Saturday, May 21, 2016

Amazing Flyfishing After Two Tough Days

Sometimes I wonder what the hell I'm doing out there running around in a vast estuary with grown men who've spent a small fortune to chase animals with a brain the size of a split pea. When it's like last weekend--cloudy and windy and stormy--it can make me wish that I'd seen it coming, and that I could have warned them off in time.

After two days fishing with my old client Scott Minnich and his son Jeff, during which there were promising opportunities under difficult conditions, I thought it was all over--no fish for two days, and the guys were heading home. I pulled up to the dock after 10 hours on the water, tired and discouraged, and started unpacking the boat. I thought, perhaps wrongly, "they probably won't be back." I was sad about that, because Scott had come to be a friend after several years of flyfishing with me and other NewWater captains on the Lower Laguna Madre. But as I pulled the rods out of the holders and laid them on the dock, Scott said, "So I guess we can just leave some of this in the boat." I was puzzled by this statement, and then Scott asked, "Same time tomorrow morning?" I was shocked, and suddenly realized that they had intended to fish three days, not two. I scrambled inwardly, and said, "Oh, sorry, I got it wrong, but no problem, I'm available."

I was so relieved that I didn't have new clients coming in, or some immovable object that I could not work around. That night, we broke the spell of fishless days by going into Harlingen and having dinner together at La Playa, which is a hellova great restaurant.

Monday dawned breathless and cloudy, so I took the guys into a back lagoon where the water was just above our booties. We'd observed redfish sweeping into the lagoon during the previous two evenings, so I was pretty sure they'd be there in the morning, since the tide was still pretty high. Sure enough, after taking the Stilt as far as I could into the most remote part of the back lagoon, I saw reds spooking ahead of the skiff, so I shut down in glassy conditions. The wind was coming up, but not enough to break the surface tension of the water. After a couple of minutes, we spotted what we'd come for: sweeping groups of reds 200 yards further in, being escorted by one or two terns or laughing gulls, which would hover briefly over the reds whenever they'd drive bait into the air.

Jeff, who is a guide in Wyoming doesn't need much coaching or help, so I was happy to see him head toward the sweeping fish, leaving Scott and me to proceed at a lower pace toward the west shoreline. Fish were everywhere, and would show briefly pushing water before disappearing again. Except for an occasional sweeping pod, the fish were largely invisible.

Jeff hiked toward the back of the lagoon where the water is about 5 inches deep. There he stopped and began casting to redfish that were visible with their backs out of the water. Standing in one area, he proceeded to land his first three reds on a fly rod. Scott and I were so far from him that we didn't get any photos of this inaugural event, but Jeff didn't care. He was so absorbed in the hunt that neither he nor I wanted to take the time for photos.

After a while, the wind came up and "drowned out" the subtle signs of the feeding reds, so we headed south into another back lagoon where I hoped to find tailing pods in clear, shallow water. Sure enough, after poling into the area, we spotted several pods in the breezy conditions, and both anglers managed to get their flies into groups of 8-10 tailing fish. Alas, the action fell off pretty quickly when the sun broke through the clouds. Indeed, podding often breaks up by late morning if the sun is bright. It was like someone flipped a switch and suddenly the pods were nowhere to be seen.

At that point, it was about 11 am, and blue sky could be seen over the east side "sand," so I headed north and east, and ran for about 8 miles before we started seeing a few reds scattering ahead of the boat. We passed a 20-lb jack crevalle hunting on the sand--something we've been seeing this year, for some reason. We
shut down just when the north wind was starting to subside, and ate our sandwiches. I was starting to get excited, even though there was no rational reason to believe that great success was imminent. I looked east toward the "shelf," where the water goes from a foot deep to 4 inches, and said, "I feel the flat turning on. Not sure why."

Scott and Jeff spread out and began walking south with the waning north wind, and almost immediately Jeff started casting at reds, and hooked up a minute or two later. For the next three hours, the guys enjoyed constant redfish action. In fact, there was hardly a time when reds were not visible to the anglers. By my reckoning, they had five double hookups, and landed somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 more reds, even though neither of them counted their catch. Scott, who is a veteran Lower Laguna angler said over and over, "I've never seen anything close to this action!"

I had to agree that it rarely, if ever, gets any better than what Scott and Jeff experienced last Monday. I had a lot of respect for them after our three days on the water. They never complained about the difficulty we'd faced on the first two days, and were seasoned enough to take the goose eggs along with the 40+ fish with the same sense of gratitude. Somehow, their success on the third day makes perfect sense, as a consequence of right attitude and right action. Pictures (and a video) to follow.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

A Glorious Day on the Sand

I wish you’d been with me today. I waded the upper sand with my faithful companion Rosie, while Julie napped on the kayak while it was tethered to the Stilt. I waded downwind of the boat toward the edge of the sand proper, relishing the sight of luminescent water, lit with the midday sun. The water was a golden color, and gradually shifted to greenish blue as the depth went from a foot to about 17 inches, and the bottom became softer with some sprigs of widgeon grass breaking the otherwise sterile appearance. Nearby were small spoil islands covered with blooming prickly pear. At my feet, I knew plenty of crabs were hidden beneath the surface of the sand, and so did the redfish. I didn’t expect to see much-maybe a redfish or two, but it didn’t matter: The scene was out of a very good dream, and nothing would have improved upon it. We’d waded about 200 yards west of the Stilt, which was anchored in less than a foot of water, and started to spot redfish; first one, then a couple, and then a group of 7-8 fish swimming toward me. That was the beginning of an unbroken stream of feeding redfish, heading upwind alone or in groups, head down and tails breaking the water from time to time.

I had a tiny chartreuse Clouser tied onto my six weight. I broke off cleanly on the first strike by putting too much resistance on the breakaway fish, then spooked a couple before landing my first of six reds in about an hour. After spooking or missing  or catching several other reds with the clouser, I switched to a tiny crab pattern, which seemed to please them a bit more. I landed two more on the crab in the 24-25 inch range before heading back to the boat. It was the best action I’ve seen on the sand in a couple of years. They were plentiful, aggressive and above average in size.

I managed to take some video with my free hand, and here's a clip of landing one of the 24-25" reds.  You really should experience the sand on a cloudless day. Whether you find a few fish or a lot of them as I did today, you will return home with something you didn’t have before—a deeper sense of peace and gratitude for the sheer beauty of an uncluttered expanse of clear water.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Fishing with Ryan

After guiding several days in the recent past, I finally made it out with my son Ryan and dog Rosie for some flyfishing for fun. We fished south, and waded exclusively during one of the prettiest spring days you can imagine. Full sun and low wind, even though it was a chilly ride out at daybreak.

It's always a joy to see Ryan succeed with a fly rod. Indeed, he's very good at it. I've said to many clients, whose sons have committed themselves to flyfishing, "There's not much more you need to know in order to predict your son's future success." Over the years, I've found this to be true. Not many people will dedicate themselves to a methodology that is so difficult to learn. But for some of us, "it's the damned difficulty that makes the fun," (St. Cecil in Dodson's book, Faithful Travelers).

I've posted a video clip on Facebook showing Ryan landing a red on his seven-weight TFO combo. Rosie had been wading with me, but she was back on the boat for the glamour shot. See I tried to upload it here, but it was the wrong format. Maybe later.

The fish were thick down south--big trout and reds mixed together. But they were very tough, and the wading was difficult, too--an inconsistent bottom and thick turtle grass made line management and movement a chore. Still, we prefer to wade together, even though we would have gotten more shots from the boat. It's a matter of preference.

We'd planned to fish the sand, but the fishing was so good on the West side that we never headed east before going in around 2:30. It was a great day.

When we got back in, Randy Cawlfield arrived at Channelview with his new Stilt. He was all grins after struggling with a moody Etec for the last six months. It'
s hard to beat Yamaha, or Suzuki.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

New Video--Double Digit Redfish Days on the Lower Laguna Madre

I just got around to editing a video that's been waiting for my attention. It shows you what our typical flyfishing is like on low-wind and full-sun days. I hope it gets your juices flowing for the upcoming spring action. Also, I hope to see you at the San Antonio Boat and RV Show. Randy and I will give presentations on Friday and Saturday, but we won't be there on Sunday.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Spring will be here soon!

Hi all, It's hard to believe it's already January! Winter down here is so brief that we've got about six weeks more of relatively cool weather before the trees start putting out their buds. Julie and I are plowing part of out back yard on Sunday (if it's not too muddy from this moisture!) and putting in wildflower seeds in the next week.

Last year was a rather difficult flyfishing year in several ways. First of all, we had a very wet and unstable spring that continued through May. Indeed, 2015 was one of our wettest years in recent history. The birding action (i.e. casting to tailing reds under gulls) wasn't as dramatic or as consistent as it usually is in the spring, and the birding we did have often featured more catfish than redfish under the gulls. Needless to say, every year is a new game, and there's no reason to believe that 2016 will resemble 2015 at all. We just have to "show up" and make the best of the conditions at hand.

Randy and I both experimented with having fly fishers stay at our trailers on the water. Since I also have a bunkhouse, it's possible to have some privacy while saving money at the same time. I will be continuing this offering into 2016. I can handle one or two guys (women would not take well to this set-up). The great thing about staying at the trailer is that you're on the water and ready to jump in the boat at day break, you can fish for trout under the lights, and you can prepare your own food either with me or by yourselves. I charge a modest fee for this lodging option. Otherwise, we're continuing to have a great relationship with Atascosa Outlook B&B and Ray Box, who owns a house on the Arroyo not far from our RV Park.

Another option is for you to rent the "other guy's" trailer. That is, when you fish with me, you could rent Randy's place, and have it entirely to yourselves. Or vice versa. In this scenario, your wive might like the setting, cost, and simplicity of being on the water near your guide's lodging and boat.

Give us some notice if you'd like to pursue one of these options, so we can plan on having the trailers set up for guests.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Winter Forays

It seems that this year, the cold fronts have coincided with the weekends. I have three sets of clients who are waiting to come down, and every weekend for the past several weeks has been too cloudy or windy or cold or too close to Thanksgiving. But the last two weekends have been fair to middling, for at least one day. So I've taken advantage of the weather windows to go out with my brother and son. Two weeks ago, Chip and I went out for big trout, only to find the tides too high to sight cast for big trout, at least in the areas where they were holding up. So we went to a back lagoon where I'd found big reds a year ago feeding explosively along a shoreline. We planed it a bit too far, and ran over an oversized red before we shut down. I poled into the lagoon, which was about 8 acres, almost landlocked. At first we saw nothing, and then I spotted the back of redfish along the far shoreline, glimmering in the sunlight. We donned our waders, and Chip got out to stalk the redfish, while I poled 200 yards down the shoreline and slipped overboard. Chip got a single shot at an approaching red--probably the same fish I'd seen. Meanwhile, I saw three feeding, and caught the second one--a 24" red. The last one would have been a photo-op. I saw it tailing and rolling in about 9 inches of water, so he was always in view as I waded closer. Finally I made a long backcast and dropped the Kingfisher spoon to a spot about 2 feet from him. I thought it was a winner. I let it sink, and stripped once, and whoosh, he spooked. Apparently, he'd gone over to inspect the noise, and then spooked when the spoon abruptly moved. Oh well, there's always a fine line between a perfect presentation and an insult, and the fish is only judge in the beauty contest. So it was an insult, simple as that.

Yesterday, my son Ryan and I went out after birding for the first three hours of the day. It had been so cold during the night that the last thing we wanted to do was venture out on the boat. So we grabbed out cameras and headed by car to Atascosa Refuge where we hoped to spot various raptors, and maybe be a photo or two. We were pleased to see the usual suspects--Harris's, Northern Harrier (Marsh hawk), Kestrels, White-Shoulder Kites, and huge hawk that I could not identify. The high point was spotting an Aplomado Falcon that shot across the road and took up position in a plowed field. Ryan had never seen one, so he was really pleased. 

It was getting warm around 9:30, so we went back to Arroyo City and launched the Stilt. We checked the East side sand, but there wasn't much to be seen, except for a few Sheepshead. It was the first day of a warming trend, and it's rare to find the gamefish on the sand that early. As a rule, one should target the second day (and beyond) of a warming trend, and skip the first day. So we turned south and headed for north Cullen's Bay. The tides were still a bit high for sight casting to giant trout, but I hoped that the full sun had warmed the shallowest areas, where mats of dark turtle grass warm the surrounding water in the midday sun. We made two long wades after seeing several trout in the 4-8 lb range, and a bunch of redfish fleeing from the boat. Alas, we didn't see much at all during the wade. The wind was so low that the surface glare restricted our view of the bottom; and because the water was knee-deep, which is deep for sight casting, we couldn't see very well. So we picked up and headed further west, and into shallower water. There we found greater concentrations of both species, so we stopped and went for another wade toward the west shoreline. Ryan quickly got a shot at a large tailing red, and then I got an opportunity at a trout in the 26-28" range. I should have caught it, but the fly landed just a bit too close to the fish, and it turned. Two feet ahead of a big trout can be much too close in calm conditions. My second cast was perfect--about five feet ahead of the fish, and just a hair beyond its path, but the fish was already too pissed off to consider it. As I was heading back to the boat, I saw an oversized red tailing vigorously about 150 yards away, and I decided to go for it. Once I got within range, it called for an 80-foot, cross-wind back cast, but I made the cast twice. Alas, the fish never saw the fly, given the thick turtle grass that surrounded it. Finally, it disappeared and I returned to the boat. It was a perfect day with a few good opportunities. Ending up with no fish is very crude measure of success. We will probably always remember the day for its quality of opportunity and fellowship, not its quantity.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Photos Survive Drowned iPhone

I had the pleasure of guiding Ted Thomas and Dennis Matt from Virginia this past September, and I was taking tons of photos and video on my iPhone while they stalked and landed 10 reds along a remote shoreline--one of them 9.5 lbs. and another 8.5 lbs. I was very happy for them, but in the midst of landing fish and photographing fish, I dropped my brand-new iPhone 6 into the water. While it had a water resistant case, it wasn't enough to protect it from 30 minutes underwater. I wasn't able to find it until, miraculously, my foot felt it in the sand. I was fortunate that the iPhone repair place was able to rescue a very few of the photos and videos. My day with Ted and Dennis was a lesson of sorts.  Just the previous day, we had fished the same shoreline from the boat, and had caught no fish. And yet, we had shots at probably 20 different redfish along a 300-yard shoreline. Why the difference? When casting from the boat, we would have a brief glimpse of a redfish tailing or "backing" along the shoreline, and then we'd see nothing. Ted would have to cast on speculation, not knowing where the fish's head was. And in such shallow water, a miss is as good as a mile: the fish simply don't see the fly if it's more than a foot away. So time and time again, Ted would cast, and the fish would blow up and leave the area. The point is: The action was fast and furious, and the opportunities were addictive, but there wasn't a single hookup.  

Fast forward to the next morning when we poled the shoreline again. I'd decided beforehand that we would not stay on the boat if the fish started showing up. So when we saw the first "backing" redfish in five inches of water, I asked Ted to step off the boat and stalk him. I staked the skiff, and spent the next two hours wading the shoreline with the two anglers. The action was phenomenal. One angler would walk five feet from the shoreline, spot a fish coming up the shoreline, and then cast to the fish once it clearly showed itself. After the first angler would hook up, the second man would walk behind him and take up the wade along the shoreline. We leapfrogged like that until 10 reds had been landed. In every case, the fish were so subtle that the guys had to stand still and wait for them to show a fin or a back or a wiggle. But because they were wading, and largely invisible to the approaching fish, the anglers could hold off until the fish showed himself. 

This was an excellent example of why you have know when to abandon the boat, rather than to persist in casting to fish that will see you before you can get off a good shot.  Fishing from the boat becomes addictive, in that you cover a lot of water, and tend to see a lot more fish than when you're wading. But the quality of the opportunity is a better predictor of success than the quantity of opportunities. There are days when my clients and I never step off the boat because the conditions are right for that approach. A great angler is a flexible angler, ready to adjust to conditions whenever they change. Sometimes casting from the bow of the boat is the best way to fish, but sometimes it's only a "tease" that becomes a habit that ruins the day.

Here's a compilation of the surviving photos and video clips.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Flyfishing on the Farquhar atoll, in the Seychelles

This blog entry is kicking my butt. I couldn't get it to format correctly with photos interspersed, so I'm writing above the photos, adding to it from time to time, summarizing my recollections. -- GSS

For my own benefit, and for the benefit of my friends, I want to spend some time recollecting the week that I spent flyfishing in the Seychelles this past October. It was an amazing experience that I'll probably never have again this lifetime. And if only for the reason that I do not want the memories to fade away, I will take some time bringing them to life in words.

Flyfishing is a specific method, but the range of flyfishing venues is vast. A flyfisher can be an accomplished angler in one setting and a rank amateur in another. But then again, amateur is the conjoining of two words, "lover" and "truth," so a great angler doesn't necessarily mind being brought to his knees if the result is to learn something new about the world and about himself.

Bobby McConal and I had no idea really about the demands of Farquhar. I think we both expected it to be an easier fishery than it turned out to be. But it wasn't just another "pretty face" among tropical flyfishing settings that one easily forgets on the journey to the next frontier. It was, at once, a stunningly beautiful and harsh ecosystem defined by five-foot tides, treacherous coral heads, intimidating surf, high winds, big seas, and other intimidating features that framed a paradisical lagoon that is so far removed from the rest of the world that only 40 people live there year round, subsisting for the most part on the harvest of coconuts.

To get to the middle of nowhere, we flew from Houston to Dubai, waited 8 hours, then flew to Mahe (the "big island" in the Seychelles), and spent the night in a hotel with the rest of our 10-man group. We were nine time zones from home, and still not fishing! We were delayed the next day when the plane that usually flew to the atoll once a week was grounded. Fortunately, the Seychelles air force provided us with two planes that flew our group the final 2 1/2 hours to the meager landing strip on Farquhar. As we made our final approach in gusty, windy conditions, the little plane caught a cross wind at the last moment, and veered sideways before the pilot abruptly pulled it back up and then set it down safely. I thought, "To have come so far only to fish, and then to die on this tiny runway would be the ultimate irony." Shaking off the anxiety, I stepped out of the plane only to be greeted by our very white and very black South African and native guides who had lined up to shake our hands. Then we piled into a cart pulled by a tractor and were carried a mile across bumpy terrain through coconut groves to the lodge on the north shore of the atoll. (More to follow)

Second entry:
Bobby and I were so beat from the trip that we went to bed about 8 pm while the rest of the guys--most from south Africa, stayed up doing what guys do away from home--drinking and telling stories. The sounds of their laugher weren't enough to keep me up, however. I awoke at 5:30 and immediately listened for the wind. It was howling. 
We headed east from the lodge, across a choppy expanse, toward the leeward side of the atoll, and then south toward a flat that was downwind from the crashing surf. Bobby had forgotten his raincoat, and by the time we had reached the calmer water, he was drenched. It was a strange sight to see huge breakers only a couple of hundred yards away as we anchored the boat in four-feet water. The tide was dropping, and we couldn't anchor in shallower water; for if we did, we could face a beached boat only an hour or two later. We jumped into the water, and held our cameras above our heads as we tiptoed to shallower water.

Looking back, it may have been the best day we had in terms of opportunities. The low tide was midday, and moving quickly to the evening, and by the time the week was over, we were limited to incoming tides and deep-water venues, and shorelines. 

The main goal for fly fishers in the Seychelles is to catch giant trevally. We'd been told that the previous week's group had landed over 30 GTs, so the chances were good that we'd score a GT. But they were suddenly nowhere to be found. On the first day, I managed to hook one briefly from the bow of the boat, only to lose it. 

Nick was quick to point out my error--that is, to lift my rod. I was a bit annoyed, because I knew I'd hooked it before lifting the rod. But Nick clarified by saying that you should never lift your rod, but rather to crank down on the fish, and to keep the rod low. The fish have such hard mouths that we were supposed to keep the rod low and apply maximum pressure. Oh, well, I thought...I'll do it right next time. And next time never came. Why, you might ask (as I did)? Because, as it turned out, there was a "hatch" of small swimming crabs offshore, and the GTs has abandoned the atoll to feed on the crabs. Our buddies, who fished offshore with conventional tackle caught 145 GTs during the week. That's where they were. We'd traveled 10,000 miles to catch one, and they moved a few miles to deep water. Pretty ironic, huh? Nick had us stay close as we stalked a group of 40-60 lbbumpy-head parrot fish that spooked on the first cast. Then we waded a shallow "tabletop" flat where we spotted some parrot fish, and a couple of giant trevallys passing through beyond our casting range. 

We carried 12-wt and 9-wt rods, so that we could cover all the bases. Nick carried whatever we weren't using. Bobby and I were so used to a self-sufficient form of angling that we found it hard to have someone carry our spare rods for us. Indeed, all of the guides carried a sizeable backpack, filled with cameras, food, water and flies, while the clients carried only one rod and our flies.

Third entry--It was a wild place. Imagine a half-moon sliver of sand, coral, lava, and cocoanut trees, separating the crashing surf from a protected lagoon that varies in depth from one foot to 10 feet deep. Coral heads ring the island making the surf extremely treacherous for surfers and boats, and dot the lagoon like cauliflower, making navigation a dangerous proposition. 

One of most interesting fishing areas is where the surf has broken through the atoll, creating a half-mile passage that you can walk through. On two separate days, our guides Peta and Jason opted to lead us through the passage into the surf where we spent several hours at low tide casting to bonefish, triggers, spangled emperors, and bumpy head parrot fish. What was surprising to me was how shallow the schools of bonefish would go, and yet how difficult they were to see against the mottled bottom and amid the churning water.  

We didn't spot any giant trevally, but were able to land a few bones. Here's a bonefish and a Spangled Emperor that Bobby caught on the surf side.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Where Have All the Big Reds Gone--Part 2

I have been "there and back again," since my last blog entry. It's a long story, filled with some accounts that you don't want to hear and others that you do. I have been half way around the world to fish the fabled Seychelles only to return home with more gratitude than ever for what we have on the Lower Laguna Madre. Every fishery has its unique character, but the LLM is unique for what it offers sight casting flyfishers. In regards to guiding on the LLM, I have a very good story that I will tell in the next couple of days, but until then, here's an article that I recently penned, and which should appear soon in a national magazine. -- Scott

Where Have the Big Reds Gone? Fishing Shallower and Later on the Lower Laguna Madre
Capt. Scott Sparrow

            When I was a child, the five-mile trip down the Arroyo Colorado to the Lower Laguna Madre seemed to take forever as the old 25-hp Sea King struggled against the weight of my dad’s plywood boat. As we’d chug past the entrance to one of the back lagoons, which revealed itself as only a sliver of silver on the horizon, Dad would often say, with the assurance of one who believes in things unseen, “There are big reds back there.” At least that’s what he’d heard from friends who knew people who had somehow fished there at a time when the only boats that could go that shallow were tiny one-man “scooters” built in someone’s garage. When my dad was near the end of his life, I surprised him one day by turning my skiff into the narrow passage between the black mangroves, and taking him on his first tour of that storied place.
Thinking of Dad, I returned to that lagoon in my Stilt just this past week with my dog Rosie. It was an hour before sundown, and the glare on the water was nearly blinding. But the screams of gulls following sweeping and crashing groups of redfish could be heard in all directions. Rosie and I walked slowly into the melee, and I was torn between catching a redfish and leaving them alone, but the exposed back of an approaching red in seven inches of water pushed me over the edge. After landing the 28-inch red that somehow found my fly in the windblown, murky water, I walked back to the boat, thankful, and just watched them continue feeding.
            I was recently talking to a sight casting guide friend, who said, “The fishing is not what it used to be. There are so many boats out there, and the fish are hard to find.” I had to agree that the fishing on the LLM had certainly changed in response to increasing pressure. Not long ago, it was common to find herds of redfish in the morning, and to see oversized reds among countless smaller fish cruising and feeding in the clearest water of the east side “sand.” But the large schools are scarce, and sight casting on the sand is rarely as good as it used to be. However, in the face of my friend’s pessimism, I privately thought to myself that the fishing was still excellent, even better in some places, but that the locus of activity has shifted away from the popular areas. Indeed, from my experience after fishing the LLM since the 50s, and flyfishing the LLM since the late 70s, the largest redfish in the Lower Laguna Madre feed increasingly in very shallow and hard-to-access locales during active feeding periods, and then withdraw into deeper water, where sight casting is impossible, until favorable conditions recur. This may have always been true, but today we can actually observe this phenomenon with the help of modern shallow-water skiffs. One might reasonably ask, Why do the biggest fish feed in water that’s barely deep enough to host them? There are several reasons, not the least of which is that the fish can feed without dealing with crisscrossing boats. But the larger reds have other reasons to spend time in five to seven inches water. For one, as they mature, reds and trout alike tend to move away from a predominant diet of smaller prey such as shrimp and gravitate toward feeding on fin fish. In the shallowest backwaters, hoards of finger mullet will often gather, making these venues especially attractive to the larger reds. Since these places are so shallow, top-end predators can feed, essentially, in two dimensions, driving baitfish that have no place to go but up, and then down again, into waiting mouths.
            Everyone wants to know where to go, and I usually tell people if they ask. Any aerial map will tell you where the shallowest areas can be found, but such places often have submerged shallow bars that can destroy lower units and leave all but the shallowest skiffs high and dry. If I were to draw a map, “X” would not only mark the spots where the big fish can be found, but it would also signify a dangerous place to take most boats. Fortunately, if you can gain access to these areas on the Lower Laguna, your prop won’t do much damage to the grass. For, except for widgeon grass––which grows rapidly in these areas during the summer months in response to fresh water runoff––and glasswort that grows in the non-navigable areas, the waters in these back lagoons are usually devoid of sea grasses because the areas are periodically dry during extreme low tides.  The problem isn’t so much what your motor will do to the bottom, but the impact it will have on the fish. The big reds feeding in the back lagoons are exceeding sensitive to boat noise, and will often completely leave the area once disturbed. So if you want to target these “refuges,” then you need to pole in, or get off the boat and wade the last couple hundred yards.  Your effort will be amply rewarded by fish that overlook your presence. Of course, anyone without a shallow water skiff can, if dedicated, wade into these areas. But the fish aren’t always there, making it practically necessary to know more than just “where.” It’s even more important to know “when” and “why.”
            Before the proliferation of bay boats, the answer to “when” may have been simpler than it is today. Indeed, it’s probably true that tide mostly governed the coming and going of large redfish into the back lagoons before the modern era. In support of this idea, I have found that on weekdays or on relatively quiet weekends, the reds will populate these areas on the incoming tide, and tend to leave as the tide begins to go slack. It’s almost as simple as that. However, since the advancement of shallow water boat design, the extent of truly inaccessible places has shrunken to a narrow band of habitable water surrounding an increasingly pressured bay system. This means that as the tides fall, and the shallowest backwaters lose their luster, the fish tend to go to the other extreme—into deeper water where they can sit out the noise and disruption of boat traffic. Between the two extremes, anglers often scratch their heads and wonder if, by chance, something has gone terribly wrong.
            One of the most exciting things I’ve discovered pertaining to the question of “when” and “why” in the last few years, is that the redfish are feeding later in the day, once the boats have vacated the flats. This phenomenon is so robust that I’ve often taken to fishing after 6 pm, at least with friends and family, in the summer months in order to capitalize on the changing rhythms. I discovered this phenomenon, somewhat by accident a couple of years ago when I had to flee a thunderstorm with some clients early in the day. I felt so badly that the day had been abruptly ended that I offered to take them back out once the weather had cleared. I headed to one of the back lagoons after 5:00 pm, and poled into 100 acres of eight inches of water. At first we saw nothing, but then birds appeared over sweeping fish, and before the sun had set we had poled into hundreds of redfish sweeping around the inlet feeding noisily. We had double hookups, and it was an angler’s dream.
My assumptions about when to fish changed from that moment onward. As to “why,” I realized that the fish were simply adjusting to boat and angling pressure. After all, most guides and recreational anglers will hit the bay at daybreak and fish hard until early afternoon. By 3:00, the LLM is virtually devoid of boats, even on a Saturday, except for night fishing anglers who tend to anchor in the deeper troughs, and fish quietly with cut bait. Any fish with a brain in its head would soon gravitate toward the latter part of the day, given the obstacle course that we have erected.
            Since then, I have found redfish pouring onto the east side sand, as well as into the westside back lagoons, just before dark. This fish are not simply “left over” from the day, but exhibit an aggressiveness that bespeaks of pent-up hunger. While I do not know if this phenomenon is new, or simply new to me, it makes sense that the game fish have adapted to the disruption of boat traffic and angling pressure by holding off until the environment is less cluttered. It gives me a lot of hope to believe this; for otherwise, I might agree with some of my friends who simply lament that it’s not the way it used to be.
            While feeding redfish may be shifting to the evening hours, big reds can still reliably be found on the incoming tide, in particular, during the daytime hours on the shallowest frontier of the Lower Laguna Madre. This past fall, for instance, I was guiding two young brothers––Shawn and Scott––who had just taken up flyfishing. We went into a back lagoon at daybreak that, until a few years ago, had probably never seen a boat. I was poling along the edge of a vast, shallower area stretching out to the west of us that I believed was devoid of game fish. The wind was so low that we could hear whatever was happening around us. Suddenly, I heard a recognizable explosive sound somewhere out in the shallowest expanse. “Did you hear that?” Both guys nodded. “That’s the sound of a feeding red, and it’s out there in virtually no water.” Moments later, we heard the sound again, but this time it was off to the right of the first one. Clearly, there was more than one fish in the critically shallow area. Shawn grabbed his rod, and announced, “I’m going hunting.”  While he waded on a firm clay bottom toward a nearby “island” of glasswort from which the sound had originated, I turned the skiff west with Scott on the bow, hoping that I’d be able to get out of there later on without having to walk my boat back to deeper water. After poling for about 100 yards, we spotted the backs of two large redfish near an opening between two glasswort islands. Scott slipped into the cool water as quietly as possible, while I staked the boat and grabbed my camera. We hadn’t gone very far before Shawn’s cries behind us announced a hook-up. And then, a few minutes later, Scott followed with hooking and landing a 29-inch redfish. Needless to say, it was a memorable morning for two novice flyfishers.

            It may be tempting to believe that the glory days of redfish action on the Lower Laguna Madre have passed, because the fish don’t seem to be where they used to be. But a closer examination reveals that many of the larger reds in the estuary can be found feeding aggressively in the shallowest venues beyond the reach of most watercraft. Surely, it makes sense that game fish are spending more time in these shallow venues in response to boat traffic and angling pressure. It also makes sense that they are turning away from daytime feeding, and exploiting the unpressured conditions of the evening and night. While we may regret the changes in the historic patterns, we might take heart that the fish are finding ways to survive, if not thrive, in spite of us. And if we’re willing to acknowledge why they’re in these places, and limit the impact of our presence by poling or wading in and out of them whenever possible, it’s likely that the big reds will take refuge in these special places for decades to come.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Where have all the big reds gone?

(Dictation software often leaves strange artifacts--there may be some left, so please forgive me, if so.)

The title of this blog is the same title as an article that I've recently written for Tide magazine. In it, I present the thesis that I've been developing for two years now--that the big reds are shifting toward nighttime feeding, and into the shallowest sanctuaries on the LLM.

I know that It's hard for people to believe, but the finest fishing is often to be found after 5:00 PM. It's then when all the other boats have gone that the fish often move into some of the areas where we often fish but often do not find them when we think we should. To illustrate the truth of this, I took my dog Rosie with me on an afternoon trip upon arriving at the Arroyo about 5:30. We didn't get on the water till about six and we were fishing at a time when the sun was low to the horizon. I got to the spot where I thought they be feeding, as they often have in the last two years when I've been visiting this place in the late evening. They didn't seem to be there yet, at least, so I got out with Rosie and we waded into the area, a very shallow expense of  5 to 6 inch water. There were a lot of mullet so it was hard to perceive the subtle signs of game fish feeding. But after a while, I can see that there were some redfish starting to come into the area, probably intending to feed during the night. My first cast was a top water to a very large fish that promptly jumped on the fly, and broke off in the heavy grass. I had to three more misplaced shots in the area before I thought it was probably all over, so I moved into even shallower water to get away from the grass so I could walk back to the boat without great effort. Then it happened. I looked out into the glare 200 yards to the north and an equal amount of yards to the west and saw several redfish with the backs of the water that were clearly oversized, meaning over 28 inches in length.  It was so shallow that I thought their eyes would probably be in and out of the water, making it very difficult to approach them. I still had not caught the first redfish, but I realize that even one of these fish would make the day. Rosie is a very good companion, and does not make much noise, but as we walked into the shallow area, I was concerned that the combination of the two of us would alert the big fish and fish them away. We had at least four oversize reds within 100 yards of us, clearly feeding. Every once in a while one could blow up, probably on a crab, and then proceed to saunter along clearly visible at a great distance. Finally, I saw two redfish, one significantly larger than the second. The smaller one was swimming toward me, and almost within casting range when I dropped to my knees and decided to wait for the larger fish. The smaller fish, probably a 27 inch redfish, came up to me, turned sideways and swam by me within 40 feet. The second fish turn directly toward me and I can see its back out of the water, with a head several inches wide approaching me. I stayed on my knees, and urged Rosie to be quiet and be still as I began to false cast. Finally, I dropped the fly just beyond his head, and cringed realizing that I had to strip the fly past him in order to cast again. I stripped slowly so as not to alert him, and the fly came up to within 6 inches of his head. Knowing that it was the moment of truth, I let the fly slow down and drop to the bottom even though I knew it would immediately foul on the grass and algae that covered the bottom. Nonetheless, the big red perceived it and turned sideways, and with its head down its back suddenly coming all away out of the water. He was on, and wow what a fight. I spent the next 20 minutes trying to

coax them in within range of grabbing the line, but he would have nothing of it. If he'd not been in such shallow water, he would've swam much further, but he had such a difficult time negotiating the 5-inch water that ultimately I was able to retrieve him without him becoming too tired.  I pulled him up to us, and I took some photos as best I could before I released him, a 30-inch or better redfish, weighing approximately 11 pounds by my estimation. It was one of the best catches I've had in several years, and it was one of the most exciting angling encounters I've had in my entire life. This kind of evening fishing is so phenomenal, and it's very hard to convince people of just how good it is. But if you want to get out there, and show up just before sundown, you may discover the most remarkable flyfishing you ever had in your entire life.