Saturday, October 7, 2017

The Changing Face of the Laguna Madre

This past year, I have guided less and fished with friends and Ryan much more. I've always said that the day-to-day working guide cannot afford to take big risks and explore new possibilities, because he's not paid for that. But when he's free to go places that he's only dreamed of, that's when he grows as an angler, and as a guide.

I have learned more startling truths this past year than ever before. It's been hard to write about, for two reasons--1) I'm not sure I want many people to know about these things, and 2) I'm pretty sure most people won't believe it.

If you've followed my blog entries over the past two years, you will know that I have been talking fishing shallower and shallower, as well as later in the day. Starting in May of this year, I began going to places that I once thought were "sterile" locales, characterized by a slick "algae mat" bottom, and very little subterranean crab and wormlife. But over the past couple of years, those places have totally transformed into softer-bottom, highly fertile vast venues that boats -- all boats-- cannot access because the depth runs around 4-6 inches. While the Stilt will float in 6 inches, slight variations on the bottom are enough to cause friction. So poling these areas is out of the question. consequently, those guides who rarely get off the boat will not venture into these skinny conditions which, from a distance, look barren and devoid of life.

I learned about these places from wading miles beyond where the boats can travel. I have to admit that two of the most unbelievable days of fishing occurred when I was with friends who "didn't know better," and walked away from me until my efforts to bring them back fell literally on deaf ears. In both of these cases, there was no life whatsoever to be seen around the boat, except for sheepshead and an occasional lone red. So my friends, not knowing that they were wading far beyond the usual limits of life, headed east onto what used to be dead zone of the algae mat. Passing nearly out of site in both cases, they discovered reds that were congregated in water too shallow to believe.

Even after these occasions, I had to constantly talk to myself whenever I was on my way to these out of the way places. When guiding some of my favorite clients from Colorado, I went ahead of them, to save them a fruitless and tiring wade over a mile east of the Stilt, which was in 8 inches of water. As I waded east on these occasions, I would use the glare of the rising sun to spot surface disturbances half a mile away. If  scan the bright slick just below the sun, you have a unique sighting window that reveals the slightest surface eruption much further away that a person's normal eyesight could discern. On one morning in May, I recall using this strategy to spot some surface action beyond an otherwise barren expanse. It was a struggle to convince myself to go on, to keep wading beyond my clients. But after wading about half a mile, a most amazing scenario unfolded, and it wasn't the only time this occurred. Suddenly tails started appearing, then pods, then acres of reds and black drum, all feeding in 6 inches of water, backs out.

I found this phenomenon on many occasions, and it always varied to some extent. The "best" days were comprised of discovering pods of reds hundreds of yards beyond a lifeless zone that would have turned any thinking person away. If you haven't had this experience, you will turn back without ever discovering an unforgettable opportunity.

The regularity of this phenomenon stands in contrast to the traditional practice of fishing early on the west side, then shifting to the east side sand. That routine is still a good one, but several things have changed since the 1980s, which makes this reliable  strategy less fruitful and less intelligent. For one, the sand has been disappearing for the last several years. Once bereft of seagrass and showing a near-white sandy bottom for miles, it is now covered with sparse Shoal and Widgeon grass, and the uniform whiteness is greenish and brown. While this has degraded the classic Caribbean-like sight casting, it has transformed the east side into far better habitat for worms and crabs, as well as for small fin fish and shrimp. Why has this change occurred? Two things: warmer winters, and no hurricanes. The last hard freeze that the bay experience, during which thousands of trophy trout were killed, was in 1989. Since then, the temperature-sensitive mangroves have taken over vast areas on the west side, to give you one index of warming conditions. Also, hurricanes have a way of sweeping the east of its fragile vegetation, leaving it bright again. We haven't had a direct hit in over 10 years.

To give you some idea of how things have changed, I walked back to the boat recently because Rosie was with me on a hot day, and she needed some water. I'd left Ryan and Julie's son Tai fishing, while Rosie and I got some water and sat on the edge of the Stilt. I looked down into the water, and studied the bottom. It was like an aquarium. A small eel swam by, and several baby hermit crabs were leaving trails in the soft sand. Tiny fin fish flitted through the sparse grass. Worm holes appeared every couple of inches, and two small blue crabs wrestled. I turned over the sand with my foot, and the first three inches were like powder from the burrowing activity of all of the subterranean life and intrusive game fish. I looked all around me, and there were dozens of dark spots created by feeding sheepshead, black drum and redfish. No wonder the fish were here.

It's not that unusual to run the west side at dawn and find very few fish in places that used to host large pods and schools at daybreak. At first, it puzzled me; that is, until I discovered that life on the bay is moving East during the night and the early part of the day. 

In addition to increasing habitats and food sources on the East side, the water temperature attracts game fish during the night and morning. Temperature is important because it controls the available oxygen. I forget the exact numbers, but oxygen is optimally available to fin fish when it's around d 65 degree. While redfish are hardy, and can thrive in water from the low 50s to the upper 80s, their ability to aggressively feed is limited by the available oxygen. So, during the night, the super shallow east side cool much faster. It doesn't have the thick, dark grass that absorbs sunlight, and thus cools more slowly through the night. So it's probably that fish go East and shallow in order to find cooler water and more available oxygen. When the sun rises, the fish on the East side tend to move West, because now the warming air temperature is raising the shallow water more quickly than the deeper water in the central bay. It's often believed that it's the sunlight that bothers the feeding reds, but I have often found them feeding in shallow water under a cloudless sky, but only if the air temps keep the water temp attractive to them.

If you go East early, go as shallow as you boat will go. Get out of the boat after drinking plenty of liquid, and walk east. When logic and experience tries to convince you to turn back, keep going. When it seems ludicrous to go further, and you find yourself cursing me, don't stop. Look east directly beneath the sun on the glare of the calm morning water. Keep going, and if you don't see anything, do it again later. Of course, water depth is important, but the reds need far, far less water than you imagine. I've have found them so shallow that they would have to literally slither over a mud bump or go around a clue of grass. 

Why do I tell you this? Again, if you're one of the ones who are willing to make the effort, then you deserve to discover this incredible truth. But if you do, there were be 99 others who won't ever go, who will always turn back, and who would've gone to another website before finishing this blog entry.

One fact that might convince you that I'm telling my truth, if not the truth. In all of the guiding I did this year, which wasn't nearly as much as I used to, I started on the west side on only one morning. On all the other days, I went east, and farther east that you may have ever gone.


Unknown said...

The Gospel According to Scott

Dr. Gregory Scott Sparrow said...

Hi Dan. I hope you're doing well!

Unknown said...

Doing great, thank you. In awe of your knowledge.