.

Yeah, you read right; Blackfin tuna. Stay tuned.

And I’m sure we’ll pick up some incidentals; in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up with something in the neighborhood of 20 species before all is said and done.

We’ll be pursuing all of these species primarily with artificial lures – soft plastic jerkbaits, topwater plugs and flies. Not because we frown on fishing with bait, but because it’s our preferred method of fishing and it relieves us of the task of catching and keeping bait alive, or carrying dead bait where we might not have ice.

I use Norton Sand Eels with great success. All of the fish I caught during the first segment – snook, jack crevalle, speckled trout, redfish and ladyfish – came on the “salty chicken” (pink and green) 6-inch sand eel. I switched to flies for a few of the ladyfish, just to exercise my casting arm.

After fishing with Capt. Danno Wise and Lonnie Stanley of Stanley Lures late last week, I’ll also be trying out some of Lonnie’s wedgetails and swimming jigs. They look great in the water and I’m betting they’ll catch fish.

Can I come?

Maybe. I’m happy to paddle with cheerful, irreverent, observant folks who have something to offer the expedition.

You should be an able swimmer and capable of paddling 15 miles per day in a fully loaded kayak. You have to be able to unhook your own fish. It helps if you know how to use a camera.

You’ll have to keep up, or have your own evacuation plan if you can’t, and you’ll be responsible for your own boat, paddle, PFD and most of your groceries. We can help with shuttle service.

If you’re truly interested, drop me an e-mail at AReed at

Saturday, April 07, 2007


Wednesday dawned calm and bright, but the first stirrings of that friendly – and until late August, likely persistent – southeasterly were not far away.

Before Dean Thomas and I had left the shore, Ken Larson landed his first trout at the edge of the Intracoastal, just off our campsite. We landed two more before paddling in earnest up the western shoreline of the bay.
Today’s agenda: cover about a dozen miles and reach Capt. Bruce and Shirley Shuler’s Getaway Adventures Lodge in time for happy hour. With an early start and a tailwind, that still left time for fishing.

I got just one more shot, a late morning redfish foraging in the turtle grass on a shallow flat. I spotted the fish about 10 feet off my port bow and stopped paddling as I reached for my rod.

Momentum carried me past the redfish, and I turned to cast over my shoulder. The soft plastic lure landed just beyond the grass bed, and I saw a swirl as the redfish lunged. Then my line came tight. A 26-inch redfish is entirely capable of towing a 16-foot kayak.

Kinda makes you think, doesn’t it?

After Dean snapped a few quick shots, we released the fish and continued north at a steady pace. Before long, the Port Mansfield water tower crept into view. We stopped once to stretch our legs, then continued on in what had become choppy bay waters.

Just after 3 p.m., we turned left around the levee and paddled into the protected waters of the harbor. The lodge was clearly visible ahead of us on the right, but so was the Port Mansfield Marina, where I suspected we might be able to grab a cold beer or two.

We tied-up in front of the gas pumps on the seawall and were greeted by friends from the TexasKayakFisherman message board. They had been following the pre-trip discussions, and knew we had launched from South Padre Island Monday.

I was abashed to see that they were genuinely surprised we’d made it.

At Getaway Adventures Lodge, Bruce helped steady the boats as we climbed out and relished the notion of cold showers and soft beds. After dragging the boats across the rip-rap and onto the lawn, we sprayed-down rods and reels and sat down to swap stories.

Capt. Brandon Shuler, Bruce’s son and a fine fishing guide in his own right, swung by to say hello. “Man … my dog smells better than you guys,” he quipped. “Looks better, too.”

Landfall, I know from my sailing days, always brings with it a sense of accomplishment. To climb into a boat – several very small boats, in this case – and arrive some days later at a destination over the horizon is one of life’s great joys.

In our shakedown leg of the TSJ Kayak Safari, we covered exactly 45 miles of water, all under paddle power. We put a bit more than 37 of those miles behind us in three days of paddling without any outside support.

I was happy to find that my mileage estimates were pretty close to what we could comfortably accomplish in a day and still have some time to fish. We packed most of the right stuff, and enough of it.

With some help from my friends, I even made some good decisions that did not come easily to me. I know from past experience – and from TPWD sampling data – that the Lower Laguna Madre is truly a world-class fishery. In our first leg of the kayak journey, it disappointed.

Fishing was tough. Catching was rare. But we still have miles to cover, and some of the best redfish and trout waters still lie to the north of us.

In April, we’ll return to Port Mansfield and launch our kayaks from Bruce’s dock. From there, we’ll paddle up the Laguna Madre and through the Land Cut, ducking over into a large, shallow bay known as the “Graveyard” for the last stretch to Yarborough Pass on the back side of Padre Island National Seashore.

It’s about 50 miles, and we hope to cover it in four days of paddling. If all goes according to plan, my brother and other friends will meet us in four-wheel-drive trucks and we’ll return to civilization for another working break before continuing the journey.

RobRoy McDonald, associate editor of Texas Sporting Journal, told me he’s “giddy to gear up” for the next leg of the trip. I had supposed that, after 10 days on the road and on the water, I’d be just plain whupped and wouldn’t even want to think about returning … not for a couple of weeks, anyhow.

But I find that I’m ready to giddy-up and go myself. It’s just that much fun.

Roughing it, sorta; evolution and observation

Tuesday morning I was reminded why – at nearing 40 – I don’t camp as much as I used to. The tent and sleeping bag provided by the fine folks at Cabela’s notwithstanding, I woke up stiff and sore.

We boiled-up some fresh coffee, breakfasted on fruit and granola bars, and prepared to hit the watery trail. Tuesday was a fish hunt … that was the menu for the night’s dinner, and, well … how hard could it be to scratch up a redfish or two in the Laguna Madre?

On a low tide and on the heels of two quickfire cold fronts, pretty damned hard, as it turned out.

We saw three spooky reds and began considering the culinary possibilities inherent in the Atlantic stingray. They, at least, were plentiful.

Several times we turned to paddle toward working terns and white pelicans, only to find them gorging on fish too small to eat a plastic lure or provide much in the way of nourishment. The trout and redfish that feeding birds often signal seemed to be notably absent.

Finally, after making a bit more than 11 miles northing, we picked an island – with an apparently firmer beach – and set up camp for the night. Dean, a Scout leader for years, pulled a couple of surprises from his dry bag: dehydrated soups and stews and – wonder of wonders – apple cobbler.

One of the great joys of this leg of my journey was paddling with two friends whose skills and experience complimented my own. Each of us, I think, contributed materially to safely and enjoyably covering 45 miles of mostly remote water.

Even more than the practical contributions, I appreciated my paddling partners’ keen observations of the natural world, and their humor. In camp Tuesday night, I made the startling discovery that someone had left the cutlery behind.

That would be me, I guess. The oversight was accepted without comment, but later I looked up to see Ken whittling a water bottle into the fire.

“You’re too cool to just burn the bottle whole?” I asked him, somewhat archly. “Dude,” he replied. “I’m making a spoon.”

This led to a rather lengthy back-and-forth about evolutionary principles and how, perhaps, the monkeys that learned to use tools – the early adopters (or is it “adapters?”) were destined to reproduce more successfully and eventually became the dominant race ….It was all very unsound, scientifically, but amusing to three tired paddlers.

Ingeniously, I thought, I fashioned my own spoon out of a tortilla. After using it to mop my mug of soup, I popped my spoon into my mouth, chewed and swallowed. Dean and Ken broke into guffaws, exclaiming that the monkey ate his tool. And pointing out that we hadn’t made it to dessert yet.

Thus the moniker “Monkey-tool Island” was born, along with a nagging suspicion that my progeny are doomed.

Tuesday night, an hour or so after dark, a jet aircraft with no lights showing roared low and slow down the Intracoastal. We wondered whether it was the good guys or the bad guys. Smuggling – mostly of drugs, but also of illegal immigrants – is a somewhat common endeavor in this part of the world.

A couple of hours after that, we had our answer. In the channel, we heard a boat approach and could see starlight reflected on gleaming surfaces here and there. The boat, sans running lights, idled for a time just off our campsite.

Finally, wanting to know who was eyeballing our tents and campfire, we walked to the water’s edge and shined our lights on the boat. It was a Coast Guard patrol boat out of South Padre Island … the high-speed kind with a .50 caliber machine gun mount on the bow.

We could only guess at what had transpired, but a good bet is that the aircraft was also Uncle Sam’s and infrared had picked out our campfire and the three man-shapes and Big Brother sent a boat for further investigation. It’s nice to know someone’s keeping an eye on things, I guess.

On the other hand … if you can’t be truly alone halfway between Boca Chica and Port Mansfield, is there anyplace left where law-abiding citizens can recreate in peace?

Up and across, into the wind

Monday dawned cold and breezy. A flurry of last-minute packing, a quick web update and hurried goodbyes to innkeeper Chris de Diesbach filled our last minutes ashore.

This was it: go, or no-go. A last-minute, three-way gut check and we hopped in the boats and started paddling northwest across the “mama lagoon,” as Dean dubbed it.

We were accompanied across the bay by the incessant drone of a seismographic survey team’s airboats. The water was a milky shade of green, and with the wind on the nose we simply concentrated on making mileage.

Paddle stroke after paddle stroke. About 80 every tenth of a mile, per the GPS. Eight hundred each mile. More than 9,000 dips of the blades before landfall. With nothing to do but put water behind the boat, one has plenty of time for such calculations.

It’s true the Laguna Madre is shallow, averaging some three feet over its vast basin, but it’s also …. vast. Getting back to dry land sooner rather than later, for me, became an exercise in bladder control. Sure, I could have hopped over the side of the boat in thigh-deep water, but why paddle completely wet?

Cullen House, on a peninsula jutting out from the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, slowly emerged from the horizon and made for an easy navigational landmark.

Laguna Atascosa is an internationally known birding destination and is allegedly the last U.S. refuge for the elusive ocelot, a beautifully spotted wild cat about twice the size of a typical house cat.

Ocelots are native to much of the tropical and sub-tropical Americas. The destruction and cultivation of vast swathes of Tamaulipan brushland, as well as flood control measures that have confined a sometimes feeble Rio Grande to a single channel rather than its historical, widespread delta, have reduced the amount of suitable habitat for the secretive ocelot and another small wild cat, the jaguarundi.

I write that the refuge is “allegedly” the last home of the ocelot north of the border because reports of the elusive cats trickle in from other pockets along the coast.

I’ve heard of ocelot sightings near my hometown of Rockport, on the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, and I was even blessed to catch a glimpse of the distinctive jaguarundi – also known as the “otter cat,” – there once.

The presence of both animals is documented to the south of the Brownsville Ship Channel, in the strip of land between the port and the river. Thoughts of wild cats and the pressures of agricultural development were simply musings as we paddled this wild shoreline Monday.

More pressing: where to make camp for the night? As we neared Primero and Medio Islands, on either side of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, our considerations turned to things like where we could pitch tents where they would catch enough breeze to keep the mosquitos at bay, but not so much we’d be blown away during the night.

And could we find enough driftwood for a fire?

We settled at last on a likely looking spoil island with a wide beach and some high ground. What we couldn’t see from the water was that, with the cold front-assisted low tide, we’d be traversing 30 yards of sticky mud to get our boats ashore.

Doing that once, dragging a fully-loaded 16-foot kayak, is powerful inducement to stay put for the night. We quickly scouted the island, unloaded our boats and set-up camp.

With a fire crackling cheerfully behind a windbreak, Dean cooked fajitas and Ken cracked open the three celebratory beers we’d brought with us.

The sunset was pure South Texas … brilliant crimsons and oranges behind a screen of silhouetted mesquite and yuccas.

As the last brilliant colors turned to pastels in the western sky, lagniappe: wave after wave of ducks, probably redheads, making their way north behind the island and, then, over our heads.

I honestly felt – for a moment -- like I was standing in a Herb Booth painting.

Later, we watched a still-big waning moon rise over the Laguna Madre as bright Jupiter hung low in the west.

We marveled at the splash of brilliant stars, and slept early, lulled by the singing of coyotes.

Canine perils, wind, snook add spice to early going

Saturday morning’s light winds spurred us to trek to the south end of the island, launch from Isla Blanca Park and paddle out into the Gulf.

I took a turn around the sea buoy in still-rolly seas, and surfed back in for a photo start.

Early afternoon brought with it the predicted cold front and the wind shifted to the north. We paddled with a stiff 20-knot breeze on the nose, but still found time to pick-up a trio of trout and one big jack crevalle.

By about 2 p.m., along “condo row,” we decided refreshments might be in order. A dockside stop at the Palm Street Bar and Grill, a cold beer and burger later, and we were ready for the last 2-mile sprint back to the Brown Pelican.

Along the way, I nearly got eaten by a pair of highly territorial Doberman pinschers. Apparently territory, for these dogs, includes some version of an exclusive economic zone extending seaward from their back yard.

More than 7.5 miles down. About 34 left on this leg, some 380 to Sabine Pass. Sat. afternoon found us readying gear and packing provisions.

That done, we settled-in to watch the sunset from the back porch of the inn with cold beers and the splendid company of Chris de Diesbach, our hostess.

“If you were to book a fishing guide down here, who would you get?” Chris asked me in her (to my ears charmingly posh) British accent.

“Capt. Eric Glass,” I answered without hesitation. Eric is passionate about fishing, has a background in biology and a searching interest into the “why” of things, and ties some mean flies. He also shares my passion for snook.

Chris broke into a big grin: “I just love him,” she said. “He’s my favorite fishing guide on the island.” I called Eric on his cell phone and invited him over.

It was campfire camaraderie at its best. Chris and Yves brought out the trout we had caught and cleaned for them and shared them around the table. A few fishing lies probably got passed around the table.

Sunday morning dawned blustery and cold with a small craft advisory in effect. Kayaks being the smallest of craft, we took the warning to heart and instead ran some last-minute errands.

Sunday afternoon Ryan Schmidt, fishing and marine manager at the Buda Cabela’s store, called and said he was on his way down. By late afternoon the wind had moderated, the sun was shining and it was too late to launch for Port Mansfield.

What to do ….Well, go snook fishing, of course.

Ryan and I see each other at the Buda store about once a week, and our conversations always turn to fishing the coast. I’d told him about our successes on the Brownsville Ship Channel; now I could show him the top-secret kayak launch and a few of my honey holes.

As events transpired, we scratched-out a redfish, a trout and 113 ladyfish. Skipjack are fun on a fly rod, no doubt, but even I can have too much of a good thing.

Ken landed his first-ever Texas snook and 3-pound jack crevalle. Both fell to a brand-new Norton shrimp tail in the salty chicken color scheme. Ken became the first person ever to catch fish on that lure.

We watched the moon rise over the mouth of the Rio Grande and began paddling back to the launch site. The water in the channel was slick calm, and lights from jack-up rigs in for yard work; from workboats and tank farms and breakers’ yards, colored the water in festive reflections.

I was struck again by the contradictions of this place … the ugly, raw industry juxtaposed against resilient nature. The gonging, hissing rumble of construction and demolition versus the laughing of the gulls and the “scrawk!” of an annoyed Great Blue Heron.

Just west of the shrimp boat basin, Ken noticed a line of what he thought were pelicans moving across the channel. Then, first one, then three more stood up and scrambled up the bank into the mesquite.

Illegal immigrants, illegally immigrating. After the initial surprise at seeing a human in 45 feet of 70-degree water on a moonlit night, my next reaction was awe. Man, I thought, they must really want to be in this country.

This morning when we woke the thermometer hovered at 39 degrees and the wind was out of the northwest – the other wrong direction. But today we don’t have a choice. We have to paddle.

A little more than 35 miles up and across to Port Mansfield, and we want to do some fishing on the way … it’s time to go.

Five-Foot rollers hamper opening day

Dean Thomas chickened-out.

As we drove down the last beach in Texas, his nearly non-stop stream of one-liners and bon mots slowed to a trickle, then stopped.

I glanced in the rearview mirror to find him casting a pensive eye over the surf. It was rolling.

The forecasted 2-3 foot seas had turned into honest 3-5s, with an occasional higher wave breaking on the third bar.

“I’ve got to be honest with you,” Dean says. “I’m not comfortable with this, without wet suits. Those rollers out there beyond the break mean we will be in the water.”

That was hard to hear. Because it reinforced my own growing trepidation, and because I had invested months of planning in the notion that – today – I would start paddling at the mouth of the Rio Grande. Not to mention I’d just shelled-out $40 for a driver to take the truck back to South Padre Island.

Dean, a kayak fishing guide in Aransas Pass, paddles about 300 days a year. He’s also not uncourageous. It pays to listen to him. I did. We decided to wait to see what the weather would do Saturday.

In the interim, well, we could always go fishing. After dropping our driver back at our home away from home -- the Brown Pelican Inn on South Padre Island – Ken Larson of Rockport, Dean and I headed back across the causeway and through Port Isabel to State Highway 48 and our top-secret kayak launch on the Brownsville Ship Channel.

By 2:30 we were on the water, and 30 minutes later a feisty 14-inch snook attacked my lure. Half an hour after that, I had a 35-inch fish on the end of my line.

The stiff east wind that had whipped the surf into unexpected vigor also funneled down the ship channel, but as long as it was at our backs and we were catching fish and waves weren’t breaking over our boats … well, who cared?

The Brownsville Ship Channel has always, for me, been a remarkable study in contrasts. Deep-water haven for tropical fish species; salvage yard and repair shop; trans-shipment point for oil, asphalt, grain and other commodities … its banks are lined with the rusting hulks of ships awaiting the breakers’ torches.

On a moonlit night, with a breeze that has faded to just a whisper, one can easily imagine the lives that have played-out on the decks and among the cabins and spaces of the once-proud ships that have arrived at their final destination.

During the day here, ospreys “kee” as they soar and plunge on unwary fish, and as the sun sets over the upper end of the channel coyotes can be heard singing off to the south, in the narrow strip of land between the river and this 20-some-odd-long mile incursion of the Gulf of Mexico.

It is a strange and special place that in many ways reflects the hard practicality with which Texans have almost always approached and used our land and water. It also demonstrates, as do so many of our scarred landscapes, the amazing resilience of the creatures that make their livings here too.

Sunday morning, as I write this, I am graced with a very different view of deep South Texas. Sitting on the verandah of the inn, I look out over the flat – and in this light, blue – expanse of the Laguna Madre and watch a pair of white pelicans straining breakfast from the water.

Black mangroves in the inn’s resident wetland hide the horizon to the north – the route we’ll take tomorrow.

Today, I think we’re going to take advantage of our weather window and make-up some of the leg we lost yesterday; I have to, at least, paddle through the mouth of Brazos Santiago pass.

We’ll make our way back up the inside of Padre Island and back to the inn this morning. If the predicted front is slow enough in coming, or quiet enough in its arrival, maybe we’ll even head back up the ship channel this afternoon for another shot at some Texas linesiders.

Dean hooked two yesterday – solid fish in the 24-28-inch slot – and got the thrill of seeing them jump and shake their heads, but not the joy of actually putting his hands on one.

He says he’s comfortable with the idea of trying that again, today.