By Chuck Petrie
Duck, fish, and movie-star sightings along the Texas Gulf Coast
I turn the rental car off the main highway at El Campo and head north toward the Texas heartland. The road through this sun-drenched, arid flatland is deserted; still, at any moment I expect to see Paul Newman driving a Cadillac convertible in the oncoming lane, racing to a tomcat's mission in town. He'll be spruced up and wearing a straw Stetson, have one hand draped over the car's steering wheel, the other tipping a pint of Jack Daniels to his lips as he speeds toward the city and away from the grimy work he begrudgingly performs on his father's cattle ranch. At least that's the scene I remember from the 1963 classic movie Hud. Some people suffer from annoying tunes that play repeatedly in their head. I see mental images of old film clips.
I make a few turns onto rural roads, following the directions on the map I've been provided, and drive by endless pastures littered with feeding cows, a few of which are being ridden bareback by white cattle egrets. More of the birds peck in the grass at the slow-moving bovines' feet, searching for displaced insects in the September-seared prairie. Eventually, with nary a Cadillac sighting or even that of an empty whiskey bottle in the roadside ditch, I turn onto a quarter-mile-long gravel driveway marked with a sign announcing it as the entryway to Paradise Hunting & Fishing Club.
Before dawn the next morning, I'm sitting in a duck blind on a levee overlooking a flooded rice field. Out front, wading in the shallow water, my host, second-generation guide Tony Hurst (no resemblance to Paul Newman), is making some last-minute changes to our decoy spread—two dozen diminutive teal, with a few drake sprig and hen mallard blocks mixed in for variety. Texas' early teal season ends in two days, and Tony and I have reserved each of the next few mornings for hunting these swift little birds, and for the next three afternoons we have appointments on the Gulf with Matagorda Bay's redfish and speckled sea trout.
Dawn is still just a promise as Tony sits down in the blind and I insert my new hearing-protection device in my right ear. After years of abusing my auditory senses by shooting without ear protection, I've finally decided to do something to prevent further hearing loss (as the old saying goes: "If I knew I was gonna live this long, I woulda taken better care of myself.") The gadget is a digital device that not only suppresses the sound of gunfire to a comfortable level, but also works like a conventional hearing aid. Once I get the gizmo inserted into my ear canal, I turn it on and slightly turn up the volume. Immediately, I can hear cattle lowing in a nearby pasture and coyotes yipping somewhere on the far side of the rice field. The sounds of unseen songbirds fill the air.
The next noise I hear, behind us, sounds like someone tearing silk. Tony and I quickly turn around and see a flock of 25 to 30 teal on a low-level strafing run behind our blind. The birds are only darkened silhouettes in the nascent, pre-dawn light, but their presence bids optimism. We're now more keenly anticipating legal shooting time.
As the sun inches toward the horizon, more birds are on the move—solitary, circling vultures; flocks of black-bellied whistling ducks, mottled ducks, and pintails; knots of avocets and other small shorebirds, roseate spoonbills, and egrets flying in pairs or larger numbers in group formation—providing us an avian aerial spectacle.
"What are those flocks of wading birds with the long, curved bills?" I ask Tony.
"Ibis," he replies. "We have both the white ibis and the glossy ibis here, but most local folks just call ‘em booger pickers, because of their beaks."
"I don't remember that as a common name for ibis in my copy of Birds of North America, Tony. Must be some sort of colloquial appellation?"
"Yeah, sorta," Tony chuckles, and then adds, "I hope you're loaded up, because there's a flock of teal headed for the decoys."
I feed two shells into the 20-gauge over/under, close the action, and get ready to shoot.
Over the next two hours we take turns poking at small groups of bluewings—with a few greenwings mixed in—that rocket over the decoys. A few slow down over the spread, but none seem the least bit interested—on their own volition, at least—in joining their plastic brethren in the rice paddy. Since the ducks don't volunteer for the meeting, despite Tony's invitational vocalizations on his teal call, we're required to impose lethal forced landings and, finally, after a somewhat respectable show of shooting prowess, reach our limit of four birds each.
"It usually doesn't take that long to shoot your four birds," Tony says as we pick up the decoys. "But today's Friday. Not many hunters out keeping the birds moving. Tomorrow morning's hunt will go a lot faster."
"How fast might that be?" I ask.
"Don't know for sure. But my record, and that's with three hunters in the blind and in a year when there were really a lot of teal around, is three limits in nine minutes."
As we drive off the farm road adjacent to the rice field, we meet the landowner in his pickup truck and stop for a social parlay. Tony leases the hunting rights to 40,000 acres of agricultural fields around El Campo and has access to an additional 60,000. Being a lifelong resident of the area has its benefits, including access to duck and goose fields on local farms here. When the goose season is in full swing in coastal Texas (November-February), large concentrations of snow geese, Ross's geese, white-fronted geese, and lesser Canada geese visit these fields daily, when Tony and his cadre of guides provide clients with morning goose hunts. Afternoon guided hunts are also available for Paradise Hunting & Fishing Club lodge guests and include Matagorda Bay duck hunts (mostly redheads, pintails, and bluebills), prairie duck hunts (a variety of species including pintails, wigeon, mottled ducks, and gadwalls), sandhill crane hunts, upland bird hunts, and wild hog hunts. Quite the diverse package.
When Tony isn't guiding waterfowlers and managing his hunting outfitting operations, which is most of the year, he's guiding fishermen and managing his fishing outfitting service. He and his group of fishing guides, all U.S. Coast Guard-licensed captains, offer angling for redfish, sea trout, and flounder in the waters of Matagorda, Espiritu Santo, and San Antonio bays near the Texas coastal towns of Matagorda, Port O'Connor, and Sea Drift.
Tony is obviously a busy guy most of the year, but this is a bit of a slow period for him (only teal and dove seasons are open), which is why he's taking a busman's holiday, doing the two things he loves most—hunting waterfowl and fishing saltwater. His casual chat with the landowner ended, we pull away, heading for a late breakfast at a nearby restaurant, when Tony says, "This afternoon we'll be fishing with two friends who guide for me: John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart."
I had removed my hearing device when we finished shooting, and I look across the cab of his truck and inquire, "Say what? Or, I should say, who?"
"John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. They're brothers."
I give Tony a quizzical look.
"Their father is a big fan of classic western movies. John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart are what he saddled them with for first and middle names. Their last name is Lloyd, and they're two of the best redfish and trout guides you'll find along the Texas coast."
About an hour later we're driving down a gravel two-lane leading to the shore of Matagorda Bay. The road across the flat coastal plain is at least visible in short stretches where it isn't covered with water from recent rains; on the rest of it Tony's pickup is leaving a wake in muddy water up to a foot deep. At the end of the half-submerged thoroughfare we come to a small village of about 50 dwellings—weekend retreats and fishing cabins, all of which are perched on 12- to 15-foot-tall pylons the diameter of telephone poles to thwart the ravages of high tides and storm surges. One of the camps belongs to the Lloyd family, and I'm soon introduced to the two thirty-something movie-star-cum-fishing-guides, John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. Howdy, fellas.
Tony and I change into lightweight, quick-dry fishing clothes, because we'll be spending most of the remainder of the day wet wading in the warm waters of the bay. Once suitably attired and armed with fishing rods, we all hop into one of the Lloyd's 22-foot shallow-draft tunnel boats tied to the pier below the cabin and begin motoring into the vast expanse of Matagorda Bay. As soon as we're clear of the channel near the village, Jimmy guns the 200-horsepower outboard and quickly brings the boat up on plane.
We stop to fish at several locations, anchoring up and then jumping into the tepid water—which is anywhere from knee- to armpit-deep—before we begin wading and casting. Tony and the Lloyds are using bait-casting gear and throwing big plugs—stick baits and surface poppers. I'm tossing a fly on an 8-weight rod and feeling terribly undergunned. But that doesn't matter. The fish are ignoring my small fly, a SeaDucer pattern, anyway, so it can't hurt them. Meanwhile, Tony and the movie star brothers are "walkin' the dog" with their plugs, catching and releasing sea trout every few minutes. I wade to the boat, crawl back in, and grab my ditty bag. The temperature during our morning duck hunt was about 70 degrees. Now, on the water and beneath a glaring sun, it's well above 80. I grab a tube of sunscreen and start applying it wherever my skin is exposed, layering it over the mosquito dope I'd applied in the morning. Sufficiently lathered, I pause a moment to look around while I inhale the pungent smell of salt marsh mixed with the perfumed odor of sunscreen.
A variety of birds are picking over the bay's smorgasbord of mullet and other baitfish, crabs, shrimp, other small crustaceans, and whatever else crawls, swims, or floats and is deemed edible by cormorants, brown pelicans, white pelicans, terns, avocets, oystercatchers, rails, and black-necked stilts.
Now I have a decision to make. I'm ready to return to the water and begin fishing again. I look at my fly rod, then at the spare casting rod sitting in the boat. It already has a four-inch plastic bait of some sort attached to the leader. Do I remain a resolute fly-fishing purist? Do I abandon my self-imposed code of using light fly tackle only and take instead this primitive angling mechanism? Fish with a bait-casting rod? Why not just use dynamite? Why not throw poison in the water? Do I completely abandon my personal fishing ethics? The choice is simple: I grab the bait-casting rod and jump back overboard.
Now that the playing field's been leveled, the boys agree to start the count over. We fish until 7:30 that evening and land 16 sea trout and one flounder between us. Well, not exactly between us. Between them. I strike out, even using the cursed bait-casting rod. I'm sure I've jinxed my luck.
The next morning's wake-up call came disarmingly early. Tony and I had stopped at a roadside steakhouse for dinner and hadn't made it back to his lodge until late the previous evening. It was a Friday night and the restaurant was packed with locals. Typical of conversations in coastal Texas towns, we overheard patrons covering topics including high school football, fishing, farming, and cattle prices. At one point during the evening, I thought I saw a familiar man walk through the dining room. He was wearing cowboy boots and a straw Stetson. (Paul?)
I sat in the blind, yawning my way toward shooting light. This morning we were hunting a different rice field. On our drive here from the lodge we'd seen more than a few sets of headlights of other vehicles on the back roads. "Other hunters," Tony had said. "Lots of ‘em come down from Houston on the weekends to hunt their leases. They'll keep the ducks moving this morning. We should have a good shoot."
In the dark we can hear the rapid, nasally calls of teal emanating through the flooded rice stubble beyond our decoys.
"Sounds like hundreds of them out there, Tony."
"There are," he smiles. "We won't have to rush our shooting."
Raider, Tony's seven-year-old chocolate Lab, is gazing into the predawn light, glancing left, right, and left again. Staring into our dim surroundings, I can begin to see what he's watching. Ghostly shadows of teal. The birds are silently flitting all around us, low, and skimming over the rice in pairs and flocks of up to a dozen or more. I'm hoping the curse of the casting rod hasn't mutated into a shooting slump.
It doesn't. We pace our shots after legal shooting time arrives, but we're still done and on our way out of the blind in less than an hour, each carrying four teal. I've shot nine rounds of ammo, Tony six. Not bad.
Hoofing it back to Tony's truck, we hear a familiar sound and look up. "Specks," Tony says. "First whitefronts I've seen this year. Must be a cold front coming behind them. That means a lot of teal will be on the move south and out of here by tonight. Good thing we got out this morning."
"What's on tap the rest of the day?" I ask.
"After breakfast we're going to hook up my boat and tow it down to East Matagorda Bay. Good spot for redfish. John Wayne's gonna meet us at the landing there and go out with us. And by the way, you want me to bring along an extra bait-casting rig, or are you going to insist on using your . . . what do you call that ‘fairy wand' pole?"
I stop walking, squint my eyes, glance sideways at Tony, and drawl "Smile when you say that, pardner."