I’ll start out by saying, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray”….
My father and I have been fishing at Matagorda Island State Park in Texas several times a year since I was a kid. It’s one of our favorite spots to go and has continued to be the go to spot for our annual “father-son trip”. Years ago there was a ferry that used to run from Port O’Connor to the state park twice a day that was only $4, unfortunately it burned down. This resulted in a huge decrease in traffic to the park, which eventually led to it being transitioned into a Wildlife Management Area. Since the ferry burned down, we have enlisted the services of local fishing guides to ferry us and our gear to and from the island. The fee normally runs anywhere between $150-$175 round trip. This is probably a fair charge for services rendered but has always been hard for us to swallow having always before paid $4. With this in mind, I’ve always been looking for an alternative way to get out to my favorite spot to fish that was more economical. So one day at work (Austin Canoe and Kayak), I’m browsing through some of our laminated aerial photo card maps and see one for the “Port O’Connor Paddling Trail”. This is about a 12-mile paddle along the east side of Espirtu Bay through some barrier islands out to the campsite at Matagorda Island. “This I can do” I thought. I’ve done long paddles before, I have a map with GPS coordinates to guide me…I’m going to do this.
I set about quickly making packing lists and trying to find someone to accompany me for the weekend. Apparently many of my peers don’t have the same flair for last minute, untested, long paddles across ocean bays that I do, and I was unable to find anyone willing to commit their weekend to what in my mind would be a challenging adventure. So it looked like I’d be going this one alone. As the day grew nearer I was studying my route more I realized that it was possible to put in at Charlie’s Bait camp, about halfway along the coast between Port O’Connor and Seadrift, and there was a straight shot to my destination across open water that was only 7 miles paddling distance. As I was leaving straight after work on Friday and had a 4-hour drive down to the coast, I wouldn’t be entering the water until between midnight and 1 o’clock in the morning. With this in mind the shorter paddle began to look more appealing even though it was across open water. The weather reports said that the wind should have been less than 20 mph, so I figured the swells wouldn’t be too bad. I knew that I was entering a bit of a hazardous trip when I started out and thought I had done most things I needed to prepare myself. I had my cell phone and GPS unit, with all points already plotted, in a Pelican 1060 dry box. In hindsight I think I would of preferred to have them in a waterproof soft case like an Aquapac so that I could of manipulated the buttons without taking it out of the case and risking getting it wet. I had my Scotty 360 light, as well as a Princeton Tec Fuel Headlamp. I also had all of my clothes and sleeping bags packed into an assortment of dry bags. I, of course, also had my whistle and PFD which are required by law. My last little trick for signaling in an emergency situation is something I learned about from my time in the Marine Corps that we called a “buzzsaw.” You take a chemical light stick and tie a 3 foot piece of string to it and after it is activated you spin it around over your head to signal a rescue team, it’s very effective for aerial spotting.
I started out about 12:30 at night as intended and the wind was blowing a little bit harder than I had expected but it wasn’t too cold and I wasn’t real concerned. I had a borrowed Tarpon 160 that I was paddling for the first time and was about 2.5 miles in and getting out into the center of the bay when the wind started to really pick up and the swells were getting bigger. I was having a really hard time staying on course with the wind and was tiring out much quicker than I had anticipated. I’m in pretty decent shape and have done some long days of paddling before so I was surprised how quickly these types of conditions were wearing me out. My progress began to slow even more and I noticed that I now had standing water past the scupper holes in the foot well of the kayak. This had me more than a little concerned so I opened up the center hatch and looked down to the horror of seeing the kayak filled over halfway with water. I knew enough to recognize that I was in serious trouble at this point. Between the waves and the wind which was now gusting probably 35+ I knew if I got turned sideways and got just a little squirrelly I would be rolling over. I grabbed a water bottle and cut the top off of it to use as a bailing cup. My problem was that I had to alternate between scooping out a few cupfuls of water and then paddling again quickly to straighten out. A combination of this routine and stress began to really take its toll on me and I wasn’t making any progress at this point. Over the next two hours I only made about 2 miles headway, as I had to repeat the bailing process several times as I continued to take on water. I was still about 3 miles from my destination when I realized I just wasn’t in a condition to make it and I needed to figure out something different. I looked on my GPS for the closest land and luckily it was about 1.5 miles and in the direction the wind was trying to blow me. I limped in that direction completely exhausted and finally managed to literally wash ashore like a piece of driftwood somewhere along the barrier island for Pringle Lake. At this point I was soaked and most likely in stage 1 or 2 hypothermia. I grabbed my dry bag with my sleeping bag in it and got up above the tide line and stripped down to nothing and crawled into my sleeping bag to warm up. I probably passed out for an hour or so. Let me tell you what a relief and comfort it is to have the assurance that you have a dry place to sleep and dry clothes to put on after being cold and wet.
I woke up feeling much better, put on some dry pants and pulled my kayak up farther from the water. I have a Crestone 2, two man backpacking tent which I can luckily put up in about 5 minutes, which I did, tied my kayak to it in case the tide came up and then crashed inside of it again.
I awoke the next morning no worse for the wear, luckily my kayak hadn’t tried to float away and it was a beautiful morning. I was alive so that means it was time to go fishing ! I still had about a 4 mile straight shot, 6 or so paddling miles to the slip at Matagorda so I didn’t fish as much in Pringle lake as I would of liked. The water clarity there was great and I was able to paddle up on quite a few reds in shallow water. I had several follows on a Spook Jr all the way up to the kayak and a few blow-ups. I brought in 2 or 3 undersized reds but nothing else. I did see more stingrays around there than I’ve ever seen in one area before so if you’re a wader watch out. I was relieved to FINALLY make it to Matagorda! There were a couple of sailboats in the slip and a group of 3 guys camping there. After setting up camp, I saw they had quite a few fishing poles in their camp so I wandered over to see if they’d had any luck. They’d had none at all other than 1 or 2 undersized the whole weekend. The tide was higher than normal, but I think the main problem was the water clarity it was just dirty. Not only that, but way to much floating grass all over, and that’s a pain with any type of lure. I tried for the rest of the evening with everything I had, top waters, spoons, soft plastics, cut bait on the bottom, live bait under a popping cork…nada! I was regretting not spending longer in Pringle sight casting to reds.
Mosquitoes were bad as usual, but not as bad as I’ve seen them sometimes in the past. I brought along a Thermacell and it was the first time I’ve had a chance to use it, and wow, it worked great. If I walked outside of my little area of protection I got slammed by mosquitoes but around my little area there was never more than one mosquito buzzing around. I had brought a little bit of food and busted out my little Bugaboo cooking set and my MSR Whisperlite stove which really puts out a hot flame from such a little package and fired up a little dinner for myself. After a little warm food in my stomach it was time to hit the sack for the night.
I was still pretty tired and slept later than I had intended the next morning and didn’t get back out onto the water till about 9:00. The water was still really dirty and I didn’t have much luck for the first hour. I have rarely been skunked fishing along the channel that runs into the slip there for trout but I was having no luck. I headed to a little shallower area mostly sandy with a little bit of grass patches when I noticed quite a bit of bait working in the distance. I had a Norton bull minnow on one rod and a live mullet under a popping cork on the other. I cast the live bait over and the bait continued to boil on the surface and was surprised I wasn’t getting any hits on it. I got a few little bites on my plastic but no sets. More and more patches of bait started getting run to the surface all around me so I switched over to my trusty spook junior and that was the ticket. I immediately began getting blow-ups on it, and would stop reeling do the little “wounded twitch” and bam! Fish on! It probably pulled in a couple dozen mixed of undersized reds and trout. I had gotten out of my kayak at this point and was just standing in a sandy patch when I look down and there are probably 5 or 6 reds swimming around me. I couldn’t believe it. I reeled in and was thinking to myself surely they are going to spook at any second…I was able to actually just put my pole out and jig the top water across for about 2 seconds and got to watch one of the reds rocket up to the top of the water and snag it. It was a pretty awesome experience. It was getting later and I knew I had a long paddle back so much to my chagrin, right in the middle of the bite, I had to pack it back to the campsite. I did end up with 4 keeper trout, but I’m pretty sure I could of gotten my limit had I stayed. Surprising side note, I never got even a nibble on the live bait which was kicking the whole time I was out there and it was continuously surrounded by bait hitting the water…any thoughts on that? The guys at the other camp were also packing up and had a boat chartered to come pick them up. I was about loaded up myself when their ride arrived and took them away, they hadn’t made it very far when they turned around and came back…I had assumed they forgot something but much to my surprise they came back for me! They generously offered to give me a ride back to Port O’Connor! I was thrilled to not have to paddle my way back across that after my experience two days before. I have to give Captain Bob there in Port O’Connor many points for his generosity for the ride and he even had his wife load me up in her truck and drive me down to Charlie’s after we got back! Its nice to know there are still people in the world who show random acts of kindness to strangers.
Ok. So time for some lessons learned….
1. If you’re doing a long paddle trip or headed away from shore in an unknown kayak check it out first. The leak ended up being from a botched front hatch, which I would of figured out had I done a good inspection or done a water test on it before I had set out.
2. I had waterproof gear and didn’t wear it…after you get wet it’s hard to stay warm…
3. Don’t go alone
4. Wind can come up at any time and it’s usually going to blow in a direction you don’t want it to.
5. If you haven’t done something before, doing it at night probably isn’t the best idea.
6. Get a kayak with a rudder if you’re going to be paddling long distances in the wind.
If nothing else hopefully my story helps you think a bit longer before setting off on a trip of your own. I’m glad I did the trip and encourage other people to try expeditions that push the limits a little bit. Just take the time to do it correctly and safely!