Here's an article written by Shannon Tompkins about Port Mansfield. He was down with a big crew from Cabelas, Texas Sporting Journal Magazine, and several other outdoor writers. One purpose was to gain exposure for the East Cut, which is slowly being strangled by sand and not scheduled to be re-dredged. We all thought it was a great piece!
One correction however. I was raised in Kingsville, not Raymondville, and these have never been my home waters...(until now that is.) I'm just a transplanted refugee like most everybody else here...paradise found.
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
Union Gen. Philip Sheridan, so the story goes, was in the southern tip of Texas, perhaps even within sight of the sprawling, shallow bay system called the Lower Laguna Madre, when he allegedly spit one of the great insults at the Lone Star State.
"If I owned hell and Texas, I'd rent out Texas and live in hell," Sheridan is supposed to have said as he approached the mouth of the Rio Grande after the close of the Civil War.
If Sheridan was still around today, he might be surprised at the little village of Port Mansfield. Plenty of saltwater anglers and others who enjoy seeing and experiencing one of the most interesting and productive wild places remaining on the Texas coast are, it seems, willing to rent.
Perched on the landward lip of the Lower Laguna Madre about 30 miles north of Port Isabel and a world away from that cluster of industrial tourism, Port Mansfield is an unincorporated knot of structures built around a keyhole of a man-made harbor.
The village sits at the end of a road and atop land owned by the Willacy County Navigation District. Everyone who has a place — a hotel, marina, home, business, whatever — in Port Mansfield leases the land their building sits upon from the navigation district. In effect, everyone in Port Mansfield rents.
Mansfield (most people discard the "Port") is isolated, at least when compared with most of modern Texas; the closest town of any size is Raymondville, 25 miles away down the road.
The place is bracketed by wildness.
Almost all of the land rimming the Lower Laguna Madre's shoreline, from Port Isabel on its south end to the land cut 50 miles to the north, is undeveloped and nearly unpeopled. What land on the mainland not part of the huge, legendary King and Kenedy ranches is part of the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.
Padre Island, the thin, sandy slip of barrier island forming the gulfward boundary of the Lower Laguna Madre, rests five miles to the east. All but the southern tip of the island is wild and undeveloped, part of a national seashore or the Laguna Atascosa NWR.
Then there's the Lower Laguna Madre — the dominant player in the mix and the reason Port Mansfield exists. The town is, pure and simple, a fishing village tied to the Laguna Madre.
"There's only one Lower Laguna Madre," said Walt Kittelberger, a Port Mansfield fishing guide for the past 21 years and founder of the Lower Laguna Madre Foundation. "It's one of only three hyper-saline lagoons in the world. There's no place like it anywhere else in this country."
The Lower Laguna Madre is, for the most part, a very shallow bay, seldom more than three feet deep with mile upon mile of knee-deep flats covered by air-clear water. No rivers or watersheds of any consequence flow into it. Tidal movement is minimal as there are only a couple of narrow openings through which Laguna water can exchange. That lack of freshwater inflow and water exchange allows the salinity levels in the bay to climb extremely high — higher than seawater.
As a result, water in the Lower Laguna is generally very clear. The bay floor is carpeted with thick growth of submerged vegetation — mostly shoalgrass and, increasingly, manatee grass.
That open-bay vegetation along with the little nooks, cuts, flats and marshy ponds along the landward shoreline provide a grand nursery and larder for coastal fish.
The Lower Laguna Madre long has been a tremendous inshore fishery, with speckled trout and redfish the top sport species.
The Lower Laguna has a reputation for holding some of the largest speckled trout — and more of them — than Texas' other seven bay systems. The Texas record speck — a 15.60-pounder — was landed there just five years ago.
It's no coincidence that Port Mansfield was originally known as Redfish Landing; the bay's redfish fishery is tremendous.
"Everybody knows about the Lower Laguna's trout," said Mike McBride, a Port Mansfield fishing guide who grew up in Raymondville and a few years ago returned to his home bay after 16 years of living on, and fishing in, Galveston Bay. "But, right now, I don't think you can find a better redfishing area on the coast."
With its southern location and semitropical climate, the bay holds fish and other marine life seldom seen along the rest of the Texas coast.
Snook are there and seemingly always have been. Gray snapper (mangrove snapper to most of us) have been common in the Lower Laguna for decades.
And for the past three years, a manatee or two have spent the summer in the Port Mansfield harbor, the huge marine mammals hanging around boat docks when they weren't out in the bay grazing on their namesake vegetation.
That wonderful fishery in such an isolated, protected setting, and very light fishing pressure (when compared with other Texas bays) is a huge part of Port Mansfield's attraction.
But it's the whole experience of being on what is undeniably Texas' most undeveloped, wildest and fish- and wildlife-rich bay system that really proves the Lower Laguna Madre's value.
On a summer morning, guides McBride and partner Capt. Tricia Buchen ease their shallow-running boats out of the Mansfield Harbor, point them south and skim over the flats.
They are heading for a protected flats where schools of leg-thick redfish are rooting through the shoalgrass for crabs, shrimp and pinfish and blasting topwater plugs or spoons or soft-plastic lures so hard they can jerk the rod from an inattentive angler's grasp.
Between Port Mansfield and the fishing spot, the guides' clients get a glimpse of this great wild place.
Along the shoreline, a huge feral hog forages among mesquite and sabal palms.
There, a quartet of nilgai antelope stand on a ridge.
A family of coyotes, strung out in a line, lope along the top of a sand dune, hunting breakfast.
Overhead, a frigatebird wheels.
Over there, on one of the dozens of islands in the bay, palms and mesquites and other trees flicker with color — white, black, scarlet, rosy red, dark blue. It's a waterbird rookery — one of several in the bay . Thousands of waterbirds — brown pelicans, rosette spoonbills, reddish egrets, little blue and tricolor herons and a mix of gulls and terns — tend fledglings or stalk the shallows, stabbing their meals.
As the boats drift-fish the flats, where water stays clear despite a 25-knot wind, passengers see only the occasional other boat in the distance.
"There are places I go in the Lower Laguna where you can't see any sign of the hand of man except, maybe a 100-year-old fence post on the shoreline," Kittelberger said. "And when conditions are right, you can really catch some fish up there."
Phil Sheridan, it seems, can go to hell.
The folks in Port Mansfield will gladly rent their little piece of Texas.