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The Lure of the Coast

Destination - Rockport-Fulton

By Susan L. Ebert

Travel time from:

  • Amarillo - 12.5 hours /
  • Austin - 4 hours /
  • Brownsville - 4 hours /
  • Dallas - 7 hours /
  • El Paso - 11 hours /
  • Houston - 4.5 hours /
  • San Antonio - 3 hours

With torrents continuing and floodwaters rising last July, I study the increasing number of road closings on the TxDOT Web site to locate routes outside the river basins.

I am determined not to bail out on a long-planned weekend in Rockport-Fulton, a favorite Coastal Bend destination.

When Dana and her son Noah arrive at my Austin home, she casts a worried eye to the turbid skies. "We’re on," I pronounce. "It’ll just take us a little longer to get there." With Dana, Noah and me in her car and my two teens, Scott, 17, and Cristy, 16, trailing behind in my truck, we skirt the swollen Guadalupe river basin with what turns out to be well-calculated detours. It’s the first time I’ve watched my son drive in torrential rain, so I constantly scan my rearview mirror. Once, my heart jumps into my throat as a doe leaps into the wet roadway in front of my two teens. Don’t punch the brakes, I taught him. Easy does it. Don’t swerve ever; hold the road. You have inertia in your favor if you keep going in a straight line. His slowing truck never wavers. The doe sprints past him. I breathe again.

The Kontiki Beach Resort, just south of the Copano Bay bridge in the village of Fulton, sparkles in the storm-swept afternoon. The rains have passed through for now, and our offspring unfold their ever-extending limbs and set out to explore the marina, the two long fishing piers, the tennis courts and the swimming pool. Brown pelicans stand vigil on the marina pilings, and pickets of heron and egret fish the rims of the marshy inlet. Mullet slap the surface.

Dana’s son Noah, 8, has never fished, so the two of us step out the back door of the condo, less than 10 yards away from the marina. To my delight, Noah, like me, is left-handed, so I don’t have to do the usual transposing. He has the strong, smooth arm of a budding Nolan Ryan, and is soon pitching the topwater lure clean across the marina and dancing it back to him in a jolly jig.

Although I prefer fly fishing and throwing plastic, I’m no purist, especially in teaching children. There’s something about threading a worm, shrimp or croaker onto a hook that connects a child to the food chain and the natural world. So charging my two teens to look after Noah, Dana and I set out on a bait-and-grocery run. First stop is Fleming’s Bait Stand in Rockport Harbor, for both bait and table shrimp, and a couple dozen croaker. The new H-E-B south of Rockport and Fulton has everything else. "The produce department is prettier than most jewelry stores," I comment to Dana, and we come back laden with fruits and vegetables.

I’ve brought two flyrods, two spinners and "Don’t-Touch-Mama’s Baitcaster"— its official name — which seems to successfully ward off casual use. I rig them all that evening, so we’re ready to go.

The following morning, while everyone sleeps, I strap on my water sandals and headlamp and jog around the oyster reef from the Kontiki to the end of the Copano Bay State Fishing Pier as the sun rises through surly Van Gogh clouds. Splashing over the oystershell in ankle-deep water, I soon spy two black skimmers on a spit of shell. One of the skimmers looks one-legged. On closer examination, I see that it has monofilament balled around an atrophying leg. I spend an hour trying to nab the trailing fishing line in hopes I can cut it free. Furious and frustrated that I cannot get close enough to help the bird, I pick up one of the numerous plastic bags fluttering along this pristine shore, and fill it with balled-up fishing line discarded by unthinking anglers from the night before. I tie it tight and thrust it into the closed garbage bin on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Copano Bay Fishing Pier, thinking, If people knew how harmful these careless acts are to fish and wildlife, wouldn’t they act more responsibly?

Dana and I pry our children from their nests and set out after breakfast for an excursion across the Copano Bay Bridge to the tiny village of Lamar. Cardinals and scissor-tailed flycatchers flit across our paths as we meander along St. Charles Bay toward Goose Island State Park’s Big Tree, one of the most famous trees in the world and, until a usurper in Brazoria County was awarded the title recently, the Texas State Champion Live Oak. Estimated to be more than 1,000 years old, the Big Tree measures 35 feet in circumference and has a crown spread of nearly 90 feet. It is said to have been a council tree, both for the Karankawa Indians and the white settlers who came later. We linger in its stately presence, savoring the shade and the bay breeze.

Goose Island State Park may be only 321 acres, but it’s whopping big on fun. The 1,620-foot-long fishing pier, at the junction of Aransas, Copano and St. Charles bays, presents spectacular fishing access for youngsters, as schools of speckled trout traverse underneath day and night, as well as redfish, flounder and black drum. It’s also one of only two state parks — Matagorda Island being the other — in which to see the endangered whooping crane. The birding is varied and plentiful as shorebirds, waterfowl and migrating songbirds abound. Visitors can also enjoy recreational crabbing and oystering. With more than 100 electrified campsites, two playgrounds, a bait stand and a two-lane boat ramp, this park is chockablock with adventure.

Later, the boys lazily fish the marina while Cristy paints. After a short tour of Fulton Mansion State Historic Site and quaint Fulton Harbor, we stroll the curio shops and art galleries of downtown Rockport. As the sun sets, our collective mood is calm but the world around us is blowing a gale. Cristy walks out on the pier to sketch while son Scott and Dana play their acoustic guitars. We sing; play music; laugh.

Dana and I cement a friendship. "You’re pretty well prepared," she comments; "like that MacGyver character who could fix anything with either duct tape, tin foil or gum."

As she hugs me goodbye, she teases, "I can’t believe you didn’t bring duct tape."

Captain Sally Moffett of Reel Fun Charters runs one of the most innovative guide services I know: She piles kayaks onto her bay boat dubbed "Twenty-four-feet-of-Hell," and takes clients out into the inner labyrinth of the skinny water cradling San Jose Island.

The night before we’re to fish, we’re once again under anvil thunderheads and flood advisories. Moffett and I confer, and agree we’ll have to call it in the morning; if there’s lightning or other dangerous conditions, we’ll bag it. Moffett holds a Master U.S. Coast Guard license and would not risk unsafe weather. She knows I’ll be up for a physically challenging trip, though; wind and waves alone won’t stop us.

Tonight, we stay at Hoopes’ House, a vanilla-and-daffodil Victorian confection in downtown Rockport, within walking distance of shops, restaurants, Rockport Harbor and the Texas Maritime Museum.

After supper, Cristy and I head for the pool, but by now it is flat out pouring, and the sky is firing with lightning and shouting with thunder. We sit in the gazebo, swathed in Hoopes’ House robes, and talk, really talk, the way mothers and daughters need to talk and so rarely do. On a Saturday night, she would be out with her friends; this conversation in the midst of a fierce lightning storm is a rare gift.

The following morning, I awake at 5, pound out three miles around Rockport Harbor, shower, pull on my fishing clothes and grab my gear. At Palm Harbor, where Moffett and I are to launch, the wind is slicing sideways and the fog bank is touchably low. An angry, greenish cloudbank hangs over the northeast horizon. Moffett sizes up the situation. "We’re safe," she says, "but it may be rough. Are you game?" "Heck, yeah," I reply.

We bound over the bay to San Jose Island, where she drops anchor and we each board sit-on-top kayaks, with fly rods and spinning gear at the ready. We fight the wind as we paddle across Fence Lake, the missing joint in my left shoulder chattering in protest. I mentally package the pain and toss it overboard. Chin into the wind, I paddle, teeth clenched.

Then I see a yellow-crowned night heron on the shore! Another! Then a flight of roseate spoonbills, hot pink in the fog. Two willets sound their piercing cry; golden, black-spotted tails swirl near my paddle. Three wigeons, harbingers of flights to come, pass overhead. The shoulder pain abates as the splendor of this wild place floods my senses.

We anchor our kayaks and wade. The mud is thick and viscous; I find I need to constantly move my feet to stay balanced. I ask Moffett how she came to this life she so obviously adores.

"I worked in the legal profession for 14 years," she confides, "and when I decided to become a fishing guide, I knew I wanted to be a different kind of fishing guide. I grew up on the water, but not fly fishing; my spirit led me to it. Chuck Scates is the one who took me under his wing. I was not very good when he decided to teach me." She pauses, laughing. "Actually, I was pathetic. Scates is the guru of Texas saltwater fly fishing; somehow he sensed my passion and my tenacity and gave to me.

"I want the fish to be here tomorrow," continues Moffett, "so I encourage my clients to practice catch and release. The magic of these pristine wild places is what I hope to share."

Despite last night’s storm, the skinny water in Fence Lake is clear. The stingrays dart around our wadeboots, as do shrimp, crab and speckled trout. Redfish streak past us in the knee-deep water.

It’s too windy to throw fly lines, so we pitch topwater lures. Each blowup brings a rush; each fish is released with a prayer and a thank you.

We retrieve our kayaks and climb aboard. I’m weary, and feeling more so when I realize we’re on the back reaches of Fence Lake, far from Moffett’s anchored bay boat. "Just stand up," says Moffett, doing so herself.

I do, and am amazed to see that our bodies have become sails. With our blonde ponytails flying beneath our hats, the wind at our backs, we cast and retrieve, catch and release, talk and observe as "Twenty-four-feet-of-Hell" looms closer. It’s a day that should not end, I think, as we stand side by side, gliding across the surface as the ripe nursery bay undulates beneath us.

It’s what happens, I remind myself; not what’s planned.

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