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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Fishing in
Port Aransas

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Hard to believe, but Texans haven’t always fished just for fun.

Along the coast, from the time of the fierce Karankawas until the latter days of the 19th century, fishing was about eating, not a recreational pursuit.

When a skilled laborer named Tim Vought got hired in 1875 to do some repair work at the 1857-vintage Port Aransas light house, he soon realized that he was staying in one of the best fishing spots on the Gulf of Mexico. Accordingly, Vought spent much of his free time fishing. Well, acquiring fish.

The Port Aransas Museum has on display an excerpt of an interesting letter Vought wrote home about fishing at Port A:

“We took two cast nets with us and throwed into the bayou that runs alongside [the] light house. In less than half an hour we caught 65 large mullet and redfish. I never saw fish so thick before in my life.”

Of course, netting game fish long since has been a conservation law no-no. (It’s OK to net bait, but using a net to catch redfish would be a costly proposition these days if a game warden happened to see it.)

Describing another venture in search of free protein, Vought wrote that he went out with someone named Hart. This time, they “went up a little bayou.” Again, they carried a cast net, not fishing poles.

“I rowed the boat and Hart throwed the net,” the light house worker continued. “In about half hour we caught large basket full of mullet and plenty redfish and drum. Some of them were 18 inches and two feet long. We had a nice dinner.”

Despite that, Vought concluded his letter with: “Getting sick of the sight of fish.”

Whether Vought managed to retain his taste for seafood is not recorded. And tastes change. Though redfish (technically red drum) is still considered a delicacy, mullet have long since been relegated to baitfish status. And no one has ever been interested in eating the boney fish that for a time reigned as king along the coast, the tarpon.

That species, arguably, is the fish that spawned recreational fishing as a Port Aransas pastime. It happened in the mid-1880s, when work began on a set of rock jetties intended to deepen the ship channel to Corpus Christi. When mainlanders connected with the construction project started seeing big schools of tarpon, it occurred to some of them that catching one of those big fish would be good sport.

Not having boats of their own, these “jetty people” (as the locals called them) began paying island residents $1.50 to row them out for some tarpon fishing. That, according to the Port A museum exhibit, marked the beginning of sport fishing on the Texas coast. In addition, it was the genesis of the fishing guide business, a pop-and-sometimes-mom industry that still brings money to this part of Texas.

Tarpon Inn, Port Aransas, Texas
Port Aransas' Tarpon Inn in the 1920s
Postcard courtesy rootsweb.com/ %7Etxpstcrd/

By 1886, tarpon fishing drew enough visitors to make opening a hotel viable. That brought the Tarpon Inn, a two-story wooden hotel still in business. Ten years later, the small town on the tip of Mustang Island was named Tarpon.

As word of Texas’ mid-coastal tarpon fishery spread across the nation, a monied New York sportsman named Ned Green came to Tarpon to fish for the town’s namesake. He had a good time and became a frequent island visitor, in 1899 building a fishing-duck hunting resort on Saint Joseph Island he called the Tarpon Club.

In the early 1900s, just as automobiles had begun to replace horses as a mode of transportation, rowboats began to give way to powerboats. Green purchased the first motorboat ever seen on the middle coast, also paying for a guide named Ed Cotter to travel to Chicago to get schooled in how to run and maintain an international combustion engine.

The advent of gasoline-powered motors further enhanced sport fishing, though the museum has a photograph documenting that the change didn’t happen all at once. In the photo, Cotter in his powerboat is towing a string of rowboats to a tarpon hotspot.

Port Aransas TX 1950s,  Mr. Reveley Fishing.
"Papa loved to go fishing at Port Aransas"
Sarah Reveley 1950s photo

"Here's Mamma. We always drove down in her jeep. Papa didn't want to get his Buick Special dirty."
Sarah Reveley, 1950s photo

Port Aransas got more national attention as a prime tarpon fishing distination in 1932 with the beginning of the Tarpon Rodeo, an annual tournament that continued until 1958. By that time, overfishing had severely depleted the tarpon population and the rodeo got deep-sixed. But the Deep Sea Roundup, an off-shore fishing tournament that started in 1941, is still going strong.

Few anglers visiting Port A today are likely to share or even comprehend old Tim Vought’s sentiment about getting sick of the sight of fish.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" March 11, 2011 column

See Port Aransas

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