When I tell folks that my family owns—well, leases—a cottage on an island in the Laguna Madre, I see the look on their faces. Oh, well, aren’t you fancy. But before they can sarcastically ask about the appurtenances of yacht life, I hasten to add that it’s really more of a shack; in fact, we refer to it simply as “the cabin.” Built in the fifties from scrap lumber by a cohort of Corpus Christi weekenders, it consists of three small, uninsulated rooms frequented by mice and smelly fishermen. There’s no potable water or flushable toilet. In the summer the air is soupy, the mosquitoes biblical. Until a recent makeover, the pier was a rickety hazard to life and limb. When we last visited, this spring, we arrived to find that a corner of the living room floor had collapsed and the salt air had eaten a hole in the metal roof.
Still: Location, location, location. And the location is, at least by Gulf Coast standards, enviable.
To get to the cabin, you drive south down Padre Island—the longest barrier island in the world—past the sand dunes and amber waves of sea oats into the national seashore, 66 miles of protected coastline that separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Laguna Madre. From here, you launch your boat at Bird Island Basin, a favorite spot of windsurfers and anglers. Take a moment to appraise your surroundings. The Laguna Madre lacks the grandeur of the Grand Canyon or the obvious splendor of the Pacific Ocean, but it is nonetheless a natural wonder, its subtle majesty hidden in plain sight. Stretching 130 miles from Corpus Christi to the Rio Grande at the southern tip of Texas, the “Mother Lagoon” is, together with its Mexican counterpart, the world’s largest hypersaline lagoon. No major rivers feed the Laguna Madre, and its interchange with the Gulf is limited, making its water even saltier than the Gulf’s—the result of sun-powered condensation.
Nonetheless, it is an extraordinarily productive ecosystem, thanks mainly to its thriving meadows of seagrass, which improve water clarity and control erosion. In all, 80 percent of the state’s remaining seagrass is found here. The Laguna Madre is a haven for more than three hundred bird species and yields 43 percent of all the speckled trout harvested along the Texas coast and 31 percent of the black drum. Not every species can survive in this extreme environment, but those that do, thrive. Remote Baffin Bay, which can be accessed via a long boat ride from Bird Island, is one of the Gulf’s great trophy trout fisheries, its waters studded with unusual rocks formed by marine worms as many as three thousand years ago. Farther south, near Brownsville, anglers target common snook, a hard-fighting tropical species that is increasingly flourishing in the warming waters of South Texas.
With those facts in mind, cruise north past Bird Island, home to the first known nesting location of American white pelicans in salt water. (The pelican colony now resides farther south, near Baffin Bay.) If you don’t use the man-made Gulf Intracoastal Waterway—the 12-foot-deep, 125-foot-wide canal that runs through the Laguna—be careful. The Laguna is only 3 feet deep on average. Its vast flats are hazardous to all but the most shallow-running boats. Moreover, digging your propeller into the bay floor is a no-no, lest you damage the seagrass. After several miles, you arrive at a 36-acre island with seventeen cabins, each with its own pier.
Unnamed, as far as I know, the island is one of dozens of “spoil” banks created in the forties, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. Back then there was little consideration for environmental niceties; the bay bottom and its attendant marine life were simply waste—spoils—to be conveniently dumped nearby. But one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. The newly formed islands soon attracted squatters—duck hunters and anglers cobbled together makeshift structures along the Laguna Madre, some gleaning lumber that had washed ashore at Padre Island and then boating it over to the islands.
But the free-for-all couldn’t last. In 1973 the state took possession of the DIY structures, offering the owners leases through the General Land Office. Today there are 402 cabins permitted by the state across nine coastal counties.
The cabins, which come in all shapes, sizes, and architectural styles, range from luxe to uninhabitable. Some are perched on pilings over the water, while others are tucked back in thick groves of Australian pine, an invasive tree that has flourished on many islands. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department permits some as “floaters”—structures anchored out in the open bay—including at least a handful that are available for nightly rental. Many owners favor the vibrant hues of South Texas’s Tejano culture—bright pink, yellow, and turquoise. On the western side of our island, some enterprising soul has erected a two-story behemoth that wouldn’t look out of place on a suburban cul-de-sac; you almost expect to see a shiny new F-250 parked out front. Many cabins have big gas generators, powerful enough to run ACs, refrigerators, and even, or so I’ve heard, hot tubs. At the other extreme, some cottages have been all but abandoned. On the east side, a small boxy structure on stilts is missing its roof, the Texas flag painted on its side fading in the salt air. Others are being taken by the sea, the victims of high rates of erosion and rising sea levels. The Laguna is reclaiming what humans took from it decades ago.
Our cabin—P1388, according to the GLO designation—merely flirts with dilapidation. Through borderline heroic efforts on the part of my dad and his three partners in the lease, the thing is still standing half a century after its construction. My dad became a partner in 2002, taking over the share from my grandmother’s neighbor. The GLO owns the cabins and issues permits for their use on a five-year term. Rent is charged on a square-foot basis. Two of the partners, both in their seventies, almost never visit, but my dad spends several weeks a year here. I typically make it down twice a year, including for our annual family tradition of gathering on the island at Thanksgiving for fishing and feasting.
Though my mom finds the cabin irredeemably dirty, it nonetheless has a grungy version of what the Danish call hygge: a cozy, comforting charm. Inside, there is enough kitsch to embarrass the maker of Big Mouth Billy Bass: antique fishing reels, a framed copy of the Robert W. Service poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” a photo of an Alaskan bear eating a salmon. No one has bothered to remove a pencil sharpener installed ages ago by a previous owner. Four makeshift beds are crammed into the small
Our trips here are far from spartan, however. Onto Dad’s 22-foot boat we pile ridiculous amounts of gear—food, beer, two generators, power tools—until there is hardly any room to stand. “Texas camping,” an out-of-state friend once called it. We must be an odd sight. Dad travels like a Soviet peasant—he packs snacks and homegrown vegetables into ancient leather valises and train cases that were already old-fashioned before I was born. In the winter, he favors one of those Ushanka hats, the kind with the earflaps and woolly brow. In the summer, his big toe is often painted pink—when the nail grows out and the polish disappears, it’s time for another vacation. Practical, but also the kind of oddball personal flair that gets stares when seen on a 75-year-old man.
After we wheel everything down the pier in a cart, our next order of business is to hoist a delightfully ungrammatical pirate flag that reads “Time flies when your having rum.” We play darts and hold off-key sing-alongs to the 2015 Chris Janson hit “Buy Me a Boat.” Around the dining room table, ideally over a dinner of freshly caught trout, redfish, or black drum, we recount family legends, particularly the misadventures. The time the boat motor wouldn’t start, so Dad and his friends, too cheap to pay for a tow, fashioned a sail from a tarp and tree limbs and sailed the three miles from the cabin to Bird Island Basin. The time my father hit a reef in St. Charles Bay and went flying out of the boat, his face and arms ripped open by the oysters. Then there was the time he and I found ourselves caught in the middle of a nasty squall in Mesquite Bay. Our fourteen-foot aluminum johnboat—a dinghy suitable for a small lake—went temporarily airborne as it leaped from wave to wave, the propeller spinning in the air. The pounding cracked the boat’s hull, jostling the drain plug out of Dad’s hands and causing a hook to come loose from a fishing pole and embed in his neck. We made it back to shore in a state of shocked elation. Near-death experiences seem to inspire endless retellings.
Less-dramatic talk involves favored fishing holes. Over the years, a nomenclature has developed for familiar places—the geography of the area has taken on the quality of a child’s treasure map. Over near a parcel of the King Ranch shoreline, we have the Trout Highway—a subtle channel cruised by specks. When the fishing is slow, we visit Desperation Hole, a deep spot in Packery Channel, a mansion-lined man-made pass between the Gulf and the northern edge of the Laguna. Bikini Channel? That’s where Dad once spotted a scantily clad female fisher.
Is the seascape pristine? No. There is hardly a square mile of the Texas coast that could be described as such. It is a working coast—its natural features at the service of industry. Rivers have been moved to make way for ports; estuaries and marshes filled to accommodate shipyards and liquefied natural gas terminals; passes dredged and jettied to allow for the passage of ships from Gulf to bay. The Laguna Madre itself is a man-made conjuring of a whole out of parts. Until 1949 the lagoon was actually two separate bay systems—the upper and the lower—separated by a 20-mile, periodically inundated bridge of mud and sand called Saltillo Flats. Today the two bays are joined by the so-called land cut—a portion of the more-than-1,100-mile Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. My mom, who doesn’t fish, often entertains herself on the cabin porch by watching tugboat captains navigate the Ditch, the colloquial term for the waterway. A stuck barge, not an uncommon sight, can provide hours of entertainment.
Still, the Laguna is as close to remote as one can find on the Texas coast. For much of the length, huge ranches and federal land keep the shoreline looking a lot like it did in 1519, when Spanish explorer Alonso Álvarez de Pineda sailed into Corpus Christi Bay and reportedly gave the Laguna Madre its name. If you gaze west from the cabin porch, you’re looking at the Laureles Division of the King Ranch, its undeveloped yucca- and mesquite-studded shoreline known to anglers as one of the best spots in this region for trout. Look east and you’re eyeing the backside of Padre Island, its sand-humped girth shielding the lagoon from the Gulf. On a calm night, you can even hear the roar of the surf.
I ’m not an early riser. But I’ve never been disappointed by a Laguna Madre madrugada (the elegant Spanish word for “early morning”). As the sun came up over Padre Island in early April, a fine month on the Laguna Madre, a warm orange glow spread across the gently pulsing waves. This time of year, the northers are typically winding down, the heat isn’t yet oppressive, and the fishing can be excellent. My partner, Katherine, and I joined my parents at the cabin with our daughter, Winona, the first trip since she was born in August.
On this Saturday morning, Dad and I went fishing. We drank some coffee, ate a sweet roll, and were on the water before sunrise, drifting in the boat as we worked our live shrimp under popping corks. There was just enough light to see what we were doing. We gaped as a flock of white ibises flew overhead in a messy V formation. A few mullet did their weird flying-fish routine. And on the fourth or fifth cast, wham. “Ohhhhh!” Dad exclaimed as he began to reel. From the way the fish was fighting, it was almost certainly a keeper trout. But bad luck struck: it came off right at the boat. Maybe it was the slack tide, but we didn’t get any more bites here, so we motored north to a spot just off the Ditch, near a cluster of GLO cabins. Better luck: over the next couple of hours, we reeled in about a dozen trout.
Though most of them were small, we were grateful: the brutal winter storm in February 2021 killed an estimated 143,000 speckled trout in the Laguna Madre—89 percent of the total kill along the coast. To help the fishery recover, TPWD has tightened regulations by, for example, increasing the minimum keeper size from 15 to 17 inches. I caught the biggest speck of the day, hardly a trophy at 19.5 inches. We handled the fish with care, snapped a quick photo, and then returned her to the bay. Dad had been at the cabin for four days and had already banked enough trout for the evening fish fry. At noon, we called it a day.
Back at the cabin, I flipped through logbooks dating back to 1987—matter-of-fact handwritten accounts of fish caught, repairs performed, weather observed, and naps taken. (One entry from 1998 says, simply, “We got so tired catching trout, we just had to rest. Pier needs work.”) My dad’s scrawl is a reminder of impressive hauls (a 37-inch redfish caught in 2008); humiliating catches (in 2010 I won the “smallest fish” prize in the family contest with a pinfish that came in at 5 and 1/8 inches); and inexorable change. According to Dad’s records, the shoreline in front of the cabin has eroded by about seventeen feet over the past twelve years. Though a DIY breakwater has slowed the erosion somewhat, sea-level rise or a hurricane may someday claim P1388.
Around 2019, Dad starts referring to himself in the logbook as “McLaren” rather than “Chuck.” The year before, after his mother’s funeral, he had announced that he would henceforth be known as McLaren. To me and the rest of his mystified family, he explained that he’d never liked “Chuck” but had to wait until his mother died to rename himself for a high-end British sports car. For McLaren, the cabin is like a second home. He and my mom were born and raised in Corpus Christi. Though they have lived in the Hill Country for almost two decades, Dad has salt in his blood. When he was a boy, he would bike down to Corpus Christi Bay to fish after school, and he bought his first boat before he got his driver’s license. After high school, he served in the Navy during the Vietnam War; later attended the University of Texas; and then, a year before I was born, moved with my mom to a fifty-acre ranch near Yorktown, a small burg about an hour and a half north of Corpus. When I was little, his interest in fishing became an obsession.
My childhood was filled with countless multiday coastal epics. Usually we were on the water before sunrise and fishing until after dark. Limiting out—catching the legal limit of game fish, usually redfish and trout—was a nonnegotiable goal. Getting “skunked” was an occasion for deep despair. Freezing temperatures, rough seas, squalls, an errant treble hook embedded in flesh—nothing could keep Dad, or his reluctant first mate, off the water. We’d often camp in tents at Cedar Bayou, a natural fish pass that splits San José Island and Matagorda Island, two unpopulated barrier islands on the mid-coast. The fishing was incredible, the camping utterly miserable.
In recent years, Dad has mellowed. He still fishes hard, but he’s also content to call it quits early, to do repairs on the cabin, to laze around reading, or to just spend time with family and friends, including his two grandkids.
Later that day, while one of those grandchildren, Winona, was napping, Katherine and I took a stroll around the island. For its origins as a literal wasteland, the island is rich with life. Shorebirds were taking advantage of the unusually low tide to plunder the shallow mudflats that encircle the island. We watched as a dowitcher plunged his slender beak into the water, probing for a meal. Wildflower season had peaked, but the fire wheels were still putting on a show of brilliant red and yellow. In the sandy interior of the island, giant oleanders and colonies of agave thrived in the sandy soil. Our tromping around flushed out a huge bird, which flew up into the branches of a dead pine tree; we peered through the binoculars at the unblinking eyes of a great horned owl.
That night, we gathered around the kitchen table for the fish fry, recounting the day’s events. Regrettably, cell service has improved in the Upper Laguna Madre, so after dinner the phones came out. Mom showed me a photo. She’s standing on a grassy expanse, smiling from ear to ear and holding her arms out, palms down. “This is my cemetery plot,” she told me excitedly. “It has a tree!” The next photo was of McLaren. He’s lying on the grass, his eyes closed, arms folded across his chest, imitating the sleep of death. For some reason, a power saw is resting on his belly. They are very proud of the deal they got on their final resting places. Lately they’ve been making a lot of end-of-life preparations—drawing up a will and quizzing me and my brother about the location of key documents. Dad has even briefly considered giving up his share of the cabin. We didn’t talk about it this night, but I wondered what my brother and I will do with P1338 one day. We love the coast and fishing, but we have neither the time nor the skills for upkeep.
My heavy thoughts were interrupted by a more pressing issue: tomorrow’s weather forecast. On some days, when the wind lays down, the lagoon can look practically Bahamian, its waters turning clear and still. Tomorrow wouldn’t be like that. The National Weather Service had issued a wind advisory, and the forecast called for gusts up to 40 miles an hour—not great conditions for an infant. Still, we made no plans to leave early. My family is never one to let caution get in the way of an adventure.
By mid-morning our neighbors had already left. Only a handful of boats zipped by all morning. One glance at the water explained why: there were whitecaps in the Laguna, and the “Time flies when your having rum” flag looked as if it were about to take flight. After several leisurely hours of packing our mountains of gear into the boat, we finally clambered aboard only to find that we were stuck. The southeast wind had literally driven water out of the lagoon, making the low tide lower. I got out and pushed, and soon we were motoring. I clutched Winona and her awkward-fitting infant life jacket as we white-knuckled our way to Bird Island Basin. To keep the sun and salt spray off her face, I pulled her hat down over her eyes. As we approached the dock, I nudged it back up so she could see that we had arrived, but just as I did, spray came over the side and soaked her face. I was expecting her to start wailing, but instead she licked the salt off her lips and smiled.
I don’t know how much she’ll get to enjoy the cabin, but I know for sure that someday we will regale her with the family fishing tales, the stories of adventure. And with luck, she’ll create a few of her own.
This article originally appeared in the July 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Cabin Fever.” Subscribe today.