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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Fishing in Port Isabel

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Anyone who has ever landed a speckled trout or bull redfish knows the process is exciting, but it took Texans a long time to realize that fishing could hook tourists as well as dinner.

Well into the 20th century, coastal Texans fished primarily for food, either for themselves or to sell. Finally, it sunk in that promoting fishing as a form of recreation could add to an area’s economy by luring tourists and the “railroad dollars” they carried in their pockets.

In 1906, two years after rail passenger service reached the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Caesar Kleberg opened a resort called the Padre Island Tarpon and Fishing Club (now the Queen Isabella Hotel) in Port Isabel. The hotel and a bountiful tarpon fishery began attracting dedicated fishermen, but the area remained a sleepy little coastal town.

One notable visitor in November 1920 came all the way from Washington, D.C. – President Warren G. Harding. Wearing a hat with the brim turned down and clad in dark pants, white long-sleeved shirt, tie, suspenders and white gloves, the President fished for tarpon sitting in a wooden chair in the back of a rowboat attended by his guide.

“At our front door flows some of the world’s best fishing waters,” Dr. J.A. Hockaday wrote in the June 1934 issue of Monty’s Monthly, a long-defunct magazine published in the Valley. “How little we of the Valley appreciate it! It is one of our greatest assets and what little effort is expended to capitalize it!”

Hockaday wrote that “northern visitors” (known in the Valley today as Winter Texans or Snow Birds) had often asked him, “Why don’t you people in the Valley tell the rest of the country about this fishing? If the whole world knew about this grand fishing, your Valley wouldn’t hold [all] the disciples of Walton during fishing season.”

And that season lasts nine months a year, longer if you don’t mind cold or fog and know what you’re doing.

The doctor, an avid tarpon fisherman, realized that simply telling people that the Valley offers superb saltwater fishing opportunities would not be enough.

“Being from Missouri,” he wrote, “I am convinced that it is better to show them.”

To do that, he organized the first annual Rio Grande Valley Fishing Rodeo, an event held in Port Isabel Aug. 8-12, 1934. Eventually renamed the Texas International Fishing Tournament, the event has been showing the rest of the nation how good the fishing in the Valley is ever since.

Only World War II, when Nazi submarines prowled the Gulf waters off the Texas coast looking for oil tankers, interrupted the tournament. The tournament has continued to grow in prestige and economic impact to Port Isabel and South Padre Island, and so has salt water fishing in general.

Not that some things haven’t changed over the years. The early tournaments included leggy bathing beauties and a Miss Mermaid contest. Tarpon and the deep sea bill fish reeled in by contestants hanged at the weigh-in dock on public display like so many captured pirates. These days, in an effort to conserve the fishery, marlin and sailfish are tagged, photographed and released to be caught again when they’re bigger.

“With proper cooperation,” the doctor wrote back during the Depression, “[the tournament] will become the Valley’s outstanding entertainment feature for years to come.”



© Mike Cox - July 3, 2014 column
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