Sunday, December 20, 2015

Winter Forays

It seems that this year, the cold fronts have coincided with the weekends. I have three sets of clients who are waiting to come down, and every weekend for the past several weeks has been too cloudy or windy or cold or too close to Thanksgiving. But the last two weekends have been fair to middling, for at least one day. So I've taken advantage of the weather windows to go out with my brother and son. Two weeks ago, Chip and I went out for big trout, only to find the tides too high to sight cast for big trout, at least in the areas where they were holding up. So we went to a back lagoon where I'd found big reds a year ago feeding explosively along a shoreline. We planed it a bit too far, and ran over an oversized red before we shut down. I poled into the lagoon, which was about 8 acres, almost landlocked. At first we saw nothing, and then I spotted the back of redfish along the far shoreline, glimmering in the sunlight. We donned our waders, and Chip got out to stalk the redfish, while I poled 200 yards down the shoreline and slipped overboard. Chip got a single shot at an approaching red--probably the same fish I'd seen. Meanwhile, I saw three feeding, and caught the second one--a 24" red. The last one would have been a photo-op. I saw it tailing and rolling in about 9 inches of water, so he was always in view as I waded closer. Finally I made a long backcast and dropped the Kingfisher spoon to a spot about 2 feet from him. I thought it was a winner. I let it sink, and stripped once, and whoosh, he spooked. Apparently, he'd gone over to inspect the noise, and then spooked when the spoon abruptly moved. Oh well, there's always a fine line between a perfect presentation and an insult, and the fish is only judge in the beauty contest. So it was an insult, simple as that.

Yesterday, my son Ryan and I went out after birding for the first three hours of the day. It had been so cold during the night that the last thing we wanted to do was venture out on the boat. So we grabbed out cameras and headed by car to Atascosa Refuge where we hoped to spot various raptors, and maybe be a photo or two. We were pleased to see the usual suspects--Harris's, Northern Harrier (Marsh hawk), Kestrels, White-Shoulder Kites, and huge hawk that I could not identify. The high point was spotting an Aplomado Falcon that shot across the road and took up position in a plowed field. Ryan had never seen one, so he was really pleased. 

It was getting warm around 9:30, so we went back to Arroyo City and launched the Stilt. We checked the East side sand, but there wasn't much to be seen, except for a few Sheepshead. It was the first day of a warming trend, and it's rare to find the gamefish on the sand that early. As a rule, one should target the second day (and beyond) of a warming trend, and skip the first day. So we turned south and headed for north Cullen's Bay. The tides were still a bit high for sight casting to giant trout, but I hoped that the full sun had warmed the shallowest areas, where mats of dark turtle grass warm the surrounding water in the midday sun. We made two long wades after seeing several trout in the 4-8 lb range, and a bunch of redfish fleeing from the boat. Alas, we didn't see much at all during the wade. The wind was so low that the surface glare restricted our view of the bottom; and because the water was knee-deep, which is deep for sight casting, we couldn't see very well. So we picked up and headed further west, and into shallower water. There we found greater concentrations of both species, so we stopped and went for another wade toward the west shoreline. Ryan quickly got a shot at a large tailing red, and then I got an opportunity at a trout in the 26-28" range. I should have caught it, but the fly landed just a bit too close to the fish, and it turned. Two feet ahead of a big trout can be much too close in calm conditions. My second cast was perfect--about five feet ahead of the fish, and just a hair beyond its path, but the fish was already too pissed off to consider it. As I was heading back to the boat, I saw an oversized red tailing vigorously about 150 yards away, and I decided to go for it. Once I got within range, it called for an 80-foot, cross-wind back cast, but I made the cast twice. Alas, the fish never saw the fly, given the thick turtle grass that surrounded it. Finally, it disappeared and I returned to the boat. It was a perfect day with a few good opportunities. Ending up with no fish is very crude measure of success. We will probably always remember the day for its quality of opportunity and fellowship, not its quantity.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Photos Survive Drowned iPhone

I had the pleasure of guiding Ted Thomas and Dennis Matt from Virginia this past September, and I was taking tons of photos and video on my iPhone while they stalked and landed 10 reds along a remote shoreline--one of them 9.5 lbs. and another 8.5 lbs. I was very happy for them, but in the midst of landing fish and photographing fish, I dropped my brand-new iPhone 6 into the water. While it had a water resistant case, it wasn't enough to protect it from 30 minutes underwater. I wasn't able to find it until, miraculously, my foot felt it in the sand. I was fortunate that the iPhone repair place was able to rescue a very few of the photos and videos. My day with Ted and Dennis was a lesson of sorts.  Just the previous day, we had fished the same shoreline from the boat, and had caught no fish. And yet, we had shots at probably 20 different redfish along a 300-yard shoreline. Why the difference? When casting from the boat, we would have a brief glimpse of a redfish tailing or "backing" along the shoreline, and then we'd see nothing. Ted would have to cast on speculation, not knowing where the fish's head was. And in such shallow water, a miss is as good as a mile: the fish simply don't see the fly if it's more than a foot away. So time and time again, Ted would cast, and the fish would blow up and leave the area. The point is: The action was fast and furious, and the opportunities were addictive, but there wasn't a single hookup.  

Fast forward to the next morning when we poled the shoreline again. I'd decided beforehand that we would not stay on the boat if the fish started showing up. So when we saw the first "backing" redfish in five inches of water, I asked Ted to step off the boat and stalk him. I staked the skiff, and spent the next two hours wading the shoreline with the two anglers. The action was phenomenal. One angler would walk five feet from the shoreline, spot a fish coming up the shoreline, and then cast to the fish once it clearly showed itself. After the first angler would hook up, the second man would walk behind him and take up the wade along the shoreline. We leapfrogged like that until 10 reds had been landed. In every case, the fish were so subtle that the guys had to stand still and wait for them to show a fin or a back or a wiggle. But because they were wading, and largely invisible to the approaching fish, the anglers could hold off until the fish showed himself. 

This was an excellent example of why you have know when to abandon the boat, rather than to persist in casting to fish that will see you before you can get off a good shot.  Fishing from the boat becomes addictive, in that you cover a lot of water, and tend to see a lot more fish than when you're wading. But the quality of the opportunity is a better predictor of success than the quantity of opportunities. There are days when my clients and I never step off the boat because the conditions are right for that approach. A great angler is a flexible angler, ready to adjust to conditions whenever they change. Sometimes casting from the bow of the boat is the best way to fish, but sometimes it's only a "tease" that becomes a habit that ruins the day.

Here's a compilation of the surviving photos and video clips.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Flyfishing on the Farquhar atoll, in the Seychelles

This blog entry is kicking my butt. I couldn't get it to format correctly with photos interspersed, so I'm writing above the photos, adding to it from time to time, summarizing my recollections. -- GSS

For my own benefit, and for the benefit of my friends, I want to spend some time recollecting the week that I spent flyfishing in the Seychelles this past October. It was an amazing experience that I'll probably never have again this lifetime. And if only for the reason that I do not want the memories to fade away, I will take some time bringing them to life in words.

Flyfishing is a specific method, but the range of flyfishing venues is vast. A flyfisher can be an accomplished angler in one setting and a rank amateur in another. But then again, amateur is the conjoining of two words, "lover" and "truth," so a great angler doesn't necessarily mind being brought to his knees if the result is to learn something new about the world and about himself.

Bobby McConal and I had no idea really about the demands of Farquhar. I think we both expected it to be an easier fishery than it turned out to be. But it wasn't just another "pretty face" among tropical flyfishing settings that one easily forgets on the journey to the next frontier. It was, at once, a stunningly beautiful and harsh ecosystem defined by five-foot tides, treacherous coral heads, intimidating surf, high winds, big seas, and other intimidating features that framed a paradisical lagoon that is so far removed from the rest of the world that only 40 people live there year round, subsisting for the most part on the harvest of coconuts.

To get to the middle of nowhere, we flew from Houston to Dubai, waited 8 hours, then flew to Mahe (the "big island" in the Seychelles), and spent the night in a hotel with the rest of our 10-man group. We were nine time zones from home, and still not fishing! We were delayed the next day when the plane that usually flew to the atoll once a week was grounded. Fortunately, the Seychelles air force provided us with two planes that flew our group the final 2 1/2 hours to the meager landing strip on Farquhar. As we made our final approach in gusty, windy conditions, the little plane caught a cross wind at the last moment, and veered sideways before the pilot abruptly pulled it back up and then set it down safely. I thought, "To have come so far only to fish, and then to die on this tiny runway would be the ultimate irony." Shaking off the anxiety, I stepped out of the plane only to be greeted by our very white and very black South African and native guides who had lined up to shake our hands. Then we piled into a cart pulled by a tractor and were carried a mile across bumpy terrain through coconut groves to the lodge on the north shore of the atoll. (More to follow)

Second entry:
Bobby and I were so beat from the trip that we went to bed about 8 pm while the rest of the guys--most from south Africa, stayed up doing what guys do away from home--drinking and telling stories. The sounds of their laugher weren't enough to keep me up, however. I awoke at 5:30 and immediately listened for the wind. It was howling. 
We headed east from the lodge, across a choppy expanse, toward the leeward side of the atoll, and then south toward a flat that was downwind from the crashing surf. Bobby had forgotten his raincoat, and by the time we had reached the calmer water, he was drenched. It was a strange sight to see huge breakers only a couple of hundred yards away as we anchored the boat in four-feet water. The tide was dropping, and we couldn't anchor in shallower water; for if we did, we could face a beached boat only an hour or two later. We jumped into the water, and held our cameras above our heads as we tiptoed to shallower water.

Looking back, it may have been the best day we had in terms of opportunities. The low tide was midday, and moving quickly to the evening, and by the time the week was over, we were limited to incoming tides and deep-water venues, and shorelines. 

The main goal for fly fishers in the Seychelles is to catch giant trevally. We'd been told that the previous week's group had landed over 30 GTs, so the chances were good that we'd score a GT. But they were suddenly nowhere to be found. On the first day, I managed to hook one briefly from the bow of the boat, only to lose it. 

Nick was quick to point out my error--that is, to lift my rod. I was a bit annoyed, because I knew I'd hooked it before lifting the rod. But Nick clarified by saying that you should never lift your rod, but rather to crank down on the fish, and to keep the rod low. The fish have such hard mouths that we were supposed to keep the rod low and apply maximum pressure. Oh, well, I thought...I'll do it right next time. And next time never came. Why, you might ask (as I did)? Because, as it turned out, there was a "hatch" of small swimming crabs offshore, and the GTs has abandoned the atoll to feed on the crabs. Our buddies, who fished offshore with conventional tackle caught 145 GTs during the week. That's where they were. We'd traveled 10,000 miles to catch one, and they moved a few miles to deep water. Pretty ironic, huh? Nick had us stay close as we stalked a group of 40-60 lbbumpy-head parrot fish that spooked on the first cast. Then we waded a shallow "tabletop" flat where we spotted some parrot fish, and a couple of giant trevallys passing through beyond our casting range. 

We carried 12-wt and 9-wt rods, so that we could cover all the bases. Nick carried whatever we weren't using. Bobby and I were so used to a self-sufficient form of angling that we found it hard to have someone carry our spare rods for us. Indeed, all of the guides carried a sizeable backpack, filled with cameras, food, water and flies, while the clients carried only one rod and our flies.

Third entry--It was a wild place. Imagine a half-moon sliver of sand, coral, lava, and cocoanut trees, separating the crashing surf from a protected lagoon that varies in depth from one foot to 10 feet deep. Coral heads ring the island making the surf extremely treacherous for surfers and boats, and dot the lagoon like cauliflower, making navigation a dangerous proposition. 

One of most interesting fishing areas is where the surf has broken through the atoll, creating a half-mile passage that you can walk through. On two separate days, our guides Peta and Jason opted to lead us through the passage into the surf where we spent several hours at low tide casting to bonefish, triggers, spangled emperors, and bumpy head parrot fish. What was surprising to me was how shallow the schools of bonefish would go, and yet how difficult they were to see against the mottled bottom and amid the churning water.  

We didn't spot any giant trevally, but were able to land a few bones. Here's a bonefish and a Spangled Emperor that Bobby caught on the surf side.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Where Have All the Big Reds Gone--Part 2

I have been "there and back again," since my last blog entry. It's a long story, filled with some accounts that you don't want to hear and others that you do. I have been half way around the world to fish the fabled Seychelles only to return home with more gratitude than ever for what we have on the Lower Laguna Madre. Every fishery has its unique character, but the LLM is unique for what it offers sight casting flyfishers. In regards to guiding on the LLM, I have a very good story that I will tell in the next couple of days, but until then, here's an article that I recently penned, and which should appear soon in a national magazine. -- Scott

Where Have the Big Reds Gone? Fishing Shallower and Later on the Lower Laguna Madre
Capt. Scott Sparrow

            When I was a child, the five-mile trip down the Arroyo Colorado to the Lower Laguna Madre seemed to take forever as the old 25-hp Sea King struggled against the weight of my dad’s plywood boat. As we’d chug past the entrance to one of the back lagoons, which revealed itself as only a sliver of silver on the horizon, Dad would often say, with the assurance of one who believes in things unseen, “There are big reds back there.” At least that’s what he’d heard from friends who knew people who had somehow fished there at a time when the only boats that could go that shallow were tiny one-man “scooters” built in someone’s garage. When my dad was near the end of his life, I surprised him one day by turning my skiff into the narrow passage between the black mangroves, and taking him on his first tour of that storied place.
Thinking of Dad, I returned to that lagoon in my Stilt just this past week with my dog Rosie. It was an hour before sundown, and the glare on the water was nearly blinding. But the screams of gulls following sweeping and crashing groups of redfish could be heard in all directions. Rosie and I walked slowly into the melee, and I was torn between catching a redfish and leaving them alone, but the exposed back of an approaching red in seven inches of water pushed me over the edge. After landing the 28-inch red that somehow found my fly in the windblown, murky water, I walked back to the boat, thankful, and just watched them continue feeding.
            I was recently talking to a sight casting guide friend, who said, “The fishing is not what it used to be. There are so many boats out there, and the fish are hard to find.” I had to agree that the fishing on the LLM had certainly changed in response to increasing pressure. Not long ago, it was common to find herds of redfish in the morning, and to see oversized reds among countless smaller fish cruising and feeding in the clearest water of the east side “sand.” But the large schools are scarce, and sight casting on the sand is rarely as good as it used to be. However, in the face of my friend’s pessimism, I privately thought to myself that the fishing was still excellent, even better in some places, but that the locus of activity has shifted away from the popular areas. Indeed, from my experience after fishing the LLM since the 50s, and flyfishing the LLM since the late 70s, the largest redfish in the Lower Laguna Madre feed increasingly in very shallow and hard-to-access locales during active feeding periods, and then withdraw into deeper water, where sight casting is impossible, until favorable conditions recur. This may have always been true, but today we can actually observe this phenomenon with the help of modern shallow-water skiffs. One might reasonably ask, Why do the biggest fish feed in water that’s barely deep enough to host them? There are several reasons, not the least of which is that the fish can feed without dealing with crisscrossing boats. But the larger reds have other reasons to spend time in five to seven inches water. For one, as they mature, reds and trout alike tend to move away from a predominant diet of smaller prey such as shrimp and gravitate toward feeding on fin fish. In the shallowest backwaters, hoards of finger mullet will often gather, making these venues especially attractive to the larger reds. Since these places are so shallow, top-end predators can feed, essentially, in two dimensions, driving baitfish that have no place to go but up, and then down again, into waiting mouths.
            Everyone wants to know where to go, and I usually tell people if they ask. Any aerial map will tell you where the shallowest areas can be found, but such places often have submerged shallow bars that can destroy lower units and leave all but the shallowest skiffs high and dry. If I were to draw a map, “X” would not only mark the spots where the big fish can be found, but it would also signify a dangerous place to take most boats. Fortunately, if you can gain access to these areas on the Lower Laguna, your prop won’t do much damage to the grass. For, except for widgeon grass––which grows rapidly in these areas during the summer months in response to fresh water runoff––and glasswort that grows in the non-navigable areas, the waters in these back lagoons are usually devoid of sea grasses because the areas are periodically dry during extreme low tides.  The problem isn’t so much what your motor will do to the bottom, but the impact it will have on the fish. The big reds feeding in the back lagoons are exceeding sensitive to boat noise, and will often completely leave the area once disturbed. So if you want to target these “refuges,” then you need to pole in, or get off the boat and wade the last couple hundred yards.  Your effort will be amply rewarded by fish that overlook your presence. Of course, anyone without a shallow water skiff can, if dedicated, wade into these areas. But the fish aren’t always there, making it practically necessary to know more than just “where.” It’s even more important to know “when” and “why.”
            Before the proliferation of bay boats, the answer to “when” may have been simpler than it is today. Indeed, it’s probably true that tide mostly governed the coming and going of large redfish into the back lagoons before the modern era. In support of this idea, I have found that on weekdays or on relatively quiet weekends, the reds will populate these areas on the incoming tide, and tend to leave as the tide begins to go slack. It’s almost as simple as that. However, since the advancement of shallow water boat design, the extent of truly inaccessible places has shrunken to a narrow band of habitable water surrounding an increasingly pressured bay system. This means that as the tides fall, and the shallowest backwaters lose their luster, the fish tend to go to the other extreme—into deeper water where they can sit out the noise and disruption of boat traffic. Between the two extremes, anglers often scratch their heads and wonder if, by chance, something has gone terribly wrong.
            One of the most exciting things I’ve discovered pertaining to the question of “when” and “why” in the last few years, is that the redfish are feeding later in the day, once the boats have vacated the flats. This phenomenon is so robust that I’ve often taken to fishing after 6 pm, at least with friends and family, in the summer months in order to capitalize on the changing rhythms. I discovered this phenomenon, somewhat by accident a couple of years ago when I had to flee a thunderstorm with some clients early in the day. I felt so badly that the day had been abruptly ended that I offered to take them back out once the weather had cleared. I headed to one of the back lagoons after 5:00 pm, and poled into 100 acres of eight inches of water. At first we saw nothing, but then birds appeared over sweeping fish, and before the sun had set we had poled into hundreds of redfish sweeping around the inlet feeding noisily. We had double hookups, and it was an angler’s dream.
My assumptions about when to fish changed from that moment onward. As to “why,” I realized that the fish were simply adjusting to boat and angling pressure. After all, most guides and recreational anglers will hit the bay at daybreak and fish hard until early afternoon. By 3:00, the LLM is virtually devoid of boats, even on a Saturday, except for night fishing anglers who tend to anchor in the deeper troughs, and fish quietly with cut bait. Any fish with a brain in its head would soon gravitate toward the latter part of the day, given the obstacle course that we have erected.
            Since then, I have found redfish pouring onto the east side sand, as well as into the westside back lagoons, just before dark. This fish are not simply “left over” from the day, but exhibit an aggressiveness that bespeaks of pent-up hunger. While I do not know if this phenomenon is new, or simply new to me, it makes sense that the game fish have adapted to the disruption of boat traffic and angling pressure by holding off until the environment is less cluttered. It gives me a lot of hope to believe this; for otherwise, I might agree with some of my friends who simply lament that it’s not the way it used to be.
            While feeding redfish may be shifting to the evening hours, big reds can still reliably be found on the incoming tide, in particular, during the daytime hours on the shallowest frontier of the Lower Laguna Madre. This past fall, for instance, I was guiding two young brothers––Shawn and Scott––who had just taken up flyfishing. We went into a back lagoon at daybreak that, until a few years ago, had probably never seen a boat. I was poling along the edge of a vast, shallower area stretching out to the west of us that I believed was devoid of game fish. The wind was so low that we could hear whatever was happening around us. Suddenly, I heard a recognizable explosive sound somewhere out in the shallowest expanse. “Did you hear that?” Both guys nodded. “That’s the sound of a feeding red, and it’s out there in virtually no water.” Moments later, we heard the sound again, but this time it was off to the right of the first one. Clearly, there was more than one fish in the critically shallow area. Shawn grabbed his rod, and announced, “I’m going hunting.”  While he waded on a firm clay bottom toward a nearby “island” of glasswort from which the sound had originated, I turned the skiff west with Scott on the bow, hoping that I’d be able to get out of there later on without having to walk my boat back to deeper water. After poling for about 100 yards, we spotted the backs of two large redfish near an opening between two glasswort islands. Scott slipped into the cool water as quietly as possible, while I staked the boat and grabbed my camera. We hadn’t gone very far before Shawn’s cries behind us announced a hook-up. And then, a few minutes later, Scott followed with hooking and landing a 29-inch redfish. Needless to say, it was a memorable morning for two novice flyfishers.

            It may be tempting to believe that the glory days of redfish action on the Lower Laguna Madre have passed, because the fish don’t seem to be where they used to be. But a closer examination reveals that many of the larger reds in the estuary can be found feeding aggressively in the shallowest venues beyond the reach of most watercraft. Surely, it makes sense that game fish are spending more time in these shallow venues in response to boat traffic and angling pressure. It also makes sense that they are turning away from daytime feeding, and exploiting the unpressured conditions of the evening and night. While we may regret the changes in the historic patterns, we might take heart that the fish are finding ways to survive, if not thrive, in spite of us. And if we’re willing to acknowledge why they’re in these places, and limit the impact of our presence by poling or wading in and out of them whenever possible, it’s likely that the big reds will take refuge in these special places for decades to come.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Where have all the big reds gone?

(Dictation software often leaves strange artifacts--there may be some left, so please forgive me, if so.)

The title of this blog is the same title as an article that I've recently written for Tide magazine. In it, I present the thesis that I've been developing for two years now--that the big reds are shifting toward nighttime feeding, and into the shallowest sanctuaries on the LLM.

I know that It's hard for people to believe, but the finest fishing is often to be found after 5:00 PM. It's then when all the other boats have gone that the fish often move into some of the areas where we often fish but often do not find them when we think we should. To illustrate the truth of this, I took my dog Rosie with me on an afternoon trip upon arriving at the Arroyo about 5:30. We didn't get on the water till about six and we were fishing at a time when the sun was low to the horizon. I got to the spot where I thought they be feeding, as they often have in the last two years when I've been visiting this place in the late evening. They didn't seem to be there yet, at least, so I got out with Rosie and we waded into the area, a very shallow expense of  5 to 6 inch water. There were a lot of mullet so it was hard to perceive the subtle signs of game fish feeding. But after a while, I can see that there were some redfish starting to come into the area, probably intending to feed during the night. My first cast was a top water to a very large fish that promptly jumped on the fly, and broke off in the heavy grass. I had to three more misplaced shots in the area before I thought it was probably all over, so I moved into even shallower water to get away from the grass so I could walk back to the boat without great effort. Then it happened. I looked out into the glare 200 yards to the north and an equal amount of yards to the west and saw several redfish with the backs of the water that were clearly oversized, meaning over 28 inches in length.  It was so shallow that I thought their eyes would probably be in and out of the water, making it very difficult to approach them. I still had not caught the first redfish, but I realize that even one of these fish would make the day. Rosie is a very good companion, and does not make much noise, but as we walked into the shallow area, I was concerned that the combination of the two of us would alert the big fish and fish them away. We had at least four oversize reds within 100 yards of us, clearly feeding. Every once in a while one could blow up, probably on a crab, and then proceed to saunter along clearly visible at a great distance. Finally, I saw two redfish, one significantly larger than the second. The smaller one was swimming toward me, and almost within casting range when I dropped to my knees and decided to wait for the larger fish. The smaller fish, probably a 27 inch redfish, came up to me, turned sideways and swam by me within 40 feet. The second fish turn directly toward me and I can see its back out of the water, with a head several inches wide approaching me. I stayed on my knees, and urged Rosie to be quiet and be still as I began to false cast. Finally, I dropped the fly just beyond his head, and cringed realizing that I had to strip the fly past him in order to cast again. I stripped slowly so as not to alert him, and the fly came up to within 6 inches of his head. Knowing that it was the moment of truth, I let the fly slow down and drop to the bottom even though I knew it would immediately foul on the grass and algae that covered the bottom. Nonetheless, the big red perceived it and turned sideways, and with its head down its back suddenly coming all away out of the water. He was on, and wow what a fight. I spent the next 20 minutes trying to

coax them in within range of grabbing the line, but he would have nothing of it. If he'd not been in such shallow water, he would've swam much further, but he had such a difficult time negotiating the 5-inch water that ultimately I was able to retrieve him without him becoming too tired.  I pulled him up to us, and I took some photos as best I could before I released him, a 30-inch or better redfish, weighing approximately 11 pounds by my estimation. It was one of the best catches I've had in several years, and it was one of the most exciting angling encounters I've had in my entire life. This kind of evening fishing is so phenomenal, and it's very hard to convince people of just how good it is. But if you want to get out there, and show up just before sundown, you may discover the most remarkable flyfishing you ever had in your entire life.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Great fishing for big reds

I guide an old client tomorrow--John Karges, a Nature Conservancy biologist who appreciates the Lower Laguna as much as anyone I've ever met. It's great to be with someone who looks at Nature through a deep and sophisticated lens. The feeling of the sacred is always closeby when I share my home waters with someone who is so awake.

I had a great fishing day with my son a few days ago. We found the big reds in the "hall of the giants," a back lagoon where the larger reds tend to feed. We got there at 9 am, later than usual. But they were there, feeding aggressively. After I landed an oversized red, I called Ryan over and suggested a particular line for him to follow--up against a grass bed. He immediately caught a smaller red, and then a few minutes later hooked his own oversized red. We're not into numbers, so he escorted his fish back to the boat for a photo, and we went home happier than we'd been together in a very long time. Fishing can deepen and renew father-son bonds. I give thanks that we share flyfishing. So many fathers and sons don't share a common language. Consider teaching you son while you still have time.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Extreme Flyfishing Video

Here's my latest flyfishing video, taken this past weekend when my old client and friend Henry Bone from Austin joined me on the water for two days of incredible action. 

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Late evening memories

I often go out onto the bay in the late evening, on the day before I guide. It's a private moment in an otherwise pretty public life. So Rosie and I headed out on Thursday before three days of guiding, just to enjoy our home waters. I went to one place only, and noticed birds working in very shallow water, so I pulled over and watched them. Wow, suddenly, redfish were ripping through the shallow
water, throwing water and bait in the air. I took my rod and walked a few yards from the boat, and stood upwind of the melee. I didn't really have any ambitions, but when some wakes started heading my way, I thought, Why not? The first red that came upwind took my fly like a hungry bass, with an audible suck. It was "only" 24 inches long, and after a pretty good fight, I released it and looked downwind. A larger wake approached, so I tried to put the Clouser ahead of it. It was windy, though, and the fly flopped 18" to the side of the moving wake. There was an explosion, and the fish literally came out of the water. I thought that I'd spooked it, but apparently, it had felt the fly on its lateral line, even in the wind-churned, murky water. Suddenly, I was hooked up to a living freight train. A few minutes later, I landed a redfish that was 28+ inches long. I went back to the boat, and enjoyed watching the redfish feeding. They are hammered so much by boats running back and forth over most of the bay. It's nice to see them relatively untroubled in a back lagoon where few anglers every think of going because only a very few boats will take you there, and back home again.

Extreme Flyfishing

Wow, what an amazing two days with my old client and friend, Henry Bone, from Austin. We went way north yesterday (80 mile round trip!), and then way beyond the usual limits of angling to the east this morning, and we enjoyed phenomenal fly fishing. Words fail me. We lost count of how many fish we landed. 

It's hard to believe how shallow the reds were feeding this morning. The nearest boat was over a mile away, and we had to walk 200 yards into shallower water than even the Stilt would go. That's shallow! I got lots of video, and I will be editing it into a finished video in the next day or two. Rosie starred as the second mate. She's bone tired after all of the wading, though. Let's have a hand for great dogs and faithful lovers.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Intense angling, and intense weather

I spent four days last week on the water, and was supposed to spend four more days this week. But my clients opted to reschedule to do a combination of weather and inexperience. I always prefer to reschedule novice flyfishers if it looks like the forecast is iffy. An experienced flyfisher can deal with strong wind, and has learned to see fish in challenging conditions; but to put a novice on the water in such weather is a form of cruel and unusual punishment. The money does not compensate for the sick feeling of watching someone struggle unnecessarily.

That being said, the bay has settled down somewhat, in spite of the unstable weather of this past week. I guided my old clients Bob Buchman and Rich Bemm for four days last week. While we didn't land many fish, we saw a ton of reds and large trout in a variety of locales. Bob and Rich had some pretty challenging wind conditions to deal with. Fortunately, or not, they have had stellar results in previous years. Indeed, one of my favorite YouTube videos was one that I did of their last trip. I just discovered, in fact, that I haven't posted it on the Kingfisher site. I will remedy that now, but here's the video in case you haven't seen it:

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

A Very Challenging May

I am not one of those anglers who says, “It’s not the way it used to be.” I tend to see the changes on the bay as natural rhythms that a master angler needs to adjust to, rather than complaining that the bay has deteriorated just because the old tactics no longer work. With that in mind, let me say that this May was the most difficult May I’ve ever seen on the LLM. Not because the fish aren’t there, or because the estuary is degraded, but because the weather was so extreme that sight casting was exceedingly difficult. Indeed, except for the earliest part of the month, when we had low winds and full sun, May was characterized by cloudy, unstable weather, with winds in excess of 30 mph by afternoon on most days. 

To add insult to injury, “birding” was almost nonexistent, as far as I could tell. True, I tended to fish south of the mouth of the Arroyo, simply because water clarity was better down there, but I was able to compare notes with guides fishing north, and there was a general consensus that birding never “arrived.” 

This is not to say there weren’t memorable windows of opportunity. My days with Ted Ruffler from Florida were superb examples of what can happen when low winds, cloudless skies, and expert casting come together. We had two consecutive afternoons of finding fish in the shallowest water on the east side, where single large reds could be seen 100 yards away. Since Ted had an 80+ foot cast, he could get the fly out in front of the fish, even after they’d turned from the sight of the Stilt. It was amazing action.

When a new client, Amir, came down from Maryland a couple of days later, he faced a completely changed situation. I had seen the forecast in time to warn him not to come, but his travel plans were locked in, so he had no choice. Anyway, he was a seasoned saltwater angler who knew that weather was king, but an experienced angler could still prevail under poor conditions. I was not optimistic when we left the dock on our first morning out. The US flag in the RV park was at attention in 25 mph wind, and the condition worsened through the day. I headed for the only place on the bay where I thought we might conceivably see tailing reds, and after a 30 minute ride, we came off plane, pleased to see that the water was still clear. In less than a minute, Amir had stepped onto the bow and hooked up on his first redfish. I breathed a sigh of relief, but knew that we couldn’t count on miracles. Amir got off the boat and began stalking tailing pods that were barely discernible on the windswept surface, and managed to catch two more reds before the podding evaporated. I thought to myself, secretly, “We could probably go home now, and count our blessings.” But, of course, we spent the next seven hours visiting a variety of locales, struggling to see fish beneath the low tumbling clouds in murky water.

On our second day out, I went right back to our starting point, hoping for a repeat of day one. The fish were there, but not as many as the day before. Amir caught only two before we headed north and east, finding nothing for hours. Finally, I realized that his only hope was to do something we rarely do with our clients—have them blind cast. Since Amir was an excellent caster, and could drive the fly 70-80 feet under windy conditions, I suggested that he wade through an area where we’d seen a lot of reds, but could not cast quickly enough to them in the low-light conditions. Amir gladly got off the boat, and waded for about an hour downwind, casting a Kingfisher spoon as he went. Sitting on the boat, and bringing it slowly down behind Amir, I felt pretty useless, knowing that it was all up to chance—not my eyesight, or poling skill—but the sheer luck that most fly fishers loathe to depend on. I was relieved when I saw Amir suddenly hook up on what was clearly a sizable fish. It ran without turning, and finally threw the fly. I was disappointed, of course, but Amir waded back to the boat with a smile on his face. It had made his day.

Most people show you their true colors when they face difficult days on the water. As for Amir, he showed Julie and me the “stuff he was made of” when he had dinner with us on the first night. I was concerned that he’d seen the bay at its worst, and I wanted to show him how good it could be. I took out my laptop, and opened up a video clip I’d taken of Ted just a couple of days earlier. The scene was a golden dawn, with redfish tails waving against a dead calm surface. Ted casted again and again into the tails until the feeding reds spotted his spoon fly and fought over it. I thought Amir would express some envy at Ted’s good fortune, but he only smiled and said, “But that would be too easy.” I laughed and put the laptop away, knowing that there was nothing more he needed to know.

Guiding so much that there's been no time to do fishing reports

Hi friends, I apologize for not updating this report! I have been on the water 15 days during May, and unable to do much else than fish and counsel (my other job when I'm not teaching, too) but I will getting around to the fishing report later today. For now, suffice to say that May has been pretty tough due to the unstable weather north of us. It's been more like March than a typical May. But there have been some good days amidst the unstable conditions, and June is looking much better (lower winds and more stable weather). Look for a lengthy summary of May later today!


Thursday, May 7, 2015

Stellar Flyfishing Giving Way to Winds and Clouds

This is not a lengthy post, given that I simply don't have time to write down my reflections of the past five days on the water. But suffice to say, it was the best of times and the most challenging of times. It's almost never a bad experience to be on the Laguna Madre unless your motor quits, but it can be challenging.

My client, Ted Ruffler, from Florida arrived last Thursday night for three days on the water. We had perfect conditions for the first day, near-perfect for the second, and downright abysmal on the third.  He caught 14, 13, and 1 reds during the three days, revealing the simple formula for success on the Lower Laguna, which is "Choose a day with mild winds and full sun." But who can do that with regularity when you have to plan your fishing trip at least a month in advance? It boils down to making the most of the hand that Nature deals us.

Here's some photos from Ted's three days. I don't have time for a blow-by-blow account, but I think you can see from the photos that we had a very good time.

After Ted left, I had the pleasure of co-guiding with Randy a group of four anglers from Austin. It was tough fishing, with high winds from dawn to dusk, and mostly clouds. It was the kind of days that locals stay home. But our clients were game, so we showed up and did our best. A couple of photos attest to the minimal, but significant catches of the two days. Again, if you can choose your travel, and reschedule as needed, Randy and I are always happy to accommodate you.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Catching Fish when Everyone's Home

The other day, Julie, Rosie (our dog) and I headed out late in the afternoon. The wind was at 22+ mph, and straight out of the south, which is not ordinarily a "good" wind, because it blows straight down the Lower Laguna, without anything to break it. Normally, the wind is from the southeast, which makes all of the difference in the world on a windy day, when just a few degrees to the east means that the wind blows across Padre Island, leaving the easternmost areas of the LLM clear, even in 20+ mph afternoon wind.

We'd brought the kayak strapped to the foredeck of the Stilt, but we left it on the deck, because it was simply too windy and shallow for Julie to take off to the north. I might have been unable to get the boat up on plane without her weight in the front of the boat, so she contented herself with the single bottle of bear that she'd brought along.

The sun was low--it was about 4:30--but there were no clouds, so I could tell that there was no clear water on the east side. The way you can tell is to scan the horizon with your polaroids on. If you can see a dark line just where the water meets the sky, then you know that there's clear water ahead. This time, there was no dark line, so I leaned over and shouted to Julie, "There won't be clear water unless it's in the last couple of hundred yards."

Two boats drift-fished nearby, but I passed them both heading for shallower water. Watching my prop wash for that alarming gray-black color that meant I'd gone too far shallow, I finally shut down in about 9 inches of water. I could barely see the bottom, but I knew that clearer water awaited me to the east, and that the reds would probably be visible, even in these conditions, because they would be in 6-7 inches of water, just west of the "shelf" where the water goes from 6 inches to 2.

Rosie took up her customary position just behind me, and licked my calf from time to time as I waded further east, leaving Julie sitting on the Stilt in the late afternoon, golden light.

No one I know flyfishes under these conditions. By 3 or 4:00, the guides are in, and what's more, everyone laments the strength and the direction of the wind on a day like this one. But the fish were there in a classic setting, and visible from 60 yards away, heading unwind singly, swimming quickly and darting from one side to the other. Doing what, you might say? Feeding on mullet or anything else they could flush by swimming fast through almost terminally shallow water.

I only stayed about 30 minutes, since Julie was with me. But in that time, I had three shots at incoming redfish. They appeared clearly visible over 50 yards away, as pinkish-dark forms against a uniformly brown bottom, but they also showed themselves as wave forms that interfered with the down-wind waves. I blew the casts at the first two fish,which is easy to do under these conditions. Not only is the water so shallow that the reds are on high alert from anything out of the ordinary, but they are constantly moving, making yesterday's good cast fall on the wrong side of today. The third red--the big one--rushed the Clouser, and and mouthed it; but the tiny hooked failed to connect when I stripped hard. It was then that I turned around and began my hike back to the Stilt, which was a tiny dark sillouette against the bright western sky.

If you can put this kind of flyfishing into your repertoire, you will have covered the "third base" of the angling day on the Lower Laguna, and you can slide into home knowing that you've done something that most people never dream of.
What a strange early season! First a wet and cold winter, and now thunderstorms just about every day. There have been good days, of course, but the weather has been unusual and unstable. Just take a look at today's forecast. Here's an image from Weatherunderground, that shows the next week's forecast.

Due to these conditions, almost everyone has shifted their fishing trips to May and beyond. Indeed, I'm so booked in May that I'm turning away requests. Randy has openings, if you're interested in that time frame.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Finding Fish on a Windy Day

I went out with my guide friend John Pilmer this past Sunday. I may have stayed in port if I'd been able to access the forecast, which called for 20-30 mph winds; but all I had to go by was the flag that flies at Channelview RV Park, which was barely erect at daylight.  Wind doesn't bother me much anyway, and the gentle breeze suggested a pretty fine day on the sand, at least. John joined me on the dock at 6:30, and we took off heading for some westside venues, in search of gulls working over podding reds. Alas the birding was not "on," so we ended up on the sand two hours before the sun would give us sufficient visibility for sight casting.

Even though we arrived on the sand too early for sight casting, it was clear that the fish were there from the blow-ups that we saw as the boat drifted north with the 15 mph wind in 8 inches of water. We poled along the edge of prohibitively shallow water in order to see whatever was there. Slowly, the sun rose in the cloudless sky, giving us progressively better viewing until the fish began showing up 30 feet, then 50 feet ahead of us. Unfortunately, just as the conditions reached "acceptable viewing," the fish seemed to disappear, and we found ourselves encountering fewer and fewer reds on  the sand. John pulled a great cast out of his hat, and hooked up on the first red of the day. After landing it, we drifted for another 20 minutes before I blew my first decent shot of the day.

We ran up to the East Cut and had some good shots near the channel before heading back south onto the sand, where the reds were gathering in greater numbers. We had several shots, and John landed a second red while I hooked up and lost one. The fishing was getting better and better, but we decided to go in, given that Julie was at the trailer, and John's new dog Danny was probably missing him. It was a great early season outing, and we could have caught many more fish. But neither of us need to catch many before we're happy.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Big Reds in February

I had the privilege of guiding Dennis Kreutz from Denver a few days ago, and thought I'd already posted something about our trip. We'd already cancelled two planned days of flyfishing about a month ago due to weather. Cancelling due to weather is typical in February: too many cold fronts, and not enough sunny days to justify getting out on the bay, where the water temps are still so low that the air is 10 degrees colder than over land, and the fish are still in slow motion.

The tides had risen considerably since January, which did not please me. I love the super low tides of January and February, and can depend on seeing fish on a sunny day under such low-water conditions. But alas, there was 6 inches of fresh water in the way, foreshadowing the influx of seawater characteristic of early March. So I adjusted my plans and targeted some back lagoons where the water was only a foot or less deep.

We poled into a back lagoon that I hadn't visited in half a year, so I felt totally ignorant of what we'd find. It was too shallow for any other skiffs to be poling in the 7 inches of water, so I felt pretty confident that the water was "virgin" and likely to host some feeding fish that were beyond the usual margins of anglers. Sure enough, as we poled into the 10 acre lagoon, we started hearing blow-ups along the shorelines, and could spot an occasional back popping above the surface, or snaking through the shallows. The wind was about 12 mph, but I was able to pole the Stilt a full 360 degrees, so I headed down one shoreline and planned to pole back out along the far shoreline.

The action was intense. Each fish was big, and except for one 7-8 lb trout that Dennis casted to, all of the fish were 26-28 inch reds that were feeding alone and spaced out along the shoreline. Dennis was an excellent fly caster, but the fish were in such shallow water that Dennis faced the catch-22 that anyone would have faced: If he casted the fly close enough for the fish to see, it usually spooked, and anything more than a foot from the fish would go unnoticed. Still, Dennis masterfully placed the Kingfisher spoon within inches of several fish, and the fish seemed uninterested. I think we had one fish follow the fly, but otherwise, they seemed somnambulistic. Why? A cold front was fast approaching, and the fish are often very skittish or unresponsive just before the frontal boundary passes through.

We headed north by late morning, and found an abundance of large redfish feeding in pairs and threesomes along a shoreline. By the time we'd reached the area, however, clouds had come up, and were making it difficult to see the fish soon enough to make a decent presentation. Still, the sun would peek out every once in a while, or the clouds would become thinner for a while, enabling Dennis to spot reds 20 feet from the boat, and try to make a clutch cast. He did remarkably well--a testimony to his experience--and placed the fly perfectly in front of a dozen fish. But again, they were touchy and so Dennis landed only one redfish in that venue.

My latest article in Tide magazine was "Don't Blame the Fish." While I embrace the philosoply that all fish are catchable, and it's up to you to close the deal, I have to confess that some fish are far less catchable than others, as Dennis and I discovered on a warm February morning ahead of a cold front.