How to drink your way through the fishing day: Big Thicket National Preserve

Your guide to food, drink, and local culture in East Texas
lone star beer
Photo: Chris Hunt

It’s not too late as you listen to the endless parade of locals who’ve come out on a Saturday night in Beaumont, Texas, to sing karaoke at the LogOn Cafe and Pub, but 5 o’clock comes early.

One drink, you tell yourself, as you sit at the kitschy, but oddly cool bartop, where old computer motherboards and microchips rest in eternal display beneath an inch-thick coating of poured epoxy. Just one Tito’s and soda with a squeeze of lime, one more righteous sing-along and maybe a laugh or two shared with new friends who introduced you to this Beaumont drinking institution, and then you gotta go. It’s acceptable to be fashionably late to dinner. It’s perfectly all right to show up a bit tardy for cocktails. But late for fishing? Not a chance. Not in Texas. Not when your fishing partner is meeting you before sunup after loading his truck with a canoe and a kayak and driving 100 miles to show you the secrets of the Big Thicket’s spotted bass and panfish. So after a curvy 30-something belts out an appreciative rendition of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” you make your apologies and head to the door.

Tomorrow’s going to be hot. And humid. Every day in August in East Texas is hot and humid. It is what it is. You’re going to need your beauty rest, because you’re about to embark down a primitive paddling trail and cast poppers and Gurglers under a canopy of cypress and beech trees, putting flies so close to root balls and snags that you’re sure to lose a few.

And you were right. When the alarm sounds at 5, you quietly say “thank you” to the little angel on your right shoulder who whispered into your ear the night before, just as things were starting to get a little salty. “Go to bed,” the angel whispered. “You’ll hate life in the morning if you don’t.”

It’s still dark outside, and it rained overnight. Through the window of the chain hotel, you can see the puddles in the crowded parking lot reflecting the lights from above. A thick mist hangs in the hair. A quick shower and a double check of the fishing gear and you’re out the door. The rental car drips from what’s left of the rain, but it’d be wet anyway — the air is thick, and it feels like it takes a few gulps to get a full lungful.

LogOn Pub and Cafe
LogOn Pub and Cafe (photo: Chris Hunt).

And off you go, north toward the little town of Silsbee, Texas. Gas station coffee and a sleeve of cheap donuts in your belly, you pull into the little put-in under a highway bridge over the creek. It’s still dark, and you’re 10 minutes early, which is a good thing. You rearrange your gear, and make sure the 12-pack of Lone Star and two liters of water is getting cold under the ice in the borrowed Styrofoam cooler. Check. On both counts. You’ll need them both after the morning mist burns off and Texas does what Texas does. You can feel it. It’s gonna be hot.

When headlights bounce down the road and your fishing buddy for the day shows up, you’re all set. Gear gets loaded, boats are slipped into the murky water, and off you go to chase the Big Thicket’s little-known and stunning spotted bass and panfish.

By the time you’re at the take-out, it’s beyond hot. You’ve dunked your hat a dozen times, no longer creeped out by the dark water as it dribbles wonderfully down your head and soaks your quick-dry fishing shirt to the shoulders. You’ve done a number on the beer. The water’s gone. And you’re starving.

pour brothers texas
Pour Brothers (photo: Chris Hunt)

As a “thank you” for hauling boats east down I-10 just so you can pull a few bass around by their faces, you take your new fishing buddy into Silsbee to find something open on a Sunday. Tough doin’s in the Bible Belt, but you find a hole-in-the-wall Tex-Mex joint that serves burritos as big as your head, along with a bottomless diet Coke. It’s not fancy, but Munchies Olé checks the box.

Lunch over, you say your farewells and point the rental car south to Beaumont. Tomorrow, it’s back to the Big Thicket, but this time to wander along one of the preserve’s hiking trails — this one follows a meandering little stream that’s sure to be teeming with cottonmouths, copperheads and God knows what else … But first, you need to find a good beer.

And you’re in luck. Pour Brothers Brewery, one of the few remaining hangouts in downtown Beaumont (the city is working on an ambitious renewal project, but, during a viral pandemic, it’s slow-going), is open until 5 on Sundays, and you’re there by 3:30.

This new-ish joint founded by three dads who met at their daughters’ dance classes employs a “pay by the ounce” method — it’s a genius system that lets you try a few brews without committing to a full pour until you’re absolutely sure. First, you taste the brewery’s 2-Alarm Pilsner, a light, bright beer that kicks what’s left of the summer-day sluggishness out of your fishing-battered body. Developed in conjunction with the local firefighters union, this brew is a crowd pleaser. It goes down easy, isn’t overly ambitious on the hops and it’s got a subtle kick.

pour brothers texas
Pour Brothers (photo: Chris Hunt)

Next, you pour a taste of the brewery’s On the Level IPA — and you may not be a big IPA fan (this is the drink that some brewers over-hop), but this one’s not too shabby. Nice and crisp but not bitter, it sports a nice punch at 6.5 percent alcohol but without being too heavy.

After giving some literal lip service to the CardinAle (an homage to the local Lamar University), a nice, full-bodied red ale, and taking a taste of the brewery’s own house-brewed seltzer, you settle for what you knew you’d like the most in the first place — back to the 2-Alarm pils. It’s just so good.

Refreshed, it’s time to sleuth out a dinner joint, and it doesn’t take long. The Rockin’ Crab and a basket of cornmeal-battered fried oysters awaits. Famous for its crab, shrimp and crawfish low-country boils, this Beaumont staple also sports a great bar with a decent seafood menu that goes beyond the butter-up-to-your-elbows boils. You wash the oysters down with a double-tall Tito’s and soda (with lime, of course), and it’s back to the hotel for another early night. The next day, you’re on your own in one of the last wild places left in East Texas, and you need to keep your wits about you.

rockin crab oysters
Cornmeal battered fried oysters at The Rockin' Crab (photo: Chris Hunt)

As you meander along the Turkey Creek Trail, cherry-picking the deepest, murkiest pools and putting little Gurglers up next to cover, you’re drenched in sweat. You got here early, not to beat the crowds (yours is the only car in the small lot at the trailhead), but to beat the heat. Stunning little bass and even more beautiful long-ear sunfish chase the foam fly across the surface of the beech and oak-shrouded creek, and you might fish all day if the humidity hadn’t started sapping you of your life force by 11 o’clock or so.

Finally, it’s just too much. The thought of full-force, rental-car AC blowing right into your face is just too appealing to ignore, and you reel up, wander back to the car and head back to town. Time for a few beers. And lunch.

Instead of scoping out more of Beaumont, you head south to the little town of Port Neches. The night before, over dinner, a fellow patron recommended a great little brewery, and on a sticky Monday afternoon with nothing else to do, it feels like the perfect diversion. You wander into the Neches Brewing Co., and right away, you know you’re in the right place.

neches brewing co
Neches Brewing Co. (photo: Chris Hunt)

First, it’s a Monday. You don’t expect much to be happening, but when the conversation with the brewery staff turns to fishing, you find yourself taking notes while you sip the Walt Wilkins Pilsner — a light German brew that hits the spot after a day spent sweating under the Big Thicket canopy. The beer is named for the Texas singer-songwriter, something of a folk hero along the oft-battered Texas Gulf Coast (Neches was brutalized by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, but it’s sure cleaned up nicely).

But these guys are salty — before leaving, and after three more beers, not including tastes of the establishment’s Buenas Neches cream ale and it’s Midcountry Marzen, you’ve jotted down a few places to chase speckled trout inshore, and you have the number of a local fly fisher who’d love to take you out. With my fishing done for this trip, this is the info you sock away until next time.

By now, you’re hungry (and the brewery doesn’t do food), so you thank the folks at the bar and head over to the Neches River Wheelhouse, a popular local hangout right on the Neches River. Storm clouds are blooming off to the west, so you sit at the bar, order a Shiner and glance at the menu. And there it is. Shrimp and grits, a Cajun country fave — and it doesn’t disappoint. Served over gouda polenta grit cakes, fat Gulf shrimp are smothered in a garlic, lemon and butter sauce that’s so damn good you might slap your own mama if she was sitting next to you. Thankfully, she’s not. The lunch comes with a cup of gumbo, too, and it’s almost as good as the main event. Perfectly stewed chicken thigh meat and andouille sausage served over popcorn rice and slathered in Tobasco … this’ll tide you over until dinner.

neches river wheelhouse gumbo
Neches River Wheelhouse (photo: Chris Hunt)
shrimp and grits
Shrimp & grits at the Neches River Wheelhouse (photo: Chris Hunt).

And, as it turns out, when coupled with a handful of beers, it’s also a good nap inducer. You wake up back in your hotel room just in time for happy hour at JWilson’s. This place is a bit more upscale — and it’s a sweet spot to meet locals and learn about this cool part of East Texas. You strike up a conversation with the folks around you and ask what’s good on the menu.

The answer? Man candy.

This appetizer is about as good as it gets — slow-smoked pork belly smothered in habanéro jelly falls apart in your mouth. Washed down with — you guessed it — a Tito’s and soda, it might be the best thing you’ve eaten since you arrived in Texas. Savory, sweet and smoky, it’s amazing. It’s the dish you talk about when you get home, and you begin to wonder if it’s not worth the price of a plane ticket to head back to Beaumont just so you can enjoy it again. Better yet, you start an online search for “how to smoke pork belly.” It likely won’t be as good as JWilson’s man candy, but even if you can just come close …

Man candy j wilsons
Man candy at JWilson's (photo: Chris Hunt

Conversation at the bar is fun, and after a great burger and fries from the dinner menu, the group invites you out for a drink. And where do they take you?

Back to where it all started — the LogOn Cafe and Pub. The group buys the first round for the visitor from points north and west, and the karaoke machine gets a workout. Not limited too much by an early morning for the first time in a bit, you relax and enjoy a few, getting to know the nice, hospitable folks of Beaumont, Texas.

Yes, indeed. It’s worth the price of a plane ticket to go back. And you know you will. It’s just a matter of time.