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A Guide's Life

Destination: Matagorda

Travel time from:
Austin – 3 hours
Dallas – 5.5 hours
El Paso – 11 hours
Brownsville – 4.75 hours
Houston – 1.5 hours
Lubbock – 9 hours

At the mouth of the Colorado River, Matagorda County pulses with history and wildlife.

By Dan Oko

The aptly named Waterfront Restaurant overlooks Matagorda Harbor, a stone’s throw from where the Intracoastal Waterway meets the mouth of the Colorado River. It’s a modest establishment in a pleasantly laid-back community, serving some of the freshest seafood I’ve had. The speckled trout fillets we’re chowing on — half fried, half broiled — come from fish caught that morning on my outing with Captain Tommy Countz, who now regales us with tales of how he arrived on the coast.

Raised near Silsbee in the East Texas bottomlands, Countz arrived in Matagorda as a wash-a-shore after graduating from Rice University. He played college football in the late 1960s — his size befitting his position as a defensive lineman — and graduated with a business degree in 1972. Countz purchased a gas station from his father-in-law on the highway north of town, where a steady parade of trailered bay boats caught his attention.

Matagorda

Sunrise over the Colorado River.

“As a kid, I never fished saltwater,” he says. “We spent our time fishing stock ponds. When I discovered redfish and trout after moving down here, I tried to learn everything I could.”

Countz estimates that he spends approximately 200 days a year in the salt since selling the service station (or “ser-sta-gro” as the late John Graves would have called it) in 1994. That was the year he turned his attention to full-time guiding; a decade later Countz earned “Guide of the Year” honors from the Coastal Conservation Association.

“I’m fairly certain I’m the only fishing guide in Texas with a business degree from Rice,” the captain grins.

Angling was not the only thing that drew Countz — and me — to Matagorda, located about halfway between Galveston and Corpus Christi. The town has a rich history, with none other than the state’s Virginia-born founding father Stephen F. Austin petitioning Mexico to establish a colony at Matagorda in 1827, years before the Texas war for independence.

In 1838, the Episcopal missionary Caleb Ives came to the 2-year-old Republic of Texas, and the Christ Episcopal Church held its first service on April 11, 1841, Easter Sunday. A Texas historical marker tells us that hurricanes and fires damaged the original church; parts of the “new” landmark church with its imposing steeple date back to 1856.

This seaside community has other charms, too — it’s located near the meeting place between the Gulf of Mexico and the 862-mile Colorado River. Protected by jetties, the river outlet is occupied along its northern outermost banks by the 1,600-acre Matagorda Bay Nature Park, operated by the Lower Colorado River Authority.

Matagorda

Matagorda Bay Nature Park.

The rest of Matagorda County extends along 50 miles of inland bays from Palacios to Sargent Beach, with inland marshland and remnant coastal prairie protected in parcels such as Big Boggy National Wildlife Refuge and TPWD’s Mad Island Wildlife Management Area, both providing crucial waterfowl habitat.

“We have everything,” says Paige Leadford, program coordinator for the LCRA park. “There’s the beach and the Gulf, the wetlands and the river.”

The Matagorda Bay Nature Park offers RV sites, guided nature walks and kayak rentals; a favorite jaunt is paddling across to the undeveloped shores west of the Colorado. The LCRA runs a nifty science center with a touch tank and ecological displays as well.

Up the river

The wind is blustery when we meet Countz on his custom 26-foot Catalyst bay boat, still in its hammock at harbor, and sort out the morning plan. For anglers with or without a guide, the Matagorda Bay system promises more opportunities than you could cover in an entire weekend.

The two sides of the bay, protected by a 65-mile isthmus that extends all the way to Pass Cavallo off Port O’Connor, were actually a single estuary until the 1920s, when the Colorado River was channelized, dividing the waterway, to enhance access to the port. East Matty, as the east bay is sometimes known, is the smaller area, while the west bay sits across the river from Matagorda, fronted by Mad Island Marsh. Both have excellent reputations for not just trout and redfish, but also flounder and tripletail.

Faced with the wind and recov­ering from a pinched nerve that limited his mobility, my grizzled guide opts for a third option, and turns the boat upstream to explore the Colorado. Countz, who also serves as a port commissioner for Matagorda Harbor and was one of the founders of the Texas Oilman’s Fishing Tournament (a fundraiser that has paid out more than $6 million to various causes since 2002), talks about how the community narrowly missed a direct hit during Hurricane Harvey, which caused the river to rise fiercely last August.

Matagorda

Christ Episcopal Church.

As we cast weighted plastics along the shoreline for speckled trout, I wonder aloud if we might run across any largemouth bass or other freshwater species, but Countz tells me that the water below the dam at Bay City, the Matagorda County seat, tends to be too salty. Fortunately, the trout cooperate, and we put a few keepers in the box before knocking off for lunch.

“If you live in Matagorda, you get spoiled,” Countz confesses. “I have people ask me all the time ‘When are you going to retire?’ I say if I retired I would still fish four days a week, but I’d have to pay for my own gas!”

Birding and bird hunting

For those who don’t fish, Matagorda offers other recreational options. The 34-acre Matagorda County Birding Nature Center, 20 miles north on the outskirts of Bay City along Texas Highway 35, is one of several hot spots for birders. Of the 333 species found in Matagorda County, many show up during the Audubon Christmas Bird Count at the Nature Conservancy’s preserve adjacent to the Mad Island WMA, making it one of the best winter birding spots in the entire U.S. Last year, 220 birds were found within a 15-mile diameter, more than anywhere else.

With abundant rice farms nearby, bird hunting is another major draw.

“It’s an avian Serengeti,” Steven Goertz of the Nature Conservancy says, referring to the African region famous for the largest terrestrial mammal migration in the world. Goertz manages the Nature Conservancy’s Clive Runnells Family Mad Island Marsh Preserve, and I track him down after my fishing expedition (which also provided some nice glimpses of a bald eagle perched in the woodlands near the river).

“Spring is a particularly ‘birdy’ time frame,” Goertz notes, as we motor toward the southern edge of the preserve and the intracoastal canal. “Even in the summer, though, we have more diversity and higher numbers of birds than further inland.”

During my visit, I spot a little blue and great blue heron, a glossy ibis, various puddle ducks, a belted kingfisher and two flocks of sandhill cranes, as well as a few white-tailed deer. We spy a group of about 30 baby alligators near a culvert, surrounded by a cattail marsh. An adult about 7 feet long appears, and the smaller gators chirp.

Matagorda

Shorebirds at Mad Island Wildlife Management Area.

A vibrant history

All that exploring leaves me eager to put my feet up at the romantic Lodge at Karankawa Village, a pleasant roadside motel near the harbor with a decorative tepee out front. Archaeologists tell us that the original Karankawa did not utilize tepees, and more likely occupied hut-like structures, but I was willing to let this one slide.

The following morning, I visit the Matagorda Cemetery, a short walk from the hotel, and encounter the graves of several prominent early Texans. One marker that catches my eye is at the grave of Samuel Rhoads Fisher. Fisher was one of Stephen F. Austin’s business partners. He went on to serve as the secretary of the navy under President Sam Houston, and signed the Texas Declaration of Independence. Fisher’s plaque reads: “He died as the result of a shooting in 1839.”

Such reversals of fortune seem to be part of the community makeup in Matagorda, which through the 19th century rivaled Galveston as a port. The town had mansions, hotels and a theater, but all that was disrupted by a series of hurricanes.

The county seat has long since moved up the road to Bay City, but this strange and dark undercurrent of history seems at odds with the sunshine that greets me on Matagorda Beach.

Twenty-three miles of white sand extend east of the Colorado River to Caney Creek, a popular route for off-road cruisers who want to find a secluded spot to cast into the surf, hunt shells — I find a lightning whelk, the state shell of Texas — or pitch a tent. I watch as a phalanx of brown pelicans rose up from the waves, their awkward athleticism emblematic of their resilience, having bounced back from the brink of extinction.

Judging from the freshly painted shops along Fisher Road, named for you-know-who, Matagorda today is undergoing its own renaissance. I sample some of the funky, down-home convenience of Stanley’s Market, good for sunscreen, tackle and the $10 permit for driving on the beach. Still, after having caught a few fish and slurped some oysters by the harbor, I think I know why the indigenous Karankawa grew to the imposing height of 6 feet: Where Mother Nature provides, we all thrive.

 

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