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