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.   

Failure and Success in the Cruelest Month

T.S. Eliot wrote, "April is the cruelest month, breeding. Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing." Indeed it is for flyfishers on the Lower Laguna, because April's easy success can quickly turn to failure, mixing. During the last two weekends, my clients and I have seen the true beginning of the season, along with the successes and failures that attend the cruelest month. 

On April 11, Julie and Rosie and I headed for our place in Arroyo City and, after putting the Stilt in the water, decided to take an evening boat ride to the bay. We customarily make a beeline for the sand that late in the day, because the reds are often streaming upwind in bootie deep water. It's about the only dependable action that one can find late in the day, unless the birding is "on." We didn't have time to check out the birding venues, so the sand was the only conceivable venue where I'd have a chance to catch a late-day redfish. We shut down in about 10 inches of water at about 6:40 pm. Since the sun was already low to the horizon, I grabbed my 6-weight and began wading east with Rose at my side. Julie uncapped a beer and began enjoying one of her favorite places in all of the world. She is always happy to be there.

Once Rosie and I reached "the shelf," where the depth goes from about 8 inches to 3 inches, I turned downwind and watched for reds feeding upwind. Almost immediately, I spotted one traveling towards us, pushing water against the wind-driven chop. He was easy to see even while submerged, but his back would break the surface every few feet in the six-inch water. I casted a chartreuse Crimp to him, and it landed about four feet away from him. I wasn't surprised to see him swerve to intercept it,  even in such shallow conditions, because the reds in this venue during the late afternoon are very aggressive and willing to take a fly. He hit it once and missed. I casted again, and he hit it two more times without hooking up, then blew up and headed to deeper water.

The next two reds appeared at intervals of about 5-10 minutes, so the action was steady but not overwhelming. They were equally aggressive, and I ended up landing them both--26" and 25" fish. I lead the second one back to the boat where Julie took a photo of us before we called it a day.

This may sound like "easy fishing," and it was; but only if you have the eyes for it. It takes a while to adjust to the late afternoon, windy conditions before you can perceive reds feeding upwind; but once you get the visual signature, it's fairly easy to capitalize on this reliable action. I have found the reds predictably feeding in this venue just about any evening at any time of the year. It's a great option for late evening anglers.

Feeling confident that the reds might be there in the morning, I nonetheless headed to a birding venue to rule out that relatively easy, seasonal option. We ran several miles through the usual birding areas, and then headed east to check out the action I'd found the evening before. 

My clients and I ended up within a hundred yards or so of where Julie and I had parked the evening before. I waded with them over to the shelf, and then had them turn downwind and spread out about 40 yards apart from each other and walk slowly downwind. When the reds are in this venue, they typically travel quickly upwind, feeding as they go. So you really don't need to cover much ground. Sure enough, after a few minutes, I spotted the first incoming redfish nearly 80 yards away. Even in the 15-mph wind, it was easy to see because of the "interference pattern" created by the redfish swimming against the wind-dirven chop. My client Rodney Hurtt was, at first, unable to see the push; but he became progressively able to spot the fish at increasing distances. By the time we left the area, he could see incoming fish at 80-100 away, too.

Rodney and his buddy Larry had several close-in opportunities to catch big reds, but it wasn't in the cards. They'd grabbed rods off of their friend's boat that were totally new to them, and it was difficult to  cast the unfamiliar rods in the windy conditions. Nonetheless, they had several "stress tests" that were precipitated by buck-fever like cardiac activation. Indeed, there's nothing like a redfish heading straight toward you with its back out of the water to test your heart's health. There was one moment when about six reds approached in the six-inch water, driving wakes toward us. They ended up exploding within 20 feet of us and zipping away. It was exciting action. 

We didn't catch any fish that day, but got into some sand action later once the sun came out. But the sun was a fickle partner on both days, and given the wind, we just didn't have ideal conditions for sand action. 

We had fewer opportunities the second day when I had Rodney and his brother Gregg on my boat. We tried for birding action, but after running most of the distance of the west bay, I gave up and headed east again.  I was chagrined to learn later that I'd given up on birding too soon, and that Randy had gone just a half mile further and found pods under birds. I kicked myself around for that mistake, even though it's what I call "playing the results." In tournament bridge, we review the hands after the play and often discover that there are ways to have done better. But such retrospective analyses benefit from omniscience. Neither angling nor life in general affords us such a vantage point, so kicking ourselves around because we didn't know something at the time is a uniquely human pastime that is predicated on error. All you have to do is to watch Fox News or CNN to see how retrospective analyses lead us to blame people unjustifiably for things they could not have known beforehand. As someone once said, Most conspiracies are nothing more than an attempt to cover one's ass once a mistake is discovered.
After we found the sand devoid of reds, I got a call from Randy informing me of my error, so we headed back west and got into a single pod of fish with a dozen gulls overhead. Ironically, the pod was comprised largely of catfish, and Gregg managed to land the only fish of the day after casting fruitlessly to the pod--a 12-inch hardhead. It was a pretty discouraging day after that, even though the sand was clear enough to offer success. However, the fish were not on the sand; so we ran around and ended up empty handed.

This past weekend was a completely different story, even though both days featured 15-20+ mph winds. I guided Walter Weathers from Houston, who was alone on my boat for two days. We found big reds under birds on both mornings, and reds on the sand after midday on both afternoons. Walter landed 4 reds over 25 inches the first day, and six reds the second day (five of which were 24+). It was a very good weekend during a time of the year when success can be as fleeting as lilacs rising from the dull roots, as Greg and Rodney discovered the week before.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Off to the Bay after a Slow Start to the Season

Wow, it's been a slow beginning this year. Between an especially cold winter and extensive brown tide,  most of my friends have reported frustrating trips. My brother spent part of three days on the bay two weeks ago, and they had one visible shot, and even then they weren't sure if it was a fish! Last week, however, fellow guide Ben Pasqual reported tailing action in one of our favorite west-side venues.

Julie and I have been taking advantage of the slow start to get our new trailer in place. Our digs at Channelview RV Park are a pretty sweet set-up--a vintage 28' trailer with all of the creature comforts and small building where we keep gear, tie flies, and puff on cigars. We will be inviting clients to lodge with us (up to two) and enjoy the waterfront setting, along with breakfasts and box lunches. Ask if you're interested in this package deal. Of course, we work closely with Atascosa Outlook B&B, and Arroyo Lodge (for 4-6 anglers) so you have some fine options to choose from.

Everyone has had boat issues, as well. Rick Hartman had an anomalous noise in his new Suzuki 60, and so did we. I feared it was a blown lower unit, but it was only a loose gear cable. Meanwhile, John Pilmer's 70 Yamaha 2-stroke quit peeing, and Ben's new Suzuki broke the motor mount on his HPX. It's been a strange assortment of problems.

But…I'm off to the water, to begin my guide season in earnest. Randy and I will be working together this weekend, and then we have different parties next week. Our bookings are finally filling in after everyone emerged slowly from the long winter hibernation.

The brown tide is gone on the east side, but still affecting the west side, especially north. That's common this time of year. After a cold, wet winter, with an increasing duck population on the Lower Laguna, the amount of nitrogen that the bay has to process is especially high. Brown tide feeds on the nitrogen, but the influx of fresh Gulf water paired with the strong southeast winds tends to blow the brown tide north as spring progresses. Already, the sand is crystalline.

It will be a windy weekend, but it looks like Sunday will be a pretty good day. If we have sun, the wind is less of a factor. I'll let you know how we do!