Wednesday, May 15, 2019

A Memorable Week on the Water

My friend Paul Robilotti from Montrose, PA, came down to fish with me for the past week. He and I fish the East and West Branches of the Delaware when I'm visiting Julie's family, and he flyfishes with me down here. Two years ago, we had such incredible May fishing that I thought, "No way this will happen again." I mean we caught double digits almost every day for a week, caught well over 100 reds, and made one of the best videos I've ever captured.

When I saw that the weather was supposed to be poor, I encouraged him to reschedule if he could. Rain and wind were forecasted for just about every day for the week of his visit. But Paul said he'd prefer to take whatever nature dealt us. So he arrived last week on Tuesday night. Wednesday, after my final department meeting, we took off with my dog Rosie for our trailer at Channelview RV Park in Arroyo City, armed with plenty of gas and freshly tied flies.

That afternoon, we went out hoping for birding. We found extremely high water levels associated with hurricane tides. What was up? Well, we had a new moon, which creates high tides each month, and especially high tides in the spring and fall. But they tides were beyond our usual seasonal highs. For some time now, we have seen not-so-subtle changes on the LLM. Grass is covering the east side, black mangroves line every shoreline, and fish have changed their feeding patterns. Much of this is due to warm winters, and hotter summers. The warm winters have fostered plant growth, and the hot summers have driven the fish off the flats during midday, and encouraged nighttime feeding. I have written extensively about the shift of feeding activity to the evening hours, but I wasn't sure we were going to find that pattern happening so soon in the season. But we did.

We did poorly that evening, and the next day, too, with Paul landing a single red that was in a pod under some birds. The birding was "on" during the afternoon, but the water levels were so high that nothing could be seen beneath the hovering and dipping gulls. Once you waded up to them, and they peeled off, nothing was left to cast to. It was a bit disheartening to find the only action of the day so void of targets.

Chip joined us on Friday, and we did better. We found birds early, and the winds were tolerable. We only landed two reds, but we found visible tailing fish under birds. Later we found a few tailing reds down south, but caught none.

We took the day off on Saturday, since Paul had an orthodontics appt. in Mexico, and I had to attend graduation in McAllen.

On Sunday, Chip and Ryan joined us for what turned out to be our best day thus far. We landed six reds in the morning, three under birds, and three that were tailing in clear water. I saw birds working in "impossibly shallow" water, and despite my rational assessment that nothing could actually be there, I hiked half a mile further into what, from the distance, looked like dry land. It was a site to see--reds feeding aggressively and then disappearing in five inches of water. It's amazing how they can hunt in almost no water, and move about almost imperceptibly. I caught one of them, and called Ryan to join me. Alas, we were fishing upwind, and the action was spread out. At about 1:00, we decided to go in, because it was Mother's Day and Chip had to be home, and Ryan needed to get some rest before his work week. Paul and I napped for a while, then headed out for some hoped-for evening action.

It was the highpoint of the week. I had decided not to fish, but to handle the boat and provide support for Paul. We were thinking that it was the last time we'd have on the water, since the forecast called for 80% rain the next morning.

We immediately found tailing reds under birds. Paul caught two reds and a 21" trout before we saw birds working, once again, far beyond the usual margins of habitable water. So we took the boat as far as we could, and waded three hundred yards further toward a mass of birds working over reds in "spit." Alas, they broke up and shot upwind of us. Dragging ass back to the boat, we considered fishing a different area, where the fish may have headed. I took the Stilt over there, and shut down as we saw a few birds working near a shoreline.

The largest red I've caught in years -- 33"
Paul waded directly to the birds, but found casting to be difficult in grass-filled water. Eventually, I ambled toward him, and saw some activity another 200 years further, so...though tired, I decided to check it out. As I got close, I could see that reds were all over, pushing water and attacking bait as birds tried to stay aloft in the dying wind. Groups of five or six obviously large fish were feeding in the area. I started casting, and could not get their attention. Or I would spook them. I was becoming frustrated, and then I thought, "Settle down and stop aggressing on the fish. Make a gentle cast." I switched to a size 8 Mother's Day fly--a tiny fly for the conditions, but one that I could case unobtrusively--and made a couple of short casts to what appeared to be a large red that had stopped its sweeping action, and was swimming slowly by me. Suddenly, it took my fly and made a run that almost took my arm off. Fortunately, the leader held. For the next 45 minutes, I fought a fish that I never really turned until the last 3-4 minutes. It was so strong that I found myself simply holding my rod against an immovable force that wouldn't budge until, suddenly, it would shake its head to let me know it was still alive. I was using my 6-wt TFO Axiom II, and my TFO Power reel, which were up to the task. But I never felt that I was in control, even when I reached down, thirty minutes after sundown and felt for the fish's tail in the dark. It was eery grasping at the tail of a 32", 17 lb red. Paul had been wading close by in case I needed help, and when I lifted the fish out of the water, with difficulty, Paul said, "Oh my God, that's a huge fish!"  I walked over and said, "I want you to feel this fish." He took it and couldn't hold to the slippery monster. It fell back into the water, caught its second wind, and it was another five minutes before I held him. We carried him to the boat to measure him, and were able to determine its length by adding the six-inch span between my thumb and pointing finger to the 26" ruler that was on the deck. 32" and 17 lb. estimated. Paul took this picture with his Iphone before we released the fish. When I got the Stilt up on plane, and reached to turn on the running lights, they were out! So we had to run the 8 miles home without running lights. Fortunately, one of my favorite old clients had gifted me with a powerful LED flashlight that guided our way out of the back lagoon, and down the Arroyo to our slip at Channelview Park. We were so beat from the day! We at dinner at 10 pm and crashed heavily into sleep. A great end to a memorable week with Paul, my brother Chip, and son Ryan. The weather was bad, but we found the fish. As Eric Glass once said, Anyone can catch fish on a good day.

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