This 31-inch red fish lived to see another day. We tossed it back because it was too big. Chris LeBlanc photo
When I was 7, I caught a tiny fish at Inks Lake State Park using the corner of a slice of American cheese as a bait. My dad took the fish off the hook, and we tossed it back instead of frying it up for dinner.
Until last weekend, when I was invited to South Padre Island for National Cook Your Catch Day (a designation cleverly invented a few years ago by island promotors), that marked the highlight of my fishing career.
At dawn Saturday, my husband Chris and I headed to Parrot Eyes Watersports and climbed aboard a bay boat helmed by Capt. Hector Torres Jr., a guide who specializes in red fish, trout, snook and flounder. (It was just the three of us, and we wore masks when we were within 6 feet of each other, to lessen the risk of spreading Covid.)
Chris used to fish as a kid, and I like to tease him by telling him it’s all luck. Torres, though, knew we’d likely find fish in the South Bay. We buzzed underneath the causeway, then followed a line of markers until we reached a deserted stretch of water. The tide was coming in, and Torres used a pole to push us into water less than a foot deep. Then he did the messy work for us, baiting our hooks with chunks of fresh mullet.
I had some trouble casting at first, even snagging the seat of Chris’ pants with an errant toss. But with our guide’s help, I settled into a groove, and the red fish started biting.
Captain Hector Torres Jr. took us to the South Bay off of South Padre Island to fish. Pam LeBlanc photo
Early on, we reeled in fish that measured 16 to 18 inches. Under Texas Parks and Wildlife regulations, that’s too small. You can only keep red fish that measure between 20 and 28 inches, so we had to toss the little ones back.
Torres pushed us into even shallower water, and that’s when the big boys started biting. We reached our bag limit of three red fish per person by 9:15 a.m., and even threw back a 31-inch whopper.
But as any fisherman knows, it’s not just about catching fish.
Fog and overcast skies made it seem like we were drifting in a cloud. A flock of ducks flapped past and settled on the surface of the bay, and we watched a seagull tried to snatch a fish from a pelican. We even saw the towering SpaceX buildings, located in Boca Chica, in the distance.
Hector Torrres Jr. cleans our catch at Parrot Eyes Watersports at South Padre Island. Pam LeBlanc photo
Fishing guides Eddie Curry, left, and Hector Torres Jr., right, clean and filet fish. Pam LeBlanc photo
Torres, who was born and raised in nearby Laguna Vista, has been guiding for 27 years and says spending so much time on the water when he was young kept him out of trouble. Today, watching other people catch fish makes him happy.
“It’s kind of like having your own ranch,” he says of the wide open expanse out here on the Laguna Madre.
After four hours of fishing, we turned back toward the marina, where Torres unloaded our catch. We watched appreciatively as he cleaned and fileted the fish for us, tossing scraps to the pelicans, then packed it for the next phase of our adventure – dinner.
At the Painted Marlin Grille, which offers al fresco dining with a view of the bay, the chef will fry, grill or blacken your catch for $10 per person. The cost includes a side and hush puppies, which were the best I’ve ever eaten. (And don’t miss the mango key lime pie.)
And one final note: I’m an animal lover, and a believer in using what you catch. It’s important to know where our food comes from, and important to honor the creatures that wind up on our dinner plates.
I did that on National Cook Your Catch Day, and the next day, too, when Chris whipped up more of our catch Veracruz style, with tomatoes, onions and green olives.
The chef at the Painted Marlin Grill cooked our catch. Pam LeBlanc photo
If you go: A five-hour, private fishing charter booked through Parrot Eyes Watersports costs $450 for two people. For more information go to www.parroteyesspi.com. The Painted Marlin Grille (and other restaurants on South Padre Island) will cook your catch for $10 per person.