Airboat Adventure...Exploring Laguna Madre's Hidden Estuaries

The slough south of Port Mansfield is not an easy place to access, and you are probably going to have to make a very long paddle or take an airboat ride. Captain Charlie Buchen's airboat seats six comfortably, and for a change of pace from fishing the windy bay, Charlie is taking his friends on a different kind of fishing trip.

We are heading into one of the most remote areas of the Lower Laguna Madre where wildlife is abundant and fishing spectacular, but if you happen to break down way back in the slough, you could spend a long time waiting for help, and it would have to be another airboat. There are a maze of shallow inlets and seasonal freshwater inflows south of Mansfield, but we are headed for what locals call the slough which serves as the main drainage system for the Rio Grande Valley's floodway system.

It is an exhilarating experience racing across mere inches of water in an airboat. With no prop dragging the bottom, all the airboat needs is a slick surface to slide on, and a steady hand guiding the blades. Airboats can be tricky to maneuver, but Captain Charlie is an experienced guide and smoothly handles the powerful boat as it skims across the flats.

First stop is near the wide and super shallow mouth of the estuary, where we glide to a halt before an expanse of skinny water teeming with baitfish. Charlie turns the controls over to Danny Neu and moves to the bow with his cast net. As Danny carefully guides the boat slowly forward Charlie stands poised. After a couple of expert tosses we are soon on our way with a bucket of mullet for cut bait.

Spreading out before us is a broad coastal plain broken by brushy ridges or lomas covered in towering yuccas. Immense flocks of white pelicans soar in the distance, and a group of some hundred roseate spoonbills gracefully glide to a nearby marsh. The verdant marsh grass gleams a vivid green and deer and nilgai antelope occasionally appear near the shore.

Once we pass thru the broad swath of skinny water leading into the slough, we enter a gradually more defined channel which narrows to a passage lined with mangroves and cane not much wider than the airboat. The waterway cuts thru ranch property and state owned land as it winds westward for several miles. If the waterway did not become chocked with overhanging brush you could eventually run all the way to the bridge that crosses Highway 1420 between Rio Hondo and Port Mansfield. We halt several miles in at a bend in the stream and tie up in the shade of a blooming retama.

"I am always out on the bay lure fishing," Charlie says as he readies a line with a chunk of mullet. "That is all I normally do is lure fish, but I really enjoy doing something different. What I like about coming up here is you never know if you are going to catch gar, redfish, catfish or whatever."

It is a quiet and relaxing way to fish deep in the slough with nothing but birdsong, and not even the distant drone of scurrying bay boats can be detected; that is until a resounding splash announces the presence of the first big channel cat. Steve Andrews gets the initial cat of the day, and his wife Karen quickly follows with another of the whiskered fish.

According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, channel catfish rank behind only bass and crappie as the most preferred fish to catch in Texas. Nationwide, they are the most popular catfish, with some eight million anglers targeting them yearly. While most fishermen are happy with a channel cat weighing just a few pounds for the skillet, the North American record stands at 58 pounds.

Danny has his light rod bent double with a hefty fish. "I'm not 100 percent sure what I've got here," he muses as his rod nears the snapping point. "I've got a mystery here!" Soon the mystery is solved as Charlie nets a hefty channel catfish.

The catfish are biting in Catfish Charlie's secret fishing hole, and Captain Charlie's friends are going to take home a stringer of tasty fish. "They taste even better, because you catch them yourself," Charlie says with a laugh. "It's a totally different texture than saltwater fish and is not muddy tasting."

Next, Steve and Danny each bring in small redfish, which tolerate freshwater quite well and thrive throughout the slough. But Karen has something much larger on her line. When she finally works the big catfish to the boat, it appears almost too big for the net, and when Charlie tries to dip it the fish splashes right out, but on the next attempt the cat is secured.

"All right! That was fun!" Karen exults.

"I've caught catfish up to 35 pounds back here," Charlie says as he unhooks Karen's catch and places it in the cooler. There are some big gar too. I have caught them up to about 50 pounds, but there have been some taken out of here that were pushing 200 pounds."

With a nice stringer of tasty cats on ice, we move downstream to a spot Charlie says often holds redfish. Sure enough, the Captain soon has a fine 27 incher on the airboat, so I guess we'll have to change his name from Catfish Charlie to Redfish Charlie.

"This area south of Mansfield really is unique because of the freshwater influx," Charlie says. "The airboat is perfect for getting back in the ankle deep water for fly fishermen. The fishing can be great, and it really is amazing how many different types of birds there are in these back bays."

Danny is also an experienced guide on the bay and a regular on Charlie's airboat, but Steve and Karen have just recently moved to Port Mansfield from Michigan, and they are captivated by the vast area the airboat can access. "It is a world unto itself back here," Steve says. It is worth this trip just to see the wildlife and the birds."

"It's great fun," Karen says. "It's a different way of seeing an area you don't get to on a regular fishing boat. We love the birds, the fishing, and this area is beautiful, there is so much to see."

If you are interested in booking a trip with Captain Charlie Buchen on his airboat or on a conventional bay boat the number to reach him is 605-6409.

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Copyright 2007 Richard Moore