Friday, November 16, 2012

A Secret Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pics and a new video to follow.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Three Days and 59 Reds Later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Fall fishing

It's been a while since I've posted, but I can say that the fall fishing has been as wondrous as the summer was difficult. Indeed, the last few charters I've had have been characterized by big, tailing reds in multiple west-side venues.

A couple of weeks ago, I guided Beau Stark from the Houston area. It was his first time on the Lower Laguna, and he'd never caught a redfish on the fly. We had nearly calm winds at daybreak, so I went into a lagoon that fishes well in low wind. My buddy Roel Villanueva had already arrived in the lagoon, so I gave him a wide berth and shut down about 300 yards further in. We hadn't moved any fish until we approached the far shoreline. As soon as I saw mullet jumping, I shut down, suspecting that most of the redfish in the lagoon were packed into a corner where they often feed at daybreak. Sure enough, within five minutes of our arrival, redfish began tailing between us and the shoreline. They were extremely subtle, with small tips of their tails showing among the milling mullet. At first it was hard to believe that they were reds but hit me that we'd landed in the middle of a ton of feeding fish. Beau was pretty new to this, but he'd fly fished a lot in cold water. So he acclimated to the challenge pretty quickly. Within a few minutes, he had hooked his first redfish of six or seven, on a Kingfisher Spoon. (By the way, I am tying flies for sale again, so take a look on the For Sale page if you're interested. I am not happy with the way my flies are being tied commercially, and want to provide a more durable alternative to those of you who are willing to pay a bit more.)

I think Beau caught another redfish at our first venue and had plenty of shots. But the early morning magic in one spot can come to and end quickly; and the best guides know when to move on. I had other places to go, so we got up and left after about an hour, and headed further south.

Oh my, it was sooo good at the second stop that we stayed there for four hours. It was dead calm, and the water depth was just perfect--about 14 inches. Thick shoal grass had filled the area, and a lot of it was dying as it always does in the late summer and early fall. I'd only poled the Stilt for a few minutes before we spotted the first red tailing. And then, the tailing action was continuous. The problem with no wind, or low wind, is that the fish can sense your approach. Indeed, you usually only get one cast before they will stop tailing. The slight sound of the fly landing is enough, believe it not, to alert the fish to something out of the ordinary. Redfish are tolerant of consistent noises, and even allow seagulls to walk across their backs when they're feeding in pods. It's the anomaly that disturbs them. Biologists call this tendency of organisms to react to anomalies the "orienting response," which brings about a host of physiological changes to allow the organism to prepare for the possibility of threat. But once a fish or person gets used to the interruption, or is able to identify it as harmless, there is a quick return to "business as usual," since it takes energy to sustain the orienting response. If you've ever fished in cold water streams you will know that trout will start feeding all around you after you've held your position long enough. They have to eat, and you're a fixture. So what's the problem, right.

But anglers casting from boats, in particular, activate the orienting response, and that means the tails go down, even if the fish isn't "spooked" yet. He can see what's going on if his head isn't in the mud. So when the tail goes down, the angler should freeze and wait for the moment to pass. The redfish wants to eat, and will resume doing do if the angler simply waits him out.

But it's a good argument for not casting until you can put the fly next to the fish. Even if the fly startles the fish into the orienting response, the fish will take it when he sees that it was "only" an interesting  morsel hastening to its death.

Beau was great company, an obvious sportsman who appreciated what Nature had given us that morning. After the west side action slowed, we headed east onto the sand. Again, it was amazing...big reds traveling in small groups; multiple species traveling together behind rays; and occasional pairs of reds feeding upwind, head down. Beau caught a fine ladyfish on the sand, and was able to cast to several reds before we had to head in for the other half of his group's cast and blast schedule.

A few days later, Julie and I headed for the Arroyo so I could guide David Staub from Breckenridge, Colorado who had also never caught a redfish on a fly. Julie and I often go out in the evening before a charter, just to enjoy the sunset and to give Rosie a boat ride and a romp.

It was windy, so I headed into a back lagoon toward a shallow spot where I'd be able to see the fish feed in the wind. We came off plane in about 7 inches of water, after seeing several big reds shoot away like torpedoes, barely under the surface. Since I wasn't there to fish, Julie and I opened a bottle of cabernet, and watched the sun setting while the full moon rose behind us. But when I saw shrimp jumping, and obvious redfish boils beneath then, I quickly threaded my six weight, and excused myself and Rosie for "no more than 30 minutes." Julie is always cool with me fishing, so I didn't have to feel badly about going after the feeding reds. Actually, my time away from the boat proved to be far less than promised. I walked about 30 feet with Rosie behind me, and surveyed the scene. I could see the evidence of several reds feeding within 50 yards, but it was hard to visually follow them. They would blow up, or push water, then disappear. So I held my fly and stood still, wondering if one might suddenly appear within casting distance. Rosie stood obediently beside me; she always does. Suddenly a fish boiled nearby and shot away chasing something. Another left mud within 20 feet and disappeared. I thought I saw the subtle sign of a fin poking above the surface, so I casted 20 feet, stripped, and then casted again. Pow! A 24-inch red seized the fly and ran into my backing. A few minutes later, I got a picture and let him go. Satisfied, I got back in the boat and resumed the serious business of finishing my cabernet. Meanwhile, the reds continued to feed all around us.

The next day, I skipped that spot, believe it or not.  Something told me to go elsewhere, so we headed south to the spot where I'd poled Beau a few days before. was awesome again. We spent most of six hours wading and poling among tailing reds without another boat in sight. Dave caught his first two reds on a fly--one was 27 inches. It was a beautiful morning, and I think Dave will be back.

I will put some pics up here in a while.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Fishing hasn't been better

I haven't updated my report in some time, but the fall fishing has been superb. I will spend some time tomorrow bringing you up to date. If the summer was difficult (and it was), the autumn has been remarkable. The fish are coming out of hiding, perhaps because of the cooler water temperatures. I am not complaining. Check back tomorrow after lunch. -- Scott

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Enchanted morning

I've had some guided days in the last couple of weeks, but haven't gotten around to reporting on the fishing in a while. Two weeks ago, I guided my old friend Henry Bone and his buddy Patrick. I expected us to do very well, given the fact that Henry is a top-level fly fisher. But the fish were tough to find. Still, we did pretty well after finding them in an unexpected westside venue where no one, I repeat, no one fishes. It was just one of those lucky finds, thanks to Patrick who wandered off a bit while Henry and I were clinging to the familiar. I noticed that he didn't seem to be in a hurry to return to the boat after Henry and I had give clear signs that we were ready to move. When he did return, he had good news to report. So Henry and he headed back into the area where Patrick had seen reds feeding. They only caught a couple, but given the low catches we've had during the mid- to late summer, it was a good find.

On our second day out, we had full sun, so we fly fished the far east side of the bay near Three Islands, and had excellent action in the Bahamas-like gin-clear flats. It was quite exciting for me to pole them through such breathtaking water. Patrick had never seen the particular area. After we'd caught a few in that area, the weekend had been "made."

Last weekend, I was finally able to guide Chris Beardsley from Portland, Texas, after having to reschedule twice. We faced an ambiguous forecast that called for a near-perfect day preceding our first cold front of the season, and a much winder day following its passage. FYI "Cold front" is usually a misnomer this time of year, because when it passes through, it brings more wind and rain than cooler temperatures.

Chris had only recently taken up fly fishing in saltwater, and had previously shifted to spin fishing whenever he didn't feel comfortable with the long rod. Knowing that becoming proficient would require a higher level of commitment, he booked two days with me and left the spin rod at home. We had excellent weather conditions for first morning--low wind, and the promise of a full sun. Finding nothing north of the mouth of the Arroyo, we headed back south and entered a back lagoon as another boat was leaving. The captain of that boat held up one finger. Knowing that he could have never accessed the back reaches of the lagoon, I went in, confident that we would be able to fish water that he  had left untouched. Sure enough, after planing through painfully shallow water, and shutting down, it became clear that we were into the fish.

I poled Chris downwind for over a mile over the course of two hours, and had numerous high-vis encounters with feeding redfish. Some were very big. Chris did pretty well for his first fly-only excursion on the Lower Laguna, and was quite happy with the opportunities that we found. Later, we headed to the sand, hoping for a "turn on" in the afternoon. Alas, we found few fish, but Chris succeeded in hooking one more that broke his line on the first blistering run. When I examined the line, I saw that the line had broken at my blood knot. I said, "You should blame the guide for this one."

That night, we weren't sure what the weather would bring. A weak cold front was forecast, but around 4 am, the area was slammed with thunderstorms. I awoke at 5:30 convinced that it was hopeless to try to fish. So I called Chris and suggested that we pull the plug. He agreed, and we both went back to sleep. Two hours later, however, I woke up to a fairly calm morning, and light diminishing rainfall. I called him again and suggested that we go out. But by then, he'd already told his family that he was heading home. was the guide's time to fish.

Julie and I headed to the same lagoon where Chris and I had found so many reds the day before. I planed beyond the easy-access areas, and shut down in "no" water. Reds were everywhere. In fact, while I strung my rod and tied on my spoon fly, several reds passed by the boat, driving huge visible wakes.

Once we got out of the boat, we began to notice tailing fish in small pods working the shallow clear water. The wind was already rising, but the fish didn't care. In the span of about an hour, I hooked five fish--on over 28 inches--and landed three of them. I had several more shots, but line management was difficult in the grass-filled water, so I messed up several good opportunities.

After catching three, we headed in, happy that we'd been able to spend some time together on the water, but disappointed that I'd pulled the plug prematurely on Chris' second day on the water.

Monday, August 27, 2012

One fine weekend

I don't get to see Henry Bone these days, because he's a father of three young kids, and they're more important than a few redfish. But this past weekend, Henry brought a friend, Patrick, who was interested in spending some time aboard a NewWater Stilt before purchasing one.

Julie and I went down the Arroyo early Friday evening to launch the boat and get read for the next two days. I picked the guys up well before daybreak, and headed to one of Henry's old haunts. We planed back into the farthest reaches of navigable water and shut down in water that was far less than we needed to get back up in. I was a bit sheepish to have done that our first morning out, but fortunaately, they were eager to wade, so I walked the boat downwind to deeper water while they explored the areas east and west of the boat. Henry missed one red, but it only took 30 minutes to ascertain that the fish were elsewhere, as we should be. So I got the Stilt up and we headed south into a lagoon that is as pretty as it gets, but often too shallow to hold fish, much less to float a boat. But a combination of moon phase, tropical systems in the Gulf, and the shifting solar tide effect that produces higher tides after early September made for fall-level tides. So we were able to wade into the grassy, clear water that stretched out ahead of us for about 1 1/2 miles. Not a boat interrupted the surface of the shallow expanse.

Wading downwind, Henry encountered only a single red, and promptly caught it, while Patrick had hiked way east into water that I rarely fish. He was clearly onto fish, as evidenced by his body language. When Henry and I went back to the boat, Patrick ignored us for a while, choosing instead to chase several reds that had left the shoal-grass filled waters of the central lagoon and began feeding head-down on a vegetation free bottom where Patrick could see them 50 yards away.

He finally hiked back to the boat and told us what he's seen.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Fine cigars and bamboo rods

I've been off the water for most of August after having spent half the month of July guiding,  I'm now gearing up for several weekends in a row, while I teach and do some counseling in between. The last gig on the water was a very fine experience--seven days with a great group of guys, half of whom I'd guided previously. They were based in Port Isabel, but some of them would come to the Arroyo to meet Rick Hartman and me, while one or two would stay in PI to guide with our fellow fly fishing guide, Eric Glass.

It was a tough week fishing-wise. The conditions were pretty good--moderate wind in the morning (alas, no dead calm, tailing mornings) and mostly full sun for the rest of the day. With conditions like that, I'd usually predict double-digit days for anyone who can cast 50 feet and see fish. But we had one- and two-fish days all during that time. Rick and I were afraid that Eric was whupping up on us--he's "the man" you know--but he was scratching his head, as well, and calling Rick for information in case he was missing the obvious. But the obvious was the fishing was pretty poor. Even so, there were significant successes over the course of the week, partly due to our group's attitude, which could be boiled down to a single word: gratitude. What a stellar bunch of men, and their faith and their appreciation of the natural beauty of the Lower Laguna came through everything they did. Ultimately, it wasn't about numbers, it was about fellowship with each other and their God. It was an inspiration to be with them.

On the first day out, I guided Mike McCoy for the first time in several years. We headed north hoping to find some pods along a shoreline, but as we turned into a back lagoon, I saw birds working over redfish. That's quite a gift in the mid- to late summer, but I didn't complain. I promptly shut down, and found myself 75 yards downwind from 50 tailing redfish, knowing that I couldn't afford to reposition with the motor. It was already too windy to pole upwind to then, and expect Mike to cast into the wind toward them, so I pushed the boat on foot upwind and then turned it downwind to where he could reach the fish. His first cast of his first day of seven days of fishing resulted in an immediate hookup with a 26.5" red. Wow, what a gift! Of course, man anglers would say that a fish on your first cast is bad luck, but I say a 26.5" red on the first cast overrides any subsequent struggle. Knowing Mike, I knew that if he didn't catch a fish for the next six days, he would still be smiling at the end, and remembering that first fish. But the next day, he landed a big trout on the sand, and I got to see that smile again. Indeed, it never went away.

I had a great day with Stan Smart, who uses only bamboo rods on the flats. This is highly unusual, as anyone knows. But Stan has a great cast, and a great angling sense. We waded together on the sand for most of the day, and he did quite well despite the relative absence of fish. I think he caught two nice reds and a couple of ladyfish on his vitage Orvis bamboo rod, and was very happy with that result. Here's a picture of him casting that rod. Stan makes his own bamboo rods from the ground up, but this old Orvis is one that he's repaired twice--hence the large metal ferrules.

Difficult fishing makes a guide a better guide, because he has to leave the ruts of his day-to-day patterns, and venture into lesser known, or nearly forgotten venues. The thing to avoid is desperation, because you will go so far out of your comfort zone that you might put yourself or your clients at risk. Indeed, one day 10 years ago I guided an 80-year old man, who probably should have been spin fishing. I tried so hard to help him succeed that he hooked me, I broke my push pole, and I lost my anchor before the day was over. A sign of "losing one's center." I rarely do that anymore, because when I guide, I am confident that regardless of the conditions, I am "tapped in" sufficiently to make good decisions on the basis of years of experience. I don't take it personally any longer.

Anyway, Rick and I both found some surprises along the way. He found some big trout that were hanging in pot holes near the Intracoastal, and toward the end of the week, helped his clients land a few 24" trout. I, in turn, found some big reds congregated in a back lagoon that occupied my clients for the last two days of our time together. Mike's son Andy, who had only two days with the group, hooked a 30+" red and fought it for quite a while before the fly popped out. Landing that fish would have made anyone happy, but merely hooking it and fighting it made Andy, whose personality is very much like his father's, appreciative. Later that same day, he and I were wading near the East Cut and came upon a 20+ pound black drum in shin-deep water with his back out. Having had clients catch these behemoths, I was confident that Andy could catch the fish with an "in-his-face" presentation, and a bit of luck, but alas it wasn't in the cards, even though Andy did what he needed to do.

We had a great week together, and I sincerely look forward to guiding these men again--Tracey Dean, Mike McCoy, Stan Smart, Andy, Dennis Raines, and Dan--all the kind of anglers and men you'd like to call your friends.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Long Days on the Water, chapter 2

After the Pool group left, I had three days with my old client Doug Gaunt and his buddy Dick from Ft. Worth. Having been on the water the three previous days, I knew what NOT to do, and that's a help. In exploring an area that has been fishing poorly, I stumbled upon a shoreline that was festooned with reds, many of them tailing in pods of 6-15. The productive area was only about 200 yards long, which might explain why other guides had overlooked it. But it was sweet! I didn't go there until mid-morning with Doug and Dick, but the action was still good enough that I thought, "This is the place to come at daybreak." After having a pretty slow first day, I went to the area at first light the next morning and wow, there were some good pods. I was able to video Doug hooking up on three reds, one of which was 27 inches. The pods were very touchy, however, so he'd get one or two casts before they were sweeping toward deeper water. We returned to the shoreline the next morning, and did about as well. Starting off with some success is a great way to take the edge off the day.

The rest of the LLM fished poorly; that is, we'd find a few shots and catch a couple of fish without ever hitting the motherload. Doug has caught more reds fishing with me than any other client, so he knows how good it can get. In fact, he averages around 15 reds per day, and he and his brother once caught over 50 reds on one summer day.

Still, the guys enjoyed it. Our final afternoon was spent on the "upper sand" where the guys landed three reds before it was time to go in. When you score there, you remember every fish forever, because it's such classic action. For instance, Doug had waded about 400 yards and hadn't seen a red yet. Wading around the backside of one of the islands that divides the sand from the upper sand, he came upon two nice reds with their backs out of the 6-inch water. You'd think the fish would have seen him and fled, but for some reason you can get really close to those fish. He missed his first cast, and spooked them. But they settled down almost immediately, allowing him to present his small Clouser again. He landed a 25" red-the final fish for three days of tough fishing.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Long Days on the Water

I just got home from the McAllen Boat Show, where I helped Tim and Leslie Clancey respond to the public's interest in NewWater boats. Fellow guides Rick Hartman, Jaime Lopez, Roel Villanueva, and consummate fly fishing guru Bud Rowland completed a very robust and committed team of angler/guides. Over 15,000 people attended the show, and I would say that more people showed serious interest in NW boats than I've ever seen at an outdoor show.

Before the show, I guided seven out of the previous nine days. After a few days off the water, Rick Hartman and I will join Eric Glass in guiding six guys over seven days. It was be intense!

So how's the fishing, Capt. Scott, you might ask? Until a few days ago, fishin' was tough indeed. Everyone I have spoken to has said the same thing: The spring was great, but the summer has been characterized by small reds and low concentrations of fish on both the west side and the east side of the Lower Laguna.

I worked with Rick in guiding a four-man group of Phd's that has been down here before. Led by Rusty Pool from San Antonio, the group of in-vitro fertilization experts hailed from several different states. 

I had guided three of the guys before, but one of them -- Dennis from Virginia -- was totally new to sight casting to redfish with a fly rod. Having never caught a red on a fly, Dennis was both eager and apprehensive on the first morning out. I headed for one of my west-side spots, and was soon spotting redfish tailing and cruising with their backs showing. On the first morning of any multi-day charter, however, gear adjustments often take up a great deal of time. Indeed, I found myself rebuilding leaders that were too delicate, and retying flies that were appropriate to the context, over the course of the first 20 minutes on the water. Meanwhile, big reds were showing the whole time.

It wasn't easy fishing, but within a few minutes, Ted had landed the first red of the day from the boat on a Kingfisher spoon. Since the conditions were so sensitive, and the fish difficult to approach, I decided to put both guys out of the boat. The bottom was firm, so they stood a very good chance of stalking the visible fish without attracting a lot of attention. I left the guys wading further into the lagoon in order to return to the boat and float it down to where they were. About the time I stepped onto the Stilt, I hear Dennis yell with pleasure. He had just hooked up on his first redfish, and was ecstatic. Ted quickly waded to his side, and Dennis landed and photographed the fish with his help.

We were off the a great start. But as the day wore on, it got more difficult to find fish and to catch them. But that wasn't the greatest impediment: A storm arose to the west, and soon full of lightning. We ran south along the edge of the rain, and took refuge on one of the houses along the Intracoastal. In a few minutes, however, we determined that the storm was playing out to the north, so we went to spot west of Three Islands where reds are sometimes feeding just inside of a pass between spoil islands. Sure enough, we found them tailing and cruising there, and landed three before it was time to go in.

On the second day, I guided Gary and Dennis, and experienced difficulty finding visible fish. By the early afternoon, we'd caught only a couple. Fishing close to Rick Hartman on the sand, I decided to take one of his anglers onto my boat because Rick had to go in early. Ted joined us, and we repositioned on the sand for what turned out to be a pretty exciting wade. Dennis waded so far downwind that we could barely see him at the end of the day; but Gary and Ted stayed close to me, and did what I did. First I headed west toward the grass to see if the fish were coming onto the sand, as they often do in the afternoon. Ted and Gary were unfailing in their efforts to accept the challenges that nature posed, specifically electing to fish upwind with me in 18 mph wind in order to see under the high-glare conditions. Ted stalked a 30-inch red for 15 minutes upwind, but wasn't able to get a shot. We landed a couple of reds on Clousers there before it was time to go in. While it was very tough day, the guys were quite happy with the high-vis stalking action on the sand.

On the third day, I guided Rusty and Dennis.We found a little of everything, but not much opportunity overall. The guys only caught one redfish apiece, but as it turned out, it was as good as any of the other guys did. Rusty had an encounter with a large trout on the sand, and I spotted three together just as I was fighting a little red: big trout always do that to me! Being real sportsmen, the group was quite happy with the results. Except for Dennis, they knew that it could be much better, and were satisfied that they'd done well, given the below-average conditions. They are already talking about the next trip.

More later, with photos! We get into tailing pods and larger fish! Check back tomorrow to find out what happened during the next four days. It got much better.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Guiding ahead

I got back from California a few days ago where I was installed as President of the International Assn. for the Study of Dreams at the annual conference. It was a pretty stressful six days, with Board meetings, presentations, and constant conversations with conference attendees.  Julie and I went to the Bay the day after we got home, just to rest and switch gears.

We fished in Friday evening, and Saturday morning. The water was extremely high for June, probably due to the tropical system that was in the Gulf the previous week. Any time a topical storm or hurricane enters the Gulf, it pushes water to the west, and our tides go up a foot or more. Randy fished Friday morning and found a lot of fish on the far east side. Not knowing that he had fished there earlier in the day, Julie and I fished there that evening, and found only sheepshead and a couple of reds far to the east of the "shelf" which normally defines the Easternmost edge of fishable water during the summer.

I am heading to the Arroyo this afternoon. In the next three weeks, I will guide 16 days. Fortunately, Julie will be there to help me. I will be posting fishing reports whenever I'm where I can upload them. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Father's Day

Ryan and I hadn't fly fished since he came to live with me a year ago. That's hard to believe, but whenever I was open, he wasn't free. Finally, last weekend we made it happen. We went to the Arroyo and stayed in our Casita camper at the Arroyo City RV Park. After launching the boat, we took a ride out to the bay to see if birds were working in one of my favorite spots. There were reds in there, but they weren't doing anything.  We decided to take a wade anyway, and then I discovered that I'd left my rods at the trailer. I didn't mind, since I get to fish a lot. I took my camera and walked beside Ryan as we tried to discern signs of redfish among the mullet.

The next morning, we went to the same place, and found reds and ladyfish feeding on the rain minnows and mullet that were thick in the foot-deep water. Just after sunrise, we enjoyed a double hookup on reds. It had been a long time since Ryan had caught a red, so his day was "made" with that single fish. But we weren't ready to go in yet, so we kept fishing. Ryan landed a couple of ladyfish, but the reds became scarce. After a long wade, and some missed strikes, we headed elsewhere. There wasn't much happening, so we decided to go in; but before turning into the Arroyo, I suggested we go north and look for birding, even though it was about noon. The birds don't often work over the reds during the midday, but if the tide is right, they sometimes do.

The only thing I saw as I entered a muddy lagoon was a single gull and two terns working along a shoreline. That was enough to tell me that they were over reds: the gull was dipping in manner that always says to me that they are feeding on shrimp that are fleeing reds or trout.

It was crazy, but I suggested we run down the shoreline in order to intercept the pod of feeding reds. That would have been a decent plan if the bottom hadn't been soft mud. Indeed, when we got out of the boat, we both sank to our knees. But instead of going back, I plowed to the shoreline and dodged mangroves as I made very slow progress. The next time I saw the gull, it further away! Instead of giving up, I poured on the juice, not knowing whether Ryan was behind me or not. Finally, I looped out onto the hard sand, and attacked a high wall of mangroves in an attempt to get to the water. It was stupid. I fell head first into half-dead mangroves, and dropped my rod just in time not to break it. Covered with mud, I got up and plowed the rest of the way through the mangroves until I reached the shoreline. There I saw...absolutely nothing. The gull had disappeared.

I was gasping for air, but finally settled down and waded out onto the muddy soft bottom of the lagoon's shoreline. Ryan finally appeared and began stalking mullet that looked like reds with their backs out of the water. I didn't have the heart to tell him that there were mullet, so I quietly headed back to the boat, and went to pick him up.

Sitting in the boat, sipping water and letting our evaporating sweat give us a reprieve from the midday heat, I saw birds working again, and coming our way! When I pointed it out, Ryan said, "I'm done. I'm happy. I don't want to ruin a good day!" But I cajoled him until we were both out of the boat again in the soft mud slogging toward the approaching wave of water that bespoke of feeding redfish. As luck would have it, the fish turned toward me, and I put a Mother's Day Fly in front of them only to have them explode and flee. "That's it! I'm really done this time." Ryan was getting a bit peeved. So I went back to the boat with him. However, I looked down the same shoreline and saw another small group of birds diving on fish that were heading our way. "You fish them!" I urged. Ryan first refused, but then seeing that the pod was definitely heading our way, he relented and grabbed his rod. I grabbed my camera rather than being the one who casted to the fish. Just as the pod was about to reach Ryan, the birds peeled off, and the surface signs of approaching fish disappeared. Oh god, he was really pissed now.

I was getting ready to start the boat know what happened. This time I saw a VERY BIG group of birds working about 1/2 mile away. Without asking Ryan what he wanted to do, I got the Stilt up and ran toward them. I shut down 200 yards out. Ryan was quiet. Then he asked, "What are you going to do?" "I'm going to fish them. I assume you don't want to." Again he was quiet. "I'll fish with you," he finally said. "Great!!!" I grabbed my camera, never intending to fish that pod and started giving him instructions that he needed but didn't want. "Don't cast until you can put your fly in the tails, because there's trout and ladyfish around the reds. And don't let them get by you and get upwind of you!" I could see that he was having a hard time taking the advice, so I hoped for the best and quietly followed.

The fish were big--the largest tails I've seen in a long while. They were moving away from us, as luck would have it. So Ryan really had to hike through the muddy water to get close enough for a cast. He started too soon, of course, and the reds just kept slipping outside his cast. "You have to catch up with them. Don't cast until you do!" I couldn't help saying that, I was lucky he didn't throw the rod as far as he could and stomp back to the boat. You know, parents often say the obvious.

Anyway, he finally hooked around and got slightly upwind of them, and landed his fly in the tails. He hooked up! Afraid that he would lose the big fish, he took 45 minutes to land him. I was afraid to tell him to put pressure on the fish, because I'd be the one the blame if the fish came loose. So I waited as patiently as I could until Ryan landed the largest redfish he'd ever caught--a 28" fish! Suddenly, I'd never seen him happer. Later he said it had been one of the best days of his life, even though I seem to recall that there were a few rough spots on the way to heaven.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Moon Matters

Last weekend, Julie and I went up to Rockport for the NewWater Owners' Tournament. I love the event, because I get to see several old friends, and hang out with people who love fine boats and quality sight casting. I'd never fished the tournament before, because I didn't know the area. But this year, I put out feelers for someone willing to have me tag along, and Tim Clancey surprised me by inviting me to join him and his son Tyler.

After giving a presentation on Friday pm at the "Meet the Pros" event, Julie and I had dinner with my old friend Skipper Ray and his buddy Larry from Laguna Vista. It was great to catch up with one of my favorite people in all the world. But knowing that I had to get up at 4 am to meet Tim and Tyler, J. and I excused ourselves and returned to the Lighthouse Inn for four fitful hours of sleep.

If Tim didn't make the greatest boats of all time, he's probably be known as one of the best guides of all time. He's hardcore. We left the dock at the Copano Causeway and headed east and north in the dark. Tyler used the Q-beam to show Tim the landmarks that only a man who has grown up in the area would know. I do quite a bit of boating in the dark, but I have to admit, I was ready for impact at any minute--with oysters or something more ominous. But Tim took us through a maze of oyster beds and pilings until -- almost an hour later -- we arrived at one of the prettiest lagoons I've ever fished. He had to shoot across some shallow water, of course, to access it, but once we were in, we had a hundred acres of clear, grass-filled water to explore. Tim gave me some directions for targeting trout in the area, and I gladly waded off in search of cynoscion nebulosis -- the starry nebulae, as the trout has been named.

I won't go through a blow by blow, because that's not why you're reading this posting. Suffice to say that luck was on my side, and I ended up claiming the first place prizes for largest trout and redfish, and the Grand Slam in the fly fishing division. It all seemed like luck to me, but I believe that once you're accustomed to fly fishing, it never feels as hard as other people make it seem.

This past weekend, I guided old clients Ted Shuck and his brother-in-law Bill. We had a promising weather forecast--low winds and full fun--but the moon tuned out to be the spoiler. Indeed, the moon was half way to full, which means that the tides fluctuate very little, causing only slight water flow. Under these conditions of low water movement, the fish don't feed as readily. Wow, was that ever true!

We entered one of my favorite lagoons, and moved a ton of redfish. A guide was ahead of me, but I didn't care: there were plenty of fish for everyone. But after a  few minutes, I realized that the fish were in a stupor. They weren't tailing, and they weren't moving. After an hour and a half of poling through a pile of fish only to catch just one, I pulled the plug and headed elsewhere. For over nine hours, I searched high and low for catchable fish, and found only a few. I think we ended the day with a couple of fish only.

 I told the guys, "A guide's nightmare is not a bad weather day, it's a good weather day in which he cannot find fish." The second day was a repeat of the first, except that we went north at first to find birding. It wasn't "on." Thereafter, we tried several things with limited success until we ended up on the sand in the early afternoon. I didn't have much hope for anything more than a few shots, but moments after stopping the boat, a big red calmly swam by before anyone could cast. We proceeded to wade west toward the grass, and began to see a passable number of single reds cruising from southwest to northeast, coming onto the sand. Ted caught a very nice red, and Bill began to get shot after shot while I walked with him, helping him to spot the reds.  I think Ted caught three at that spot, and Bill had a lesson that was not only valuable but exciting. There's no way to get better at this game than to fail over and over until you get your cast, and you get over your excitement enough to make it count. His commitment paid off the next day, which was a poor day as it turned out. High winds came up, and the fish never made it onto the sand, but the guys caught a few reds, and seemed happy at the end of three tough days during which the moon ruled.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Three Days with Tony and Cody

 It's especially rewarding to guide someone who has fished all the major venues, and yet sees the unique beauty of the Lower Laguna Madre. Tony Woodward, who has his own veterinary teaching institute in Colorado Springs, doesn't ever seem to get enough of the sightfishing action on the LLM, and has a special fondness, as many of us do, for the "sand." Tony has brought several of his friends down to Arroyo City over the past two years, and most recently--last weekend, in fact--arrived with his friend and colleague Cody, who had fished with me before, too.

But oh...getting up on Thursday morning was not a pleasant experience. My little trailer at the Arroyo City RV Park had been rocking with the wind all night long. I poked my head out the door, only to have the door blown out of my hand. It was going to be a difficult day. I know, I say the wind is often helpful, especially in the afternoon on the east side sand. But 25-30-knot winds are never helpful, mostly because somewhere above 20 knots, most of the LLM begins to lose its clarity. And since we sight cast, we're screwed until we can find some visible fish somewhere.

Having had to face this scenario countless times, I have learned that there are places and phenomena that one can turn to that may save an otherwise fishless day. Ah, birding--the guide saver on a windy day. Indeed, birding was on my mind when I picked up the guys at the dock and headed down a very choppy Arroyo before sunrise.

Looking back, I should have headed north to a more reliable birding venue, but I decided otherwise, and found some birding in another locale. But it fizzled, and we were left fishless without a plan. I headed north at that point, and we found some action, but came up empty again. Sometimes the reds tail in the wind just to the north of the Mansfield Cut, so I headed there midmorning. It's a risky thing crossing the oysters only to find that the fish aren't there, but the likelihood of finding fish elsewhere had dwindled to near zero according to my usually-optimistic database of experiences. What to do next? I headed farther north, hoping to find some tolerably clear water right up against the Padre Island edge. It's part of the "north country," and often very unpopulated on a week day. We moved some fish in the shallowest water, so I shut down. We waded the edge for several hours, and managed to find a few targets coming upwind with their backs and tails high in the murky water. Tony snagged a couple before landing a nice 26.5 inch red. On such a windy day, the fish seemed like "the bright shad of some immortal dream," or something equally miraculous. So we went home happy.

The second day was better than the first, and the third was the best of three. We got into birding early on the second day, and landed a couple before the sun had barely risen. We made the rounds, caught a couple on the sand by midday, and then were hardpressed to find anything else. I suggested we stay out long enough to see if the birds would work. So we waded in the most beautiful area of the LLM--the southeast sand for a couple of hours, only to land a single small red. Then we headed toward the main birding venue, but not before ducking into some of my favorite spots down south, not expecting anything, but not willing to overlook them either. I was daydreaming as we planed north when suddenly I saw birds working ahead of me. Shutting down only 100 yards short of the melee, I was pleasantly surprised to see birds working for the first time in this particular area. It turned out to be more than a fluke. Indeed, birding popped up in several nearby places, and we fished them til the guys were tired. They caught more trout then reds, but they had a great time.

The third day proved to be the best one. Starting on the west side, the guys scored a couple of reds under birds. The sand was stunning by midmorning, so we spent the rest of the day out there. By early afternoon, we were into very good redfish action on the sand where the clear water sparkled like a jewel in the afternoon sun. Both Tony and Cody caught several fish, and remarked that nothing quite compares with sight casting on the sand.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Surrounded by 1000 redfish

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I find it hard to get up early when there's no client or partner to fish with. Rosie and I had treats and coffee and then moseyed down to the dock where the Stilt was waiting. One of my first stops of just about any day when the water is deep enough is a back lagoon known for its shallow shoal (that traps incoming boats), sting rays, alligators and yes, big redfish. A single boat with a single poling angler was poling the shoreline, so I took a wide berth, said goodbye, and headed for water that was too shallow for most boats to negotiate. Not trying to show off, but making an impression no doubt, I stopped in critically shallow water, took stock and decided to continue heading for the most remote regions of this particular body of water. Birds were working in the back, so I stopped about 200 yards short of the melee and started wading toward the action. The last time I'd seen so many birds in this lagoon I'd decided they were working bait, not fish, only to hear from Rick Hartman (who stayed behind foolishly, at least I thought) that a herd of reds were slumbering beneath them. Trying to avoid a similar mistake, I waded diligently toward the birds only to find that there was nothing beneath them. Oh well, angling is not a perfect science, if even a science at all. Without regrets and giving thanks for an early workout, I headed back to the Stilt with Rosie beside me.

Where to go now? The water was too deep for north, so I turned right at the mouth of the Arroyo and made a beeline for another springtime venue. Not a boat was in sight as I planed into critically shallow water and wondered if I'd made a mistake to enter the area. The depth increased by an inch, and my prop wash told me that I would be able to float if I came off plane. Deeper water lay to the east another 200 yards, so at least I wouldn't sleep aboard the Stilt that night. While calculating the risks of coming off plane, I suddenly moved half a dozen pods of redfish, and pulled back on the throttle without further regard for the consequences. I stepped overboard into bootie-deep water, and began wading south toward water that was a whole two inches deeper. Meanwhile, it slowly dawned on me that there were redfish milling around and tailing in every direction, and as far as I could see. Blowups 200 yards away told me that the concentration of fish probably extended for another mile, to the southern end of the lagoon.

I had my video camera, and was less concerned about catching fish than taking video of them tailing at close quarters. It was kind of silly trying to fish and shoot video, and my arm has been seriously punishing me for doing this for the past month. Holding a sizable red at bay while I try to capture him on the Sony has a way of leaving me with a small debt to my shoulder.

Reds were everywhere!! I estimate that there were 1000 reds--mostly small ones, with some sizeable trout mixed in an area of several hundred acres. I know I've said this before, but I have never seen so many redfish in one area. There wasn't another boat in the entire lagoon, which is probably why the fish cavorted happily for the entire time I was there.

I landed about 9 reds without fishing hard at all, and one 24-inch trout before tiptoeing back to the boat, not wanting to disturb them any further. I thought, "I'll bring Chip here tomorrow morning."

So I did. And you know what happened, don't you? We found the lagoon almost devoid of life...except for an adolescent alligator. The contrast was almost unbelievable...I say almost because I know better than to expect the same conditions from one day to the next.

When I got back to the dock on Friday night, after encountering the hoard of redfish, I met a guy in the Arroyo City RV Park who asked me where I found the fish. Did I tell him? You might think I wouldn't. But almost always, I tell people where I have fished. Why? Because I know that 99% of them cannot go there in the boats that they own. And even if they can, it's likely that the fish will be elsewhere. The key to mastering the Lower Laguna is having enough humility to expect your expectations to be defeated again and again, and enough knowledge to know where the fish may have gone. I can't really say where wisdom fits in, except perhaps in not treating the catching as more important than the communing. I told my son today over dinner that when you get to the top of whatever mountain you wish to climb, you either look up with yearning, or you look down with self satisfaction. I endeavor to do both.

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