Fishing and Sea Turtles and Birding, Oh My: A weekend at South Padre Island

March, 2021

I feel like I’m drifting through a cloud.

Really, though, I’m standing at the front of a small bay boat, casting into the shallows of the South Bay on a foggy winter morning. It’s murky and quiet, except for the flapping of passing seagulls.

I didn’t grow up fishing, but I’m doing my best to launch a baited hook toward a riffle that fishing guide Hector Torres Jr. tells me was made by a nice-sized redfish.

Fishing guide Hector Torres Jr. filets redfish at the Parrot Eyes Marina on South Padre Island. Photo by Pam LeBlanc

It’s part of my quick weekend trip to South Padre Island for National Cook Your Catch Day, a designation cleverly invented by island promotors to encourage people to come down and fish, then take their catch to a local restaurant for dinner. While I’m at South Padre Island, I’m also planning to do a little birding and visit a sea turtle sanctuary.

The Fishing

My husband, Chris, and I met Torres at Parrot Eyes Watersports at dawn, then boarded his boat for the 30-minute buzz to the South Bay, which was blissfully deserted. As the tide came in, Torres used a pole to push us into water so shallow we could see the occasional stingray flutter beneath us.

I had some trouble casting at first, even snagging the seat of Chris’ pants with an errant toss. But with Torres’ help, I settled into a groove, and the redfish started biting.

Early on, we reeled in small ones, between 16 to 18 inches long. Under Texas Parks and Wildlife regulations, you can only keep redfish between 20 and 28 inches, so we tossed those back. The big boys started biting when we eased into water less than a foot deep. By 9:15 a.m., we reached our limit of three each––and we even threw back a 31-inch whopper.

Pam LeBlanc shows off a whopper of a redfish she caught near South Padre Island. Chris LeBlanc photo

Torres, who was born and raised in nearby Laguna Vista, has been guiding for 27 years and says watching other people catch fish makes him happy.

“It’s kind of like having your own ranch,” he says of the wide-open expanse out here on the Laguna Madre.

After four hours, we turned back toward the marina, where Torres unloaded our catch, then cleaned and fileted it for us, tossing scraps to the pelicans.

Later that night, we had it blackened and served with vegetables and hush puppies (the best I’ve ever had) at the Painted Marlin Grille, which offers al fresco dining with a view of the bay.

The Turtles

Next on our agenda? A trip to Sea Turtle Inc., where we got to meet sea turtles stunned during a cold snap that hit the East Coast in December.

We also saw other four-flippered patients recovering from prop strikes and fishing line entanglements. The non-profit center treats their injuries and works to educate the public about the endangered animals.

Ila Fox Loetscher, known as the Turtle Lady of South Padre Island, started taking in sick sea turtles in 1977. She also dressed them in frilly dresses and tiny wigs, but we’ll forgive her, because she created an organization that has since saved hundreds of endangered sea turtles. Loetscher died in 2000, but today the center carries on her mission.

Chris LeBlanc admires a sea turtle recovering in a tank at Sea Turtle Inc. on South Padre Island. The non-profit organization works to protect endangered sea turtles. Pam LeBlanc photo

Many of the sea turtles that come here suffer from a type of herpes virus called fibropapillomatosis that causes cauliflower-like tumors on turtles’ eyes, mouths and flippers. I watched through a window as a veterinarian crouched over a foot-long Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, carefully removing bits of tumors from its flippers. Scientists aren’t sure what causes the disease, but some researchers believe it’s related to poor water quality.
About 90 percent of turtles treated at Sea Turtle Inc. are eventually released to wild, says chief conservation officer Amy Bonka, Ph.D.

That’s important, because sea turtle populations are struggling. Between April and August of each year, Sea Turtle Inc. gathers turtle eggs laid on local beaches. The eggs are loaded into ice chests and delivered to Sea Turtle Inc. headquarters, where they are counted and logged before being re-buried in a protected corral, safe from predators like badgers and coyotes.
When the turtles hatch, they’re released on nearby beaches. An estimated one in 300 survive to adulthood.

The Birding

I used to chuckle at birders I’d see at parks and preserves, tiptoeing through the brush with a camera in one hand and a pair of binoculars slung around their neck.

Now I’m one of them.

I find myself pulling my car off the side of the road to admire a red-tailed hawk, or easing my canoe along a riverbank to get a better glimpse of a great blue heron. Over the weekend, I spent two glorious hours lurking on a boardwalk that meanders through 43 acres of wetlands at the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center.

I couldn’t keep my eyes off the roseate spoonbills––big, Pepto-Bismol-colored birds with beaks that look like they’ve been ironed flat. An osprey circled overhead, diving headfirst into the bay and popping up with a fish in its talons. The brown pelicans seemed awkward and uncoordinated, zooming in for splash landings and raising their heads to show off their big pouches. And a great blue heron silently stalked its prey.
Birds aren’t all that’s on display at the center, which includes an alligator sanctuary. Besides 50 juvenile gators rescued from backyard ponds, pools, piers and other situations where they’ve become nuisances, a 12-foot 7-incher named Big Padre basks in the sun. He was transported here after becoming acclimated to eating fish scraps near a boat ramp in Port Arthur.

A great white egret comes in for a landing at the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center. Pam LeBlanc photo

The sun rises behind The Pearl South Padre Island Hotel in February 2021. Pam LeBlanc photo

If You Go

Getting there:

It takes about five and a half hours to drive from Austin to South Padre Island, located about 370 miles to the south.

Stay:

Pearl South Padre, 310 Padre Boulevard, offers comfortable rooms right on the beach with a restaurant, pool and hot tub.

Do:

  • Hire a private fishing guide through Parrot Eyes Watersports. A 5-hour, private fishing charter costs $450 for two people.
  • Stop by Sea Turtle Inc., 6617 Padre Boulevard, to learn about endangered sea turtles. Admission is $10 for adults and $4 for children (less in the off-season) and face masks are required.
  • Visit South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center, 6801 Padre Boulevard, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission is $8 for adults; $7 seniors and students ages 13 to 18; and $5 ages 4 to 12. Masks required indoors and within 6 feet of others.

Eat & Drink:

Don’t miss Ceviche Ceviche, 1004 Padre Boulevard H1, a hole-in-the-wall ceviche bar where you can pick your own fresh ingredients and watch it made as you wait. For dinner, head to Painted Marlin Grille, 202 Whiting Street, which will also cook up your fresh catch for $10 per person.

Tip:

Check the launch schedule for SpaceX’s Boca Chica launch site. The structures are visible from the South Bay off South Padre Island.

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