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.)

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