Fishing Lines: Hooked on the Texas trawl

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The Independent Online
WHEN I got back from Galveston, I checked the words to Glen Campbell's song. Not a single mention of fishing. Funny that. From the weird happenings I've just experienced, the tale of Galvestonians wading through Christmas Bay at 3am to check speckled trout would make a fine country and western ballad. Or maybe not a song at all. The circumstances that saw me paddling a mile off the Texas coast in the middle of the night were worthy of Fellini. Or maybe just a good angling yarn.

It all came about because I was in Houston this week. I was there to sharpen the writing skills for journalists specialising in the petroleum industry. Fishing was the furthest thing from my mind. Well, that's not quite true, but you get the picture. I had no tackle, no suitable clothing, no bait nor flies. The training completed, I had a spare day, then it was a plane home.

I was staying at the Houstonian, a hotel much patronised by George Bush, who lives just round the corner. He is a keen angler, and I pondered the idea of inviting him for a day's fishing. I mean, the former US president ought to know the good spots and have access to some tasty private waters, shouldn't he? I didn't get George Bush, but I found Tim Lopas.

A former tennis and rock band bass player, Lopas hopes ultimately to become a fishing guide. At the moment, he is some way off. He is director of guest services at the Houstonian, and it interferes hugely with his dream to fish day and night. Some might see this career plan as a step backwards. After all, he is only 30, in a high-profile job and likely to continue climbing the corporate ladder.

Lopas, like many Texans, does not suffer from self-doubt. Yeah, sure, the hotel job pays well and will reward him even better in the near future. But a guide can earn $400 for a half-day, that's, er, $5,600 a week (you suspect this is the rationale his wife will have to argue against) and on the happiness scale, becoming a fishing guide would send him to the Crab Nebula.

When he discovered that I enjoyed the occasional cast, Lopas immediately rescheduled my quiet evening of a few beers and a gumbo. "Let's go fishing," he said. The hotel staff looked on in relief (no big-fish tales from the boss, at least for a few hours) or pity (because they knew what I was in for).

Lopas spends every spare moment on the Galveston coast. He religiously checks the Internet to see what others have been catching, and files his own catches as soon as he returns. Local anglers meticulously record their day, blank or success. It is one of the few truly useful websites among all those millions of wasted words. We stopped off at Lopas' home to get the tackle. He nodded to the dogs, the kids, the wife. A quick final check of the well-named Net and we were off in his pick-up. Lopas is very serious about his fishing. You can't get a live bait well and an outboard engine in the back of a Cadillac.

"The fishing here has made an amazing recovery over the last four years," he said. "I would go so far as to say that it maybe the best undiscovered fishing in America."

"Give me an example."

"Well, there's a spot near that bridge where I caught eight Drums in three hours with the smallest 35lb, earlier this year. We're a couple of weeks early for the main run of speckled trout, but when they really come in, fishing is truly fabulous."

We are driving along the Galveston coast road, an 18-mile strand of which Lopas claims to know every inch. The bay of Mexico is to our left, but high winds means we will have to fish in the Bayous. It is 10pm. Ten minutes ago, we stopped at an all-night tackle shop. It had less gear than I have in my garage but one unique feature: live shrimps. Not the weedy things you spend ages trying to disembowel at the seaside. They are eight-inch king prawns, a supreme bait around Galveston. At $12 a quart, "shrimps" bring in enough punters for the shop to survive happily and, I thought, if we don't catch anything, at least we can eat the bait.

Next week I'll tell you what happened to those shrimps, Lopas's favourite rod, my sleep and my sanity.