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Port A with the Captain

Destination: Port Aransas

Travel time from:
Austin – 3.75 hours
Dallas – 6.5 hours
El Paso – 10.25 hours
Brownsville – 3 hours
San Antonio – 2.75 hours
Houston – 4 hours

The best way to see Port Aransas' fish and birds is from a boat.

By Melissa Gaskill and photos by Sonja Sommerfeld

Bobby Grumbles has boating and fishing roots reaching back to his early teens — not an unusual story for a Port Aransas native. He recently shared a taste of life in this Texas coastal town for those of us without the good fortune to grow up there.

Grumbles and I met at Fisherman’s Wharf. He started working on these docks as a kid, graduated to deck hand on the catamaran party boats Wharf Cat and Scat Cat and became a certified captain for ocean-going passenger vessels in 1975. He met his wife, Sharon, when she came to work here. In 1993, he and Hefner Appling Jr. bought out the business. One of the Grumbles’ daughters, Tara, is now general manager.

Grumbles moved on to bigger boats — he pilots ships into Corpus Christi harbor for the Aransas-Corpus Christi Pilots, which assists ships in the port — but keeps close tabs on goings-on at Fisherman’s Wharf.

He takes me aboard the Scat Cat, which runs half- and full-day fishing trips into the Gulf of Mexico for snapper, king mackerel, cobia and reef fish in season. Passengers also enjoy birds and dolphins along the way.

“The catamaran-style boat gives a smoother ride,” Grumbles says. “Just show up with sunscreen and a towel.” The wharf even offers fish-cleaning service.

Port Aransas

Bobby Grumbles on the deck of the Wharf Cat, Fisherman's Wharf.

“I was fishing about 280 days a year when it was my job, but I still like to go out on boats and fish with friends and family for fun. It may be kind of like a mailman taking a walk, but fishing is the thing here,” Grumbles says.

He tells me that Port A was called Tarpon at one time, but it became Port Aransas in 1911. Tarpon trivia: President Franklin D. Roosevelt caught a 77-pounder here in 1937, and the once-disappearing fish have made a comeback.

Grumbles points to marshes and flats across from San Jose Island, a barrier island just north of Mustang Island, which Port Aransas occupies. He likes to chase redfish and trout here.

“We have one of the finest bays and estuaries along the Gulf right out of Port Aransas. I love when everybody pulls their boats up for floating parties on the backside of Saint Joe,” he says, using the local moniker for San Jose.

We pass people fishing from boats in the channel and others casting from the jetties that line it. Folks get good-sized redfish and trout off the jetties, Grumbles tells me. Fishing is good here year-round, but peaks between February and April. In summer, people may catch Spanish mackerel and, with the right gear, king mackerel. Sometimes those on the jetties reel in snook.

Back on land, we hop in his truck and head down the beach to the 1,200-foot-long Horace Caldwell Pier, named after a Nueces County commissioner who served from 1945 to 1960. A small shop rents fishing rods and sells bait and tackle; lights on the pier at night create good chances to catch trout, redfish, whiting and cobia.

“You can catch all kinds of stuff if you’re geared up for it right,” Grumbles promises. “Ask at the bait shops what to use or hire a guide.”

Port A offers miles of beach for surf fishing, too. Grumbles gestures toward the expanse of sand stretching as far as I can see and says, “Just choose a spot.” Many fishermen also like the jetties at Mustang Island State Park at the far end of the island.

People fish off the jetties on Saint Joe Island, too. Most of them arrive on the Jetty Boat, which travels back and forth from Fisherman’s Wharf throughout the day. The island is private property, and its owners still run cattle there, but all beaches in Texas are public to the high-tide mark. Just don’t miss the last boat back across, Grumbles advises.

Port Aransas offers plenty of non-fishing diversions, of course. People go birding and shelling on Saint Joe and Mustang Island beaches. The state park offers ranger-led birding and shelling walks and has campsites.

I.B. Magee Beach Park also has campsites, a beach house with showers and an observation deck right on the edge of town. Created in 1952 as Holiday Beach Park, the park was renamed in 2004 in honor of the late I.B. Magee Jr., an active community member and avid outdoorsman who lived nearby and kept an eye on the park. Grumbles grew up with I.B.’s son, Pat Magee, who used to have a surf shop in town. They spent a lot of time on the beach.

“I wish I had a dollar for every mile I drove on the beach looking at the scenery,” Grumbles says. “I also spent a lot of time on the beach with my girls. My favorite month is September. The island gets kind of quiet, fishing is good, the beach is pretty, and the weather is nice.”

Port Aransas

Horace Caldwell Pier at I.B. Magee Beach Park

Fisherman’s Wharf runs sunset cruises on the Scat Cat every evening from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

“We go down the channel toward the Gulf and up Lydia Ann Channel to catch sunset behind the lighthouse for people to take pictures,” he says. The 1850s Lydia Ann Lighthouse guided ships safely through an ever-moving Aransas Pass — one of only three natural passes in Texas. The lighthouse, shut down in the 1950s, shines again thanks to its purchase and restoration by H-E-B’s Charles Butt in 1988.

Sunset cruises also pass the wreck of the SS John Worthington, a tanker that served in World War II. It took a torpedo off the coast of Brazil in 1943, and the crew sailed their badly damaged ship all the way to Galveston. Deemed beyond repair, the ship was stripped and abandoned here; a buoy marks its location.

Afternoon dolphin tours on Fisherman’s Wharf’s Jetty Boat explore the ship channel and Lydia Ann Channel, where pods of bottlenose dolphins live year-round. These sleek gray mammals with erect dorsal fins and distinctive tails feed and play in the water and surf the bow waves of large ships in
the channel.

The Wharf Cat tours Aransas National Wildlife Refuge near Rockport to see whooping cranes from November to March. Grumbles narrated that trip himself for years.

Birding goes on year-round at Port A’s Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail sites: Paradise Pond, Port Aransas Nature Preserve, Port Aransas Jetty, Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center and Port Aransas Wetland Park,
plus Mustang Island State Park to the south.

At the 1,217-acre Port Aransas Nature Preserve, formerly known as Charlie’s Pasture, early island residents once grazed cattle and a teenaged Grumbles and friends may or may not have shot skeet from a trailer. It includes 3 miles of hike and bike trails, boardwalks and two towers overlooking wetland areas.

Another good place to see birds is the University of Texas Marine Science Institute Wetlands Education Center. A trail circles a saltwater pond and features illustrated information boards; water- and beach-related treasures fill its indoor visitor center, including aquariums displaying seahorses, hermit crabs, flounder and other local fish.

The last order of business is where to eat; Grumbles rattles off a list of places it would take us weeks to work through.

“For a town this size, we have a variety of really good restaurants,” he says. We settle on dinner at Venetian Hot Plate, owned by Linda and Maurice Halioua, transplants from Venice. I enjoy linguine nel golfo, pasta tossed with shrimp and scallops sautéed with garlic, parsley and fresh basil, with a rich white wine sauce. My dining partner has braciola di maiale, a grilled 16-ounce pork chop with a portobello, honey and marsala demi-glaze.

Port Aransas

The next day, I take his suggestion for breakfast at Moby Dick’s, ordering Texas eggs benedict: two fried eggs on biscuits covered in sausage gravy, green chiles and cheese. The sizable serving gives me plenty of time to search the walls and ceilings, bedecked with everything from a string of puffer fish lights to boat and fishing gear and tackle, pirate paraphernalia, shark jaws, impressive fish and mermaids.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of the restaurant list, so I tuck it away for next visit. My brief time with Grumbles has me feeling almost like a Port A native, and I wave at people on the way to the ferry. To paraphrase a popular saying, “I’m not from Port Aransas, but will come here as often as I can.”

More Info:

Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce

Mustang Island State Park

Fisherman's Wharf, Wharf Cat

Moby Dick's Restaurant

Port Aransas Nature Preserve

UT Marine Science Institute



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