The Sea is History

PRESENTED BY Tingley

STORY BYTito West

LONG FORM: 2600 Words

TEXAS | Gulf Coast


The Texas coast is a lesson in contrasts, a glaring representation of the state’s great diversity. There is an incredible beauty to this desolate stretch of land, marked by salty marshes and low-lying barrier islands, and for anyone who has spent time here, or was raised here, it becomes a place unlike any other. If you are away for too long, you miss the damp, heavy air, thick with salt that sticks to your skin, and the smell of the hyper-saline bays and estuaries between the barrier islands and the mainland.

You miss the shrimp boats tied to the pilings and the pale green color of their nets and tackle in the summer sun. You miss the sight of spoonbills and the flocks of green-winged teal, the whooping cranes and the sound of honking overhead as Canadian geese head north in the fall. You miss the thin, distant horizons that seem to rise out of the sea when returning from an offshore fishing trip on the Gulf Stream. You miss it all, and I know this because I spent the early part of my life here, and then I left. I left for a long time, and while I would find myself in some distant country, maybe on a long, endless track after buffalo in the dense sand of the Okavango, or up in the north country on an equally endless pack trip to some distant mountain, my mind would wander and I would feel the warmth of the south Texas sun on my skin and dream of the day that I would be back among the shrimp boats and the coastal dunes of my beloved shoreline. 

The Gulf Coast has attracted many to its waters. It began with the Spaniards and Cortés, and later Pineda, and the legendary shipwrecks of the conquistadors in search of gold, eternal life and new worlds. But they were not the first ones here. The Karankawa had inhabited the coastline long before any king decreed a voyage of exploration under the banner of his nation’s flag. They learned how to live in this rugged land and how to protect their skin from the relentless onslaught of mosquitoes that are perhaps the region’s greatest claim to fame. Centuries later came artists like Winslow Homer and after him — perhaps because of him — Hemingway, and eventually others, less well-known but equally devoted to the region. Artists such as John P. Cowan, Al Barnes and Dan Wingren, all beholden to the spell that the Gulf Coast casts upon those with susceptible imaginations and longings for another time, devoted their oeuvre to this place.

“Another artist to have fallen under the spell of the gulf is JT Van Zandt. Though not an artist in the traditional sense, JT (John Townes) is nonetheless without question an artist, a man who has discovered, through a connection to the natural world and through the craft of fly fishing, a deep understanding of life and the legacy we pass on to future generations.”

He is the eldest son of the late singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt. However, it would be a mistake to assume that his life is relegated to the shadow cast by that legendary giant. JT has become his own sort of legend, particularly in the world of fly fishing, but what I find myself drawn to is his philosophy on life. His clients are not unaccustomed to thought-provoking and engaging conversations when poling the flats or during a lull in the fishing on a scorching and windless summer day. I experienced this for myself a few months ago when I spent a day on the water with JT. I had come to discuss the idea of traditions with him, to talk about his journey and his love for the Texas coast, and to look for redfish.

We met at Goose Island State Park on an unusually calm February morning in what can only be described as an idyllic Gulf Coast scene. Pelicans floated in formation near the dock, and a trailer overfilled with crab traps sat next to the water’s edge. As I sat waiting for JT to arrive, my mind wandered back 25 years to when I was just a boy. I was in my grandfather’s Lincoln town car, and we drove along the coast to the park where I now sat. He had brought me here to see the old, gigantic oak tree that the park is famous for, known simply and fittingly as “The Big Tree” — a thousand-year-old monument to the storied past of this coastline. The tree was here when the Spanish galleons wrecked at the confluence of currents off South Padre Island known as “Devil’s Elbow” in the mid-16th century. Spain, Mexico, the Republic of Texas and the United States have all laid claim to the coast during its lifetime. It has survived hurricanes, industrial development and climate change, and it will likely be here when we no longer are. 

JT arrived and launched the skiff into the water. We idled along slowly and talked about the coast and how it was changing and the influx of fisherman and the explosion of fishing tournaments. After a few minutes, JT finished the breakfast taco he was eating and grabbed a pair of headphones from under the console and said, “Right, OK, we better get started.” We made our way north along the shoreline between the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge to the west and Matagorda Island to the east, each of us lost in a world of our own thoughts, lulled by the drone of the engine. The calm water was like a mirror that we floated above as it carried us past duck blinds, kayakers, and out-of-state oyster fleets that had come to the south Texas waters after depleting their local populations.

JT steered toward a small opening in one of the countless islands, leading us on a course of hairpin curves and switchbacks, eventually opening out onto a large lake. It was obvious that he knew this place well, but to me it was just one of thousands of similar lakes hidden along the coastline that the average angler would likely never encounter. The water was still a bit cool for the redfish we were seeking, but JT assured me that, given the unusually warm temperatures, we’d probably see some start to move as the water warmed throughout the morning. We anchored the boat along the shoreline near the mouth of the lake and walked a huge circle around the muddy flat, pulling our feet out of the muck with each step. Or at least I did. JT seemed to cruise effortlessly while I struggled to keep up. We could see that the fish were hesitant to move this early, and so we decided that our best bet would be to get back in the skiff and pole along the grassy shore, covering as much ground as possible. Just as he predicted, the fish began to move late in the morning when the water temperature had warmed a few degrees, and we could see the tails break the surface as the fish combed the bottom in search of food. I’d made a few casts, paying more attention to my conversation with JT than to the fish I was supposedly trying to land, when the surface of the water erupted. It took me a second to realize what was happening. JT was telling me to get my rod tip up and start bringing in line. Before I knew it, we had the fish alongside the skiff. 

These days, the redfish is king among recreational anglers who make weekend visits to the south Texas waters, but there was a time when another game fish laid claim to that title. In the early part of the 20th century, the town of Port Aransas was known as the tarpon capital of the world. In fact, at one time, its name was Tarpon, Texas. The small town, located at the northern end of Mustang Island, attracted sportsmen from all over the world. The tarpon, however, have largely disappeared from Texas waters, a result of several factors, but mainly attributed to pesticide runoff from increased agriculture as well as the buildup of dams across the state; raising the salinity in the estuaries and affecting the crab and shrimp populations the tarpon rely upon. The dredging of shipping channels and a major influx of oil and gas production along the coast have also played a major role in their disappearance. And, although they have started making a considerable comeback in the last ten or fifteen years, their presence remains far below the numbers of the “tarpon era.” The history and decline of the Tarpon offers a very valuable lesson for the consequences of disrespecting the ecosystem. 

When I brought up the concept of traditions and culture as it applies to recreational fishing along the gulf coast, JT sat silent. I wondered for a second if he had heard my question or was distracted in his search for redfish. Suddenly, as if struck over the head with the wisdom he was searching for, JT responded, “Traditions are great, until they’re not. And culture is just what you get when a group of people never leave a place. I love traditions, but there comes a time when they have to change simply because there’s a better or a smarter or a more responsible way of doing things. I mean, what would it say about us if we continued with the old way of doing things even though we know it’s not sustainable?

Can we really do that just because that’s how our parents or the people who came before us used to do it? No way, man. That’s ridiculous. Things have to change. The nail board has to go away,” he said, referring to the ubiquitous plank at every Gulf Coast dock where anglers show off their trophies. “We’ve got to stop bringing plastic onto the water with us. It’s simple honestly, but we’ve developed some terrible habits over the years and they’re hard to break. And it doesn’t happen on a huge scale, all at once. It happens little by little, by teaching one person how to do things better, and then they pass those lessons on to someone else, and on and on it goes. That’s how traditions got started in the first place, so it’s really no different.”

“These are the lessons JT works to impart on the clients who fish with him. And he lives by his principles: no ziplock bags, no plastic water bottles, no paper towels, and no pressuring the fish by burning up the flats at high speeds. He respects the environment — not out of some misplaced notion of sustainability, but because it has given him everything.”

As a young boy growing up in Texas, JT found solace and comfort in the nature he found along the coast. His mother worked full-time while his dad was on the road playing gigs across the country. But he inherited a love for the natural world and the coastal waters he now calls home. His father loved boats and stories about the sea, and he wrote some of the best songs in American literature about these things, but he never truly experienced them for himself. He was too busy, in JT’s words, “… living the life of a rambler.” 

JT’s guiding principles are vital if we aim to make generational changes that will positively impact the future of this place. The more pressing threat to the coast here, however, is the looming Harbor Island Terminal proposed by the Port of Corpus Christi Authority (POCCA). Plans are currently underway, despite ardent protests from the city of Port Aransas and the Port Aransas Conservancy, as well as noted conservationists and members of the small island community, to install two VLCC (Very Large Crude Carrier) berths on Harbor Island, directly adjacent to the town of Port Aransas. The installation would require dredging the shipping channel to a depth of at least 60 feet, displacing over 6.5 Million Cubic Yards of material. That amount of sediment, suddenly released into suspension in the water, would have a drastic impact on marine life. And, despite encouragement from the oil industry to install the terminal offshore as is common in most places around the world for this sort of thing, the Port of Corpus Christi Authority continues to push for the Harbor Island site, all the while arguing that their plans are in direct compliance with Texas regulations and the Clean Waters Act and that all conservation measures have been considered. They also claim that the resulting economic stimulus offers a significant benefit to the region. The Port Aransas Conservatory, however, has its doubts. JT is currently in conversation with several key figures in the debate, and he’s working to use his platform as the host of the Drifting Podcast to inform the wider public about the issue.

We discussed all of this as we sat on JT’s porch, looking out at the barges cruising up and down the shipping channel of Aransas Bay. His young boys, Townes and Isaac, ran circles around the table, begging their dad to carry their kayak to the water’s edge just in front of the house. Looking at his eldest son, Townes, one can’t help but think of the man for whom he’s named and the cyclical nature of life and the legacy we leave to those who come after us. I wondered for a second if Townes understood the full weight of the name he was given, the legacy that he was born into. JT talked about how our fathers set the path for us, whether we choose to follow it or not, and he’s right. But, we all walk our own path in life, and all you can do is try to be the person your children need you to be. JT does not fall short here. He teaches his boys about the sea and works to give them the tools they will need as they grow older. And most importantly, he teaches them whywe do things, not just how to do them. Finally, succumbing to the desperate pleading of the boys, JT brought the kayak from the side of the house and launched it into the water. Townes and Isaac donned life jackets and hopped in the boat, heading off to explore the small rock islands near the pier. Looking on, I couldn’t help but think that this was exactly how children should be raised. 

Every generation worries that theirs will be the one that screws it up for good, that they will drop the ball, but it’s people like JT that inspire hope. It’s moments like catching a redfish on a fly in a narrow grass channel in February in south Texas that make me realize not all is lost — far from it. And if you wake early in the morning and walk along the broad expanse of beach and you look out across the Gulf, at the horizon, you are looking out toward Cuba and beyond that, to Africa. You realize how much has remained unchanged. Like the Big Tree at Goose Island State Park, the sea is still the same as it was centuries ago, when nothing was here, and the waves are the same waves that brought the explorers to the new world. Our life came out of the sea. It’s what connects us all, and the history of the world is wrapped up in it. As Walcott so eloquently put it: “The Sea is History.” But in the end, we are the authors of our own story. And the traditions we pass on are nothing more than what we make them. It’s up to us to decide what those traditions are.

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