Fishing within sight of the Mexico border, anglers tangle with triple-digit silver kings along Lower Laguna Madre.
It was a hot, sticky August morning in south Texas as we motored at idle speed through the darkness. The only sound we heard were surface slaps rippling out from a massive bait ball and periodic explosions as pelicans dive-bombed into the fray no farther than 20 yards off the bow of the 24-foot Skeeter. Conditions were on target for intersecting massive, migratory tarpon.
With his headlamp providing our only on-board light, Capt. Brian Barrera threw his cast net as we approached the South Padre Island jetties to load up on silver mullet. Bait was plentiful, and Barrera filled the live well with little effort, which typically is not the case. Finding the right bait can be a grind that runs late into the morning as the day heats up. We got lucky.
When it comes to choosing what bait or lure to throw, Barrera, a native Texas guide who has found a niche in targeting big tarpon, lets the conditions dictate what he uses. “Through my 15 years of tarpon fishing, I’ve learned to let the water tell me what to fish,” he says. “It’s important to be in tune with what’s happening bait-wise. If there’s more mullet in the water, we’ll use those. Sometimes it’s menhaden or pinfish. This leads to more hookups than an angler who is dead-set on using a certain technique or lure. You must roll with what the ocean provides.”
Feeling optimistic about our baits, we made our way toward the beach. The tarpon were beginning to move about as we motored north toward the Port Mansfield jetties. The presence of bait intermixed with the slick surface of the Gulf of Mexico presented us with ideal tarpon conditions. Mother Nature began her show with a jaw-dropping sunrise. As the fireball peaked over the horizon, I could see the bait moving, birds diving and pods of 160-pound tarpon rolling.
The ’poons weren’t the only creatures milling about. Along the beach I could make out Border Patrol trucks on their morning patrols. This is a daily sight along the Port Mansfield coast and Padre Island National Seashore, a 70-mile stretch of remote beach with dunes covered in a variety of cactus, Spanish daggers and other south Texas flora. Rattlesnakes, coyotes and white-tail deer also roam this secluded beach. It’s not far from the Mexico border and the mouth of the Rio Grande River, so it is not uncommon to find an occasional “square grouper” (marijuana bale) or witness other border activity, but we weren’t concerned with any of that. Our focus was on migrating fish.
South Padre is a barrier island nestled on the Lower Laguna Madre. Spanning 130 miles, this pristine bay system is one of six hypersaline bays in the world. There are only two inlets, or “passes,” from the Gulf of Mexico, and the Port Mansfield and South Padre Island jetties, which makes the water here saltier than normal seawater. Most of this bay is shallow. The average depth is 2½ feet, and the water is thick with turtle grass. Combined with a subtropical climate, the Lower Laguna Madre is prime habitat for speckled trout, redfish and snook.
The area is known for big fish, especially trout. Lower Laguna Madre local Carl “Bud” Rowland caught the state’s 37-inch, 16-pound record trout here on fly. But for a tarpon-crazed angler like me, my intentions from May to December turn to the beachfront, where the almighty silver king lurks.
We rigged two rods with live bait under corks to float off the stern while I tossed an artificial from the bow. With the finicky attitude of tarpon, we wanted to offer a variety of live baits and lures. Barrera set out the first bait and placed the rod in the holder. He was about to deploy the second one when the bait from the first rod scurried across the surface. A second later, the morning was disrupted by a 180-pound tarpon inhaling the live bait and setting off the glorious sound of a screaming drag.
Barrera snatched the rod out of the holder, set the hook and began the fight. As the fish pulled line, it launched itself through the slick surface, performing no less than six jumps, gills flared like silver shields, mouth agape, head shaking violently. In the distance, free-jumping tarpon mingled with pelicans diving into balled-up mullet that looked like dark shadows dancing across the water. After a fight of about 30 minutes, Barrera worked the large fish to the boat. The fish’s jaw looked wide enough to swallow an angler’s head. After a round of photos, Barrera revived the tarpon and released it. When you’ve landed a giant tarpon before your morning coffee gets cold, it’s a good sign of things to come.
As the adrenaline subsided and we rerigged, Barrera focused on his fishfinder. “There are two large tarpon to the left,” he said, having spotted the fish using the side imaging on his Humminbird Solix 12. My D.O.A. Bait Buster was already in the water. I slowed my retrieve significantly, hoping to swim the lure past the nose of one of these fish. About two seconds later, I felt the thump, thump of a tarpon eat and set the hook.
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Berserk is the only word I can use to explain the jumps this fish executed. Seeing a 150-pound, 7-foot tarpon blast out of the depths in this remote area is a thrill we enjoyed by ourselves. There were no other boats in sight — just us and the silver king. The fish exerted so much energy on its jumps that I was able to work it to the boat in 21 minutes.
I reached over the gunwale and grabbed the tarpon’s sandpaper-like lower jaw as one of its massive eyes looked at me. Gazing into that eye, I wondered what it may have seen on its migration from the Yucatán, where they reside in the winter. Having an intimate moment with one of these beautifully prehistoric creatures makes me feel most alive. It’s why I count down the days for the arrival of big tarpon and spend hours under the brutal south Texas sun.
A LONG STORY
The beachside town known as Port Aransas was once called Tarpon, Texas. Word of the tarpon caught along the jetties at Aransas Pass spread quickly during the early 20th century. The buzz caught the attention of well-known figures, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who traveled here to experience the thrill of fighting a tarpon.
In those days, a fleet of locally built Farley tarpon boats would line up next to each other in the pass to swing baits in front of the fish. The open boats measured 16 to 28 feet and held two anglers in cockpit chairs. They were built by brothers Barney and Fred Farley, who launched the first one in 1915.
Farther up the coast in Galveston, fishing pioneers discovered another hot spot on the migration route, which they dubbed Tarpon Alley. This channel sits a few miles off the beach in the Gulf, and crews would find large schools of tarpon greyhounding their way to their next stop in 30 to 40 feet of water. Located only 45 minutes from the Houston city limits, this tarpon hole becomes a parking lot during the summer, when anglers fish live baits and Coon Pops, a 2-ounce bullet-shaped leadhead jig with a long, curly tail that’s attached to a circle hook.
Tarpon fishing is as much a part of life in south Texas as barbecue or tacos. With the most consistent bite on the coast, South Padre Island grew to silver-king prominence in the early 20th century. The local high school even chose the mighty tarpon as its mascot. And if you spend enough time inside a local tackle shop, you’ll hear old salts spew stories of sailfish busting right off the beach and incredible tarpon action.
“Four decades ago, there were so many tarpon around,” says South Padre Island native and tarpon guide Capt. Skipper Ray. “We would fish for them 99 percent of the time at the South Padre jetties, but most people were only interested in fishing for edible fish like grouper, kingfish, ling, redfish and snapper, so we had the tarpon to ourselves. I wish I’d known then what I know now on how and where to catch them.”
Like many popular fisheries that went unmanaged, the tarpon population took a big hit in the late 1990s. Increased respect for these fish, along with a catch-and-release ethic, has helped increase the number of tarpon in our waters after that nose dive. It wasn’t uncommon to see 10 tarpon on the dock, but catch-and-release is now the norm, thankfully.
“Texas trout-fishing guide Capt. Cliff Webb caught a giant tarpon with me that was teetering on the record,” Barrera says. “It easily blew past the 85-inch length and 16-inch tail girth mark. I think that fish and two others we caught that same week were potential state records. To me it’s not worth harvesting such an awesome creature. To even be considered, it would have to easily be a record-breaker. But at this point in my career, I would probably still let it swim off.”
The Texas state tarpon record is 229 pounds.
Tarpon anglers on South Padre are usually the first to see these migrating monsters as they travel north and the last to see them on their way back south. When tarpon are present, the fish travel in long chains, rather than big schools. Like the influx of winter transients who caravan to the Lone Star State in their travel trailers, tarpon tend to stay here longer than other parts of the coast.
August and September are prime months for pursuing giants, but it tends to vary depending on the weather. We had an exceptionally warm December last year, when a 175-pounder was landed a few weeks before Christmas. Year-round juvenile tarpon help scratch the itch while the big ones hang out in the Yucatán for the winter.
I look forward to the sticky, hot summertime bite along the last frontier of the Texas coast, the Lower Laguna Madre, when giant tarpon push through. Everything is bigger in Texas, and targeting the silver king in these remote waters is always an adventure.