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Where the Wild Things Are

Written by Eileen Mattei.

Port Mansfield is known as a sportsman’s paradise, but the tiny fishing village on the Laguna Madre is also a paradise for wildlife … and wildlife watchers. That’s evident in the herds of white-tailed deer that roam the main drag and residential streets, slipping between boat-storage buildings and parked cars. Other deer stand as motionless as yard ornaments at street corners. Plump, bronze turkeys gobble up insects in front of the Port Mansfield Sunset House motel, while short, sturdy javelina trot from scrub brush to corn feeders, which are as commonplace here as bird feeders. And that’s just the land animals.

 

“Everywhere you look, something is flying,” says Ken Nolte, a former fishing guide, as his airboat skims across the four-inch-deep water of the Laguna Madre, the shallow, extremely salty “mother bay” that separates Padre Island from the mainland. Roseate spoonbills, great blue herons, reddish egrets, white-faced ibis, osprey, and yellow-crowned night herons rise around us as we slide through the shallows just south of Port Mansfield.

“A lot of local people have never been here,” Nolte explains over the voice-activated headset microphones that let us talk despite the airboat’s noise. He navigates the creeks and channels off West Bay, a maze of islets, mud flats, and inlets (called “the slough”) only accessible by airboat, or, perhaps, a kayak at high water. What look like abandoned Tiki huts dotting the horizon turn out to be duck blinds camouflaged—in tropical Texas fashion—with palm fronds.

“In the winter, huge clouds of ducks and geese lift off from the bay,” says Nolte’s wife, Patsy. In the summer, white and brown pelicans take their turn chowing down at the free buffet of small fish, bugs, and bottom-dwellers so abundant in the Laguna Madre and its backwaters.

“It takes a lot of bait to keep this many birds alive,” says Nolte, as mullet erupt from the water like popcorn. A large tail waving in the air signals a hefty redfish “tailing,” or hunting for food. “Offshore from Port Mansfield has the best snapper fishing in the state,” he adds. “There’s plenty of flounder at night, and great shelling because almost no one comes here.”

Moving around the pristine and serene marshland for more than two hours, we spot no one. On the west, thorny brush and cacti alternating with marshes mark the privately owned El Sauz Ranch, a historic cattle ranch. A strong breeze keeps the bugs away despite our stopping near a sandbar crisscrossed with bird and raccoon tracks. American white pelicans, skimmers—pretty much every coastal bird seen in South Texas—are here in abundance, ignoring us as they feed.

Port Mansfield on Redfish Bay was carved from the El Sauz Ranch in 1950 to provide a safe harbor for vessels traveling the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway between Corpus Christi and Brownsville. The Willacy County Navigation District owns all the land, (houses and businesses sit on leased property) and administers the water system, roads, and the navigation channel. Port Mansfield’s Coast Guard Station is gone, and the commercial fishery is reduced to a few boats bringing in black drum and flounder, but sportfishing keeps the village alive. On the busiest weekends, the population swells from 415 to 1,500.

In the ship channel, which divides Port Mansfield into North Shore and South Shore, a Manatee Zone sign refers to an elusive creature with almost mythical status. Inside Harbor Bait & Tackle, I find other indicators that Port Mansfield is laid back and affordable. My orange-cream popsicle costs just 39 cents, and clerk Cristina Stark takes time to chat, telling me, “Fishing guides are tight-lipped. They’ll tell you what they’re catching, but not where.” A guide’s paying clients, however, are privy to his secret fishing spots.

Cruising the village, I spot weathered fishing shanties leaning into the southeastern wind near weekend McMansions, all with one or two parked boats and, if bayside, private fishing piers. The South Beach access leads me to a fishing, not swimming, area. On the north side, the road dead-ends at Fred Stone County Park’s shaded picnic tables and a lengthy pier, complete with anglers willing to swap fishing stories.

Deer stories abound, too, since so many residents feed deer, although some consider them nuisances overly fond of grazing on landscaping. Resident Sue Ten Hagen feeds them a bag of corn daily, beginning with a pre-dawn breakfast in her driveway, which draws a few dozen white-tailed deer. Later that day, she takes me in her golf cart to a patch of woods several blocks from her home where 40 or so deer rest and browse. The deer mosey over as she spreads corn on the narrow road. “If you study them for hours like I have, they’re still fascinating,” she says.

Just before sunset, 15 deer huddled around two feeders prick up their ears and keep their eyes on me as I pass them to walk the local nature trail. All around, deer are on the move: six scamper across South Port Drive looking like a gang making a jailbreak, while others run toward the sign for the Pelican’s Pub. I’m not the only person out deer-watching and enjoying the evening. Inside the pub, a friendly-looking group laughs over a card game.

To experience the sportsman’s side of Port Mansfield, the next morning I join fishing guides Captain Bob Lany and Jan Jones and a flotilla of shallow-draft bay boats heading into the sunrise. Once we’re anchored in the Laguna’s knee-deep water, Lany baits a line with a croaker, casts, hands over the pole, and begins coaching me on the art of croaker-fishing. To the east, fishermen on two bay boats are silhouetted. Like us, they wait for trout to bite. And wait.

Lany, a retired hunting-ranch manager who’s been a fishing guide for two years, tries his best to turn me into a saltwater angler. “It’s not the movement of the croaker in the water, but the noise it makes that attracts speckled trout, redfish, and sometimes flounder,” he says. My first fish gets away, but Jones lands a nice 19-inch trout for her supper. Lany pulls out his cell phone to check with another of the port’s 30 fishing guides. Soon we pull up the anchor and head to a spot that’s hot. “It’s great to have so many guides who are friends,” Lany says.

With beginner’s luck, I reel in a 22-inch trout. Cloud cover comes and goes, as do breezes and luck. A sandbar snags us, so we hop into shin-deep water to push the boat free, dragging our feet along the sandy bottom to avoid stepping on a stingray, and finally wrestle the boat into a channel and scramble on board. We catch a few more fish while the beauty and tranquility of the Laguna Madre seep in, relaxing us like a massage.

Lany agrees to show me the Mansfield Cut, a channel eight miles east that splits Padre Island and provides access to the Gulf of Mexico. Miles from the mainland, anglers and herons wade in ankle-deep water with the island creating a tropical backdrop of yuccas, lagoons, and white sand dunes. Abundant water and wildlife and the time to enjoy it all—that’s the wonder of a getaway to Port Mansfield.

Port Mansfield, in Willacy County, is 25 miles east of Raymondville on Texas 186, off US 77. Contact the Port Mansfield Chamber of Commerce, 956/944-2354; www.port-mansfield.com

PORT MANSFIELD’s area code is 956.

Lodging

Fisherman’s Inn, Laguna and Legion drives., 944-2882.

Port Mansfield Sunset House, 1144 S. Port Dr., 800/311-4250; www.portmansfieldsunsethouse.com. Newly remodeled motel with boat slip.

Get-A-Way Adventures Lodge offers package deals that include lodging and guided fishing and hunting trips. 944-4000; www.getawayadventureslodge.com.

Dining

Fisherman’s Inn, Laguna and Legion drives., 944-2882. Seafood and hamburgers.

Pelican’s Pub, 1001 E. Port Dr., 873-0423. Chili cookoff from noon to midnight 3rd Sat. of Feb. Includes auction, live music, and children’s activities. The proceeds benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Attractions

Tail Chaser Charters offers an airboat for birding, fishing, and duck hunting. Call Charlie Buchen at 605-6409.

Saltgrass Charters. Call Shane Jones at 873-0453.

Screamin Reels Charters. Call Bob Lany at 944-2392; www.screaminreelscharters.com.

Terry Neal Fishing Charters. Wade-fishing, fly-fishing, and drift-fishing. Call 944-2559; www.terrynealcharters.com.

Harbor Bait & Tackle, 123 W. Harbor St., 944-2367; www.harborbait.com.

Fred Stone County Park. Take N. Shore Rd. until it dead-ends.

From the March 2008 issue.

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