Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Big trout opportunities coming up

I'm hoping to hit the weather and tides right in the next few days and do my favorite angling thing to do, which is to target giant trout in the low clear waters off of Stover's Point and in South Cullens Bay. The tide needs to be exceedingly low, and the sun direct. It doesn't have to be a hot day (except for my tastes), but it needs to be a warming day. Often this time of year, 5-10 pound trout abound off the Stover's shoreline. They are very tough to catch, but it's not because they aren't willing: the presentation is all that matters. And, yes, the fly matters, too, but not as much as people think. Everyone has their favorite big trout fly, but I stick to the Mother's Day Fly in pink or white, with a straight mono weed guard. The turtle grass is pretty thick in that area, and a good bit of it is dead and floating. So it's a tough act to place the fly perfectly and to avoid the floating strands of turtle grass.

The last time I hit it right I caught a 7.5 lb. trout and missed a couple of others. Meanwhile, they were traveling on top in groups of five to ten. Action like that typically brings the worst out of a flyfisher, who begins to breathe hard and cast poorly, and then blame the poor fish for "not eating."

Maybe I'll see you out there. But please don't run the shoreline; that's where they usually are, and that's where I'll be wading!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Hall of Giants Revisited

When I took Tony and Scott into the "hall of giants," they landed some fine reds, but not the huge fish that sometimes find their way into the back lagoon in search of mullet along the shorelines.  I am presently writing an article for Tide Magazine (it won't be out until the summer issue) on finding oversized reds in remote areas, and I find it a special challenge to target these "upperclassmen" during the fall or spring, when the water reaches far back into the west side.
I had the pleasure of guiding Shaun Daniels two weeks after Tony and Scott had fished with me. I took Shaun into the Hall of Giants immediately, since I'd taken John Karges into the same area a few days earlier (see below). I stopped the Stilt in the twilight, and poled over to a shoreline that was lined with glasswort. Immediately, we began to see reds lined up along the shoreline, sauntering into the glasswort in search of prey. They would cruise along, backs out of the water, then suddenly driving a six-inch high wake as they chased a finger mullet out of its hiding place. The first fish we encountered was so big it was hard to believe. Its back stuck out of the water by four inches, but it would disappear, as well, in the foot deep water. I think I could hear Shaun breathing heavily as he casted to the red, which was 31-32 inches long. It kept zig zagging only 30 feet from the boat, so making a precise cast as much a matter of luck as skill. Finally, the big fish headed to deeper water. Again and again, we went head to head with oversized reds, and came up fishless. This is no surprise. These fish are so sensitive and wary that even the best cast is likely to piss them off. You have to wonder how they stay so fat if they're so picky! I suppose, if you could ask them, they would fault the angler, don't you think? But while I tend to hold the angler responsible (myself included), it's worth noting that Shaun was fishing on the first day of a warming trend following a cold front. The first day is widely considered a difficult day, in which the fish are often finicky. Indeed, we found the fish very difficult for the rest of the day.

After checking a few west-side areas out, Shaun and I headed east onto the sand, where we found a pretty good concentration of fish. Shaun asked me to fish with him, so we waded north side by side, about 50 yards apart, where we could give each other a heads up on fish that we were spotting. We had numerous shots, but in almost every case, the fish were exceedingly sensitive. They would run up to the fly, and nip it, and then flee. Such behavior is rare for redfish. Nonetheless, we caught fish, and enjoyed plenty of opportunities. I am glad that I fished and saw how utterly tough the reds were that day, because it made me appreciate the challenge that Shaun had faced all day.

A week earlier, as you will see in my blog entry about guiding John Karges, I guided John on the
second day of a warming trend. You might think that one day shouldn't make a big difference, but the fish often go crazy on the second day, and will often run after a fly from several feet away. Compare that behavior to the lackluster response Shaun and I received from reds on the first day of warming. If you have a choice, always wait until the second day or thereafter. But most of us have to fish whenever we can, so don't stay home just because it's the first day or a warming trend. While the fish may be tough, you'll a better angler for having tried.

The Hall of the Giants

On the second day with Tony and Scott, we didn't find pods working in the same place as the day before. So after stopping in a couple of other spots, and finding few fish, I took the guys to the hall of the giants, to see if the big reds were feeding in a far, far, western venue, where virtually no one ever fishes. Since I couldn't wade with them, I oriented them to the area, and gave them my blessings as they struck out on a rather longish wade into water so shallow that I could not follow with the Stilt. I had mixed feelings as I said goodbye to them, because even though it was one of my favorite venues of all time, I also knew that the fish were often elsewhere. Given the distance that they had to wade just to find out if the fish were "home," I was a bit anxious that I'd set them out on a fruitless mission.
I sat and squinted for over an hour and a half while they spread out and waded into a shallow, murky flat that was full of mullet, and punctuated by areas of glasswort sticking above the water. After a while, I noticed Tony in his heron pose, obviously stalking a fish. He hooked up and landed a 26" red, and released it only minutes before hooking and landing another fish of the same general size. I breathed a sigh of relief. It had been a tough two days thus far, given the rain storms and virtual absence of sunlight. Fortunately, my clients were the kind of anglers that can make the best of any situation.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Backcasting and yesterday's big boys

A perverse aspect of modern life, with its demands on one's time, is a tendency to postpone writing about the best stuff, because the best stuff is always more complex than the 140 characters permitted by Twitter, or the sound bites spouted on talk radio. The best stuff is about loss as much as gain.

So it's taken me a while to get back to the long weekend on the water with Tony Woodward and Scott Minnich, two old clients that appreciate the Lower Laguna Madre more than most natives. In this lengthy blog entry, penned in segments, I will cover that weekend, as well as yesterday's outing with my old client and friend Shawn Daniels from Wimberly.

Tony and Scott arrived two weeks ago on Thursday night, and met me at Channelview RV Park before sunrise. I had visited with a visiting guide, Capt. Kirk from Alaska, on the dock the previous night, and we'd enjoyed one beer too many along with a cigar longer than my foot. I almost threw up when I returned to the trailer. Julie had cooked salmon, and all I did was to sit there hungry and nauseous at the same time, celebrating friendship and cursing my excess. Fortunately, Julie understood and saved the salmon for the next evening.

When Tony and Scott arrived at 6:30 the next morning, the mosquitoes were so bad that we had to run to the boat, and pile our gear aboard while slapping every patch of unprotected skin. It was a hasty departure.

The feeling I had while planing down the Arroyo in the predawn darkness was gratitude. I had broken my ankle only five weeks earlier, and was supposed to be on crutches. So I had offered to refer Tony and Scott to another guide, so they wouldn't miss out on their planned trip. Tony replied, "We are sure that we will do better with you simply driving the boat than with another guide." It was hard to say no to that.

Since the guys hadn't been able to assemble their rods before leaving, we arrived at one of my--and their-- favorite spots unprepared to exploit the opportunities that surrounded us--pods of "happy" tailing reds, some within 100 feet of the boat. It was hard to say nothing while the guys threaded guides and tied flies in the low light, so I periodically reminded them that the reds were continuing to be patient, even though the guide was about the burst at the seams.

After a few casts from the boat in the extremely sensitive windless conditions, the guys opted to slip into the cool water and head west and north toward multiple tailing pods. Within minutes, Tony had hooked up on a 24" red, while Scott hooked and lost a red that had been tailing along a shoreline.

The action didn't last long: the wind came up and the tails went down, and we were soon headed elsewhere. I had found some reds in a very remote area a couple of weeks earlier, so we went there first, and the guys stalked reds that were passing from one part of the bay to the next in a four-foot wide channel. They took up positions at each end of the channel and got shots at reds that were using the channel as a conduit. Alas, no reds landed, but it was an intriguing new venue for both anglers.

We went a couple of other places on the west side, and found a lot of reds and trout along a shoreline; but because of the fickle sunlight, it was hard to see them in time to make an effective case. We eventually pulled the plug there, and headed east onto the sand about 10:30 am.

While the wind comes up on the west side, the east side often remains glassy. Why, you might ask? When the sun warms the mainland, the air rises, and the air from the ocean is pulled in to replace it. This creates the classic southeast seabreeze, which is our prevalent wind year round, except for when cold fronts reverse the direction of the wind for a day or two.

If you get far enough from the mainland, the seabreeze effect dies, so the wind speed four miles from the mainland is usually lower than the windspeed over the mainland. So, when we headed east, we could see the reflection of the clouds on the mirror-like finish of the east side sand. It makes your heart leap to go from breezy, semi-rough conditions into a sanctuary from the wind where the horizon line disappears in the haze, and the sky is perfectly mirrored in the water surface.

We stopped the Stilt a few miles north of Green Island, after planing about as far east as we could run. Wakes retreated from us in all directions as we entered the sanctuary at minimal planing speed; and as we passed the fish, we could see that the reds were good sized, and either alone or paired up with another red.  As we stepped out into six inches water, Tony exclaimed, "I love this. It's like hunting deer with a knife!"

But despite the calm conditions, the fish that feed in these conditions are "sharp set," to use a falconry term. That is, they are ready to pounce. Scott waded off toward Padre Island to the east, which showed itself as a sliver of white sand in the distance. Tony headed east, but turned north sooner than Scott. Since I was recovering from my broken ankle, I stay on or near the Stilt, and walked it north while the guys stayed out in front of me.

After a while, we began to spot tailing reds popping up slow-motion-like in the sheen. Sometimes there would be two tails; but regardless, the fish moved with such stealth that when they weren't tailing, they gave no evidence of their presence, even in seven inches of water.

We heard Scott yelling after a while, and we could see his rod bent in the distance. He was too far away for me to reach with my camera, given my bad ankle, but he measured the red before he released it, and it was at least 26 inches long. Meanwhile, Tony targeted a couple of fish that were tailing almost imperceptibly in the dead calm surface, but the fish kept moving away from him.

We picked up and headed north and began seeing quite a few reds, so we stopped again. The clouds were becoming quite a problem, but we committed to a long wade, nonetheless. Surprisingly, the guys had such good eyesight that they were able to spot reds in the muted light, and managed to catch a couple before we headed back to the west side.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Great flyfishing at dawn

I had the pleasure of guiding John Karges, who is a biologist with the Nature Conservancy. I have been Facebook friends with John for quite a while, and have see him at the San Antonio Boat Show, but have never guided him. He had been at South Padre Island for a whale cruise on Saturday, and used the occasion to come over the Arroyo City and fish with me on Sunday.

It was a new moon, and that means big swings in the tidal levels. By "big," I mean nearly a foot between the highest high tide and the lowest low. You see, we have two high tides per 24 hour period during the full and new moons, and one of them is significant, while the other is a mere bump between the low tides. During the mid-moon phases, we have only one high tide, and the absolute change between the high and low runs around 6 inches.

Which is all to say, I have to figure out where it's high enough to fish, and where it's too high to sight cast. Some anglers head directly to Paytons, but on a big tides, there's too much water in Paytons. Others might head south to the back lagoons west of Three Islands, but if you hit the low tide during a full or new moon, you'll find water that's too low to host reds.

So...the most stressful part of the day is when a guide reaches the mouth of the Arroyo and has to decide where to go in the context of all of these variables. I committed to an area where I haven't fished much at daybreak, even though it's as familiar as the back of my hand. No matter how many times I have fished a certain area, if enough time has passed, I become as timid as a man on a first date, even though once I touch her face, I remember the important things.

We went into a back lagoon, and ran just about as far as you can and stopped along a glasswort-lined shoreline. Glasswort is a plant that grows in the water, and appears green in the spring and rusty brown in the fall. The reds will often cruise in and out of it looking for prey, so casting to "backing" fish along the edges of glasswort can require steele nerves and an accurate cast. A few inches one way or the the other and the fish won't see the fly; or you may hook the top of the glasswort.

John was as appreciative of the beauty of the Lower Laguna as about any client I've ever had. He sees so much more than most of us, since his profession as a conservation biologist requires it. We stood on the boat the drew in the sights and moist air. A light fog mantled the east shoreline, and the low sun  gave it a luminous appearance. Soon, however, these entrancing images gave way to the sounds of feeding redfish and the sights of tails appearing in the calm water all around us. As a guide, I'm always a bit impatient at this hour, because I know that the window of opportunity can close in a minutes once the wind rises, and the tide shifts. I try to measure the success of the day by the number of fish caught, but I also hate to look back upon the time wasted.

John tied on a fly that he'd tied--a root-beer-colored impressionistic crab pattern that would have been at home at the Museum of Modern Art, looking like everything and nothing and conveying the elusive fishy feel of a great fly.

John hooked the second big fish that we casted to along the shoreline. The sun had barely broke the horizon when the big red was into his backing. We could see it was a big fish, so John took his time bringing the red to the boat. I jumped the boat into the rather cold water, grabbed the 27" red by the tail, and handed it to John. As they say, "the stink was off," as we both relaxed a bit. We had several more fish along the shoreline, but this kind of sight casting is pretty tough: the fish don't see the fly very easily in the low light, and they are in constant motion turning this way and that, making your precision cast obsolete just as soon as you release.

We poled out into the main body of the lagoon, but after 15 minutes of surveying the open water, I concluded that we needed to move. It was a fortuitous decision. As we approached the exit to the back lagoon, I noticed Forrester terns diving along a shoreline. Shutting down the boat, we poled toward the commotion. As we got within 50 yards of the area, it became clear that we had discovered a motherload of feeding redfish that were milling around under the birds in small pods. As far as we could see, small patches of disturbed water announced the presence of feeding fish. And as it turned out, they were big fish. Indeed, the first two fish he landed in this mouthwatering venue were 26 and 29 inches long. 

When I realized they were all redfish, I urged John to get off the boat and wade slowly into them. That turned out to be fortuitous, because there were so many feeding fish that we would have set off a chain reaction if we'd poled into them. John casted a fly he'd tied that seemed like a credible choice, but after a couple of half-hearted follows, I did what I rarely do: I blamed the fly, and suggested that he shift to a spoon fly. He'd never used one, and didn't have a great deal of faith in them, but within a couple of minutes, he'd hooked up on a 26" red that had been tailing by itself 30 feet away. While he fought the sizable red, a group of four reds swam right up to us, and turned away only when they were within 10 feet of us. After landing the red, John turn his attention to the shoreline, where groups of reds were feeding in even shallower conditions. Casting ahead of a group of four or five, he hooked up on the lead fish, and was into another lengthy fight. This time, the red was 29+ inches. We released the fish, and continued the hunt. But the fish were starting to disperse. Two boats had come into the lagoon, and an airboat passed by less than a half mile away. The surface feeding ended in minutes, and the fish disappeared. After stalking a couple of stragglers, I decided to head elsewhere. John caught three more reds in various venues, but the phenomenal gathering that we'd witnessed along that shoreline never repeated itself. Still, it was a magnificent day--six reds, and three of them over 26 inches.

(More later, along with some of John's photos. I will also be reporting on last weekend's fishing with my old clients Tony Woodward and Scott Mennich from Colorado.)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

I'm back!

I just spent three days guiding, and wasn't sure if it was wise to be out there on my recovering ankle. But yesterday I saw my surgeon, who said, "The x-rays are magnificent. Full weight bearing! You can throw your crutches away." So, what a relief to be walking unassisted again. I will be posting an account of the last three days soon, but I wanted you to know that I'm available for guiding from here on.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Healing Quickly, and looking forward to guiding late October and beyond

Well, I had surgery three weeks ago on my ankle, and have ten screws holding my leg bones in place. My surgeon seems impressed with the speed of my recovery. Indeed, I am ready to do whatever he'll let me do. The pain is gone, and it's just a matter of putting the right amount of pressure on it, and nothing more.

I cancelled a ton of charters in late September and early October, but I was really pleased when an old client said that he's rather have me guide him even if I could only drive the boat and do nothing else. So I'm on for three days, beginning the 17th of October. After that, I have some bookings into November when I should be able to pole, and do limited wading. For my more experienced anglers, that's probably enough. But I'm quick to warn them that I might be fully restored until mid-November.

I did go out on the bay two days ago to take a look. The tides are very high, partly due to the seasonally high solar tides, and partly due to an influx of seawater from a series of tropical disturbances we've had over the past month. Any rotation, however minimal, brings extra water onto the shoreline, and through the passes. Add to that the outflow of the consistent rains we've had, and you have a three sources of high water.

Of course, the fish are always there. You just have to know how to adjust to the higher tides. I look forward to being back on the water, guiding and fishing, within a couple of weeks. Give me a call if you want to fish in November. It's looking like it could be a very good month, once the bay settles down from all of the sources of extra water.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Casting back to some great flyfishing with the McConals

I'm laid up recovering from a broken ankle right now, and hoping to be back on the water by mid-October. So in the mean time, I'm catching up with fly tying and other non-physically demanding activities, including reflecting on recent fishing trips.

The last time I was out with clients was two weeks ago, and it was an unusual three days. Leading up to the weekend, I'd watched the weather like a hawk, fearing that my clients would be dropping into a tropical storm. But the forecast never quite triggered my alarm, so I planned to do my best for the three days Bobby McConal (from Kerrville) had planned for his sons, Scott and Sean.

Bobby has his own boat--a NewWater Ibis--and has a good knowledge of the Lower Laguna. However, he wanted his boys, who are brand new to fly fishing to fish with a guide who doesn't do anything else, and who could give them pointers about mastering the "quiet sport."

We awoke to thunderstorms on Friday morning, so we agreed to wait until the weather cleared. We didn't get on the water til almost noon, but it was beautiful out there. After a storm, when the winds die, the fish can turn on and begin tailing in ernest. The wind never quite died, but we headed for an area where the reds often tail in the wind. I hoped that we could see them in the low light of overcast skies.

Scott and Sean are athletic, and have a lot of angling experience on the Texas coast. So even though they are new to flyfishing, they have a feel for the bay that newcomers often lack. Indeed, they were attuned to the subtle signs of redfish, especially after I urged them to remove their sunglasses in the low light. Most people leave their sunglasses on when the sun goes behind the clouds, but it's very difficult to see tails unless the eyes have a high-contrast field of vision. Indeed, when they removed their glasses around 2 pm, they started seeing tails that other people would never have seen. Youthful vision combined with high-contrast low lighting proved to be a great recipe for sight casting.

After landing two reds in the shallow, clear venue, we went to an area that is often muddy by afternoon, but attracts huge reds that are feeding in virtually no water on baitfish. I don't know anyone who fishes this particular area, and it's a real treasure. It doesn't look like much, so it's not likely to attract anglers looking for visible fish. But in the 7-8" water, the big reds show themselves as they sweep around like sharks looking for inattentive mullet. Indeed, when the oversized reds suddenly attack their prey, they can be 10 feet away, and it can be heart-stopping.

We waded slowly into the area, and were rewarded by the explosive sounds and sights of feeding redfish. Foamy craters were visible in the aftermath of the explosive predators, and it was a bit intimidating to enter their sanctuary, where thousands of finger mullet were milling around waiting to see if their time was up.

The fishing was tough! Most of you know that I rarely "blame the fish," but these wary, oversized reds were as tough as any fish I've ever targeted. In the off-color water, it was difficult to get them to see the fly, and when they finally did, they were usually offended. Sean and I briefly snagged one of the big boys apiece, but both of the fish came off after a brief hookup. Meanwhile, we all had excellent shots at three or four 27-30" fish, but except for the two brief hookups, the fish reacted badly. We vowed to return to the "hall of giants" the next day in hopes that the water would be a bit clearer, or the fish more willing, or both.

The guys only landed a redfish apiece by the time we went in, but they had several other pick-ups and a hook-up or two more, as well. They were definitely ready for the next day. But the conditions were, once again, prohibitive at daybreak. A line of thunderstorms swept up from the south, and pommeled the Lower Laguna. We watched the radar for a couple of hours, and concluded that it would be a while before we could safely go out. So I decided to go back to our RV and take a nap. I asked the boys to text me if the radar cleared before my return. Well...I slept through their text. I awoke to the message, "Dad and Danny have already left, and they say the bay is clear." I jumped up and hurried back to Bobby's house, feeling that I'd screwed up by sleeping through the alert. But the guys weren't upset at all. Leaving a few minutes later than we otherwise would have, I finally shook off my sense of having failed them, and shifted my focus to deciding where to go first. It was only 8:30, and a whole day still lay before us. And a great day it was.

We started in the same area where the guys had caught a couple the day before. I was thinking that we'd start there, and end up at the "hall of giants" at the end of the day. Everything else was up in the air. But, unfortunately, there weren't any pods working in the shallow clear water. The tide had risen to fall levels in response to the tropical low pressure circulation, which had water westward into the lagoon. So I found myself poling into a more remote part of the back lack, hoping that there was enough water to have drawn the reds into the back areas. As we poled along in the low wind, we could hear the birds and other natural sounds in all directions. That's when we began to hear exploding fish hundreds of yards away. We couldn't see them at first, but we took a bead on the sound, and poled closer. Then, against an "island" of exposed glasswort we saw the first unequivocal redfish explosion. Poling closer, we could see the fish saunter into the vegetation, feeding like a big bass among the lily pads.

That was too much for Sean, who grabbed his rod and slipped overboard into the 10" water. We left him approaching the island, and turned further west toward some other explosions that were announcing the presence of multiple redfish feeding. Soon, Scott was off the boat, as well, walking stealthily toward a pass between two glasswort islands, where an abundance of mullet were milling and jumping in the tidal exchange. Before Scott could get into position, Sean yelled and we saw that he'd hooked up. Later, he told us that he had to cast into the glasswort thicket in order to get the fish's attention. Knowing how hard it is to present a fly in that kind of situation, I was full of praise. Meanwhile, Scott waded into the pass between the islands, and surveyed the water carefully. He said to me that there were several very big reds working along the edges of the islands. He began casting and after a few minutes hooked a red that ripped through the shallow water and headed for the next county, albeit unsuccessfully. Scott fought the big fish masterfully, and brought it to him as I approached to assist him. I could see that it was a pretty big fish, to which Scott said, "the other one was larger." And then I saw that the one he had hooked was huge. It turned out to be a solid 29 inches, perhaps even 30. We photographed it and released it. An excellent start on the day.

I wasn't sure where to go next. We poked our way northward along the west shoreline until we came to a spot that I hadn't fished in a quite a while, because the tides had been too low to justify it. On speculation, without a great deal of hope that we'd find anything, I turned west and headed into a very remote area. Black drum were everywhere, and we soon saw a couple of reds, as well. Still, I wasn't too optimistic; that is, until I looked ahead and saw the back of redfish near the left shoreline, heading in our direction. Things were looking up. I got Sean into position, so he could cast from the boat. 

Sean put the fly to the right and left of the fish, but the fish didn't see the fly. Finally, the fish was literally 10 feet from the boat when Sean got the fly to the sweet spot. Breathlessly, we all looked on as the fish inhaled the fly and shot off. As Sean fought the red, I looked up the shoreline, and there were at least two more reds heading our way. Scott grabbed his rod and jumped off the boat so he could cast. Within a minute, he was hooked up, too! The guys waded into the area, and had several other shots, but because the sun was hidden behind the clouds, it was had to keep the feeding fish in your sights. Scott landed another nice red before we headed elsewhere.

Our hope, of course, was that the reds would be back in the hall of giants, but alas, every day is different, and they weren't there. For that, I guess I'm glad. Not that I wanted the guys to struggle and have a bad day, but it's good to know that no place is always "on," and that every day presents us with challenges and puzzles for which there is no easy answer.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

New Flyfishing Video

I just published my latest flyfishing video on YouTube. I think it's one of my best.  I hope you enjoy it! BTW, Don't forget to select the high-definition setting by clicking the gear symbol in the lower right corner of the YouTube window.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Return of the Sea Grasses

Guides and frequent anglers on the lower Laguna Madre often comment on macro-level changes that they have observed over the years. And what I find is that we are often like the 10 blind men and the elephant. That is, each of us is "touching" one facet of the whole, and describing the whole in terms of their narrow experience. It's human nature to extrapolate on what we see and experience, thereby projecting a highly subjective view upon a rather complex and multifaceted whole.

There are several observations that are factual, however. The seagrasses took a huge hit from the fresh water inflows about five seasons ago. Over 30 inches of rain fell in the Mexican mountains to the south of us, and the water poured into the Rio Grande River watershed over the course about six weeks. The Arroyo Colorado is part of the flood diversion system in the Rio Grande Valley, which is designed to protect riverside communities on both sides of the border. But we will all remember the sights and sounds of the smelly and turbid water that literally raced overland into Payton's bay and created 5-foot troughs in the Arroyo Colorado. Interestingly, we were still able to find clear water to the south of the mouth of the Arroyo that summer, and did fairly well.

The impact on the bay was immediate and long-lasting, especially in areas north of the mouth of the Arroyo. Between the mouth and Port Mansfield, huge amounts of rainwater flooded the bay, and brought carp and gar and alligator into otherwise hypersaline areas. It was a strange and disturbing experience, but the clear water returned after a few weeks of runoff. Unfortunately, perhaps, the seagrasses were decimated in those areas, and didn't recover until…well, really, not until this year, by my estimation (keep in mind that I am a blind man, too!). The odd thing was that some areas that were normally devoid of seagrass--like the sand, and areas south of the mouth--became seagrass nurseries, and still have more grass than they ever did. And now, finally, Payton's Bay looks like a manicured lawn beneath a few inches of clear water. The shoal grass, especially, is thick and unbroken except for prop cuts. The ducks will take their toll on the grasses this fall and winter, as they pluck the grass from the bottom in their search for food, but next year should feature an even thicker seagrass recovery.

Before the flood, turtle grass was replacing the shoal grass as the dominant grass in the lower Laguna. Biologists referred to this phenomenon as a the end point of a long process, much like a "climax woodland." However, the turtle grass has become scarce in the aftermath of the flood. It's as if the flood reset the clock on seagrass development, and created a new opening for shoal grass, which is wonderful habitat for juvenile crabs and shrimp. So perhaps the flood was a good thing, similar to the fires in Yellowstone Park--immediately disturbing and unsightly, but purposeful from the standpoint the big picture.

Another observation, which apparently is false, is that the redfish have declined. Not so, say the Texas Parks and Wildlife biologists. I have to agree that I've not noticed any decline in redfish in the back lagoons. If the reds are not in decline, then why do reputable guides and veteran anglers say that they are diminished in number? It's probably because these observations are based on "sampling" in the same areas year after year. And the fact of the matter is that the reds will move from place to place in search of food. Some areas, such as the lagoon just north of the mouth of the Arroyo (the Mud Hole) can wax and wane like the moon from season to season. Indeed, the Mud Hole can be the highest producing venue one year, and yet be a consistent disappointment the next, probably because of the movements of the shrimp hatch from back lagoons into the Intracoastal on their way to the Gulf. I have waded in the Mud Hole on occasion, to find so many shrimp jumping ahead of me that I could feed my family with a dip net. But that phenomenon isn't reliable. Anglers typically base their conclusions on comparing the fish population in the same area from visit to visit without taking into account changes in food availability, tide, etc. T'is human to deny the larger truth.

Another observation, which is undeniably true is that the big trout population has exploded. This is in spite of the tendency of anglers to hammer them with live croaker--a method that biologists say they cannot resist because croaker are natural enemies that eat trout eggs. Even guides who would fly fish all the time if their client population would support it, will turn to croaker for the purposes of providing "instant success" to anglers who don't know the first thing about these great predators and their rythmns. I may sound cynical, and I am. Still, the trout populations have resisted over-predation from opportunistic anglers, and with the help of the Texas Parks and Wildlife, I have hopes that this greatest fish of the mother lagoon will continue to thrive.

What do you think has changed about the bay? Do you think your observations are objective, or based on "touching one part of the elephant?" Let us know.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Return from Colorado and Occam's Razor

Julie and I just returned from a week in the South Park area of Colorado. My brother Chip and his wife Sandi have a house about 9200 feet above sea level, and near several top flyfishing streams. So, of course, we had to go visit :-). Actually, my main goal in going to CO was to show Julie some country she'd never seen, and to visit our family. Chip and I don't get to fish that much anymore, because he spends the best part of the season in CO. He and I flyfished three days in a row, and had the privilege of having his son Spencer, who lives in Denver, join us for the second day. The fishing was disappointing for Chip and Spencer, but I was pretty happy with our success. We caught over 30 trout the first day, fishing a stream that was only a few feet wide. The second and third days were less productive, but the fish were larger.

When Julie and I returned home, she surprised me by saying that she wanted to learn to fly fish. I was stunned, because she had told me previously that fishing wasn't important to her. But I think she finally caught the flyfishing bug by watching, and by becoming entranced by the beauty of casting. So…we left the dock yesterday morning with our companion Rosie, and headed for the sand where I proceeded to give her her first fly casting lesson. I'd thought about how I would approach the lesson beforehand, and it went really well. I can tell within a few minutes if a person has an aptitude for flyfishing, and it was immediately evident that Julie's innate capacity for mind-body connection was evident in the way that she was able to incorporate each piece of instruction into her body memory. After only a few minutes, she exhibited a clean stroke, and was shooting line. Given her obvious aptitude, I opted to take her on a wade, to see if we could get some close-in shots. Alas, we only saw sheepshead, so after a few minutes, we went back to the boat and headed west to a favorite west-side lagoon where I've had remarkable success on our last two outings. See my posting, "Stopping and Seeing."

We went to the lagoon, mainly to locate and mark an underwater obstruction that nearly sank my Stilt a couple of weeks ago, when I hit it while leaving the area with two clients aboard. But it was much too windy and the tide was too deep to see whatever it was that we hit. So I gave the area a wide berth, and stopped along the edge of some clear water, where my clients have done so well over the past month or so, and where I have landed some very big reds.

Julie didn't have her wading boots, so she couldn't wade the soft bottom; but she encouraged me to fish alone. I had very little desire to fish, but nonetheless, I grabbed my rod and waded with Rosie into the area where single casts had landed 27.5" and 30" redfish on my last two visits to the muddy lagoon.

I waded without casting, observing the water carefully and hoping to see a big trout in the secluded area. The water was clear, but the fish were clearly elsewhere. Rosie and I waded a half circle around the boat, and were ready to head back to the Stilt, when nature called. My hands were occupied when I spotted the only game fish I'd seen since leaving the boat. The redfish swam up to me, saw me (my face, of course!), and spooked. I thought it was all over, so I went back to the business at hand; but then I saw the redfish again, swimming only a few feet away. Somehow I freed my casting arm, and casted the mother's day fly ahead of the cruising red. It was my first cast of the day. The red saw the fly, and struck it with force. Somehow, I was able to set the hook, and put things to right while the red streaked off on its first run. A few minutes later, I lifted the red out of the water so Julie could touch it before releasing it.

Three consecutive visits to the same muddy lagoon, three casts, and three redfish. We went home pretty happy, mainly because Julie had been "hooked" by the joy of fly casting, but also by the Zen-like quality of hooking three fine fish with only three casts. Should I return for a fourth time, or leave the memory in place as an unmarred example of what Pablo Coelho, author of The Alchemist, refers to as elegance, or simplicity? When I heard the famous author on NPR two days ago, he spoke reverently of the concept known to mathematicians and philosophers as parsimony or elegance; that is, the bare essentials without adornment. The medieval philosopher Occam stated that nothing extraneous or unnecessary should be added to the truth. Scientists know this principle as "Occam's Razor," or the belief that the best theories and the best proofs are devoid of unnecessary steps and details. Certainly, flyfishing at its best involves an economy of movement and effort. Getting there may involve significant effort, only to require the relinquishment of effort at the upper levels of performance. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Managing Not to fish during TIFT

Somehow I managed not to fish during the TIFT tournament. Months ago, an old client asked me to guide him, but I said no, thinking that I would guide my son. But that didn't happen. So I almost fished with my old friend Henry Bone, but thought better of it, so I backed out before we firmed up our plans. In the final analysis, I spent a very nice weekend at home with Julie, getting ready to flyfish in Colorado with my brother. Having won TIFT the first time I fished it, I have to admit that the tournament beckons to me each year, and yet offers very little allure for me, at this stage in my life. Standing in line with a bag of dead fish doesn't appeal, even though the competitor in me sometimes overrides these sentiments. I will probably fish the TIFT again, but only to guide someone I care about. 

I am happy, however, that my fellow guide and friend Randy Cawlfield guided his son Truett, who won second in the fly fishing division. Congratulations Truett!! 

I'll be back guiding after the 17th.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Stopping and Seeing

On two consecutive Friday evenings, Julie and I have taken a boat ride to the sand with her kayak. There, she takes her kayak downwind while I wade further east into bootie deep water where a "few good fish" can often be found coming upwind in the low sunlight, visible as dark shadows in the clear water. Then, after half an hour or more, I return to the boat and drift downwind and pick up Julie for our ride home. On the way, I have stopped in a favorite muddy lagoon for just a few minutes, to see if the laughing gulls were working over pods of redfish. I entered the lagoon, and stopped immediately in front of several pods of fish under birds. On both days, however, the pods have been comprised wholly of catfish. Knowing that the reds were probably there, too, but not so conveniently marked in the muddy waters, I stepped off the boat and simply observed the melee of mullet, catfish, and barely discernible signs of larger fish. 

On my first visit to the lagoon over a week ago, while standing and watching, I saw a vague wake and made my first cast. Ten minutes later, I landed a 27+" redfish after dragging it back to the boat for a photo. I released it and we headed home.

A week later, just this past Friday, we returned to the same spot and found the same roily conditions with balls of catfish feeding under crazed laughing gulls. There were no obvious signs of redfish, but again I simply stepped off the boat and walked 50 yards and stopped. After a few minutes, I saw the tip of a tail that I thought was a catfish. But not knowing for sure, I casted to it, and stripped the Mother's Day Fly slowly past where its head could have been. I felt a tug, and grimaced, thinking that I would soon have to deal with a catfish at the end of my line. But instead, a fish with considerable authority ripped my line and drove a huge wake in the 9" water. Fifteen minutes later, I landed a 30" red at the boat, took a photo, and released him.

I'm not telling you this as a way of bragging. I am telling you because I was amazed. Both felt, from one perspective, like miracles. But from another perspective, they felt as easy and as natural as a laugh. It happens all the time, as Julie has observed time and again. Why is this possible, you might ask?

What I experience on the water is what I want my clients and friends to experience. Full immersion. When I enter fully into the natural realm without self-consciousness and ambition, everything reveals itself and everything becomes easy. The Buddhists refer to this meditative process as "stopping and seeing." Both are natural components of experiencing fully.

When all agitations have ceased and not a single wave arises, myriad phenomena are clear, without confusion, without obstruction. Thus seeing is not separate from stopping. Once the layers of obscurity have been cleared and no clouding occurs, the ten directions are empty, without stirring, without agitation.

But the paradox inherent in this success is that, fundamentally, I don't have any ambition, or at least not very much. I don't much care if I catch a big fish or not. It occurs to me that when a person with sufficient skill and experience surrenders to the moment, everything becomes possible, but nothing is really needed. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Great early action, then motor problems

Randy and I had the pleasure of working together on Saturday to guide Zack Etinger and his buddies Nate and Robert. I took Zack and Nate on my boat, and Randy took Robert; and we headed to the same area where we agreed to fish separate shorelines. We left the dock so early that it was hard to see, and I left my Q-beam at home. Fortunately, the sun was close enough to the horizon that there was a slight glow to guide us. When we turned back west, however, that slight advantage disappeared, so I squinted in the dark as I planed through the opening to a westside lagoon, and shut down 200 yards past the shallow pass that was prohibitively shallow for all boats other than airboats and Stilts. Zack got up on the bow and began blind casting, and then targeting wakes that appeared close enough to be discerned in the low light. After a few casts, he hooked up on the first red. And then Nate took over.

It took a while for the reds to begin feeding. That's often case at daybreak: There's a delay and then suddenly you begin hearing explosions all around. We spent almost three hours in the shallow area, where reds continuously exploded on the white shrimp that are starting to mature. There was some tailing action, but the fish were moving around so much that you'd see a tail one moment, and then the fish would shoot away. Targeting the active fish was difficult, but the guys managed to land a few reds before we opted to head east onto the sand. While we were planing across deeper water toward the east side, which was still glassy in the low wind, my oil light came on! I shut down, unclear about the implications since I'm unfamiliar with the Suzuki system. I figured that I was probably safe to continue, but I didn't want to do what I've done before--burn up a powerhead assuming that things were okay when they weren't. So I called Randy, who came over and took my clients onto his Stilt, leaving me to head home. As I got up on plane, and headed toward the ICW, the motor overheated! That's when I concluded that the power head wasn't getting oil. As it turned out, the overheat was probably due to floating grass, and was unrelated to the oil light. After being towed into the County Park, I spoke with my friend Jaime Lopez, who laughed and said, "That was your 100-hour oil service reminder!" Not having read the manual completely :-) I had no idea that the flashing red light was simply a reminder. Well, that's one mistake I won't make again. I've got the manual out, by the way. My bedside reading in advance of three days of guiding this coming weekend.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Guiding Monty and His Nephew

I had the pleasure of guiding Monty Calageros and his 17-year old nephew Michael yesterday. We left the dock before sunrise and headed for a lagoon that has been fishing well, but is completely off limits to most skiffs. Indeed, as I passed three flyfishing guides in a row, I realized that only one of them, who has a Stilt, could possibly  be headed to where I planned to fish. Arriving, I took a deep breath knowing that I'd never entered the area at such a low tide. Still, I had confidence in the Stilt. We skated across a thee-inch deep bar that separates the fishable water from the rest of the world and shut down when I thought the boat would float. It barely did. Looking behind me, I could see that an airboat had parked at the entrance to the lagoon. I hoped that he would not come in, because I knew that half the fish would leave the shallow lagoon for deeper water, given the vulnerability of feeding in 6-8 inches of water. For some reason, the airboat captain chose to move on, so we had the square mile lagoon to ourselves for the next three hours. And wow, what a dream venue! We immediate spotted large tailing reds, and small pods of big fish against a grass line, and proceeded to pole further and further into the lagoon.  Before we left the area, the guys had landed several above-average reds fishing from the bow of the Stilt, and each caught a red over 27 inches long. We also saw several trophy trout, but those fish eluded us, as usual. I will return there soon, alone.

We then went to the sand, and ran north looking for fish. I'd been finding them several miles north of the mouth of the Arroyo for the past few weeks, and expected to find them again. Planing far to the east of where I expected to see them, I turned and planed slowly to the northwest, looking for the signs of the leading edge of the biomass of mullet, ladyfish, redfish and trout. We flushed a couple of reds, so I shut down and poled downwind for a couple of hundred yards. At one point, we seemed to pass over an imaginary north-south line, and began seeing reds. So I staked the boat, assuming that the fish were downwind, and moving toward us. Sure enough, as soon as we began wading, the guys started to see fish. I waded alongside Michael, and was able to help him get his eyes adjusted to the venue. Soon, he was seeing fish 50 yards away, and was able to use his excellent cast to hook and land four reds in a short while. Monty, for his part, caught a couple while wading alongside us. We headed in soon afterward, and celebrated a great day of fishing. I expect I'll see more of Monty in the near future. He's a world-class shooter, high-end firearms expert, and was instrumental in setting up Sportsman's Finest in Austin. But beyond all of that, he appreciates a world-class fly fishery, such as the Lower Laguna.

Perfect Days and Religion

Day after day, I've come in and said to Julie, "It was just a perfect day in every way." That usually means plenty of opportunities, clients who appreciate them, plenty of caught fish, and a certain intangible quality of sacredness that deepens bonds between anglers. Last week, I guided Shaun Daniels again, and two different companions on separate days. On the first day, Shaun invited his buddy Mickey, who has a place in Port Isabel, and who has fished the Laguna Madre all his life, mostly as a spin fisherman. The forecast called for rain, and for once they were right, unfortunately. We spent most of the day running from two big storms, but never gave up. At one point, the guys were on the sand in the middle of rain without raincoats sight casting as best they could to barely discernible wakes in 15 mph wind. Dripping with rain, they kept going without complaint. I recalled guiding two Israeli brothers several years ago who were casting and laughing in the rain without gear. I said to them,  "You are such troopers!" to which they said, "Yes, we are--paratroopers!"

By mid-afternoon, we had the bay to ourselves, since most of the boats had "wisely" fled the storms. Mickey and Shaun weren't paratroopers, but they were Texas anglers accustomed to dodging storms and sticking with the program. (By the way, if you haven't read Racing in the Rain, you should do so. A great read, and relevant to the topic at hand.) Such persistence is usually rewarded, sooner or later, and we were fortunate that the reward came sooner. After running around and using most of my gas up, I pulled into a "final stop" and committed to one final pole as the sun leaned heavily against the western shoreline, beckoning us homeward. Suddenly, after a day of east wind, north wind and west wind, there was a hush and the wind stopped entirely. Like a dream, the water turned to glass, and hundreds of redfish, and several big trout began tailing happily.  The guys opted to wade, and for the next hour and half they casted to big tails, and managed to land several nice reds. I called Shaun's attention to a school of reds that had appeared nearby, so he hiked over and intercepted 50+ tailing reds, and landed a nice 26+ inch fish. It was a well-deserved ending to an otherwise challenging weather day.

Shaun invited Tracey Dean the following day. Tracey also has a place in Port Isabel, even though he lives in Wimberley, as well. Tracey and Shaun are part of a network of flyfishers who fish together all over the world, and often use me as a guide when they do their weeklong Laguna Madre trip each summer. So I'd guided Tracey and his friends before. Our first stop of the morning was a no-brainer: we returned to the place where Shaun and Mickey had done so well the evening before. And the fish were there in small tailing pods and tailing singles.
 After catching a couple there, we tried other westside locales fruitlessly before heading to the sand, where we spent the rest of the day. Shaun got into a groove there, and caught several wading while I poled Tracey on the boat. The fish were tough from the boat, though, seeing us at 80 feet out. So, eventually, I picked Shaun up and headed to a new spot where we all waded in crystal clear water under a cloudless afternoon sky. The water looked like a shimmering, expansive piece of topaz. Once we spread out and committed to a wade, the reds started appearing with regularity, tracking upwind and head down, making it relatively easy to get close enough for a presentation. I didn't realize it, but Tracey had never caught a redfish while wading, and he managed to land six nice reds before we headed in. Shaun did well, as well. As we headed in, I believe we all felt that "certain intangible" that forms the heart of religion and enduring friendships. Sometimes we forget that religion means "reconnection." If you look at it that way, we all need it.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Backwater and sand action

The past two weekends have offered some extraordinary flyfishing, but in very different conditions. The weekend before last, I guided my old clients and friends Doug and Connie Gauntt who figure prominently in several of my Youtube videos. They are top-class flyfishers, who fish Alaska (for Steelhead), Argentina and Chile each year, as well as fish with me at least once during the summer. As we were heading out a week ago Saturday, I was reflecting on the exotic flyfishing that they do, and said, "This must me a lot less interesting than that." Doug said, "Oh no, we look forward to this trip as much as any of the others."

The Gauntts have a feel for the Laguna Madre that has developed over a decade of regular flyfishing. They appreciate the bay in whatever state it's in, and they never, never complain about the wind or weather. Consequently, they are able and willing to adapt to the conditions that we encounter. On the first occasion of guiding Connie, she had never caught a red on her fly rod. It happened to be a terribly windy day and my fellow guide, who was guiding another party of two, got off the water around 11 and took his clients to Mexico as a consolation for such a bad day. However, we persisted, and by 10 Connie had caught her first red, and by 1 pm, she'd caught her next five reds. She stuck with it, and was rewarded; and that's the name of the game for the Gauntts.

When I looked out of the trailer on Saturday morning, I could see that my neighbor's US flag was standing at attention in 15 mph wind. I used to groan at the sight, but I just shrugged and said, It will be interesting. Knowing that the wind was supposed to climb to 25 mph by midday and not let off for the next three days, I figured that I'd better stop complaining and start thinking. 

When it's that windy at daybreak, it's important to focus on water less than 10 inches deep, so that the fish will be visible even in the wind. I went into an area that has provided superb redfish action for the past couple of months, whenever the water levels are high enough to support the fish. Sure enough, it was just deep enough to host feeding pods of reds in an expansive area that is off limits to almost all boats. We pushed pods going into the area, and as soon as we came off plane and let the water settle, redfish backs started appearing to the west of us, glowing in the low-angled sunlight. Within a few minutes, Doug was hooked up on the first of six reds that he caught in that spot, while Connie managed to land a fine 25" red before we headed elsewhere. By midday, we were on the sand, where the action was consistently good, resulting in a total catch for our first day of 18 reds. Not bad for a windy day! Indeed, I know a lot of locals who would have stayed home. Perhaps some will read this and learn from a couple of seasoned Dallas flyfishers.

The next day was more difficult. When the wind comes directly out of the south, the water clarity is degraded, because there's nothing to break the wind. When it's from the southeast, the wind comes over Padre Island, and will stay clear all day, even when the wind is over 20 knots.

We started in the same place, and found the reds feeding there again in fewer numbers in higher wind. But they both landed a couple of reds before the reds dispersed. Then we traveled far to north of the mouth of the Arroyo, where we found a few reds feeding on the sand. By the end of the day, the Gauntts managed to landed "only" 11 reds. I said to them, "I am quite certain that you did better than any flyfishers on the bay." Having seen very few boats out in the fierce wind, I was pretty confident that what I'd said was true.

The next day was nearly impossible. No reds in the first locale, and 25+ winds from 9 am onward. Still, they caught a few reds. Overall, it was a great weekend for two master anglers--over 30 reds on days that would have sent most flyfishers packing for an early flight home.

A report from this past weekend to follow!

Saturday, June 14, 2014

A stunning day on the water

I guided my old client and friend, Shaun Daniels from Wimberly yesterday. The wind was low enough to allow for "glassy" conditions early, so we started on the west side where I'd been finding tailing pods early in the day. We hadn't even reached the area when we moved a school of reds and several pods away from the intruding boat. So I shut down immediately and let the fish settle down. Within a couple of minutes, there were pods tailing as close as 75 feet from the boat. Of course, we weren't ready, but once I was up on the platform and Shaun was on the deck, we had some serious choices to make; that is, which of six or eight pods would we pole toward. The fish were larger than usual, so the big tails waved in slow-motion above the sheen of the calm water. But they weren't easy! Indeed, Shaun would get no more than one cast to the tails before they would slowly move away, and set up business 100 yards away. So it was especially challenging for Shaun, who had been practicing his cast every day on the football field near his house, but hadn't casted to a live fish in a year or so. But there were no complaints from him. You can always tell a true angler, because he's always looking at what he can do better, rather than how the fish or mother nature could have made life easier for him.

But one reason the reds were so sensitive is because of the full moon the night before. Even though reds will feed at daybreak after a full moon, they are exceedingly sensitive and will spook at the sound of a pin drop for the first several hours of the day. I have observed this phenomenon for decades. Only a precision, unobtrusive cast will draw a strike, and that's hard to orchestrate in dead calm conditions.

We went to another venue north of the mouth of the Arroyo, and poled a shoreline that doesn't see many boats, given its remoteness. Almost immediately, we saw a huge push in our direction. "Is that a red?" Shaun asked. I was a bit incredulous, too, because as we got closer, we could see that it was well over 30 inches, perhaps 32. And yes, it was a red all right. Shaun made a credible cast to it as it passed us, turning and shining in the morning sun without ever seeing us--or the fly, as it turned out. Minutes later, we had another close encounter with another oversized red (above 28 inches). This time, the big fish fled before Shaun could get the fly to it. And then, once again, as if we were dreaming, we saw a wake coming from 40 yards away. This time, a 27-28" trout swam right up to us, but clearly saw the boat as she sauntered by. Shaun's cast was close, but she wasn't in the mood for accommodating us.

We headed for the sand earlier than usual, about 9:30, and opted to wade. We spotted several reds feeding upwind, but they were especially sensitive and spotted us beyond Shaun's (or anyone's) casting range. Then we headed up toward the East Cut, and fished for a couple of hours under a cloudless sky. It looks like the Bahamas in that are, and Shaun had numerous shots at reds feeding upwind. We walked over to one of my favorite places, where reds mingle with mullet along a crystal clear drop off. It was eye candy to watch the reds and ladyfish and mullet milling around in gem-quality water while Shaun tried to pick of the reds when they came up on the flat over the lip of the drop off. Shaun shocked three reds in the area before we packed it in, but felt he should have caught several more.

Later, when heading back toward the Arroyo, I opted to check out the easternmost part of the sand, and found enough reds to justify a wade. We waded for about an hour there, and landed two nice reds--one about 26"--after spotting several more. It was a great day, and Shaun will be back in July for two more.

I'm sorry I left my camera at home! Stay tuned for more.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Guiding tomorrow--Saturday open

I'm back from my conference in California and eager to get back on the water. I guide my old friend Shaun Daniels from Wimberly tomorrow. The forecast has improved, promising--if that's ever true--full sun and moderate wind. Saturday looks even better, and I'm open that day. If anyone wants to fish with me and my dog Rosie (she's be on the boat for good luck and moral support), email me asap at

The tides have been puzzling this spring-early summer. Perhaps it was because I fished mainly during low-tide days, during which the high tide was late or during the night, but wow…the tides were low during the spring, when generally we are able to fish the skinniest back waters. Last week, during a half moon, when the tides are usually so-so, the early morning levels were very high. I gave my brother some tips from my long-distant vantage point in northern California, and the advice was worthless because the tide had jumped half a foot or more, which as you know is a huge influx of water this time of year--and not even during the new or full moon.

So, give me a call at 956-367-2337 or email me if you want to grab Saturday.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Season Turns On!

I have guided 10 days in the past two weeks. At the beginning of that period, we were still in the windy phase of spring, and the fishing was tough early, but near-great in the afternoon on the sand. During April and May, the wind can be truly fierce at daybreak. A guide shudders when he looks out the window at 5 am and sees the flags standing rigid and upright, without the semblance of a flutter. Oh well, you say, maybe the birding will be on. We all head straightaway to various birding venues, only to find--this year, at least--that the birds have been there, but over balls of catfish with nary a redfish tail in the mix. It’s been a strange delayed season, perhaps the consequence of such a cold, wet winter. But even during those days, the sand lit up under the bright sun by late morning, and on some memorable days, the reds poured onto the sand in the early afternoon, bringing opportunities that make the Laguna Madre famous as a
venue that has more in common with the Bahamas than the upper Texas coast.

Randy and I guided Eric Huff and his three friends. Eric is an experienced saltwater flyfisher, but he’d never flyfished the lower Laguna. We fished on two very windy days, but managed to have some good fishing. Eric started the first day landing a beautiful red that was feeding with a few others in a small pass where the current tends to attract baitfish. We saw them feeding, but it was terribly shallow, and I pole the Stilt over a bar separating us and the feeding reds. So Eric hoofed it over there, through knee-deep mud, and was rewarded for his efforts. We went on to fish the sand and catch a few out there each day. But it was tough flyfishing.

I guided Daniel Forman and his buddy a couple of days later--two young anglers who have their own skiff and wanted to know more about the east side sand. We started on the west side, however, since the winds were pleasantly low at dawn. And wow, did we find the tailing pods! Lined up along a westside shoreline, there were pods as far as we could see. The guys had a lot of good action there before we headed east onto the sand. I introduced them to an approach to the sand that few people know about--going as far as you can east on foot in order to find single and pairs of reds feeding in virtually no water in a virtual sanctuary from boat traffic. We waded there for about two hours, and didn’t find the action I’d hoped for; but the guys did encounter several reds tailing in the glassy, six-inch water. What makes this action so good is that the water remains glassy even in moderate wind; so one can spot tails at 200 yards against the early morning glare of the low sun. There’s nothing better when it’s “on,” and even when it’s not, there are usually a few good shots in the offing. On an otherwise poor day, it can offer a rare treasure.

We had only one day together, but the guys learned some new things about the Bay, and I’m sure I will see them like specks on the eastern horizon, wading in a glassy expanse where the sky kisses the water without a seam between them.

Ben Pasqual asked me to join him in guiding a group of four guys from the Houston area. I had the pleasure of guiding Chris Kelley and his son Scott, who is a young pro golfer. I had a great two days with the Kelleys, who had never flyfished for reds and trout. Scott did amazingly well, casting my six-weight TFO while his dad wielded his own Orvis 8-weight. Scott is a natural athlete with great vision, so he took to the Mother Lagoon like a favorite son, hooking up on reds within minutes of our arrival to the sand around 8:30 am. I think you could have heard his victory cry in northern Mexico on his first hookup: He was ecstatic, and his dad was just about as happy to see Scott adapting to the demands of the fishery with such adeptness.

In the early afternoon, the Kelleys witnessed a full “turn-on” of the sand. We arrived in a particular area that I’ve known about for several years now. I’m not sure why, but the reds often pour onto the sand in small groups around 2 pm, and begin feeding in a foot of water. It was dreamlike--almost constant action for about two hours, until the late afternoon glare shut us down. I believe Scott landed six for the day, and his dad finally broke the ice, too. At one point, a sizable red went on a high-speed run and popped the knot between the line and the backing. I was on the boat, about 200 yards away from Scott when this happened. I saw him casting, then hooking up, then suddenly running across the flat and seizing something. Later he told me that the fly line was on its way to the next county, but he was able to catch up with it just in time to bringing the red in by hand. A great day! And the next one was almost as good as the first! We found the reds earlier on the sand, and were able to get one shot after another from the Stilt. Both guys caught fish, and again Scott distinguished himself as a master flyfisher in the making.

A few days later, I had the pleasure of guiding Bob Buchman and his buddy Rich from Washington state. Bob had fished with me before, but Rich had never flyfished in saltwater. Similar to Scott Kelley, Rich took to it like he’d been born here. Of course, the phenomenal tailing that we found on both days made it easier, but there’s no excuse for good casting and good line management, which Rich was able to put together. 

We had countless opportunities for the first four hours of each day--frolicking pods of reds feeding explosively in almost prohibitively shallow conditions. We fished from the boat for the first hour or so on day one, but then spent the rest of the day and all of the second day wading in an area that was festooned with pods of redfish. They guys were on fish almost continuously for hours. I videoed their catches to the point where my battery almost played out on day one.
I look forward to having some time to edit the clips into a mouthwatering display of the best of the best flyfishing on the LLM. We also fished the sand on both days, but the winds were so low--yes, hard to believe--that the surface tension remained intact into the late afternoon. Since there were clouds on the horizon, the glassy surface reflected white cumulus clouds rather than revealing the fish beneath the surface. They caught a couple of fish, and then fished with Randy Cawlfield on day 3 (I had another charter) and were able to catch more fish on the sand, because the wind was stronger. Newcomers to the LLM often think that calm winds are always better; but as a rule, we only want windless conditions in the early morning. It’s usually better to have 12-20 mph winds for fishing the sand. Otherwise, the reflection of the clouds can make sightcasting on the sand very tough.

While Randy took over guiding Bob and Rich on their third day, I guided Greg Schoenmann and his buddy Rick, who have fished the LLM for most of their lives, but felt that they needed to learn more about flyfishing methods and places to flyfish. So the day was a teaching day, but we also found an amazing display of tailing pods in an area that I would have bet $1000 would have been devoid of fish. It was an area that was “too shallow” to fish, but I’d discovered a slightly deeper trough in the middle of a 5-inch deep expanse of water. We waded into the area, after hearing some explosive feeding sounds, and as we got closer our eyes got bigger. Golden backs of several pods of 20-30 fish were reflecting in the low-angled sunlight. It was mesmerizing to wade slowly toward the aggressively feeding fish without another boat in sight. Well, it wasn’t a high-catching moment (Greg is still bruised from his own foot, I believe), but it was crazy fun to watch him casting upwind to those fish! On one occasion, he hooked up and the rest of the reds exploded one by one, then zipped by us, almost tripping us as they passed by. Meanwhile, Greg’s fish threaded by us, making it necessary for Rick and I to dodge the flyline. As we looked back at Greg, he was wrapped up in the line and frantically trying to clear it before the big red could snap his tippet. Alas the red was faster than Greg, and the line went limp as the final image on a rapid sequence of out-of-control moments. We all agreed that the experience was unforgettable, regardless of the outcome.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Never Blame the Fish

This is a pre-publication draft of an article that I've just submitted to Tide magazine. -- GSS
         When I was about three years old, my mother was trying to potty train me, and had finally managed to get me to take a seat on the mini-throne. After a few fruitless minutes, I said to her, “I can’t grunt. This pot don’t work.” In retrospect, I had already learned the oldest excuse in the book: When things don’t work, blame anything other than yourself.
          Almost fifty years later, as I poled my Stilt over a barely submerged bed of turtle grass, the young flyfisher on the bow finally spotted the redfish about 40 feet away. He began false casting and laid the Kingfisher spoon out in front of the crossing 27-inch red. The fish sauntered by the fly, which had landed just a few inches short of the mark. It was early February in South Cullens Bay on the Lower Laguna Madre, and the water was low, clear and cold.  During winter, the fish are more sluggish and less willing to go out of their way to take a fly, so knowing that, I urged the caster to reposition it. Again, the red seemed unresponsive; but from my vantage point, I could see that the caster had barely missed the fish’s sight window.
         Finally, the angler said, with evident frustration, “I don’t think he’s going to eat.”
         “Cast closer,” I said. He complied, and the fly landed where the red could see it. Without turning or flaring its gills, the red picked up the fly and was on. If the angler hadn’t made that final cast, he would have blamed the fish or the fly, but never his slightly imprecise presentation.
         The Catskill fly fishing legend, Edward R. Hewitt once said, “It’s not your fly that is the problem. It’s what is on the other end of the line.” While Hewitt’s words may sound a bit mean-spirited, they express an important key to mastering the “quiet sport” of fly fishing––that is, taking full responsibility for what happens in the encounter with the fish. The good news is, If we are the problem, then we are also the solution.
         Over the years, I’ve concluded that there two errors that cause us to blame the fly or the fish, thereby limiting our successes. The first error is assuming that when a fish doesn’t take the fly, it’s because it’s not hungry, or is interested in something else. Of course, this may is often true in coldwater fisheries where trout will feed selectively, but it is much less of a factor on the Lower Laguna Madre, where reds and trout tend to be nonselective, opportunistic feeders. Saying that a fish “is not eating” on the Lower Laguna is an excuse on par with “this pot don’t work:”  It brings an immediate end to any further inquiry, and if there’s anything further left to learn, we’ve opted out of that lesson.
         The second error is underestimating the impact of one’s presence. Anglers may wade or pole into a sensitive area, and cast again and again to “turned” fish without realizing that they have created a problem that didn’t exist before they arrived. I learned this lesson off the water from my uncle Moody while deer hunting as a teenager. He’d left me in the woods all day, and when he returned to pick me up, I excitedly told him that I’d seen about 80 deer. He chuckled and said, “I’ll bet that none of them was heading in your direction.”
         Taken together, these two mistakes result in a self-perpetuating myth, which thoroughly arrests an angler’s ascent to excellence. However, counteracting these two errors is a fairly simple thing if you are willing. First, you need to believe that fish on the flats are interested in surviving, and that means eating a lot and often, especially easy meals. Second, you need to set about to minimize the impact of your intrusion into the fish’s domain. The following ideas and strategies will help you operationalize your commitment to these two principles, and open up vistas of flyfishing success heretofore unimagined.
         Go slow and depend on your eyesight. It’s important go slow enough to let your eyes fully adjust to the context. Last year, while guiding an experienced flyfisher, who regularly catches 10 or more redfish per day, I stopped the boat in the middle of departing wakes. It was a bit deep for sight casting on foot, but the fish were there, and my seasoned client preferred to wade. I knew it was possible to see the fish, even though the mid-afternoon sunlight created a glare on the water. My client got out of the boat and proceeded to cover a lot of water in his search for fish. Meanwhile, I stood the whole time within 50 yards of the boat. It took my eyes a while to adjust to the glare, but I was gradually able to peer through the glare into the clear water. I stood in the same spot and enjoyed the spectacle of about 30 reds and a few large trout meandering through the area over the course of about an hour. When my client hiked back to the boat, I asked him how he did. “I didn’t see a fish,” he said. I didn’t say anything, because no one wants to hear, “You really missed it,” even if it’s true.
         There is nothing more effective than stopping and letting your eyes fully adjust to the conditions: It can take a while to perceive what’s really there. Game fish on the flats are, by nature, subtle in their movements until the moment of attack; for otherwise, they would alert their quarry ahead of time and starve to death. It may seem counterintuitive, but game fish will make less noise and create less of a visual disturbance than their tiny prey, and so you have to slow down to adjust to their unobtrusive rhythms. Another tactic along these lines is to imitate a heron’s style of hunting, which is to freeze every few steps and study the water. Not only does a stationary profile put the fish at ease, but you can discern subtle movements more easily if your brain doesn’t have to factor out the movement of your body.
         The fish are almost always willing. Reds and trout have periods of active feeding, and then periods of relative inactivity, but I have found that they are almost always willing to eat––at least to some extent. You may recall your first course in biology in which your teacher discussed the firing of a neuron. Once a neuron fires, it enters an “absolute refractory period” where it’s completely unable to fire again. A bit later, it passes into a “relative refractory period” in which it can fire but not as easily as when it’s back to its state of full readiness. In my experience, reds and trout occasionally enter the equivalent of an absolute refractory period. It happens when they suddenly stop swimming and become unresponsive to anything short of a nudge from your rod tip. These are frustrating moments, because the fish may be feeding one moment, and then totally unresponsive the next. I have left such “sleeping” fish after having clients drag flies past their noses for 15 minutes.
         Except for when they are in this state of stupor, reds and trout will exhibit some willingness to eat, albeit at varying levels of readiness. After a full moon, for instance, redfish will spend the first few hours of the morning in a highly sensitive state, and will often spook before your fly hits the water. They can be caught, but they resemble a hung-over partygoer to whom breakfast may seem like an assault. Trout, on the other hand, spend most of their day in a “relative refractory period,” since they feed only two hours out of every 24. Indeed, they spend most of their time digesting the last huge meal.
         So how do you get reds and trout to take your fly when they are in a state of relative shutdown? By using small flies and putting them directly in the fish’s path. Trout may feed on six-inch mullet and attack huge flies when they are actively feeding, but they will more readily take a tiny fly during their periods of relative inactivity. Understanding that big fish will take tiny flies almost all the time accounts for why flyfishing legend Bud Rowland––who holds the Texas state record trout as well as three of the seven IGFA tippet-class world record trout––can truthfully assert, “I can get a big trout to eat at any time.” Bud typically ties his favorite fly, the “numero uno,” on small (size 4 and smaller), short-shanked hooks. So when people repeat the popular formula, “Use big flies for big fish,” remember that big flies may not work as well as a small fly during periods of relative inactivity.
         If the fish doesn’t react at all, it’s usually because it hasn’t seen the fly. In my previous article (see Tide, March/April, 2014), I cited several top saltwater flyfishing guides who said that their clients often overestimate the degree to which a redfish will perceive the fly. As bottom feeders, redfish tend to be focused on what’s beneath them, and will thus overlook flies that pass nearby, especially overhead. I have often said to my clients that redfish will react one way or another when it sees the fly––either to attack it, or to spook from an unnaturally “aggressive” fly. Similarly, while big trout will sometimes seem to ignore a a fly, master flyfisher Tom Kilgore––who once caught 10 trout over 8 lbs. apiece in a single day––told me that the key to catching a trophy trout is getting the fly in front of the trout at the same depth. I have seen actively feeding trout go out of their way to attack a fly, but Kilgore’s experience suggests that a well-fed trout may require an “in-the-face” presentation to unleash its oppportunistic aggression.
         Tame your aggression. It has been said that every great angler possesses the urge to “capture and to conquer,” but this source of success must be tamed. Indeed, most anglers approach visible fish much too aggressively, and thus they end up spooking or turning the fish before they can cast effectively to them. Remember, the fish on the flats are always moving, and if you’re patient enough, they will come to you. Even if you are convinced that you have to cover some distance between yourself and a visible redfish or trout, it’s important to move slowly enough to prevent sending a “pressure wave” in their direction. Most fin fish can perceive changes in water pressure in their air bladders from quite a distance. They may not seem alarmed, but when they perceive the pressure of your approach, they will simply turn away from you. So tame your aggression, and become as unobtrusive as one of them. When I guide wading flyfishers who don’t need my help, I will play a game while waiting for them to return to boat: I will see how close I can get to the feeding fish before spooking them. Since I’m not casting to the fish, all of my effort can be channeled into becoming as stealthy as I can be. It may seem surprising, but I am often able to come within a few feet of tailing redfish before they spook, and big trout will become so acclimated to my presence that they sometimes ignore me after a while. So there’s no reason that you cannot get within casting distance of feeding redfish and trout, regardless of your casting ability,––but only if you can tame your impulse to approach the fish aggressively and cast too soon.
         Get down. On some days, casting from the bow of a skiff is clearly the best way to catch reds and trout. But the fish can see you better, too. And once they turn from the sight of you, their willingness to take a fly drops by at least 80%. If you don’t acknowledge the impact of your intrusion, you may believe that they are unwilling to eat, when it’s really much simpler than that: They are annoyed. Real success can be measured, not so much by how many fish you see, but how many were unaware of your presence before your fly hit the water. When you achieve the goal of casting without “giving prior notice,” you will discover that reds and trout are surprisingly willing to take your fly.
         Depend on Short Casts. A survey was once done among expert Catskill flyfishers to see what accounted for their prodigious successes. One thing that distinguished them was their reliance on short, precise casts.  But flyfishers in saltwater often seem to believe that they should cast as soon as they spot a fish, even if it means casting short of the mark. Your first cast is an announcement of your presence, and the fish will often turn before coming into range if you insist on casting too soon. Reds and trout behave differently when they perceive you. A redfish will flee at the first sign of your presence, while a big trout may make you believe that she’s still “in business” by remaining in the vicinity. Never believe that a big trout is unaware of you! Her apparent nonchalance can be just as “terminal” as the blistering retreat of a redfish.

         In summary, you can dramatically raise the ceiling of your success by refusing to do the angling equivalent of  “blaming the pot.” If, instead, you will accept the notion that the fish are always willing to take your fly, and that it’s up to you to do the rest, you will never cease to grow as an angler, and the elusive ideal of mastery will finally come within reach.