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Brimming with Nature and History

By Mary-Love Bigony

Destination: Matagorda County

Travel time from:

AMARILLO - 12 hours / AUSTIN - 3.5 hour / BROWNSVILLE - 6 hours / DALLAS - 5.5 hours / EL PASO - 12 hours / HOUSTON - 1.5 hours / SAN ANTONIO - 3.5 hours

Matagorda Beach has seen a lot of history. As I stand at the water’s edge, gazing across the bay, I think of La Belle, the French ship that sank here in 1686, and the doomed French colonists she brought to the New World.

More than a century later, Anglo-American immigrants landed here, then traveled inland on the Colorado River. Some of Stephen F. Austin’s Old Three Hundred — his original colony — settled on the banks of the Colorado, and Matagorda County became one of the first 23 counties in the Republic of Texas following the Texas Revolution in 1836.

Matagorda County, where the Colorado River meets the Gulf of Mexico, in many ways feels as remote as it must have felt to those early travelers. Despite being less than 100 miles from Texas’ largest city, it feels undiscovered, brimming with nature, and during the next three days that feeling comes over and over again.

With a last glance toward the beach I’m off to River Park, just off FM 521 on the Colorado. There I meet Roi Lee Repp of Freebird Kayak & Canoe Adventures, one of several local businesses that provide watercraft for exploring the county’s waterways. Roi Lee has brought along an assortment of colorful kayaks, and she helps me and a handful of others select the right size. We ease into the water, get our bearings and settle in for a tranquil float. It’s a balmy fall day, much to the delight of some visitors from the North.

“Back home, it’s November!” marvels a veteran kayaker visiting from Pennsylvania.

“It’s November here, too,” I reply with a smile, and she shoots me a sardonic scowl.

After a little more chitchat we fall quiet, each of us lost in our own thoughts and observations. River kayaking is peaceful, contemplative. Riding low in the water, you feel like part of the environment. I find myself almost eye-to-eye with a large turtle and spot a kingfisher perched on a log. A red-tailed hawk soars silently overhead. Once highly prone to flooding, the Colorado River today flows at a leisurely pace. Additional kayaking opportunities, including sea kayaking along estuaries, will become available this fall when the 7,325-acre Matagorda County Nature Park and Preserve opens at the mouth of the Colorado River.

Oaks and pecan trees line the banks, and I hear some of the warblers that are passing through on their fall migration. Matagorda County is ideally situated for birding. The National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count draws birders from across the United States to the county, which regularly ranks No. 1 in the number of species counted. Matagorda County contains 16 sites on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail.

Late in the afternoon we leave the river and get a ride back to our starting point. I travel down FM 521 to Palacios, a laid-back community known as the Shrimp Capital of Texas that will be my headquarters on this visit. I enjoy a traditional shrimp boil — shrimp, corn, new potatoes and sausage — at the Outrigger, then take a sunset walk along the boardwalk overlooking Tres Palacios Bay.

The next morning I’m at the Matagorda County Birding Nature Center, just west of Bay City. Opened in November 2002, this wooded, 35-acre site contains almost all the habitats found in Matagorda County: river, prairie, wetlands, uplands, lowlands, creeks and streams. The only things missing are a beach and a salt marsh.

David Sitz shows me around, telling me about what has been done so far and what’s planned for the future. A butterfly garden and a hummingbird garden contain flowers and plants to attract the two popular species. “But the hummingbirds sometimes visit the butterfly garden,” says Sitz. An herb garden and a garden showcasing antique roses fill the air with fragrance. Volunteers maintain the gardens and do other jobs around the center.

As we walk, Sitz explains that the original concept for the nature center was to provide a place for tourists and locals alike to find information regarding birding and nature watching. But thanks to support from the community, the concept has expanded to include demonstration projects and educational activities.

We cross the wetlands on a boardwalk, where a blind offers a good spot for observation or photography. I spot a long-necked anhinga, its wings spread wide. At a deck over the Colorado River, Sitz tells me of plans to build a boat dock and offer tours on the river.

Back in Bay City, I visit the Matagorda County Museum, housed in the county’s original U.S. Post Office, which opened to the public in 1918. La Belle, one of René Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle’s three ships that sailed to the New World in 1684, sank during a storm and was discovered practically at Matagorda County’s back door in 1995. This museum is one of the best places in the state to learn about the ship and the excavation. Archeologists retrieved more than 1 million artifacts, many of which are on display here: candlesticks, bowls, a colander, a ladle, all packed in France more than 300 years ago for the voyage across the Atlantic. A bronze cannon bears the royal crest of King Louis XIV.

Midafternoon, I head to Matagorda Beach to meet Henrietta Krumholz, an animated octogenarian known locally as the Shell Lady. Henrietta grew up in Bay City, and her shell expertise grew from games she played with her children. She teaches classes for children and adults, and uses shells in crafts. Walking along the beach at a steady clip, Henrietta points out univalves and bivalves. She talks about sea beans and the egg cases of various shells, and explains how animals produce the shells to protect their soft bodies. She stops to pick up a shell, turns it over and explains that it’s a lightning whelk, the Texas state shell and the only shell that opens on the left.

My last day in Matagorda County starts under a hallelujah sunrise on Matagorda Bay. James Arnold of Day on the Bay Services meets me to discuss my first-ever saltwater fishing trip. James, a longtime commercial fisherman in the area, and his wife, Linda, established Day on the Bay to provide visitors the chance to do whatever they want to do on Matagorda Bay: fish, kayak, sail, watch birds, harvest shrimp and oysters, hunt waterfowl — whatever it is, they’ll help you do it.

James introduces me to his brother Ozzie, a longtime guide known as “Pelican” for his ability to find and catch fish. Larry and Judy Bates from Alabama join me on Ozzie’s skiff, and we head into East Matagorda Bay. We share the bay with egrets, herons and roseate spoonbills, and a flock of pelicans passes before us in an undulating wave.

Ozzie stops under a flock of feeding seagulls. I’m momentarily distracted by a monarch butterfly that lands on the side of the boat, but it flits off before I can say, “Look, a monarch butterfly.” Ozzie shows me how to slide a shrimp onto the hook, then helps me cast. Larry and Judy are catching small spotted seatrout on almost every cast, while I seem to be just feeding the fish. Finally I catch a small seatrout and Ozzie helps me unhook it and release it.

Larry catches the first keeper seatrout — 17 inches, according to the ruler on top of Ozzie’s cooler. After a couple of additional stops under feeding birds, Ozzie takes us to the edge of an area of burnished sea grasses: classic red drum habitat. Larry catches a sheepshead and I catch a ribbonfish. Finally, Larry catches the first redfish, a small one we admire before he carefully releases it.

My bobber sinks and I feel a tug and start reeling, but soon the tension on my line disappears. “You have to set the hook with redfish,” Ozzie says. “Give it a jerk before you start reeling.” Sure enough, the next time it happens I set the hook and reel in a 14-inch redfish. Not a keeper, but still pretty neat. Judy, meanwhile, has landed the first legal-size redfish, a 21-incher.

My bobber goes down again and I feel another tug, this time a serious one.

“Set the hook!” yells Ozzie. I do. The rod bows, and I slowly crank the reel. This goes on for several seconds, then the line goes slack.

“I lost it,” I say.

“No you didn’t,” Ozzie says. “It’s coming toward you.” Suddenly I feel a jolt. The rod bows again and I reel slowly, painfully.

The line goes slack again. “This time it’s under the boat,” says Ozzie. “Stay with it.” After what seems like hours, the fish is finally at the surface and Ozzie is ready with a net. He brings it aboard and we measure it: 24 inches. Ozzie is as excited as I am.

Back at the dock, people obligingly admire my redfish and I endure some good-natured ribbing about beginner’s luck. I relive the adventure as I drive back to Palacios, amazed again about how remote and undiscovered Matagorda County feels.

In Raising La Belle, author Mark G. Mitchell describes what La Salle would have seen when he landed here in 1684: “The mainland was a lonely labyrinth of reeds and saltwater pools. It was a boundless, inhuman landscape, but it offered great nesting for birds and fish. A few miles upstream, marshy lagoons gave way to prairies. Grass tall as a man’s chest rose and fell with the wind, like a rolling ocean. Cacti hid from the stupendous sky under oak and mesquite umbrellas.”

It’s not that hard to imagine, even three centuries later.

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