Monday, December 25, 2017

Christmas Eve on the Laguna Madre

Tai, Ryan, and Rosie wading wet on Christmas Eve
When I awoke this morning, which happens to be Christmas, I realized that we -- my son Ryan, son-in-law Tai, and my angling dakini Rosie--hit it just right yesterday. The day before, it had been cold and breezy, and yet the wind settled and the temperature lifted just long enough to make for a perfect Christmas Eve of flyfishing sandwiched between typical south Texas wintry days.

We didn't hit the water at sunrise, nope, no way. It was 50 degrees, and while that may seem warm to some of you hailing from the north country, it's fireplace weather down here when it gets below 65. But the daytime high was supposed to be 77 by early afternoon, so we arrived at the dock at 9:30, and launched at 10 after loading our new Stilt with gear for its maiden voyage. 

I'm teaching Ryan how to guide, so as we left the dock, I said, "This is a standard mid-winter extreme low tide, and that means we go south." We headed for south Cullens Bay, and after a chilly 10-mile run, we crossed over into Cullens Bay through the Wreck Channel and headed west toward shallower water. I expected to find a ton of fish in two feet of water, which we did, but the question was whether we could find them in a foot of water where we could see them.

Only one other boat was in south Cullens, so we had it mostly to ourselves. I ran southwest until we were moving small groups of reds and pairs of very large trout. I shut down and saw that we were in water a bit deeper than a foot, but there were plenty of fish, so I hoped that we could spot them tailing or pushing wakes in the glassy water, or visible in the nearly full sunlight.  The wind was from the east at 6 mph, which meant that the surface was largely glassy, with rough patches here and there.

South Cullens can be quite difficult fishing. It's typical to find hoards of reds and trout in the winter, but remember the sun is half way to the southern horizon at the Solstice, and thus it's in your face if you have a north wind and wade or pole downwind. And when the wind is low, glare becomes a problem. On top of that, these fish get a lot of boat traffic, so they are touchy, especially the big trout. 

The guys slipped into the water, complained briefly about the chill, then remarked on how firm the bottom was. Wading in Cullens Bay is a real mixed bag: It can be easy, or it can be a death march for a less-then-fit and short-of-crazed angler. As luck would have it, I stopped in one of the firmer areas, and the guys set off to the south, targeting the surface tailing and waking that ensued for the next two hours. Meanwhile, I hung back, and went further west and shallow, hoping that the big trout were shirting the edge of the biomass, which is common for them.

The guys waded so so far that I couldn't tell how they were doing, but by their intensity of posture and frequency of casting, I could tell that they were not bored. For myself, I soon noticed that my slight waves were turning fish that were cruising on top, so I settled into a meditative attitude, hoping that the fish would come to me if I could tame my aggression. Sure enough, a nice red finally swam right up to me, and I hooked him on a pink Mother's Day Fly.  The guys were Kingfisher spoons, which perform better than an MDF in the thick turtle grass, but are a bit harder to cast--a tradeoff, as most things are in flyfishing.

Ryan had three encounters with big trout, and it's not surprising that he didn't hook any. I had two shots at catchable trophy trout (6-8 pounds), but I casted too close to one of them. After botching the cast on that one, I did some corrective self-talk, reminding myself to lead a big trout enough not to telegraph my cast. Redfish can be forgiving when you hit them on the head with the fly. But trout give you one chance, and if you're too aggressive on the first cast, it will be the last you see of her. A good lesson in many areas of life, I would say.

So my second encounter was a perfect opportunity. I saw the big trout coming over 200 yards away. She was coming out of the far southwest side of Cullens, probably moving with the outgoing tide. Anyway, I gave Rosie a little lecture about remaining still, since she has a way of shaking herself periodically while wading beside me, as if she can dry herself off when wading in shoulder deep water. I normally don't complain about this because her companionship is far more valuable than the occasional missed cast, but when there's a trophy trout heading for me, I strike a more serious tone with her. She understands, I am sure.

Finally, the big fish came within range. He big black tail could be seen swinging like a snake behind the wake, and the air of nonchalant confidence was palpable--perhaps it was my human projection--but clearly she wasn't worried about anything.

I put the fly a bit further from her approaching head than I'd hoped, but she felt it hit the water, and turned to it. I crouched, even though I was sixty feet from her--I didn't want her to spot me before she took the fly, and I knew that she might follow the fly all the way to my rod tip. Sure enough, she ran forward, as if to take the fly, then swerved, and came at it again. My heart was racing, and the distance between us was closing. Finally, I stripped the fly and it must have startled her because she exploded and was off for the hills. I was happy because I did everything right. But when it comes to big trout, you need a lot of luck, too.

We headed for the sand a while later, where we found reds mixed with sheepshead. It was a perfect afternoon--low breeze and glassy conditions. But we only had a few "takes" from sheepshead, which were surprisingly aggressive toward small chartreuse clousers. At the end of the day, we felt extremely blessed to have been granted such a beautiful day to spend together on the water.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Stopping and Seeing

On two consecutive Friday evenings, Julie and I took a boat ride to the sand with her kayak. 
On my first visit to the lagoon over a week ago, while standing and watching, I saw a vague wake and made my first cast. Ten minutes later, I landed a 27+" redfish after dragging it back to the boat for a photo. I released it and we headed home.

A week later, just this past Friday, we returned to the same spot and found the same roily conditions with balls of catfish feeding under crazed laughing gulls. There were no obvious signs of redfish, but again I simply stepped off the boat and walked 50 yards and stopped. After a few minutes, I saw the tip of a tail that I thought was a catfish. But not knowing for sure, I casted to it, and stripped the fly slowly past where its head could have been. I felt a tug, and grimaced, thinking that I would soon have to deal with a spiny catfish at the end of my line. But instead, a fish with considerable authority ripped my line and drove a huge wake in the 9" water. Fifteen minutes later, I landed a 30" red at the boat, asked Julie to take a photo, and then released him.

I'm not telling you this as a way of bragging. Heck, there's no fun in being alone with what I have discovered. I am telling you because I was amazed, and believe there's something to be learned from these successes. Both felt, from one perspective, like miracles. But from another perspective, they felt as easy and as natural as a laugh. It happens all the time, as Julie has observed time and again. Why is this possible, you might ask?  The Buddhists refer to this meditative process as "stopping and seeing." Both are natural components of experiencing fully. As a Zen master once said,

When all agitations have ceased and not a single wave arises, myriad phenomena are clear, without confusion, without obstruction. Thus seeing is not separate from stopping. Once the layers of obscurity have been cleared and no clouding occurs, the ten directions are empty, without stirring, without agitation.

The "stopping" involves allowing all of the perceptual information into your awareness by surrendering the assumptions that filter the information into biased observations. For example, an angler can stand on an open flat, and say, "There's nothing here," and he will see nothing because he has failed to "stop" his limiting assumptions. Or he can stand there and open himself to the full array of information that normally gets constricted by assumptions. Then, once the full array of information is flowing into one's awareness, one can begin a process of "seeing" -- that is, concentrating on emergent phenomena that may have been invisible beforehand. The "signal" that one is looking for often becomes evident only once all of the data is considered. I have often heard master anglers say, "I can see fish even when there's nothing there." What they're saying is that they are permitting subtle information to pass into deep awareness without the usual biased and constricted filtering. They see things that others don't see, simply because they are more open to the fullness of their experience.

But one cannot be aggressive or ambitious to allow this process to unfold. That shuts down seeing, and it prevents the "stopping" by being attached to crude measures of success. Indeed, the paradox inherent in this process is that, fundamentally, one cannot have much ambition in order to succeed. For myself, I don't much care if I catch a big fish or not, because the richness of the experience means more to me than that. When a person with sufficient skill and experience surrenders one's assumptions and becomes open to the moment, everything becomes possible, but nothing is really needed.