Monday, August 3, 2009

Life in Matagorda years ago

Scientists have been finding out all kinds of things about the genetic codes contained in the individualized dna that our cells carry. For example, is there a motor cycle riding gene that fellows like Texas Ghostrider have? Is there a fishing gene that makes me long to fish and to seek fishing opportunities of all kinds no matter where?

If so, it could make some sense as to why fishing relaxes me. As playing music relaxes me. But it could also be environmental, as I was raised around a lot of relatives and freinds who fished.

I've got fisherman on both sides of my family tree. My maternal grandfather was quite the fisherman, with one of his favorite spots being Lake Tannycomo near Branson, Mo. Back then, in the 30's and 40's, there wasn't much there but some campgrounds, some motor courts, and a few bait and boat rental shops. Heck, even until the 1970's when I visited the lake and a great nearby creek appropriately called "Fish Creek", Branson was still a tiny town. If it had even one stop light back then, I'd be surprised.

Going back several generations, on my father's side, my direct family lived in Texas long before electricity, public water or any other of the amenities we take for granted. Back then, you fished and hunted mainly for food to augment the family pantry. Sometimes what you hunted and fished for WAS the food you had in the family pantry. Like back when there was no ice or ice boxes and all meat had to be salted and smoked.

My daddy's people settled all over the State, primarily locating in East Texas, Central Texas and the Gulf Coast. But a few souls struck out for places like Uvalde and Alpine and even further west on out to Cal-if-or-ni-a. Almost all of my dad's people were farmers and/or ranchers of some sort, with cattle, pigs and chickens being mainstays of most of their lives for over a hundred years.

My father's large immediate family located in various Central Texas and East Texas locales, hunted often for deer, wild hogs and turkeys. A wide variety of birds were also considered fair game.

But the ones that must have been hardy SOB's were the ones that live on the coast in those days when indians still roamed and in many cases, ruled parts of the state.

Some of my dad's direct ancestors settled down in the town of Matagorda in the 1800's, and you know that was wild and wooley living down there back in those days. On the one hand, great fishing abounded, no doubt. I suspect they did a little alligator hunting and rattlesnake hunting (tastes like chicken) when the deer and various migratory ducks and geese were scarce. There are so many gators down there in the brackish water as well as rattlesnakes out the wazoo in various island and mainland locales that it seems it would be inescapeable not to kill one or two every now and then, just out of threats and bad situations.

From my college Texas History professor who resembled in appearance and humorous personality the actor Kevin Nealon, I recall his tale about the worst insult an early 1800's resident of Texas in the coastal regions could make to another settler. The insult was that they "stank like a Karankawa" indian.

Apparently, the coastal living Karankawas made a frequent practice of coating their bodies with "alligator grease" (rancid alligator fat, I suppose) to repel the ever-present hordes of mosquitos that thrive in coastal Texas, and apparently if you were downwind of a Karankawa so annointed you could smell them long before you could see or hear them.

Because Matagorda was an early Texas port, I suspect various spices and other types of staples came through on a regular basis. So they probably had a fairly constant supply of goods that they could buy or barter for.

I'm sure they fished, although I'm sure gill nets and trot lines were more favored than, as they were probably highly productive for speckled trout, redfish, croaker, gafftop catfish and a variety of other creatures that prowl the bays and surf. Catching a shrimp run was probably a treat, and crabbing probably provided some food as well. Although people have been fishing with so called sporting rods and reels since the 1400's, those who fished for food probably did employ fishing rods and reels on some occasions but when you're fishing for high volume family feeding food, nothing beats a cast net or gill net or trot line.

Of course, they probably also used single or double hook lines that were tied off to a tree or something on shore. Back then, the bays were teaming, literally jumping with redfish and sand trout and speckled trout and flounder and just all kinds of marine life. I bet there were schools of shrimp and mullet that would just boggle the mind.

But alligators and rattlesnakes are still inescapeable parts of the bay and dunes and bottom land that covers both sides of Matagorda Bay and it's surrounds.

Just ten years ago, I was driving down a rural dirt/sand "road" on Matagorda Island that cut through some small dunes and my jeep hit a soft spot in the sand and slid into the side of a sand dune, exposing what can only be described as a nest of cranky rattlesnakes.

That cured me of ever going into the dunes when nature calls.

The gators tend to be in the marshy, brackish water areas that surround either edge of the bay. If you go driving down some of the county roads that go out of the city of Matagorda proper, you'll see signs in the swampy roadside areas warning of alligators. Believe it. I wouldn't suspect that gators would venture into the dunes or to the beach. Too dry and sandy with poor traction. And too many damn rattle snakes.

For those who may be skeptical about alligators in salt water, I offer the following misadventure.

Many years ago, in my young twenties, I went fishing in the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. Now, I've grown up around coastal Texas and have fished and explored extensively up and down the Texas Gulf coast, by boat and by car. I KNOW there are gators in the brackish backwaters and back bays of the major bay systems, particularly from Matagorda northward. I've seen them.

But this particular morning as we arrived about 5:30 A.M. in one of the far reaches of the Anahuac NWR to do some fishing, we came upon the most humongous school of shrimp I've ever seen. Being chased by a school of some kind of mullet. A big school of sand trout. It happened right in front of us in a canal feeding into another canal there in the NWR, and it was a sight to behold.

My friend Bobby and I grabbed the seine and jumped into the waist deep water, latching up load after load of BIG shrimp and mullet. Literally, a heaping pile of shrimp and mullet, numbering in the hundreds laying on the bank. Even if we caught no fish, we'd be having a big shrimp fry that night. There were so many shrimp in that school that our huge haul didn't even make a dent in the size or fury of it.

After dumping several heavy loads of shrimp and mullet on shore, we clambered out of the water, and began loading the shrimp into ice chests and trash bags. We threw most of the mullet back, keeping a few to use for bait. We filled up several ice chests with shrimp, and then set about fishing for larger game fish with live shrimp and live mullet.

Of course, we were patting ourselves on the back so hard that we nearly threw our arms out of the socket. Nothing like this had ever happened to any of us. We had a third friend with us fishing who did not join us in the water for our landfall bounty. he pointed to the middle of the channel where just a few minutes before we had been actively working the seine along the bottom of the channel.

There was a nice big ass alligator thrashing about, as if someone had been disturbing it's territory.

I can only imagine it was many times more prevalent back in the early days of Texas colonization. Alligators and rattlers everywhere.

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