Ice Plant Perspectives and Other Signal Events
As told by J.D. Whitley
Just crossing the Rio Grande into 1960s Mexico was an adventure, sure enough. But when you pushed south to Seventh or Eighth Pass, dreams of everything a rod and reel were supposed to be about became reality. Sealife of all sorts was plentiful; plentiful to the point of never imagining an end to what lay before you. The only limitations of harvest down there were how many fish you wanted to skin and how much ice survived for the trip home. No GPS, fancy gear, or internet reports needed; the fish were just there, just as they were supposed to be, just as they had been for eons along the entire Gulf coast. Legends were made by many who came before us, but most are long-forgotten or simply dismissed by more recent generations as rocking chair embellishments. However, most stories are mostly real…and so is today’s obvious denial of what once was.
Back then, after crossing the border, it didn’t take long for electrified civilization to fade into the horizon after you left the old Salt Mine Road. The cutoff was about ten miles south, named for the salts evaporated from the flooded fields coursing along its way. It took you all the way to Second Pass and avoided the “experience” of the second Federale checkpoint. The beachfront gradually became more primitive and tidal currents laced through drifts of tire-swallowing sand. Other adventurous sports made that untamed journey and many ingenious ways were devised to negotiate the ever-changing hazards. We pulled a little airboat and used it to push our trucks through low-tide crossings and high-tide dunes. Others rigged up pontoons and even makeshift propellers on their vehicles, while some floated their boats across the guts on trailers with a three-wheeler strapped in the bow, using that to tow down the remaining seventy miles.
All of the cuts could be good, but prime were the Third and Eighth breaches from the Gulf to the Laguna. There was a small oasis at the Third, the famous Hotel Del Mar, which housed many a salty character over the years. While wading the mouths of these passes, struggling for footing on ever-shifting sandbars, you watched in awe as fish suspended in lifting rows of shorebound waves. At times the swells were filled with shadowy color as entire schools of fish rode the incoming tide. Redfish mostly traveled tightly together and would cloud the Coke-bottle-green water with a copperas hue. There were also silver and black missiles cutting through the breakers – big surf trout hellbent to crush baitfish rafting in the shallows.
We mostly just threw spoons or soft plastics and that was all you needed. A Tony Accetta Number 5H spoon reached beyond the whitewater and was often met with violence as soon as you engaged the reel. The first time I took my brother down there he did what most would do – a big no-no in that setting. Freddy walked out on his own right at dark into one of those classic “every cast” deals. With as much frenzy as the fish, he strung everything he landed until he could string no more, then dragged them back into camp expecting his full glory due.
“What have you done and what are you going to do now? You just don’t do that down here! We don’t clean fish after dark...we still have several days to go and you just wasted a bunch of our ice.”
In other words, back then you planned to manage your catch, not just catch whatever you could manage.
We mainly just worked the passes as you didn’t need to go anywhere else, but the airboat took us deep into the rich waters of the Laguna. Ours was a little step-hull made of plywood. It only had a half cage on it because you had to start the motor by pulling on the prop by hand…but when you got her up on that front step she would scoot. We ran down the surf too, timing the ebb and flow of waves and zig-zagging sandbars all the way to La Pesca, but exploring the deserted back bay areas was always compelling.
During high water we’d cut over miles of oyster reefs about a foot deep to reach some of the better tidal guts. Reds on top of the shell could be so thick that you had no choice but to run on their backs as they had nowhere to go. If you shut down they scattered, but they’d be right back surrounding the boat again within minutes. They didn’t seem to know what it was. On the edges of those guts we could sight-cast snook up to twenty-five pounds. You had to be quick and accurate though, if you missed that snook by a foot a trout would get it and we had all of those we needed in the surf.
Flounder were there, too. Lots of them. A local native who lived in a driftwood lean-to with his family put us on them at Third Pass. Before every trip we collected clothes, toys and anything else we could pack to give away. They watched over us. One evening he strolled into our fire asking if we wanted any flounder. He was soon back with an incredible string, and I say string because it literally was one, just string. We followed him back out, and armed with an old knife wrapped to a stick with electrical tape, he simply blind probed the sand under the illumination of an endless Milky Way. The spear bucked almost constantly. We later brought lanterns and shamelessly filled tow sacks. You just stood still waiting for the sand to clear, then picked out the biggest one to settle at your feet. Other predators scared the heck out of you too, mostly big snook running bait up on the shelf. The night was loud with sounds and smells of nature’s brutality.
Some trips we carried only redfish fillets home, other times only snook or trout, but flounder was the other white meat breaking cooler hinges. Those great hauls were always expected, but things changed rapidly after the beginning of the “ice age.” The Mexican government started building ice plants near the coast, enabling commercial fishing to meet the demands of an eager market. It was a signal event that changed the entire fishery. What was would never be again.
Years later we flew over the area in private planes and recoiled over the endless grids of fish traps. They were very efficient and huge schools of fish were herded into them by small boats. Much of whatever came into the passes didn’t make it back out through curtains of gill net. Fishing was quick to slow down. After that, and after a boy got killed going through the airboat prop…well, we just quit going down there.
Fishing, as we know it today, is still quite awesome and actually even improving in some aspects. But compared to yesteryear stories, such as the above shared by Capt. J.D. Whitley, what we experienced in recent years pales in comparison to fairly recent decades.
What was happening down in Mexico then was also happening here shortly before. Takes of a hundred fish per angler wasn’t even newsworthy. Tarpon and sharks hung rotting on picture racks, bay turtles churned through local canning factories, and market tables often heaped with fresh pike (snook). Giant sawfish roamed the bay floor and monstrous jewfish guarded nearshore structure.
Unfortunately, in a mere blip of geological time, catches became limited by much more than just ice. Today we might be happy to burn twenty gallons of fuel hoping to find three reds and three (still five in some places) trout. In perspective, we have industriously created our own version of Mexican ice plants, which just as then, rapidly helped change what always had been.
Myriads of nicely-lighted ramps launching fifteen-year boat loans, full-color satellite imagery down to pothole level guiding the unseasoned, glossy billboards highlighting newly-filled-in canal lots over old wetlands, egos betraying fish on the internet and money tournaments vying for what’s left in a booming recreational industry have indeed carved some bleeding wounds. In short, all of this new “technological ice” has created an insatiable firestorm of competition for the resource. And we now have to own what we have done.
In perspective, those old salts never saw those ice plants and their impact coming. We really didn’t see our future coming either, but in today’s information age, we don’t need a crystal ball to see ahead aplenty. If we’ll just look.
We have also seen other ‘signal events’ which have altered our fishing future, but I’ll leave that up to the reader to consider what has changed in recent years.
Let’s remember though, just as there were men such as J.D. Whitley (narrator of the story above) who blazed those adventures before us, there will always be new recruits eager to blaze whatever lies ahead, or whatever we have left to blaze. Hopefully they can bring new ideas with some enhanced appreciation. There’s nothing like the History Channel to peer into the future, so let’s try to go there with eyes a bit wider.
If we are going to live and die with faults, let them be faults of passion. Fishing qualifies, and so does being passionate about the stories our kids should be able to tell. Let’s get out there and punish that new rod and reel, but don’t waste that “ice” as we still have several days to go. Let’s try to make it last. See you there…