Capt. Charlie Paradoski still knows where to take fishermen on upper coast!

The slab of fog that settled over East Matagorda Bay early Friday was as cold and disheartening as a broken promise. Even at 10 a.m., as patches of blue sky began to show overhead, visibility on the water was nearly zero. Capt. Charlie Paradoski was frustrated. Without familiar landmarks for navigation, he was having to guess, to "wing it," and that's not something to which this seasoned professional is accustomed. Few other people know Texas' upper coast like Paradoski, who's 48 years old and has been a coastal fishing guide for more than 20 years. Six presidents have held the nation's highest office since Paradoski first fished professionally. He's seen daily trout limits go from "string 'em all" to 20 to 10. He's seen redfish go from plentiful to scarce and back to plentiful. He's watched water quality change, and he's witnessed coastal development from a unique perspective. The name may not be as familiar as some others, but Paradoski's never been the sort who looks for cameras or microphones. Instead, he looks for fish. And he usually finds them.

Also on the boat last week were Captain Don Wood, another veteran guide and Dr. Frank Runnels, a Houston veterinarian. At 11 a.m. we still couldn't see more than 100 yards in any direction except straight up. Three hours of fishing, and there was nothing in the box; our collective effort had produced only a single, throwback trout. And then, the shroud began to lift. Not entirely, but enough that Paradoski could get a fix on his location. The order was given to stow our gear and hold on. He was going to work. "What I appreciate most about Capt. Charlie is that he's a hunter," Runnels said. "I've never found him not to be energetic or concerned (about his clients). He knows what he's doing." We didn't have to look far. As it turned out, Paradoski had guessed his way blindly across several miles of open water and stopped within 200 yards of the previous day's hot spot. One minor adjustment, and we were in the fish.

Even in the early 70's, Paradoski had a reputation for toting heavy stringers on days when other fishermen struck out. There were no limits then, and catches of more than 100 specks were fairly common. Gill nets were everywhere, and the resource was thought to be inexhaustible. His most memorable fishing trip, the bellringer day that keeps him focused and motivated still, occurred in July of 1974. In the middle of Trinity Bay, Paradoski and a couple of buddies stumbled onto a mother lode of giant specks.

"Old Capt. Crawley said it was the best catch he'd ever seen," Paradoski recalled - 156 specks, and not a single fish lighter than seven pounds. "Some of the guys at the old camps like Crawley's and Pleasure Island said I ought to start guiding," Paradoski remembered, adding that Forrest West, another original player who to this day is no slouch of a fisherman himself, also was a strong influence.

Capt. Paradoski's earliest mentor, though, was none other than "The Plugger", Rudy Grigar, who allowed a much younger Paradoski to tag along in the early years of free-wheeling, free-spooling baitcasters who swore off natural bait. "I used to go to Port O'Connor all the time with Rudy," Paradoski said with deep admiration for a genuine legend among Texas plugcasters. "I can remember camping out on Panther Point on weekends." Under such prominent tutelage and with tremendous personal dedication, Paradoski slowly and quietly became one of the most respected guides on the Texas Coast. And one of the most knowledgeable - about the bays he fishes, and about his profession.

"One of the problems in Galveston is that there's lots of pollution now." Paradoski said. "I used to think that rain was good for the bay, that it flushed away (impurities). Now, he said, just the opposite is true. Involved indirectly in an environmental business, Paradoski has learned a great deal about runoff and what it contains today: oil that drips from leaking cars, pesticides, and fertilizers from our yards. All of which, he said, "has got to take its toll." Another serious problem, he said is shrimpers' by-catch. "Bay shrimping needs to be stopped," Paradoski said bluntly. "There's no sense in it. East Galveston Bay is unbelievable; you watch tons of bycatch floating dead."

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's most current studies indicate that bay shrimpers kill four pounds of other marine life - a substantial portion of which is juvenile sport fish - for every pound of shrimp harvested. Offshore shrimpting exacts an even higher toll, particularly on juvenile red snapper.

By noon Friday, we already had at least a dozen specks and several redfish on ice. Two hours later, with Capt. Paradoski adjusting subsequent drifts against the slightest changes in wind or tide, we'd caught about all the fish the law allowed and released plenty more. Runnels had a 27-inch speckled trout, his personal best, and Capt. Wood had a 28-inch fish. We'd caught a pair of flounder by then, too, and a slew of reds. I remember one particular speck on my line, not terribly large but quite animated at boatside. Paradoski gripped his landing net, which has seen better fish and better days, and took a calculated swipe just as the hook pulled from the trout's mouth. The deep mesh cradled the fish momentarily, then coughed it back into the bay through a gaping hold. "You'll get another one,: Paradoski said. He was right.

Fishing has improved along the entire coast, he said, noting that Friday's catch was typical of his results so far this year. "With the help of the (Gulf Coast Conservation Association) with reds, we're seeing more of them than ever," Paradoski said. "They're starting with trout, too. They deserve nothing but credit." Recreational limits also have helped the fish to overcome coastal hurdles. "I see nothing wrong with the limits," Paradoski said. "When they first went from 20 (speckled trout) to 10, I thought it would be the end of the world. But most people are very happy with that." As well they should be.

Many days, and he'd be the first to admit not every day, Capt. Charlie Paradoski can put his customers on plenty of fish. On their rods, too, not just his. "Taking care of the customer is number one," Paradoski said of the guiding business. "You want them to catch the fish, not you catching fish for them. There are some great guides around, but there's also a lot that don't have any business doing what they're doing. I've seen lots of guides come and go." Often, he's made those observations from the winner's circle. Among other awards, Pardoski is one of only two men to win the GCCA's prestigious Guide's Cup tournament twice, first in 1987 and again in 1994.

One reason for his longevity in a business that has a habit of making peers disappear is his willingness to adapt. Different times call for different strategies. "I've fished with a lot of guides," said Capt. Wood, who's been on the water around Matagorda since 1969, "and he's one of the top guides on the coast. He stays on 'em. He knows what to look for." Paradoski's low-keyed demeanor all these years has kept him out of the press.....Capt. Charlie is not one to brag. Just as he's had to change fishing strategies to keep pace, though, he may also have to accept some much deserved and long overdue accolades and the benefits that go with them.

"We're entering a time when guides are starting to get things from sponsors," the salty veteran said, sounding uncertain as to whether that was good or bad for the profession in the long run.

Nobody deserves "things" more. And more than anything, to whom it may concern, Paradoski needs a new net.

Doug Pike covers the outdoors for the Chronicle.