Snooze and Fish
Destination: Port Mansfield
By Larry Bozka
Travel times from:
- Austin - 5.5 hours /
- Brownsville - 1 hour /
- Dallas - 8.75 hours /
- Houston - 5.5 hours /
- San Antonio - 4.25 hours /
- Lubbock - 10.75 hours /
- El Paso - 13.5 hours /
Port Mansfield is the ultimate sleepy fishing village.
Despite its miniscule size, Port Mansfield is impossible to miss. Any visitor who passes through town and keeps on driving will abruptly find himself up to the windshield in Laguna Madre saltwater.
Mansfield is, in every sense of the description, a "sleepy little fishing village." With the exception of hunting for feral hogs or one of the nilgai antelope that regularly ramble across the area's remote and sandy shorelines, in this far-southern neck of the state, it's all about fishing.
Even that designation leaves plenty of room for interpretation. It's almost as easy to make the brief run offshore to deep-blue Gulf of Mexico water as it is to motor out onto the flats and wade, kayak or drift some of Texas' most scenic and bountiful shallow-water fishing locales.
"Sleepy" is no less appropriate. If, like me, you drive to Port Mansfield with limited time but grandiose intentions, you're not liable to pull it off without staying up late and getting up early. Given the usual rewards, that's a small price to pay.
My good friend and fellow outdoor photographer Mark Hall loves to do the driving when we travel together. I'm not one to argue about wheel time. I'd much rather spend my time daydreaming about the days to come. Last night, on the way down from Seabrook, I enjoyed my share of fishing and hunting fantasies, one of which is playing out superbly this morning.
Dawn's first light is spilling onto the flats like a fast-melting wall of wax. It's a rather disorienting phenomenon, one that makes it almost impossible to determine where the sky concludes and the water begins. In between, there's a whole lot happening.
An energetic pod of 23-inch-class redfish is milling about no more than 60 feet away. Auburn reflections punctuate their flanks. The piggish gamefish root about frantically, rustling tiny blue crabs and burrowed brown shrimp out of the dense sand bottom near Mansfield's "East Cut."
Ray Bozman has a solid fix on the fish. Just to be sure, though, Terry Neal is pointing at the school and attentively reminding Bozman to place the red-and-gold spoon fly at least several feet in front of the school. The lure was made by Neal's son, T.J., owner of East Cut Saltwater Flies and a third-generation fly-fisher. Bozman also learned the sport under the tutelage of Neal, one of the Texas coast's most capable and celebrated fly fishermen. He was obviously paying attention.
Like his mentor and old friend, Bozman is one of those guys who makes fly-casting seem effortless. When the leader leaps from the water behind his back, it floats in the air as if it's being elevated by some sort of anti-gravity device.
Bozman lets the 8-weight fly rod "load." Then, with a forceful but fluid motion that only comes after years of practice, he releases the bright-yellow line and lets the fly soar. It lands with an almost-imperceptible splash. The lead fish, an obvious bully, fixates on the erratically twitching mini-spoon like a rattlesnake staring down a field mouse. Then, triggered by a purely predatory instinct, the agitated redfish rudely shoves its companions aside and crashes down on the lure for the kill. With a crisp pull of the line, Bozman sets the hook.
Some would feel this way watching a starting pitcher finish off a no-hitter. Others might find it in the center-punched landing of an Olympic gymnast completing a flawless vault. For me and Hall, from cast to catch, Bozman's performance is every bit as stunning.
It's the stuff of great dinner conversation, as Hall and I relive the experience at the Windjammer Restaurant, a perennial favorite of Port Mansfield's roughly 400-plus permanent residents.
An hour before sunset, we're watching a rambunctious herd of white-tailed deer greedily converge on the corn feeder less than 50 yards away from our porch at the Port Mansfield Sunset House. "Now there's a 'cast-and-blast' opportunity if I've ever seen one," I joke to Hall. "Fish in the morning; take a nap and then hunt deer from the front door in the evening." It's a cheap laugh, both for us and for Debbie and Ed Freeman. Aside from owning and maintaining the Sunset House, the Freemans also spearhead a booking service for south-of-the-border dove hunters.
Hall and I are going dove hunting, but we'll be only a half-hour from the hotel. Veteran fishing guide and dove outfitter Rene Hinojosa has scouted a promising field outside of Raymondville, some 25 miles to the west up Highway 186. It's on the agenda, but first, the blue water beckons.
The twin diesel engines of Randle Hall's 31-foot Bertram "Geaux Deep" are already rumbling when we arrive early the next morning. The weatherman has warned us about approaching storm systems expected in the afternoon hours, so Neal, Bozman, Hall and his son Darby waste no time in getting the vintage but meticulously maintained fishing boat underway.
The ride to the jetties is spectacular, a golden sunrise bathing the water as Hall sets the course for the Port Mansfield jetties and beyond.
On board with us are some six dozen XL-sized Black Salty baitfish, pond-raised baits from Arkansas that I am (yes, really) paid to field-test. Hall has brought along a pair of bright-red kites made by Florida-based SFE – not for display, but instead for a specialized technique of bait presentation that this morning requires next to no time to prove itself. With the wind still light, the father-and-son offshore team inflate helium balloons to elevate the square-shaped kites. The live baits dance and thrash below, barely beneath the surface. When the first one gets hit, it looks and sounds like someone threw a cinder block over the transom.
The first of three king mackerel comes aboard, a 29-pounder that touches both sides of the ice chest. The next fish, at 30 pounds, is even bigger. The last one, a silver-sided lunker as big around as a running back's thigh, pulls the scale to 35 pounds. In order to make the big king fit inside of Hall's 220-quart cooler we have to sharply bend its head and tail.
Having proven his point with the kite-fishing strategy, Hall moves the boat. A short while later, he centers the quietly idling hull over a sharp-pointed rock situated inside of the state's 9-nautical-mile offshore boundary. Neal and Bozman rig the two biggest Saltys they can find in the livewell and let the baitfish drop, this time straight to the bottom. When the heavy, fast-sinking egg sinkers make high-impact contact with the bottom structure they send sharply transmitted pulses up the heavy monofilament line. Neal and Bozman crank the wiggling live baits about 5 feet off the top of the rock and wait.
A minute later, a flame-red pair of fat-bellied 10- and 12-pound snapper grab the baitfish and keep on swimming. The two fishing buddies bring their fish in fast, as stormy skies are quickly becoming all too apparent. Big, roaming cumulus clouds are hovering low above the water. Like an aggravated wasp, the largest cloud lowers a dark, wandering stinger over heavily whitecapping seas only a mile or so to the east.
Waterspouts are fairly common in late summer. That does not, however, make them any less unsettling, especially at such a meager distance. For increasingly obvious reasons, we're out of here.
Anticipation of our afternoon dove hunt, however, solidly overrides the urge to nap. Worn out but still jazzed after such an incredible angling excursion, by 4 in the afternoon we're toting 12-gauge shotguns into a damp blackland field just off U.S. Highway 77 near Raymondville.
The birds we shoot at come corkscrewing in high above the pasture with intimidating and erratic velocity. Every moment is priceless, but watching Hinojosa's 4-year-old son Cole and 6-year-old daughter Cassidy gleefully pick up the birds cleanly shot by their wing-shooting mom, Christy, is perhaps the best moment of the day.
The Hinojosa children are exuberant, living reminders that not every youngster in Texas has been taught that dinner is something that comes straight from a shrink-wrapped plastic bag displayed at the nearest meat counter. They possess a profound appreciation for life, and for each other, that those who don't understand hunting arguably cannot begin to comprehend.
We leave in the morning. A hurricane named Ike has worked its way into the gulf, and it's anybody's guess as to where it might ultimately make landfall. Many predictions are focused near Port Mansfield. Hall and I elect to hit the road.
A day later, we'll be very glad we did.
Meanwhile, the barely settled effects of Hurricane Dolly remain painfully evident here in laid-over palm trees, broken mesquite limbs and the copious pile of debris that has collected beneath the Port Mansfield water tower. A block past the water tower, Highway 186 dead-ends into the water. Most look at this spot and see the end of the road.
For me it is, and always will be, the beginning. It will be a while before I can return. Still, this place will in the interim be on my mind, and for very good reason.
Down Port Mansfield way, daydreams come true.