Fly Fishing the Texas Coast
Centuries before composite graphite fly rods, disc-drag reels, and weight-forward fly lines were invented, Karankawa Indians were fishing the bays, beaches, and estuaries of Texas. The Karankawa, who were called "Water Walkers" by early explorers and settlers in the area, lived in a harsh environment and were known to smear alligator fat on their bodies to ward off biting insects. Perhaps because of this, they were generally considered by whites to be a foul-smelling and ill-tempered people. Catch-and-release was not practiced by the Karankawa either with gamefish or with Spanish explorers.
Whereas the Karankawa presence dates back to the fourteenth century, the first European known to have set foot on a Texas shoreline was Spanish explorer Alonso Alvarez de Pineda, who on an expedition looking for a shortcut to India, landed his four ships on the southern tip of Texas in 1519. The first detailed description of the land now called Texas was penned by Alvar N-ez Cabeza de Vaca, treasurer on another Spanish expedition, in 1528. Shipwrecked near Galveston Island, de Vaca survived to chronicle his eight years among the Indians as a captive, trader, and medicine man.
In 1553 a fleet of ships departing for Spain from Veracruz, Mexico, laden with Aztec treasure and with a thousand conquistadors and their families, was caught in a hurricane and cast up on the shores of Padre Island. Thirteen ships made a safe landing at Devil's Elbow, a stretch of beach that is now a part of the Padre Island National Seashore. On a desperate overland trek southward to Mexico, the survivors were set upon by Karankawa. Only two lived long enough to tell the story.
Storm victims were the most frequent visitors to the Texas coast in the ensuing years, until French explorer Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, discoverer of the Mississippi, arrived at Matagorda Bay in 1685. La Salle's expedition built a fort and named the nearby bay La Vaca. The settlement suffered hardships, and La Salle would later be murdered by one of his men near the Brazos River. When Spanish explorer Alonso de Leon arrived at the fort in 1689, he found only the remains of a few French colonists, who had fallen victim to the Karankawa.
De Leon's foray launched a period of competition between Spanish, French, and American colonists to settle Texas. In 1804 a Spanish mariner priest named Padre Nicolas Balli and his nephew, Juan Jose Balli, established a ranch about 25 miles north of what is now Port Isabel and South Padre Island. Padre Island, Texas's southernmost barrier island, is named for the pioneer priest. Meanwhile, from the early 1800s until about 1821, pirate Louis Aury and privateer Jean Lafitte traded slaves out of the port of Galveston and raided Spanish shipping from their Matagorda Island hideaways. Colonists from the United States began coming to Texas in the early nineteenth century and by 1836 they united in war to win independence from Mexico.
Vast stretches of the Texas coast, including the 69.5-mile Padre Island National Seashore, remain much as they were when the Karankawa, Spaniards, French, and pirates explored these shores. Several islands, including Matagorda, San Jose, and Padre Island National Seashore are virtually uninhabited. Some are privately owned and inaccessible, whereas others are managed as state parks and wildlife refuges and share the shoreline with high-rise resort complexes.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication