Sunday, September 15, 2019

Fishing with Two Young Guides

Getting old reminds me of my  Royal Poinsiana outside my kitchen window. The tree is huge and gnarly, and looks like it can't live much longer, but each spring it explodes in new leaf and blossom. I continue to surprise myself, and give thanks each day.

I had some old flyfishing clients scheduled this past weekend, but the forecast was for unstable weather, so I warned them ahead of time. They opted to reschedule, and this time of year it's often wise to do so. The weather service usually gets it wrong.

But I thought it would be a good opportunity for Ryan and me to do some fly fishing together. I'm teaching him about the bay, and each time we go out I try to cover some new ground for his benefit. On my way down on Friday, he called and said that Scott McConal was planning to fish that evening, and  that perhaps we might go out, too. I've offered to be  available to Scott, too, in his guide training process, and he and Ryan have become friends. So, arriving before Ryan did, I hurriedly launched the Stilt, and had it waiting in the water when he got there at 6:00. We only had about two hours before dark, so we headed out at maximum speed, and opted for a close-in venues so we wouldn't eat up our remaining light running to more distant venues.

My research in the past several years has focused on the pattern of reds moving into shallower water just before dark to feed during the night. I like to target the shallowest areas east and west to see if the larger fish are migrating from deeper areas just before dark.

We went to one area where I've often seen oversized reds congregating just before dark. My last post concerned catching a 32" red in the same area back in May, and wondered if the mythical "spawning" size reds would be there. I once called a biologist and asked him why reds that were over 30 inches were in the lower Laguna Madre if, as he said, the reds leave the bay system forever once they become spawners. He said he didn't know, but perhaps it was to follow bait. Seemed like a weak explanation, but everyone knows that reds in the 30-35" range hang out in certain predictable areas. One of those is very close to the shallow water venue where I've seen groups of 30+" fish feeding at night. Put it together and you conclude that they stay in deeper water during the day, and then migrate into specific shallower areas at night.

We didn't find them on Friday night, but that's okay. Fish that size don't need to be following a rigid pattern if they want to stay alive. What we did find is too many giant sheepshead making way too much noise to discern anything else in the area. Ryan caught a very large sheepshead in the final minutes of daylight. We went home happy, and had dinner at Chili Willis with Scott, and made plans to fish together the next morning.

As we headed on the Arroyo Colorado, we faced thunder showers that were sweeping toward us across Padre Island. We putted along, and finally decided to go for it. Racing toward the storms, we hoped to make to the mouth of the Arroyo before they did, and then turn south. We made it, and tucked back into the southwest part of Rattlesnake Bay. We were rewarded by clearing skies as the storms played out back to the north and east.

I wanted to show the boys some of the lesser known features of Rattlesnake. We went beyond the usual boundaries of fishable water, and even had to get out of the Stilt for a while, and float it behind us as the guys waded ahead. Scott spotted an incoming redfish, barely submerged in the 7" water, and caught it handily.

Once the skies had cleared, we headed back north because I wanted to show Ryan and Scott three close-in venues that are rarely fished, that offer tremendous opportunity in the fall, when the waters are higher. We poled the first area, and determined that the fish weren't there. So we got up on plane and shut down 200 yards upwind from the other "sweet spot." Watching some terns diving over an area festooned by great egrets, we soon spotted some sweeping reds. So we staked the Stilt, and waded stealthily into the area. Sure enough, we started to see tailing and sweeping fish mixed in with an alarming number of sting rays. Fortunately, we didn't have to cover much water, since the fish were moving around aggressively. I believe we landed five reds and a big sheepshead there before the action seemed to fall off. We agreed that if we'd had sunlight, we'd caught twice as many, because whenever the sun peeped out from behind the rain clouds to the east, we'd spot reds glowing in the shallow water.

We waded back to boat and repositioned half a mile away, where I'd landed the 32" red in May. The area is not fished at all. Indeed, it's deemed too shallow by most anglers, and seems like one of those "wet but not fishable" areas. If you never wade these areas, you never challenge these assumptions. But once you take the time, and get off the boat, and explore, you often find that depth is not entirely constant, and that areas can support large fish. It's these place that constitute the true sanctuaries on the Lower Laguna. All the fish have to do is to deviate slightly from the well-traveled areas, and suddenly you have the conditions for stellar sight casting.

We poled as far as we could into the area, but the combination of shallowness and grass finally created too much friction for Ryan to pole us any further. So we got out and waded slow toward a cul de sac, beyond which was too shallow to host game fish, at least under our current tidal conditions. Last spring, during higher tides, we found the fish hundreds of yards further in, where I'd never fished in my life.

We landed three more reds, but had plenty more opportunities. The conditions were extremely sensitive, and the water depth was so minimal that the fly would usually startle the redfish on the drop. The high point was Ryan stalking a nice 25" red through a mangrove-dotted area, where he had to cast over and between mangroves in order to reach the red, whose back was out of the water.

We ended the morning with three reds apiece, and a five-pound sheepshead caught by the senior member! 

The most rewarding thing about fly fishing these days is watching Ryan and Scott develop their angling and guiding skills. I had the pleasure of guiding Scott and his brother several years ago on their first fly fishing trip in saltwater, and both caught several reds. I'll never forget Scott stalking a 27" red and catching him (shown above) while his brother was whooping and hollering from 200 yards away, hooked up on his own fish. 

As for Ryan, he gave up spin fishing when he was only sixteen, and has been committed to fly fishing only ever since. That's amazing. And today he has one of the finest, most unique casts I've ever seen, and a deep appreciation for Nature. I am already learning from him. 

One last thing I will say about the subtle changes underway on the LLM. We have experienced a four-inch increase in water depth since the early 90s. That is a massive change. When I used to wade beyond fishable waters, either east or west, I'd reach the "algae mat," which was a dark, slick bottom that was most devoid of life. Why? Because the the areas would dry up during extreme low tides, creating the algae cover. Now, however, the algae mat begins much further, and the area that used to be covered with algae has sparse seagrass, worms and crabs thriving there. Most people would never know it, because the areas are not usually accessed by humans. But during high tides, you can imagine what happens: The fish gravitate toward these fertile new areas! And the logical times for them to visit these areas are are night and early in the morning, when the water is still cool, and the sunlight is not so bright as to blind the fish.

Yes, I know, I've said it before. But I don't think I will see you there. Because the bottom line is this: it takes the right boat, a considerable amount of faith, and a prodigious amount of energy to wade that far from your boat. All of that adds up to "you're crazy, man!"