June 23, 2017
Here's the story behind two Texas outdoorsmen who are making a living doing what they love most — they're fishing guides.
By Judy B. Jurek
How many people actually have their dream job? Who has employment that is somewhat of a fantasy, giving complete satisfaction while putting money in their pocket? What is an occupation many outdoors folks daydream about when sitting through a dull meeting or while behind a computer screen filled with boring data? If you answered "fishing guide" you are correct!
Just who becomes a full-time fishing guide? What does it take to be one? Is it all fun and games? How does a person manage to fish day in, day out, regardless of Mother Nature's weather whims, and still get results adequate to keep clients happy? Does fishing burnout ever occur?
These questions and more were put to Captain Noe Garza, a most affable and social 35-year veteran fishing guide. Born and raised in the Corpus Christi area, he says fishing has been a part of his life as far back as he can remember. "How can anyone grow up around Corpus and not fish?" Garza wanted to know.
During his college years Garza worked for the biology department planning and participating in field trips. He would take people out in a boat to fish but also to look for birds and wildlife, aquatic and on land. After graduation, armed with degrees in marine science (with emphasis on biology) and geology, Garza started out in shrimp mariculture for Texas A&M. From there he gained employment with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
When not working, Garza was pursuing his passion of fishing. People began to pay for his efforts. Ever so slowly the marine biologist began making money enjoying what he loved to do the most. The time arrived when his pastime was actually bringing in more income than his full-time job. At a crossroads in life, Garza made a tough decision but one he has never regretted.
"It's not easy being a fishing guide. You don't just hang out a shingle and people line up at the dock," he laughed. "I finally decided to jump in, to do what I loved so very much. I became a full-time guide."
However, in 1997 the guide went back to school, completing his Masters in Biology Education in 2002. "Just something to fall back on should I ever need it," he quipped.
"Basically I'm a teacher, just out on the water in a boat. I rarely fish these days with clients unless they insist. My enjoyment comes from showing them where and how to fish while watching them reel their catch to the boat." Garza no longer wade-fishes, preferring to keep clients, and himself, in his 22-foot shallow-draft boat named Sciaenid from the drum family of fish.
"I anchor or drift-fish, depending on the weather and the ability of the people in my boat. When anchored, you have to fish farther from the boat, but drifting you can hook fish right beside it."
Garza revealed he likes taking people on an adventure. Occasionally a customer will say they do not want to fish eight hours.
"I tell them we may travel a good distance from where we put in — I don't just leave the dock and start casting. I don't do short trips." He also does not advertise putting clients on trophy trout or oversized reds, although he most certainly can get into them.
"I want to give a memorable, exciting activity. An adventure," said Garza matter-of-factly.
"That's why it's an all-day trip. We'll catch 3 to 5 different fish species in one day. Catching drum, trout, sheepshead, flounder, whiting, and perhaps even a large croaker is what it's about. We may see nilgai, wild hogs, white-tailed deer, and, of course, birds of all kinds along the shoreline and the many small islands dotting the coast."
Part of Garza's exploits involves rescuing birds. "You never know what you may find out on the water or around the dock. Many birds get tangled in fishing line and/or have a hook or lure attached to them. It's not hard to catch them. They don't bite that hard," Garza laughed.
"Grab the head or bill as with a pelican and try to wrap up the wings. Many times I've had a pelican come walking back toward me as if to say thanks. Fishermen should never discard or just cut fishing line. It has detrimental effects to vast numbers of species, not just birds and fish."
Garza said he has only been skunked one time in his career. "It's been 30 years ago I went out and did not catch a single fish." With a chuckle, he added, "I learned from my mistakes. Sometimes it takes 3 to 4 hours to find fish. You can't treat it like a job; you must enjoy it. I almost got burned out once but learned not to fish every day in and day out. No one likes a grumpy captain!"
"I'm old school. I don't use GPS, only a compass on foggy days. I use my experience, what I've learned over the years. Today many of the guides are not from Corpus. They don't really 'learn' where to go but rely on what others are talking about, where others are going. I go places not overfished."
Queried about his best and worst customers, Garza chuckled again, "The best customer has no expectations. They just want to fish and have fun for a day. The worst? Me! I want to please, I always want better, whether better days, more fish, bigger fish €¦ I'm my worst client!"
Captain Joe Mendez cut his teeth night-fishing at Port Aransas and Corpus Christi with his parents. His dad had a commercial fishing license and so they fished often. The native Texan worked in his father's San Antonio bar fresh out of high school, later started a carpet cleaning service, and then moved into car repair before finally settling into his present occupation.
In 1986 he began guiding by fishing under lights before beginning day trips in a Bayhawk, both out of Billings Bait Stand that had been long established but was getting old. When Ernie Butler opened Marker 37 Marina in 1988, Mendez began guiding bay fishing trips from there. He did so for the next 18 to 20 years. He got his first captain's license in 1989 and has not looked back since.
"When I first started out I called TPWD and asked what I needed. I was told a state guide license was $50 but few had them as game wardens didn't enforce that law much at the time," said Mendez. "I got started in Corpus. There were only a handful of guides around that time."
"I was pretty much self-taught. Back then there was no GPS, only a few hotspots were mapped, and a few of the guides had the advantage from fishing there all their lives. Ernie helped me a lot."
Mendez said that with fewer guides operating back then, you had the water mostly to yourself so there was lots of exploration.
"Of course I was young and more eager when I started out. You don't automatically have business. Marker 37 and Roy's Bait and Tackle sent me trips, let me put up signs and cards. I had a little billboard at Snoppy's."
Mendez added, "Today I work mostly out of Bluff's Landing Marina. There's great lodging all around. I've spent my whole career primarily working out of two nice businesses."
Mendez offers every type of fishing in and around Baffin Bay, Land Cut and Laguna Madre. And he advertises his specialty is trophy-sized fish. He will use live bait but his favorites are lure and fly-fishing. He loves sight-casting.
"I meet lots of nice people but fly-fishermen have a mindset a bit different than other types of fishermen. It's the chase, the challenge of laying a fly in front of a big red or trout." Mendez says.
He enjoys shallow-water fishing, knowing where his boat can and cannot go. His 21-foot Trans Cat can easily slide through 8 to 10 inches of water, takes only 15 inches to get up and going.
Mendez acknowledged that so much has changed over the 30 years he has been guiding. "GPS and better depthfinders with transducers have improved," he observed. "Doppler radar has been an immense help being able to see when and where rain and storms are going.
"Top speed on boats at 40 to 45 mph was thought to be great, but I recently rode in one that went 70 €¦ a little too fast for me," he chuckled.
"The weather seems hotter these days. Did they even have a heat index years ago?" Mendez asked. "I never get tired of doing this, but I only fish three to five days during the season that generally runs March through September. Guiding 12 to 15 days in a row is too much. You're not as polite and easy-going and that's not good for business.
"I prefer to take customers out during the week if at all possible," Mendez said. "Especially during the summer, there are so many weekend tournaments combined with working folks getting out on the water, it gets crowded. Monday through Thursday are the best days to fish."
Asked about his future plans, Mendez said he hopes to be able to guide and fish as long as he can.
"It's what I do. You learn to pace yourself. You're responsible for your clients' safety and well-being while they're with you in your boat. I try to do my best, put them on fish. I love what I do."
What about fishing during the winter months? Although fishing most certainly continues, both guides said it is slow due to so many things going on, but also because many people do not like to fish in colder temperatures. Being on the water makes it you feel even colder and wearing gloves is not very conductive to casting, feeling a nibble or bite to set the hook, or reeling in.
Being a fishing guide may not be all fun and games but it most certainly is a challenging and satisfying way to make a living, a dream job for some folks. After all, Capt. Noe Garza and Capt. Joe Mendez both agree: "We like the work!"