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The Wild, Shallow, and Wondrous Laguna Madre

A 130-mile-long, hypersaline lagoon with a mostly undeveloped coastline, easy access, and loads of redfish.

The Wild, Shallow, and Wondrous Laguna Madre

Schools of redfish in the Laguna Madre feed in very shallow water that is often accessible by wading, or with small boats like kayaks, SUPs, and shallow-running flats skiffs. (Ben Paschal photo)

A herd of more than 50 redfish meandered in the shallow water, moving steadily in my direction. They were going to pass very close, and I thought the early morning light and excellent visibility would make a great photo. I had my camera bag over my shoulder, but decided there wasn’t time to take a photo and still make the cast. So I decided to live in the moment and catch a fish.

When my fly hit the water, several 30-inch reds raced at the fly, and the “winner” screamed off across the flats, causing a half dozen jealous companions to follow. The rest of the school scattered. So much for the photo, but it was the beginning of a memorable day.

Sight casting to redfish on the flats with a fly rod is not only exciting, it is one of the most effective methods to consistently catch fish when the flats heat up in June through September in Texas’s Laguna Madre.

The Laguna Madre is a hypersaline bay, consisting of hundreds of miles of shallow, clear flats extending south of Corpus Christi for over 100 miles to near the Mexican border. This is an immense and productive bay system that serves as a nursery and feeding ground for redfish and many other species.

The Laguna Madre is protected from the Gulf of Mexico by the longest barrier island in the world, Padre Island. Most of the island consists of the pristine and uninhabited Padre Island National Seashore. The island is largely unchanged from the days when Karankawa Indians called it home and Spanish shipwrecks dotted the coast.

A drone photo of the expansive Laguna Madre, with a boat in the foreground.
The Laguna Madre estuary covers 280,910 acres with a average depth of about 4 feet. Much of it is very shallow and not accessible by V-hull boats. Most fly fishers visit the hypersaline lagoon looking for redfish, but there are also snook, speckled trout, and tarpon. (Ben Paschal photo)

On the west side of the Laguna Madre you’ll find the mainland largely covered by the legendary King and Kenedy mega-ranches, where cattle and deer greatly outnumber people. These ranches consist of millions of acres of undeveloped land that was once called the Wild Horse Desert. Both shorelines consist of shallow sand flats that are perfect for wade fishing and sight casting.

On the weekends, the Laguna Madre is heavily fished from both the north and south ends by an armada of center console sport-fishing boats primarily focused on catching redfish and speckled seatrout using conventional tackle. Despite the pressure, Laguna Madre consistently produces large numbers of quality fish. Much of this is due to the lightly populated and wild nature of the eastern and western borders, which limits access. Strict catch and size regulations also help maintain the population, along with a growing catch-and-release philosophy being adopted by many local anglers. A massive Texas Parks & Wildlife Department hatchery is located on the north end of the Laguna Madre, and annually adds millions of additional redfish fingerlings to the already productive natural spawning cycle.

Silent Paradise

Redfish are extremely sensitive to boat traffic. When boat traffic is high, the redfish tend to move into the deeper grass flats and man-made channels that crisscross the Laguna. On the weekdays, the flats largely go silent, and the Laguna Madre becomes a fly-fishing paradise for redfish and other species. The redfish emerge from their hiding places and venture onto the shallow flats looking for baitfish, shrimp, and crabs.

In September, overall fishing pressure greatly decreases due to the start of school and hunting season. This coincides with the beginning of the annual redfish run to the Gulf. Redfish start to consistently congregate into large schools, and the fish fatten up before heading offshore for the winter. Most of these are “slot” reds, falling within the legal retention limit of 20 to 28 inches. However, many of them are oversize, with an occasional bull finding its way into the mix.




A fly angler kneeling and holding a redfish in the water.
Most of the redfish in the Laguna Madre are “slot” reds ranging from 20 to 28 inches. In the fall, when the redfish gather in schools to migrate out into the Gulf of Mexico, you can run into much larger bull reds. (Ben Paschal photo)

The flats along the east and west borders consist almost exclusively of hard sand bottoms 6 inches to 1 foot deep that extend a varying distance from the shoreline, with a 2- to 3-foot drop-off into deeper water. At the drop-off, the flats usually transition into a dense turtle grass bottom with occasional sand potholes. Subtle currents generated by the prevailing southeast trade wind carve shallow channels across the flats. Redfish cruise these margin areas, using the deeper water and grass as travel lanes and camouflage while hunting for prey.

Early in the morning, tailing reds and butterfly drum (immature black drum) feed in the shallows, grubbing into the softer sand areas, easily identified by their pockmarked bottoms. Stationary redfish with their noses pointed into the slight current sometimes lie in ambush on these shallow flats as well. Sow speckled trout are often in the early morning shallows, hunting small baitfish such as mullet and pinfish. Large ladyfish, with their characteristic forked tails, race across the flats in small wolf packs all day long, crashing into schools of finger mullet and menhaden.

As the sun rises, redfish tend to migrate to the deeper flats and channels, but large schools and small pods of two and three fish still cruise the margins throughout the midday and afternoon hours when visibility is the best. Often, a single redfish ventures off of a deeper flat looking for prey. If you hook it, the fish will often dart back into the deep and bring several companions out along with it, providing a perfect opportunity for a nearby fishing partner to hook up.

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Getting There

Access to the Laguna Madre is typically by boat. The Intracoastal Waterway runs the length of the Laguna Madre, and thousands of spoil islands were created alongside it when it was dredged. Smaller access channels were also dredged to provide access for the oil and gas industry, as well as crash channels for early naval flight training in the area. The channels make accessing the flats easy, and the spoil islands provide an endless supply of additional flats to explore.

Almost any boat will do, depending on how far you want to travel. On calmer days I use a Solo Skiff to travel moderate distances to nearby flats. The Solo Skiff is a cross between a kayak and a stand-up paddleboard, but on steroids. It’s highly portable and has a small outboard to help you get where you want to go quickly and easily. Once you arrive, it’s easy to paddle and pole in very shallow water. If you don’t want to wade, its very stable for standing and casting. A paddle- or pedal-powered kayak is also a good choice for short trips.

For longer distances, I use a center console and anchor the boat 1,000 feet or more from where I want to wade, to minimize disturbance to the flat.

Access for wading fishermen and kayaks is available at the north end of the Laguna Madre via major roadways near Corpus Christi.

The John F. Kennedy Causeway connects Corpus Christi with North Padre Island and was once just a sliver of sand barely above sea level with a narrow highway on top. In 2004 it was upgraded to an elevated roadway to assist in hurricane evacuations, and improve water flow to both sides of the causeway. One popular feature of the new roadway is a 3-mile-long, sea-level frontage road on the south side, which was constructed to provide access for fishermen. Wade fishing is limited to the shoreline here due to a narrow parallel channel dredged for fill material used in the original construction in the early 1950s. However, if you launch a kayak here, you have access to a huge area of shallow flats south of the causeway. Additional boat, kayak, and wading access is available at the Packery Channel Bridge on State Highway 361 heading north toward Port Aransas. There is a large parking area east of the bridge with a public boat ramp primarily used by offshore anglers.

Wade fishing on the northeast side of the bridge along the channel leading to the Laguna is very good, especially as redfish and flounder start migrating to the Gulf in the fall. The channel opens up to extensive shallow flats to the north all the way to Corpus Christi Bay, the northern border of the Laguna Madre. These areas would seemingly have the most fishing pressure, but that is not always the case. Motorboats have the capability to cover long distances at high speeds, and many of them head south 20 miles or more from the boat ramps. Wade and kayak fishing is often very good nearby because many motorboats pass up these flats.

You can also gain access to the east side of the Laguna at the end of Park Road 22 in the National Seashore. The PINS Bird Island Basin, located just south of the park entrance, has camping sites, a boat ramp, kayak rentals, and easy foot access to miles of quality flats to the north and south.

A blurry fly angler wading in shin-deep water casting a redfish in the foreground.
Most of the time, redfish are not choosy about specific fly patterns. They love to feed on crabs and shrimp, but they also chase baitfish, and at times they take poppers. On the shallow flats it’s important to have lightly weighted flies that ride hook point up. (Ben Paschal photo)

Varied Habitat

Access to the west shoreline is limited to a few small fishing communities nestled between the ranches along the coast. Riviera Beach is located midway on Baffin Bay, the largest offshoot of the Laguna Madre. Baffin Bay has the only rock reefs along the Texas Coast. These rocks were formed thousands of years ago by the ancient calcareous deposits of serpulid marine worms, leaving behind excellent fish habitat. The rocks are numerous and not marked, so a guide is highly recommended here. Baffin Bay Rod and Gun Club, operated by Captain Sally Black, specializes in fly fishing Baffin and the remote flats bisected by the Land Cut extending to the south.

The Land Cut is a portion of the Intracoastal Waterway that looks more like a canal because of the extensive spoil islands deposited in the shallow tidal flats on each side of the waterway when it was constructed. Narrow channels bisect the spoil islands, providing access to thousands of acres of ultra-shallow flats such as the 9 Mile Hole area that can only be fished by wading and extremely shallow-running flats boats.

Farther south is Port Mansfield, which has some of the best redfish flats in the world with access to the south end of the Land Cut and the East Cut leading to the Gulf. There is no direct access for wade fishermen and kayakers in Port Mansfield because all the waterfront land is private. Fishing is the only industry here, with lodging and guides readily available, along with several public boat ramps. If you are looking for a guide, try Capt. Ben Paschal at lagunamadreoutfitters.com.

South Padre Island is located at the far south end of the Laguna Madre and is a destination better known as a prime spring break party location than a fishing hot spot. Don’t be fooled by the high-rise condos along the beach. South Padre is a great place to fish, with multiple access points for wading, kayaks, and boats along with a large guiding community. South Padre develops a more natural wild persona the farther north you travel on State Highway 100, with some of the most beautiful flats on the Texas coast on the backside of the island. An added bonus is a consistent fishery for snook, commonly inhabiting the same flats as redfish, and an increasing population of tarpon.

A fly angler smiling and holding a redfish with a fly in its mouth.
Fly selection for redfish is sometimes dependent on the other fish you want to target for the day. When wading the shallow flats early in the morning, a streamer pattern gives you the option of casting to a large sow trout cruising the shoreline and channel edges looking for baitfish. (Ben Paschal photo)

If you are feeling adventurous, and have a 4-wheel-drive vehicle, travel from Brownsville on State Highway 4 to Boca Chica Beach. This was once one of the most remote areas of the Texas coast, dominated by wildlife refuges on either side of the highway. It’s now home to two of Elon Musk’s SpaceX launch pads, where you can walk within a few hundred feet of rockets preparing for space travel.

The road terminates at Boca Chica Beach, where an off-road vehicle is a must. To the south along the beach is the mouth of the Rio Grande River and Mexico. To the north is the Brownsville Ship Channel directly across from South Padre Island. Turn left at the ship channel and you will find South Bay, the southern limit of the Laguna Madre, where you can wade or launch a kayak. This is a beautiful place with the only major oyster reefs in the Laguna. Natural deep blue channels cross the bay, and shallow clear flats are bordered by small black mangroves along the shoreline. South Bay is a special place and one of the best places in Texas to catch both redfish and snook. You might even see a rocket launch into space.

Fly fishing in the Laguna Madre has been going on for decades, but despite ideal habitat and world-class fishing, still remains something of a novelty. Texas in general has not historically been known as a fly-fishing destination, and fly fishers are few and far between.

Popularity is growing though, along with the increasing populations in Austin, San Antonio, and Houston, where newcomers are bringing fly fishing from their home states and subsequently discovering the paradise in their new backyards. More and more Texas fishing guides are specializing in fly fishing and can be found in all the cities and towns bordering the Laguna Madre, along with some great fly shops. Thankfully, there are millions of acres of flats to choose from, so crowds shouldn’t be a problem for some time.

Flies and Tackle

Redfish eat almost anything that swims, and standard flats fly patterns used worldwide also work in the Laguna Madre. Brown, tan, and pink shrimp and crab patterns such as the Mantis Shrimp and Raghead Crabs in sizes 6 and 8 are ideal. Silver and white streamer patterns mimicking small mullet and pinfish are also great producers. Fly selection for redfish is sometimes dependent on the other fish you want to target for the day. When wading the shallow flats early in the morning, a streamer pattern gives you the option of casting to a large sow trout cruising the shoreline and channel edges looking for baitfish. Fishing with a shrimp or crab fly gives you a shot at a butterfly drum or sheepshead, which feed exclusively on crustaceans.

McKnight's Danger Muffin Crab
McKnight's Danger Muffin Crab. (Charlie Craven photo)

Redfish are voracious feeders. They will eat both types of flies, and on some days it seems like they will eat any fly—you just have to get it in the right spot.

On other days, rejection seems to be the rule. One day, I was casting a Mantis Shrimp along a grassy edge with no luck. Redfish often followed the little fly, but refused to take it.  Blindly casting into a grass patch, I hooked a small speckled trout, and a large redfish followed it out, repeatedly attacking the 8-inch fish. I dug into my fly box and found a large silver and black streamer that bore a resemblance to a small trout. I cast into the same area, and promptly hooked the red and several others that day on the same pattern. On another day, I cast the same fly toward several redfish pods, and they repeatedly scattered in terror as soon as they saw it. Like any kind of fly fishing, if one thing does not work, keep changing flies until you find what they want.

An 8-weight rod handles most of the redfish you encounter in the Laguna Madre during the summer. However, wind is a near constant factor in South Texas, and a 9-weight gives you a little more casting power for the blustery days, plus added insurance if you encounter a larger bull red. A 9-foot, 16- or 20-pound leader with a 3-foot fluorocarbon 20-pound tippet is fairly standard. The heavier tippet provides additional abrasion resistance from the ever-present ladyfish. Acrobatic ladyfish are amazingly easy to catch and are great fun on a fly rod. But they are tough on leaders just like their larger cousins, the tarpon.


Gary Meurer is a native of South Texas and has spent a lifetime pursuing fish in the Laguna Madre and the Gulf of Mexico. He is a former naval officer and retired engineer who travels the world with his wife Amanda, always with a fly rod in hand. Gary is a father of four and is looking forward to teaching his only grandchild, June, how to fly fish. @gmeurer91

Writer Gary Meurer holding a bonefish in shallow water
Gary Meurer

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