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Man on a Mission

More than anyone else, Rudy "Plugger" Grigar shepherded Texas wade fishing into the modern era. Others preceded him, but none with such flair.

By Larry Bozka

In 1939, only eight outboard motors rated more than 33 horsepower were registered in Houston. According to his own account, one belonged to a young saltwater fishing fanatic named Rudy Grigar. Three more belonged to Grigar’s wade-fishing partners: Zollie Taliaferro, Eddie Minor and “Captain” June Beckley. By any measure, these guys were a select fraternity.

Back when most Texas bay fishermen were still rowing to and from nearshore bay haunts in home-built dories, Grigar and crew had a mission that was virtually unheard of. They ran their outboard-powered boats to prime, lightly pressured, shallow-water locales where, upon arrival, they would immediately hop overboard and wade.

Modern-day wade fishermen still hear the question trip after trip: “Why would anybody want to get out of a perfectly good boat?”

Grigar answered it hundreds of times: An angler needs a reliable boat to get out on the water and locate foraging schools of redfish and speckled trout. But the angler who is serious about catching those fish — especially trophy-sized trout — gets in the water once the fish are found.

Wade fishing, in essence, is hunting with a rod and reel. It affords the saltwater angler a remarkable degree of stealth. The wader stalks the flats, eyes constantly reading the water for subtle but critical nuances of always-skittish predators and prey. When he finds the fish he stays with them, silently positioned far enough away to avoid spooking them, but close enough to capture their interest with each calculated cast.

Grigar met his mentor, August “Gus” Rohan, in 1923, at the age of 8, while fishing a natural lake just off the Brazos River near Rosenberg. Rohan taught the boy the art of catching largemouth bass on hand-tied flies. It was, for the budding angler, an epiphany.

Fifteen years later, Grigar made a new set of converts to lure fishing. On a trip to Rockport’s Estes Flats, the young Grigar was sent by his elders to Port Aransas to pick up a supply of live shrimp. Grigar had other ideas.

“I hadn’t baited a hook since I was ten,” he recalls in his memoir, Plugger: Wade Fishing the Gulf Coast (Texas Tech University Press. “I refused to use the shrimp. I always carried my fishing equipment in my pickup and had two Johnson Sprite silver spoons in my tackle box. I tied one on and pulled in more than 60 big speckled trout and redfish.”

His companions were incredulous. Like so many others to come, they were immediately sold on the notion of becoming saltwater “hardware” fishermen.

Grigar soon made friends with two other Texas lure-fishing enthusiasts, Anton “Pluggin’ Shorty” Stettner and Doug English, who eventually founded the Bingo Lure Company.

Grigar was an obsessive tinkerer with a keen eye for innovation. Aquatic vegetation poses a constant problem to fishermen who cast treble-hooked plugs on shallow flats; just a small strand of grass can ruin the action of a retrieved fishing lure. Grigar’s solution was the “Plugger Bubble,” one of the first “weedless” lures designed for saltwater angling. English, a dedicated flats wader who knew a good thing when he saw it, put the “Plugger Bubble” into production as part of the Bingo Lure lineup.

Generally, however, saltwater lures remained as scarce as serious saltwater lure anglers. Grigar went to work in his woodshop producing his own plugs. Among them was a bizarre-looking but consistently effective offering he called the “Plugger Toothbrush Lure.” Constructed from old amber toothbrush handles and rigged with two treble hooks, the nose-weighted shrimp imitation wasn’t pretty, but like most of Grigar’s creations, it caught fish. Today that lure - like the Plugger Bubble - is coveted by antique tackle collectors.

Immediately after World War II and during the decade to follow, Grigar and friends found all the action they needed within the sprawling Galveston Bay complex. West Galveston Bay, Christmas Bay and the natural fish-filled intersection of San Luis Pass were their favorite haunts.

During the war, much of this area was closed to the public. The military used it for practicing live bombing runs, and in doing so created hundreds of deep holes that afforded cool-water refuge to temperature-sensitive gamefish during the summer. For several years, until they were reclaimed by siltation, these 10-foot-deep blow-outs ranked among Grigar’s most closely guarded hotspots. For reasons of both secrecy and efficiency, he and his friends - and a growing number of paid fishing parties - probed them at night.

As Galveston Bay grew more popular, Grigar increasingly targeted waters to the south. He had already fished and guided numerous anglers across the Upper and Lower Laguna Madre in the 1930s, and then shifted northward to Port O’Connor, and occasionally San Luis Pass, during the 1940s. By the early 1960s he found Port O’Connor too crowded and headed south to San Antonio Bay, where he set up a camp at Panther Point on Matagorda Island.

The catches recorded by Grigar and his parties in the 15 years to follow were nothing shy of phenomenal. Redfish were almost a given, with 500-fish schools almost commonplace. Using light tackle and his trademark silver spoon, he regularly caught up to 100 speckled trout a day, many in excess of 6 and 7 pounds.

In the mid-1970s, the rod-bending bonanza abruptly bottomed out. Outlaw commercial fishermen moved into Grigar’s prime waters. Using invisible fences of monofilament gill net, the fishermen hoisted tens of thousands of redfish daily out of isolated coves. When Grigar confronted the netters, he was answered with a death threat. He contacted the local game warden, then returned to Panther Point to find his fishing camp burned to the ground.

Disgusted with the continual decline of Texas coastal game fish, in February 1977 Grigar met with a group of soon-to-be activists at a small tackle store he had opened in southwest Houston. The result was the founding of the Gulf Coast Conservation Association, an organization that today, as the CCA, monitors and implements coastal conservation efforts from Texas to Maine.

If there is one contradiction about Grigar, it is that a man devoted to the conservation of saltwater fish put so many on the stringer. He matter-of-factly explained to me that, on the whole, the fishermen of yesteryear didn’t know any better. They thought at the time that coastal resources were virtually inexhaustible. Grigar learned better and he shared a catch-and-release message as aggressively as possible during the time he had left.

His career concluded with 15 years of hardcore casting from a barren, 50-mile crescent of sand and shell that bisects the open Gulf almost 30 miles offshore. The Chandeleur Islands were Grigar’s answer to a lifetime quest for solitude and abundant game fish.

He coped with desolation — no doubt loneliness — during the periods between paid outings. His frenetic white terrier Yakapoo, a gift from his daughter, Rudyne, kept him company. In 1979, Hurricane Frederick scraped Curlew Island clean not only of Grigar’s driftwood shack, but also his rudimentary three-hole “Par Three Chandeleur Country Club” golf course. He returned with a 32-foot houseboat. A few years later, it, too, was swallowed by a storm.

At 64, Grigar brought in a 56-foot-long, steel-hulled houseboat complete with air-conditioning, hot showers, television and other unheard-of island amenities. He anchored and stayed behind North Island, midway up the Chandeleur chain, until his return to the tiny South Texas town of Pettus, where he died in July 2001.

His little tackle store is long gone. But look at the shelves of any modern sporting goods warehouse and look closely, too, at the anglers scouring the counters. Each colorful lure and accessory, and each wide-eyed seeker of the hottest new lure testifies to the fact that Rudy “Plugger” Grigar, despite storms and setbacks, accomplished his mission.

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