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Fishing with a Side of Barbecue

Enjoy Lake Corpus Christi and some plates of brisket in Mathis.


Mathis, a town of almost 5,000, sits on the Texas coastal plain, surrounded by acres of green crop fields. We visited in late spring, when heads of sorghum were turning gold and the corn was just starting to form tassels.

Lake Corpus Christi, built on the Nueces River, is just west of town. We plan to spend two nights at Lake Corpus Christi State Park, but first, lunch! Mathis has two popular barbecue joints, and we’re determined to try both.

Smolik’s Smokehouse has two locations: one in the heart of downtown on San Patricio Avenue and the other out north, where Texas Highway 359 meets Interstate 37. At the downtown place, we find cars queued up at the takeout window. Inside, the line isn’t too long. My traveling companion orders a two-meat plate with brisket and pork ribs. I stick with brisket, saving room (I hope) to evaluate side orders.

I rate a barbecue place partly on its sides because, well, I’m an omnivore. Between the two of us, we try green beans, coleslaw, mac-and-cheese and fries. The fries are unexpectedly good — crispy on the outside, delivered to our table hot from the stove. The brisket is succulent and pleasantly smoky; my partner gives the ribs a thumbs-up.

We meet owners Mike and Gail Smolik. Gail was born and reared in Mathis. Their downtown restaurant was once part of her family’s John Deere dealership. Mike’s roots in Czech-style barbecue go back to the early 1900s, when his grandfather opened the first Smolik’s in Karnes City.

“He had three sons, and each had his own barbecue place,” says Gail. “Mike’s father, Bill, had a sausage plant in Runge.” His uncle David started a Smolik’s in Cuero, which is still in business.

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Smolik’s carries on a family tradition of barbecue.

Full of barbecue, we head to Lake Corpus Christi, which supplies fresh water to the city of Corpus Christi, located some 35 miles downstream. The state park wraps around a cove and a couple of small inlets on the lower east side of the reservoir. The winding shoreline offers plenty of space for fishing, swimming, wading, picnicking or simply lounging by the water.

Overlooking it all, at the highest point in the park, stands the old refectory built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. It was completed in 1935.

Like many CCC structures in the state park system, this building is a work of art. One end is an open pavilion with vaulted ceiling and arched entryways. An outdoor stairway leads to a tower room overlooking the lake. What appear to be stone walls are constructed of caliche-and-cement blocks that look like stone, cast on site by the workers.

Mathis native Jean Baen recalls when this was a lively place.

“Young people called it the Clubhouse,” she says. “People from Mathis, Sandia and Orange Grove would come here, especially on weekends.” A jukebox played dance tunes and a concession stand sold drinks and snacks.

The majestic building is quiet today; the closed-off concession area contains offices for park staff. The pavilion is occupied only by cliff swallows and cave swallows. Gazing up at their mud nests in the rafters, I see a small bird face peering down at me.

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Our campsite at Catfish Cove has a covered picnic table and a place to pitch our tent. Elsewhere in the park are screened shelters, air-conditioned cabins and RV sites with full and partial hookups. Some spots have lake views. We barely have our tent up when a grayish bird with a sharp yellow beak lands on our car. He sees his reflection in a side mirror and goes into attack mode. I check my bird guide and decide he’s a pyrrhuloxia, a species that’s well adapted to the South Texas Brush Country.

Afternoon fades to evening as we settle in. Brown rabbits with fluffy white tails venture out to graze. They seem untroubled by our presence.

I wake to birdsong. The call of a mourning dove filters through the trees, mixed with other voices I don’t recognize. One of those turns out to be our pugnacious pyrrhuloxia, back for another round. He pecks at the mirror and repeatedly cheeps his high-pitched challenge. I hear an answering call from adjacent woods.

Attractive to a variety of resident and migratory birds, this park is a designated site on the Brush Country Loop of the Texas Coastal Birding Trail. The next spot on the loop is the City of Corpus Christi Wildlife Sanctuary, just below the dam. I head there after breakfast.

A network of trails winds through this green space. I follow one from the trailhead on Park Road 25 to the base of Wesley Seale Dam. It’s a sultry morning under a blue sky with puffy white clouds. I stroll past elm and hackberry trees draped with wild grapevines (some with clusters of grapes), anacuas loaded with orange berries and a stand of spotted beebalm at a bend in the trail.

Colonies of red harvester ants dot the landscape. These ants, I know, are a favorite food of our iconic Texas horned lizard. I hope there are some around to feast on this bounty.

As a bird-watching expedition, this walk might be considered a bust. The only birds I see are a couple of vultures circling above the dam. But I do find a cloud of dragonflies dancing in the air above a patch of marshy ground, with early sunlight illuminating their fluttering wings.

In any case, I’ve worked up an appetite. I rendezvous with my partner, and we head to town for our next barbecue adventure.

Butter’s BBQ is a no-frills kind of place: a tin-roofed shack with a big green smoker out front, situated at the busy intersection of San Patricio and Texas Highway 359. It opens three days a week; closing time varies.

“Our briskets take 16 to 20 hours, so we have to start the day before,” says Andrew “Butter” Soto. “We cook to capacity, and we close when we sell it all.” (Prospective customers can check the restaurant’s Facebook page to see what’s on special and whether there’s any left.)

Like the other barbecue man in town, Soto is carrying on a family tradition. He learned the trade from his dad, Marcelo, an award-winning pitmaster. Several family members are involved in Butter’s, which opened in 2017.

Taking no chances, we’re there when the “Open” sign goes up. We order at the window and find seats in the screened-in picnic area. Pork ribs for my partner, huge and very tasty. For me, a pulled pork sandwich piled high on the bun. After several attempts to pick it up with both hands, I give up and eat it with a fork.

And yes, there’s a good selection of side orders. The last item on the board, handwritten as if it might be a seasonal offering, is elote, or Mexican-style street corn. It’s outstanding: served off the cob with powdered chili, a slice of lime and fresh Mexican cheese. We finish our meal as the lunch rush starts to arrive.

Fishing is a main attraction at Lake Corpus Christi. Greg Binion, fish biologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, says the lake is full of crappie, big blue catfish and good-sized largemouth bass. A 188-pound alligator gar was caught here in 2021. The park has two boat ramps and two fishing piers (no fishing license required if fishing from the pier or shoreline). The Catfish Cove pier is a sturdy wooden structure; a new, larger pier extends 400 feet from the shore in the Whitetail Run day use area. Completed in 2015, the new pier is fully wheelchair accessible. Binion and his staff installed fish-attracting structure underneath it.

The deck bobs gently as we walk out over the water. There’s room here for dozens of anglers, but we find just a few on this warm afternoon. A mother and three kids are fishing at the far end. They say they’ve caught a few, but nothing big enough to keep.

Walking back to shore around dinnertime, we cross paths with a man pulling a wagonload of rods and tackle. He drove up from Corpus Christi and plans to fish all night. Both piers are equipped with lights and have fish-cleaning stations nearby.

We take a last run into town and grab dinner at Gigi’s Pizzeria, which is celebrating five years in business. We leave pleasantly full and ready for a good night’s rest.

Saturday morning, the park starts to fill up. Families pitch pop-up awnings on the grassy beach at Whitetail Run. Kids swim in the no-wake zone. Three young boys are on the pier with their dad, fishing with worms. Two kayakers paddle peacefully in the cove. I see one cast a lazy line into the water.

It’s time to head home, but we’ll visit here again. Maybe next time we’ll catch one of those big blue cats.

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