The "Padre of Padre": Captain Billy L. Sandifer
It was a beautiful fall evening and the Golden Monarchs were in full migration as the late day Padre sun was setting the first time I ever saw Billy Sandifer. I was QUITE proud to be running an old rusty carbureted 1980 Jeep CJ-5 on the beach, and even prouder of how loud it was due to its true dual exhaust with glasspacks, its 4 speed manual transmission, and its 33's. Truly, no one could have been as old school cool or as rebellious as myself. As I packed a fresh lip of Skoal and lit the first Marlboro Red out of a new pack just because I could, (two is always better than one, right?) I heard a loud rumble from behind. From out of nowhere the oldest, rusted out, beaten down, and carbureted Chevrolet Suburban I had ever seen came flying by my camp with no other than Willie Nelson’s look alike behind the wheel, and a pile of touristy folks hanging out the back windows. There was a slight nod of confirmation given by Willie there, and then a second look of mild curiosity given before they blasted back off. The first emotion I remember feeling was that I had been OUTDONE, this vehicle was not only LOUDER, but it was almost as old as mine and at least half as rebellious! The second emotion I felt was that I had found my new haunt in South Texas, as certainly none of the bay fishermen could ever be as cool as whatever ole' fart had just driven by with fish blood all over his shirt and a necklace of shark teeth hanging around his neck.
Looking back, I miss those days. I think we all do. The years of seeing Billy's many different Suburbans roll by on charter are past and gone now. The days of him yelling something unintelligible as he rolled by, and me yelling something back along the lines of "Keep going old timer!"' are over. But his legacy will never be over and will continue on. There's never been a living man other than Ralph Wade that I've looked up to more on the Padre's Island than Billy, and to him I owe my undying gratitude for an education that surpassed just fishing.
Years ago, Billy told me that he was going to teach me. Take me under his wing and teach me the Island, the beach, the fishing, the birds, and the creatures that lived there. We never ever did make all of those trips, not really, but I've come to realize that learning the fishing and the rest on my own has meant that it has all come at a much higher price and means that much more to me. Lessons learned the hard way aren't apt to be forgotten, and you can bet Billy knew that. But what Billy ended up giving me instead was a first rate education from his library and the tools to teach myself. I'm not sure what he saw in me, but one day the phone rang and I was told to come by. He had some books for me to take back to the towboat with me, he said he knew about the down time I had as he used to shrimp fish in the Gulf. And he said I could sit there with my thumb up my "area," or I could use the time I had to read and study these books. In fact, if I was to know anything at ALL about Padre, I MUST study these books. Very soon, word got around that "Colin's got Billy's secret books, the ones no one gets to see!" I began plausibly denying having anything, under threat of getting my throat cut for losing anything I was loaned. When I was done, I was to bring them back, and he would give me more at that point. And not only was I loaned more, but I was debriefed by the Padre of Padre every time while he sharpened a double-bladed tomahawk looking thing or arranged 7.76 or 5.56 bullets on his desk. "Better get the answers right the first time," I thought. He would take position at his desk in his office, and I would take my seat, and we would talk of days gone by and animals that roam the Isla Blanca, and sometimes of big fish, trout, and old times gone by with Ralph Wade or Cliff Wilson. And so it went, and I took those smoky old books, worn and stained from years of nicotine, pages dog-eared and used, and studied them while away on the towboats. And my eyes began to be opened to Padre's rich history, its Indian lore, and its secretive past. The years passed by, and Billy never seemed to run out of books and pictures and publications for me to study.
I can't ever thank Billy enough. The education he gave me is priceless and can never be taken away. To this day he patiently answers my questions about Padre and the creatures that inhabit it. Any question I have, he will always give an honest answer, and most of the time, he knows more about it than any other person I could ask. At the same time, it's also a curse. Once a man's eyes have been opened to Padre Island and the Coastal bend before man developed it and built on so very much of it, they can never be the same again. While some look at Bob Hall Pier and the condos all around it and think nothing at all of it, my eyes glaze over and I see the old Corpus Christi Pass emptying out at its old location between Whitecap Boulevard and the pier. I see the Karankawas that fished and lived there, and I hear their voices calling on the southeast afternoon seabreeze. And Billy gave me that. When I'm hiking several miles behind the duneline, I feel the presence of those who came before me and I hear their voices. And at the end of the day down by the water on the beach with shark baits out, I know their eyes are upon me from behind in the dunes. And sometimes, when I look real hard, I can still see Billy and Joy at their old tent camp at Kate's Hole on the Laguna, castnetting for mullet to sell to the bait stands.
I know one day we won't have Billy anymore, and I dread that day. But I for one will never stop feeling his presence on Padre Island and I for one will never stop being thankful for the education he has given me. And the cycle of life will continue. Just as Ralph Wade took Billy under his wing and taught him so much about surf fishing years and years ago, Billy has passed on much to myself and to others, and I hope to do the same. Thank you Billy for not only being one absolute heck of a fisherman, but for teaching us all to also love the Island and care for it as our own, and each animal that lives there, each and every visit. Thank you for the Ghost Story at the 33, for all the years of other great Padre tales, and for the Big Shell Cleanup that continues today.
The thin line Billy walked between exposing Padre to the masses and guiding but yet protecting it from being overrun? I think he did a mighty fine job. And to all the young bucks convinced that no one has ever fished that Island or sharked it better than them? Hah! Think again. I've seen some of his old Polaroid pics that he keeps locked away.
--Captain Colin R. Davis, July 2017
Captain Billy L. Sandifer
Billy Sandifer was born on June 11, 1947 in Alice, Texas. Billy and his younger brother, James, were raised and adopted by their grandparents, O.M. and Hazel Sandifer, and grew up on a farm between Agua Dulce and Alice. If not in school or working in the fields, by the time Billy was 8 years old, he spent much of his time hunting or fishing in local creeks and ponds. At 10 years of age, he began regularly fishing and running trot lines in bay waters with his granddad. At age 14, he caught his first big fish. It was tarpon of over 100lbs and 6'3'' long from Bob Hall Pier, in Corpus Christi. After completing high school in Agua Dulce, Billy turned down a potential scholarship to Baylor University and worked as a ranch hand in the Mussel Shell Valley of Montana for 7 months prior to volunteering and enlisting in the U.S. Navy Sea Bees. Billy served 21 months (two tours) in the Republic of South Vietnam attached to the Marine Corps. During those years he was heavily exposed to Agent Orange, received flesh wounds from shrapnel, and received several awards including the Combat Action Ribbon. He served two tours in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba following Vietnam. During his Cuban years he was selected to compete in the Atlantic Fleet Rifle Matches in Annapolis, Maryland. He finished 13th among all Navy and Marine participants. He was honorably discharged after four years active duty. He then worked on a large cattle ranch near Tilden, Texas for several months, and eventually was hired on as a U.S. Customs Air Security Officer and Special Deputy U.S. Marshal.
During the next two years, Billy flew undercover on domestic and international airline flights to prevent skyjacking and was assigned to New York City, Minneapolis, Honolulu, and Tuscon. His most memorable assignment was standing personal bodyhard for Henry Kissinger and Jackie Onassis in New York on day. While assigned to Tuscon, Sandifer worked in drug interdiction with U.S. Customs Agents working in 2 man teams setting up ambushes and patrolling for smugglers on Pipe Organ National Park and other isolated stretches of the Arizona/Mexico border. After two years the funding was cut for the program and Sandifer was placed in a position as a Customs Inspector. That didn't last long, and after a short stint farming and fishing whenever he could, Billy reenlisted in the Navy in 1972 and spent the next 2 years and 3 months in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba-again. In fact, he specifically asked to be stationed there and was assigned to the Harbor Police Division running a police boat. He was eventually promoted to head up the division there, and at the request of the C.O. completely revised the rule book governing the activities of the Harbor Police Division there.
When off duty, Billy lived on a 36 ft boat he had refitted and repurposed. He used it to commercial fish via rod and reel. In July of 1976 he was discharged from the Navy, and has called Flour Bluff, Texas home ever since. Quite unhappy with society, he lived "down Island" on Padre at the present day 21 mile marker alone for over a year. Friends would come by with supplies and necessities. When people would drive by, he would hide in the dunes, waiting for them to leave before coming back beachfront. Pneumonia brought him off the beach, and once he recovered he worked as a deckhand on Gulf shrimp boats for 2 years. He worked the years that followed as a deckhand on several bay and Upper Laguna Madre shrimp boats, beach seined, commercial fished with rod and reel, and caught bait for the local bait stands. At times he lived in Flour Bluff, and at other times he lived in tents on Padre Island. In 1991, he became the federally licensed guide on the Padre Island National Seashore and offered fishing, birding, and naturalists' charters for the next 21 years on the Seashore. During this time he acquired a 50 ton coastal and near shore United States Coast Guard License and added bay and near shore fishing charters to his list of services offered. In 1995, he went to the superintendent of the Seashore and requested permission to organize and attempt the first Big Shell Beach Cleanup. He also started growing native Yuccas in his yard and transplanting them on PINS as most of the native Yuccas had been destroyed by ranching or stolen by visitors. 128 Yuccas were re-introduced to the National Seashore. Since its beginning in 1995, 22 Big Shell Beach Cleanups have taken place and 5,900 volunteers have picked up and removed two million three hundred thirty-three thousand pounds of trash and washed in debris. Over the years, he has advised and helped groups start cleanup events throughout Texas and other states. He is the recipient of various conservation awards and in 2009 was chosen as one of the top six "Heroes of Conservation" in the United States by Field and Stream magazine. He traveled to Washington, D.C. to receive the award. His daily log books contain a massive amount of "trend data" on all aspects of PINS including bird number and species. He has made this data available on a regular basis to the National Park Service and other agencies involved with bird studies. Over the years, he has spent a constant amount of time studying all aspects of the natural environment of Padre and other barrier islands in the field and also in literature.
Billy worked as an Audubon Coastal Warden in the Upper Laguna Madre, working with Colonial Nesting Waterbirds for over a year and for many more years has been involved in keeping track of declining Red Knots passing through the Corpus Christi and South Texas areas. He is a long time writer, having written over 300 published articles. He was a feature writer for Texas Saltwater Fishing Magazine for 13 years and along with his feature articles he wrote a "Bird of the Month" column to increase the knowledge and awareness of various bird species to outdoorsmen.
In 2008, Billy and Stephen Naylor of Round Rock founded a non-profit C-3 group called Friends of Padre, Inc. to insure the Big Shell Beach Cleanup would continue in future years and in the hopes of helping bring about other worthwhile projects on Padre Island. After serving as president of Friends of Padre for 6 years, he stepped down to allow for younger leadership. He currently holds the title of President emeritus and founder. In 2012, the Veterans Administration declared him 90% disabled due to service to service connected health issues. In addition to carrying out the annual Big Shell Beach Cleanup, the Friends of Padre has donated $15,480 to the Sea Turtle Science Recovery Program, $20,500 to the National Park Service for debris removal resulting from Hurricane Ike. They also donated $2,500 for the purchase of a beach wheelchair equipped with oversized tires to allow disabled persons access to the beach. They donated $10,000 to "Friends of the Ark" (Animal Rehabilitation Keep) in Port Aransas, and spent $1,700 to have a water fountain built and installed at South Packery Park.
Billy has been married to his wife, Joy Eyvone, for 35 years, has no children, and lives a life dedicated to being a good steward of Planet Earth and Padre Island.
--Captain Colin R. Davis, July 2017