The river wasn't a big one by most standards. Brandon Fox of Sea Level Apparel and I had decided to take a drive and see if we could find any hill country carp.The cypress trees along the river, buttressed against the threat of flood, spread branches thickly curtained with Spanish moss. A dense deposit of rounded cobble and gravel crunched and shifted underfoot, sculpted by years of flood. In the shade of one of the towering cypress, we stepped lightly into the water. Minnows scattered from around our legs and curious bluegill stared for a moment before darting away. I moved downstream, casting where it seemed I should. Cool, clear water embraced my calves as a light layer of bottom muck covered my toes. A few panfish nibbled to indicate their interest, and a sudden bump prompted me to lift the rod into the first bass of the day, a little guy who was swiftly returned to the water.
As he darted for the deep, I turned and studied the bank downstream. It curved lightly back to the left, with several large trees shading the inside curve. There was a shallow mucky area right before the curve, and a dropoff just past that. It looked like prime carp territory. I carefully approached the shallows, scanning for any signs of mud puffs or cruising fish. No one was home on the flat, so I eased over towards the dropoff.
A shadowy spot underneath a big cypress caught my eye down the way, and I laid out a cast to see if any fish were willing to play. Nothing for the first and second casts, but I caught a nice redbreast sunfish on my third cast. Encouraged, I laid one more extra long cast past the shadow, working the fly slowly along the bottom.
Hop... hop... the fly stopped with the subtle feel of a sunfish strike. I struck back, raising the rod and coming tight to a fish that suddenly grew much larger than the bite had indicated. I didn't know what I had, but I knew it was a good fish; it ran hard enough to take some drag and made me think I had latched onto a big channel catfish. The fish came up and showed its flank; my first thought was holy crap! That's a bass! A big bass!
After a few tense moments, the fish was in hand. It was the biggest bass that either myself or Brandon had seen landed on that river, and my personal best on fly. I will never catch a bigger bass from that river system, fly or otherwise.
North Dakota has never really made it onto the 'list of places I'd like to go'. The fish that are here I can catch elsewhere, and there are no steelhead or giant trevally.That I know of.
The first thing I did after I got the call offering me the job was to start researching the local fishing opportunities. Turns out there are lots of choices, as long as you want to catch walleye, yellow perch and northern pike. I'm told that 40" is the magic trophy mark to break, and I'm chasing it. The funny thing is that the locals refer to pike in pounds, which doesn't help me a bit. A little internet searching reveals that a 40" pike might weigh 20 pounds. That's a lot of meanness on a fly rod. They ought to hit a popper like a freight train. A bit of a drive gets me a shot at smallmouth on fly, and a longer drive gets me within range of big pike, rainbows, browns, lake trout and even salmon. You can bet I'll pick a pretty weekend and make that trek.
So what am I doing up here? Well, you aren't the first one to ask that. In fact, since I've gotten here, mostly everyone seems to want to know. They're a clannish sort, prone to be suspicious of outsiders. That's fine with me; these are my people, and I know how to talk to them. Hard working farmers, country folk, and the kind you want on your team. So I'll tell you what I tell them - I'm up here keeping an eye on the whooping crane migration. Yep. The outfit that I'm working with has a few of the birds tagged with GPS trackers, and every couple days I download the updated data and display it on a map to see where the cranes have stopped along the way. The short story is we use this information to send in a ground crew - that'd be me, plus a partner - to go check out the rest stop areas and see the types of habitat that the birds are using on their way north. Pretty cool eh?
Also cool is the journey the birds take - they winter down on the Aransas Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast and then fly on up to the Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, Canada. I left at the same time as the first whoopers started their journey and barely beat the first birds to North Dakota. They can cover some territory when the conditions are right.
Below are some pictures I took on the trip up. They're in chronological order through the plains states.
Welcome to North Dakota. Let the adventure roll on.
The last afternoon of the Louisiana trip faded quickly into evening. We had been off the fish for an hour or so, searching new water and scouting different areas to add to Jeremy's bag of tricks. Rounding a shell point on an island thickly populated with white pelicans, we fired up the engine and started putting our way towards deeper water, and home.
We nosed into a broad channel created by two islands close together. Cruising forward, we noticed big pushes and wakes from fish reacting to the engine sound. Some of the fish looked huge.
Shutting down the engine, Jeremy hopped up on the poling platform and heaved us forward. I stood on the bow, battered but freshly sharpened fly in one hand, 7-weight in the other. The low angle of the sun coupled with the off-colored water meant that our chances of seeing anything were pretty low.
Suddenly, a fish spooked out beside the boat. The huge wake it made while stampeding down the waterway ahead of us literally made my chin drop. There it went, the fish I had dreamt of catching in Louisiana. She gon' now, boy.
It was all happening quickly now; more fish blew out beside the boat as I grew frustrated, trying to watch every bit of water all at once. A redfish rolled to the surface, giving me a glimpse of a big orange flank; obviously spooked, the red went right, then back left. I flopped a cast where I thought the fish might go, trying to intercept it. Somehow, she did just what I wanted, and as the red barreled past my hastily stripped fly, I saw a gill flare. Left hand goes back, rod hand lifts - fish on!
Running hard, the redfish unwound line from my reel at an impressive rate, not stopping 'til it was about 20 yards deep into backing. Fighting a dogged battle, the fish made several more short runs. I enjoyed the fight, but I really wanted to put my hands on this fish. This was the one.
At boatside, I lifted her head from the water and admired her huge maw before carefully lifting her into the boat for pictures and a measurement.
She taped at 43", not the biggest fish in the marsh but definitely on the upper end. A big thanks to Capt. Jeremy Chavez for his hard work and dedication. The following are all pictures taken by him of fish caught that day.
And drumroll (drum! ha) - here she is.
A trip I will never forget. I've been looking forward to the next time since I left. Fair warning - that place will spoil you.
After a morning full of 'baby' redfish, some of which taped over 30", Jeremy was ready to find some big ones. I was ready to see these giants for myself, and do battle.
Pushing off down the shoreline, we moved quickly to cover water as the sun climbed higher and allowed us better visibility. We came across a slight dropoff, and boom. There they were. Fish appeared in ones and twos, at 60 feet, at 10 feet, and everywhere in between. Some fish were obviously big - some were obviously bigger than even the massive bulls I had seen caught from the jetty. It was crazy. Never in my life had I seen anything like it.
The calm conditions of the previous night had allowed sediment to settle out of the water, leaving it much more clean that the day before. We still weren't able to spot fish that were hugging the bottom, but more often than not they would move off slowly enough for me to get a shot. A lot of the time, even after they spooked, they ate.
Color didn't seem to matter much to these fish, so of course that led to a game of 'let's see what they won't eat.' Not much, it turned out. I landed fish up to 39". Most of the fish came on a 7wt. It was pure fun.
Prowling about the edges of the drop were groups of big uglies - massive black drum that stampeded when we floated over them. I quickly learned to keep a weather eye on these herds, because oftentimes there was a big redfish trailing along with them. Trying to work a fly in around the black drum in such a way that the redfish ate it first became an issue several times.
Despite my best efforts to make them spit the fly before they hooked themselves, I still hauled a few to the boat.
I’ve known Cody Moravits for several years now. I’m not sure when we met the first time, but I do remember showing him how to cast a fly rod at an event here in Corpus at least 4 years ago. An avid fisherman and outdoorsman, Cody is happiest when he’s connecting with the sea and people who love the water as much as he does. Earlier this year, Cody was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma, which, let me tell you, really put a damper on his summer. He was living the dream, employed as a mate on the Nyati offshore fishing vessel. Friends and family have rallied around Cody during his time of need, and this weekend, Oct. 24, is a benefit tournament with proceeds going to Cody’s family to help defray medical costs.
I invited Cody over for a chat and ambushed him with an interview; I’m sneaky like that.
What did you think when you were first diagnosed?
“Well, whenever I found out I was stage 2, I was more relieved that they finally figured out what it was. From what I had been told, the cancer seemed to be contained in one little area. I took it a lot harder once I found out I was stage 4. It definitely makes you live your life differently, on a day to day basis. “
Cody went on to mention that he had been feeling off for some time previous, but after one visit to a doctor who essentially said not to worry about it, he was conflicted. A second opinion finally got things straightened out – the new doc came to him “…and just said ‘I’m just gonna go ahead and tell you, I think it’s lymphoma.’”
You’re employed as a mate currently?
“I was in major fear of losing my job - that I had just started - due to the illness. However, my boss was very understanding. One of my main sources of motivation is to get well and get back on the boat; some of the things I saw this summer when I was offshore were just remarkable. I have always looked up to my boss; he’s been a section leader in the Big Shell Cleanup for years and just getting to be around him is really cool.”
You do a lot of shark fishing from the beach right?
“I went offshore for the first time when I was 13 years old. I caught some kingfish… going from catching trout and redfish to kingfish was a pretty big jump for me. Since then, I’ve wanted to catch the biggest baddest fish possible. Given my limited money, that became shark fishing off the jetties and beaches in the coastal bend. “
“I’ve had some of the most humbling experiences of my life, just out on the jetty or the beach. The conditions are perfect, you’ve got the perfect bait kayaked out… and you don’t get a bite. It makes you realize that there’s more to shark fishing, more to fishing in general, than just catching a fish. It’s more about being out there and taking it all in. It does make the times when you catch a shark just that much better though!” Cody chuckles.
“Like tomorrow… I’m headed down the beach, but it won’t be a bust if I don’t catch any fish. I’m just looking forward to getting out there. Going down the beach without even a fishing rod at all… it’s a different experience when you’re not focused on catching a fish, when you’re more focused on the things around you. “
“You can know about the fish, but you’ve got to know about everything. And then, you can know about it, but that doesn’t mean you understand it. I feel like fishing can be like super philosophical you know. It’s… “
“Yeah. It really is.”
Today, October 24, is the benefit fishing tournament for Cody's family to help defray the cost of Cody's hospital stays. Please feel free to donate if you didn't get to join in the tournament fun.
The next morning we were out the door fairly early, granola bars washed down with water and gatorade. There was no need to be out before the sun had risen high enough to warm the water and provide light for spotting cruising marsh pumpkins.
Layered against the windchill, we headed back to the general spot that we had left the previous evening. We figured it might be holding fish waiting for the sun.
After the cold of the boatride it was great to stand on the bow again, soaking up some sun and enjoying the excellent visibility. The area that we had fished the evening before was barren of fish except for one lone straggler that we blew out. Rounding a point, we headed up a shallow shoreline after crossing a deeper gut. Jeremy heard the characteristic sound of redfish crashing bait and poled us down the shoreline towards the commotion. We didn't get far before we started running into fish.
It started with a phone call, or maybe it was a facebook message... or possibly an end-of-the-jetty bs session. I don't remember; it doesn't matter.
What mattered was that I rolled into Houston on that cool December night to meet up with Capt. Jeremy Chavez (Casting Tales Guide Service) and catch a ride on the Midnight Marsh Train headed to Louisiana. Rods loaded up, materials stashed, boat hooked up and off we went into the night.
Sunrise saw us well into Louisiana, stopping to pick up licensure. Regular ol' saltwater license for me and a bonafide Louisiana guide license for Capt. Chavez.
Paperwork concluded, we headed for the water. I was practically hanging my head out the window like an eager bird dog, tongue lolling.
I watched as cities faded to towns, and towns faded to hamlets and fishing villages with tired houses and small, locally owned grocers. The restaurants, like the houses, were small and weathered. I expected to find myself in the middle of all the cajun food I could eat; I'd find out later how mistaken I was.
Finally arriving at the water-side in the afternoon, we messed around with trying to arrange a place to stay. Due to the offseason doldrums, that was easier said than done. Eventually, we gave up and launched the boat; we had wasted enough fishing time.
Flyfishermen are an introspective bunch, tending to philosophize a little more than our other fishing brethren. We like to catch big fish and high five about it, but we also like to talk about WHY we fish. I figure that is mostly because it's something we ask ourselves often as we are picking another tangle out, or standing waist deep in frigid and/or shark infested water.
That being said, there are also physical and mental attributes that make a fly fisherman respected among his peers. A few days ago I read a post on Chi Wulff where a list of "reasonable fly fisher skills" for his area was laid out. I thought it was well done and it got me to thinking about what would pass for a good list in my area. Saltwater fly fishers have to deal with a different set of obstacles than coldwater fisherman, arguably separate but equal.
At any rate, I started thinking about what made a respectable salty fly guy/gal, and started asking a few of my more crusty friends for some input. Some were more tongue-in-cheek than others. This is a shortened list of what we came up with
Tell by looking out at the roadside palm trees in the glow of the streetlight roughly how fast the wind is blowing.
Be able to tell the difference between the wake pushed by a mullet and that of a redfish or black drum.
Know that terns always lie, but gulls can lead you to treasure.
Be able to filter the sounds of jumping mullet from the sounds of bait being crashed.
Fully load the vehicle and have kayak strapped on top, in the dark, in ten minutes.
Spot a tailing redfish from over two hundred yards on a good day, from over 50 on a bad one.
Knows where the most sheltered spots are to get away from the wind, but generally only fishes those on days over 20kts.
Must be able to two-handed strip at warp speed to trigger mackerel and other pelagic species.
Must be as comfortable laying in a back cast as a forward cast on target.
Be able to maintain relative composure as a fish bigger than your duck dog approaches your fly.
Not locking up when a red/bone/permit/tarpon suddenly appears less than 30' from the boat.
Effectively pole a boat with and into the wind all day, positioning the caster for best shot on fish.
Know how to interpret tide chart and mentally calculate the difference in water movement for local area you plan to fish.
Navigate labyrinth marsh and marl while neither running aground or putting others in danger.
Be able to wade with ninja-like stealth while avoiding the mine field of oyster shell and stingrays.
Turn over a fly at 60' into a 20kt wind.
Cannot drive by hobby stores without wondering if they might have gotten any new foam or tinsel in...
Willing to endure withering wind and endless staring at empty water to hook the silver king from the granite of the jetty.
With the first major cold front of the year leaving Fall hanging in the air, it's time.
Time to go fishing.
Get out there and take advantage of the bait migration, the cooler temps, the clear water, the low numbers of fishermen on football Sunday afternoons. Do yourself a favor - grab a fly rod and get out there.
The next morning dawned cool and quiet, with the excitement from the nocturnal fish wrangling still lingering. I was just as ready to throw on waders as the previous morning, but Brian wanted to spend some time chatting with his buddy over coffee so they hung back at the house. I headed for a section of the creek that I had looked over but hadn't given a proper chance to produce the big fish it looked capable of holding.
I felt confident in what I had learned about this new water, and I figured that I would be able to do a little headhunting for the bigger browns I knew had to be hanging in tight to the tangled cover. I had figured out that the browns were behaving a lot like snook, demanding a pinpoint accurate cast tight in next to cover to elicit a strike.
The creek bank was solidly lined on each side with willows, with only a few moose trails creating open paths. These trails had been enhanced in some areas with chainsaw and elbow grease, but the places I wanted to go were pretty darn thick. The close-quarters nature of the vegetation made casting a real headache, but I relished the challenge, the antithesis of throwing bomb casts over open water like I was used to.
It was extremely technical, close quarters fishing. Steeple casts and bow-and-arrow casts were my primary tools I moved from spot to spot. I made it to a shallow sandy riffle area that dropped off quickly, with an undercut bank on the far side. There just had to be a fish in there, but in order to land a fly on target I had to cast through a foot wide slot in the willows behind me and lay in on the backcast, making accuracy a real challenge. Not only that, but getting the rod to load with only the leader and a couple feet of flyline out the tip was quite the challenge.
My first cast fell a little short of the tiny gap in the willow branches that I was aiming for, but the second dropped right in. I actually couldn't believe that I had managed it, to be honest with you. I let the black streamer sink down into the tannin-murk for a one count, and immediately began the retrieve. Well, I tried to begin the retrieve, but immediately came tight onto a branch. A branch that moved... not a branch!
A thrumming headshake and a quick turn downstream had my heart racing as I grudgingly gave line to the unseen fish. It immediately headed for the nearest tangle, but I had an 8lb (3x) fluoro leader on. I was able to apply some serious pressure to put the brakes on, and used the long lever of the fly rod to turn the fish. A few tense moments more, and a beautiful buck was in hand, my largest fish for the trip.
I had a huge grin plastered across my face as I positioned the tired fish for a couple quick photos and then watched him slip from my hands back into the slow current. Mission accomplished... but let's do that again!
Working downstream through another set of moose trails, I hit the creek again. I spotted a tempting brushpile downstream a bit and headed that way. My second step found me suddenly wading through knee-deep muck. Trying to be stealthy, I squelched my way into position. Using the creek as a casting lane this time, I laid out a cast parallel to the waterlogged limbs and began to retrieve.
This time, the thump! of the take reverberated with unquestionable fishiness. Then, quicker than I could think, the fish darted for the safety of the branches. Aww... crap.
To the bottom left of the picture you can see the flyline and amnesia mono to which my leader is looped. The situation seemed grim, but I could feel the fish down there, thrashing. My leader held, so I was left with a choice; Break the fish off and let it perhaps die of starvation while tied to the brush pile, or go in after it. I sighed and started removing layers, down to t-shirt and waders.
Working my hand down the mono, freeing as I went, I ended up nearly to my shoulder in the frigid water. I had a great view of my wavering reflection, since my face practically rested on the surface film. I was almost as busy making sure I didn't dip water into my waders as I was with untangling the fish, cussing quietly the whole time.
Eventually, I was able to drag the fish back up and out of the bottom of the pile, and a nice hen rose into the light.
I snapped a picture and eased the trout back in the water. Since I was already wet, cold, and in the middle of the stream, I figured I might as well use the good casting lane to hit a couple points down the way that I couldn't get at while on the bank.
Two casts later, a thump!
To my amazement, I was hooked up again. I was surprised all the commotion hadn't turned off the pool.
Soon, another pretty fish was in hand, red bespeckled sides gleaming in the gathering morning brightness.
After she swam off, it was time to head back to breakfast. We had a day of fishing to discuss, and I was sure that the guys had cooked up a great plan along with the scrambled eggs and taters.