On a windy spring day in late April, a cadre of volunteers descended on the boat ramp at Goose Island State Park in Rockport. Several airboats were at the ready as volunteers loaded up hundreds of bags filled with oyster shell for a short trip across the bay to the edge of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. They were there to patch a manmade channel ripped right through the heart of sensitive marshland in the refuge, threatening critical habitat for the endangered whooping crane and a host of other wildlife species.
The project was spearheaded by a relatively new organization called FlatsWorthy, which has brought together a once cantankerous assortment of sportsmen and women who have been at odds over the recreational use of the coastal flats around Rockport. These shallow saltwater flats provide world-class fishing opportunities, but everyone enjoys them in different ways. When you add an ever-increasing number of anglers and evolving boat designs that allow more boaters to navigate shallower waters, you have a recipe for conflict. It reached a boiling point a few years ago. And then one man stepped in with an idea for an organization that has pulled together competing interests and brought them together with a simple concept based on mutual respect.
That man is Chuck Naiser, who has fished these coastal waters for more than 50 years. His passion for his sport, and for the coastal resources he loves, has evolved into a fierce determination to make a difference for the next generation who will enjoy these waters long after he is gone. That’s why Chuck has been chosen as an ambassador for Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation’s “We Will Not Be Tamed” campaign this year. The campaign encourages all Texans to get involved in conserving the wild things and wild places of our state. It calls on us all to appreciate the wildness of Texas, the vastness of our Texas spirit and why we should be inspired to conserve it. Chuck Naiser has embodied that message for decades.
Chuck Naiser’s love for the coastal waters of Rockport is rooted in a lifetime of outdoor experiences. He was raised in the tiny rural community of East Bernard, about 50 miles southwest of Houston. He grew up in an idyllic setting where he played outdoors every day, fishing the waters of nearby creeks. Everyone in the town knew everyone else, and people took care of each other. That ethic is still deeply ingrained in him.
After high school, he attended Sam Houston State University, earning a degree in biology. It was there that he met his future wife, Marguerite. Marguerite’s father was an avid coastal fisherman.
“I only knew freshwater fishing and had fished at the coast just a couple of times,” recalled Chuck. “When we got married, not only did I get her, but I got him. He simply loved fishing in Rockport, and he quickly got me hooked.”
The young couple lived in Houston, where Chuck established himself in the insurance business and Marguerite began her career as a teacher. They visited Rockport as often as they could. When their son was born, Chuck knew he wanted to raise him in the same rural upbringing he had enjoyed, so they moved to West Columbia, close to where he had grown up. In 1979, they purchased a vacation home in Rockport.
“We went to Rockport 40 weekends a year, and they loved it as much as I did,” he said. “It was a paradise.”
Chuck’s passion for fishing fueled a passion for the resource, and he was involved in the early days of a fledgling organization called the Gulf Coast Conservation Association (GCCA). GCCA was formed when coastal anglers realized that commercial gill netting threatened the long-term survival of redfish and trout. After several legislative sessions, GCCA declared victory in 1981 when a law passed that made both redfish and speckled sea trout game species. That meant the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission could regulate their take. That, and supplemental fish stocking from coastal hatcheries funded by fishing license fees, laid the groundwork for the two species’ remarkable recovery. Chuck’s involvement in those early days of GCCA exposed him to a network of passionate anglers and gave him an appreciation for how difficult it is to achieve legislative solutions to problems. That lesson helped inform the creation of FlatsWorthy some 40 years later.
In 1992, Chuck decided he’d had enough of the insurance business.
“I remember telling my wife ‘I have to go to Rockport and be a fishing guide. That’s what I want to do with the rest of my life. I sure hope you will go with me,’” he recalled with a laugh. “Lucky for me she said yes, and we’ve been here ever since.”
That same year, Chuck made another decision that changed the course of his fishing life: He decided to pick up a fly rod. He’s never looked back. He was one of the first fly-fishing guides on the Texas coast, and over the years his client base has grown to include celebrities, national news anchors, baseball legends, and even a president or two. Chuck has a philosophical perspective about his famous clients.
“They don’t come here to meet me,” he said. “They come to go fishing. I always keep that in mind. They just want to know if you know where some fish are. And most days, I do.”
It is Chuck’s acumen on the water and his reputation in the community that allowed him to bring together a disparate group of anglers, who all pursue their sport in different ways. From wade fishing to fishing on a fly, from a quiet pursuit in a kayak to a loud adventure on an airboat, coastal anglers are as diverse as the fish they pursue. Growing pressure on the resource created conflict both on the water and off.
“The conflict was gaining momentum between different user groups, and I knew we had to do something,” said Chuck. “Having been involved in the Redfish Wars, I know how hard it is to legislate a solution. We had to do something outside of the Legislature, and the only thing to do was to get all user groups together to talk about what we’re doing. And that’s what we did.”
From contentious voices came consensus and a Code of Angler Respect. The code has three simple tenets: respect fellow anglers, respect the resource and respect the law.
“He’s the godfather of fly-fishing guides in Texas,” declared David Sikes, longtime outdoor columnist for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. “He commands a level of respect that was required to start this FlatsWorthy movement. He is dedicated to a cause that he is hellbent on making his legacy.”
Part of that legacy was put in place that April morning as volunteers moved 400 sacks of oyster shells from an airboat armada led by David Nesloney, who has been fishing these coastal flats almost as long as Chuck. He’s been involved with FlatsWorthy from day one.
“We have to protect what we have,” he said. “Airboats are part of the problem, and we want to be part of the solution. It was time for us to make a difference and do what we can to close up that boat path through the marsh and protect the environment.”
More than 30 volunteers showed up that day to create a barrier of burlap-wrapped oyster shells. Each of the 400 bags weighed 50 – 90 pounds and were toted to the mouth of the cut by some of the very airboats that had created the path.
“We couldn’t have completed the project without them,” commented Chuck. “There was no way to get those heavy bags where they needed to be. These airboat operators stepped up to the plate and said they wanted to help. And they did it gladly. And I think we were all proud to be part of this deal. That’s what FlatsWorthy is all about.”
This is the first restoration project completed by FlatsWorthy, a project that was initially scheduled in September 2017. But when Hurricane Harvey slammed into Rockport and the Texas coast in late August, it changed everyone’s timetable. Chuck turned his attention to his neighbors, doing what he could to help people get back on their feet. A fly fishing club in Houston entrusted him with donations that he doled out to as many families as he could. Everyone did their best to take care of their neighbors, much like they did in the small town he grew up in. He is encouraged to see the community bouncing back as businesses are re-opening and people are adjusting to a new normal. Fishing guides are back at work, and repair projects are in full swing.
Chuck was delighted to learn that Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation will be raising funds to rebuild the Fulton Fishing Pier, which was destroyed by the storm. The pier is an icon for the community, offering fishing opportunities for those who don’t own a boat or have access to charters.
“It’s the working man’s pier, and it’s great to hear there are plans to rebuild it,” said Chuck. “We have a diverse economy here, and there are haves and have-nots. No matter where you are, everyone deserves a recreational facility they can access.”
At 73, Chuck Naiser is showing few signs of slowing down. He’s looking forward to the upcoming fishing season and his involvement in the We Will Not Be Tamed campaign. Promoting the campaign’s conservation message is a natural for him.
“Texans need to understand that what they have access to on the coast is a paradise of outdoor life,” he said. “Everyone’s presence has the potential to alter the environment, and while change is inevitable, man’s intrusion should not have a negative impact on it. It should be used in a manner that when you leave it, it looks just like it was. That’s the conservation ethic Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation promotes, and that’s why I am involved with We Will Not Be Tamed. I hope all Texans will join us.”