San Jose Island is a one of a kind place that everyone in Rockport should enjoy during their stay. It’s an easy day trip with very little in the way of costs for a basic visit. You can ramp things up with some serious boating and fishing tours or comb the beaches, do some swimming and watch the wildlife.
The locals often refer to the island as St. Joe’s so prepare to hear it both ways. It’s a quick boat ride to reach the island and you will instantly be transported onto an isolated and protected ecosystem. Keep in mind that the island is private but you can recreate on public land. This leaves all of the beach areas open below the vegetation line, making the entire shoreline accessible.
San Jose Island is a 21-mile long, narrow strip of barrier island. It averages 5 miles wide on average and shelters Aransas and Mesquite Bays with the outer facing end connecting to the Gulf of Mexico. The island is actually private and was once a working ranch.
Before developing into a ranch the island was the first place in Texas to have an American flag planted when the USS Alabama reached the shoreline. The island developed into a ranch pre-civil war and was ultimately wiped out and decimated of people and livestock during the war.
After the civil war, San Jose Island was vacant with hunters and fisherman being the only exception. It developed into a high end hunting and fishing destination and although it remains privately owned now, the island is open to the public and acts more as a nature and wildlife reserve.
When it acted as a private sporting retreat, the fishing and hunting attracted very wealthy individuals along with powerful politicians like Franklin D Roosevelt and Lyndon B Johnson.
Getting to the Island
The island is incredibly convenient for visitors. No road access is available but a ferry runs daily and you can catch a ride for around 12-dollars. It runs every hour with the first boat typically leaving at 7am.
Keep in mind that no services are available on the island. Bring along a backpack with your sunscreen, water, snacks and anything else you expect to need while visiting. Every visit is different and some folks will stay all day while others stay for an hour and catch the next boat home.
Not everyone is interested in fishing or identifying every bird species around but the island still is open for exploring to anyone. You can simply go for a walk and enjoy the 21 miles of roadless area. No vehicles are allowed on the island and the beaches are pristine. Sometimes, simply walking around and finding a good picnic spot for a few hours is the perfect way to experience the island.
Fishing the Island
San Jose and the neighboring Mustang Island are very well known for the world class sea trout and redfish habitat. The lack of development allows the island to act naturally and flourish without disturbing the habitat that sea trout and redfish require to flourish.
The North Jetty is very popular with fisherman and also with surfers during the right seasons. Fisherman can do well casting off the shore and into the surf in many cases. You can fish the Aransas bay side of the island where sea trout and redfish are very common or try the Gulf of Mexico side where other species like baby tarpon and jacks can cruise past your feet.
January through March is also tuna season but these fish concentrate in higher numbers off shore and your best bet is hiring a fishing charter to explore the Gulf of Mexico and cover ground until you find a school of fish. The off shore trips also open opportunities to catch snapper, cod and grouper which all make for excellent table fare.
You will not find any services or tackle for sale on the island so pack along your tackle box with spare line, hooks and anything else you will need on the water. Otherwise, you can explore the shorelines or head straight to the North Jetty where the fishing is typically productive.
One of the best activities available on the island is beachcombing. Finding access to miles and miles of pristine beach environments is rare. You can walk and comb for treasures and really pick through the abundance of shells.
Seashell collectors will find starfish, sand dollars, shark eyes and many more varieties washed up in the sand. Kick off your shoes, walk the beaches and take home a few treasures from the ocean. You can easily lose track of time and find yourself spending hours walking and combing through the sand. The variety of shells found will often vary based on your location but both the bay sides and the Gulf of Mexico sides will have shells and plenty of interesting things to discover along the beaches.
Although the island is unpopulated and is known for being very clean, the occasional piece of trash will wash onto the shore. If you are out beachcombing and come across any trash, pick it up and take it back to the ferry. Keeping the island pristine is a group effort and bringing along a bag just for trash is a good practice.
The entire region is a bird watching paradise but the San Jose Island specifically is especially attractive. The island is undeveloped and the bird habitat is spectacular. Like everywhere in the region, whooping cranes are a major draw for bird watchers. You can bring along binoculars and look around or take a boat tour around the island specifically to find the cranes. The tour operators know exactly where the cranes are located and they can place you at a safe distance to view without disturbing the birds.
In addition to cranes, a ton of local birds live on or visit the island. Bring your guidebook and prepare to check off multiple species.