People don’t just stumble upon Port Mansfield, or go there for the nightlife. In a town remote even by south Texas standards, deer and turkey outnumber humans and freely roam through the village. People go to Port Mansfield to fish Laguna Madre.
“Some people describe the lower Laguna Madre as the Keys of the Texas Gulf Coast,” said veteran guide and pioneer of Port Mansfield fishing Capt. Bruce Shuler. “We have every type of fish in Laguna Madre that’s found in the Florida Keys except for bonefish and permit. Occasionally, someone even catches a bonefish, but that’s highly unusual. Port Mansfield is at the same latitude as West Palm Beach, Florida.”
Port Mansfield sits on the 609-square-mile Laguna Madre in the brush country along the southeastern Texas coast about 50 miles north of the Mexican border. Meaning “Mother Lagoon” in Spanish, the bay separates the Texas mainland on the west from Padre Island on the east. The longest barrier island in the world and the second largest island in the contiguous United States after Long Island, Padre Island once stretched about 130 miles from Corpus Christi south to Port Isabel.
In 1964, the Port Mansfield Channel opened, cutting the island in two. Also called East Cut, the Port Mansfield Channel connects the Gulf of Mexico to the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, which runs through the middle of Laguna Madre. Nearly landlocked, Laguna Madre opens to the Gulf at Corpus Christi in the north and through the Brownsville Ship Channel in the south. Besides East Cut, Land Cut also connects to the Gulf through a channel dredged where a hurricane once tore a breach through the island about 20 miles north of Port Mansfield. Land Cut separates the upper Laguna Madre from the lower Laguna Madre.
“With limited access to the Gulf of Mexico over such a huge body of water, Laguna Madre doesn’t really have a tide, although the wind blows the water around,” said Captain Sally Moffett Black.
“Fishing Laguna Madre is more like fishing a reservoir for largemouth bass. The redfish don’t migrate out of the Laguna to the Gulf, so they get huge. We commonly catch 40- to 50-inch redfish.”
With no major rivers or freshwater sources other than rain entering the system, the lagoon runs more salty than the nearby Gulf of Mexico. Whipping winds increase evaporation, leaving the salt behind. All that salty water and captive fish population makes great conditions for anglers chasing big ones.
“Laguna Madre offers some of the best big trout action in Texas or anywhere along the Gulf Coast with some fish topping 10 pounds,” Shuler said. “Anglers also catch a lot of redfish over the grass flats and an occasional snook, plus flounder, black drum, juvenile tarpon, mangrove snapper, sheepshead, Spanish mackerel and jack crevalle. In nearshore waters in the Gulf, anglers can catch cobia, king mackerel, tarpon and sharks. Farther offshore, anglers fish for amberjack, grouper, red snapper, tuna and other pelagic species.”
The lagoon averages about 2.5 to 5 feet deep with many acres carpeted in thick seagrass, providing excellent habitat for redfish, speckled trout and other species. Shallow and gin-clear, Laguna Madre offers excellent opportunities for sight fishing with fly tackle.
“The spring through June is prime time for sight-fishing,” said Black who specializes in fly-fishing. “Redfish roam in big packs and eat everything in their path. We also get a lot of big, solitary trout. In early 2011, I heard of several 12-pound trout caught. Black drums are everywhere. We catch some black drums by sight-casting flies in ankle-deep water.”
Without oyster reefs or other structure in the shallow lagoon, grass provides the dominant cover. Many anglers cast topwater plugs or jigheads tipped with soft plastics. Spinnerbaits also work around grass patches holding redfish. Anglers look for redfish tailing in the grass or other activity.
“In the spring, we throw topwater baits 90 percent of the time,” Shuler said. “Once water gets about 80 degrees, usually in April, trout move to grass beds in slightly deeper water. It’s almost like bass fishing around hydrilla beds. On calm, clear summer nights with no clouds and no wind, heat radiates out of the water. In water two feet deep or less, water temperatures might drop 10 degrees by daybreak. At first light, we run up into skinny water to fish for reds. We’ll follow the sun and watch the bait. As the sun gets higher, baitfish migrate out to deeper water.”
While many anglers drift the grassy flats, others prefer hoofing it in water knee to waist deep. Wading offers anglers a degree of stealth. Anglers can slowly walk up on schools of feeding fish with much less commotion than running up in a large boat.
“In hot Texas summers, it’s cooler to wade,” Shuler said. “When drifting in two or three feet of clear water on a windy day, it’s almost impossible to sneak up on a school of trout or big reds and anchor without spooking them. When wade fishing, someone can stand in one spot and catch a bunch of fish.”
Laguna Madre also holds some big flounders. Although most anglers catch flatfish incidentally when fishing for reds or trout, people specifically targeting flounders, fish the sandy shorelines of the Intracoastal Waterway or East Cut. Work red and white soft plastics over the drops or drag a jighead tipped with a minnow along the bottom.
Outside the lagoon, extremely salty waters mean king mackerels, cobia and other fish come close to shore. Many anglers fish the East Cut jetties. The Gulf bottom drops off quickly, allowing anglers to catch red snappers less than nine miles from shore. About 30 miles out from East Cut, anglers can catch amberjacks and groupers. Several wrecks, artificial reefs and oil platforms concentrate fish offshore.
“When fishing nearshore, we run the beaches along the Gulf looking for bait balls,” Shuler explained. “Once the winds lay down in June, I spend most of my time along the beach chasing tarpons, king mackerels, Spanish mackerels and sharks. We also catch jack crevalles and cobia. We throw topwater baits at them.”
—story by John N. Felsher