Conservation: Crusaders of the Cowboy Coast

End of the Line: Farm Road 606 comes to an abrupt dead end when it meets the Gulf in Port Mansfield, Texas. Crusaders of the Cowboy Coast by Joe Cermele It wasn't far from this dead end in Port Mansfield, Texas, where the Texas Rangers earned their reputation as guys you don't want to screw with. In the late 1800s, when notorious Mexican outlaw Juan Cortina was running ruthless guerilla raids on South Texas ranchers, the Rangers were brought in to clean up the lawless Neuces Strip. In the same area, the final, although largely unpublicized, battle of the Civil War was fought. And it was here along the shores of the Lower Laguna Madre that lines were drawn over a century later during what became known as the "redfish wars."Joe Cermele
Casting Room: Sign marking access to the local fishing hole along Matagorda Drive. In the 1970s, when the chefs of the New Orleans culinary scene decided blackened redfish was the new filet mignon, consumers suddenly couldn't get enough, and the market price of these fish doubled. Anyone who fished the Texas Coast in those days will tell you that the number of trot lines and gill nets strung in the bay to capture reds and spotted seatrout were so vast, navigating a boat became a nightmare. So much so that crafty anglers would sharpen the blades on their props so they could slice through the commercial gear.Joe Cermele
Water World: The Intra-Coastal Waterway outside of Port Mansfield is dotted with these tiny shacks completely cut off from dry land and used by fishermen and waterfowl hunters. The commercial gill-netting nearly collapsed the fishery in the Laguna Madre and other Texas bays. Spats between roughneck commercial fishermen trying to earn a living and recreational anglers trying to hook a trophy were fierce on the docks and in the bars of small fishing outposts like Port Mansfield.Joe Cermele
Old Post: Although the new post office isn't much bigger, this small building once served as the post office for this little fishing village. But in 1977 in a Houston tackle shop, 14 Texas anglers would become the saviors of recreational fishermen. What they formed was the Gulf Coast Conservation Association, which would later become the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) that now has chapters from Texas to Maine. Within two years, the organization convinced the Texas Legislature to ban gill-netting through tireless campaigning, research, and fund-raising. It would take time to heal the wounds, but the ban gave towns like Port Mansfield the opportunity to reclaim their recreational fishery.Joe Cermele
High Point: No matter where you are on Lower Laguna Madre, the local water tower can be seen in the distance, as it's the tallest structure for miles. Over time, Port Mansfield became synonymous with true gator seatrout, as particularly large specimens thrived in the area thanks to a higher salinity level. You could also find acres of tailing redfish grubbing and mudding across the flats. Today, the port is a major destination for those looking for fast action with fat fish in skinny water. But as I'd find out on a recent visit to this oasis in far South Texas, Port Mansfield may be in trouble again.Joe Cermele
Red Alert: A healthy redfish pulled from a Lower Laguna Madre flat. It's hard to recognize the potential for disaster when you're actually knee-deep on the sprawling flats just outside of Port Mansfield's harbor. Redfish nearly bounce off your shins. Monster seatrout spray bait in clouds of silver all around. But in order to sustain healthy populations of these fish in Lower Laguna Madre, they need to have access to the Gulf of Mexico.Joe Cermele
Booted Out: A worn pair of wading boots shows its battle scars after years of working the productive waters around East Cut. East Cut provides Gulf access to the boats docked in Port Mansfield, while in turn, giving the fish a way to get to their offshore nursery to breed. What's happening now is the East Cut is slowly but surely silting in. Because there is no commercial boat traffic coming in and out of the cut, the Army Corp of Engineers won't dredge it, basically because it's not worth the money. If East Cut closes up permanently, the effect on Lower Laguna Madre's fishery could be devastating.Joe Cermele
Morning Glory: The local charter fleet departs Port Mansfield harbor at first light. Even now, navigating the shallow cut can be hairy in a small boat. During my visit with friends Mark Davis, Jeff Samsel, and Mark Schindel from Bomber Lures, a steady, ripping wind kept us from punching through East Cut in search of tarpon and kingfish. Luckily, the redfish and seatrout are the bread-and-butter of the Port Mansfield charter fleet, and it takes more than a wicked blow to shut down that bite.Joe Cermele
Master and Commander: Owner of Get-A-Way Adventures Lodge, Captain Bruce Shuler runs a maintenance check on his tackle. We were staying at Get-A-Way Adventures Lodge, which was built by Bruce and Shirley Shuler in 1999. Bruce has been casting in this area since he was old enough to walk, and the faded, yellow pictures that adorn the lodge walls are proof of just how intense the fishing was when nobody but the locals were wetting a line and long before the redfish wars. Several shots are of young Bruce lifting trout so long that when held at shoulder height, their tails would be splayed out on the dock.Joe Cermele
Rattle Trap: A homemade surface lure created with stretched skin from a rattle snake. Then there are the old skin-mounted monster trout, slightly dusty on the wall, mingling with an impressive array of deer heads and largemouth opening wide for various lures. Countless framed magazine covers deck the halls, some featuring Bruce, and some notables of the angling world who have paid a visit to his lodge. Trinkets fill every space, but the one I found most unusual was a homemade plug created by a client. He used a skin from a rattlesnake Bruce killed in the back yard to mimic a scale pattern.Joe Cermele
Buck Shot: Shuler hand-feeds one of many small bucks that come in nightly to eat corn from the feeder on the lodge's front lawn. Shuler's operation is arguably the most professional in Port Mansfield, although there is no shortage of local guides. This in and of itself is almost as problematic as the silt issue in East Cut. Just ten years ago, there weren't nearly as many captains along the entire Texas coast as there are now. More water traffic means more damage to flats and grass beds, but most importantly, more damage to fish populations.Joe Cermele
All Croaked Up: Live croaker are so effective on large seatrout, their use may end up hurting trout populations. "Live croaker are candy to big seatrout," said Shuler when I asked about this sticker on the rear window of his pickup. "They just can't resist them. Now we have a ton of guides taking people out, throwing live croakers, and bringing all these big fish back to the dock." It would seem that few would argue with a miracle bait, but if there is such a thing as fishing that's too easy, this is it.Joe Cermele
Bite Size: Smaller seatrout like this one are kept for the table, while larger fish live to swim another day. Shuler, among many others, would like to see the use of live croakers come to an end, but this issue is bound to turn into another war. Shuler's advocacy of the croaker ban has already earned him death threats. If you fish out of Get-A-Way Adventures Lodge, don't expect to use much live bait. Shuler prefers that large trout be released and smaller fish be kept for the table, and he has gone to great lengths to wrangle up a posse of guides who see it his way and have the skills to put clients on gonzo fish using flies and lures.Joe Cermele
Young Gun: Captain LeeRoy Gonzales motors out of Port Mansfield Harbor. Take, for example, LeeRoy Gonzales, a relative newcomer to Bruce's rotation of regular guides. Ask him his specialty and first he'll say, "women." Then he'll say it's chasing snook. Then he'll treat you to the Mexican word of the day, which I could never print here for fear of losing my job. You'll know that you've found LeeRoy's boat when you hear it. It seems he can't rig up in the morning without a healthy dose of Bob Marley cranking through the stereo on his flats boat. When he wades, there's either Texas country or rap playing on his iPod, although he keeps it low enough to hear any pops or slurps from trout.Joe Cermele
On Guard: This monkey stands guard on the console of Gonzales's flats boat. Gonzales told me his nickname was Monkey, hence this figurine on the dash of his boat. I didn't ask how he got the nickname, as after hearing some wild stories while fishing with him, I was slightly afraid to find out.Joe Cermele
Gator Wading: Mark Davis shows love to LeeRoy Gonzales after he guided him to this big seatrout. No matter what LeeRoy claims his specialty to be, it seemed to me it was gator trout, as he scored more than any other guide all week.Nate Matthews
Sharp Shooter: Darren Jones, aka Jarhead, rigs up for a morning of sight-casting on the flats. Then there's Darren Jones, better known as Jarhead. Darren served as a recon platoon commander in Iraq and grew up fishing the waters from Corpus Christi to Port Mansfield. He gets his kicks from sight-casting. "It's like hunting," he says. It also requires deadly accuracy, which I know he has on the water because we fished to together, and I heard from others he also had during his military tours. With a lifelong tie to the area, Darren's concerns about East Cut continue to grow. "If we get a bad hurricane and the jetties wash out, we're in trouble," he said. "East Cut is vital to this area and the health and economy of Port Mansfield."Joe Cermele
Fish Fighter: Devout conservationist Brandon Shuler wades chest-deep in search of giant seatrout. But when it comes to conservation, perhaps none of Bruce Shuler's guides have worked more dedicatedly towards keeping the South Texas coastal fishery alive than his son, Brandon. When I met him, Brandon had just found out he would be receiving a 2008 Conservation Award from the Federation of Fly Fishers. Among other projects, he was instrumental in the regionalization of the Laguna Madre, which allowed the bay to be broken up into separate zones with specific management plans for each area based on its issues and needs. Brandon is also no stranger to death threats from those on the other side of his various conservation efforts.Joe Cermele
Tell-Tail: Tailing reds are a common sight in the waters surrounding Port Mansfield. According to Dr. Greg Stuntz of Texas A&M; University, recreational fishing boosted the Texas economy by about 1.3 billion dollars last year. But even that is not enough ammo to get East Cut dredged. Ironically, Stuntz said that opening new inlets or maintaining existing ones will produce more fish in the bay system than any hatchery ever could. When the Army Corp reopened Packery Channel in Corpus Christi, it didn't take long for trout and redfish populations to boom in bay areas where their numbers had been low. Despite that fact, Texas Parks and Wildlife has invested much time and money into hatchery programs for trout and redfish that are working well, but with a boost from dredging, could produce even higher stocks.Joe Cermele
Flat Chance: Under current Texas fishing regulations, large female flounder are in danger of being overfished. In even more distress than the trout and reds is Laguna Madre's flounder population. The current bag limit for flounder is 10 fish measuring at least 14 inches. One night after fishing, Robert Vega, a biologist from Texas Parks and Wildlife, stopped by the lodge to talk about the state's flounder hatchery program. According to Vega, male flounder rarely reach the 15-inch mark, meaning that nearly 100% of flounder kept by recreational anglers are female. You don't need to be a fisherman to see the problem there.Joe Cermele
Blown Out: An American flag on one of the flats boats shows its wear at the hand of the South Texas wind. Each morning we woke hoping the wind had dropped out, yet it continued to keep us from getting offshore. Settling for another day in the bay was, however, hardly a difficult compromise considering the action we had already seen that week.Joe Cermele
Getting Bombed: Jeff Samsel from Bomber Lures lifts a fat redfish taken on a Pop'N Shrimp. Although the wind had whipped certain flats to a chalky froth, the redfish were still willing to smack topwater lures on our last day in Port Mansfield. The amount of activity we experienced made it that much harder to believe it could all just go away. Regardless of the future, a severe change to the fishery isn't likely to happen overnight.Field & Stream Online Editors
Red Head: Without access to the Gulf, Lower Laguna Madre redfish like this may not be able to reproduce. "Even if East Cut silts in too much for any boats to pass through, as long as there is still water being exchanged between the bay and the Gulf, the fish will survive," says Brandon Shuler. That scenario is more likely to play out in the near future than the complete closing off of the cut. But wildcards like severe hurricanes could speed up the process. I heard rumors during my stay that the CCA was attempting to work a deal where each dollar they raise towards the dredging of East Cut will be matched by the state. But whether that happens is yet to be seen.Joe Cermele
Taking Off: Brandon Shuler prepares to release a redfish that couldn't resist a Super Spook. For now, Port Mansfield remains a Mecca for skinny-water junkies that need a fix, and the Shulers will be there to provide it. This is not the Florida Keys, with their lavish resorts. This is not Montauk, where you can make a day trip jaunt from Manhattan and be home in time to shop in Times Square. You will never just happen to be in Port Mansfield unless you came to fish. It is a wild place in the shadow of the Mexican border, where a rattler could be hiding under any stone, and where you'll hopefully have the chance to duke it out with huge trout and redfish for decades to come with the help of those like the Shulers, who I can fittingly call crusaders of the cowboy coast.Joe Cermele