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.