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From Paddles to Pedals

Kayaking anglers use hands-free pedaling to reach fishing hot spots along the coast.

By Dan Oko
Photography by Chase Fountain

“You should have been here yesterday."

These are words an anxious angler never wants to hear. To his credit, guide Mike Morales never says them to me.

But this spring when I meet Morales, who has been leading clients to fish on the Laguna Madre since 2011, and his wife, Sandra, at Bird Island Basin, he finds me caught up in a private reverie over the photos he had sent just the day before of a father-son team with huge grins and a full stringer.

“They were real beginners,” Mike laughs ruefully. “We missed a lot of fish.”

A breeze ruffles the smooth water of the bay as the sun begins its ascent over Padre Island National Seashore. Otherwise, all is silent.

Like most anglers, I am prone to optimism, and Mike, a professional kayak fishing specialist, further boosts my hopes with his purposeful manner. Mike and Sandra ready the Hobies while photographer Chase Fountain and I rig our rods. On their advice, I don a pair of moccasin-like water socks and leave my waders and boots in the trunk of the car. The day is already warming up, and Mike tells us that wading will be strictly optional.

The weather strikes me as another good omen.

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The author and fishing guides Mike and Sandra Morales set out in their kayaks to fish in the morning light.

Pedaling to Bird Island Basin

At their Fin Factory Kayak Charters, the Moraleses have traded traditionally paddled kayaks for state-of-the-art 14-foot Hobie Pro Anglers, which use bicycle-like pedal-driven flippers for propulsion. These crafts have a carrying capacity of 600 pounds and are designed to withstand extreme conditions. The kayak’s width — 3 feet across at its widest — offers stability in the surf and a steady casting platform.

After several kayak fishing trips in traditional rigs, I am eager to test this revolutionary technology. I quickly discover that I can stand as easily as sit in the kayak, allowing me to survey the shallow waters for tailing reds and trophy trout.

We’ll be using soft plastics for the most part, although I have a fly rod for some sight-casting as well. Mike Morales has a bucket of shrimp for bait in case we run into any black drum, which can be hard to entice with artificial lures. He and Sandra both carry radios so Mike can cruise the basin and do a little prospecting while Fountain and I work the flats and troughs, watching birds and taking photos. Fishing is never a slam-dunk, but I think the odds are in our favor.

Snowy egrets and willets hunt in the shallows; grebes swim and dive on the open water. The lagoon clarity is close to perfect. In the morning light we can easily spot depth changes and patches of sea grass beneath the surface.

Bird Island Basin sits on the geographic seam between the Upper and Lower Laguna Madre, a hypersaline bay system that extends south of Corpus Christi to the mouth of the Rio Grande. The shores of Padre Island, protected since 1962 as a national seashore and dedicated in 1968 (the year of my birth) by none other than Lady Bird Johnson, form the border to the east, extending 65 miles south. On the opposite bank, to the west, shining in the golden morning light, is a 250,000-acre expanse of the century-old King Ranch — the Laureles Division, the largest of the ranch’s four parcels, which together make up an area greater than Rhode Island.

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Where the lunkers are

According to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist Zach Olsen, an avid sportsman, the Upper Laguna Madre is differentiated by its relative isolation and the concentration of salt in the water.

“It’s hard to get to, which means it’s still very pristine,” Olsen says. Indeed, Padre Island National Seashore has none of the shoreline development of the resorts at South Padre Island at the lower end of the Laguna Madre.

Olsen has conducted monthly fish surveys along the Upper Laguna Madre, netting and releasing fish. Recent changes in the bag limits for spotted seatrout — just five Cynoscion nebulosus over 15 inches can be kept, as opposed to 10 fish on the upper coast north of East Matagorda Bay — have begun to produce more mature fish in the 16- to 18-inch range, he says. That’s especially true of specks in the Baffin Bay area, a few miles south of my outing with the Moraleses.

“Fish concentration and species selection are very connected to salinity,” Olsen notes. “The fish that we see recruited to this system have unique adaptations to the hypersalinity. We don’t know if those are a genetic or an environmental adaptation, but they contribute to this being a world-class fishery.”

In 2002, a fly-fisherman set the state record on the Lower Laguna Madre with a beefy 37-inch trout that weighed nearly 16 pounds. I never spotted anything quite that big, but Fountain arrives at my elbow claiming that a 30-inch speck swam by his boat.

“I know water magnifies everything,” he says, wide-eyed, “but that was a big fish!”

We keep on drifting and pedaling, working the flipper system on the Hobie, finding a groove, looking for another lunker trout. A pod of redfish crosses in front of Sandra’s boat but disappears before we can chase them. A ways off, Mike works the shoreline of a spoil island without much luck. Soon, Sandra boats a trout; then I, too, hook a healthy 17-incher. Fountain gets in on the action with an almost 20-inch trout.

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Fast-growing sport

More than two decades ago, the first kayak fishing pioneers tried their luck on the Texas coast. The shallow inland bays of the Gulf of Mexico with their so-called “skinny water” and easy-to-spook redfish were the perfect incubator for the then-new sport.

In the years since, kayak fishing has taken off like wildfire. These days, you can find kayakers trying their luck all up and down Texas’ 300-plus miles of shoreline. There you’ll see the other aficionados as well: kayak duck hunters and blue-water anglers who travel offshore in search of cobia, king mackerel, mahi-mahi and the occasional billfish.

Not to be outdone, anglers on the freshwater side have also embraced the paddle and the pedal-drive to reach their spots, whether that’s submerged structure on area lakes or a downriver honey hole in the Hill Country and beyond. Indeed, Kayak Bass Fishing, a national organization based in Tennessee that promotes catch-and-release tournaments across the South, has designated the whole of Texas a single region for competition purposes. Supported in part by Austin Canoe and Kayak, the Kayak Angler Tournament Series hosts several events across Texas, including at Coleto Creek Reservoir and Lake Athens, and last year the series added saltwater dates.

“We’re definitely seeing a lot of people buying kayaks, and I think overall the sport is still growing in leaps and bounds,” says Barrett Fine of Austin Canoe and Kayak.

An avid angler who first got into kayak fishing in 2010, Fine moved to Texas to help the company open its San Antonio outlet a few years ago. In the meantime, he’s had his share of encounters with impressive fish, including a 7-foot sailfish caught off the coast of Navarre, Fla., that he pursued in his Hobie.

“With a fish like that, you can only tamp down the drag so far,” says Fine, “but I didn’t want it to spool me. With the pedal-drive, I can make about 4 miles per hour, so I could keep that fish in play, then catch and release it. I went into chase mode, and landed it. It was the most beautiful thing.”

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I had nothing quite so hair-raising to report during my adventure with the Moraleses on the Laguna Madre, but as I pedal around Bird Island Basin I begin to appreciate the versatility of kayaks for all sorts of saltwater fun. Despite its hefty size, with the flippers tucked smartly underneath the drive, the Hobie’s an extremely stealthy ride. No worries about awkward paddle strokes or splashing.

With my hands free, I can cast and reel in a 270-degree arc across my body anywhere in front of the boat, or even troll if I feel like it. (We did carry paddles in case of mechanical issues and to help maneuver and pole through the shallows, where the pedal-drive sometimes struggles.) After a couple of hours, I master a “short-pump” move, suggested by the Moraleses, that keeps the fins folded close to the underside of the boat. I can still pump them but they’re out of the grass and suspended above the muddy bottom.

Conditioned by many years of riding bicycles, I find that the kayak pedals function with a different rhythm. You don’t rotate the pedals. The action is more like climbing stairs, a piston-type push rather than a circular motion. The rudder is controlled by hand.

“These boats have the most comfortable seats — you stay dry, but you’re still sitting much closer to the water than if you were in a powerboat,” Fine says. “You cover water more slowly and can see more details. Kayak fishermen get a slight advantage by reading the water more closely. You really get to know an area.”

It’s true. I’m seeing plenty of fish that only flash by when my buddies and I fly across the salt in shallow-running bay boats. Sheepshead and rays cruise beneath the gentle waves, grasses flow, and promising potholes that could hold waiting fish seem to proliferate. With the sun in my face, I can’t resist a chuckle when Mike Morales reminds me of the old cliché: They call it fishing, not catching, for a reason.

As lunchtime arrives, we manage to accrue several fish, including a few smaller trout along the way, which we summarily release. By the time Mike hooks the sole keeper redfish of our expedition, a beefy slot about 22 inches, we have traveled about six relatively painless miles in search of action.

After landing that fish, the big man pulls up next to me and gestures to a nearby spot where the spartina gives way to a broad plain of submerged white sand. He tells me how Sandra caught a big trout last Valentine’s Day.

“I wish we could find one like that,” he says a little sheepishly. “That was a really nice trout.”

As we wrap up, I take my last shot at a redfish lurking nearby. It spooks, leaving a telltale cloud in the water, like the dust kicked up by a cartoon roadrunner. The rest of our crew is moseying across the flats, fighting a light breeze, and I am able to catch them with a bit of effort as they reach the launch.

It was a good day. I’d witnessed the splendor of Bird Island Basin, caught some fish and navigated the Cadillac of kayaks. Though I might have preferred a trophy trout myself, I did not begrudge Sandra last year’s haul.

I knew I’d be back. After all, on the Laguna Madre, you can miss out on yesterday or yesteryear — and it doesn’t matter. With a little luck and good gear, the fish will be there tomorrow.

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