The grass and sand flats of the Lower Laguna Madre might be the most productive flats system, outside of the Florida Keys, in the contiguous U.S. But that doesn't mean the fishing is easy, especially in the winter, when finicky weather and colder water temperatures make redfish and speckled trout much more wary.
As Capt. Tim O'Brien and I motored back to the dock in South Padre Island after a full day on the flats, we were smarting. We'd seen dozens of redfish and trout, as well as black drum and sheepshead on the flats that sunny, early January day. But both of us remarked on how spooky the fish were. The sun brought the fish out of the deeper holes and the shipping and boating channels to warm up on the flats, but nary a fish hit a fly.
In fact, nearly every fish we cast to spooked the moment the fly hit the water. Or worse—even raising a rod to make a cast was enough to send big winter redfish into a panic, leaving behind a cloud of mud where our target used to be.
"What am I doing wrong?" I asked Tim.
"Not a thing," he said. "I've never seen them this crazy before."
The good news is that the "bay," the local term for the South Texas hyper-saline stretch of water that runs between South Padre Island and the Texas mainland, was full of life. The bad news? It appeared that nothing was hungry—or at least not hungry enough to show interest in flies.
It was enough to drive a guy to drink.
So that's what I did.
South Padre is a true American beach town. Every spring, it gets a dose of college spring breakers, usually followed by an influx of Mexican nationals who visit during Easter week. Unless you love the crowds and the general insanity that comes with so many out-of-towners, your best bet is to pick a better time of year than spring.
The far southern tip of Texas tickles the tropics, so there really isn't a bad time to visit the island, at least as far as weather goes. Fishing is obviously better from late spring—think late May or early June—through fall and into early winter. Starting in January, weather gets a little less predictable, and it can get downright cold, with temperatures at night dipping into the 30s on occasion. In spring, the island's near-constant wind brings kite surfers to the area from all over the world, but it's not the best time to be chasing redfish or trout on the flats—the wind churns up the water, and can make sight-fishing really tough. Summer can be hot and sticky, but fishing is more dependable (and more crowded). From late August into December, the fishing can be great, and the crowds thin out a bit after Labor Day.
But in winter, the island is a great place to get out of the cold if you live in northern climes. I escaped single digits here in Idaho for a few days in January, and while I did catch some fish while wading flats near town, the best part of the trip was not having to wear socks. Or fleece. Or gloves. I completely get the "winter Texan" migration, when folks from up north who are sick of long, cold dormant months make their way to South Padre to enjoy the island lifestyle for a few days to a several weeks to an entire season.
And that island lifestyle includes the expected beach and bay bars, quirky pubs and even a local brewery. Locals (and those winter Texans) are out and about during the cooler months, and finding a drink with a view of the bay is pretty easy. Just looking out over still water, watching the sun set over the bay with a rum drink in hand is enough to ease the frustration that comes with a fishless day on the flats.
But where to start? Here's your drinking guide to South Padre:
Start your evening at Louie's Backyard, a sprawling bar and restaurant that sits right on the laguna and offers reasonably priced drinks and typical seafood fare (blackened, grilled or fried redfish is a staple, but the grill also offers up solid burgers and the usual bar food).
For the tourist crowd, Louie's has its own prime rib and seafood buffet. If you know a local, or if you can pass for one, you can enjoy Louie's "locals bar," a smaller, more intimate bar within a bar where resident islanders show up to play trivia or to escape the throngs of tourists that flock to the island over the course of a year. Here, you can get a solid meal, enjoy live music and enjoy the view of the bay. If you find yourself there around lunchtime, you'll have plenty of great seafood options, and you can sit right on the bay and watch the pelicans dive. It's pretty cool.
Start with a real cocktail—the beer will come later. The drinks are poured generously, and the atmosphere is friendly. It's your launching pad for a night on the town.
Your next stop is right next door at Laguna BOB (bar on the bay). This is an outdoor, bayside bar that features live music, great food and affordable drinks. It also might be the best place on the island to watch the sunset—like any beach town, sunset is a "thing," and it brings folks out nearly every night. Once you experience it, you'll get it. Trust me.
From the bay and the rum punch, take an Uber up the island a bit to the Padre Island Brewing Co., a spacious brewery right on the island's main drag—Padre Boulevard. No, it doesn't offer much of a view, but it does feature locally crafted beers and some great local seafood options from the grill. Order a flight of the five beers on tap at any given time—my favorite was the brewery's South Padre Island Blonde, a light, not-too-hoppy ale with a sweet finish. The brewery's Tidal Wave Wheat was also solid, and the Speckled Trout Stout, for dark beer fans, wasn't as heavy as it looked. I'm not a huge dark beer guy, so I gulped the short glass down, purely in the interest of journalistic integrity, and then ordered another blonde ale to go with my spinach salad featuring local blackened shrimp. It was a great combo.
While the brewery is a draw with beer drinkers and offers some elbow room, other island bars—especially during winter—are basically local hangouts. My favorite, aside from maybe the 45 minutes or so as the sun set over the bay at Laguna BOB, was Kelly's Irish Pub. During winter, it's almost exclusively a local's place—it'll get rowdy during Spring Break and Easter week, but the appeal of Kelly's is that it's got that divey feel, and a great liquor selection.
It's the kind of place where you can belly up to the bar among strangers, order a Jameson on the rocks (poured quite generously, I might add) and, an hour or so later, be chatting it up with new friends on either side of you. There's a small deck for enjoying a drink outside while watching the cruisers run up and down Padre Boulevard
Occasionally the bar will feature live music, and if you find yourself in town over the course of a week, don't miss Tipsy Tuesday that features happy hour all day (until 7 p.m., and drink specials that'll be easy on the wallet). If you're a dive-bar fan, Kelly's is a must-visit.
From Kelly's it's back to the bay to visit a couple of newer haunts. First, hit the LongBoard bar and Grill, which sits on the bay and features a bay-side, concert-quality band stage and live music most nights. You can sit inside if it's chilly or raining (or just sit under one of the umbrella-sheltered tables and listen to the music like I did my last night on the island).
Here's a bonus about the LongBoard—drinks don't come with plastic, single-use straws. Sometimes, it takes living in a beach town to really come to the grips with the problems presented by plastic trash that washes up on the sand. I appreciated the nod to the environmental problem, and thanked the manager for helping shine some light on the challenges faced by our oceans from plastic pollution. And the drinks, like most on the island, feature healthy pours and lots of options.
From LongBoard, walk next door and finish up your evening at Lobo del Mar Cafe, a newer destination that features live music, a bay-side bar for sunset watchers and music venues both inside and outside and more of those great island drinks.
South Padre is a great winter destination for anglers, even if the fishing can be hit or miss this time of year. But it offers enough in the way of eating and drinking distractions to forget a tough day on the water. Knowing, too, that once it warms up, the fishing will warm up, makes it a great spot to "drop a pin." If and when the opportunity presents itself, I'll visit again, hoping that the reds and the specks will be a bit more forgiving.
And I won't have to pack socks.