On the surface, the likable Dr. Bill Harvey would seem to be anything but a revolutionary.
And yet, thanks to an unanticipated night out on the saltwater flats near Aransas Pass, in some ways, Harvey has been just that: a revolutionary force in the sea kayak craze that has swept – or is that swamped? – most of Texas in the past decade.
Norm "Parrothead" Bekoff is a card carrying member of the Texas kayak fishing craze. Here he plies the waters of Lake Texoma looking for striped bass.
Harvey, a retired biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department turned marine agent for the Texas Cooperative Extension Service, played an unexpected role in this plastic water-craft revolution back in July of 1999.
That’s when the biologist and passionate fly fisherman actually got lost one evening while paddling in the Lighthouse Lakes region between Aransas Pass and Port Aransas.
What started out that evening as a simple quest for redfish and a few good photographs from his Nikon camera turned into something far more valuable for literally thousands of paddle pushers across the Lone Star State’s Gulf coast.
A series of TPWD paddle trails, something you can ostensibly blame on Bill.
“There is the very expansive black mangrove estuary down there,” Harvey said of the Aransas Pass area. “I paddled in one night to get some good sunset photographs. But when I started trying to get out, and the sun got down, I couldn’t find my way out.”
“I hate to admit it, but I was just lost. It took me about four hours of random paddling, but I finally found my way out. I could zero in on the Aransas Pass water tower so I eventually found my way out.”
A few days later, after flying over the region that he had gotten turned around in, Harvey visited with workers in TPWD’s Geographical Information Systems department in Austin.
That’s when the light bulb came on, so to speak.
“Our GIS guys pulled up some aerial photographs and looking at them, you could see how they’re all intertwined,” Harvey said.
“It’s like a big long maze and we got the idea to put some trails in and put in some markers, some GPS coordinates, and produce a few maps.”
Utilizing some coastal management grant money from the General Land Office, Harvey helped to spearhead a TPWD project that saw a sea kayak trail put into place in the Lighthouse Lakes area near Aransas Pass.
The project came complete with actual trail markers and a corresponding waterproof aerial photo map displaying both the actual marker locations and GPS coordinates.
Apparently, plenty of would-be kayak paddlers and anglers liked Harvey’s idea.
In short order, more and more sea kayaks were soon braving the intricate maze of redfish rich saltwater marsh near Port Aransas, a trend that has continued as other paddle trails and maps have been completed up and down the Texas Gulf coast and in a variety of freshwater venues.
“We saw a 10 to 20-percent increase in the number of people using that first area within a year,” Harvey recalled.
Today, the flame of the state’s sea kayak revolution – begun as far back as the 1980s by the likes of Bruce Gillan of CanoeSport in Houston and fanned through the years by others like Harvey, his former TPWD boss Dr. Larry McKinney, and Capt. Scott Null – continues to roar unabated across Texas.
Entire businesses are related to the sea kayak fishing phenomenon, from dealerships to various guide services like Capt. Dean Thomas’ “Slowride Guide Service and Kayak Rental” in Aransas Pass, Ray Chapa’s “Kayak 4 Redfish Guide Service” in Port Aransas, and Capt. Sally Moffett’s “Rockport Kayak Outfitters.”
And that’s just on the state’s coastal waters, mind you.
Today, kayaks are sold in the state’s big sporting good stores and at kayak specialty shops all across the Lone Star State and in the neighboring state of Oklahoma.
To see the full measure of the state’s rapidly growing armada of roto-molded plastic ship enthusiasts, one only has to visit the highly popular Texas Kayak Fisherman’s Web site found at www.texaskayakfisherman.com .
Be forewarned, however.
If you choose to visit the TKF site, you might want to grab a cup of coffee or a soft drink. Then you’ll want to get comfortable, sit back, and get ready to peruse literally tens of thousands of posts on all aspects of the state’s hottest aquatic phenomenon.
And don’t think this paddle craft tsunami shows any signs of slowing down anywhere in the near future.
Part of the reason for kayak fishing’s meteoric growth in Texas is due to the craft’s stealth, portability, limited maintenance, and low operating costs.
Because of all of that – and the amazing natural experience of venturing into a fish’s aquatic world – paddlers are now using their crafts to fish waters ranging from the striped bass rich acreage of vast Lake Texoma to tumbling Hill Country streams to timber studded bass lakes in East Texas.
Heck, for that matter, there are now growing numbers of ‘yakkers on plenty of West Texas water bodies surrounded by cactus, tumble weed, and rattlesnakes.
Rob Woodruff, an Orvis endorsed fly fishing guide for bass on Lake Fork in East Texas and for rainbow and brown trout on the Lower Mountain Fork River in southeastern Oklahoma, has seen increasing numbers of kayak anglers on the waters that he guides upon.
While the Quitman-based guide doesn’t fish from a kayak just yet, such a trend makes perfect sense to him on some of the big bass waters that he fishes.
“I think it (the increasing popularity of freshwater kayak-fishing) might be for the fact that (anglers) can cover the water so well,” Woodruff said.
“Such a boat allows them to get back into more densely timbered areas that a traditional bass boat can’t go.”
“And with the cost of bass boats reaching $30,000 or more, a good kayak these days can be had for $1,000 or less. With those figures, the amount of days spent on the water per actual dollar spent is really good.”
All of that is translating into very good kayak sales figures across the state despite the sluggish economy.
According to one industry estimate several years ago, at least 15,000 kayaks were being sold each year in Texas. And the kayak sales trend continues on the upside these days, not down.
With such things as lighter materials, improved hull designs, the sport’s health benefits, and a collection of trendy colors and graphics playing their own role in fanning the paddle-craft flame, more young paddlers and women are joining the kayak revolution across Texas.
And that’s one revolution that paddlers like Dr. Bill Harvey, likely candidate or not, can take a bow for helping to begin.