Friday, April 11, 2014

Off to the Bay after a Slow Start to the Season

Wow, it's been a slow beginning this year. Between an especially cold winter and extensive brown tide,  most of my friends have reported frustrating trips. My brother spent part of three days on the bay two weeks ago, and they had one visible shot, and even then they weren't sure if it was a fish! Last week, however, fellow guide Ben Pasqual reported tailing action in one of our favorite west-side venues.

Julie and I have been taking advantage of the slow start to get our new trailer in place. Our digs at Channelview RV Park are a pretty sweet set-up--a vintage 28' trailer with all of the creature comforts and small building where we keep gear, tie flies, and puff on cigars. We will be inviting clients to lodge with us (up to two) and enjoy the waterfront setting, along with breakfasts and box lunches. Ask if you're interested in this package deal. Of course, we work closely with Atascosa Outlook B&B, and Arroyo Lodge (for 4-6 anglers) so you have some fine options to choose from.

Everyone has had boat issues, as well. Rick Hartman had an anomalous noise in his new Suzuki 60, and so did we. I feared it was a blown lower unit, but it was only a loose gear cable. Meanwhile, John Pilmer's 70 Yamaha 2-stroke quit peeing, and Ben's new Suzuki broke the motor mount on his HPX. It's been a strange assortment of problems.

But…I'm off to the water, to begin my guide season in earnest. Randy and I will be working together this weekend, and then we have different parties next week. Our bookings are finally filling in after everyone emerged slowly from the long winter hibernation.

The brown tide is gone on the east side, but still affecting the west side, especially north. That's common this time of year. After a cold, wet winter, with an increasing duck population on the Lower Laguna, the amount of nitrogen that the bay has to process is especially high. Brown tide feeds on the nitrogen, but the influx of fresh Gulf water paired with the strong southeast winds tends to blow the brown tide north as spring progresses. Already, the sand is crystalline.

It will be a windy weekend, but it looks like Sunday will be a pretty good day. If we have sun, the wind is less of a factor. I'll let you know how we do!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Guiding in February

I joined my fellow guides Rick Hartman and Eric Glass on Sunday in guiding a group of flyfishers from Houston. This time of year, it's often foggy in the morning. The air temperatures are often much warmer than the bay water, and that can make for foggyconditions. When we left the dock at Adoph Thomae County Park, it was clear, but we encountered a wall of fog at the mouth of the Arroyo.

To play it safe, I could have hugged the Intracoastal Waterway until the fog lifted. But not knowing how long that would take, I opted to take a hard right through the Intracoastal spoil islands and enter Rattlesnake Bay at low tide. Remembering the previous week's debacle (see below), I gave the shallowest areas a wide berth and ran into the fog and shut down. We poled downwind for a while until I ascertained that the reds would not be showing, and then headed back to the ICW.  That's where it became a bit difficult. There weren't any landmarks to guide me at first, so I used the wind in a disciplined way to hold to a course that would take me into the deeper areas of Rattlesnake Bay, and into the ICW. At one point, my client Richard turned around and asked, "How do you know where we are?" Good question. I said, "Experience," but I knew that experience could fail me, especially when I became distracted, such as last week.

We made it back to the ICW, and dropped into a couple of west-side lagoons only to find off-colored water and no visible fish. So, I headed east as the fog lifted, affording me enough visibility to navigate comfortably toward the shallowest east edge of the east Laguna Madre. I recalled several years earlier that a friend of mine had planed into the same waters during winter tides, and had stuck his boat so badly that it was months before it could be recovered.

As we approached the edge of the vegetation-free sand, we began to move singles and pairs of redfish, along with countless sheepshead. I ran up onto the sand, hoping to find them in 7 inches of water, but no, they were along the edge of the sand, in foot-deep water. I shut down, and began to pole downwind in the white sheen of fog lit by midmorning sun.

We were blessed by the appearance of redfish tailing, and some were big. They were spread out and interspersed with tailing sheepshead, but my clients quickly learned the discern the difference. For hours, we poled from one tailing red to another; but it was exceedingly difficult flyfishing. We would cast to one tail after another, but the reds would go down after the first cast. On some days, you can get several casts to a tailing fish, but in early spring, in particular, the reds on the east side are perversely sensitive to the sound of the fly hitting the water, and to the sight of the approaching boat. So we didn't catch much, even though the opportunities were aplenty. Looking back, we should have waded, but the water was chilly, and my clients seemed happy staying aboard the Stilt.

I just received word today that my article on "How to Catch Reds on the Bad Days" will appear in the May-June issue of Tide magazine. I am also writing an article for the July-August or Sept-Oct. issue on "Don't Blame the Fish." I haven't written that one yet, but I look forward to putting some thoughts to paper that have influenced my guiding for the last 15 years.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The last mistake we will make--until next time!

I asked my brother Chip to write up his account of yesterday's events on the bay. I hesitated to post this, for obvious reasons. But hey, I f--- up on occasion, so here's my latest!

In 1988 I wrote a summary of the most notable “you won't believe this” episodes I had experienced while fishing on the Lower Laguna Madre Bay.  I figured  there was no way anyone would believe this stuff so I just had to write them down for whoever,  whenever.  I entitled it “Why I Am Losing My Hair!”  In 1992 I just had to write more, as the excitement just wouldn't quit.  I entitled this one “Why My Remaining Hair Is Turning Gray!”

That was over twenty years ago and I thought I just couldn't have any of those kinds of hair-raising experiences again.  Well, I was mistaken.  Yesterday my brother and I wrote another chapter.  It goes like this...

We headed out early on the delivered new “Stilt”,  arguably the finest shallow draft boat out there, for flyfishing and comraderie.  We should've known.  It was as foggy as you'll ever see it but we pressed on expecting the fog to lift, probably by the time we had navigated the six miles down the Arroyo Colorado to the bay, or certainly within an hour or two.  Wrong.  Somehow we made it to the mouth of the Arroyo, on plane, with visibility maybe 100 yds.  And eventually we found our way far south into South Cullens Bay.

Scott fishes this area regularly in January and February when the tides are seasonably at their lowest levels of the year, shutting off all of the many back lagoons we prefer when higher waters permit.  We had completed two wade fishing excursions in the fog with nothing to show for our efforts when Capt. Scott decided we needed to head north to shallower waters near the prominent landmark,  Cullen's house.  I was apprehensive, as we would still be “flying on instruments”.  The Stilt has all the marine bells and whistles, but flight instruments, it does not.  Having flown on instruments many times as a matter of routine when I was another kind of Captain ( Air Force) I ceded the controls to the Boat Captain when the moisture kept my glasses, which I am hopelessly addicted to, glazed over and useless.  The fog was lifting a bit, but the visibility was still no more than 80-100 yards. After running on plane for maybe five minutes I noticed that it seemed to me we were heading  too much to the west, as the slight easterly breeze that we needed to keep ninety degrees off our starboard side in heading north,  was now becoming a tailwind!  At about the time I made an exaggerated  motion for Scott to turn more to the starboard, or right, we found ourselves running 25 mph in 1 to 2” of water.  For all the things it can do, the boat is not designed for that.  We came to a screeching halt, commonly called a “pancake” in the depths of 1” water.  After the customary “Holy S***” and “WTF?” we settled down enough to determine that we were approximately 300 yards from floatable waters, but in an impossible fix to getting the boat back as there were places where there was NO water between us and where we needed to be.  After much scouting and spirited brotherly debate, we decided to push the boat to the West until we reached, hopefully, water deep enough where we could “get the boat up”.  I was hesitant to begin this trek, as it would take us directlyAWAY from the parts of the bay where a potential rescue boat would come from, plus the fact that we were up against the clock and an outgoing tide. Clearly there might NOT be  enough water in this direction when or if we got that far.  Scott knows this part of the bay far better than I, so I relented and off we went – 50 yds at a time, when it would become necessary to stop and catch our breath. This went on for two hours.  I am well into my 60's.  My brother hit the magic 6-0 two years back.  We were literally pushing the boat across mud.  The one to two inches of water was only serving to grease the skids.  It wasn't fun.  For the shallow water fishermen out there, you know that  5 – 6” of water isn't much to crow about but I was praising the Lord when we finally got the boat to those meager depths.  The Stilt, being the unbelievably shallow running boat that it is, spun to the left one complete turn and got us up and out of there!   Heading in at around 2 pm, we noticed areas to the east that still had fog! Glad to get back is an understatement.  Of course, it will never happen again with all the wisdom I (we?) have gleaned in our many years on the bay.......     And I don't know what to name this episode, as the only hair  I have left on my head, which isn't much, is already gray!  -- Chip Sparrow

Thursday, January 23, 2014

New Digs

Julie and I have been moving our base of operations to Channelview Trailer Park. It's only 100 yards east of where were were, but wow, what a difference in what we're going to be able to do! The site just so happens to have a shed that we can use for sleepovers, fly tying, wine tasting, and general socializing. Our clients will be able to part outside the park, and launch from the private dock. So we won't be picking people up at the County Park anymore. And what's more, when we return to the dock, our clients will be able to have a beer and chew the fat with us. We've really been missing the socializing that I used to do when I had the lodge. So while we don't have sleeping accommodations onsite (but recommend Atascosa Outlook for that), our new digs will accommodate our clients' needs more thoroughly than in the past two years.

I have been tying flies in front of the TV, and dreaming of my new Stilt, which arrives next week. In fact, I'm going to see it this weekend at the San Antonio Boat Show, and then pick it up next week. My son Ryan and I have a date with big trout at Stover's Point, weather permitting just as soon as I get the Stilt in the water.

We're getting calls for this coming season. Don't hesitate if you know when you want to come. If Randy or I cannot guide you, we'll ask Rick Hartman, Roel Villanueva, or Jaime Lopez--all NewWater guides and "natives" of the Lower Laguna Madre. Guides who grew up on the water with their fathers, and remember the smell of dead shrimp and the noise of WWII surplus generators have a deeply embedded respect and love for this fishery. We all share this heritage. I hope you'll come share it with us.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

New video on flyfishing to tailing and podding reds

I've just uploaded a video to Youtube that you might find enticing. Take a look at:

I intend to upload it to the server, so it will show in high-def, but in the meantime, it's clear enough to enjoy it.


Saturday, January 4, 2014

How to Catch Reds on the Bad Days

This the a draft of an article that I was asked to write for Tide magazine. 

Catching Redfish on the “Bad” Days

Laguna Madre fly fishing guide Eric Glass once said to a mutual friend, “Anyone can catch fish on a good day. The real test is whether you can catch fish on a bad day.”  A guide doesn’t have the luxury of picking and choosing the days that he can fish: His clients plan their trips in advance, and except for rescheduling when they can anticipate a deteriorating weather condition, they have to make the best of the conditions that they find. I once grimaced at the idea of having to go out on poor days, but I’ve since learned that redfish can be found and caught almost every day on the Lower Laguna, and they are almost always willing to take a fly. 
How does one succeed on just about any day of the year, no matter what the conditions? I have discovered that there are several keys that will help you get started in making every flyfishing trip on the Lower Laguna Madre a success. Some of these principles no doubt apply to other shallow water venues, as well.
The birds can help you find fish almost year round. Last year, I scheduled an old client and his buddy from Austin during the first weekend in December, but as the time approached, the forecast suddenly called for 25-30 mph southeast winds on both days––a common occurrence on the lower Texas coast. I called him to give him a heads-up, fully expecting him to reschedule, but he opted to come down, anyway. 
“I’ve already taken the time off, and I need to be on the water,” he said flatly. I was okay with that, as long as he knew what he would be facing.
On windy, cloudy days, the most reliable strategy for finding visible redfish is to find laughing gulls hovering over pods of reds. This strategy may seem obvious, but in high wind and muddy water, it’s easy to give up on “birding” after a half-hearted search, and then to head back in. December is generally regarded as too late in the year to find birding action, but that’s a misconception: Birding can be “on” from late February through mid-December. We headed north from the mouth of the Arroyo Colorado and began ducking into areas known for birding action. The wind was already over 20 mph and rising, and it was overcast. Eventually, we entered Payton’s Bay from the southern end, and found nothing for several miles. I knew that birding action can be quite localized, and so I kept going, hoping for the best. Sure enough, as we approached the northernmost section of Payton’s we spotted several groups of gulls hovering over pods of redfish. 
My clients got out of the boat, and waded downwind, casting Kingfisher spoon flies into one pod after another. After the guys landed several reds, the pods broke up and the birds dispersed. As you might imagine, the anglers felt quite fortunate to have done so well on such an otherwise “terrible” morning. 
There are several things a Lower Laguna angler should know about birding action. 
  •   Birding moves from place from place. Although there are several places where birding is often “on” during the spring and fall, there are other places that people rarely look, such as east of the Intracoastal Waterway. Pods of reds mixed with trout (and yes, hardheads) are often working under birds up to a mile east of the Intracoastal, but it’s easy to overlook them. The last time I fished the birds on the east side of the Intracoastal was on a day when my clients from Corpus Christi contemplated canceling due to strong winds. And yet, they landed over 20 fish under birds before we headed elsewhere. 
  •     Birding increases with the speed of the wind. Those blustery days when most people stay at home are the best days for birding action, because gulls can stay aloft with virtually no effort during a windy day. Riding the wind, gulls can easily search for the sure signs of podding gamefish––shrimp skipping across the surface––even when the fish are otherwise invisible.  
  •   You need to approach the birds on foot, if possible. Gulls will often disperse as you approach them in a drifting skiff, and if the birds are working over fish in deeper water that is off-color due to high wind, you won’t be able to see anything––except, perhaps skipping shrimp––once the birds leave. However, if you wade slowly toward them, there’s a good chance they will stay on point, at least until you can cast.
  •   Most people never see the summer birding action. Mid-summer birding action is usually overlooked because it typically occurs later in the day. Last August, after having been driven off the water by a morning thunderstorm, I took three clients back out in the late afternoon to see if we could avoid a fishless day. We went into a west-side lagoon, and immediately shut down. As far as we could see, groups of reds were sweeping around in less than a foot of water, escorted by screaming gulls. It was a visual spectacle and an angling opportunity to die for. This late action is by no means unusual, perhaps because there’s less pressure from boats. 
Go As Shallow as You Can. It would have been easy to take my clients in after scoring on such an otherwise poor morning, but not wanting to give up too soon, I suggested that we head east onto the “sand” to see if we could find reds in extremely shallow water where they’d have to show themselves. We took the Stilt five miles east, and approached the shallowest area on a slow plane.  Low thick clouds tumbled overhead as the wind whipped the surface of the shallow water, degrading its normal clarity. As we slowed to a near stall and turned slowly downwind, single fish in the 24-27 inch range began blowing up, leaving sandy swirls as they pushed away in water barely deep enough to host them. 
“They’re here!” I shouted over the wind. “But if we stop, we’ll be here a while.” I was already anticipating pushing the Stilt half a mile to eight-inch water where we could manage to get up on plane, but I was willing to do it if my clients consented.
“Let’s do it!” they shouted back. As I pulled back on the throttle, the Yamaha’s skeg bounced against the rock-hard sand and the boat skidded to a halt. We weren’t even floating!
As the guys stepped out of the Stilt, the water was so shallow that it didn’t even cover the tops of their booties. I advised them to go barefooted in order to avoid making the sucking sounds that booties make when the tops are exposed to the air. They spread out and began stalking fish downwind, sometimes tiptoeing to avoid alerting the reds that could be spotted ahead of us blowing up on tiny crabs and sand worms, and showing their backs as they actively fed. Once I had pushed the Stilt into slightly deeper water, I stood on the bow and poled downwind, parallelling the wading anglers. Redfish streamed past me into the bootie-deep water from the west, appearing as burnt-orange shadows as they eerily passed by in the low light.
Such action is more common than one might think. Indeed, we returned to the same spot the next day, and did at least as well under the same blustery conditions. And then, a few days later a friend from Austin came down and wanted to know where he should fishs under similar condition. Knowing that he could not take his boat as shallow as we had done, I told him to anchor just east of the Saucer on the sand, and walk east toward Padre Island until he found the sheepshead and mullet gathered, and then to wade even further.  He was athletic enough to make the round trip, and sure enough, beyond the melee of mullet and sheepshead, he found exposed reds spread out and feeding alone in six to seven inches of water, and he spent several hours catching them on his fly rod.
Fish as Late as You Can. Most of us will rush to our favorite spots at daybreak, but few people realize that redfish often pour into shallow areas just before dark.  After guiding in the morning and early afternoon, I often take my wife Julie and our dog Rosie out on the east side of the Lower Laguna, and flyfish along the shallowest edge of the lagoon just before dark. The surface molecules of the heated water re-bond in spite of the wind, and the surface regains its mirror-like sheen, enabling a sight casting angler to easily spot reds cruising and feeding upwind in 6-8 inches of water on windy evenings. These fish are incredibly aggressive, and will rush to intercept a tiny Clouser from over five feet away in low light. 
Find places where the reds tail in the wind. It is commonly believed that redfish stop tailing as soon as the wind rises, unless they are in pods aggressively feeding on shrimp. And yet, there are places where redfish regularly tail in high wind. On one morning several years ago, I faced the daunting task of helping a novice flyfisher from Dallas catch her first redfish on a fly on a cloudy, windy day.  I went to one of the places where redfish often tail in strong wind--to an area just north of the Mansfield Cut.  We waded carefully into the area, and began spotting reds tailing while feeding upwind in less than 8 inches of water. She couldn’t cast more than 25 feet, but the wind afforded us some cover, and she ended up landing seven reds before the morning was over.
Part of the problem is finding redfish tailing in the wind, and the other problem is spotting them. Certainly, experience on the water will increase your ability to perceive tailing fish in less than glassy conditions, but people often don’t realize that sunglasses will prevent them from spotting tailing fish on windy, cloudy days. On one occasion while fishing in the same spot north of Mansfield on a breezy, overcast day, I stood beside a client who could not see the redfish tailing all around him. Finally, I noticed that he was wearing his sunglasses, so I urged him to remove them.  It was as if someone had flipped a switch; and he could suddenly see the tails in the low light. Since then, I advise my clients to refrain from donning their sunglasses until the light hurts their eyes, especially on cloudy days when I know that the reds might be tailing.
Cast small flies as close to the fish as you can. I often hear people say that the redfish won’t take their flies. I tend to disagree, since I am usually five feet higher than my clients on the poling platform, and I get to see what happens after the fly hits the water. I can honestly say that I have rarely observed a redfish rejecting a well-presented fly. I am not alone in this assessment. In fact, when I conducted a survey of several top Texas flyfishing guides, including Chuck Skates, Chuck Naiser, and Skipper Ray, I asked them what they found was the most difficult thing to convince their clients of. Generally, they agreed that their clients erroneously 1) believed redfish have seen the fly when they haven’t, and 2) underestimated a redfish’s willingness to take a fly. Of course, the second misconception follows from the first, but regardless, it results in people blaming the fish for problems that the angler alone can resolve with a more accurate cast. My friend Skipper Ray was once guiding some clients who, after several hours of flyfishing asked him if they should change their flies. Skipper, who is known for his refreshing honesty, replied “Fellas, the fish haven’t even seen your flies yet.”
On a poor weather day, the noise of the wind and the reduced clarity of the water combine to make it even less likely for redfish to perceive the fly unless it’s “in their face.” And then, if it’s casted close enough, the fish will often spook from the abrupt sight of the fly, leaving anglers to accuse them of presumed fickleness.
One day when I was flyfishing for fun with two friends, we found a good concentration of redfish on the sand in about 10 inches of water. It was so windy that the wind-driven chop had churned up the sand, reducing the visibility. We spread out and began sight casting to single feeding fish. One of my friends, who waded off on his own, began landing one red after another. In contrast, the other angler and I found the reds especially spooky, and caught only a couple of fish. Later, when we got back together, we discovered that the successful flyfisher had been using a tiny bonefish fly––one small enough not to spook the redfish in the turbid water when casted directly at their heads. It should have been a no-brainer to me, but I, too, had fallen prey to the misconception that the fish were “off their feed,” when it was simply a matter of making a less obtrusive, and yet visible presentation.
Blind cast topwaters and spoon flies when all else fails.  Few of us can cast a fly rod 75 feet every time, but it’s not hard to develop a long cast if you’re willing to practice: It’s about timing and stroke, not strength. If you develop a long cast, nothing can stop you on a fishery as fertile as the Lower Laguna Madre. Take for example, a client of mine who has only one leg. He cannot stand without assistance on a tipsy skiff, and he cannot wade without destroying his $80,000 artificial leg. Knowing this, he practiced casting every day in his back yard before coming to south Texas. I took him to an area on the bay that often has a high concentration of fish in two feet of water, and set him up with a folding chair on the bow of the skiff. He remained seated all morning and managed to land eight redfish by casting a popper 75 feet again and again before his arm gave out. 
Blindcasting is not my preferred approach, but sometimes it’s all you’ve got. One morning, while fishing for giant trout with flyfishing legend Bud Roland, the clouds rolled in and ruined our visibility. Rather than give up, Bud suggested that we drift downwind, blindcasting spoon flies off of both ends of the skiff. Seventeen reds and one trout later, we headed in on an otherwise disappointing day.
So, it’s best to practice your casting off the eater, and get casting instruction if you need it. A good golfer would consider you a masochist if you didn’t practice between games, and flyfishing is at least as punishing. As Norman MacLean once said “All good things come by grace, and grace comes by art, and art does not come easy.” Grace may be beyond our control, but the “art” depends on you and me.

Above all, if you want to catch fish on so-called bad days, you need to get over the idea that it’s impossible to do so. To the contrary, the highest-catching days that I’ve had on the water have consistently been days when the lagoon was so windy by afternoon that it was virtually devoid of anglers. On one day that I considered canceling because of horrendous wind, two brothers from Maryland caught over 50 redfish between them, and I’ve seen many “bad” days end in surprising successes. Fishing on windy, cloudy days may not be something you want to do if your free time is limited, but if you have an open day, and the conditions are less than the best, you might want to rise to the challenge.  Flyfishing is like the rest of our lives: We learn a lot more on bad days than on good ones.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

A Phenomenal Weekend of Tailing Action

Wow, what a great weekend of flyfishing! I had the privilege of guiding my old client Howard MIller of Dallas, who came down with his daughter Becky for two days on the water. It had been a couple of years since Howard had been down, and he hadn't flyfished since. He had rescheduled twice due to the tropical systems that had brought a deluge of rain and high tides. But when we headed out on Friday morning, the Arroyo was no longer draining, and the bay was as beautiful as I've ever seen it. The tides were high, but they always are from Labor Day until early December. The reds push farther back into remote westside venues, and once they get established, they tail in pods day after day, feeding on white shrimp and crabs. The larger reds will also cruise the shorelines of the far westside lagoons blowing up on finger mullet. It's the best time of the year.

I elected not to go into my oft-favorite lagoon in favor of heading farther south in hopes of finding pods of tailing reds. I regretted my decision on the way, sure that I'd effed up and would have to backtrack later. But we shut down in an expanse of glassy foot-deep water without another boat in sight, and it was hard to fault the decision to be there. Indeed, as we poled further and further west, we began encountering small pods of reds tailing almost imperceptibly in the glassy water. We crossed a threshold that normally stops most skiffs, but the Stilt kept floating. We entered a place that rarely sees a boat. It became clear that the reds had taken refuge there, because the dark tips of their tails began appearing in the early morning light, until we were literally surrounded by pods of tailing fish. A single skiff appeared a half a mile to the east. We had it to ourselves. For about two hours, we poled from one pod to the next. The day proved to be an "adjustment" day for Howard, and only a few fish were landed.

The next day, however, we left the dock earlier in order to take advantage of the tailing action. It was twilight when we arrived at the shallow lagoon. Immediately, tails popped up all around us. For the next three hours, we enjoyed some of the best action I've seen in years. Howard landed eight reds on a light chartreuse and white Clouser, all between 24 and 26 inches.  The wind came up mid-morning, so we ran around looking for visible fish, finally returning to my favorite early morning venue. Usually, the reds leave this area by late morning, but in the fall, the water depth is sufficient enough that even during an outgoing tide, enough water remains to support feeding fish.

It was critically shallow, and I am sure we poled through water that only a Stilt could negotiate. Wow, it was full of reds feeding singly and in small roaming pods that were exploding on whatever got in their way. We poled about three hundred yards, and had about 15 good shots. Then we looped back upwind, and poled through the same area, only to have at least as many shots at big reds. Howard was really happy that he'd chosen to wait for good weather.  As we said goodbye, I urged him to return soon. He's 83, and I'm 62. I said, "come soon, because I don't know how long I will be guiding." He laughed and said, "You and I will hire a guide, then."

It's a strange feeling when I say goodbye to some of my older clients, with whom I have had such good  experiences over the past 15 years. We really don't know each other, except on the deck of a skiff. But somehow we learn most of the important things you can know about a person---how they deal with challenges, disappointments, and what role patience plays in their lives. It's a soulful exchange, much more about life than just catching fish. As Sparse Gray Hackle once said, "Sometimes I think the least important thing about fishing is catching fish."

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Voice to text mess

I've been using the voice-to-text program Dragon dictate, and it's barely worth it, given the mess it creates. So if you find that my prose in my last post resembled the incoherent muttering of a recently awakened baboon, please forgive me. I have corrected most of it, and will endeavor to check it before publishing next time.

Back on the Water After A Month of Rain

 For the past month, we have experienced almost continual rain and clouds due to three separate tropical depressions. This time of year, most hurricanes that begin in the Atlantic do not reach us. However, the storms that spring up in the Caribbean or especially in the Bay of Campeche, which is just above the Yucat√°n Peninsula, can catch us almost unawares. Indeed only 40 years ago when my father would fish the Mexican beach south of the border, storms would come up quickly and surprise anglers were camping and fishing the surf. On one occasion, my dad was camping with several friends in a large tent about 100 yards from the edge of the water, when they were suddenly awakened in the middle of the night by a large wave that hit the tent and flooded the interior. They  jumped into their four-wheel drive vehicle and drove it as far as they could up into the dunes where they spent the next six hours or so weathering hurricane force winds. That was back before we had the luxury of satellite coverage of approaching hurricanes.  In addition to the immediate wind and rain from a tropical system, we also experience a significant surge in title levels whether the storm reaches us not. Indeed, a storm that reaches the Gulf even as far east as the Florida peninsula will nonetheless push water westward until we experience a significant bump in the normal tides. So, the usual stable weather of late summer can turn into constant rain and wind and high tides, which of course ruins the fishing. But this last weekend, my son Ryan and I went out fishing in order to scout the situation prior to several charters that I have in October and beyond. We found the bay in its pristine condition, having returned to its seasonal title levels, which are still quite high, but nonetheless fishable. We fished in only two venues, and found reds in both places. Ryan who has just moved back from Virginia, and is excited to be flyfishing  again, did quite well on his first outing out. In fact, he caught more reds than I did! We found tailing reds in a westside lagoon that was also festooned with tailing Sheepshead. Interestingly, the sheepshead were quite willing to take a fly. I hooked two big ones there, and landed one. Meanwhile, Ryan landed a very fine red, which he released before I could photograph it. We headed further north into another Westside lagoon that fishes well in sunny conditions. The big reds were feeding on baitfish along a grass free shoreline, chasing bait into the shallowest water. The reds would appear with their backs on the water, giving us breathtaking opportunities to cast a big fish in very, very skinny conditions. I headed in one direction, and suggested that Ryan go in the other direction due to the wind and the fact that he was right-handed. The area that I fished was full of big reds met were feeding explosively, but disappearing just as soon as they would strike. I found it hard to see them, and to cast to them. Ryan, on the other hand, headed in a direction where the water was clearer and even shallower. They were there with their backs out of the water, and Ryan had almost constant action until he landed a 27-inch red.  Not wanting to be left out of the action, I headed over to join him and waded parallel to him, fishing even shallower water up against the shoreline. The reds were still there feeding aggressively an almost impossibly shallow conditions. We didn't catch a lot of fish, but the ones we caught were big ones. The wind and clouds came up in the late morning, so we decided to pack it in.

This weekend, I guide my old client Howard Miller from Dallas, who has rescheduled three times in the last six weeks due to weather. The forecast says that he should have ideal conditions. Beyond Howard's weekend charter, I have several others lined up, and I hope  that the tropical storms have finally run their course. We really needed the rain, and we got plenty of it. But now, it's time to catch a few fish.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Blogger's Remorse

9/2/13  I have blogger’s guilt, having not posted a fishing report for a very long time. Alas, one cannot get around to everything, and I always have believed the words of Saint Kenny, my old fishing mentor who used to say, “Tis a helluva lot better to fish than to lie about it, and a helluva better to lie than to bore your friends with the facts.” 

I will cast back in memory until it fails me, or until I reach the date of my last blog, whichever comes first.

On Friday, and again on Sunday, I guided brothers Clay and Chuck Armstrong, who had  flyfished in coldwater venues, but had never caught a redfish on a fly. Short, precise casts are what you need in a small stream with overhangs, but when it comes to saltwater sightcasting, you need a long, precise cast. Even a long cast isn’t enough, because as you will find you may get one or two casts to a tailing pod of reds, and then they will sense your presence and break up. 

So Clay and Chuck faced the usual learning curve for flyfishers new to sightcasting for redfish. The first day turned out to be what most flyfishers dream of––dead calm conditions. After you’ve stalked reds in perfectly glassy conditions, you may pray for a bit of wind from thereon; because getting close enough by boat or on foot is exceedingly difficult in a foot of calm water. That’s what kept Clay and Chuck from scoring early on Friday, but I didn’t hear them complaining. It was breathtaking to see 20 reds here and 15 over there, and a few more behind us--all tailing and blowing up from time to time on shrimp and crabs that inhabited the grassy back lagoon. We were the only boat in an area that was probably about 400 acres. So, we didn’t land any fish there, but the guys grew in flyfishing stature. As Saint Kenny once said, “Every poor cast and every missed fish keeps you careening toward angling perfection, if depression convince you to quit.”

As if to reward the guys’ willingness to practice in near-impossible conditions, momma nature drummed up a bit of wind so that when we arrived at our second venue and found pods of tailing reds mixed with hardheads, we were able to get within 100 feet of them. There Clay landed his first red on a fly, and Chuck missed one than ran toward him before spitting the fly. Later, on the sand under a cloudless sky, they got shots at scattered reds; and both brothers managed to land reds on small Clousers. Indeed, Chuck’s first red on a fly was an especially impressive feat. He and I were walking downwind when I decided to go back and float the Stilt down to where the guys were. Turning around, I spotted a half-dozen reds feeding behind a sting ray, moving slowly toward us. Without thinking about how nearly impossible it would be to cast a fly upwind with his back cast, Chuck dropped the fly in the middle of the “cartwheel” of reds around the ray, and they fought over it. I will never forget that catch; and of course, neither will Chuck.

In between guiding the Armstrong brothers, Julie and I took Rosie and went out for one of our memorable afternoon excursions onto the sand. This time, Julie took along a beach umbrella and chair, looking forward to setting it up next to the Stilt in the clear water of the easternmost LLM, and reading while I flyfished. As usual, I planed slowly over several miles of fishless water, looking for enough reds to justify shutting down. Growing impatient, Julie finally turned around and said, "Are we going to run around all day?" So I shut down, and set up Julie's umbrella and chair, fully expecting to encounter not a single redfish on my wade. Rosie joined me, as always, taking up a position just behind me. For the first 30 minutes, I didn't see a single fish, even though I could literally see 100 yards downwind in the perfect sight casting conditions: There was a moderate wind to break the surface tension of the water, and not a cloud in the sky. But suddenly, I spotted the first redfish coming upwind and feeding head down. I casted to him, and spooked him. I thought that he was probably the only fish within a mile radius, but soon after missing that fish, I began spotting one red after another until it was almost constant action. I landed three fine reds from 23-24 inches, and then headed back. I don't have to catch many fish any more before I'm happy and want to leave them alone.

Let me see: Going back a bit further, I had the pleasure of guiding Doug and Steve Gauntt from Dallas. The Gauntt brothers have probably caught more reds per day than any other regular flyfishing clients, having caught over 45 on one memorable day, and well over 20 reds per day on several different days. No wonder they keep coming back. But except for our first day, we had tough fly fishing. On the first day, they landed around 15 reds and a nice trout, mostly on the sand. After that, it was single digit days. Windy and cloudy conditions keep the Gauntts from doing their usual thing. Alas, every fine angler meets his match from time to time, and when it comes to saltwater flyfishing, that happens with regularity. The great days keep us coming back, and the bad days keep us learning.

The three days before the Gauntts came down, I guided my old client Jack Miller from Arizona, along with Roger and Greg––two of Jack’s buddies from the Arizona Fly Casters. I had guided Jack on two previous occasions with his old friend Dario, who has since passed on. Jack and Dario had enjoyed some of the best flyfishing conditions on the LLM imaginable. But this time, the fishing was not so easy, mainly because we faced unstable, cloudy weather for two of the three days. I think it was the second day when we were run off the water by a storm approaching from the Gulf. After taking the guys in at midday, I began to feel badly that they were just sitting, unable to fish. So after the weather cleared, I called them and suggested we go back out and check out the far east side action that I’d been enjoying (see earlier entries). The guys enthusiastically agreed that a late afternoon foray onto the sand would be a welcome antidote to an otherwise lackluster day.

We headed out a bit too early for the sand action, so I headed for a westside lagoon that just might have some birding action. Even in August, birding can be “on,” especially in the late afternoon, if you know where to go. I drove into the area, and couldn’t see much gazing into the low sun, but suddenly, there they were: gulls working low to the water. Looking beyond them, we could see several groups of birds hovering and dipping over large pods of reds. As I poled into the lagoon, it became clear that we stumbled upon a veritable convention of redfish. Gathering as they often do once the boats are off the water, and they have full sway of the back lagoons, the redfish were all around us, sweeping under birds, and driving waves that you could surf on. It was very exciting for the guys. But the bottom was very soft, and there were three anglers on the skiff.  It was going to be a juggling act to get everyone on fish before the evening was over. Greg opted to wade, even though the conditions were as close to impossible as you will find on the entire LLM. The high point of the day was when Roger was on the bow, and Jack was casting from a seated position behind the console, and I waded alongside the boat, and turned it at the last minute so both anglers could cast to a tailing pod. Both Jack and Roger hooked up and landed reds. Here’s a shot of them with their reds before we released them.

Enough for now. As we go into September, I look forward to fishing some areas that are normally too shallow through the summer. Already, I am finding abundant pods in areas just deep enough to host reds feeding on maturing white shrimp. It’s going to a great fall, I can tell––very similar to last year. Come on down and fish with us!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A New Discovery at Dusk

So much has happened since my last posting. I was gone for three weeks in June, but have been on the water quite a bit since returning.

Fishing has been excellent, even "wild" in the words of one old client. Whenever I think I know it all, nature teaches me something new, if not strange, that I didn't know before.

Every anger and guide longs to find a "secret" that can produce again and again. But few discoveries repeat themselves on a dependable basis. Over time, however, these discoveries work their way into an enduring data base the informs the angler about what to do when a variety of variable come into alignment.

About a month ago, I went out late in the evening with Julie. We often arrive before dark on the day before I guide, and take the boat out for a spin and brief fishing "date" on the bay. Julie loves the sand, so even though I prefer the west side at dusk (for birding and other visible phenomena), I headed east onto the shallowest sand so Julie could get out and frolic while sipping a beer. Meanwhile, I grabbed my rod and waded further east toward the Padre Island "shelf" that defines the edge of fishable water. Beyond, the glassy 3 inch water stretches all the way to the distant dunes.

Reds were clearly visible swimming upwind with their backs out of the water. Sheepshead were so plentiful that it would have been easy for a novice to confuse the species and catch nothing. But to a trained eye, the reds were streaming just to the east of the sheepshead hoard. Wow, it was great fly fishing. I caught one, then missed four before I realized my hook had broken on the second fish! Laughing at my inattention (I really didn't care to catch any more), I hung it up and went in.

I went back to the same are the next weekend before another weekend gig, and the reds were doing the same thing. I landed four reds from 24-26 inches in 30 minutes, and missed two more. I could have stayed longer and caught more, but I don't have much need to rack up numbers, anymore.

All to say...this is one of those incredible, repeated angling opportunities that virtually no one fishes, or even knows about. How many guides will take their clients out at 5 pm? How many fly fishes will go out on cloudy, windy evenings, expecting to catch as many reds that they can handle?

There's so much that I know after so many years on the water. I know that most of it remains a mystery to most people, and that's just fine with me. But starting next year, I will begin compiling my culminating fly fishing book on the Laguna Madre. There will be plenty of secrets for those who wish to exploit them. But in most cases, I am sure, very few people will go out of their way to find out if such apparently rubbish can be true.

What I discovered that evening was a real "wow," even for admittedly "know-it-all" guide like me. Thinking that it was a fluke, I have returned twice only to find the redfish doing the same thing.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

A Bad Day Turns Good

I guided Tom Dorrell from Corpus and his buddy Steve Elliot from Houston the other day. We almost rescheduled because the forecast called for 20-30 knots. Ouch. But they opted to come down anyway. We headed out on Tuesday in 20 mph wind (destined for 25+ later that morning) and found no birding in my two favorite places for early morning birding action. I was getting ready to pop a Prozac,but as we left the second place, I noticed birds working just east of the Interacoastal. Trout, I surmised. So we looped upwind and floated down to them. We could see tails popping up under the birds in the low light. Steve's first cast scored our first redfish of the day. The day was looking better, but no one expected much after that. But we were all surprised. About 18 trout later––many of them in 17-18 inch range––we picked up and headed south, hoping to find birding in a third venue. Nope, it was too shallow. So we headed east onto the sand, and found crystal clear water in 20-25 knot wind. For the next few hours, we waded there, and landed four more reds. We had plenty more opportunities, but the reds weren't feeding head down, and therefore could easily spot you as soon as you moved.  For a crappy weather day, it turned out to be a glorious catching day. You never know what you'll find. You just have to show up, and few angler will show up on bad days. So they never know what's possible.
Here's the link to a new video  of my day with Dr. Sam Fason that I just uploaded to YouTube. It has some of the best "birding" footage I've ever shot.  The redfish are going crazy feeding--I just love to watch them when they're doing this. Not many people have ever seen this. By the way, Does anyone know the identity of the small black tern diving on the reds? -- Capt. Scott

Friday, May 24, 2013

Extreme Birding

I have been guiding a lot lately, and this past weekend I had the privilege of guiding my old client Sam Fason from Austin for his 75th birthday. Our first day out was very windy--so what's new, right?-- but he did quite well considering. He landed two reds and two trout in weather conditions that kept most flyfishers in bed. At least that's where I assume they were, because they weren't on the water!

But the second day was phenomenal. We found birding in three different areas, and it was still "on" when we headed home at 4 pm.

I will be preparing a video of some of the best footage I've ever recorded of birding. I was able to video close-in groups of 20-30 reds tailing en mass and snapping at shrimp while laughing gulls were going nuts overhead, trying to intercept fleeing shrimp. It's a sight that few anglers have ever  witnessed, and so I look forward to putting this video together for all to see.

May has been expecially windy, so the clarity of the water has suffered. On Wednesday, though, the wind decreased to a mere 15 mph, which resulted in clear water everywhere. It was a fitting way to celebrate Sam's 75th year, and the eight reds he landed while wading attested to his angling prowess. He apologized for not doing better, which says something about the kind of day we had. I've never seen so many happy redfish tailing under happier gulls.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Classic flyfishing for reds

I hadn't planned to fish. My nephew Spencer from Denver and his buddy Micah from Houston had come down for three days of flyfishing with Chip, and a fourth angler on the Stilt can be an official "crowd." But when I tried to turn down the invitation to join them, they made it clear that they wanted me along. "Hell, I've never seen you just fish. You're always guiding," Micah said. So I went down and launched the boat so they guys would be able to hit the water at daybreak after driving from Weslaco.

I was elected to drive the Stilt, which was fine with me. We decided to fish south rather than to go north for birding action. When I'm fishing for fun, I usually leave the pods alone, preferring to go after the larger reds in the back lagoons and shorelines. So we headed into the first lagoon south of the Arroyo, and shut down and started wading toward the south shoreline where the water became progressively shallow until it was only bootie deep. There weren't many reds, and when they tailed, it was only briefly. I finally landed one, and headed further west hoping to find the big reds that feed only on finfish along the far west shoreline of this most favorite lagoon. I finally had one shot at an incoming monster, but I blew the cast.

We headed much further south, hoping to find big trout mingled with redfish, and succeeded, even though the sight casting was tough. Staking the boat 300 yards from the west shoreline of south Cullens, we all waded toward the shallower and clearer water along the mangrove-lined ridge that runs north and south. We didn't see much until we were within 100 yards of the shoreline. I spotted a tailing red and caught him, and then saw two larger reds tailing along the shoreline, and landed one of them--a 26-inch fish. I was feeling in the zone. I headed further south, leaving the guys behind me, and noticed that they were starting to make the long wade back to the boat. I fought the inclination to wade back, finally deciding that they could come pick me up. It's hard for me to let others do that after years of doing the "boat chores" as a guide. Looking further south, I saw only clear foot-deep water stretching out for another 600 yards before the shoreline of Stover's point rose abruptly out of the shallow lagoon. Then suddenly, I heard the explosion of a huge redfish or trout. A reddish egret was dancing around the  area, where a large school of mullet was circling slowly in the glassy water. I couldn't see the remnants of the fish's surface break, but I took a bead on the sound and headed slowly toward it.

I was happy that I'd worn my new polaroids. I'd ordered a special pair, and installed side shades that I'd made out of leather. (If you want to order incredibly cheap, high-quality prescription polaroids, go to You can get single lens prescription glasses for $45, and progressive trifocals for about $90, depending on the frame.) They broke the glare that normally streams in from the side, and I could see over 60 yards ahead of me. Wading very slowly, I scanned the water for the signs of the mystery fish until I spotted a large pink shape moving slowly from left to right. It turned sideways, and I saw that it was a huge redfish, probably 30 inches or more.

I waded into position, and luckily it turned and headed toward me. Casting my Mother's Day Fly on my TFO six weight, I dropped the fly just beyond and ahead of the fish's head. Not wanting to spook it with an approaching fly, I let it sink and twitched it slowly along the bottom, hoping for the best. The red spotted it after it had passed, and shot forward to inhale it. It was on! But it ran toward me, and the fly popped out. I stripped the slack in, and laid the fly ahead of it as it came within 25 feet. Alas, a mature redfish rarely falls for the same trick twice, and he shrugged off my effort. Turning sideways only 20 feet from me, he stopped and eyed me before lumbering off. I was happy, even though I didn't land him. It was a compliment that he'd accepted my presentation and taken an MDF that I'd tied while watching TV only a few days ago.

We headed onto the sand, which is my favorite place to fish. We put Chip and Micah out, and Spencer and I headed 1/2 mile further north and staked the boat. The conditions were perfect: not a cloud in the sky, and the sun at a slight western angle. Spence and I spotted several reds and a couple of trout before Chip and Micah picked us up. I managed to pick up one red on my MDF before we headed further north. We had intended to head in, but we ran over a passel of reds, and several big trout. So we shut down one last time and slipped overboard. While Spencer and Micah didn't seem much, I found a line where I spotted continuous reds for half an hour. They were spooky given the high-vis conditions, but I managed to hook two before Chip poled up behind us and officially pulled the plug on a perfect day.

You may want to consider this: When I wade fish with others, we all experience different things. I can wade beside someone who doesn't see one fish in an hour, and I can see 30 reds in the same period of time. This may sound like boasting, but I'm just stating the facts. What makes the difference? It has to with three things: experience on the water, stopping, and seeing. Obviously, the more experience on the water you have, the easier your eyes and brain can separate information from the background noise. But beyond sheer hours on the water, you can increase your chances of success by stopping from time to time while you are wading and observing very carefully. If you observe herons, you will see them move forward, then freeze, move forward, then freeze. You can perceive movement when your head is stationary far better than when it is movingl. Also, don't cast unless you see something. If you cast, the movement of your head will keep you from perceiving movement in the water. Further, get the best glasses you can find. Don't scrimp on polaroids. Your vision is the most important ally on the water, and if you scrimp on your eyeware, you won't see half of what's there.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

New Video

I just posted a new video on YouTube, and embedded the html here. I hope to be putting some more videos up soon.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Birding--more challenging than it looks

Birding is "on" right now, as it always is this time of year. Randy and his son Truett went out yesterday and got into birding, but didn't land a single red. Why's that, you might ask? The reasons that most people fail to catch fish under birds are all related to a single problem
--getting the redfish to see your fly. There are variations on this theme:
1) They start casting too soon, and the fish have time to move or disperse;
2) By casting too soon, they catch grass, catfish, small trout, or ladyfish––all of which accompany the redfish, and encircle them––which gives the reds even more time to move on or disperse;
3) They cast a fly that sinks so slowly that the reds, which have their heads down, never see it.

Randy and Truett are expert Laguna Madre anglers, so I had to wonder how they, of all people, came up empty-handed (not that I have :). Sometimes it's simply the weight of the fly. Indeed, Randy admitted that they had used ultra-lightweight Kingfisher spoons, which are usually a very fine redfish fly. But in deeper water (meaning calf-to-knee-deep), a lightweight spoon like the KF Spoon will flutter slowly to the bottom, giving opportunistic ladyfish and trout time to snatch the fly before the reds (which have their heads in the sand) from seeing the fly.

So, to succeed...Cast a fly that will get to the level of the redfish immediately. A Clouser works best in more than a foot of relatively grass-free water. Also, cast slightly beyond the pod. The fly typically swings toward the angler on the drop, so to get the fly in front of the fish, you need to overcast the pod by a foot or so.

Also, you need to assess where the redfish are going. Typically, they move in the same direction, sweeping the grass as a group. If you cast behind them, they'll never see it. So look at the direction the tail is pointing, and you'll be able to discern the direction of the pod's movement (the other direction). Or if you can't see the tails clearly, look at the birds, and see which way they are moving against the horizon. The birds are always oriented upwind, but the fish may be going in the opposite direction, or sideways.

And above all, get there quickly! Observe the principle of early arrival, for otherwise, the fish will move away, or explode in a cloud of mud, leaving you wishing you hadn't allowed yourself to be mesmerized by the sight of dozens of waving tails in the early morning sunlight.

On one occasion, I guided two experienced fly fishers who were stalking large pods of redfish surrounded by small trout. I said, "Don't cast before you can reach the tails. Otherwise you will catch a small trout." Well, eight trout later, the guys hadn't been patient, and every cast fell short. They walked back to boat with that hangdog look, knowing what they'd done.

Remember Omar Kyam's words, Tis many a slip twixt the cup and the lip, and maybe you will exercise the patience and discipline to make an easy play an easy play.

I am guiding three days this weekend, and hope to get some good video of birding. I will let you know.

Good luck!

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Smartest Fish

If you haven't reviewed my list of fly fishing articles recently, I have just posted a new article that will appear in the next issue of Tide Magazine on fly fishing for trophy speckled trout. Most of our new clients are interested in redfish, which are not only tough fighters, but usually willing to take a well-presented fly. Trout can be a bit more difficult. But as I've said before, if you target big trout, you are raising the bar on the angling challenge. Consequently, your angling skills will increase, and your ability to catch other species--including redfish--will be significantly enhanced.

The article can be found here:

Another thing: I will be spending much of the month of May on the water--guiding, writing, and fishing for fun. Consider coming down and fishing with me. May is a magical fly fishing month overall.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Guiding old clients

Yesterday, I had the privilege of guiding Tony Woodward and his buddy Jim from Colorado. We could see that a cold front was forecast to pass through on early Sunday, and that they would only have one good weather day. Usually, I recommend rescheduling under such conditions, but Tony had fished the lower Laguna on many occasions, and wasn't into numbers, anyway. So I left it up to him and Jim. They came.

I suggested that we do a dawn-to-dusk trip on Saturday, to which they wholly agreed. I had a plan, and would have bet big money on it; but the day turned out to be difficult. I left the dock at the Arroyo City RV Park and picked them up near the county park. We left the dock earlier than most guides would have, in order to take advantage of early "birding" action. In fact, I navigated with a q-beam down the Arroyo, and found it harder and harder to see. Unbenownst to us, we were driving into fog. By the time we reached the Intracoastal, we couldn't see more than 75 yards ahead. Shining the q-beam through the fog was as useless as driving with a car with your brights on in a thick fog--not very effective, and blinding. After a while, the sun finally rose and transformed near-inpenetrable darkness into a dim white haze. The birding wasn't on, so we headed south to check out some other west-side venues. The fog was so thick, however, that when I finally had to leave the sight of land, I got a bit turned around. Finally, I finally managed to find my way to our destination--a back lagoon that is virtually landlocked. I was relieved that I could only get so lost before running into a familiar shoreline.

Tony caught a fine trout  from the bow, but the redfish action was spotty. We had a few shots here and there, but the lighting was pretty poor, given the fog. When the clouds finally burned off, we could see that pods of redfish were moving into the area, so the guys got out and waded. Alas, they weren't tailing or doing much of anything. Perhaps it was the near-full moon, but I think it was unstable conditions ahead of the cold front. The winds kept changing, and sometimes the fish just don't do much until the front passes. After a while, we headed east onto the sand, hoping for what Tony (and I) like best--fishing the crystal clear water for cruising reds and trout. Yes, the big trout were up on the sand--not in numbers, but they were a steady presence as we planed north toward Mansfield. The tides were high, having recently surged due to the solar effects. So while we found reds, they were in deeper water than we could fish sight casting.

When we got in, Tony spoke with some fly fishers from Houston, who had fished way south, where I'd been fishing for big trout during January and February. Tony learned that the big trout were still there, but they weren't eating, according to the anglers.

So it's not always great fly fishing on the Lower Laguna. If I told you it was, I'm sure you would think me a liar. It doesn't give me much pleasure to tell you about a one-fish day. But then again, we had a very good day. Sharing stories, eating chips and sauza, and smoking the rare cigar. As Sparse Gray Hackle once said, "Sometimes I think the least important thing about fishing is catching fish."

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Julie and I went to the Arroyo this past Saturday, to get a break from school and taxes and therapy and such. I thought that the conditions could be right for big trout, but this time of year the water begins to rise and then the big trout action moves from Stover's Point onto the sand. I wasn't sure if the change had begun or not, but thought that the only way to find out was to show up and see. We took Rosie for the outing, which is a separate source of pleasure for both Julie and me, as we've come to love her enthusiasm for the water. She is the perfect companion: she joins me as soon as I'm off the boat, and walks just behind me, sometimes touching my leg with her nose, but never getting ahead of me or making any noise whatsoever.

We headed for the far west side of Cullens Bay between Cullens House and Stover's Point, knowing that shallow clear water could be found near the mangrove covered islands. It's often the only place to see fish during the windy day of early March, when the water clarity is reduced by the combination of wind and the flow of water into the bay. The water was off color elsewhere, but not brown and orange as it would be if brown tide had possessed it, but a subtle tint of blue that bespoke of the incoming Gulf water that would effectively replace the winter bay water with new blood.

We poled into the clear water with the 10 knot East wind, and saw almost nothing. A few signs of nervous water alerted me to the presence of a very few game fish that were prowling the shallows. Knowing that one or two good shots might be all the day had to offer, I staked the boat and grabbed my six weight. Rosie joined me while Julie stayed on the boat, looking like a tiny Eskimo in the Frog Togs and layering. It was only 65, but the breeze on the bay can take the warmth from your body like a pickpocket; so better to wear more than less in the early spring.

I waded slowly, enjoying the clear water. It affects me deeply, and it really doesn't matter if there's any fish at all. After about 20 minutes, however, I saw a huge fish push away from the shoreline and make way toward me. Hoping that it would keep moving and pushing a wake, I slid sideways to intersect what I was certain was a 8+ pound trout. The wake came within casting distance, probably 80 feet out, and then disappeared as the big fish settled into a slower mode. I casted my Mother's Day fly ahead of the wake, not sure any more exactly where the fish had gone. After driving 65 miles,  sleeping overnight in the trailer, driving 20 miles by boat, taking great care to prepare my gear and terminal tackle, and finally making a fine cast in the area of a great fish, I still needed some luck. The fish still needed to see it, and as luck would have it, the big trout certainly did not see the fly. She disappeared and that was all.

We then headed east onto the sand, which was crystal clear. We ran for miles without seeing much, then angled back toward the mouth of the Arroyo and headed west toward home. We both felt cleansed by the time on the water, happy and "good tired." There's something about the Laguna Madre that takes care of the loose ends and the regrets.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Quest for Trophy Trout Pays Off

My son Ryan and I went out for trophy trout on Saturday morning. I had pitched an article to Tide magazine, and the editor took me up on it immediately. In fact, he wanted it much sooner than I'd planned to do it. So...I decided to go for the long shot--catching a trophy trout on demand.

We headed to South Cullens Bay, where there are often lots of big trout during the winter. I was pleased to see that the tides were about as low as they get, forcing us to go around the spoil islands and enter Cullens opposite Stover's Point. The water was off color in the deeper water, but as we approached the shoreline, it gradually cleared up. We began seeing wakes, but could not identify the fish in the early morning light.

We'd arrived far too early to sight cast using the sun, but the wind was almost calm, so we were able to see breaks and wakes all around us. We decided to wade toward the shoreline, hoping that the shallower and clearer water would hold trout that were avoiding the boat traffic.

Almost immediately, we began spotting game fish breaking and driving dramatic wakes ahead of us. Hoping that they weren't sheepshead, I decided not to blind cast, but to remained cocked and ready for any surface disturbance within casting distance.

About that time, two boats headed toward us from the south, giving the shoreline a "haircut." Annoyed, I watched and listened to them yelling back and forth between themselves. Suddenly, they all started yelling. "Trout, they're all trout!" I heard one guy scream. As they approached, I waved my arms, hoping they'd run to deeper water before they gave all the fish a severe case of PTSD. As they turned away from the shoreline, I could see a dozen big wakes slowly heading toward us. Big trout tend to spook straightaway, rather than zig zagging, and these wakes were slow and straight and had a stately, even slow-motion quality. They were trout, all right.

They all settled down and disappeared, but I knew they were all around us, so I watched for the inimitable signs of fish snaking across the surface. Reds do it, too, in South Cullens, since the turtle grass forces the fish into the upper water column. But trout behave slightly differently when snaking on top. Within a few minutes, I spotted a few fish snaking toward me, wagging their tails. Casting just ahead of them, a wake sped forward and took the Mother's Day Fly, The trout's head came out of the water, thrashing; and the fly popped out. I knew that it had been a pretty big fish, and even though I'd lost it, the experience told me two things: most of the fish were trout, and they were willing to eat.

Ryan and I took a break on the boat a bit later, then headed westward into an area where the surface was glassy. We'd be able to spot fish a long way off, as long as the wind stayed low.

We began to see incoming pairs and small groups, and I got a nip from one of them. But big trout are exceedingly demanding when it comes to presentation. As long as they are heading toward you, you have a chance, but once they turn, it's very hard to get them to eat, because the fly is usually crossing their path.

Wondering if all of our luck had played out, I suddenly spotted a group of fish--probably a dozen or more--heading toward me in the glass. I yelled, "They're probably reds," but I hoped otherwise. As they approached my casting distance, I laid the Mother's Day Fly out ahead of them, and began stripping slowly. The wakes overtook the fly, but frustratingly did not take it. I felt some resistance and pulled only to find that the fly was fouled with grass! A big trout that had been dogging it suddenly went head down, perhaps to take a look at the unnatural acting fly, and a black tail the size of my hand waved at me. I knew they were all trout at that point. I stripped the fly in, tore the grass off, and looked up only to see that the group had broken up. A couple of singles had spooked and were breaking off, while the remnants of the pod were swimming slowly away. Desparate, I quickly stripped more line off and casted ahead of where I thought they were. It was a low percentage play, but there was a swirl, and one was on! It jumped out of the water on hookup and shot away. I could see that it was 26-27 inches and knew that there was a good chance I'd lose it.

But a few minutes later I landed her, got some photos for the article and released her. We fished a while longer, but didn't catch any more trout. Perhaps it's needless for me to say it, but...we're going back soon!

Friday, November 16, 2012

A Secret Place

Fishermen often ask me where I've been fishing.  I always answer with conviction that finding fish has little to do with "where," and more to do with "when" and "why." The fish move from place to place based on tidal flow, depth, and, of course, the availability of food sources. Knowing when these factors converge in a particular area is far more important than knowing where the fish were yesterday. But then again, a place will hold fish day after day if the conditions are right...and if anglers and boats don't destroy the peace that sustains their presence.

For about a month now, the fish have been in a particular shallow venue that is so hard to access that even the Stilt can barely float when it comes off plane. Given the extreme shallowness, I have to make sure the fish are present before coming off of plane, because it will take me a good hour and 1000 calories to push the Stilt back into water deep enough for a hole shot.

If there is one fly fishing secret that was more precious than any other, I would say that it's about this one area on the Lower Laguna. Only a couple of people know about it -- Randy, a buddy from Austin, and that's about it. I would tell you, but you probably wouldn't believe it, nor have a boat that would take you there.

When Doug Daman arrived last Thursday, it was after almost cancelling his three-day visit due to wind forecasts of 15-25 knots without any slowdown during the night. Indeed, small craft advisories were forecast for Sunday, and with a skiff that weighs only 475 pounds without the motor, the Stilt qualifies for an extremely small craft! We conferred on Wednesday by email before he left Austin, and decided that we'd go ahead and do our best, hoping for birding to save us from a blow-out.

I picked Doug up on the dock before daybreak on Friday, and headed for our best birding area. There wasn't a boat in the entire back lagoon, and the birds were working over large pods of reds. Doug was able to land six reds and a trout before the action subsided. Then I headed south to check out a westside venue that held an abundance of redfish only a week before. But the tides had fallen, and except for a few shots in deeper areas on the edge of the back lagoon, there was nothing to be caught there. The wind was above 15 knots, and we needed the sunlight before heading for the secret place. The time was ripe, so I cranked up and headed the 10 miles or so before arriving in six inches of water. Running the Stilt slowly through the vast area, I started seeing large reds blowing up. I took a deep breath and came off plane, bouncing along the sand as the motor died. We were going to be there for a while. With only Doug and myself aboard, I found I could pole the Stilt, so we stayed aboard the boat for 100 yards or more, until it became clear that the area was full of feeding reds. Doug got off and waded toward even shallower water, since we could see reds blowing up and feeding in critically shallow water.

Afraid that an outgoing tide would strand us in the shallows, I pushed the boat into deeper water while Doug fished so we'd be able to leave whenever the action was over. But it only got better. Doug had almost constant action for about five hours. When I finally poled the boat down to him, I could see redfish feeding everywhere--some quite large--filling in behind him as he stalked other fish. It was as good as I've seen it in a good while. I believe he landed 13 reds before we headed in. If you'd seen the weather and felt the wind, you would have sworn he would have caught none. Indeed, we didn't see a single boat anywhere. We had it to ourselves while everyone else had "wisely" stayed home.

Doug had come down with a friend, who had stayed landside the first day due to stomach problems. But on the second day, Jason joined us. He had never fly fished before, and opted to fish with his casting rod the first day. As you know, fly fishing isn't easy anywhere, but on the Lower Laguna, it's especially punishing for beginners, who face the daunting task of casting fairly long distances in windy conditions, and having to manage their line in the meantime. So Jason stuck with conventional tackle for the first part of the day, since it was his first time fishing for redfish.

After landing two or three reds apiece, Jason put his conventional tackle away and picked up the fly rod. For the next two days, he stuck with it and by the end of the third day, he declared that he was "hooked."

Instead of fooling around exploring elsewhere, we went directly to the secret place, and spent the next 8-9 hours stalking reds in ankle deep water. There weren't as many reds as there were the previous day, but there were enough to keep the guys on their feet til 4:30 when I finally pulled the plug.

We found birding action at daybreak again on the third morning. Jason still hadn't caught his first redfish on a fly, so while Doug slipped overboard and waded to nearby pods, I poled Jason toward the largest group of reds in the area. It took him a while to hook up on his first redfish, but after two missed strikes, he finally hooked a red on his Kingfisher spoon and brought it to the boat. Meanwhile, Doug was almost constantly hooked up 100 yards from the boat. It was a great start to another fabulous day. We headed again for the secret place and found that the reds were there; but the guys had to go in early, so we spent less than an hour in the area before heading in.

In three days, we saw fewer than six boats. The weather was, by objective standards, rather poor for fly fishing. But we managed to find birding and feeding reds in ankle deep, clear water. That combination usually trumps the problems caused by high winds. While most of the fly fishing community was at home watching football games, Doug and Jason were enjoying "storybook" by fishing on the mother lagoon. You learn so much more about the bay and about yourself as an angler and a person when you have to fish in difficult conditions. However, few people will do it, so they never know what they don't know, and can go all their lives blithely unaware that there are secret places that produce on the most difficult of days. Like life.

Pics and a new video to follow.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Three Days and 59 Reds Later

Some of my favorite clients are fishing guides who live in Alaska. For the past three years, I have had the privilege of guiding Rich Rogers and Kirk Anietsch, as well as their southern California buddy Riz Sheitch.  Fortunately, we had almost three near-perfect weather days before a cold front passed through Saturday midday.

As I said in my last posting, the autumn fishing as been as stellar as the summer fishing was dismal. Various factors conspired to depress the summer fishing, but whatever they were--and no one knows for sure--they have given way to conditions supporting big, hungry fish in all the right places. 

We started each morning on the west side, in two of my favorite autumn tide high-water venues. Interestingly, while places like Payton's Bay have shown significant reductions in seagrasses (and fish as well), other areas have more seagrass than I've ever seen. Shoal grass has been generallydeclining for several years, and turtle grass has been filling in the empty spaces. Biologists say that this is a natural progression. However, the influx of fresh water that we experienced two years ago from the Mexican flood runoff further decimated the shoal grass in areas where fresh water flows overwhelmed the west side salinity. And turtle grass can hardly be found now, compared to the pre-flood years. But in places that were protected from the direct impact of the fresh water, shoal grass has made a surprising comeback. And the weirdest thing is that the so-called "sand" has more vegetation on it--especially up north--than I have ever seen. If, however, we experience a hurricane in the near future, the sand will be swept clean, no doubt.

We ran into a few other fly fishing guides in these places, but fortunately, the other guides tend to gravitate toward slightly deeper water, leaving the best and the shallowest waters for my NewWater Stilt. 

The reds were tailing in pods before the sun rose on Wednesday morning. Rich was out of the boat stalking three or four pods while Kirk was tracking Rich's movements with his Go-Pro video camera. If Kirk had been less interested in getting video, he would have been casting to tails, too. But Kirk is not a "numbers man," so he focused his attention on Rich who, within two minutes, had hooked up on a red that slammed his VIP popper.

The tailing fell off pretty soon, and after landing a couple of more fish, we headed south to another westside venue that has been producing well since the autumn tides flooded the far west venues. Catching a couple of more from the boat, we then headed north and fished some shorelines before turning eastward and heading to the sand. There, we spent the rest of the day casting to countless redfish that were tracking upwind in singles and doubles. They guys lost count of how many they landed, but I made a rough count of 25 fish for the day. The sand was as good as it gets!
The next day, Kirk opted to fish with a friend, while Riz joined Rich and me on the Stilt. We revisited the same two westside venues, and caught only a couple of reds. Indeed, the day started slowly. But once we headed onto the sand at midday, the fishing started improving. After landing a few from the boat, we waded for a while, hoping for a repeat of the previous day's storybook fly fishing. But the reds were scarce. It was time to head in, but I suggested we run up to the East Cut and take a look on the sand on the south side of the spoils. As the sun descended in the western sky, the cloudless sky permitted us to sight cast later than usual, and within an hour wed caught 8 reds up to 28 inches in length. Since we were 45 minutes from home, we arrived at the dock at 6, making for a very long day, but a good one, for anglers and guide. 16 reds were caught, as I recall.

The weather forecast called for a frontal passage by midday, but the conditions at dawn were perfect. Riz, Rich and Kirk managed to find a spot on the Stilt to sit on our initial run out to the Bay. Our first stop took us south, into a glassy lagoon where we found a few tails at daybreak. While Riz waded off on his own (his customary style!), Rich and Kirk took turns wading and fishing from the bow. Everyone caught fish, but the conditions were so still that it was hard to cast to the fish without spooking them. I think they all landed two reds before we headed elsewhere. I took them into a glassy west-side lagoon where we spooked several reds before shutting down. I encouraged the guys to wade away from the mullet stream, so that any surface disturbance would likely signify a gamefish. Before long, the guys were spread out and crouching in stealthy pursuit. It was literally four hours before I saw Riz face to face, but its not surprising that he preferred fishing over gatorade. Indeed, he caught nine reds and two drum, and had dozens of other opportunities. Kirk, too, reported almost constant tailing action. 

The front blew through about noon, bringing cooler temps and low gray clouds. I gathered Rich and Kirk and began poling, or blowing rather, toward the speck that Riz had become on the horizon. We thought the day was done, but on the way down to Riz, we started seeing wakes moving upwind. Casting from the bow, Rich casted to an incoming wake and hooked up on a 6-lb drum! Seeing other wakes, I suggested that we get off the boat and spread out. Rich was in his groove, because he hooked two more drum within a few minutes. Meanwhile, the wind was rising. So we resumed our downwind trek to pick up Riz, whose first words were "Gatorade and food!" or something like that. He was parched and famished, but had stories that would sustain his soul.

It was a great three days, but the high point may have been our Friday night dinner at Chili Willi's. It was the annual Halloween party, and the weekly karaoke led by Richard and Susie Weldon. Julie (my finance) sang three songs, and wowed the crowd with her gutsy voice. It was a fine time on and off the water.