Monday, July 21, 2014

Great early action, then motor problems

Randy and I had the pleasure of working together on Saturday to guide Zack Etinger and his buddies Nate and Robert. I took Zack and Nate on my boat, and Randy took Robert; and we headed to the same area where we agreed to fish separate shorelines. We left the dock so early that it was hard to see, and I left my Q-beam at home. Fortunately, the sun was close enough to the horizon that there was a slight glow to guide us. When we turned back west, however, that slight advantage disappeared, so I squinted in the dark as I planed through the opening to a westside lagoon, and shut down 200 yards past the shallow pass that was prohibitively shallow for all boats other than airboats and Stilts. Zack got up on the bow and began blind casting, and then targeting wakes that appeared close enough to be discerned in the low light. After a few casts, he hooked up on the first red. And then Nate took over.

It took a while for the reds to begin feeding. That's often case at daybreak: There's a delay and then suddenly you begin hearing explosions all around. We spent almost three hours in the shallow area, where reds continuously exploded on the white shrimp that are starting to mature. There was some tailing action, but the fish were moving around so much that you'd see a tail one moment, and then the fish would shoot away. Targeting the active fish was difficult, but the guys managed to land a few reds before we opted to head east onto the sand. While we were planing across deeper water toward the east side, which was still glassy in the low wind, my oil light came on! I shut down, unclear about the implications since I'm unfamiliar with the Suzuki system. I figured that I was probably safe to continue, but I didn't want to do what I've done before--burn up a powerhead assuming that things were okay when they weren't. So I called Randy, who came over and took my clients onto his Stilt, leaving me to head home. As I got up on plane, and headed toward the ICW, the motor overheated! That's when I concluded that the power head wasn't getting oil. As it turned out, the overheat was probably due to floating grass, and was unrelated to the oil light. After being towed into the County Park, I spoke with my friend Jaime Lopez, who laughed and said, "That was your 100-hour oil service reminder!" Not having read the manual completely :-) I had no idea that the flashing red light was simply a reminder. Well, that's one mistake I won't make again. I've got the manual out, by the way. My bedside reading in advance of three days of guiding this coming weekend.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Guiding Monty and His Nephew

I had the pleasure of guiding Monty Calageros and his 17-year old nephew Michael yesterday. We left the dock before sunrise and headed for a lagoon that has been fishing well, but is completely off limits to most skiffs. Indeed, as I passed three flyfishing guides in a row, I realized that only one of them, who has a Stilt, could possibly  be headed to where I planned to fish. Arriving, I took a deep breath knowing that I'd never entered the area at such a low tide. Still, I had confidence in the Stilt. We skated across a thee-inch deep bar that separates the fishable water from the rest of the world and shut down when I thought the boat would float. It barely did. Looking behind me, I could see that an airboat had parked at the entrance to the lagoon. I hoped that he would not come in, because I knew that half the fish would leave the shallow lagoon for deeper water, given the vulnerability of feeding in 6-8 inches of water. For some reason, the airboat captain chose to move on, so we had the square mile lagoon to ourselves for the next three hours. And wow, what a dream venue! We immediate spotted large tailing reds, and small pods of big fish against a grass line, and proceeded to pole further and further into the lagoon.  Before we left the area, the guys had landed several above-average reds fishing from the bow of the Stilt, and each caught a red over 27 inches long. We also saw several trophy trout, but those fish eluded us, as usual. I will return there soon, alone.

We then went to the sand, and ran north looking for fish. I'd been finding them several miles north of the mouth of the Arroyo for the past few weeks, and expected to find them again. Planing far to the east of where I expected to see them, I turned and planed slowly to the northwest, looking for the signs of the leading edge of the biomass of mullet, ladyfish, redfish and trout. We flushed a couple of reds, so I shut down and poled downwind for a couple of hundred yards. At one point, we seemed to pass over an imaginary north-south line, and began seeing reds. So I staked the boat, assuming that the fish were downwind, and moving toward us. Sure enough, as soon as we began wading, the guys started to see fish. I waded alongside Michael, and was able to help him get his eyes adjusted to the venue. Soon, he was seeing fish 50 yards away, and was able to use his excellent cast to hook and land four reds in a short while. Monty, for his part, caught a couple while wading alongside us. We headed in soon afterward, and celebrated a great day of fishing. I expect I'll see more of Monty in the near future. He's a world-class shooter, high-end firearms expert, and was instrumental in setting up Sportsman's Finest in Austin. But beyond all of that, he appreciates a world-class fly fishery, such as the Lower Laguna.

Perfect Days and Religion

Day after day, I've come in and said to Julie, "It was just a perfect day in every way." That usually means plenty of opportunities, clients who appreciate them, plenty of caught fish, and a certain intangible quality of sacredness that deepens bonds between anglers. Last week, I guided Shaun Daniels again, and two different companions on separate days. On the first day, Shaun invited his buddy Mickey, who has a place in Port Isabel, and who has fished the Laguna Madre all his life, mostly as a spin fisherman. The forecast called for rain, and for once they were right, unfortunately. We spent most of the day running from two big storms, but never gave up. At one point, the guys were on the sand in the middle of rain without raincoats sight casting as best they could to barely discernible wakes in 15 mph wind. Dripping with rain, they kept going without complaint. I recalled guiding two Israeli brothers several years ago who were casting and laughing in the rain without gear. I said to them,  "You are such troopers!" to which they said, "Yes, we are--paratroopers!"

By mid-afternoon, we had the bay to ourselves, since most of the boats had "wisely" fled the storms. Mickey and Shaun weren't paratroopers, but they were Texas anglers accustomed to dodging storms and sticking with the program. (By the way, if you haven't read Racing in the Rain, you should do so. A great read, and relevant to the topic at hand.) Such persistence is usually rewarded, sooner or later, and we were fortunate that the reward came sooner. After running around and using most of my gas up, I pulled into a "final stop" and committed to one final pole as the sun leaned heavily against the western shoreline, beckoning us homeward. Suddenly, after a day of east wind, north wind and west wind, there was a hush and the wind stopped entirely. Like a dream, the water turned to glass, and hundreds of redfish, and several big trout began tailing happily.  The guys opted to wade, and for the next hour and half they casted to big tails, and managed to land several nice reds. I called Shaun's attention to a school of reds that had appeared nearby, so he hiked over and intercepted 50+ tailing reds, and landed a nice 26+ inch fish. It was a well-deserved ending to an otherwise challenging weather day.

Shaun invited Tracey Dean the following day. Tracey also has a place in Port Isabel, even though he lives in Wimberley, as well. Tracey and Shaun are part of a network of flyfishers who fish together all over the world, and often use me as a guide when they do their weeklong Laguna Madre trip each summer. So I'd guided Tracey and his friends before. Our first stop of the morning was a no-brainer: we returned to the place where Shaun and Mickey had done so well the evening before. And the fish were there in small tailing pods and tailing singles.
 After catching a couple there, we tried other westside locales fruitlessly before heading to the sand, where we spent the rest of the day. Shaun got into a groove there, and caught several wading while I poled Tracey on the boat. The fish were tough from the boat, though, seeing us at 80 feet out. So, eventually, I picked Shaun up and headed to a new spot where we all waded in crystal clear water under a cloudless afternoon sky. The water looked like a shimmering, expansive piece of topaz. Once we spread out and committed to a wade, the reds started appearing with regularity, tracking upwind and head down, making it relatively easy to get close enough for a presentation. I didn't realize it, but Tracey had never caught a redfish while wading, and he managed to land six nice reds before we headed in. Shaun did well, as well. As we headed in, I believe we all felt that "certain intangible" that forms the heart of religion and enduring friendships. Sometimes we forget that religion means "reconnection." If you look at it that way, we all need it.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Backwater and sand action

The past two weekends have offered some extraordinary flyfishing, but in very different conditions. The weekend before last, I guided my old clients and friends Doug and Connie Gauntt who figure prominently in several of my Youtube videos. They are top-class flyfishers, who fish Alaska (for Steelhead), Argentina and Chile each year, as well as fish with me at least once during the summer. As we were heading out a week ago Saturday, I was reflecting on the exotic flyfishing that they do, and said, "This must me a lot less interesting than that." Doug said, "Oh no, we look forward to this trip as much as any of the others."

The Gauntts have a feel for the Laguna Madre that has developed over a decade of regular flyfishing. They appreciate the bay in whatever state it's in, and they never, never complain about the wind or weather. Consequently, they are able and willing to adapt to the conditions that we encounter. On the first occasion of guiding Connie, she had never caught a red on her fly rod. It happened to be a terribly windy day and my fellow guide, who was guiding another party of two, got off the water around 11 and took his clients to Mexico as a consolation for such a bad day. However, we persisted, and by 10 Connie had caught her first red, and by 1 pm, she'd caught her next five reds. She stuck with it, and was rewarded; and that's the name of the game for the Gauntts.

When I looked out of the trailer on Saturday morning, I could see that my neighbor's US flag was standing at attention in 15 mph wind. I used to groan at the sight, but I just shrugged and said, It will be interesting. Knowing that the wind was supposed to climb to 25 mph by midday and not let off for the next three days, I figured that I'd better stop complaining and start thinking. 

When it's that windy at daybreak, it's important to focus on water less than 10 inches deep, so that the fish will be visible even in the wind. I went into an area that has provided superb redfish action for the past couple of months, whenever the water levels are high enough to support the fish. Sure enough, it was just deep enough to host feeding pods of reds in an expansive area that is off limits to almost all boats. We pushed pods going into the area, and as soon as we came off plane and let the water settle, redfish backs started appearing to the west of us, glowing in the low-angled sunlight. Within a few minutes, Doug was hooked up on the first of six reds that he caught in that spot, while Connie managed to land a fine 25" red before we headed elsewhere. By midday, we were on the sand, where the action was consistently good, resulting in a total catch for our first day of 18 reds. Not bad for a windy day! Indeed, I know a lot of locals who would have stayed home. Perhaps some will read this and learn from a couple of seasoned Dallas flyfishers.

The next day was more difficult. When the wind comes directly out of the south, the water clarity is degraded, because there's nothing to break the wind. When it's from the southeast, the wind comes over Padre Island, and will stay clear all day, even when the wind is over 20 knots.

We started in the same place, and found the reds feeding there again in fewer numbers in higher wind. But they both landed a couple of reds before the reds dispersed. Then we traveled far to north of the mouth of the Arroyo, where we found a few reds feeding on the sand. By the end of the day, the Gauntts managed to landed "only" 11 reds. I said to them, "I am quite certain that you did better than any flyfishers on the bay." Having seen very few boats out in the fierce wind, I was pretty confident that what I'd said was true.

The next day was nearly impossible. No reds in the first locale, and 25+ winds from 9 am onward. Still, they caught a few reds. Overall, it was a great weekend for two master anglers--over 30 reds on days that would have sent most flyfishers packing for an early flight home.

A report from this past weekend to follow!

Saturday, June 14, 2014

A stunning day on the water

I guided my old client and friend, Shaun Daniels from Wimberly yesterday. The wind was low enough to allow for "glassy" conditions early, so we started on the west side where I'd been finding tailing pods early in the day. We hadn't even reached the area when we moved a school of reds and several pods away from the intruding boat. So I shut down immediately and let the fish settle down. Within a couple of minutes, there were pods tailing as close as 75 feet from the boat. Of course, we weren't ready, but once I was up on the platform and Shaun was on the deck, we had some serious choices to make; that is, which of six or eight pods would we pole toward. The fish were larger than usual, so the big tails waved in slow-motion above the sheen of the calm water. But they weren't easy! Indeed, Shaun would get no more than one cast to the tails before they would slowly move away, and set up business 100 yards away. So it was especially challenging for Shaun, who had been practicing his cast every day on the football field near his house, but hadn't casted to a live fish in a year or so. But there were no complaints from him. You can always tell a true angler, because he's always looking at what he can do better, rather than how the fish or mother nature could have made life easier for him.

But one reason the reds were so sensitive is because of the full moon the night before. Even though reds will feed at daybreak after a full moon, they are exceedingly sensitive and will spook at the sound of a pin drop for the first several hours of the day. I have observed this phenomenon for decades. Only a precision, unobtrusive cast will draw a strike, and that's hard to orchestrate in dead calm conditions.

We went to another venue north of the mouth of the Arroyo, and poled a shoreline that doesn't see many boats, given its remoteness. Almost immediately, we saw a huge push in our direction. "Is that a red?" Shaun asked. I was a bit incredulous, too, because as we got closer, we could see that it was well over 30 inches, perhaps 32. And yes, it was a red all right. Shaun made a credible cast to it as it passed us, turning and shining in the morning sun without ever seeing us--or the fly, as it turned out. Minutes later, we had another close encounter with another oversized red (above 28 inches). This time, the big fish fled before Shaun could get the fly to it. And then, once again, as if we were dreaming, we saw a wake coming from 40 yards away. This time, a 27-28" trout swam right up to us, but clearly saw the boat as she sauntered by. Shaun's cast was close, but she wasn't in the mood for accommodating us.

We headed for the sand earlier than usual, about 9:30, and opted to wade. We spotted several reds feeding upwind, but they were especially sensitive and spotted us beyond Shaun's (or anyone's) casting range. Then we headed up toward the East Cut, and fished for a couple of hours under a cloudless sky. It looks like the Bahamas in that are, and Shaun had numerous shots at reds feeding upwind. We walked over to one of my favorite places, where reds mingle with mullet along a crystal clear drop off. It was eye candy to watch the reds and ladyfish and mullet milling around in gem-quality water while Shaun tried to pick of the reds when they came up on the flat over the lip of the drop off. Shaun shocked three reds in the area before we packed it in, but felt he should have caught several more.

Later, when heading back toward the Arroyo, I opted to check out the easternmost part of the sand, and found enough reds to justify a wade. We waded for about an hour there, and landed two nice reds--one about 26"--after spotting several more. It was a great day, and Shaun will be back in July for two more.

I'm sorry I left my camera at home! Stay tuned for more.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Guiding tomorrow--Saturday open

I'm back from my conference in California and eager to get back on the water. I guide my old friend Shaun Daniels from Wimberly tomorrow. The forecast has improved, promising--if that's ever true--full sun and moderate wind. Saturday looks even better, and I'm open that day. If anyone wants to fish with me and my dog Rosie (she's be on the boat for good luck and moral support), email me asap at

The tides have been puzzling this spring-early summer. Perhaps it was because I fished mainly during low-tide days, during which the high tide was late or during the night, but wow…the tides were low during the spring, when generally we are able to fish the skinniest back waters. Last week, during a half moon, when the tides are usually so-so, the early morning levels were very high. I gave my brother some tips from my long-distant vantage point in northern California, and the advice was worthless because the tide had jumped half a foot or more, which as you know is a huge influx of water this time of year--and not even during the new or full moon.

So, give me a call at 956-367-2337 or email me if you want to grab Saturday.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Season Turns On!

I have guided 10 days in the past two weeks. At the beginning of that period, we were still in the windy phase of spring, and the fishing was tough early, but near-great in the afternoon on the sand. During April and May, the wind can be truly fierce at daybreak. A guide shudders when he looks out the window at 5 am and sees the flags standing rigid and upright, without the semblance of a flutter. Oh well, you say, maybe the birding will be on. We all head straightaway to various birding venues, only to find--this year, at least--that the birds have been there, but over balls of catfish with nary a redfish tail in the mix. It’s been a strange delayed season, perhaps the consequence of such a cold, wet winter. But even during those days, the sand lit up under the bright sun by late morning, and on some memorable days, the reds poured onto the sand in the early afternoon, bringing opportunities that make the Laguna Madre famous as a
venue that has more in common with the Bahamas than the upper Texas coast.

Randy and I guided Eric Huff and his three friends. Eric is an experienced saltwater flyfisher, but he’d never flyfished the lower Laguna. We fished on two very windy days, but managed to have some good fishing. Eric started the first day landing a beautiful red that was feeding with a few others in a small pass where the current tends to attract baitfish. We saw them feeding, but it was terribly shallow, and I pole the Stilt over a bar separating us and the feeding reds. So Eric hoofed it over there, through knee-deep mud, and was rewarded for his efforts. We went on to fish the sand and catch a few out there each day. But it was tough flyfishing.

I guided Daniel Forman and his buddy a couple of days later--two young anglers who have their own skiff and wanted to know more about the east side sand. We started on the west side, however, since the winds were pleasantly low at dawn. And wow, did we find the tailing pods! Lined up along a westside shoreline, there were pods as far as we could see. The guys had a lot of good action there before we headed east onto the sand. I introduced them to an approach to the sand that few people know about--going as far as you can east on foot in order to find single and pairs of reds feeding in virtually no water in a virtual sanctuary from boat traffic. We waded there for about two hours, and didn’t find the action I’d hoped for; but the guys did encounter several reds tailing in the glassy, six-inch water. What makes this action so good is that the water remains glassy even in moderate wind; so one can spot tails at 200 yards against the early morning glare of the low sun. There’s nothing better when it’s “on,” and even when it’s not, there are usually a few good shots in the offing. On an otherwise poor day, it can offer a rare treasure.

We had only one day together, but the guys learned some new things about the Bay, and I’m sure I will see them like specks on the eastern horizon, wading in a glassy expanse where the sky kisses the water without a seam between them.

Ben Pasqual asked me to join him in guiding a group of four guys from the Houston area. I had the pleasure of guiding Chris Kelley and his son Scott, who is a young pro golfer. I had a great two days with the Kelleys, who had never flyfished for reds and trout. Scott did amazingly well, casting my six-weight TFO while his dad wielded his own Orvis 8-weight. Scott is a natural athlete with great vision, so he took to the Mother Lagoon like a favorite son, hooking up on reds within minutes of our arrival to the sand around 8:30 am. I think you could have heard his victory cry in northern Mexico on his first hookup: He was ecstatic, and his dad was just about as happy to see Scott adapting to the demands of the fishery with such adeptness.

In the early afternoon, the Kelleys witnessed a full “turn-on” of the sand. We arrived in a particular area that I’ve known about for several years now. I’m not sure why, but the reds often pour onto the sand in small groups around 2 pm, and begin feeding in a foot of water. It was dreamlike--almost constant action for about two hours, until the late afternoon glare shut us down. I believe Scott landed six for the day, and his dad finally broke the ice, too. At one point, a sizable red went on a high-speed run and popped the knot between the line and the backing. I was on the boat, about 200 yards away from Scott when this happened. I saw him casting, then hooking up, then suddenly running across the flat and seizing something. Later he told me that the fly line was on its way to the next county, but he was able to catch up with it just in time to bringing the red in by hand. A great day! And the next one was almost as good as the first! We found the reds earlier on the sand, and were able to get one shot after another from the Stilt. Both guys caught fish, and again Scott distinguished himself as a master flyfisher in the making.

A few days later, I had the pleasure of guiding Bob Buchman and his buddy Rich from Washington state. Bob had fished with me before, but Rich had never flyfished in saltwater. Similar to Scott Kelley, Rich took to it like he’d been born here. Of course, the phenomenal tailing that we found on both days made it easier, but there’s no excuse for good casting and good line management, which Rich was able to put together. 

We had countless opportunities for the first four hours of each day--frolicking pods of reds feeding explosively in almost prohibitively shallow conditions. We fished from the boat for the first hour or so on day one, but then spent the rest of the day and all of the second day wading in an area that was festooned with pods of redfish. They guys were on fish almost continuously for hours. I videoed their catches to the point where my battery almost played out on day one.
I look forward to having some time to edit the clips into a mouthwatering display of the best of the best flyfishing on the LLM. We also fished the sand on both days, but the winds were so low--yes, hard to believe--that the surface tension remained intact into the late afternoon. Since there were clouds on the horizon, the glassy surface reflected white cumulus clouds rather than revealing the fish beneath the surface. They caught a couple of fish, and then fished with Randy Cawlfield on day 3 (I had another charter) and were able to catch more fish on the sand, because the wind was stronger. Newcomers to the LLM often think that calm winds are always better; but as a rule, we only want windless conditions in the early morning. It’s usually better to have 12-20 mph winds for fishing the sand. Otherwise, the reflection of the clouds can make sightcasting on the sand very tough.

While Randy took over guiding Bob and Rich on their third day, I guided Greg Schoenmann and his buddy Rick, who have fished the LLM for most of their lives, but felt that they needed to learn more about flyfishing methods and places to flyfish. So the day was a teaching day, but we also found an amazing display of tailing pods in an area that I would have bet $1000 would have been devoid of fish. It was an area that was “too shallow” to fish, but I’d discovered a slightly deeper trough in the middle of a 5-inch deep expanse of water. We waded into the area, after hearing some explosive feeding sounds, and as we got closer our eyes got bigger. Golden backs of several pods of 20-30 fish were reflecting in the low-angled sunlight. It was mesmerizing to wade slowly toward the aggressively feeding fish without another boat in sight. Well, it wasn’t a high-catching moment (Greg is still bruised from his own foot, I believe), but it was crazy fun to watch him casting upwind to those fish! On one occasion, he hooked up and the rest of the reds exploded one by one, then zipped by us, almost tripping us as they passed by. Meanwhile, Greg’s fish threaded by us, making it necessary for Rick and I to dodge the flyline. As we looked back at Greg, he was wrapped up in the line and frantically trying to clear it before the big red could snap his tippet. Alas the red was faster than Greg, and the line went limp as the final image on a rapid sequence of out-of-control moments. We all agreed that the experience was unforgettable, regardless of the outcome.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Never Blame the Fish

This is a pre-publication draft of an article that I've just submitted to Tide magazine. -- GSS
         When I was about three years old, my mother was trying to potty train me, and had finally managed to get me to take a seat on the mini-throne. After a few fruitless minutes, I said to her, “I can’t grunt. This pot don’t work.” In retrospect, I had already learned the oldest excuse in the book: When things don’t work, blame anything other than yourself.
          Almost fifty years later, as I poled my Stilt over a barely submerged bed of turtle grass, the young flyfisher on the bow finally spotted the redfish about 40 feet away. He began false casting and laid the Kingfisher spoon out in front of the crossing 27-inch red. The fish sauntered by the fly, which had landed just a few inches short of the mark. It was early February in South Cullens Bay on the Lower Laguna Madre, and the water was low, clear and cold.  During winter, the fish are more sluggish and less willing to go out of their way to take a fly, so knowing that, I urged the caster to reposition it. Again, the red seemed unresponsive; but from my vantage point, I could see that the caster had barely missed the fish’s sight window.
         Finally, the angler said, with evident frustration, “I don’t think he’s going to eat.”
         “Cast closer,” I said. He complied, and the fly landed where the red could see it. Without turning or flaring its gills, the red picked up the fly and was on. If the angler hadn’t made that final cast, he would have blamed the fish or the fly, but never his slightly imprecise presentation.
         The Catskill fly fishing legend, Edward R. Hewitt once said, “It’s not your fly that is the problem. It’s what is on the other end of the line.” While Hewitt’s words may sound a bit mean-spirited, they express an important key to mastering the “quiet sport” of fly fishing––that is, taking full responsibility for what happens in the encounter with the fish. The good news is, If we are the problem, then we are also the solution.
         Over the years, I’ve concluded that there two errors that cause us to blame the fly or the fish, thereby limiting our successes. The first error is assuming that when a fish doesn’t take the fly, it’s because it’s not hungry, or is interested in something else. Of course, this may is often true in coldwater fisheries where trout will feed selectively, but it is much less of a factor on the Lower Laguna Madre, where reds and trout tend to be nonselective, opportunistic feeders. Saying that a fish “is not eating” on the Lower Laguna is an excuse on par with “this pot don’t work:”  It brings an immediate end to any further inquiry, and if there’s anything further left to learn, we’ve opted out of that lesson.
         The second error is underestimating the impact of one’s presence. Anglers may wade or pole into a sensitive area, and cast again and again to “turned” fish without realizing that they have created a problem that didn’t exist before they arrived. I learned this lesson off the water from my uncle Moody while deer hunting as a teenager. He’d left me in the woods all day, and when he returned to pick me up, I excitedly told him that I’d seen about 80 deer. He chuckled and said, “I’ll bet that none of them was heading in your direction.”
         Taken together, these two mistakes result in a self-perpetuating myth, which thoroughly arrests an angler’s ascent to excellence. However, counteracting these two errors is a fairly simple thing if you are willing. First, you need to believe that fish on the flats are interested in surviving, and that means eating a lot and often, especially easy meals. Second, you need to set about to minimize the impact of your intrusion into the fish’s domain. The following ideas and strategies will help you operationalize your commitment to these two principles, and open up vistas of flyfishing success heretofore unimagined.
         Go slow and depend on your eyesight. It’s important go slow enough to let your eyes fully adjust to the context. Last year, while guiding an experienced flyfisher, who regularly catches 10 or more redfish per day, I stopped the boat in the middle of departing wakes. It was a bit deep for sight casting on foot, but the fish were there, and my seasoned client preferred to wade. I knew it was possible to see the fish, even though the mid-afternoon sunlight created a glare on the water. My client got out of the boat and proceeded to cover a lot of water in his search for fish. Meanwhile, I stood the whole time within 50 yards of the boat. It took my eyes a while to adjust to the glare, but I was gradually able to peer through the glare into the clear water. I stood in the same spot and enjoyed the spectacle of about 30 reds and a few large trout meandering through the area over the course of about an hour. When my client hiked back to the boat, I asked him how he did. “I didn’t see a fish,” he said. I didn’t say anything, because no one wants to hear, “You really missed it,” even if it’s true.
         There is nothing more effective than stopping and letting your eyes fully adjust to the conditions: It can take a while to perceive what’s really there. Game fish on the flats are, by nature, subtle in their movements until the moment of attack; for otherwise, they would alert their quarry ahead of time and starve to death. It may seem counterintuitive, but game fish will make less noise and create less of a visual disturbance than their tiny prey, and so you have to slow down to adjust to their unobtrusive rhythms. Another tactic along these lines is to imitate a heron’s style of hunting, which is to freeze every few steps and study the water. Not only does a stationary profile put the fish at ease, but you can discern subtle movements more easily if your brain doesn’t have to factor out the movement of your body.
         The fish are almost always willing. Reds and trout have periods of active feeding, and then periods of relative inactivity, but I have found that they are almost always willing to eat––at least to some extent. You may recall your first course in biology in which your teacher discussed the firing of a neuron. Once a neuron fires, it enters an “absolute refractory period” where it’s completely unable to fire again. A bit later, it passes into a “relative refractory period” in which it can fire but not as easily as when it’s back to its state of full readiness. In my experience, reds and trout occasionally enter the equivalent of an absolute refractory period. It happens when they suddenly stop swimming and become unresponsive to anything short of a nudge from your rod tip. These are frustrating moments, because the fish may be feeding one moment, and then totally unresponsive the next. I have left such “sleeping” fish after having clients drag flies past their noses for 15 minutes.
         Except for when they are in this state of stupor, reds and trout will exhibit some willingness to eat, albeit at varying levels of readiness. After a full moon, for instance, redfish will spend the first few hours of the morning in a highly sensitive state, and will often spook before your fly hits the water. They can be caught, but they resemble a hung-over partygoer to whom breakfast may seem like an assault. Trout, on the other hand, spend most of their day in a “relative refractory period,” since they feed only two hours out of every 24. Indeed, they spend most of their time digesting the last huge meal.
         So how do you get reds and trout to take your fly when they are in a state of relative shutdown? By using small flies and putting them directly in the fish’s path. Trout may feed on six-inch mullet and attack huge flies when they are actively feeding, but they will more readily take a tiny fly during their periods of relative inactivity. Understanding that big fish will take tiny flies almost all the time accounts for why flyfishing legend Bud Rowland––who holds the Texas state record trout as well as three of the seven IGFA tippet-class world record trout––can truthfully assert, “I can get a big trout to eat at any time.” Bud typically ties his favorite fly, the “numero uno,” on small (size 4 and smaller), short-shanked hooks. So when people repeat the popular formula, “Use big flies for big fish,” remember that big flies may not work as well as a small fly during periods of relative inactivity.
         If the fish doesn’t react at all, it’s usually because it hasn’t seen the fly. In my previous article (see Tide, March/April, 2014), I cited several top saltwater flyfishing guides who said that their clients often overestimate the degree to which a redfish will perceive the fly. As bottom feeders, redfish tend to be focused on what’s beneath them, and will thus overlook flies that pass nearby, especially overhead. I have often said to my clients that redfish will react one way or another when it sees the fly––either to attack it, or to spook from an unnaturally “aggressive” fly. Similarly, while big trout will sometimes seem to ignore a a fly, master flyfisher Tom Kilgore––who once caught 10 trout over 8 lbs. apiece in a single day––told me that the key to catching a trophy trout is getting the fly in front of the trout at the same depth. I have seen actively feeding trout go out of their way to attack a fly, but Kilgore’s experience suggests that a well-fed trout may require an “in-the-face” presentation to unleash its oppportunistic aggression.
         Tame your aggression. It has been said that every great angler possesses the urge to “capture and to conquer,” but this source of success must be tamed. Indeed, most anglers approach visible fish much too aggressively, and thus they end up spooking or turning the fish before they can cast effectively to them. Remember, the fish on the flats are always moving, and if you’re patient enough, they will come to you. Even if you are convinced that you have to cover some distance between yourself and a visible redfish or trout, it’s important to move slowly enough to prevent sending a “pressure wave” in their direction. Most fin fish can perceive changes in water pressure in their air bladders from quite a distance. They may not seem alarmed, but when they perceive the pressure of your approach, they will simply turn away from you. So tame your aggression, and become as unobtrusive as one of them. When I guide wading flyfishers who don’t need my help, I will play a game while waiting for them to return to boat: I will see how close I can get to the feeding fish before spooking them. Since I’m not casting to the fish, all of my effort can be channeled into becoming as stealthy as I can be. It may seem surprising, but I am often able to come within a few feet of tailing redfish before they spook, and big trout will become so acclimated to my presence that they sometimes ignore me after a while. So there’s no reason that you cannot get within casting distance of feeding redfish and trout, regardless of your casting ability,––but only if you can tame your impulse to approach the fish aggressively and cast too soon.
         Get down. On some days, casting from the bow of a skiff is clearly the best way to catch reds and trout. But the fish can see you better, too. And once they turn from the sight of you, their willingness to take a fly drops by at least 80%. If you don’t acknowledge the impact of your intrusion, you may believe that they are unwilling to eat, when it’s really much simpler than that: They are annoyed. Real success can be measured, not so much by how many fish you see, but how many were unaware of your presence before your fly hit the water. When you achieve the goal of casting without “giving prior notice,” you will discover that reds and trout are surprisingly willing to take your fly.
         Depend on Short Casts. A survey was once done among expert Catskill flyfishers to see what accounted for their prodigious successes. One thing that distinguished them was their reliance on short, precise casts.  But flyfishers in saltwater often seem to believe that they should cast as soon as they spot a fish, even if it means casting short of the mark. Your first cast is an announcement of your presence, and the fish will often turn before coming into range if you insist on casting too soon. Reds and trout behave differently when they perceive you. A redfish will flee at the first sign of your presence, while a big trout may make you believe that she’s still “in business” by remaining in the vicinity. Never believe that a big trout is unaware of you! Her apparent nonchalance can be just as “terminal” as the blistering retreat of a redfish.

         In summary, you can dramatically raise the ceiling of your success by refusing to do the angling equivalent of  “blaming the pot.” If, instead, you will accept the notion that the fish are always willing to take your fly, and that it’s up to you to do the rest, you will never cease to grow as an angler, and the elusive ideal of mastery will finally come within reach.   

Failure and Success in the Cruelest Month

T.S. Eliot wrote, "April is the cruelest month, breeding. Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing." Indeed it is for flyfishers on the Lower Laguna, because April's easy success can quickly turn to failure, mixing. During the last two weekends, my clients and I have seen the true beginning of the season, along with the successes and failures that attend the cruelest month. 

On April 11, Julie and Rosie and I headed for our place in Arroyo City and, after putting the Stilt in the water, decided to take an evening boat ride to the bay. We customarily make a beeline for the sand that late in the day, because the reds are often streaming upwind in bootie deep water. It's about the only dependable action that one can find late in the day, unless the birding is "on." We didn't have time to check out the birding venues, so the sand was the only conceivable venue where I'd have a chance to catch a late-day redfish. We shut down in about 10 inches of water at about 6:40 pm. Since the sun was already low to the horizon, I grabbed my 6-weight and began wading east with Rose at my side. Julie uncapped a beer and began enjoying one of her favorite places in all of the world. She is always happy to be there.

Once Rosie and I reached "the shelf," where the depth goes from about 8 inches to 3 inches, I turned downwind and watched for reds feeding upwind. Almost immediately, I spotted one traveling towards us, pushing water against the wind-driven chop. He was easy to see even while submerged, but his back would break the surface every few feet in the six-inch water. I casted a chartreuse Crimp to him, and it landed about four feet away from him. I wasn't surprised to see him swerve to intercept it,  even in such shallow conditions, because the reds in this venue during the late afternoon are very aggressive and willing to take a fly. He hit it once and missed. I casted again, and he hit it two more times without hooking up, then blew up and headed to deeper water.

The next two reds appeared at intervals of about 5-10 minutes, so the action was steady but not overwhelming. They were equally aggressive, and I ended up landing them both--26" and 25" fish. I lead the second one back to the boat where Julie took a photo of us before we called it a day.

This may sound like "easy fishing," and it was; but only if you have the eyes for it. It takes a while to adjust to the late afternoon, windy conditions before you can perceive reds feeding upwind; but once you get the visual signature, it's fairly easy to capitalize on this reliable action. I have found the reds predictably feeding in this venue just about any evening at any time of the year. It's a great option for late evening anglers.

Feeling confident that the reds might be there in the morning, I nonetheless headed to a birding venue to rule out that relatively easy, seasonal option. We ran several miles through the usual birding areas, and then headed east to check out the action I'd found the evening before. 

My clients and I ended up within a hundred yards or so of where Julie and I had parked the evening before. I waded with them over to the shelf, and then had them turn downwind and spread out about 40 yards apart from each other and walk slowly downwind. When the reds are in this venue, they typically travel quickly upwind, feeding as they go. So you really don't need to cover much ground. Sure enough, after a few minutes, I spotted the first incoming redfish nearly 80 yards away. Even in the 15-mph wind, it was easy to see because of the "interference pattern" created by the redfish swimming against the wind-dirven chop. My client Rodney Hurtt was, at first, unable to see the push; but he became progressively able to spot the fish at increasing distances. By the time we left the area, he could see incoming fish at 80-100 away, too.

Rodney and his buddy Larry had several close-in opportunities to catch big reds, but it wasn't in the cards. They'd grabbed rods off of their friend's boat that were totally new to them, and it was difficult to  cast the unfamiliar rods in the windy conditions. Nonetheless, they had several "stress tests" that were precipitated by buck-fever like cardiac activation. Indeed, there's nothing like a redfish heading straight toward you with its back out of the water to test your heart's health. There was one moment when about six reds approached in the six-inch water, driving wakes toward us. They ended up exploding within 20 feet of us and zipping away. It was exciting action. 

We didn't catch any fish that day, but got into some sand action later once the sun came out. But the sun was a fickle partner on both days, and given the wind, we just didn't have ideal conditions for sand action. 

We had fewer opportunities the second day when I had Rodney and his brother Gregg on my boat. We tried for birding action, but after running most of the distance of the west bay, I gave up and headed east again.  I was chagrined to learn later that I'd given up on birding too soon, and that Randy had gone just a half mile further and found pods under birds. I kicked myself around for that mistake, even though it's what I call "playing the results." In tournament bridge, we review the hands after the play and often discover that there are ways to have done better. But such retrospective analyses benefit from omniscience. Neither angling nor life in general affords us such a vantage point, so kicking ourselves around because we didn't know something at the time is a uniquely human pastime that is predicated on error. All you have to do is to watch Fox News or CNN to see how retrospective analyses lead us to blame people unjustifiably for things they could not have known beforehand. As someone once said, Most conspiracies are nothing more than an attempt to cover one's ass once a mistake is discovered.
After we found the sand devoid of reds, I got a call from Randy informing me of my error, so we headed back west and got into a single pod of fish with a dozen gulls overhead. Ironically, the pod was comprised largely of catfish, and Gregg managed to land the only fish of the day after casting fruitlessly to the pod--a 12-inch hardhead. It was a pretty discouraging day after that, even though the sand was clear enough to offer success. However, the fish were not on the sand; so we ran around and ended up empty handed.

This past weekend was a completely different story, even though both days featured 15-20+ mph winds. I guided Walter Weathers from Houston, who was alone on my boat for two days. We found big reds under birds on both mornings, and reds on the sand after midday on both afternoons. Walter landed 4 reds over 25 inches the first day, and six reds the second day (five of which were 24+). It was a very good weekend during a time of the year when success can be as fleeting as lilacs rising from the dull roots, as Greg and Rodney discovered the week before.

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