It’s winter in the Intermountain West, and many of us are tired of snow, wind, and single digit temperatures. For me, that’s a signal to grab some bargain airlines tickets and head to the South Texas Coast for great birding and challenging fishing.
South Padre Island is a narrow barrier island close enough to Mexico to be warm most of the year, and with the Gulf of Mexico on the east and the incredibly rich habitat of the Laguna Madre on the west, SPI brings together excellent birding and fantastic fishing all in one place.
SPI is six hours from San Antonio and the closest airport with multiple flight options and easy connections from many cities. Grab a rental car, and the drive from San Antonio to the island through rural Texas is a cinch.
As you near the coast, look for beautiful caracara eagles flying over ranch land looking for food.
Housing options on SPI are plentiful ranging from full-service resorts to family-friendly condominiums. I use a variety of websites to browse what is available and have never been disappointed with the accommodations.
If you bring a lot of fishing gear and don’t want to keep it in your car, then look for a unit on the ground floor, to avoid schlepping all that equipment up and down stairs.
Since I love birding, it’s nice to get accommodations near South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center, located at 6801 Padre Blvd near the north end of the developed part of the island. Open daily and specifically in February and March from 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., this beautiful natural area has 3,300 feet of boardwalk, allowing you to access the salt marsh and the edge of the Laguna Madre without getting your feet wet.
It also boasts five viewing blinds and a five-story viewing tower in the Center building. Most days, free guided bird walks are given, but call 956-761-6801 to confirm.
A daily senior ticket is $5, but it’s hard to go just one day, so I opt for a 7-day senior pass, costing just $20. Birders this time of year can expect to see brown pelicans, white ibis, great and reddish egrets, and great blue, little blue and tricolored herons, along with, my favorite, roseate spoonbills. These are the most obvious birds, but you will see many others as well, including a variety of ducks.
A huge American alligator hangs out in the saltmarsh waters and can often be seen sunning itself on the bank, so keep an eye out. For viewing sea and salt marsh birds, the SPI Center is tops.
Just south of the Birding and Nature Center is Sea Turtle, Inc. Visitors of all ages enjoy observing the six resident turtles that are rehabilitated but unable to survive in the wild. The purpose of Sea Turtle, Inc. is to rescue and rehabilitate injured sea turtles, provide education and work to conserve sea turtles around the world. Staff give informative talks about sea turtles and the threats they face.
The nearby Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge is home to nesting habitat for Kemps’ ridley, loggerhead, hawksbill and Atlantic green sea turtles, so Sea Turtle, Inc is ideally located to assist in the rescue and recovery of sea turtles. The facility is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. with the last tickets sold at 3:15. Cost for seniors is $5 and well worth the price.
A short drive across the bridge that separates the mainland from South Padre Island brings you to the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. At nearly 100,000 acres, this rich habitat is home to birds like the brilliant green jay, Altamira orioles, and the rare aplomado falcon.
In winter, sandhill cranes stay on the refuge and are joined by white-fronted geese, redhead ducks, and white-tailed and Harris’ hawks. Be on the lookout for American alligators, Texas tortoises, western diamondback rattlesnakes, and the smaller, but still poisonous, coral snake.
While ocelots are native to Texas, their numbers have dwindled but this elusive cat still finds healthy habitat in the Refuge. Recently, a den was discovered with a young male ocelot inside, giving hope that a breeding pair will remain in the area.
Check out the Refuge website for more detailed information. Admission is a mere $3.
Finally, if you love fishing, then South Padre is for you. Party boats take off multiple times daily to fish the Gulf of Mexico side of the island. They are inexpensive, provide all the gear, and usually result in your bringing home plenty of fish for dinner. I’ve enjoyed every party boat excursion I’ve been on. And don’t be surprised when you see dolphins cavorting in the water near your boat!
It’s also a lot of fun to surf fish along the miles-long sandy beach. We’ve had great luck getting sea trout and sheepshead surf fishing, using standard spinning gear.
But for me, the Laguna Madre is the primo fishing location. This 130-mile-long body of water is on the western side of SPI. This hypersaline, shallow water is home to an amazing array of fish-26 species to be exact. Since the water is so shallow-averaging 3.6 feet deep-special flats fishing boats are often used. You’ll see anglers in boats with motors up to protect the seagrass meadows, poling their boats in the flats. Trolling motors are used as well but be advised that damaging seagrass is illegal in Texas and comes with a hefty fine, so use your boat to run to the flats then switch to drifting, poling or trolling. My favorite fish in the Laguna Madre is red drum: these hefty beauties take skill to catch and land, can feed a family and are delicious. But they are wary and dart off at the slightest suggestion of movement or sound. Anglers often stand on the front of a flats boat and sight fish, being very careful not to move much as they cast. Another favorite fish for eating is the sheepshead. This black and white striped fish is tasty but devilishly hard to unhook and clean with razor sharp ridges on their backs, but they are totally worth the effort. Finally, I’ve had great days landing twenty-plus black drum while fishing in dense fog on the Laguna Madre so don’t let a little inclement weather deter you. Your sure to love the delicious white meat these fish provide.
So, if you’re tired of BRRR! head to South Padre Island to enjoy native wildlife, great fishing and awesome birding: you won’t be disappointed! ISI