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'Port A' Making New Name for Itself

President Franklin D. Roosevelt caught this tarpon at Port Aransas on May 3, 1937. President Franklin D. Roosevelt caught this tarpon at Port Aransas on May 3, 1937.

By: Lynn Burkhead, OutdoorChannel.com

"Port Aransas, Texas, is the tarpon rendezvous of the world, and during the season, from May until November, the silvery giants are always found there".

— Richard L. Sutton, Silver Kings of Aransas Pass, 1937

Once upon a time, the sleepy Texas hamlet of Port Aransas – Port A as the community is called by many – was known far and wide as one of the best places an angler could go to catch a big fish on the Gulf Coast, especially tarpon.

How good was the tarpon fishing at Port A? At one point, the town on the Lone Star State's central Gulf coast was actually called Tarpon, Texas. For a number of years, the big migratory fish provided ample sport for anglers in and around Port A, so much so that one of the community's landmarks, a historic hotel on the barrier island, was built and dubbed the Tarpon Inn.

Built in 1886 with surplus lumber from Civil War barracks, the Tarpon Inn was originally built to house construction workers building a nearby jetty. After its completion, the structure became a hotel that lured in beachgoers and fishermen.

Despite being destroyed by a severe hurricane, the rebuilt Tarpon Inn eventually become a well known destination across the nation, eventually landing spots on the National Register of Historic Places and the Texas Historic Landmark list.

Over the years, the fishing community and its famous inn would host everyone from famous athletes like Jesse Jones, to Hollywood big screen celebrities, to a commander in chief, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR actually came to Port A in 1937, catching several tarpon and smiling broadly for news cameras as he fished from a locally built Farley boat.

If you doubt any of the town's historic angling past, visit the Tarpon Inn (www.thetarponinn.com) today and you'll find its walls covered with more than 2,000 autographed tarpon scales, which anglers often take from their catch as a memento, signed by anglers who were fortunate enough to land a silver king in nearby waters.

But the first half of the 20th century proved to be a crescendo for Port A's national angling fame. After World War II, tarpon began to disappear from the region, leading to the eventual demise of the once famous fishery. Most likely due to severe overfishing along the Mexican coastline where many Texas tarpon are thought to originate from. But whatever the reason, aside from the occasional catch offshore or along the Port A jetty, the state's most famous tarpon fishery eventually went the way of the buffalo and passenger pigeon.

Removed from its presidential fishing heyday, Port A began a slide, reputation wise at least, as a national fishing destination. In time, the community became a regional choice for Texas beachgoers who wanted to frolic in the surf or the state's anglers who wanted to wet a line along the beach, the jetty, or the nearby inshore waters.

I first sampled the fishing at Port Aransas a decade ago with former Texas Parks and Wildlife Department fisheries biologists Dr. Bill Harvey and Dr. Larry McKinney. Both were more than willing to serve as fly fishing guides to yours truly and show that the fishing in and around Port A was still very much alive and well, especially in the shallow bays and flats on the backside of the barrier island that have become a preferred hotspot in recent years for wade fishermen, fly anglers and even kayakers. Whatever the preferred method of fishing, many now come to Port A seeking 3- to 7-pound redfish, speckled trout, flounder, black drum and ladyfish that swim the inshore nursery waters near the town of 3,480 people.

Along the surf and the jetty, there is plenty of reason to smile currently as anglers often catch big bull redfish of 20 pounds or better, tackle busting jack crevalle that can smoke a reel's drag system and even increasingly frequent tarpon in the 50-plus-pound range. And sometimes the jetty tarpon at Port A are much bigger, topping the 100-pound mark.

While the fishing near the coastline has been good in recent years, the fishing off the coast for species like red snapper, marlin and even swordfish is pretty salty too. Given the fact that the Gulf's deepwater pelagic haunts are much closer to Port Aransas and its marinas than at other Texas port communities, this is really no surprise.

A couple of recent stories should tell the tale of just how good the blue water fishing can be. The first is a catch of an 809-pound tiger shark caught there just a couple of Sundays ago. Caught by San Antonio angler Ryan Spring, the tiger shark reportedly took the bait about five miles off the coast before towing Spring's small boat some 15 miles to the south prior to being landed.

In true The Old Man and the Sea fashion, Spring towed the big fish back to Port Aransas where it took several men, some news reports indicate as much as a dozen, to get the piscatorial creature on the dock. Spring reportedly donated the shark meat to charity.

More proof of Port Aransas' rebuilding stature as a Gulf Coast destination is the 2014 Texas Legends Billfish Tournament, an event that was contested from August 6-10 this year.

By the tournament's end, a total of 50 boats had entered, competing for $715,000 in prize money. The tournament was eventually won by Bert Steindor's Bandit that was skippered by Capt. Kevin Scott.

When tourney was over, the annual event had seen a total of 55 billfish caught and released including eight blue marlin, 18 white marlin and 29 sailfish.

Add in a good number of other species including dorado, wahoo, swordfish and yellow fin tuna – the latter up to 104.5 pounds – it's easy to see that the fishing at the legendary Texas fishing community is still good.

Of course it takes more than a big shark catch and a long running offshore tournament for pelagic species to show Port A's true standing as a Gulf Coast angling treasure these days. For more proof that Port A is back on the national map, if it ever truly left that is, consider the tale of a 200-pound swordfish caught there in recent days.

To be truthful, catching a swordfish off the Texas coast isn't big news since the pelagic fish are frequently caught in the area, including at least one during this past weekend's Legends tournament. So common is the species off the Texas coast that a new state record 493-pound swordfish was caught just a few months ago by angler Brian Barclay, who was fishing aboard the Booby Trap fishing boat with Capt. Jeff Wilson.

The big state record sword, which measured 107 inches in length and was caught 100 miles offshore from the boat's Surfside, Texas port, beat the previous state record of 341 pounds.

But what is unique about the more recent swordfish catch at Port A is the fact that the 200-pound specimen was caught from the surf along the community's beachfront.

Here's the story from www.billfishreport.com:

"What we gather from a link we received from a site called 2CoolFishing was that angler Chris Kelley was surf fishing for redfish, when this Swordfish grabbed his redfish. He obviously landed the fish and this is not photoshopped. Per the report, the fish weighed in just under 200 lbs.

We have seen Swordfish in shallow water before and in both Biscayne Bay in Florida and in the Bahamas on a Flat, so this is not completely unique, however we have never heard one off the Texas Coast. Swordfish are typically found in very deep water, many times 1,000 feet or more. In Texas, that can mean a 80+ mile journey to get to those depths, where in South Florida and the Bahamas that depth of water is much closer to shore."

The truth is that I could go on and on since there are plenty of big fish tales that have emerged from Port Aransas in recent years. From a 200-pound jetty tarpon, to jetty catches of hefty hammerhead sharks, to a 513-pound bull shark caught in nearby Aransas Bay, the fishing is pretty good at the former, and current, saltwater fishing capital of Texas.

And it should only get better for this Lone Star State coastal community with its historic past along with a bright future. Now, if only the big numbers of tarpon will return and always be found here.

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