Sunday, January 19, 2020

Fly tying and the Mind of God: Imitation vs. Innovation

I have flyfished now for 56 years, beginning on a small artesian pond in the Texas brush country. I started tying flies in my teens, and have always found flytying to satisfy my creative impulses. When I started fly fishing the Blue Ridge, I tied my own patterns, hoping that they would succeed. And they did, with the tiny brook trout that populated the streams in the upper elevations of Shenandoah National Park. They had survived over the millennia by being willing to seize the moment. But when I had the opportunity to flyfish Henry's Fork of the Snake River, I struck out entirely with my motley collection of homespun flies. The fish wouldn't touch them. For the first time in my life, I did what most flyfishers do as a matter of course when fishing new waters: I visited a fly shop and purchased a dozen flies, most of which were variations on a single bluewing olive hatch. That day, I learned that no matter how inventive you are, you must still muster the humility to look at what's going on around you.

When I began to flyfish my home waters of the Lower Laguna in my early 20s, I was able to unleash my creativity, mainly because the fish didn't care. I created poppers from deer hair, discovered that they would sink after a few casts, and began experimenting with various ways to keep them afloat. I ended up discovering closed cell foam, and married foam with spun deer hair to create the earliest iterations of the VIP popper, the subject of the second article I wrote for Fly Tyer. It's been one of my top three flies ever since, mainly because the fish don't care much about how the fly looks, as long as it doesn't misbehave. Many anglers, who have tied the VIP, agree. 

In fisheries such as the LLM, a fly is successful mainly because of how it performs; that is, its castability in wind, how it lands on the water, its sink rate, how it performs in seagrass-filled water, and its hookup rate. But in a cold water fishery populated with wild, spawning populations of trout, these variables don't matter as much. Instead, the fly is usually effective if it imitates a naturally occurring insect that the fish are keying on at that particular moment. Tying flies to match the hatch takes considerable discipline and "imitativeness," as opposed to inventiveness. Of course, there are non-imitative flies that are successful, too, such as the Wulff patterns, and Western attractors such as the Stimulator. Attractor patterns are, by definition, invented by anglers who are willing to think outside the box of imitative fly tying, and conceive of a synthesis of qualities that may not occur in Nature. In a sense, the inventive tyer taps into an archetype that has no literal physical expression, at least as yet, but somehow appeals to the fish's sense of propriety, or provokes its indignation. We really don't know what a fish thinks when it sees what is clearly divorced from all recognizable life forms.

Inventiveness comes at the beginning and the end of an angler's learning curve. When I fished the Jackson River in western Virginia, I learned that attractor patterns were, by and large, ineffective on that tailwater fishery. I learned one day from flyfishing guru Harry Steeves, who happened to be fly fishing below Gathright Dam one morning, that I had to know precisely the size and shape of a particular midge pupae in order to hook the largest trout I'd every enticed the following day. But while fishing in the same spot one day not long after this humbling lesson, it suddenly occurred to me--don't ask why--that a particular synthesis of two popular dry fly patterns would prove successful, even though the pattern did not match any natural insect on that difficult fishery. I went to my hotel and tied the pattern that night, and it became the "Jackson River Special." My buddy Bill May and I caught a lot of trout the next day on that pattern, and it continued to be my most effective fly for that fishery.

The difference between the novice fly tier and the seasoned one had to do with several things, including: the countless days of immersion on my Virginia home waters, the humility to learn from masters such as Harry Steeves, and the willingness to listen to what Nature was whispering to me. When you embrace all of those ingredients, then you become eligible on the far end of the learning curve to innovate effectively. Houston Smith, who wrote Forgotten Truth, and was known for his books on comparative religions, came up with a concept that resolved the conflict over Darwinian evolution and Creationism. Pointing to events in nature that cannot be reduced to the forces of natural selection--such as nonadaptive coloration among birds--he coined the term, "the descent of the archetype" to explain the playful creativity of the divine expressing itself in the world.

I believe that inventiveness at the fly tying vise can be, at the pinnacle of one's learning process, a moment of an archetype's descent into expression. It can be the fly tying equivalent of a Coppery Tailed Trogan or a Painted Bunting, both of which make no sense in a world governed in large part by survival of the fittest. It can mirror a pattern in the mind of God, which exists only as a creative expression capable of arousing an answering response in the mind of fish. Flies such as Bud Rowland's Numero Uno, and perhaps my own VIP Popper, look strange and idiosyncratic, but are endowed with something beyond the rational, imitative mind. When the VIP made the cover of Guide Flies several years ago, I was admittedly embarrassed to have the VIP pictured beside Harry Murray's Mr. Rapidan, a fly that has become immortalized as a Blue Ridge classic. I have always realized how odd the humble fly looks, but how effective it can be. In one sense, it wasn't my creation as much as a gift of momentary inspiration informed by years of failure and yearning. It was the utterance of another realm finding a fertile place in my imagination.

The other day, Ryan said, "I want to invent a new fly." As a relatively old man, I thought, as all fathers do, "Learn more first." But then I remembered the endless winter nights of inventiveness at the tying vise as a young man. So I said nothing, knowing that Ryan's creativity would, in time, merge with prodigious on-the-water experience to spawn original creations, the broad shape of which had been known for all eternity in the one mind we share.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Karma and fly tying

When I used to live in Virginia, and would come home to south Texas once a year for two weeks, I would spend part of almost every day on the water, fly fishing with my brother, Chip. I suffered from "saved up" intensity that sustained me through two weeks of low calorie, gung ho, don't-bother-me sheer craziness. I would fall asleep at family get-togethers in the evenings, and I looked like a raccoon in reverse with white-out eyes, and a roasted face.

My poor brother would fish with me each day for a while, then head back to the boat where he would sit like a statue watching me, sometime for hours more. No smartphone, no nothing to mitigate the boredom of waiting. I'm surprised he didn't complain more.

Fast forward to now, when my son Ryan has taken up the family angling and guiding torch. Two weeks ago he hammered on my wall of rationality and convinced me to believe the obviously erroneous weather report that said we'd be happy to have gone fishing even though another report accurately predicted a miserable day. I ultimately agreed to go, giving in to Ryan's incessant recitation of the fake weather news. We awoke at 6, and the wind was already howling. We were there, so we went, and it was horrible. The winds were up to 30 mph by the time we crabbed down the Arroyo, head down, chewing on blowing sand. Ryan admitted that from now on, he would yield to my assessment. We will see.

The next week was quite different. It was my turn to take the lead. I studied the tide chart, the NOAH wind and sunlight forecast, and realized that nature was offering us a rare triple positive readout for winter fishing: Super low tides at dawn, with an incoming tide afterward; full sun; and low winds. That's the prescription for winter fly fishing, and if you have the courage to tolerate an early morning boat ride in upper-40s to low-50s temps, you will find yourself in the midst of a veritable dream.

Still it's hard for me to get out of bed at 4:30 and drive 55 miles on a chilly morning. I called Ryan on the way and got no answer. I pictured him in bed unresponsive the to screaming alarm, and thought to myself, "If he doesn't respond soon, I'm heading back to bed!" But my fears proved unfounded when he rang me up a few minutes later saying he was already on the water getting the Stilt ready for launch. I don't know if I was more relieved or disappointed.

Ryan took the helm while I wrapped myself in my fleece and windbreaker, head down. Unfamiliar with the area during extreme low tides, he turned the boat over to me when we got to Cullens Point. I took the Stilt through one of the passes in the Intracoastal spoils, and planed toward the shallow northwest end of south Cullens. The turtle grass is so thick that the water looks much shallower than it is, but nonetheless we ran with the jack plate all of the way up to minimize the damage to the seagrass. The Yamaha prop fits entirely within the Stilt tunnel, so the damage is minimal.

We began seeing big trout and reds moving away from the boat as we moved away from the central trough of south Cullens into the shallower expanse of the west side. I shut down and poled further west to get away from the disturbance we'd created by our noisy intrusion. We were both eager to fish, and opted to wade rather than pole. Poling would normally have been great in the early light, but the turtle grass was so think that the boat would have rubbed against the grass so much than the friction would have tested even the strongest guide. So we decided not to struggle with the grass, and to wade. While we'd brought our waders, the sun was starting to warm the water, and except for an initial shock from the water temp, it turned out to be warm enough to wade wet without the threat of hypothermia. Indeed, within an hour, the air temp was comfortably in the 70s, the sun was direct, and the water was warming quickly.

I had not tied any flies the day before, but had plenty of Mother's Day flies in my fly box...that I'd left in McAllen! So I had to rummage through Ryan sparse collection. Not wanting to deprive him of the "most likely to succeed" flies, I opted for a Mother's Day Fly tied on a much heavier hook than appropriate without a weed guard. Poop, I thought. But I wasn't there to wup up on reds. A couple of good shots on big trout was my only intention, and a single fly, more or less appropriate to the occasion, was good enough for me. I figured I could adapt to the demands of the moment. I admit there's something about winter fly fishing catches me unprepared, and it was one of those days when I had failed to check my gear beforehand.

We encountered big reds that were spread out in the thick grass, showing their tails and backs as thy snaked along with hardly enough water to submerge them. They were alone and in small groups. The grass got thicker and thicker as we waded west, but the fish were increasingly visible, tempting us to continue our westward wade. After casting my overly heavy fly into thick grass, only to blow up the feeding reds, I headed back to deeper water, hoping to see reds and big trout over pot holes, or openings in the grass. Sure enough, with the rising sun I was able to see the fish in deeper water. Ryan hooked up on a nice red, about then and so did I, but the most memorable moments of the day consisted of encounters with 7-8 lb trout. Alas, casting my heavy fly defeated me. It was too heavy to land quietly, so I offended the trout and kicked myself for approaching such a demanding context with such nonchalance.

We moved around some, and in each scenario Ryan promptly waded away from the boat while I hesitated, wondering if we'd seen enough to justify the wade. I'd taken Rosie with me on our earlier wades, and knowing that she was tired I stayed aboard the skiff, rubbing her wet ears, and thinking of my brother 30 years ago who sat for countless hours watching me spewing a year of angling intensity onto my home waters. Ryan has become the new crazed angler, and I the one who lingers, coaching, and waiting for a compelling reason to join him. 

If you can bring yourself to do it, winter fly fishing in Cullens Bay offers the best opportunity for world-class trout than any other place or time of year. I have seen literally hundreds of trout from 4-10 pounds in schools or pods cruising the low, crystal clear water. But it's not for everyone. You have to show up at a time of year when the days dawn clear and often cold. I am lucky that, at my advancing age, I have a son whose sheer enthusiasm helps to keep mine alive.

Friday, November 1, 2019

It's all about conditions

Two weekends ago, I guided Ted Thomas and Dennis Matt from Virginia, two of my favorite repeat clients. They usually do quite well during their three days on the water. A couple of weeks before they arrived, Ted asked me if water depth would be a problem. Having just fished with my son, Ryan, and seen the usual fall high tides, I said, "no," unless there's a tropical storm in the Gulf. Whenever there's a tropical storm or hurricane anywhere in the Gulf, the western Gulf shoreline experiences extremely high tides. So, no problem, right? At least I thought so. I check the weather forecast every day, so I can warn off anyone who might be traveling from far away, and bearing the expense of plane flights and time off of work. There was nothing on the Weather Underground tropical update.

Ted emailed me two days before their arrival, and asked me about the tropical disturbance in the Gulf. I said, "What tropical disturbance?" As it turned out, Weather Underground had not reported a tropical low that had sprung up only 100 miles southwest of Brownsville. When I went to another weather service, there it was. I thought, "Oh shit." Sure enough, the tides spiked an extra foot right before Ted and Dennis arrived!

It's very hard to sight cast in that much water, especially since the normal places have two feet of water instead of one foot, and the shallower water tends to be in areas that are relatively sterile, i.e. devoid of shrimp and crabs.

We found plenty of fish, but had to cast from the boat in order to see them, and the shots were lower quality than usual, given that the fish would appear at the last minute, and turn away before the guys could get the fly to them. I was happy when they landed two reds the first day. After that, it became even more difficult due to clouds and wind. On the second day, however, we were on the sand in the full sun, and suddenly a group of reds swam by and crossed our path. For the next five minutes, I poled as fast as I could to keep up with them, hoping that Ted could make an 80+' cast. Casting a few feet short each time, we finally got within 75 '. I said, "Let the rod do the work," and his cast was perfect. The red ate the fly, and we all screamed.

Fast forward one week. Ryan and I decided to go out on Saturday morning after a rather chilly night. We slept at the trailer, got up about 7:30, and hit the water much later than we usually do. We were lucky it was dead calm, and the temperature was rising fast. And the water depth? In only six days, the bay water level had fallen a foot! For those of you familiar with the Lower Laguna, that is a huge difference.

We headed for a west side lagoon first, with plans to fish the sand under the cloudless sky by late morning. Ryan had forgotten his booties, but he didn't let that stop him from wading. We stopped along a shoreline, and prepared to pole it before wading, just to make sure it was worth committing. But before we'd even unfurled one of the rods, I looked about 300 yards down the shoreline, and could see a few gulls sitting on the water. They would take off, and sit back down a few feet away every few seconds. That means redfish! So we cranked up and ran another 250 yards before shutting down. On the way, we started moving big reds away from the shoreline, so we knew that we were into the fish.

For the next hour and a half, we stalked big reds that were feeding aggressively along the shoreline--individually, and in pairs or small groups. I lost as many as I landed, probably because I have been using flies with very small, size 8 hooks. Here's a photo of the fly I've been favoring for the past several months. It is a streamlined Mother's Day Fly (no legs or weed guard). It is very simple, easy to tie, and equally effective in grass and over sand. Since they sink slowly and have a very small hook gap, they don't foul as quickly as a Clouser, or even a light spoon. And the fish love them! Indeed, I caught a 32" red on one of these in May, and have landed countless reds since.

For his part, Ryan was using a Closer (size 6 hook), and landed the largest red of the morning. Here's the first red we landed--a 27" red.

After landing 5 reds from 24-27", we took off for the sand, where we spent another two hours or so. We landed four more reds, and lost three more that we stung or briefly hooked. We could have stayed out and caught fish for several more hours, but it was Sunday, and we both had things to do at home. Needless to say, it was a splendid morning!

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Fishing with Two Young Guides

Getting old reminds me of my  Royal Poinsiana outside my kitchen window. The tree is huge and gnarly, and looks like it can't live much longer, but each spring it explodes in new leaf and blossom. I continue to surprise myself, and give thanks each day.

I had some old flyfishing clients scheduled this past weekend, but the forecast was for unstable weather, so I warned them ahead of time. They opted to reschedule, and this time of year it's often wise to do so. The weather service usually gets it wrong.






But I thought it would be a good opportunity for Ryan and me to do some fly fishing together. I'm teaching him about the bay, and each time we go out I try to cover some new ground for his benefit. On my way down on Friday, he called and said that Scott McConal was planning to fish that evening, and  that perhaps we might go out, too. I've offered to be  available to Scott, too, in his guide training process, and he and Ryan have become friends. So, arriving before Ryan did, I hurriedly launched the Stilt, and had it waiting in the water when he got there at 6:00. We only had about two hours before dark, so we headed out at maximum speed, and opted for a close-in venues so we wouldn't eat up our remaining light running to more distant venues.

My research in the past several years has focused on the pattern of reds moving into shallower water just before dark to feed during the night. I like to target the shallowest areas east and west to see if the larger fish are migrating from deeper areas just before dark.

We went to one area where I've often seen oversized reds congregating just before dark. My last post concerned catching a 32" red in the same area back in May, and wondered if the mythical "spawning" size reds would be there. I once called a biologist and asked him why reds that were over 30 inches were in the lower Laguna Madre if, as he said, the reds leave the bay system forever once they become spawners. He said he didn't know, but perhaps it was to follow bait. Seemed like a weak explanation, but everyone knows that reds in the 30-35" range hang out in certain predictable areas. One of those is very close to the shallow water venue where I've seen groups of 30+" fish feeding at night. Put it together and you conclude that they stay in deeper water during the day, and then migrate into specific shallower areas at night.

We didn't find them on Friday night, but that's okay. Fish that size don't need to be following a rigid pattern if they want to stay alive. What we did find is too many giant sheepshead making way too much noise to discern anything else in the area. Ryan caught a very large sheepshead in the final minutes of daylight. We went home happy, and had dinner at Chili Willis with Scott, and made plans to fish together the next morning.

As we headed on the Arroyo Colorado, we faced thunder showers that were sweeping toward us across Padre Island. We putted along, and finally decided to go for it. Racing toward the storms, we hoped to make to the mouth of the Arroyo before they did, and then turn south. We made it, and tucked back into the southwest part of Rattlesnake Bay. We were rewarded by clearing skies as the storms played out back to the north and east.

I wanted to show the boys some of the lesser known features of Rattlesnake. We went beyond the usual boundaries of fishable water, and even had to get out of the Stilt for a while, and float it behind us as the guys waded ahead. Scott spotted an incoming redfish, barely submerged in the 7" water, and caught it handily.

Once the skies had cleared, we headed back north because I wanted to show Ryan and Scott three close-in venues that are rarely fished, that offer tremendous opportunity in the fall, when the waters are higher. We poled the first area, and determined that the fish weren't there. So we got up on plane and shut down 200 yards upwind from the other "sweet spot." Watching some terns diving over an area festooned by great egrets, we soon spotted some sweeping reds. So we staked the Stilt, and waded stealthily into the area. Sure enough, we started to see tailing and sweeping fish mixed in with an alarming number of sting rays. Fortunately, we didn't have to cover much water, since the fish were moving around aggressively. I believe we landed five reds and a big sheepshead there before the action seemed to fall off. We agreed that if we'd had sunlight, we'd caught twice as many, because whenever the sun peeped out from behind the rain clouds to the east, we'd spot reds glowing in the shallow water.

We waded back to boat and repositioned half a mile away, where I'd landed the 32" red in May. The area is not fished at all. Indeed, it's deemed too shallow by most anglers, and seems like one of those "wet but not fishable" areas. If you never wade these areas, you never challenge these assumptions. But once you take the time, and get off the boat, and explore, you often find that depth is not entirely constant, and that areas can support large fish. It's these place that constitute the true sanctuaries on the Lower Laguna. All the fish have to do is to deviate slightly from the well-traveled areas, and suddenly you have the conditions for stellar sight casting.

We poled as far as we could into the area, but the combination of shallowness and grass finally created too much friction for Ryan to pole us any further. So we got out and waded slow toward a cul de sac, beyond which was too shallow to host game fish, at least under our current tidal conditions. Last spring, during higher tides, we found the fish hundreds of yards further in, where I'd never fished in my life.

We landed three more reds, but had plenty more opportunities. The conditions were extremely sensitive, and the water depth was so minimal that the fly would usually startle the redfish on the drop. The high point was Ryan stalking a nice 25" red through a mangrove-dotted area, where he had to cast over and between mangroves in order to reach the red, whose back was out of the water.

We ended the morning with three reds apiece, and a five-pound sheepshead caught by the senior member! 


The most rewarding thing about fly fishing these days is watching Ryan and Scott develop their angling and guiding skills. I had the pleasure of guiding Scott and his brother several years ago on their first fly fishing trip in saltwater, and both caught several reds. I'll never forget Scott stalking a 27" red and catching him (shown above) while his brother was whooping and hollering from 200 yards away, hooked up on his own fish. 

As for Ryan, he gave up spin fishing when he was only sixteen, and has been committed to fly fishing only ever since. That's amazing. And today he has one of the finest, most unique casts I've ever seen, and a deep appreciation for Nature. I am already learning from him. 

One last thing I will say about the subtle changes underway on the LLM. We have experienced a four-inch increase in water depth since the early 90s. That is a massive change. When I used to wade beyond fishable waters, either east or west, I'd reach the "algae mat," which was a dark, slick bottom that was most devoid of life. Why? Because the the areas would dry up during extreme low tides, creating the algae cover. Now, however, the algae mat begins much further, and the area that used to be covered with algae has sparse seagrass, worms and crabs thriving there. Most people would never know it, because the areas are not usually accessed by humans. But during high tides, you can imagine what happens: The fish gravitate toward these fertile new areas! And the logical times for them to visit these areas are are night and early in the morning, when the water is still cool, and the sunlight is not so bright as to blind the fish.

Yes, I know, I've said it before. But I don't think I will see you there. Because the bottom line is this: it takes the right boat, a considerable amount of faith, and a prodigious amount of energy to wade that far from your boat. All of that adds up to "you're crazy, man!"

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

A Memorable Week on the Water

My friend Paul Robilotti from Montrose, PA, came down to fish with me for the past week. He and I fish the East and West Branches of the Delaware when I'm visiting Julie's family, and he flyfishes with me down here. Two years ago, we had such incredible May fishing that I thought, "No way this will happen again." I mean we caught double digits almost every day for a week, caught well over 100 reds, and made one of the best videos I've ever captured.

When I saw that the weather was supposed to be poor, I encouraged him to reschedule if he could. Rain and wind were forecasted for just about every day for the week of his visit. But Paul said he'd prefer to take whatever nature dealt us. So he arrived last week on Tuesday night. Wednesday, after my final department meeting, we took off with my dog Rosie for our trailer at Channelview RV Park in Arroyo City, armed with plenty of gas and freshly tied flies.

That afternoon, we went out hoping for birding. We found extremely high water levels associated with hurricane tides. What was up? Well, we had a new moon, which creates high tides each month, and especially high tides in the spring and fall. But they tides were beyond our usual seasonal highs. For some time now, we have seen not-so-subtle changes on the LLM. Grass is covering the east side, black mangroves line every shoreline, and fish have changed their feeding patterns. Much of this is due to warm winters, and hotter summers. The warm winters have fostered plant growth, and the hot summers have driven the fish off the flats during midday, and encouraged nighttime feeding. I have written extensively about the shift of feeding activity to the evening hours, but I wasn't sure we were going to find that pattern happening so soon in the season. But we did.

We did poorly that evening, and the next day, too, with Paul landing a single red that was in a pod under some birds. The birding was "on" during the afternoon, but the water levels were so high that nothing could be seen beneath the hovering and dipping gulls. Once you waded up to them, and they peeled off, nothing was left to cast to. It was a bit disheartening to find the only action of the day so void of targets.

Chip joined us on Friday, and we did better. We found birds early, and the winds were tolerable. We only landed two reds, but we found visible tailing fish under birds. Later we found a few tailing reds down south, but caught none.

We took the day off on Saturday, since Paul had an orthodontics appt. in Mexico, and I had to attend graduation in McAllen.

On Sunday, Chip and Ryan joined us for what turned out to be our best day thus far. We landed six reds in the morning, three under birds, and three that were tailing in clear water. I saw birds working in "impossibly shallow" water, and despite my rational assessment that nothing could actually be there, I hiked half a mile further into what, from the distance, looked like dry land. It was a site to see--reds feeding aggressively and then disappearing in five inches of water. It's amazing how they can hunt in almost no water, and move about almost imperceptibly. I caught one of them, and called Ryan to join me. Alas, we were fishing upwind, and the action was spread out. At about 1:00, we decided to go in, because it was Mother's Day and Chip had to be home, and Ryan needed to get some rest before his work week. Paul and I napped for a while, then headed out for some hoped-for evening action.

It was the highpoint of the week. I had decided not to fish, but to handle the boat and provide support for Paul. We were thinking that it was the last time we'd have on the water, since the forecast called for 80% rain the next morning.

We immediately found tailing reds under birds. Paul caught two reds and a 21" trout before we saw birds working, once again, far beyond the usual margins of habitable water. So we took the boat as far as we could, and waded three hundred yards further toward a mass of birds working over reds in "spit." Alas, they broke up and shot upwind of us. Dragging ass back to the boat, we considered fishing a different area, where the fish may have headed. I took the Stilt over there, and shut down as we saw a few birds working near a shoreline.


Paul waded directly to the birds, but found casting to be difficult in grass-filled water. Eventually, I ambled toward him, and saw some activity another 200 years further, so...though tired, I decided to check it out. As I got close, I could see that reds were all over, pushing water and attacking bait as birds tried to stay aloft in the dying wind. Groups of five or six obviously large fish were feeding in the area. I started casting, and could not get their attention. Or I would spook them. I was becoming frustrated, and then I thought, "Settle down and stop aggressing on the fish. Make a gentle cast." I switched to a size 8 Mother's Day fly--a tiny fly for the conditions, but one that I could case unobtrusively--and made a couple of short casts to what appeared to be a large red that had stopped its sweeping action, and was swimming slowly by me. Suddenly, it took my fly and made a run that almost took my arm off. Fortunately, the leader held. For the next 45 minutes, I fought a fish that I never really turned until the last 3-4 minutes. It was so strong that I found myself simply holding my rod against an immovable force that wouldn't budge until, suddenly, it would shake its head to let me know it was still alive. I was using my 6-wt TFO Axiom II, and my TFO Power reel, which were up to the task. But I never felt that I was in control, even when I reached down, thirty minutes after sundown and felt for the fish's tail in the dark. It was eery grasping at the tail of a 32", 17 lb red. Paul had been wading close by in case I needed help, and when I lifted the fish out of the water, with difficulty, Paul said, "Oh my God, that's a huge fish!"  I walked over and said, "I want you to feel this fish." He took it and couldn't hold to the slippery monster. It fell back into the water, caught its second wind, and it was another five minutes before I held him. We carried him to the boat to measure him, and were able to determine its length by adding the six-inch span between my thumb and pointing finger to the 26" ruler that was on the deck. 32" and 17 lb. estimated. Paul took this picture with his Iphone before we released the fish. When I got the Stilt up on plane, and reached to turn on the running lights, they were out! So we had to run the 8 miles home without running lights. Fortunately, one of my favorite old clients had gifted me with a powerful LED flashlight that guided our way out of the back lagoon, and down the Arroyo to our slip at Channelview Park. We were so beat from the day! We at dinner at 10 pm and crashed heavily into sleep. A great end to a memorable week with Paul, my brother Chip, and son Ryan. The weather was bad, but we found the fish. As Eric Glass once said, Anyone can catch fish on a good day.






Tuesday, April 2, 2019

New Youtube Video

I thought you would like to see this video I made with Ted Rufner, a guide and veteran fly fishing from the Gulf Coast of Florida. Ted knew reds, but this was his first hike to the LLM. Enjoy!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3vCXwHhMgtw&feature=youtu.be

Saturday, December 29, 2018

New Season Approaching

Some of our old clients, in particular, are stirring from their winter slumber and calling us for some 2019 fly fishing. A while ago, my old client Tony Woodward (and his buddy Scott Minnich) called after they'd been fishing the Arkansas River in CO in 28 degrees. Not surprisingly, the topic of fly fishing the Lower Laguna, where it's rarely below 60 degrees during our regular season, came up. So they called to make plans. Indeed, it's a good time to plan ahead, given the demand for April and May, in particular. For the past three years, the spring has been the best fly fishing for me, offering altogether new phenomena on the east and west sides. Again, we plan to offer late fishing options, of your schedule will allow it. Consider coming in early if you can and starting your fishing at sundown.

Ryan and I will be fishing a lot as the weather improves. We went out recently with a friend of his, who didn't think he needed lightweight waders since the air temperature was in the 70s. But this time of year, it can be surprising to find how the water temperature, which can be in the low 60s can cool the air by 8 degrees. Add to that the chill factor of running at 35 mph, and hypothermia is a real possibility.

This year, I will be working with Ryan whenever possible to teach him to guide, as well as to offer single clients double coverage during the day. Usually, a single guide moves more slowly than two, since he has to make round trips to the boat, if wading. A second guide, however, can wade back and get the boat while the other guide assists the client in seeing and casting to fish. Of course, this arrangement is optional, and always up to the client's preference.

We expect to be exploiting the same east side action in April and May that we've enjoyed the past two years, as well as targeting the four or five regular hotspots on the west side. Last year, I used VIP poppers more than in recent years--going back to my roots of preferring topwater whenever the conditions will allow, or warrant it. There's nothing like a big red or trout pushing water behind a popper!

Randy and I are putting our heads together and hoping to plan some group weekends, where you can elect to come down alone or with a partner, and pay one price for lodging, guiding and meals. Stay tuned, or if you're interested in the mean time. give us a holler.

I hope to have some new pics soon.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

June Update

I haven't had much time to blog, given my summer school and private practice commitments. But I have had some great days on the water with old and new clients.

About a month ago. Mike Romano from Houston came down and fished with me. He'd never caught a redfish on the fly, and he was able to catch his first four reds with me.

We started, as usual, on the sand and found tailing reds spread out in all directions. Mike was able to stalk several there, before finally hooking and landing his first red on a fly. Once the sun rises, the reds leave the sand and head west. After a couple of hours of stalking single snd pairs, we were left with only sheepshead punctuating the glassy surface. So we left and headed to parts unknown until entering a birding venue at midday. It was a long shot that we would find pods working under birds at 1 pm, but I'm never surprised by what the Lower Laguna offers up. Indeed, we found large pods of 30-50 fish feeding vigorously in 12 inches of water. By that time of day, most of the anglers have left the grassy west-side lagoons, so we had it to ourselves. Mike managed to land three more reds before heading in. 

This past weekend, I had the privilege of guiding an old client, Dr. Dan Casso and three of his friends. Truett Cawlfield worked with me to provide the guiding for the two days. Truett is a gifted angler, and has a great future as a Laguna Madre guide. It was pleasure working with him.

It was tough fishing. The early action on the sand was remarkable on both weekend days, but after that, it was difficult to find catchable fish. It's been turning off earlier than it used to, so I've taken to encouraging my clients to go in earlier than usual, and then go back out around 6 pm. The four guys opted to do that at the end of the first day. I headed as far east as my Stilt could go without needing to be pushed out into the deeper water. Alas, the redfish action was not "on," so we went to a west-side venue known for its large reds feeding just before sundown.

When we entered the lagoon, the gulls were already working in a frenzy, and we could see sweeping groups of large reds circling
the area, driving bait into the air. Unfortunately, the guys didn't hooks up on one of these oft-oversized reds.


Okay, so what the skinny? Fishing early on the sand had been reliably good, but it falls off after a couple of hours. Then the sand is devoid of life, and a guide runs around looking for miracles. There are some fish to be found, such along the Intracoastal spoil banks, but they are few and far between. I have been convinced that that best action is early and just before dark, and have found this assessment to be almost 100% reliable.

When I woke up this am, I realized that today was going to be especially challenging, given the wind predictions above 25 mph. We went into water on the east side that was glassy, even in the wind. The guys had shots at tailing pairs of redfish, but were unable to hook up. Then we headed north to the East Cut, and they opted to wade over the oysters on the north side so they could fish largely untouched water.

It was eerie at sunrise. Glassy water as far as we could see beyond the place I'd shut down. It was perfect conditions; but unfortunately, the number of redfish showing didn't provide enough targets to make it worth our while. So we headed north and entered the east cut before committing to a wade beyond the oysters on the north side of the cut. The treacherous wade across the oyster barrier was enough to make me worry about my liability; but the guys were able to negotiate the oysters and emerge on the north side where we found some tailing reds. One of my clients caught a red before I headed back to get the boat. Meanwhile, the guys spotted a huge redfish, or so they said, and couldn't get the fish to take their flies. I suggested that it was a black drum, but Mark insisted that it was a red because it had a spot on its tail.

The wind turned form windy to fierce about midday, and the flats were devoid of life. Running south from the East Cut after fishing there for a while, I realized that the best opportunities were behind us. So I circled back to the Cut where I suggested we fish the little channels that cut into the flats on the north side of the channel. Choosing one that we hadn't fished yet, I anchored the Stilt and encouraged Tom and Mark to fish the inlets for reds and giant drum. As it turned out, the inlet I'd chosen was full of black drum from 15-45 pounds. After casting a few times, Mark hooked up on the biggest fish he'd ever caught on a fly rod. We figured it was 40 pounds. After a few photos, he released it and we soon headed south again, back to the Arroyo.


More and more, I'm offering my clients to split the day into two halves. We come in midday, nap, and then go out in the evening. Whether this divided action is due to hotter temperatures or something else, I am convinced that the Lower Laguna Madre is fishing differently than it used to. The summer afternoon action on the sand seems a thing of the past. But the sunset drama is worth the tradeoff.











Monday, May 28, 2018

Fish Tales

I guided an old friend and legendary flyfisher Joe Averill, and his son Trey, yesterday, and I took them out for fun the evening before with my brother Chip. We went far east, hoping for the phenomenon I discovered two years ago--reds pouring into the super shallow sand before sundown. Alas, it wasn't great like it was the evening before, when my buddy Bobboy McConal and his sons Scott and Sean had a stellar evening in the same area. Nonetheless, we landed four before coming in. After running a favorite west side venue at daybreak, finding little to entice me, I headed back to the same general area and shut down in about 10 inches of water. I laid out the plan--Walk east until we find the fish. It's quite counter intuitive, because it gets almost prohibitively shallow--about 5 inches--and all you see is sheepshead. It's temping to turn around. But on faith and experience, I kept the guys heading further through a dead zone until the water deepened again, and...tails sprouted ahead of us. We proceeded to cast to pods for the next two hours. Joe landed a bunch before the pods started to sweep around and head west. After a while, it was only sheepshead again. But it was a great morning, and as it turned out, it was the best we found.

Warning: Don't try to take your boat where you think we're fishing. One guy did just that yesterday am in a boat that was not equipped to go shallow, much less in 6 inches of water. He and his friends were 1/2 mile north of us, and they spent hours pushing their boat back to deeper water. Stop and wade, unless you have a Stilt or the equivalent. Or you'll regret the adventure.

More later. Got to do some counseling!

Monday, May 7, 2018

Learning New Things Takes Risks

Since I've guided less in the last few years, I've been able to explore areas of the bay formerly off limits to my guiding regimen. I would follow certain patterns designed to optimize my client's ability to land fish during the day without venturing into more speculative, more mysterious venues. However, the in past three years, I have progressively shifted away from the standard guide MOA and explored areas that have turned out to be the best action I've ever discovered on the LLM, at least in the past decade. And I have flyfished the bay since 1978, Before 2005, certain phenomena were more likely to occur, such as schools on the east side in the morning, or the redfish parade on the westside in mid-summer. Those things still happen, but I think everyone will agree that the average water depth is creeping up. Just an inch of extra water combined with warmer winters has conspired to create an entirely different ecosystem, especially on the East side. Then, with added boat traffic, the larger cohorts of redfish have shifted to nighttime feeding. It's pretty new stuff.

This past weekend, I enjoyed the best of the "new" patterns. I fish just before dark on Saturday night in an area which hosts oversized redfish at night, and caught two in the 27-28" range, and missed the cast on the dozen others that were streaming into bootie deep water as the sun touched the western horizon. The two weekends before had reaped 29-30+" reds on two consecutive outings, underscoring the robustness of this pattern. There are several westside venues where this is happening, so pick your favorite spot and check it out.

Then, on Sunday morning, Ryan and I explored the east side "new" action, which is simply hard to believe. We go to a certain area on the east side, get out in about a foot of water, and then walk east for about 500 yards. We saw nothing except a few sheepshead for almost half a mile. Anyone with a brain would have turned around and left. But having done this several times with phenomenal success, we keep wading until I ran into the first red. Ryan was 200 yards behind me, and on the basis of having seen only one red, I yelled at him to speed up and join me. Sure enough, I looked ahead and began seeing tails as far as I could see, and they were almost entirely redfish. Small pods and singles were feeding and blowing up in 6 inches of water, backs out and happy.  Ryan came up and hooked up on our first red. A while later, the north wind came up and the fish left. 
But not before we'd landed four reds and hooked a couple of more. In water that no one, not anyone fishes. It's too shallow to pole, and like I said, there's nothing for hundreds of yards. If you can walk that far on faith alone (in what I've told you), you'll probably be grateful. But not many of you will, which is also fine with me :-)

Photos to follow.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Oversized Reds

Yesterday, I hosted Don Puckett from Katy Texas, who came down to video me while I tied the VIP Popper and Mother's Day Fly. I will be posting the Vimeo links just as soon as he edits the video. 
Don arrived around noon, so we proceeded to do the video, and then took off for some evening flyfishing. I took Don directly to the venue where I'd caught a 30-inch red last Saturday, and could have caught several more.  We entered the area much earlier than the previous week--about 3:00 instead of 4:30. I fully expected to take a look, and find nothing, in which I would go elsewhere for a couple of hours and then return for the hoped-for evening action. But we hadn't gone far before I saw single gulls working close to the water, signifying feeding redfish. So I staked the Stilt inconveniently downwind of the action, and we proceeded to wade upwind to the working birds. It wasn't long before some of the reds that were sweeping around headed our way. Casting a red VIP to three or four wakes that were clearly visible under a single gull, one of the fish grabbed the fly and shot off. It didn't take me long to realize that the fish was at least 30 inches long, perhaps as much as 32 inches. It created quite a commotion blowing up and ripping through the shallow water. I had fought him for about five minutes, and he really hadn't turned yet. Fortunately, he stayed in the area, and then unfortunately he headed straight for me while he was still clearly "green" and far from ready to come to the hand. I waved my free arm, and kicked the water with my booties, hoping the fish would turn, but alas he sped up and shot a foot past my right leg. The line whipped under my arm, and pow! The tippet parted at the blood knot connection! 

I replaced my fly with a Mother's Day fly, and turned back to the fish that were sweeping upwind. Within a few minutes, another pair of big reds swam by me about 40 feet crosswind. I managed to get the MDF to the lead fish, which came out of the water and hit it explosively. I landed that fish, and it was 28-29 inches. Don and I did not land any more fish, but we both had several more shots. The conditions were difficult--windy and casting upwind, murky water, and oversized, wary fish. It was easy to blow them up or miss the cast. Nonetheless, it was a spectacle we'll never forget. Don was happy just to see the number of large reds in such shallow conditions.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Very Best Action is Before Sundown

It was a windy Saturday, and my partner Randy had had his trip canceled because his clients were afraid of the wind. Rosie and I went out about 4:30 to do one of our favorite things, which is to fish on the sand, and/or in one of our favorite westside lagoons. I ducked into the lagoon since it was on the way more or less, and I saw some single gulls working in very shallow water. So Rosie and I got out of the boat and walked over close to where the birds were tracking up wind, obviously following single reds or small groups in about 7 inches of water. Even though the wind was blowing 25 miles an hour, and the water was completely muddy, I knew I could see them coming upwind. The problem is always getting the fly close enough to where they can see it, but far enough away from them to where they don’t spook--almost an impossible compromise, but the fish are incredibly sensitive in this condition, and will sometimes sense the fly from three feet away. The reds coming in to this area late in the evening, tend to be very large, often oversized. So they are wary, and especially smart. I had shots at probably eight or 10 fish, some of which would appear 80 or 90 yards out under a single bird, giving me a chance to get into place for the cast. But between the wind being so strong, and the fish so wary, I blew up every opportunity. In addition to seeing the fish coming upwind under a bird or two, I would occasionally see a back out the water 10 or 15 feet away from me, cruising by. It was very hard to cast to these fish that were so close to us. But I didn’t get frustrated, because I’ve caught so many reds in the past, I don't need much to satisfy me: I just enjoy being out there. So after while, I decided to head toward the Eastside and check out the sand, where the reds often pour into the shallowest water before sunset. But after getting up, and before I had left the westside lagoon, I saw some birds working along another shoreline, so I ran over and stopped, and got out and walked over to where the birds were frenetically working over fish. Before I could get to the place with the birds were working, I saw a single huge redfish working toward me up the shoreline with his back out of the water, zigging and zagging as the baitfish flared in his path. 


I was getting ready to make a cast in a very difficult scenario, in which there was about an 80% chance that the fish would spook when the fly hit the water, when I saw a single bird working upwind to my left about 50 yards. I could see some dark tails coming out of the muddy water moving upwind, so I decided to make a cast to those fish before heading back to stalk the big red on the shoreline. I fully expected the group of fish to be smaller, but perhaps more eager, so I made a long backhand crosswind cast just to the head of the group--a cast that I couldn't have made 10 years ago. I hooked up on a red that shot away so fast that I almost lost my grip on my rod.  The powerful fish turned out to be a 30-inch redfish that almost spooled me before I finally turned him. It was a long fight, and after landing him I took a couple pictures of the fish on the shoreline before releasing him. Satisfied with my success, I walked back to the boat with Rosie and prepared to leave for home, when I noticed that the west side of the lagoon was festooned with laughing gulls dipping to the water and clearly working over fish in water that was no deeper than six inches. In the past, I have encountered this scenario on many occasions, in which a large cohort of oversize redfish come into this particular area at dusk, and leave before morning. Almost no one knows about this phenomenon. I have a friend who fishes just a few hundred yards from the mouth of this lagoon and catches oversize reds regularly in deep water on bait and Gulps. We’ve often wondered where the fish went to feed, but I think I know now, because on many occasions, I found groups of 27-32 inch reds cruising into this area right before sundown (see earlier posts). Anyway, Rosie and I took the boat over close to where the fish were feeding, and watched the birds and crashing fish for a while before deciding that I didn’t need to catch another oversize redfish to be happy. So Rosie and I headed home and got back to the dock well before the sunset. 

Once again, no one was there with us to see the action, and it’s pretty hard to believe it when you hear me tell the story. But I assure you, it’s one of the most durable phenomena on the bay at this time, and is the very best action I’ve encountered in years. I went back the next morning with my brother and son, and the reds were completely gone. So unless you go late in the day, you would never know that the area is regularly populated with oversized redfish just 12 hours before the usual "best time," that is, at daybreak. Fortunately not many guys stay out late in the day, and there’s not many people can access such shallow water without a $50,000 boat. So I don’t mind telling you about this. If you’ve got what it takes, please feel free to join me! That is, if you know exactly where I’m going. Close won't do it.


Sunday, April 1, 2018

Casual to a Fault

Julie and I headed for the bay on Friday afternoon with our friends Alex and Bethany following behind us. Our goal was to be on the sand by 5:30, enjoying wine and cheese as the sun made its way home. We launched the Stilt, gathered Rosie's requisite treats, and headed east about 10 miles. Two men were hanging out at the launch grousing about the Easter holiday boat traffic, but they rarely go out, and they never go to where we go, where virtually no other boats can go. By the time we arrived at the eastmost Leaning Towers spoil banks, about 2 miles from the Padre Island dunes glowing golden to the east, there were no boats within site. No buildings, no people, either, except us. It was, in today's world, a rare experience. Nothing except dunes to the east, and the sliver of the western shoreline beneath the setting sun.

Rosie and I went wading for a few minutes, and located a couple of reds that were feeding in about six inches of water, with backs breaking the surface. My unpracticed cast was less than perfect, and the reds fled to deeper water. I didn't care, because catching fish wasn't my goal. I headed back to the boat and joined our guests, who were eating all kinds of delectable finger foods on the front deck of the Stilt, and sipping drinks in the low, dramatic sunlight.

We headed in before the sun actually set, and tugged on Swisher Sweets and Cuban cigars for a while before Alex and Bethany headed back to Reynosa, where Alex works as an orthodontist.

The next morning Julie, Rosie and I left the dock before sunrise. For all of the times Julie and I had been out on the bay together, we'd never gone out at daybreak together. We headed for a place I often  go at daybreak to see if the reds are gathered and tailing beneath gulls and terns. The breeze was low enough to see tails if the fish were inclined to pod up. We ran into the shallowest areas of the lagoon, and shut down when I saw gulls and terns diving and hovering above the water ahead of us. Then I realized that not only had I left the push pole back at the trailer (on purpose), I'd forgotten my booties, as well (not on purpose). So my goals were necessarily limited due to my casual preparation. A week before, I'd been similarly non vigilant, and had forgotten to bring extra gas for the boat. These are early spring phenomena; that is, I often mess up before I get my equipment in place, and my honed-in guide mentality up and running.

But I wasn't going to be deterred from casting to the giant red that I immediately spotted heading our way, about 200 yards north of us. I had just enough time to remove my rod from the holder, slip into the water, and wade through the yucky mud far enough from the boat not to catch the poling platform or Julie with my back cast. Armed with a size 8 Clouser, I thought, "What are the chances the red will perceive this fly in this off-colored water?" Then again, I recalled many occasions when I'd been in the same lagoon on windy days, when fast-cruising reds would perceive the fly when it was fully five feet away in rough water. Sure enough, when the wake approached, and I put the tiny fly about three feet to the front of the red, it shot forward and took the fly. Since my line was slack, and the red was barreling down on me, I couldn't get a good hookup. Finally I got tight to the fly, and the red--probably 30 inches in length--porpoised in the 8-inch water, and showed me most of his huge body before plowing by me and throwing the fly.

I don't need much more than that to be happy, so I stood in one spot for a while and made a few casts at nervous water before wading back to the boat.

We spent a while watching the birds working over the feeding reds, and then headed east for a boat ride. Julie was so happy to see the Laguna Madre at dawn, and wants to go out with me before sunrise more often. That was the biggest "catch" of the day.

I know you want something more than casual fishing stories. More serious tales will soon follow, because I can assure you that the Laguna Madre is going to fish very well this year. All of the signs are in place: low algae on the west side, a comparatively cold and wet winter, and several "turned on" days on the east side already documented by the usual suspects. You should consider coming down.