Trails to Texas Tranquility: Kayak Fishing shines at the Lighthouse Lake Trails.
By Robert Sloan
If you’re an avid kayak angler, you probably like to fish off the beaten path, where powerboaters are less likely to go. You expect to find outstanding fishing in such places, a just reward for your physical effort. Texas has just the place for you—the Lighthouse Lake Trails, located in Redfish Bay near Port Aransas on the middle Texas coast. It’s a kayak fishing dream world encompassing nearly 20 navigable miles of water averaging 8 inches to 2 feet deep.
Angler navigates mangrove-lined cuts separating open stretches of flats.
The popularity of these trails has exploded since they were first put together in 2000. That’s when Larry McKinney, a senior director for aquatic resources with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, was in the area working on a seagrass project. He went in and got lost. When he got out a light went on in his head.
“I thought it would be the perfect place for paddlers,” says McKinney. “It has easy access. It is aesthetically pleasing. And you can get in here and fish by yourself.” McKinney, along with Bill Harvey, policy coordinator with the resource protection division of TPWD, took on the project and the rest is history.
“We flew over the area and saw how interconnected the open flats were via the islands and channels,” says McKinney. “The success of the trails has exceeded expectations. It’s a remote area, and that’s what angling kayakers like.”
There are four Lighthouse Lake Trails, all of which are easy to navigate with kayaks. The two longest trails are the 6.8-mile Redfish Loop and the 6.7-mile South Bay Loop, followed by the 5-mile Cutter’s Loop, and the 1.25-mile Electric Lake Loop. That’s an incredible 20 miles of flats and mangrove “alleys” that you can easily get lost on. So how do you keep track of where you are and where you might be heading? That’s done with GPS coordinates. All those coordinates are listed on a map of the trails. And while you are paddling those trails you will see small marker signs along the way. Each of those signs has a number. You locate that number on your GPS waterproof map of the Trails, which is available at many Texas fly shops and outdoor gear retailers, and can be ordered and even downloaded from the Internet (see sidebar). The numbers on the map will be listed with corresponding GPS coordinates. Plug those into your hand-held GPS, along with the numbers of your desired destination, and you are good to go.
Lefty Ray Chapa is one of a handful of local guides and outfitters who know the Trails intimately. The first time I met and fished with Chapa was at the Crab Man Marina, located about midway between Aransas Pass and the ferry crossing on Highway 361. It was dawn when I drove up and saw him about to unload a single kayak from his vehicle. “You won’t be needing a kayak,” he explained. “This is a tandem. I’ll get in the back and do the paddling. Your job is to catch the fish.”
Talk about strange. I had never heard of a kayak fishing guide, much less one that worked out of a tandem rig. But, hey, if somebody wants to paddle me around the flats while I fly fish for reds and trout, what the heck. Actually Chapa offers the options of using your kayak or his.
“The fishing here is outstanding for reds and trout, and it’s not unusual to find tailing reds on one flat and seatrout on another. We’ll fish a few massive flats connected by guts and channels cutting through islands of mangroves. It’s some of the most beautiful water you’ll ever fish along the entire Gulf Coast, let alone Texas,” said Chapa.
We put in at Shrimp Boat Channel and paddled 25 yards to the flats. Once you make it across this deepwater channel you can literally disappear for hours, or days, if that’s your aim. On weekdays, chances are good you won’t see more than a few boats, if any. That’s especially true the farther in you go.
“As a guide I get to spend a lot of time out on the Trails,” says Chapa. “The cord grassflats and mangrove alleys go on forever. And the water is aquarium clear on just about any given day. You have the option of fishing from a kayak or getting out and wading.”
Wading is usually the best option on the trails. You’ll find that much of the bottom is firm sand on the open flats. The bottom around the mouths of mangrove canals is not so wader-friendly. That’s where you can drift fish from a kayak.
Though the Trails can be fished year-round, anglers naturally tend to fish when the comfort level is ideal. “My season runs from April 1 though October 31, mainly due to winter’s inclement weather,” said Chapa. “It’s not that you can’t find and catch fish. You have to consider that winter cold fronts and accompanying winds can make the trek a lot tougher, as well as casting and maneuvering a kayak in general. And our most extreme cold snaps chill the shallows, which have a median depth of 15 inches or so, to the point that reds and trout hunker down in deeper holes, and sight fishing suffers.”
The trails spread out over 20 square miles of bay waters.
Dean Thomas, owner and operator of Slowride Guide Service and Kayak Rentals, claims that business has definitely exploded during the past year or so. Thomas and his wife took the plunge into the kayak business shortly after they discovered the Lighthouse Lake Trails.
“We guide a lot of fishermen out on the Trails,” says Thomas. “During the past couple of years I’ve noticed that about 90 percent of our customers are first-time kayakers. They have read about the trails, heard about kayaking and want to see what it’s all about. We do birding tours, and even have group kayaking trips under a full moon. We get lots of women and kids out here, too. But I get the most pleasure out of guiding fishermen to tailing reds. That’s how I relax.”
And talk about a sneak attack on spooky fish. You can definitely get the edge when you approach fish in a kayak. “You can get within casting range, and they never know you’re there,” says Thomas.
As far as tackle, lure and fly choices go, keep in mind that the water depth is basically two feet deep and shallower, except in the canals and cuts through the mangroves where four to six feet is common, depending on the tide height. On a strong falling tide the deep mangrove cuts provide sanctuary for a mix of trout and reds. At high tide the fish will be scattered out on the flats. With spin and plug tackle you’ll do best with 10- to 12-pound-test line connected to a 14- to 17-pound bite leader. Lure selection should include both soft plastics and hard plugs. Trout and reds here feed primarily on shrimp, mullet, assorted minnows and crabs.
When trout and reds are targeting shad and mullet, a topwater plug is tough to beat on these flats, where the cord grass isn’t too thick. A couple of your favorite walking plugs and small propbaits, such as the Tiny Torpedo, will do the trick.
My favorite fly in these waters is a Skitter Bug, a foam-bodied fly that I tie on a No. 4 Mustad 34011 hook. In a pinch, any small popper, no longer than 2 1⁄ 2 inches or so, would work. Deerhair sliders can be deadly, and Clouser Minnows are effective both in the shallows and in the deeper cuts. For this reason, be sure to carry Clousers of different sink rates. Bendbacks are a top pick in the heaviest grass because they are virtually weedless. Best colors are white-and-chartreuse and pink. Weedless deerhair poppers are good in yellow-and-white, chartreuse-and-white or all white. Tie them on No. 2 or 4 hooks.
Because tailing reds are my focus, I don’t put in on the Lighthouse Lake Trails without a fly rod or two. Anything from a 6- to an 8-weight with a floating line will cover the bases here. When I find reds, I ease out of my kayak, slip the anchor over and stalk the tailers. Quite often trout will be mixed in with reds on the deeper flats. But for the most part I look for pods of baitfish when I’m after trout. Nervous mullet are a sure sign. You can often see the biggest trout holding in the light-colored potholes.
Having kayaked much of the Texas coast I can say that the Lighthouse Lake Trails has some of the best fishing you’ll find anywhere on the Gulf Coast. And I think that once you see what I’m talking about, you’ll be back for more.
Choosing and Rigging a Fishing K
A sit-on-top kayak is superior to a sit-inside for fishing—you can paddle in comfort, cast better and bail out easier when it comes time to wade the flats. They typically have plenty of below-deck and topside storage. This is the most common type of kayak on the Trails. I have a Wilderness Systems Tarpon, which is available in 12- and 14-foot models, and there are numerous makes that are similar.
Above all, choose a kayak that is lightweight, has an open cockpit on the stern and waterproof, below-deck storage on the bow. Mine has a flip-up backrest that is the cat’s meow. There are no straps to adjust. You get in, flip the seat up and you are ready to paddle. That’s important when you are making lots of stops to fish, as you do at the Trails. So is a butt pad and back rest. Never set out on the trails without some sort of back support. I have found that many sit-on-top kayaks don’t come with enough back support. In that situation you’ll need to outfit your kayak with a padded seat and backrest. They can usually be purchased wherever kayaks are sold. They are comfortable, but come with straps that need to be adjusted.
Rigging a kayak for fishing the flats is simple. I’ve got a rodholder mounted on the console for quick access. You’ll need a lightweight anchor with about four feet of line. And on the back you’ll need a dry bag stuffed with snacks, a handheld GPS and area map, along with personal items. Many kayakers fit a plastic milk crate in the back storage area. Rod holders can be mounted on the crate. Your tackle can be stowed inside the crate.
I normally strap a soft-sided cooler to the bow. Your paddle should have a leash. Lose your paddle in the current and you are dead in the water. In fact, it’s always a good idea to carry an extra paddle below the deck. Also, don’t forget your PFD and a whistle. Safety is a key factor, especially when you are crossing the deep channels that lead into the Lighthouse Lake Trails.
Trails to Texas Tranquility: Kayak Fishing shines at the Lighthouse Lake Trails.