South Texas Saltwater Angling Options
Texas inshore angling typically conjures up images of waist-deep wading in stained water, casting plugs for speckled trout and the occasional redfish. However, fishermen believing this is all Texas has to offer have never ventured south of Corpus Christi.
In the shallow, clear waters of the Lower Laguna Madre – which begins scant miles above the US/Mexican border – anglers are able to sight-cast to the aforementioned speckled trout and redfish. However, they also enjoy ample opportunities for snook, tarpon, mangrove snapper, pompano, Spanish mackerel, kingfish and a host of other species.
Commonly referred to as the ‘Texas Tropics,’ Deep South Texas also offers visiting anglers their choice of vacation ‘styles.’ On the southernmost end of the Lower Laguna, Port Isabel and South Padre Island afford visiting fishermen numerous restaurant and hotel choices, as well as plenty of attractions – not to mention a bevy of bay side bars and clubs.
Port Mansfield, positioned on the northern edge of the Lower Laguna, stands in stark contrast to South Padre. With a population in the hundreds – as in about 300 – Port Mansfield is ‘quaint,’ to say the least. However, it is the perfect spot for anglers looking to focus on fishing and enjoy a little solitude. And, since it is surrounded by thousands of acres of ranchland, Port Mansfield affords plenty of opportunities for excellent birding and wildlife viewing.
Ironically, these two Lower Laguna destinations are about the same distance from Valley International Airport in Harlingen. So, it really is a matter of turning left or right when it comes to deciding what type of South Texas angling vacation you want to enjoy.
The entire Lower Laguna Madre originally gained its reputation as a first-class fishery due to its ability to produce spotted seatrout of spectacular proportions. True to that tradition, specks remain the focus of most guides and anglers fishing out of Port Mansfield. Since this little community is so reliant on visiting fishermen, the ability to produce sow specks is, economically speaking, the driving force behind Port Mansfield.
Originally formed to provide a deepwater port for the town of Raymondville, located some 23 miles to the west, Port Mansfield is surrounded by huge tracts of ranchland. Having never really garnered much success as a commercial port, the focus of this tiny village has slowly shifted to tourism over the years. Due to its remote location, this tourism is based around fishing, hunting and other outdoor activities, such as birding and wildlife photography.
While trophy trout remains the focus of most fishermen, the shallow flats surrounding Port Mansfield have also gotten the attention of sight-fishermen stalking redfish and black drum. Snook and mangrove snapper catches have also increased dramatically around Mansfield in recent years. Once considered the northernmost edge of those species’ range, a decade of mild winters has encouraged both snook and mangrove snapper populations to march far north of Mansfield in recent years.
From late spring through fall, the Mansfield jetties, located due east of town and bordering the Mansfield Channel (aptly nicknamed the ‘East Cut’), provide a smorgasbord of angling opportunities. During this time, tarpon ranging from 30 to 150 pounds can consistently be found both inside the channel and along the Gulf side. Larger fish also visit these jetties, typically in late spring, then again later in the fall.
Light tackle anglers can also expect fast action with kingfish, Spanish mackerel, ladyfish and jack crevalle throughout the warm weather months. Starting in late summer and continuing into the first month of winter, big bull reds are also common catches along the rocks.
Again, Port Mansfield is somewhat sparse when compared to other ‘tourist’ destinations. However, the town does feature a full-service fishing lodge, Get-A-Way Adventures Lodge, as well as a small motel and a handful of condominium and beach house rentals. Dining options are also a bit limited. However, there are a handful of restaurants and cafes to fill the bill.
Port Isabel/South Padre Island
In contrast to Port Mansfield, the Port Isabel/South Padre Island area offers so much to see and do that’s it’s often easy to forget about fishing.
As one of the oldest towns in Texas, Port Isabel is laden with history. The town’s proud centerpiece – the Point Isabel Lighthouse – saw service for both sides during the Civil War. A number of historic buildings, which have been converted to shops, restaurants and boutiques, form the ‘square’ around the lighthouse. Cattycorner from the Lighthouse Square are the Museums of Port Isabel – the Port Isabel Historic Museum and the Treasures of the Gulf Museum – both popular stops for visitors.
Port Isabel’s history also extends to fishing. It was here that the state’s largest fishing tournament – the Texas International Fishing Tournament – began back in 1934 as a way to draw visitors to the area. TIFT still draws visitors to the area. In fact, over 1,500 anglers participate in the event each August.
Located just across the Queen Isabella Memorial Bridge from Port Isabel is the relatively ‘young’ town of South Padre Island. Whereas Port Isabel is steeped in history, South Padre Island features all things modern. Schlitterbahn Beach Waterpark, one of the most technologically advanced parks of its kind, is the anchor of tourist activities on SPI and is situated on the Island’s southern end.
Heading north along Padre Boulevard, South Padre’s ‘main drag,’ visitors are treated to an impressive array of hotels, condominiums, restaurants, bars and souvenir shops. The other two arteries running the length of the Island – Gulf and Laguna boulevards – offer more of the same – one of the beachfront and one of the bay side.
For fishermen, there are just as many or more options once they get on the water. Like Port Mansfield to the north, the shallow grassflats between Port Isabel and South Padre Island yield plenty of impressive seatrout each year. In fact, the current state record fish (15.6 pounds) was taken by local fly fishermen Bud Rowland in 2002.
However, the biggest draw for anglers on the southern end of the Lower Laguna are the miles of shallow sand flats and, more specifically, the large schools of red drum that swim over them. Sight-casting for redfish is hands down the most popular activity on this side of the Lower Laguna. And, it is an activity that is available year around.
Snook are another popular target on the south end of the Lower Laguna. These fish are available year around. From spring through fall, they can be taken on the shallow flats of the Lower Laguna and South Bay, a small body of water that lies between South Padre and Mexico. During the heat of summer, snook are thick in the Brazos Santiago Pass and along the beachfront. In the winter months, linesiders are found in dense concentrations in the Port of Port Isabel and the Brownsville Ship Channel.
Tarpon, too, are a big draw. Juvenile tarpon can be found year around. However, bigger fish – and more fish – show up in late spring and hang around until the first hard northerns work their way through the area – usually late November or early December. The warm weather months also encourage kingfish, Spanish mackerel, bonito, ladyfish, jack crevalle and other species to move into the Brazos Santiago Pass, where they are easy targets for inshore anglers.
During the winter months, the beachfront of South Padre Island draws hordes of surf fishermen. The vast majority of these anglers are looking for pompano, which are in local waters year around but found in the greatest numbers from December through March. However, good numbers of black drum, redfish and whiting are also landed from the winter surf.
In short, each of these Lower Laguna destinations offer wonderful, year around angling opportunities. So, from a fishing standpoint, it’s hard to go wrong with either area. It really is a matter of how you wish to spend the time when you’re not on the water that should be the determining factor when deciding which of these towns you want to visit for your South Texas vacation.