Big Pocket Reds and Bayou Birds
Wildlife abounds for outdoor fun in Port O’Connor.
Late on a Thursday afternoon in the coastal town of Port O’Connor, Pete Stiles and John Lemaux are gearing up for three full days of wade-fishing with me. They’re experts. I’m here to learn.
“Winds are going to be 10 to 13 tomorrow, a lot better than 20 to 25, which it was today,” Pete tells me, then turns to John to continue their in-depth talk about knots.
“There’s the Bimini Twist, there’s the Crazy Alberto, but the FG knot is probably the best,” John says, rattling off his favorites.
I’m trying to follow along, but they seem to be speaking a foreign language.
“I like the Double Uni — that’s my favorite for connecting mono to braid,” Pete offers.
I’m more of an any-knot-will-do and toss-out-a-worm-and-a-bobber type of angler. I think I’ll keep that information as my little secret for now, as I’m discovering that’s not the way this fishing crew rolls.
Austinites Pete and John come to Port O’Connor three to four times a year. They’ve been doing this trip for decades, fishing for redfish in the shallow backwater bays.
“So cool, there’s nothing else like it,” says John, who notes that Port O’Connor’s only a three-hour drive from Austin. “You can access remote stuff easily. Within an hour’s boat ride, you can be in some unique ecosystems, like Cedar Lake, Twin Lakes, Contee Lake and Pringle Lake.”
Pete comes here for the variety of fishing options.
“Any kind of fishing you like to do, you can do it here — wade-fish the mudflats, drift in deep water,” Pete says. “There’s no other place along the coast that has all that stuff available that’s so close in. You can get into the fish right away.”
EARLY MORNING FISHING
Friday morning starts early and a tad chilly at 57 degrees. Pete and John are dressed in layers of clothes with long johns, a good fleece and warm waders. They look like MacGyver, ready for anything. Elaborate rod holders, fishing belts with pliers and line clippers attached by lanyards, floating fish nets… the whole nine yards.
I have quick-dry pants, Chacos and a cotton hoodie. I’m desperately hoping to borrow a fishing pole. It’s obvious who’s the ill-prepared journalist on this outing.
After a quick, chilly boat ride down the Intracoastal Waterway, we head into beautiful Espiritu Santo Bay. Not five minutes pass before John gets his 21-foot bay boat stuck in the shallow water, the motor stirring up the mud bottom.
“Oh, man!” John shakes his head and turns to us. “Who’s getting out to push? Where is the deeper water?”
These Austin anglers may know their knots, but they’re a bit off on the location of the main channel. Fishing guides zoom past just 20 feet off to the starboard side. We follow their lead and get back into a deeper cut.
‘BIG POCKET’ BONANZA
Our first stop in the bay looks promisingly fishy — clear water, seagrass bottom and some movement along the surface of the water. This is an area known as Big Pocket.
“I’ll try back in here,” Pete says. “John, you head to the other side.”
Pete jumps out and heads for the shallow grassy shoreline; I can see good fish activity in front of him. John heads the opposite direction, trudging through the soft, muddy bottom.
I hesitate to get out of the boat.
It doesn’t take long for Pete’s seven-foot TFO rod to start bending.
“Fish on! Get in the water, Abe, the fish are here!” he yells to me.
John switches up and heads over to where Pete already has one redfish keeper on his stringer. There’s no doubt that Big Pocket is productive today for these two enthusiasts.
“I like that I can sight-cast to redfish and catch them that way,” Pete says. “Turn off the motor, get out of the boat and get after ’em. It’s awesome!”
John acknowledges the discomfort of slogging through the water, but says the view is worth it.
“Just look around, the water is alive: crabs, stingrays, fish,” he tells me. “You don’t see it the same way in a boat. There’s just so much to see when you’re wade-fishing.”
PADDLING FOR BIRDS
The fish here are spectacular, but there are other wonders in Port O’Connor, too. Just look skyward for some of the best birding in the state.
One of my favorite spots to bird-watch is Boggy Nature Park, a bayou lake with easy access for anglers, paddlers and birders.
The last time we were here, Port O’Connor friends Allan and Brigid Berger offered to take my family of five out for a quick summer paddle. With a few steps into the cool water, we pushed off the shoreline and ventured out into the Boggy Bayou wetland marsh.
We were all surprised at how many birds were feeding along the shoreline: reddish egrets, herons of all kinds, roseate spoonbills and even an elusive clapper rail, taking care of her chick.
Brigid was a wonderful tour guide for my three daughters.
“Great egrets are much larger than snowy egrets and have yellow-orange bills, whereas snowy egrets have a black bill,” she told us.
My kids tried to follow along, but they were excited just to paddle on the water and experience this close encounter with nature. Brigid was happy to share the spectacle she enjoys every day.
“This is the slow season,” she says, but it looked busy to us. “We get lots of spring and fall migrants here. Hawks, hummingbirds, lots of wintering birds. It’s great!”
This prime birding destination is a featured location on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail. Plans are in the works for Boggy Bayou to become part of the Texas Paddling Trails Program.
“The new trail will be a 6-mile loop with easy access to Boggy Bayou,” says Holly Grand, outreach and education coordinator for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Meanwhile, several other paddling trails offer fun in the area. Head to nearby (and aptly named) Seadrift to move quietly along the Guadalupe River into San Antonio Bay.
For a hard-core adventure, tackle the Port O’Connor Paddling Trail, a 40-mile series of six interconnecting trails along the shores of Espiritu Santo and Matagorda bays. I’ve been on this rough and rugged paddle. It’s well worth it.
Holly says the biggest adventure of all is the trip to Matagorda Island.
“You’ll want to be skilled to tackle the Matagorda Island Paddling Trail,” she advises. “It makes for a long day and takes a little more planning. But once you get out there, you can camp if you get a permit ahead of time.”
I rejoin Pete and John to fish near Matagorda Island in the late afternoon. The day has warmed, and I’ve finally jumped into the water to wade-fish, just in time for the evening bite.
Redfish start hitting our soft plastic paddle tails. I land several small “rat reds” (that’s what they call the undersized ones) while Pete and John continue to land keepers. Truthfully, I don’t care if I catch any keepers.
I’m feeling that connection with nature right now. The golden light of the setting sun makes the marsh come alive. Schools of mullet race past my legs; osprey fly above me, looking for dinner.
As my day of fishing comes to an end with a beautiful coastal sunset, I think about all the bays, bayous and ecosystems you can explore in Port O’Connor.
“If you’re an outdoors-type person or you want to explore cool estuaries, this is the place,” John says, describing the maze of marshland interspersed with ponds. “It’s really alive!”
Pete says Port O’Connor constantly calls him back to find something new and beautiful.
“You don’t see it the same way each time,” he says. “It’s crazy — my overall fascination with this ecosystem is what keeps me coming back. It’s not about catching fish. I’m in love with the bay system. It’s one of the most fertile places on the globe.”
I can’t wait to come back again. Next time, maybe I’ll brush up on my knots ahead of time.
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