South Padre: A Right, Tight Little Fishing Island

by Sam Gold

"Islands have always been fascinating places," wrote John Steinbeck in Seas of Cortez. "The old storytellers, wishing to recount a prodigy, almost invariably fixed the scene at an island -- Faery and Avalon, Atlantis and Cepango, all golden islands just over the horizon where anything at all may happen."

Islands still romance imaginations, but romances stale. So I plan only weekend and three day stays so I'm anxious to return when I head home. One of the best fishing trips in Texas must be South Padre Island. It's worth the search, and you'll need to do that and not confuse this charming island with better-known Padre Island to the North.

Some who set out for South Padre Island lose their way. A few fly into Corpus Christi, then discover it's a five hour drive to their destination. Others try to drive down Padre Island which, unfortunately, has not connected to South Padre Island since the Port Mansfield Ship Channel was cut in 1964. Visitors who eventually find their way across Queen Isabella Causeway to South Padre discover a year-round subtropical climate and uncrowded beaches. Except for school holidays, when students flock in, expect to see more birds than people. A mere 1,300 residents, strung out along 5 1/4 miles of beachfront, hardly crowd 34 mile long South Padre Island.

South Padre offers all the usual aquatic diversions and other amenities of beach towns. Sailboarding has taken off with consistent winds, and divers search for treasure off the coast. Jet skiing, wave riding, parasailing and beach boarding are all popular. Bikes, go-karts and video games distract teenagers from suntans and bikini watching. Lodgings and food are typical of beach resort communities. Restaurants, naturally, feature fish, Mexican and tropical specialties. Service is quite special, for people really seem to mean it when they say, "You' all come back, hear?"

Exotic birds, endangered turtles, WWII aircraft and the chance to visit Mexico make the area a popular weekend destination for San Antonio residents. Laguna Atascosa and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuges support more than 500 different bird species, including at least 31 species found nowhere else in the United States. The warm, fertile waters of the Laguna Madre support more birds, as well as the best wade, surf and deepsea fishing in Texas. 

Fishing South Padre offers a fine mix of offshore trolling for species like Wahoo, amberjack and kingfish that hit. For those who charter the substantial boats you need to fish the Gulf when it kicks up, see Padre Island Visitor and Convention Bureau. The shallow offshore water does require that you get fairly far out into the Gulf so wise anglers don't head out here in bass boats.

However, it's the inshore and light tackle fishing in the bays and lagoons behind South and North Padre Islands that make the fishing special. You can use whatever tackle and method you like if you pick your spots with a decent map. To start, fishing piers and breakwaters at rivers and passes offer easy access to deeper water. This is particularly important in cooler weather when algae bloom (AKA "the brown tide") makes lure fishing difficult in Upper and Lower Laguna Madre. You can, if you own surf gear, cast large live bait or lures in the low waves and often brown Gulf for snook and the like too. 

However, the uniquely Gulf action in the very shallow bays gets our vote. If you pick your spot and shuffle your feet so you don't step on the epidemic small sting rays, simply wade out from shore. A boat does improve your range and chances as it lets you move away from the most popular areas. Then you can simply anchor in a couple of feet of water and try the wading action. Do, since these shallow waters are the natal zone for many inshore fish, take special care with releases, check slot limits and treat the area kindly for the tiddlers released here can strain tackle in a year or three.

Light gear which freshwater anglers would use for black bass or trout works. Small gold and silver spoons, a host of plastic jigs and even flies produce reds and "trout" -- really a saltwater species. If the water's brownish go to dark colored or noisy lures. On calm mornings try a popper, stick or buzz bait which are noisy attractions for shallow water fish.

However, bait's the best solution and most productive year round. Local experts favor a popping cork which attracts fish when "popped" lightly, and a suspended live shrimp, croaker or small mullet. If all else fails you can always eat the shrimp!

Various marine worms and other natural baits from the flats produce too. Sand fleas take pompano from the surf and you can even catch mullet with odd baits like bananas. Locals prefer to toss cast nets, but visitors who want to retain their front teeth should consider lessons before flipping these.

Do consider local pests like fire ants and gaff-topsail catfish. On my first visit to this area I sat on a nest of the former while trying to tweeze a fin of the latter from my hand. If I'd fallen into the shallows onto a sting ray, I'd have completed a "Texas Tourist Triple." A pair of angler's pliers will, as always in tropical waters, keep your fingers from various spines, teeth and other sharp oddments. However, these are only a sample of things to watch out for. I'd recommend a day with a local guide the instant you arrive in the area even if you own your own boat. Then with a good map you can manage on your own if, of course, you can drag yourself away from the other attractions of the area.

For example, a few endangered Kemp's Ridley sea turtles still lay eggs on island beaches. Ila Loescher, the Turtle Lady of South Padre Island, has turned her home into a turtle rehabilitation center. You might visit Tuesday or Saturday to see rare Atlantic green sea turtles. A small donation is requested to support the turtle planting in Laguna Madre and elsewhere.

In nearby Harlingen, 142 aircraft of the Confederate Air Force include 61 different types flown during WW II. Any aircraft addict will stall here. Besides the airplanes and the ongoing restoration work and testing in CAF hangers, a huge collection of nose art and more than 50,000 examples of WW II memorabilia delight aviation buffs.

Brownsville is just minutes away. Its Gladys Porter Zoo ranks as one of the ten best in the United States. There are no cages, and the zoo is open every day of the year. Five 18 hole golf courses and the distractions of Matamoros, just across the Rio Grande River, offer enough for several weekends. So there's life after fishing for any visitor and sufficient fishing variety to keep even the most compulsive angler happy.

South Padre Island Visitor and Convention Bureau; Box 3500, South Padre Island, TX 78597 800-992-4753(TX) or 800-992-7263(US)