But as Dr. Rick Ortiz pressed the throttle of his Hewes skiff forward and the big engine came to life I thought about the contrast in activities you can find on South Padre. Sure there's the great night life, fine dining and social life, but for a fishermen the real deal is on the flats that stretch for miles upon miles along the Laguna Madre shoreline.
Indeed the real party is not on the island, but rather the flats where right about now the topwater action for reds and specks is about as good as you'll find anywhere on earth.
Ortiz, of San Antonio, Texas rarely launches his flats boat anyplace but into the Laguna.
"There's no reason to go any place else, especially when the fall topwater fishing is this good," he explains, as the jack plate elevates his engine and the Hewes skitters across water that's less than 12 inches deep. "I can take a handful of topwater plugs and have a field day working the isolated pockets of flat water around the islands. And the flats off the Intracoastal Waterway will load up with fish as the cold fronts begin moving through. You'll see what I mean."
True to his word, Ortiz guided his boat to the backside of a distant island and shut her down. The water was as slick as O.J.'s lawyers, with the exception of a major disturbance just off a gut leading into the island.
"That's what we're after,'' pointed Ortiz. "Those are reds and they're hungry."
Ortiz, Carlos Fernandez and I had a big time catching those fish. It seemed that each red was craving a black and gold jointed Bomber Long A.
You can't believe how exciting topwater fishing on the Laguna flats gets during fall and early winter. The reds run in big schools. And big trout can be found in singles and pairs roaming the flats looking to dine on fat mullet.
"That's the key to fishing this water in the fall,'' says Ortiz. "Mullet. As the water begins to cool the shrimp, crabs and baitfish will become more scarce. That's when reds and specks will be feeding heavily on mullet, which are prone to swim on the surface, which is why topwater plugs work so well."
When fishing the flats you will find that reds and specks don't usually run together. Reds will more often than not be feeding along some sort of structure like an island shoreline or strip of floating grass. And reds, unlike specks, tend to roam well away from the protection of deep water.
Conversely, specks prefer the comfort of feeding near a channel or gut that will lead to quick deep water access.
One of the best days of trout fishing I've ever had was about 22 miles north of South Padre in about the middle of November. Three of us were drifting a flat adjacent to a channel on the Laguna. The flat was maybe 2 feet deep. The channel was at least 18 feet deep. Fishing had been slow all morning. But as the tide turned and began rising mullet filtered onto the flat in numbers. The surface was alive with skittish finger mullet. And the trout weren't far behind.
The slurp of a big trout eating a mullet off the surface is unforgettable. And as the tide came in those slurps began to get more numerous.
We were all throwing topwater plugs. But the one that seemed to be most deadly was a silver/white jumping minnow, with a splash of orange fingernail polish painted under it's nose. The action of this lure makes it look just like a frightened mullet, which is probably why both trout and reds key on topwaters. But the big factor is determining what type of action turns them on from one day to the next. It can be anything from a prop slush, a pop, chug or slithering stick bait.
"After wearing out a number of topwater plugs I've found that each day these fish can completely turn off of one plug and onto another,'' says Ortiz. "The depth of water you'll be fishing can determine what type of plug will probably work best. For example, if I'm working a foot of water for reds that I can see, a small topwater like a 1/4 ounce jointed Rebel Minnow will be best. Hit the water with a big plug and you'll more than likely spook the fish. Remember to use a subtle approach in 18 inches or shallower. From about 2 to 4 feet get more aggressive with something like a Jumping Minnow."
Ortiz says that if he had to pick an all-around bait for just about any situation on the Laguna flats it would be a broken-back minnow of some sort. And his favorite colors are black/gold during low light periods, and chrome/white when fishing under a high sun.
After years of fishing these flats I rely heavily on a chrome/black, chrome/blue or gold/orange Ripplin' Red Fin. This plug is 4-1/2 inches long and is absolute dynamite on both specks and reds. It's a floater/diver that has rippled sides. When jerked it'll dive and wiggle like crazy, then float to the surface. Most of the time reds will hit it going down. Specks will blast it floating to the surface.
But lately I, along with plenty of other Laguna anglers have been fishing a Corky. Probably the hottest bait on the Texas Gulf Coast right now is a Corky. Yes, this is the one that fooled the new state record 13-pound, 11 ounce speck.
Soft plastic Corkys are made to float, sink and suspend. I particularly like the floating model, that's about 3 inches long. This plug can be cast a country mile which is an advantage when you're polling along in a boat and the fish are spooky. But it's the action of this lure that seems to drive Laguna specks crazy. The lure darts and dives then floats to the surface. An erratic retrieve seems to work best.
One thing you'll find out quickly while fishing the lower Laguna is that floating aquatic weeds will be a problem. All of the lures I've detailed come with gleaming treble hooks that specialize in snagging anything that comes near. Quite often the best trout and reds you'll catch will be in and around grass. One way to beat that is to rig your lures with weedless hooks. Another is to grin and bear the frustration of snagging grass. The option I prefer is to tie on a soft plastic Zara Puppy. You can rig them weedless so that the plug can be worked right through thick grass.
Ortiz and Fernandez use the weedless Puppy a good bit and have pretty good luck with them.
One of the top guides on the lower Laguna is Capt. Eric Glass (210-761-2878). Some of his most productive water during fall is just south of the Queen Isabella Causeway. The area around Mexiquita Flats and on into South Bay can be very good, especially for big reds and specks.
"Those areas are very shallow but load up with big fish from about October through December,'' says Glass. "The best specks will be feeding on the oyster beds. Better reds will be tailing along the shorelines. Be very careful while running the South Bay area. The oyster shell reefs can really tear up the bottom of a boat. And they're not too good for your lower unit, either."
Some of the best deep water fishing with adjacent flats can be found north of the neon lights on the island. What most boaters do is motor out to the Intracoastal Waterway and head north. You can do this with just about any size boat. Fish the flats located off the waterway. You can drift them, or anchor and wade. Most of the time wading is your best option.
"That's a very good game plan, because big trout and reds will move up and down the deep channel and move out onto the flats," says Glass, who runs the Laguna in his Hewes skiff. "What you'll find along the channel are dozens of spoil bank islands. That's what specks and reds will feed around from October through December. As water temperatures cool they won't stray too far from that deep water access."
October and November can be prime months to pole the flats that you'll find along Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. The Intracoastal Waterway comes very close to extended points of the refuge. That's where you want to fish.
If you're unfamiliar with the lower Laguna I'd suggest hiring a guide for the day. Then you can take off on your own.
Since South Padre is well south of just about everything, you might consider flying into Harlingen or Brownsville. You can rent a car and drive to the island, about a 40 minute run. Or if you're set up with Glass, he'll pick you up and take you to one of the high rise hotels over looking the water and some fantastic topwater fishing for specks and reds.