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.