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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Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Secret of The Sand

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My constant companion Rosie (well almost) and I are headed for the Arroyo City RV Park, where I keep my little trailer and have my boat. Julie is in Pennsylvania, so except for Rosie, it's a guys' weekend. My brother Chip will join us for early morning fly fishing.

Randy Cawlfield emailed me a couple of days ago to confirm what I've been observing this year--that the sand is fishing better than it has in a couple of years. Last year was a lackluster year for the sand, at least in the afternoon. The year before was phenomenal all spring and summer long. I believe that last year's lull was due to the huge deposit of silt that the heavy rains in the Mexican mountains brought down the river and into the LLM the autumn before last. Even though it was bad for the bay to suffer so much deposition all at once, the positive benefits of all of the fertility are now being seen on the east side. Indeed, much of the sand is covered by short sprigs of grass where only barren sand had been before. This, of course, promotes the food sources there, especially the shrimp, which tend to avoid the most barren areas of the sand. Until we have a major sweep of the sand (as during a hurricane), we will probably see the reds gravitate toward the east side after mid-morning when the west side water heats up.

The sand fluctuates in attractiveness through a given day. In the summer, the sand is cooler both during the night and at daybreak, but because of its shallowness, it warms up more quickly on calm mornings than the deeper water. Without the breeze to cool it (via evaporation), it becomes relatively unattractive by midmorning. During summer, you will see almost all of the fish stream off the sand by 9 am. But then, the grassy bottom of the west side heats up because it absorbs the sunlight, and the sand begins to cool relative to the west side as the wind rises. The harder the southeast wind blows, the more attractive the sand becomes by early afternoon. That's why our highest catching days are on windy afternoons. So don't fear the wind in the afternoon! Pray for it! The reds feed upwind in the only clear water left in the late afternoon. You can really score if you stay out and don't fear your greatest ally.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Bent hooks and Line Mismanagement

Julie and I drove down to the Arroyo City RV Park, planning to fish on Saturday and Sunday. But after getting settled and launching the Stilt at the private launch, we decided to run out to the bay to enjoy the evening, a time of day characterized by a blessed absence of boats and an abundance of birds. We headed into one of my favorite places to fly fish, and looked for gulls working over redfish. At first the lagoon seemed devoid of gulls, but then I spotted a couple of single gulls working close to the water--a sure sign of redfish, as long as there aren’t any Ibises around. (Gulls will also work over Ibises for the same reason as they hover over reds: The ibises stir up shrimp, and the gulls like to steal them before the birds can seize the prize.)
“Do you want me to catch a red,” I asked Julie. It was a 200-yard wade through murky water to get to the spot where the gulls were hovering, and sting rays are plentiful in the area. I didn’t mention that. J. said, “Sure! I’d like one for dinner.” So I hiked as fast as I could through the muddy, wind-blown water toward two laughing gulls that were working along the edge of shallower water, where I knew the reds would show--backs and tails--even if the birds headed elsewhere. As I got closer, I could see blowups and splashes beneath the birds, and I noticed that the gulls were sliding north along the horizon, indicating that the fish were moving around rather quickly. I waded into the area, and saw that three different groups of redfish were covorting in the shallow water. The were driving waves ahead of them, and their tails and backs were breaking the surface. The water was full of algae, making an unfouled presentation almost impossible: I would have to hit the fish on the head and provoke a strike before the fly picked up the algae.

I casted a Mother’s Day fly several times to the largest sweeping group, and drew two quick strikes without hooking up. On the third cast, the fly hit the water just in front of the sweeping wave, and a huge red exploded and chased the fly for about 10 feet before grabbing it and speeding away. As poor luck would have it, some of my fly line clumped into a little ball and jammed in the smaller guides. The big fish was going to break off at any minute, so I dropped my rod, grabbed the rod tip and pulled the mess of line through just in time. Alas, a minute later, the fish--probably 30 inches long--came free. When I reeled in the fly, the hook was bent. I would have never landed him. So I changed flies and put on a Kingfisher spoon.

The fish were now upwind, and the southeast wind was steady at 18 knots. I considered wading around them and casting downwind to them, but that would take a while, and I wasn’t too concerned about catching them. So I stripped out as much line as I could hold out of the water, and approached a group of reds from downwind that were milling around under one gull. A fairly large fish swam away from the group and toward me, so I stopped and waited. Casting upwind as best I could, I dropped the fly too far to the left, then to the right, and then right in front of the fish. It swam up and ate the fly and never stopped. It turned away and shot off with the spoon embedded.

A while later, I landed a 25” red. Leaving the rest of the fish feeding visibly in the shallow water, I escorted the red back to the boat. While I rarely keep fish, Julie wanted to have one for dinner, and so I relented. I eat fish, and it doesn’t make sense to let all the redfish go, and then buy salmon in the grocery store. Also, it keeps me in touch with what it means to be a predator and mortal, and to survive at the expense of other forms of life. It’s humbling, and it’s a good way to stay grounded.

The next day, we went out at about noon. Heading straight to the sand, I stopped at a spoil island north of Green Island so J. could explore while I waded onto the sand just to the east of the spoil island. I hadn’t gone 50 yards before I spotted two reds cruising together. They fought over the Clouser before one won the battle and shot off with the Clouser. Alas, my fly line wrapped around my rod butt, and the fish bent the hook almost straight before coming off. Chastened by my poor line management, I changed flies and continued my eastward wade while J. walked the island, escorted by a hundred gulls interested in having her leave the rookery. I spotted several more reds, and managed to land four before heading back to the Stilt. There was no need to overdo a good thing, and my partner had been patient with me. I knew it was time to sip a beer and have a late lunch aboard the skiff, so I turned back toward the island, 300 yards to the west. It had been a great day, and a beautiful woman was waving at me.