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.