Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Guiding in February

I joined my fellow guides Rick Hartman and Eric Glass on Sunday in guiding a group of flyfishers from Houston. This time of year, it's often foggy in the morning. The air temperatures are often much warmer than the bay water, and that can make for foggyconditions. When we left the dock at Adoph Thomae County Park, it was clear, but we encountered a wall of fog at the mouth of the Arroyo.

To play it safe, I could have hugged the Intracoastal Waterway until the fog lifted. But not knowing how long that would take, I opted to take a hard right through the Intracoastal spoil islands and enter Rattlesnake Bay at low tide. Remembering the previous week's debacle (see below), I gave the shallowest areas a wide berth and ran into the fog and shut down. We poled downwind for a while until I ascertained that the reds would not be showing, and then headed back to the ICW.  That's where it became a bit difficult. There weren't any landmarks to guide me at first, so I used the wind in a disciplined way to hold to a course that would take me into the deeper areas of Rattlesnake Bay, and into the ICW. At one point, my client Richard turned around and asked, "How do you know where we are?" Good question. I said, "Experience," but I knew that experience could fail me, especially when I became distracted, such as last week.

We made it back to the ICW, and dropped into a couple of west-side lagoons only to find off-colored water and no visible fish. So, I headed east as the fog lifted, affording me enough visibility to navigate comfortably toward the shallowest east edge of the east Laguna Madre. I recalled several years earlier that a friend of mine had planed into the same waters during winter tides, and had stuck his boat so badly that it was months before it could be recovered.

As we approached the edge of the vegetation-free sand, we began to move singles and pairs of redfish, along with countless sheepshead. I ran up onto the sand, hoping to find them in 7 inches of water, but no, they were along the edge of the sand, in foot-deep water. I shut down, and began to pole downwind in the white sheen of fog lit by midmorning sun.

We were blessed by the appearance of redfish tailing, and some were big. They were spread out and interspersed with tailing sheepshead, but my clients quickly learned the discern the difference. For hours, we poled from one tailing red to another; but it was exceedingly difficult flyfishing. We would cast to one tail after another, but the reds would go down after the first cast. On some days, you can get several casts to a tailing fish, but in early spring, in particular, the reds on the east side are perversely sensitive to the sound of the fly hitting the water, and to the sight of the approaching boat. So we didn't catch much, even though the opportunities were aplenty. Looking back, we should have waded, but the water was chilly, and my clients seemed happy staying aboard the Stilt.

I just received word today that my article on "How to Catch Reds on the Bad Days" will appear in the May-June issue of Tide magazine. I am also writing an article for the July-August or Sept-Oct. issue on "Don't Blame the Fish." I haven't written that one yet, but I look forward to putting some thoughts to paper that have influenced my guiding for the last 15 years.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The last mistake we will make--until next time!

I asked my brother Chip to write up his account of yesterday's events on the bay. I hesitated to post this, for obvious reasons. But hey, I f--- up on occasion, so here's my latest!

In 1988 I wrote a summary of the most notable “you won't believe this” episodes I had experienced while fishing on the Lower Laguna Madre Bay.  I figured  there was no way anyone would believe this stuff so I just had to write them down for whoever,  whenever.  I entitled it “Why I Am Losing My Hair!”  In 1992 I just had to write more, as the excitement just wouldn't quit.  I entitled this one “Why My Remaining Hair Is Turning Gray!”

That was over twenty years ago and I thought I just couldn't have any of those kinds of hair-raising experiences again.  Well, I was mistaken.  Yesterday my brother and I wrote another chapter.  It goes like this...

We headed out early on the delivered new “Stilt”,  arguably the finest shallow draft boat out there, for flyfishing and comraderie.  We should've known.  It was as foggy as you'll ever see it but we pressed on expecting the fog to lift, probably by the time we had navigated the six miles down the Arroyo Colorado to the bay, or certainly within an hour or two.  Wrong.  Somehow we made it to the mouth of the Arroyo, on plane, with visibility maybe 100 yds.  And eventually we found our way far south into South Cullens Bay.

Scott fishes this area regularly in January and February when the tides are seasonably at their lowest levels of the year, shutting off all of the many back lagoons we prefer when higher waters permit.  We had completed two wade fishing excursions in the fog with nothing to show for our efforts when Capt. Scott decided we needed to head north to shallower waters near the prominent landmark,  Cullen's house.  I was apprehensive, as we would still be “flying on instruments”.  The Stilt has all the marine bells and whistles, but flight instruments, it does not.  Having flown on instruments many times as a matter of routine when I was another kind of Captain ( Air Force) I ceded the controls to the Boat Captain when the moisture kept my glasses, which I am hopelessly addicted to, glazed over and useless.  The fog was lifting a bit, but the visibility was still no more than 80-100 yards. After running on plane for maybe five minutes I noticed that it seemed to me we were heading  too much to the west, as the slight easterly breeze that we needed to keep ninety degrees off our starboard side in heading north,  was now becoming a tailwind!  At about the time I made an exaggerated  motion for Scott to turn more to the starboard, or right, we found ourselves running 25 mph in 1 to 2” of water.  For all the things it can do, the boat is not designed for that.  We came to a screeching halt, commonly called a “pancake” in the depths of 1” water.  After the customary “Holy S***” and “WTF?” we settled down enough to determine that we were approximately 300 yards from floatable waters, but in an impossible fix to getting the boat back as there were places where there was NO water between us and where we needed to be.  After much scouting and spirited brotherly debate, we decided to push the boat to the West until we reached, hopefully, water deep enough where we could “get the boat up”.  I was hesitant to begin this trek, as it would take us directlyAWAY from the parts of the bay where a potential rescue boat would come from, plus the fact that we were up against the clock and an outgoing tide. Clearly there might NOT be  enough water in this direction when or if we got that far.  Scott knows this part of the bay far better than I, so I relented and off we went – 50 yds at a time, when it would become necessary to stop and catch our breath. This went on for two hours.  I am well into my 60's.  My brother hit the magic 6-0 two years back.  We were literally pushing the boat across mud.  The one to two inches of water was only serving to grease the skids.  It wasn't fun.  For the shallow water fishermen out there, you know that  5 – 6” of water isn't much to crow about but I was praising the Lord when we finally got the boat to those meager depths.  The Stilt, being the unbelievably shallow running boat that it is, spun to the left one complete turn and got us up and out of there!   Heading in at around 2 pm, we noticed areas to the east that still had fog! Glad to get back is an understatement.  Of course, it will never happen again with all the wisdom I (we?) have gleaned in our many years on the bay.......     And I don't know what to name this episode, as the only hair  I have left on my head, which isn't much, is already gray!  -- Chip Sparrow