Monday, May 04, 2009

Pea-Eye, If you'll be my Mayberry, I'll be your Huckleberry

Patrick wasn’t really sure he wanted to go to Port Isabel to begin with; it was the seven-hour (from Austin) drive that gave him pause. It’s a long time for a 10-year-old to sit in a truck.

On the way home last night, he still thought it took far too long to drive to the southern tip of Texas but had decided it’s worth doing.

I agree.

Rockport, my hometown, has been my favorite place all my adult life. I called it “Mayberry-by-the-Sea.” Partly it’s the memories of a pretty good childhood there. Partly it’s the dozens of family members who still live there. Partly it’s the fishing.

Used to be, I’d make a trip at least once a month. Sometimes more often than that. Since last October, I’ve been home just three times. But in the same time I’ve made that seven-hour drive to Port Isabel five times.

Not as well-known as South Padre Island, its sister city across the causeway, Port Isabel maintains the charm and small-town friendliness I remember from 1980-era Rockport. With a population just under 6,000, it’s big enough to offer modern conveniences and small enough to easily navigate and meet the same people over and over again.

And the fishing can be phenomenal.

This weekend, Patrick out-fished both me and his Uncle John about five-to-one. He landed 18 fish of three different species and had a ball doing it. Our fishing guide Saturday, Capt. Carlos Garcia, has kids of his own the same age, and he was a patient and engaging teacher.

It was all about fun – feisty mangrove snapper, acrobatic ladyfish and hard-pulling jacks – and the promise of snook.

Port Isabel is ground zero for the Lower Laguna Madre’s burgeoning snook population. Anglers from around the world build multi-thousand dollar itineraries around the legendary game fish in South Florida, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Belize.

And despite the fact the Texas record for common snook is a couple of pounds heavier than the world record for the same species, robalo are not much more than a footnote for most Texas anglers.

My brother, John, jokes that it is all just a vast conspiracy; he has yet to see his first big snook for himself. That didn’t change over the weekend, when 30mph winds turned the bay to chocolate milk and made fishing a bit tougher than usual. But we’ll make a believer of him yet; snook are just now moving out of the refuge of the Brownsville Ship Channel and out into the shallow waters of South Bay, Mexiquita Flats and other areas heavy on structure and bait.

A big linesider would have just been lagniappe this trip, anyhow. My son wants to be a battlefield archeologist when he grows up. Fortunately for him, my friend Rod Bates of Rio Bravo Gallery is a passionate and expert chronicler of the Port Isabel area’s rich history.

He told us the story of the 9-mile running battle between Union and Confederate soldiers that resulted in a victory for the South, 149 years ago and more than a month after Gen. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

Then he presented Patrick with Minie balls and uniform buttons from the battlefield – items Rod discovered on private land the battle crossed. Rod dug deeper into his collection and into history and found a couple of musket balls – one had obviously impacted someone or something – from the nearby Palo Alto Battlefield.

Palo Alto was the first major engagement of the Mexican-American War. You know, the one that gave the United States New Mexico and Arizona and California, as well as settled lingering border issues from the Texas Revolution a dozen years earlier.

From even farther back in time, he produced a silver coin from a 1554 shipwreck on Padre Island. Three Spanish treasure ships went aground in a violent storm then.

It was the last year of Charles I of Spain (he was Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire), and the coin bears his coat-of-arms and personal motto: “Plus Ultra.” – further beyond. Charles ruled much of Europe at the time, and the motto suggests a sort of transcendence and wide-armed embrace of, well, everything.

Which brings me back to Port Isabel. Looking for the best Gulf beaches in Texas? They’re right there – just a couple of miles over the causeway.

Want to tangle with a tarpon or battle a snook? For the next six or seven months, they’ll be everywhere around the town.

If history is your thing, or birds and butterflies, or antiquing or the best blackened fish tacos you’re likely to taste, Port Isabel has all of that.

It’s a town with a lot of character, and a lot of characters, too. Sort of like Andy Griffith’s fictional Mayberry. Only, by the sea.