Padre Island is a long spit of sand dunes guarding mainland Texas from the destructive tornadoes and winter storms that pound in from the Gulf of Mexico. Between this narrow barrier island and the mainland lies Laguna Madre, a shallow hyper-saline sea renowned for sensitive sea grass – and world-class kite surfing, birding and fishing.
On some Padre beaches camping is free. South of Corpus Christi, at Padre Island National Seashore, free squatting extends for over 100 km. But the entrance is also the only exit. So after you bite off as much of the hard-packed sand road as you wish to chew and you’ve had your fill of remote surf and turf, a tight U-turn and a long return drive up the beach is required to get back to civilization.
It was shoulder season so we and our little RV had the whole shoreline to ourselves. The weather was atrocious: 3C with a 70-kmh wind. Only a Canuckle-head would beach in such conditions: five metres from the raging ocean and sideways to a Gulf gale. The van was a rockin’ all night, no thanks to me.
In the morning the weather cleared, the sun shone and the wind ebbed, portending a fine day on the Laguna Madre. We drove back across the causeway to the mainland, toward Arroyo City and a lovely campground along a canal fronting the ocean. We chose a site protected by live oak trees in case (heaven forbid) the weatherman’s prognostication was inaccurate and the wind began to howl anew. As per our typical MO, we arrived at dusk, sans reservation.
The other campers were all outfitted for fishing. “When in Rome,” thought I and asked the park ranger if he knew of any local fishing guides.
“No, I sure don’t,” he said. “Y’all could check with the live-bait store back in town. Look for the big sign – a redfish – out front. They may have a’ idea.”
I asked my wife Florence if she’d mind hanging solo for a day while I went angling.
“No, go ahead. I’ll spend the day relaxing, reading and knitting.”
I wandered down the road. When I saw red, I stepped in.
The shop smelt.
After baiting the proprietor with fishing small-talk, I asked, “Do you think you could find a guide to take me out tomorrow?”
“Well, I know of a fella lives right by,” he said, chewing uncertainly on a pork rind, “but it’s kind of late and I doubt he’d be available on short notice. I could call if you like.”
Five minutes later Captain Smiley was walking in the door. He shook my hand and arrangements were made to tackle an early morning.
The sun had not yet risen when the Captain putt-putted up to our riverfront campsite and welcomed me aboard. Minutes later, dawn greeted us as we cast our first lines into the shallow, glassy waters of Laguna Madre. A fat red drum hit on my second cast; a fighting day was upon us.
I had a great time with Smiley. Affirming his moniker, he laughed and joked all day long in his charismatic Tex-Mex accent.
The night before I had warned the Captain that I was short on greenbacks and would need to pay by cheque. He hesitantly agreed. When we arrived back at dock, he expertly prepped my redfish “on the half-shell” for grilling. Driving me back to our campsite, he cleverly diverted his battered pickup truck toward the bait shop. Pulling up, he informed me that there was an ATM inside. Evidently he preferred cash to a cheque written on the honourable (but foreign) Royal Bank of Canada. I smiled faintly, opened the door and headed into the store.
I had no bank card, just a U.S. Visa. Uncertain if I could withdraw cash or whether my PIN would work, I shoved the card in, chose English over Spanish as my language of preference and, after agreeing to an exorbitant fee for the pleasure of using the bank machine (“in addition to whatever additional charges your financial institution may impose”), prayed silently as I entered my personal security particulars. The machine sat quietly for a time, made some distant interior rumblings and eventually announced: “Request Declined.”
I peaked through a stack of chili-flavoured pork rinds, over a battered flag of the Lone-Star State hanging in the dirty window, and into the parking lot. Smiley was staring storeward … waiting.
I checked to see if there was a back exit. The wary owner eyed me suspiciously. The rear door led through a heap of fish offal into an alligator-infested swamp. Preferring embarrassment to an awful death, I thought I’d again ask the Captain if he would accept my cheque. I took a last baleful glance at the ATM and noticed a message: “Maximum withdrawal $120.”
I had requested too much dinero.
I started the process anew, punched in my PIN, agreed to pay the usurious fees and crossed my fingers. The machine slowly spat six tattered 20s at me. A full day of guided fishing is not cheap. I repeated the process a few times. Eventually the tired machine coughed up enough cash to retire my piscatorial indebtedness.
I handed the dough to Smiley. He smiled and asked, “Do you want to fish tomorrow?” I couldn’t envisage enduring another ATM debacle and, in any event, it was time for us to move on from this arroyo.
“No thanks,” I said, “we need to hit the road tomorrow.”
“Aw, that’s too bad,” said Smiley. “Tomorrow’s my day off and what I do on my day off is … go fishing. I’ll take you out on my dime.”
I saw my calendar clearing.
I called Florence to ask leave. She concurred, delighted. (Apparently, one day away from her beloved was insufficient to create any overwhelming desire to be reunited in the confines of our small RV.)
I had another great caught-my-limit day of fishing. As I fried up a delicious speckled sea trout that night, Florence asked, “Are you going fishing again tomorrow?”
“Naw,” I said. “Smiley’s got a customer lined up for the morning.”
“Gee, that’s too bad,” she said, “this fish is incredible.” She was eyeing her knitting.
Gerry Feehan, QC, is a retired lawyer, avid traveller and photographer.