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December 1, 2012

Look what's cooking on the Texas Gulf Coast

Padre Island a haven for wildlife, snowbirds

By Brian Kamsoke
The Daily Star

---- — George and Cindy Fitzpatrick are hosting a seafood smorgasbord, and you’re invited —well, that is, you’d be invited if you were camping at the Malaquite Beach Campground on Padre Island National Seashore along the Texas Gulf Coast.

Redfish, speckled sea trout, black drum and whiting are on the menu, perhaps even a smattering of flounder taken from the Laguna Madre — one of only six hypersaline lagoons in the world. George dips his catch in milk, rolls it in flour with special fish seasonings, fries it up and serves platefuls of succulent seafood to his hungry neighbors. In turn, other campers arrive toting an assortment of salads, fresh baked bread, chips and dips, and of course ice cold beer and wine. Life is good.

“I enjoy doing it,” he said. “Besides, I can’t eat all this fish myself.”

George, a semi-retired roofer from Michigan, fishes when he’s down here. You’ll find him everyday along with his black Labrador, Buddy, fishing the Gulf of Mexico from the beach — two poles sticking out of the sand, the line baited with shrimp cast out beyond the breakers, Buddy splashing around in the surf in search of his own catch.

“He feels he has to do his part as well,” George explains, raising his voice above the rolling surf.

Look north and south, up and down the beach, and you might see other fishermen wading into the water, maybe a husband and wife walking hand-in-hand along the beach, and perhaps a heron keeping a watchful eye on those fishermen (just in case one gets away), but other than that, you won’t see much other human activity.

Padre Island is a barrier island, but unlike other barrier islands that stretch along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, Padre Island is the most untouched by human development. The National Seashore stretches 60 miles and within that span all you’ll find are rolling sand dunes spotted with purple goat’s foot morning glory (blooming in the spring) or yellow mist flowers (blooming in the fall) and an incredible array of birds — laughing gulls, brown and white pelicans, plovers, raptors, ducks and herons, among many others.

Sometimes George will drive his truck down the beach (this is allowed, though four-wheel drive is recommended) in search of hot fishing holes. If you ride with him, you won’t see any condos or beach houses, but you might come across tents, pop-up campers, and small camper trailers set up on the beach. Camping is free on the beach.

George comes down here for the fishing (and to escape those Michigan winters). Others come for bird watching, for Padre Island is a birding haven during the winter. The island hosts more than 380 species of birds. Others, like campground host Pam VanderWeele, came for different reasons.

“I had just returned from a two-year stint in the Peace Corps in Jamaica where I was working in a primary school,” she explained. “While there, I learned about efforts to protect the Hawk’s Bill turtle, which is endangered, so I guess I kind of had turtles on my mind when I returned to the States, plus I’ve always been attracted to the ocean.”

Padre Island is home to the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, a critically endangered sea turtle, whose nesting grounds include the National Seashore and parts of Mexico.

Every spring and summer hatchlings can be seen flapping their tiny flippers across the beach in a frantic race to reach surf.

A campground host is a pretty good gig if you can get it — free campsite with full hookup in exchange for monitoring and tracking campers as they arrive and depart. However, VanderWeele had some other duties as it just so happened the Parks Service decided to repave the campground and improve some of the sites, which meant she had to serve as a kind of pseudo-flag person, directing newly arriving campers to the open sites and away from the ones temporarily closed.

But VanderWeele always had a smile on her face and performed her duties respectfully, even when some campers became a little miffed when they couldn’t get their beachside campsite. Repair and improvements happen.

VanderWeele then turned her responsibilities over to Walt Linden and his wife. Walt is a retired New York state trooper from Rochester who has been the campground host at Padre Island for November and December for the past four years.

“When we arrived, everybody was like, ‘Hi, Walt, welcome back.’ It’s like a feeling of community,” he said.

And that brings us back to George’s fish fry. The weather is warm and sunny even as the New Year approaches. Temperatures hover in the 60s to 70s with lows in the 50s. Ocean breezes bring in moist, salty air. Pelicans glide single file on the warm current of air following the beach line just as hungry campers line up at the buffet like fish chasing a chum line.

Tomorrow will likely bring another sunny day with warm ocean breezes. George will be fishing again. Walt will walk the campground checking in campers. (Padre Island is a winter haven for snowbirds, too, and the campground tends to fill up). Others will take part in some bird watching or perhaps windsurfing in the Laguna Madre or maybe just some leisurely beachcombing.

Whatever the day brings, you can rest assured, it’s like another day in paradise.