Monday, March 22, 2021

A Beautiful Day on the Lower Laguna

 Ryan always wants to fish. He reminds me of myself, when I used to come home from Virginia once a year to fish for two or three weeks, spending every day on the water till late afternoon. My family grew accustomed to seeing me sunburned and sleepy, falling asleep on the sofa, dead tired. My brother would fish with me as often as he could, but he would inevitably return to the boat way ah
ead of me, and sit there watching and waiting for me to expend my last bit of energy for the day. And now it was my turn to face the enthusiasm of my son, who will wade as long and as far as time will allow, positing theories about what might lie just beyond reach that justify endless excursions into areas usually devoid of life, but not always. 

I couldn't leave the house without Rosie. I'd taken her to the vet the day before, and the doctor had drained some pouches of fluid and sent them away for biopsy. Maybe cancer, the doctor said. Rosie is 13, and each trip to the Bay could be her last, but it's hard to leave her home when she stands in the doorway at 4 am, wagging her tail, knowing full well what's up. I pretend that all she wants is a treat, but her tail keeps wagging after the second bit of fake bacon. It's the boat, stupid, not the silly treats that she can have at any time of the day or night. So I call out to Julie in the dark, "I'm taking her." And then I move the passenger seat back to make room for her, and we leave for the bay, perhaps for the last time together. Who knows the time allotted?

Ryan and I had disagreed the night before on when we should plan to launch. The forecast called for 80 degrees before midday, but the small print said it would be 49 at daybreak. Much too cold for my old hands, which grow numb when it's below 65. Reynaud's syndrome, I think. Anyway, I suggested that we launch around 7:30. Ryan thought we'd be competing with a crowd, but I didn't mind that as much as the chill factor of predawn air. I won since I'm still the nominal daddy, and there's no tie breaker. Later, he admitted that I had been right: Hardly anyone was at the launch, and neither of us was looking forward to the cold ride.

We went north into Paytons Bay, thinking that birding could be on. But no, there were no birds working. The wind was supposed to be 3 mph at dawn, but it was closer to 10, and the north wind made for a slight chop  that drowned out any visible signs of fish. Running in and out of Paytons, we turned south toward Cullens Bay, about 12 miles to the south. "We need more sun before we can see fish," I yelled above the Yamaha's throaty roar, and Ryan nodded. It was really cold, and my hands were so numb that I could not tie a knot if my life depended on it.

As we approached the entrance to south Cullens Bay, Rosie began acting strangely. She started circling the console, going round and around while Ryan and I looked at each other. What the hell? Then she climbed onto the front deck, walked up to the bow, and got ready to go overboard in 12 feet of water. "She's got to poop," I yelled. Spinning the boat around, I sped down Cullens channel, and ran aground on a spoil island. Rosie jumped off the bow into thick mud, and I followed, sinking up to my knees in soft mud. Rosie ran 10 feet, and gave way to a wet one. I walked over, apologizing, while she looked up with gratitude in her eyes. An unmistakeable look.

Ryan and I were happy to take a break from the long run. So I walked with Rosie onto the spoil island, half expecting to see a peregrine falcon sitting on one of the man-made hills of dredge tailings. Then we retraced our steps through the thick mud and covered the boat with it.

We poled the skiff along the spoil banks on the outside of Cullens Bay, and had a couple of good shots at very large reds. Ryan missed them and proceeded to punish himself verbally for his imprecision. I have found that it's not much use to say, "You should have caught that fish," because self-loathing never improves the next cast. I genuinely don't hold it against anyone who misses a good shot, because there's more learning to be had from near misses than the catch that gets posted all over social media, where the considerable influence of sheer luck and the need for further refinement is quickly forgotten amidst the "likes" and thumbs up.

There were tailing reds to be seen, but they were intermittent, and the low wind and the white clouds on the horizon conspired to create a glare on the water, preventing us from seeing the abundant reds and trout that we had seen when running. It was frustrating, and Ryan's memory of failure grew in stature until his mood had hardened. So after two rather lengthy, fruitless wades, we headed east for the sand.

Oh my, the sand was a sight to behold. There was no moisture in the air, so the Padre dunes were brightly lit against the azure sky, and the water was crystalline. Turtle grass sprigs covered the sand, and the water seemed only a foot deep or less given its perfect clarity. Actually, the water was knee-deep when we started seeing reds fleeing from the boat. And then we saw our first of many schools of 50 plus reds, and we could go no further. Coming off of plane, we staked the boat and stepped into the warming water. Rosie leapt from the bow and took up her customary position just behind me as we waded north toward a visible school. We could see their wakes, and then their tails and backs as they slowed down and resumed their meandering movement. Within a couple of minutes, both of us we casting to subgroups of the school as they cruised by. It was frustrating, though, because the small cohorts would turn to the fly and dog it for 20 feet before nipping at it, and usually missing under the heat of competition, and then blowing up to the sight of the crouching angler. 

We moved twice, blowing up multiple schools each time. We weren't looking forward to admitting our low percentage success, but after catching a few reds, we chalked up our struggle to the fact that the reds had been surely harassed by boats and anglers all day, and had lost that unthinking zeal that characterizes unmolested redfish. Anyway, it was an excuse that we could agree on. We had no complaints at the end of the day, however. Rosie was tired and clearly happy to be with us, and our bond was as strong as ever after cheering each other on, without a shred of competition or of regret.  

Monday, March 1, 2021

Well, I just wrote a lengthy blog entry and somehow deleted it. Suffice to say that Ryan and I went out to survey the fish kill, and found things to better than we'd feared. Some fish were floating, and a considerable number of trout and drum, in particular, could be seen strewn over the shorelines adjacent to the ICW. The smell was horrendous downwind of these shorelines. We also went east, and found little evidence of dead fish on the flats, except for an occasional large drum. Of course, it's been almost two weeks since the freeze, and the tide has had a chance to flush the bay of some of the dead fish. The tides are rising in response to the sun's position in the spring, and the increased tidal flow is probably working to cleanse the bay of some of the carcasses. 

 We headed to one of our favorite big redfish spots, and found a lot of fish in the area. Even though it was very windy and cloudy, we felt we could see the fish in the 10 inch water, so we waded for a couple of hours. Both of us had four shots at 28+" reds, feeding singly. We'd see them approaching with their backs slightly exposed. Putting the fly in the right spot was nigh impossible, however, given their movement, the lack of water clarity, and their extreme wariness. Indeed, I blew up three of mine, and and only got one to take the fly before coming loose. The one that took my fly was 30+ inches, and hit the fly only 20 feet from Rosie and me. Yes, Rosie is still wading with me, fortunately! 

I flew my new Mavic 2 Air drone yesterday with my friend Jay Blackburn. It was fun and much easier than I'd expected. I fully expect to be able to take off and land it on the front deck of the Stilt. I look forward to introducing drone photography to my flyfishing videos soon. Ryan and I are flyfishing four days with our friend Henry Bone and his son Ethan from Austin in mid-April, and then I turn around and guide two of my favorite old clients, Tony Woodward and Scott Minnich in early May.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Hard Freeze Threatens Fill Kill

 Those who have lived down here for most of their lives will remember the historic freezes of 1983 and 1989. I believe that 1983 has been the most serious freeze in my lifetime, when nearly the entire bay froze over, and the tall fan palms and most of the citrus tree population, died. Following 1983, big trout were few and far between. But they repopulated quickly, and it only takes 6-8 years or so before a female trout reaches 27-28 inches. Then, again in 1989 that bay froze in places, and huge numbers of trout came to the surface, stunned and dying along shorelines, asphyxiating from the low oxygen context of the freezing saltwater. Unconscionable people gathered to snag, hook or net them in their most vulnerable state. Game wardens intervened to keep opportunistic SPI guides from making multiple runs to areas filled with the dying fish.

The freeze we just experienced--with nighttime temps in the low-to-mid 20s--and will suffer again tonight to a lesser extent, may not have had the devastating impact on the lower Laguna that it apparently has had on the waters around Rockport. Pictures of shorelines covered with big trout have been showing up among anglers who have made early visits to the bay's edge. And yet, the rumors among guides and serious fly fishers 100 miles south in the Rio Grande Valley are cautiously optimistic, as reported by my son Ryan, who always has his ear to ground, and networks with several area guides.

From the warmth of my arm chair (after going without electric heat for two days!), I have nothing definitive to say. But the mortality levels among trout, and usually to a much lesser extent among relish, are starting from historically high populations of both species. Indeed, the big trout population has had 32 years to prosper to unprecedented levels of larger fish since the last serious or "hard" freezes of 1989, defined by subfreezing temperatures over a long period of time. A flash frost normally poses no threat. But a sustained 8-12-hour period of subfreezing temperatures quickly transforms the bay from a normally temperature tolerant ecosystem, to a body of water that eventually "catches up" with the  air temperature. The available oxygen in the water plummets and the larger fish, which normally gravitate toward shallow water for feeding advantage, get caught unable to thrive in the low O2 frigid conditions. 

Reds can tolerate temps from the low 50s to the upper 80s before they have to relocate, but the "optimal temperatures for spotted seatrout are between 69° - 80°F. They will seek out cooler(deeper) water when it is warmer than 88°. Likewise, when the water is colder, they may hold in deeper channels or holes where the water may be warmer. They may die at temperatures below 48 degrees. (

Another reputable source summarizes as follows:

  • Above 60 degrees Specks are happy
  • 50-60 degrees Specks live a normal life. Moving towards areas with deep channels and shallow flats.
  • Under 50 degrees metabolisms begin to slow dramatically. Movement and feeding is reduced.
  • Somewhere in the 40-degree range, the threat of fish kills begins.(

And yet another source sets the lower survival limit at 37%:

"If spotted seatrout are trapped for an extended period in water below 41 F or the water temperature changes too quickly for the fish to escape, then the fish may become stunned. Most fish seen stunned do not survive. Spotted seatrout have an absolute minimum water temperature of around 37 F, below which there is very little chance of survival.

And another source,

summarizes the trout's adaptation to cold as follows:

"Like all species, spotted seatrout select habitats within a water temperature range optimal for survival. If water temperatures fall below 45 degrees Fahrenheit , spotted seatrout will begin to experience stress and try to move to warmer water. If spotted seatrout are trapped for an extended period in water below 41 F or the water temperature changes too quickly for the fish to escape, then the fish may become stunned. Most fish seen stunned do not survive. Spotted seatrout have an absolute minimum water temperature of around 37 F, below which there is very little chance of survival.'

In the next few days, I hope to report a visual and more definitive scientific assessment of the impact of the "Freeze of 2021," which it will surely be called.

Meanwhile, the freeze has not greatly dampened my enthusiasm for flyfishing the bay just as soon as it returns to normal. And "normal" this time of year is wet wading during a warming trend in the seasonally low tides. February is better than March, weather permitting, for big trout, because the tides remain low enough to sight cast for the trophy fish.

But if that doesn't happen on my "available days," I've already planned a four-day retreat on the water in April with my son Ryan and good friend Henry Bone of Austin, and his shown Ethan. And then during the first week in May, I have the privilege of guiding one of my favorite client teams of Tony Woodward and Scott Minnich. Mid-April to early June has to be the "sweet spot" of the early season, with October to mid-November being my other favorite period, during which I will be guiding another "legacy" pair of clients from Virginia--Ted Thomas and Dennis Matt. Meanwhile, Ryan will be guiding new clients this season, COVID and schedules permitting.

In summary, Nature does its thing. Hard freezes were more common in the 50-80s, and then climate change seems to have significantly warned our winters. Those who live here have witnessed the migration of flounder north, and the explosion of black mangroves along the shorelines--both indications of sustained higher temperatures overall. But now they are saying that the warming of the ice caps will result in a more frequent spillover of the "Arctic Vortex" to the southern lands, a paradoxical effect of overall rising temperatures. Go figure. Regardless, the occasional hard freeze has been a part of southern Texas life for as long as anyone can remember. And take heart; The flora and fauna of our subtropical ecosystem recovers quickly. The temperatures and fertility of our terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems are resilient and responsive. We will surely see Nature adjust to this latest event, and leave only those who have carefully tracked the rhythms of their home waters with any member of her most dramatic moods.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

La Mosca Tournament

I have to admit that I have enjoyed fishing in a few catch-and-release tournaments over the past 20 years. I have spent most of my on-the-water time poling clients, and helping them catch trout and redfish, so flyfishing for fun is rare, and flyfishing competitively is even less common in my life. Indeed, I don't really like to compete with friends and families when we are fishing for fun.

At this point in my life,  I thought that I would perhaps help Ryan and his buddies do well in tournament opportunities that might arise in the next years, either as a non-fishing guide or consultant. But Ryan made his best pitch for us fishing the invitational La Mosca tournament together, which will be held on Nov. 7-8. I finally consented, and then we were surprised and pleased to find out that our good friend Henry Bone of Austin was interested in joining us. Henry was one of my first clients, has become a special friend over the years, and stars in two of my favorite YouTube flyfishing videos. Henry is a master saltwater flyfisher.

The last time I flyfished a tournament with Ryan, it was 2001, and he was 12 years old, and had barely begun to flyfish. 

That was the morning that I was stung by a sting ray before the sun rose. The stinger almost passed through the narrow area in front of the Achilles tendon, but stopped just short of breaking the skin on the other side. I grimaced through the next four hours until the pain stopped, not realizing that wading with the open wound invited a life threatening infection of vibrio vulnificus. As one reader once told me, "The thing that impresses me about your story the most is how stupid you were!" Indeed. But it made for a pretty good story. I've written about the ordeal in Healing the Fisher King: A Flyfisher's Grail Quest. 

That memorable event has not not deterred me from flyfishing in a couple of tournaments since; but Ryan and I have never flyfished a tournament since that day, even though we were hoping to fish the TIFT together this year before it was cancelled. Ryan, Henry, and I are getting pretty psyched up about joining forces, and I know it's going to be a blast.

The La Mosca Tournament's entry fees will benefit Flatsworthy, the organization that supports fishing ethics and conservation on the flats. 

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Flyfishing in the Age of the Corona Virus

The weekend forecast predicted a decent Saturday, and a rainy Sunday. Having been housebound from the corona virus for the better part of two weeks, I knew I could use a day on the water. The stay-at-home restrictions allowed for some outdoor activities, but it wasn't clear if driving from McAllen to our trailer in Arroyo City to go fishing was permitted. Ryan said he'd heard that it was permitted, but a good night's sleep is hard to beat, so I elected to stay home and sleep in late on Saturday morning. Julie and I walked Rosie down the greenway at 9 am, and I sent a text to Henry Bone from Austin, who had texted midweek with a vague suggestion that we might do some fly fishing, but our communications went dark after the forecast predicted a piss-poor weather weekend. Henry did indicate, however, that he might come for Sunday through Wednesday. So halfway through our walk, I texted him, "Are you coming down?" To my surprise, he responded with, "I'm in West Dunkins..." That is, he was on the bay! This was the second time in a little over a month that Henry had come down from Austin trailering his own boat, after our plans had fizzled! I got on the phone and called Ryan. Two hours later, we were heading out to fish the Sand with Henry.

But whoa, let me confess to my earlier ass-dragging episode in February, when Henry and I planned to fish on a weekend. At the last minute, I consulted Weather Underground, and I determined that the forecast called for rain, most likely. I suggested we call it off, and Henry agreed. But come Saturday morning as I walked with Rosie and Julie along the greenway in McAllen under a cloudless sky, the imprecision of the forecast became clear. So I texted Henry to confess: "I screwed up. I'm sorry." To which Henry replied, "I'm here. I came down and I'm at the launch."

Stirred to life by the prospect of fly fishing for big trout under a cloudless sky,  I roused Ryan from his usual Saturday am slumber, and suggested we go out for big trout. He was up and on his way before I could leave the house.

Actually, the day turned out to be nearly perfect--full sun, low wind, and super low tides. Ryan and I headed for an area known for hosting giant trout in the winter--South Cullens Bay, and found Henry fishing along the channel spoils. He'd already caught a couple of tailing reds, so we decided to try something else--to go further west, and see if we could find the monster trout. Coming off plane in a foot of clear water, I poled Ryan toward the west shoreline. After seeing several reds and big trout, and spooking them from the boat, we finally staked the boat and prepared to wade wet in the chilly water. I texted Henry and informed him that we'd seen big trout, but then turned my attention to the task at hand. 

Wading slowly away from the Stilt, I began to spot big trout, cruising slowly or parked in the middle of "potholes," where a big trout can hunt effectively by hugging the bottom of the grass-free area, waiting for a hapless piggy perch whose time has come.

I was amazed that I was able to spot several trout in the six- to eight-pound range, and get good casts to two or three before a pair approached from the north. In the glare, all I could see were the black tips of the tails of two trout. Casting my size 8 Mother's Day Fly, one of the trout seized the fly without hesitation. I didn't realize the fish was so big, but fortunately, I yielded to her initial run and managed to keep the fish on the line. Twenty minutes later, fighting the big trout gently and slowly so as not to tire her, I lifted her out of the water briefly to measure her--a solid 29 inches, and probably about 8 pounds. She was in her pre-spawn splendor--fat and healthy and full of color.
Ryan came over the took a couple of pictures before I released her. I texted Henry, and urged him to come over. A few minutes later, he arrived and joined us wading slowly in the knee-deep clear water. Later, when he joined us at the boat, he had stories to tell--of hooking a giant trout briefly, and having several shots. Ryan, too, was wide-eyed and energized by the close encounters that he'd had while wading toward the mangrove-covered shoreline of South Cullens Bay. 

The next day, my brother Chip joined Ryan and me, while Henry took his boat out, too. Needless to say, we headed south again, and after a 40-minute run in the chilly morning air, we were soon wading in south Cullens, hoping to find the giant trout, once again. Alas, the tide was just turning when we arrived, so the trout had not arrived in the shallow water of South Cullens. However, we found tailing reds spread out in the glassy water, and managed to land a couple before relocating to the east in slightly deeper water, thinking that the trout would be in the deeper water, but starting to head our way. Sure enough, Ryan, Chip and I all had head-to-head encounters with 8+ pound trout that were heading west into shallower water. Chip had three strikes on a sparsely tied (by me) Dahlberg Diver from the "largest trout I've seen in years," he said. Ryan was stalking a tailing red when I saw a huge trout heading his way. I called to him, and at first he seemed annoyed that I would interrupt his stealthy approach to the visible redfish. But I yelled to him, "This is a rare opportunity. Get ready." A huge wake bore down on Ryan, and he made the cast, only to have the fish reject the fly. Very typical for big trout! Before we headed in, I, too, had my mano-a-mano encounter with a 7-9 lb trout, only to have it disappear after my fly landed "perfectly," or so I thought.

Fast forward to last Saturday, when Henry roused me from my homebound status once again. Two hours after discovering that Henry had come down from Austin, we joined him in our Stilt and headed east to the Sand. Henry had been down south, and had already landed six reds in one of our favorite west-side venues. They's been tailing pods earlier in the day.

Under a full sun, Ryan and I headed for the "shelf" which is the far east side of the LLM, where the water suddenly become a foot shallower. I didn't see anything on my first wade, but Ryan had three shots, as it turned out.  As I walked back to the Stilt, Henry came up from the south and parked alongside our boat. I joined him and shared one of our Lone Stars with him, as we watched Ryan stalking reds 200 yards away.

Henry had been out longer than we had, so he headed in, while we opted to our favorite late afternoon venue. Last year, I caught a 33" red there just at sundown, and I hoped we'd see pods of oversized reds pouring into the area before dark. Sure enough, single terns and gulls were working over a large area, so we waded toward them to see what they'd found. My first shot reaped a hookup with a 29" red. Ryan, meanwhile, had waded to the north, and I couldn't get him on the phone to tell him that reds were suddenly appearing under birds as far as I could see to the south. I stopped fishing after landing the big red, hoping that Ryan would eventually join me. Finally, I reached him by phone, and said, "Come here now!" Half an hour later, Ryan was stalking tailing pods that were spread out in the off-color water, working under Forester terns and Laughing Gulls. After he's landed his red, we headed back to the boat to celebrate a wonderful afternoon.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Fly tying and the Mind of God: Imitation vs. Innovation

I have flyfished now for 56 years, beginning on a small artesian pond in the Texas brush country. I started tying flies in my teens, and have always found flytying to satisfy my creative impulses. When I started fly fishing the Blue Ridge, I tied my own patterns, hoping that they would succeed. And they did, with the tiny brook trout that populated the streams in the upper elevations of Shenandoah National Park. They had survived over the millennia by being willing to seize the moment. But when I had the opportunity to flyfish Henry's Fork of the Snake River, I struck out entirely with my motley collection of homespun flies. The fish wouldn't touch them. For the first time in my life, I did what most flyfishers do as a matter of course when fishing new waters: I visited a fly shop and purchased a dozen flies, most of which were variations on a single bluewing olive hatch. That day, I learned that no matter how inventive you are, you must still muster the humility to look at what's going on around you.

When I began to flyfish my home waters of the Lower Laguna in my early 20s, I was able to unleash my creativity, mainly because the fish didn't care. I created poppers from deer hair, discovered that they would sink after a few casts, and began experimenting with various ways to keep them afloat. I ended up discovering closed cell foam, and married foam with spun deer hair to create the earliest iterations of the VIP popper, the subject of the second article I wrote for Fly Tyer. It's been one of my top three flies ever since, mainly because the fish don't care much about how the fly looks, as long as it doesn't misbehave. Many anglers, who have tied the VIP, agree. 

In fisheries such as the LLM, a fly is successful mainly because of how it performs; that is, its castability in wind, how it lands on the water, its sink rate, how it performs in seagrass-filled water, and its hookup rate. But in a cold water fishery populated with wild, spawning populations of trout, these variables don't matter as much. Instead, the fly is usually effective if it imitates a naturally occurring insect that the fish are keying on at that particular moment. Tying flies to match the hatch takes considerable discipline and "imitativeness," as opposed to inventiveness. Of course, there are non-imitative flies that are successful, too, such as the Wulff patterns, and Western attractors such as the Stimulator. Attractor patterns are, by definition, invented by anglers who are willing to think outside the box of imitative fly tying, and conceive of a synthesis of qualities that may not occur in Nature. In a sense, the inventive tyer taps into an archetype that has no literal physical expression, at least as yet, but somehow appeals to the fish's sense of propriety, or provokes its indignation. We really don't know what a fish thinks when it sees what is clearly divorced from all recognizable life forms.

Inventiveness comes at the beginning and the end of an angler's learning curve. When I fished the Jackson River in western Virginia, I learned that attractor patterns were, by and large, ineffective on that tailwater fishery. I learned one day from flyfishing guru Harry Steeves, who happened to be fly fishing below Gathright Dam one morning, that I had to know precisely the size and shape of a particular midge pupae in order to hook the largest trout I'd every enticed the following day. But while fishing in the same spot one day not long after this humbling lesson, it suddenly occurred to me--don't ask why--that a particular synthesis of two popular dry fly patterns would prove successful, even though the pattern did not match any natural insect on that difficult fishery. I went to my hotel and tied the pattern that night, and it became the "Jackson River Special." My buddy Bill May and I caught a lot of trout the next day on that pattern, and it continued to be my most effective fly for that fishery.

The difference between the novice fly tier and the seasoned one had to do with several things, including: the countless days of immersion on my Virginia home waters, the humility to learn from masters such as Harry Steeves, and the willingness to listen to what Nature was whispering to me. When you embrace all of those ingredients, then you become eligible on the far end of the learning curve to innovate effectively. Houston Smith, who wrote Forgotten Truth, and was known for his books on comparative religions, came up with a concept that resolved the conflict over Darwinian evolution and Creationism. Pointing to events in nature that cannot be reduced to the forces of natural selection--such as nonadaptive coloration among birds--he coined the term, "the descent of the archetype" to explain the playful creativity of the divine expressing itself in the world.

I believe that inventiveness at the fly tying vise can be, at the pinnacle of one's learning process, a moment of an archetype's descent into expression. It can be the fly tying equivalent of a Coppery Tailed Trogan or a Painted Bunting, both of which make no sense in a world governed in large part by survival of the fittest. It can mirror a pattern in the mind of God, which exists only as a creative expression capable of arousing an answering response in the mind of fish. Flies such as Bud Rowland's Numero Uno, and perhaps my own VIP Popper, look strange and idiosyncratic, but are endowed with something beyond the rational, imitative mind. When the VIP made the cover of Guide Flies several years ago, I was admittedly embarrassed to have the VIP pictured beside Harry Murray's Mr. Rapidan, a fly that has become immortalized as a Blue Ridge classic. I have always realized how odd the humble fly looks, but how effective it can be. In one sense, it wasn't my creation as much as a gift of momentary inspiration informed by years of failure and yearning. It was the utterance of another realm finding a fertile place in my imagination.

The other day, Ryan said, "I want to invent a new fly." As a relatively old man, I thought, as all fathers do, "Learn more first." But then I remembered the endless winter nights of inventiveness at the tying vise as a young man. So I said nothing, knowing that Ryan's creativity would, in time, merge with prodigious on-the-water experience to spawn original creations, the broad shape of which had been known for all eternity in the one mind we share.

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.

Friday, November 1, 2019

It's all about conditions

Two weekends ago, I guided Ted Thomas and Dennis Matt from Virginia, two of my favorite repeat clients. They usually do quite well during their three days on the water. A couple of weeks before they arrived, Ted asked me if water depth would be a problem. Having just fished with my son, Ryan, and seen the usual fall high tides, I said, "no," unless there's a tropical storm in the Gulf. Whenever there's a tropical storm or hurricane anywhere in the Gulf, the western Gulf shoreline experiences extremely high tides. So, no problem, right? At least I thought so. I check the weather forecast every day, so I can warn off anyone who might be traveling from far away, and bearing the expense of plane flights and time off of work. There was nothing on the Weather Underground tropical update.

Ted emailed me two days before their arrival, and asked me about the tropical disturbance in the Gulf. I said, "What tropical disturbance?" As it turned out, Weather Underground had not reported a tropical low that had sprung up only 100 miles southwest of Brownsville. When I went to another weather service, there it was. I thought, "Oh shit." Sure enough, the tides spiked an extra foot right before Ted and Dennis arrived!

It's very hard to sight cast in that much water, especially since the normal places have two feet of water instead of one foot, and the shallower water tends to be in areas that are relatively sterile, i.e. devoid of shrimp and crabs.

We found plenty of fish, but had to cast from the boat in order to see them, and the shots were lower quality than usual, given that the fish would appear at the last minute, and turn away before the guys could get the fly to them. I was happy when they landed two reds the first day. After that, it became even more difficult due to clouds and wind. On the second day, however, we were on the sand in the full sun, and suddenly a group of reds swam by and crossed our path. For the next five minutes, I poled as fast as I could to keep up with them, hoping that Ted could make an 80+' cast. Casting a few feet short each time, we finally got within 75 '. I said, "Let the rod do the work," and his cast was perfect. The red ate the fly, and we all screamed.

Fast forward one week. Ryan and I decided to go out on Saturday morning after a rather chilly night. We slept at the trailer, got up about 7:30, and hit the water much later than we usually do. We were lucky it was dead calm, and the temperature was rising fast. And the water depth? In only six days, the bay water level had fallen a foot! For those of you familiar with the Lower Laguna, that is a huge difference.

We headed for a west side lagoon first, with plans to fish the sand under the cloudless sky by late morning. Ryan had forgotten his booties, but he didn't let that stop him from wading. We stopped along a shoreline, and prepared to pole it before wading, just to make sure it was worth committing. But before we'd even unfurled one of the rods, I looked about 300 yards down the shoreline, and could see a few gulls sitting on the water. They would take off, and sit back down a few feet away every few seconds. That means redfish! So we cranked up and ran another 250 yards before shutting down. On the way, we started moving big reds away from the shoreline, so we knew that we were into the fish.

For the next hour and a half, we stalked big reds that were feeding aggressively along the shoreline--individually, and in pairs or small groups. I lost as many as I landed, probably because I have been using flies with very small, size 8 hooks. Here's a photo of the fly I've been favoring for the past several months. It is a streamlined Mother's Day Fly (no legs or weed guard). It is very simple, easy to tie, and equally effective in grass and over sand. Since they sink slowly and have a very small hook gap, they don't foul as quickly as a Clouser, or even a light spoon. And the fish love them! Indeed, I caught a 32" red on one of these in May, and have landed countless reds since.

For his part, Ryan was using a Closer (size 6 hook), and landed the largest red of the morning. Here's the first red we landed--a 27" red.

After landing 5 reds from 24-27", we took off for the sand, where we spent another two hours or so. We landed four more reds, and lost three more that we stung or briefly hooked. We could have stayed out and caught fish for several more hours, but it was Sunday, and we both had things to do at home. Needless to say, it was a splendid morning!

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!"

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.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

New Youtube Video

I thought you would like to see this video I made with Ted Rufner, a guide and veteran fly fishing from the Gulf Coast of Florida. Ted knew reds, but this was his first hike to the LLM. Enjoy!

Saturday, December 29, 2018

New Season Approaching

Some of our old clients, in particular, are stirring from their winter slumber and calling us for some 2019 fly fishing. A while ago, my old client Tony Woodward (and his buddy Scott Minnich) called after they'd been fishing the Arkansas River in CO in 28 degrees. Not surprisingly, the topic of fly fishing the Lower Laguna, where it's rarely below 60 degrees during our regular season, came up. So they called to make plans. Indeed, it's a good time to plan ahead, given the demand for April and May, in particular. For the past three years, the spring has been the best fly fishing for me, offering altogether new phenomena on the east and west sides. Again, we plan to offer late fishing options, of your schedule will allow it. Consider coming in early if you can and starting your fishing at sundown.

Ryan and I will be fishing a lot as the weather improves. We went out recently with a friend of his, who didn't think he needed lightweight waders since the air temperature was in the 70s. But this time of year, it can be surprising to find how the water temperature, which can be in the low 60s can cool the air by 8 degrees. Add to that the chill factor of running at 35 mph, and hypothermia is a real possibility.

This year, I will be working with Ryan whenever possible to teach him to guide, as well as to offer single clients double coverage during the day. Usually, a single guide moves more slowly than two, since he has to make round trips to the boat, if wading. A second guide, however, can wade back and get the boat while the other guide assists the client in seeing and casting to fish. Of course, this arrangement is optional, and always up to the client's preference.

We expect to be exploiting the same east side action in April and May that we've enjoyed the past two years, as well as targeting the four or five regular hotspots on the west side. Last year, I used VIP poppers more than in recent years--going back to my roots of preferring topwater whenever the conditions will allow, or warrant it. There's nothing like a big red or trout pushing water behind a popper!

Randy and I are putting our heads together and hoping to plan some group weekends, where you can elect to come down alone or with a partner, and pay one price for lodging, guiding and meals. Stay tuned, or if you're interested in the mean time. give us a holler.

I hope to have some new pics soon.