Hooked on a Reeling

With the confidence of a tourist, I happily forked over $2 just to walk down the 1,240-foot Horace Caldwell Pier one blustery morning in Port Aransas, the low-key coastal village on the northern tip of Mustang Island. Most of the other paying customers were attending to fishing setups of varying complexity; one man, who was monitoring six rigs, had built an elaborate sun-blocking lean-to.

Cowboys of the Gulf

The Texas coast in the early sixties had an end-of-the-earth feel. If something interesting was happening, you could bet that it was happening somewhere else. Surfing, more rumor than reality then, was an exotic pastime that belonged to places like Hawaii and California, just like skiing belonged to the distant Colorado mountains and Broadway musicals to New York. But we were not quite beyond the alluring reach of surf culture, at least as it manifested itself in Gidget movies, Jan and Dean albums, “surfer shirts” with no collars, and baggy swim trunks that featured a pocket for holding surfboard wax.

It was not all merchandising. There were surfers in Texas back then, but it was definitely the activity of a few pioneers trying to figure out how to make the magic happen in a place that, on the face of it, seemed to have little to offer in the way of moving walls of glassy water. I tried to surf once, when I was about fifteen, and once was enough for me. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was pretty sure that in order to surf you needed real waves, not this all-over-the-place Padre Island chop. Once or twice I thought I felt movement under the board and tried to stand up, but slipped right off as those paltry, sloppy waves evaporated. I gave up after probably an hour and left the beach to the proto-surfers. Lying on their surfboards in the brown, murky water, paddling around to avoid the trailing tentacles of Portuguese men-of-war, they stared seaward with touching faith, waiting for the one thing that this ragged stretch of the Gulf of Mexico did not seem to want to offer: a rideable wave.

Kenny Braun first tried surfing ten years or so after I did, but he didn’t give up so easily. He saw something that I didn’t, both in the sport itself and in the way it connected the participant to the rich and complicated Texas coastal environment. Rollover Fish Pass may not be the North Shore of Oahu, but the relative absence of towering waves seems to have had a liberating impact on Braun’s surfing photography, allowing him to forgo the spectacular nature shots we’ve come to expect and introduce us to something altogether different, a somewhat journalistic black and white chronicle that presents surfing not as high adventure but as dogged pursuit. There is no Banzai Pipeline here, just an empty cement tube sitting on a beach or a corroding, abandoned sculpture, mounted on wheels, of a perfectly cresting wave.

Even though the surfing in Texas can be truly outstanding, especially when the wind is coming from the right direction and the barometric pressure hits a sweet spot, storybook waves tend to show up on an uncertain timetable. Our surfers know this all too well, and they have made the necessary adjustments. Yes, in the Gulf of Mexico, surfers ride the wakes of oil tankers. When the ocean itself won’t supply a wave, you have to have the nerve and ingenuity to search out other things that will. That’s the way it is in Texas.

These photographs, shot by Kenny Braun, from South Padre, Los Fresnos, Surfside Beach, Port Isabel, and Galveston, taken throughout the 2000's.

Frozen Point

Covering 34,000 emerald acres of virtually intact coastal marsh, upland prairie, and forest, the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge is our state’s answer to Florida’s fabled “river of grass,” the Everglades. Twelve miles of road trace a series of culverts that help control salinity and make the floodplains attractive to 279 varieties of birds (such as the mottled duck, an indicator species for ecological health), as well as otters, muskrats, bobcats, and, of course, alligators.

Texas Highway 87

Most visitors to High Island head for the four wooded Houston Audubon Society bird sanctuaries that are virtually synonymous with this small community on the upper coast. But just as irresistible is the area’s deserted seashore, so I took a beach drive, following the sandy tracks that parallel what’s left of the twenty-mile stretch of Texas Highway 87 that once ran east of High Island.

Gambusia Nature Trail

Sea Rim State Park was racked by Hurricane Rita in 2005 and shellacked by Hurricane Ike in 2008, prompting the Legislature to dedicate $2 million to its recovery in 2009. Today construction is under way—a new visitors center, more parking lots, a series of elevated walkways—but I hope Texas Parks and Wildlife doesn’t overdo it, as Sea Rim counts as one of the state’s true rough diamonds.

North Jetty

Fish the Gulf enough and sooner or later you’ll have a Hemingway moment. Mine came on the shores of San Jose Island, popularly known as St. Jo, a 21-mile privately owned island across the ship canal from Port Aransas that is open to beachcombers, anglers, and campers. As the sun began its descent, terns dive-bombing bait fish along the boulders of the island’s jetty enticed me to take a chance. Casting a small lure, I felt a big bump and eagerly set the hook. My reel screamed as the behemoth headed out to sea.

Matagorda Island Lighthouse

Built in 1852 out of cast iron, the now rusted Matagorda lighthouse stands on a ridge surrounded by grassy swales of seacoast bluestem, fields of wildflowers, and briar thickets. I began my approach to the solitary landmark aboard Captain Alan “Tink” Cartmell’s 24-foot Carolina skiff; after we’d crossed the waters of Espiritu Santo Bay, I continued on the island’s rough roads for three miles on my mountain bike.

Prairie Trail

Galveston Island has almost fully recovered from Hurricane Ike, which means that the fishing is again consistent, the bird-watching reliable, and the dune-backed beaches, despite some sporadic litter, still some of the prettiest in Texas. Because I live in nearby Houston, I go to the park with almost religious regularity. Hoping to uncover something new, I decided this time to see the coastal tract by mountain bike—and bring along my five-year-old.

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