who has ever landed a speckled trout or bull redfish knows the process
is exciting, but it took Texans a long time to realize that fishing
could hook tourists as well as dinner.
Well into the 20th century, coastal Texans fished primarily for
food, either for themselves or to sell. Finally, it sunk in that
promoting fishing as a form of recreation could add to an area’s
economy by luring tourists and the “railroad dollars” they carried
in their pockets.
In 1906, two years after rail passenger service reached the Lower
Rio Grande Valley, Caesar Kleberg opened a resort called the Padre
Island Tarpon and Fishing Club (now the Queen Isabella Hotel) in
The hotel and a bountiful tarpon fishery began attracting dedicated
fishermen, but the area remained a sleepy little coastal town.
One notable visitor in November 1920 came all the way from Washington,
D.C. – President Warren G. Harding. Wearing a hat with the brim
turned down and clad in dark pants, white long-sleeved shirt, tie,
suspenders and white gloves, the President fished for tarpon sitting
in a wooden chair in the back of a rowboat attended by his guide.
“At our front door flows some of the world’s best fishing waters,”
Dr. J.A. Hockaday wrote in the June 1934 issue of Monty’s Monthly,
a long-defunct magazine published in the Valley. “How little we
of the Valley appreciate it! It is one of our greatest assets and
what little effort is expended to capitalize it!”
Hockaday wrote that “northern visitors” (known in the Valley today
as Winter Texans or Snow Birds) had often asked him, “Why don’t
you people in the Valley tell the rest of the country about this
fishing? If the whole world knew about this grand fishing, your
Valley wouldn’t hold [all] the disciples of Walton during fishing
And that season lasts nine months a year, longer if you don’t mind
cold or fog and know what you’re doing.
The doctor, an avid tarpon fisherman, realized that simply telling
people that the Valley offers superb saltwater fishing opportunities
would not be enough.
“Being from Missouri,” he wrote, “I am convinced that it is better
to show them.”
To do that, he organized the first annual Rio Grande Valley Fishing
Rodeo, an event held in Port
Isabel Aug. 8-12, 1934. Eventually renamed the Texas International
Fishing Tournament, the event has been showing the rest of the nation
how good the fishing in the Valley is ever since.
Only World War
II, when Nazi submarines prowled the Gulf waters off the Texas
coast looking for oil tankers, interrupted the tournament. The tournament
has continued to grow in prestige and economic impact to Port
Isabel and South
Padre Island, and so has salt water fishing in general.
Not that some things haven’t changed over the years. The early tournaments
included leggy bathing beauties and a Miss Mermaid contest. Tarpon
and the deep sea bill fish reeled in by contestants hanged at the
weigh-in dock on public display like so many captured pirates. These
days, in an effort to conserve the fishery, marlin and sailfish
are tagged, photographed and released to be caught again when they’re
“With proper cooperation,” the doctor wrote back during the Depression,
“[the tournament] will become the Valley’s outstanding entertainment
feature for years to come.”
© Mike Cox
- July 3, 2014 column
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