Sixty Years in the Making of a Texas Fisherman

Ron Penczek
A little over 60 years ago my father took the family on the first of the two week summer motor trips, going somewheres out west. That big mysterious overseas war that put a serious look on the grown-ups faces was over. War rationing was done, and so my Dad was free to see that part of the country we only knew through the movies. My dad was a cowboy. Being from Chicago you might think he was the drug store variety cowboy. But actually he and his brother had, from what I understand, some high-priced quarter horses. In fact my uncle could and did ride and rope with the best of them. My uncle competed in some of the world's biggest rodeo competitions at the time, at the now long-gone Chicago stadium.

So naturally the summer vacation was a trip to the wild west. My dad had a new red four door, fluid drive transmission De Soto with seats the size of a front room couch. I soon came to learn the hazards of long motor trips in the late 1940's. Tires had a way of not lasting. Car radiators would not always cool. No expressways. No gas stations sometimes and sometimes no motels. Try sleeping overnight in the car with mom, dad, and your brother constantly kicking you and telling you to move over. And the boredom. Yes it was true then as it is now, Illinois and Iowa had corn, and red barns and white farm houses, and more corn. Some years later a friend said they ought to build a bridge over Iowa so that he wouldn't have to look at it. Finally we came to a place mom called the Ozarks. It provided some relief with the green never-ending forest, great big hills and a new view around every curve. It soon became apparent that America was big, much bigger than I'd thought.

By now I was about ten or eleven and beginning to think I knew almost as much as the big people. All my school grades were good and reading and arithmetic was no problem so how much more was there to learn? Yet every mile and every hour of this endless road travel was a lesson bringing me to things completely unexpected. The towns were somehow different. The highway was always two lane and went through the business district of every town. No building was taller than the trees. Frequently the sidewalks seemed raised above the street level. And every restaurant, I learned, was called a cafe. Menu's listed chicken fried steak and for breakfast things like grits and biscuits and gravy. Biscuits and gravy was pretty good and grits up north was just called farina. There was other stuff I didn't recognize but most important, I never left that cafe hungry. And that's not all. The waitresses and gas station men not only used new words but pronounced everything in a way that told me I was somewheres away from home.

Now the country side changed. It seemed more natural. Instead of crops running off to the horizon there were long grassy hills and trees following a meandering creek far off to the side. Like as not cattle dotted the landscape. They never would move at all and seemed possibly to be not real. Houses were few and here and there were sheds that appeared to be built aimlessly and had no use. Except for windmills, most times overgrown with vines and weeds, there was no movement. No people, no farm tractors, no trucks hauling whatever. Instead there was an artists painting of a still life. It was green and bigger than what I had known. We passed over some very wide rivers. But there was no water. Just sand. Strange to me, but I figured that probably in the spring there would be plenty of water. I thought, they would surely need those bridges then. Then I thought; are we in Texas?

Mom and Dad offered no clue as to where we were going. The incessant hot air now blowing through the car windows made me wish that whatever the destination, please make it soon. It didn't take long. It seemed rather sudden that we pulled in and parked in front of a newer ranch style frame home in a city neighborhood of similar looking homes. Dad would not go to a place like this. There were no horses, no cattle, no corrals. This I soon learned was Corpus Christi. And here the heat outside the car is just as bad as in the car. Next thing I knew, we were inside this strange house. Dad and Mom apparently were good friends with the owner. He was introduced to me as Mr. Jack. To this day I wonder why I never knew his full name or what connection he had with my father. He was a younger man with a wife that seemed a perfect match. They were both very pleasant and mostly left me alone. That suited me fine because I had a frequently visited Grandma that was always chasing me and hugging me, much to my great annoyance. Mr. Jack was a carpenter and while he was working we toured the area and pretty much found out what was where. By the afternoon we were back at Mr. Jack's house. There was plenty of room at his house and we were to stay there for now. Since I was free of chores (and school), I naturally wandered my new surroundings. I noted in the garage several fishing poles leaning in a corner that had big bobbers on the lines and a set to the poles themselves. Bent poles told me Mr. Jack must have been a frequent fisherman. So I thought, maybe I should try to talk more to Mr. Jack.

I also am a fisherman. I must have been born that way because some of my clearest recollections in my fuzzy far past memory was finding Chicago's Marquette Park. When first allowed to go out alone I was warned to not leave the block. Well the park was only about a half mile away and almost seemed an extension of my block. Mom would never know I went there if I got home on time. Anyone going out had to go to the park. It had every thing a boy can want with trees, and berry trees, expanses of bushes, big wide grassy fields and a big lagoon. And the lagoon had cattails, turtles always in view, and fish. Fish are somehow mysterious to me. I know they are there yet I can't see them, how big they are or where in the water they swim. As sure as the water was there I knew absolutely the fish were there, and there could be no reason why I could not catch them. My first ever fishing excursion was with a rig basic and intended to do the job. Maybe four feet of fishing line, a small hook, (I don't know how I got them), and a popsicle stick for a bobber. My bait was a small piece of bacon fat from Mom's icebox that I wrapped in a sheet of wax paper. It was all conveniently small enough to stuff into my pockets so as to not slow me down as I ran and walked to the park. I knew exactly the right spot. There were large chunks of broken concrete in the water, easy jumping distance from the shore. I could kneel on one of them and drop in the bait. Catch fish I did. They were small bluegills, and now I think back, I might have been the first catch and release fisherman. That apprehension of an expectation in hooking the unknown has fueled a fishing fever in me not yet dimmed. When the chance arrived I decided I would talk to Mr. Jack about his fishing.

Well I never did get that chance. Next day Mr. Jack must have been out working because he was nowheres around. My parents must have gotten tired of my restlessness since they agreed I could go out by myself. Well this Corpus Christi was strange to me, but our local touring supplied me with a general direction to a real salt water ocean. I remember walking through some vacant lots or fields where the ground was sand with sparse brown weeds about knee high. Everything was strangely new and a thought of rattlesnakes entered my head. Probably the strangeness caused a twinge of fear in a boy who walked through places completely new. Well keep walking I thought, my direction can't be wrong. And there it was. The water, and close by a rock jetty, that attracted me as if I had found the emerald city. Usually I'm predisposed to preparation. I hate being caught out without the proper tools. But for the life of me I cannot recall how I managed to have a hook and line. Maybe I found them among the typical debris commonly caught or lost among the jetty rocks. What I do remember is a sun so hot it seemed to set two feet above my head. Forget about the glaring sun and heat. I was out of the boring house and on the water. Maybe I could catch something. Again the details are long gone. How I either caught or found a fresh crab I don't know. But I did, and I knew immediately that this was bait. Scooting down the rocks close to the water, half expecting to catch nothing in such a new place, I threw out the baited line. I was amazed and delighted that I started to get bites. But no hook ups. Undeterred I got another piece of crab, baited up, and threw out the line again.

The bobber bounced in the water and then instantly disappeared. Good bite, I thought, as I pulled back on the line. The line then pulled tight in my hand and I knew I had one. In one motion I lifted the frantically flopping fish and ran up to the top of the jetty where the fish broke free of the hook and flipped and danced on the jetty rock. Panic gripped me as I realized the fish could easily disappear in the deep cracks between the rocks or worse, back in the water. I swung at him in a swift slapping motion that was dead on. I got him and now I felt a pain in the palm of my hand like being hit by a bunch of ground hornets. Some introductions are painful but can be educational. The lesson was clear, I just met my first hard head catfish. When I got back I'm sure I told anyone who would listen of my catfish catch. Maybe my dad told Mr. Jack, because later that night he said I could go fishing with him tomorrow morning if I wanted to. Want to? Of course I want to. I'm ready right now. Well I was told to go to bed early because we would be up before light.

Someone shook me the next morning. For a young boy it's hard to wake up before light and sleep has a way of lowering the fishing desire. Stumbling about in that strange house, I managed to put on my old clothes. Mr. Jack had told me the night before to wear my oldest pants and shoes. He didn't say much. He never did. He seemed very efficient and it seemed only a matter of minutes before he said, "Ready?"

The rods and fishing stuff were loaded and off we went in a car I remember as being cluttered and worn out. We drove pretty much in silence with me still trying to wake up. Mr. Jack apparently knew the route well because it seemed the car almost knew the way. The one impression left with me was that there was very little traffic as if we were the only ones awake. Suddenly we turned off the road onto two ruts of a path and it was then I noticed how black it was. Peering through the car windows the only thing I could see were the headlights bouncing through the tall tan grass in the middle of the ruts, and the grass on either side in the deep blackness. Are we in the right place I wondered? I couldn't see three feet to the side. It seemed we drove a long time through the darkness down that jostling track. Mr. Jack didn't say anything, yet I had somehow felt a security with him and knew that he knew exactly where we were going. Finally a light off in the distance. We stopped at that light and Mr. Jack got out. He said nothing and I stayed in the car. I know he went into a small shack of a building but all I could see was the almost blinding light that pointed at the car and hid the shack in the blackness. In short order Mr. Jack came out into the light carrying two wooden boxes. He put them on the back seat floor and then off we went. It seemed to be only minutes later we came to a beach like area where there was no grass and the tires crunched loudly as we crept along. He stopped the car and we both got out. It was then I saw we were on a beach, and the water had no movement and was as black as coal. I looked up and saw what I can never forget. No moon and a sky blacker than anything you could imagine. And the stars were not stars; they were tens of thousands of jewels, and they sparkled and changed brightness. In my mind I touched them. In my memory I retain the blackness and brightness that permanently imprinted my ten year old mind.

It didn't take long for the first slivers of light to slyly creep along the horizon. A deep purple first and then broadening out to a gauzy fading lavender. In his straight forward manner Mr. Jack said we would wade into the water to fish. This I didn't expect but he was going to do it too so it had to be the right way to fish off the beach. He explained that I should tie that wooden box to my belt. It had a short piece of clothes line attached to it that I could tie to my belt. To my surprise the box held live shrimp. That was the bait he bought at the shack, and he then showed me how to put them on the hook. He then cautioned me to drag my feet when we walked and moved in the water. He explained that stingrays often lay on the bottom and if you stepped on one you were apt to get what could be a dangerous wound. Dragging your feet would kick them and they would then harmlessly swim off.

This was great. He said come on, and I followed him slightly behind and to one side. The water at first was uncomfortably cold but soon became no bother. We waded a good distance until the water was over my waist. Mr. Jack said quietly this looks good, lets try it here. Mr. Jack cast out very quickly while I, with the lively shrimp, was a fumble fingers trying to bait up. I finally managed a greenhorn short cast with my baited line when Mr. Jack uttered, "Got one." "Trout," he said, which surprised me, since I knew trout only lived in cold mountain streams. He reeled it in, held it up, and stated this to be the saltwater type of trout and explained we might just be in a good spot to get a few. His bobber jumped, jiggled, ran and then disappeared and he had another one. And another. My bobber was doing the same dances but my lack of know-how kept missing the hook up. I got one, finally. Well through that morning we nailed them. Certainly the best fishing for keeper size fish that I know I could never even hope to catch back home. These saltwater trout were beautiful and looked to me the way a fish was supposed to look. They all were about the same size, maybe 15 to 20 inches each. Mr. Jack out fished me probably three or four to one. We kept them all and put them in a box with ice for the ride back home.

I looked forward to the ride back home thinking it would allow me to see all that the darkness of last night had hidden. In short order I felt the bouncing on that pitted dirt road. But thats all, since sleep quickly overcame my curiosity. Next I knew, we were home. Mom smiled at my exuberance as she listened to the descriptions of my fishing adventure. Years later she confided her doubts we would catch anything. But the proof was on the platters of fresh pan fried trout passed generously all around on that long ago evening.

The long ride back to Chicago has never stayed with me. Instead only the memories of that hot day on the jetty and stinging catfish and the brilliant starry black, black night sky that prefaced a day of constant fishing luck. Chicago was my home but now tucked somewhere and indelibly written in my mind, was Texas. I never heard or saw anything of Mr. Jack again.

Well, of the several somewhat slanted opinions entering a ten year olds mind was the one I had about growing up. No way, I was firmly convinced, would I ever get old enough to be twenty. To me, that was impossible. As we all know, time itself it seems, has a way of changing things. Certainly I became twenty. I had passed the teen years with doubts and tribulations and now was expected to make decisions on matters never known before. Some were right and some were wrong. Looking back I think I could have done better. But I rationalized, "Who couldn't have?" The years passed and just like I remember the adults saying, the older you get, the faster the years go.

The first one to whom you seriously admit, that you are old, is yourself. You will admit that the age numbers are higher, but how can a person be old if he feels the same way he always had? Well, if anyone you encounter thinks you are old, then it's high time to admit it and take advantage of it. Certain perks come along with age. For me the most prominent perk was the realization that I had the wherewithal to move away from Chicago. I wasn't rich but there was enough for me to move, and hopefully somewhere warmer that had something other than carp to fish for and certainly not one of those rural areas that were corn and beans in the summer and frozen mud or dirty snow in the winter.

Where to go was the question. Everyone retiring I'd heard of headed to Florida. But I'd been to Florida several times, and found it full of tourists and most objectionable, bad traffic jams. Besides, in my mind, was the notion that going farther west would be better. Living all my life in a working city meant, I thought, to go south where the people worked but didn't rely on tourists. That fond, long-ago memory of Texas was still in my mind.

Well, a couple of trips down to Texas cemented the belief that I could like living there. Big city amenities were there, the ocean was there, and escape to rural unplowed countrysides and towns were just minutes away. And the housing costs are affordable. What's not to like? So, sixty years later, after being struck as a boy by the lure of this state, I'm there, and with three small boats and a pick-up truck.

Well 60 plus years of living in one place has a way of molding a person. I was no different so its probably true that a Yankee label laid on me was calling it right. But no matter, everybody has to be what they are. Certain things you don't get to pick. Moving one thousand miles south to Texas and just getting yourself situated in many respects means starting all over again. Although it seems trivial this Yankee did not have a clue as to where any of the things were that everyone takes for granted. Finding a satisfactory barber, or car repair shop, restaurant, or even a local saloon was strictly trial and error, and frequently an error. Or find a medical doctor. So far I've been to three different dentists that I culled from visits to six. This is not even talking about housing. First of course was an apartment (unsatisfactory). Then a house that I probably rushed into, probably due to the unhappy apartment. And not the least is the absence of old friends that are no longer around. Well I'm set for now and looking for places to go when I leave the house.

Anything outdoors is my pastime; fishing mostly. Just searching out the several fishing venues available is fun. The variety is hardly surpassed anywhere else in the Lower 48. Consider the options: First class largemouth bass fishing, or crappie, or white bass, or maybe you might try for one hundred pound catfish or gar. This is in tall forest enclosed lakes and rivers. Or the rock bound Amistad Reservoir in the semi-desert. And so forth. The saltwater offers more. Take your pick from bay fishing, surf fishing, jetty fishing, nearshore boat fishing or deep sea fishing. What do you catch in saltwater? It seems like everything and anything.

Although I've been to several bass fishing lakes with decent luck, I seem more consistently to gravitate to saltwater. Boat ramps into bays and ocean access are plentiful. I've been to several. Most times I end up at a ramp and bait and supplies place that's tucked along side a high bridge passing over the Intracoastal canal. It's one of those places that you mostly find by accident. No one told me about it and I can't remember how I ever found it. At first glance it looks worn out and possibly a place that someone moved out of. The parking lot is unpaved rutted gravel. The building seemed to be several add ons, with what looks like an apartment on the second floor. If ever a building would be second thought and slightly askew this would be it. But no matter what they say, first impressions are commonly misleading. This bait camp and ramp has all the fisherman needs. The lot is adequate, (except on a summer weekend when the overflow sees boat trailers parking two blocks distant), and the bait shop never runs out of bait, there is fishing gear available and iced bins full of beer. Several charter fishermen dock there and frequently bring in catches that to my eyes are sometimes astounding. Enough so that usually there are men cleaning the catch for a nominal sum. The ramps are wide, not steep, and set your boat alongside the Intracoastal maybe five minutes from the Gulf. The docks are lengthy and don't shake when bumped. Forget appearances, this place does the job, and I can think of no way to improve it. Lastly the help are as nice as you might want. And where else will you find workers who stay and kibitz and socialize when done with their shift?

Last week I went out about two, three miles into the Gulf in water about 35 feet deep. The fishing is simple. Put a Spanish sardine on an ought-six circle hook, cast it over, let her drift, and kick back to enjoy the water and sky. Usually the drift won't last long before the rod bends almost double. Be quick, grab the rod, heave back and then hold on while line starts running off the reel. Most times you expect the fish to be a big red or three foot shark. But you never know. I've seen sharks so big that I don't want them in my boat. As it turns out this day was special. The next fish I hooked almost yanked the rod out of the holder. The drag was tight but this one stripped out line almost as if the reel was broken. When he didn't stop running I worried he could run the spool empty. Then he stopped about 300 feet out. I could tell he was close to the surface and then when he stopped, I thought he must be tired. This was my chance to gain back some line and I started to pump the rod and reel in. That lasted about twenty seconds when the ocean literally exploded out there and the line went slack. He's coming back to the boat was my first thought, and I started to reel furiously. When the leader came in sight I saw only that I reeled in a bent hook. What had I hooked and lost? That would bother me but with the day still being young I put on a new hook, baited up and started another drift.

In very short order, maybe five or ten minutes, I got another vicious hit. This one also showed enormous strength. First it veered to my left taking about 100 feet of line and then streaked right back with the line cutting the water five feet out running alongside the boat. And then not more than 20 feet out a twisting, writhing, must be 80 pound shimmering silver fish jumped 15 feet into the air. That spectacle, I'm sure, could wake the dead. It left me amazed. I knew tarpon were in these waters but hooking into them left me almost shocked. Well I hooked them, but didn't put them in the boat. Nevertheless the memory will remain vivid. The rest of the day was typical and one shark was put in the boat.

This week the weather is promising and the Gulf predicted to be flat. I'll go out there again and with full confidence that I won't come back empty handed.