Saturday, January 18, 2020

Karma and fly tying

When I used to live in Virginia, and would come home to south Texas once a year for two weeks, I would spend part of almost every day on the water, fly fishing with my brother, Chip. I suffered from "saved up" intensity that sustained me through two weeks of low calorie, gung ho, don't-bother-me sheer craziness. I would fall asleep at family get-togethers in the evenings, and I looked like a raccoon in reverse with white-out eyes, and a roasted face.

My poor brother would fish with me each day for a while, then head back to the boat where he would sit like a statue watching me, sometime for hours more. No smartphone, no nothing to mitigate the boredom of waiting. I'm surprised he didn't complain more.

Fast forward to now, when my son Ryan has taken up the family angling and guiding torch. Two weeks ago he hammered on my wall of rationality and convinced me to believe the obviously erroneous weather report that said we'd be happy to have gone fishing even though another report accurately predicted a miserable day. I ultimately agreed to go, giving in to Ryan's incessant recitation of the fake weather news. We awoke at 6, and the wind was already howling. We were there, so we went, and it was horrible. The winds were up to 30 mph by the time we crabbed down the Arroyo, head down, chewing on blowing sand. Ryan admitted that from now on, he would yield to my assessment. We will see.

The next week was quite different. It was my turn to take the lead. I studied the tide chart, the NOAH wind and sunlight forecast, and realized that nature was offering us a rare triple positive readout for winter fishing: Super low tides at dawn, with an incoming tide afterward; full sun; and low winds. That's the prescription for winter fly fishing, and if you have the courage to tolerate an early morning boat ride in upper-40s to low-50s temps, you will find yourself in the midst of a veritable dream.

Still it's hard for me to get out of bed at 4:30 and drive 55 miles on a chilly morning. I called Ryan on the way and got no answer. I pictured him in bed unresponsive the to screaming alarm, and thought to myself, "If he doesn't respond soon, I'm heading back to bed!" But my fears proved unfounded when he rang me up a few minutes later saying he was already on the water getting the Stilt ready for launch. I don't know if I was more relieved or disappointed.

Ryan took the helm while I wrapped myself in my fleece and windbreaker, head down. Unfamiliar with the area during extreme low tides, he turned the boat over to me when we got to Cullens Point. I took the Stilt through one of the passes in the Intracoastal spoils, and planed toward the shallow northwest end of south Cullens. The turtle grass is so thick that the water looks much shallower than it is, but nonetheless we ran with the jack plate all of the way up to minimize the damage to the seagrass. The Yamaha prop fits entirely within the Stilt tunnel, so the damage is minimal.

We began seeing big trout and reds moving away from the boat as we moved away from the central trough of south Cullens into the shallower expanse of the west side. I shut down and poled further west to get away from the disturbance we'd created by our noisy intrusion. We were both eager to fish, and opted to wade rather than pole. Poling would normally have been great in the early light, but the turtle grass was so think that the boat would have rubbed against the grass so much than the friction would have tested even the strongest guide. So we decided not to struggle with the grass, and to wade. While we'd brought our waders, the sun was starting to warm the water, and except for an initial shock from the water temp, it turned out to be warm enough to wade wet without the threat of hypothermia. Indeed, within an hour, the air temp was comfortably in the 70s, the sun was direct, and the water was warming quickly.

I had not tied any flies the day before, but had plenty of Mother's Day flies in my fly box...that I'd left in McAllen! So I had to rummage through Ryan sparse collection. Not wanting to deprive him of the "most likely to succeed" flies, I opted for a Mother's Day Fly tied on a much heavier hook than appropriate without a weed guard. Poop, I thought. But I wasn't there to wup up on reds. A couple of good shots on big trout was my only intention, and a single fly, more or less appropriate to the occasion, was good enough for me. I figured I could adapt to the demands of the moment. I admit there's something about winter fly fishing catches me unprepared, and it was one of those days when I had failed to check my gear beforehand.

We encountered big reds that were spread out in the thick grass, showing their tails and backs as thy snaked along with hardly enough water to submerge them. They were alone and in small groups. The grass got thicker and thicker as we waded west, but the fish were increasingly visible, tempting us to continue our westward wade. After casting my overly heavy fly into thick grass, only to blow up the feeding reds, I headed back to deeper water, hoping to see reds and big trout over pot holes, or openings in the grass. Sure enough, with the rising sun I was able to see the fish in deeper water. Ryan hooked up on a nice red, about then and so did I, but the most memorable moments of the day consisted of encounters with 7-8 lb trout. Alas, casting my heavy fly defeated me. It was too heavy to land quietly, so I offended the trout and kicked myself for approaching such a demanding context with such nonchalance.

We moved around some, and in each scenario Ryan promptly waded away from the boat while I hesitated, wondering if we'd seen enough to justify the wade. I'd taken Rosie with me on our earlier wades, and knowing that she was tired I stayed aboard the skiff, rubbing her wet ears, and thinking of my brother 30 years ago who sat for countless hours watching me spewing a year of angling intensity onto my home waters. Ryan has become the new crazed angler, and I the one who lingers, coaching, and waiting for a compelling reason to join him. 

If you can bring yourself to do it, winter fly fishing in Cullens Bay offers the best opportunity for world-class trout than any other place or time of year. I have seen literally hundreds of trout from 4-10 pounds in schools or pods cruising the low, crystal clear water. But it's not for everyone. You have to show up at a time of year when the days dawn clear and often cold. I am lucky that, at my advancing age, I have a son whose sheer enthusiasm helps to keep mine alive.

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