This year was one for my personal recordbooks. I had many things happen that I had planned on, such as the successful one year anniversary of my blog. I had things happen that I had hoped for, such as a succession of calm, flat days offshore that were ripe for chasing big pelagic fish. And then of course I had the things that I never dreamt of, such as my stunner of a lake trout experience. Grab your preferred adult beverage, and let's think back... waaaay back...
Early in 2013, I had the chance to go try and find some redfish and/or speckled trout with a good buddy of mine. We didn’t expect much, knowing that cold waters would have the fish lethargic and deep water blind casting would be the name of the game. Boring, yes, but better than not trying at all. So we chunked fuzz in the deepwater pockets and drifted promising edges, but we might as well have stayed home it seemed. Then, on impulse, we scouted some new water over the figurative and literal hill, and hit red-gold. Boom, said the tailing redfish....continue reading "The Salt396 Guide to 2013"
There was a storm brewing... had been all day. Night before, we had stopped and spent the night in a motel rather than risk running through what we knew could be a twister-maker of a thunderstorm. You gotta know when to push your luck. Listened on the radio as a tornado was spotted dropping between towns, winding along, and then disappearing back in the clouds. No fuss, no muss - typical plains springtime. Weather cleared and we arrived safely the next morning.
Today was a different story. I watched from orbit as wave upon gnarly wave of thunderstorms marched northeastward, just missing us. I studied the radar, hoping it would ...continue reading "Carpy Weather"
The line burned through my fingers as the thing I had hooked down in the turbid water heaved and surged. I started taking steps back up to the water’s edge to help clear line faster as my eyes darted down to my line, searching for heart-breaking tangles that might catch on a guide and ruin this adventure before it hardly began.
The last of the slack whipped up off the water and came taut with an audible ‘Ting!’, slapping against the arbor of my reel. I could hear my fishing buddy reeling furiously from down the bank as he prepared to come assist and spectate.
My 8wt throbbed with powerful headshakes; I dropped my rodtip to the downstream side to try and lend some side pressure and turn the force of nature I had latched on to. I was still unsure at this point if I had them or if they had me…
My buddy arrived, mud spattered and a little breathless. I grinned at him and he gave me a slap on the back – we knew this was as close as we had gotten to the Goal. After the initial run the creature in the depths had settled down to a steady, inexorable pull. I couldn’t turn it, couldn’t control it, so I applied pressure and settled back to wait. I tried not to think about all the rocks and trees and other debris that the river had swallowed and that might be waiting to part my twenty pound leader.
When you're fighting a big fish there is that niggling worry that grows in the back for your mind - you must master it. The very fear that you might lose the fish can cause it to happen. Hurried netting attempts, horsing the fish, grabbing too quickly for a leader, bringing in a green fish... all can spell disaster for that fish of a lifetime. Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.
Now, I'm not saying baby the fish either. Apply pressure when applicable, and whip that fish's ass with good fighting technique. You will dispel the whispers of doubt in the back of your mind if you know you're fighting the fish as best you can. This is good for your mental state and leaves the fish in better condition to swim away after a picture or two.
In the middle of the river, the fish surged to the surface.
I got a glimpse of it for the first time as it made a huge swirl, pushing back towards the bottom. My rod was bent in a smooth parabolic curve as I grudgingly gave a few feet of line, and then stopped the fish again. Ah, yes - we've got 'er now. Applying brutal side pressure and reeling in a few inches at a time, I worked the fish up from the bottom and ever closer to my feet.
My fishing partner slipped on a glove and got out a camera. After a couple more short runs for the depths, the fish was beached in all her glory.
We quickly applied a tape and got a measurement -
And revived her, watching her swim away powerfully. Goal Accomplished.
Josh Rinehart joins us today with his side of the gar saga - as the fishing buddy along with me for these memorable trips, I asked him to lend his perspective to the best day we had - easily over 40 gar between us, plus his two surprises. Thanks Josh!
I will attempt to convey the awesomeness of a time spent on the water in an endless pursuit of self discovery, being in awe of nature’s beauty, breaking gear and the ever driving force of a personal best.
As we turn off a nameless country road nearing the destination conversation, previously un-interrupted, has gone out the window along with musty smell of what every fishing vehicle should smell like. There is a hint of some food item lost under a seat from some time during the Clinton administration and a salty musk smell emanating upwards from the floorboards.
Ahhh….this is going to be a great day.
Why? Because we know they’re here, not there or there, they are here. Armed with knowledge from previous endeavors, we are ready for a war. To label this ensuing adventure as a battle would be a gross understatement.
Pop the rear hatch and thus begins the rigging process. Rods assembled, lines threaded, new leaders, triple checked knots, it has begun.
It has all been building to this day. Previous R&D trips have filled us with a sense of confidence erring very close to the cocky side, if not perhaps a tad over the line. This sense of certainty does not come blindly. No, it comes from time on the water and tying bench gaining the knowledge and finely honing technique and gear. Off we trudge, battle-sticks in hand. From the fly to the backing, these are finely tuned instruments that will provide personal bests. Today is the day.
Terms such as “finely tuned”, “honing technique” and “a perfectly developed and assembled fly pattern” can make visions of clear mountain streams, dip nets and creels come to mind. None the less all this effort, time, sweat and a little skin and blood are dedicated for the pursuit of THE gar.
What?!? Why!?! Now……wait….WHAT? Are you out of your rabbit a$$ mind? Go ahead, ask someone where you can target alligator gar and carp on the fly. You will instantly have complete strangers caring about your sanity and mental health, all the while giving you a good looking over. You live 5 blocks off the bay and yet you drove over an hour to catch carp and gar. Oh how it makes the “purists” squirm.
Purist – One who practices or urges strict correctness, especially in the use of words.
Well maybe we're not purists, but hardcore definitely, no matter how misguided or delusional.
We head off down the trail straight for the combat zone. Such walks normally included a pause, pleasant conversation or even a photo opportunity, not today. I say “walk” but what I mean is a pretty quick trot edging on the hint of a lope. As we break through the tree line the silent communication going back and forth between us is screaming.
The anticipation and excitement bring back feelings of a childhood Christmas Eve. Heading down the bank littered with ankle-grabbing wild grapevine is further complicated by trying to keep focused on your footing all while the animalistic part of your brain commands you to look for the roll of a garasaurus.
Gear bags down, everything triple checked and now all focus is on the water. For those of you who have never seen a monster alligator gar roll, well, it will send a man back in evolution about 4 million years. Fitting, as the gar has virtually gone unchanged for about that amount of time. In awe of such a sight grown, educated men are reduced to grunting and pointing. You try to speak but somehow that part of your brain vapor locks. You, the reader, may chuckle to yourself, maybe laugh, either because it has happened to you or it hasn’t and you don’t yet understand.
Thus begins one of the most awesome days I have ever experienced. Missed hook sets, fish in hand, broken line, cut leader... we quickly lost count of it all. The ever-present thought in the back of my mind, did I have enough flies? What how does that even happen to us? Not out of the hot pattern, out of flies?!? Whew, found the second spare fly box in the bottom of the gear bag.
New fly, leader, tippet chug a bottle of water half time is over. Half time, who am I kidding? I am almost slap wore out. With the fishing as hot as the Texas sun beating down, fourth quarter push.
At this point in the game catching is not a cause for concern. The time has come to hunt for the monsters. The recipe includes heavy lead eyes and half of a banty rooster worth of feathers and patience. Casting such a herculean creation with tired arms and a slight crosswind is interesting in itself.
…..strip. You get the picture. The almost time stopping countdown employed hopefully allowing the fly to get down past the small fish. Did I just call 2-4 footers “small”? Why yes I did. About mid-trip you become accustomed to the manner in which the different species of gar take the fly and how they fight.
THUMP!!! Here we go. Stay connected. Stay connected. Stay connected.
The beast on the end is not jumping. Cool, not a long-nose or a spotted gar as they typically do their best tarpon impression once they feel the steel. Could this be the alligator that haunts my dreams? Austin sees the bend in the rod, the slow methodical pulsing of the tip, got an alligator? My mind racing; I have been fortunate enough to hook large fish before, this is a big one.
As I have not yet caught a “big” gar, I am left to believe that at the end of is THE beast. The fish is making short powerful runs as I try to keep the right amount of tension, turn the fish and anticipate the next run. For what seemed like an eternity, no visual, come on show yourself.
A catfish!!! Come on! Where’s the massive gar that I put the steel too?
It is a beautiful blue cat. Well, at least we have something for the freezer. Austin assists in some photos and the catfish is secured for later culinary enjoyment. As I do not regularly target catfish, it felt big and looked big so win – win.
Back at the house I grab an adult beverage of choice as Austin expertly removes four large slabs of tastiness from two blue cats. Yep, I caught another before we left. While the first was considerably larger they will eat well. That’s that and they are in the freezer.
Game plan for tomorrow you ask? Time to replenish the fly inventory, we are heading back tomorrow. Tying and conversation, we both know we can break some records. Ok, let’s look up the numbers for the gar so we can get our names in the book.
WHAT? REALLY? We had destroyed four records that day. That’s ok we will get it done tomorrow. Remember that previous statement about getting cocky?
As I survey the other fly-caught Texas records I am suddenly hit with an odd feeling in my stomach. Following a short session of talking in tongues, did I really do that? The current state record for a blue cat is 8.45 pounds and 27 inches long. As I so cleverly and quickly meat-hawked a beautiful 30.5 inch big-bellied blue cat. Was it my ticket to get in the book? I believe so with all my inner fisherman.
So, there it is. Take it with a grain of salt.
It’s not about getting in the book. I did it, you did it. We know we did it. That’s all that matters. Go ahead and keep telling yourself that, I’ll be staring at the ceiling at 2 a.m. shaking my head.
Well at least we got some meat in the freezer and 9 personal bests between us in one day.
It was hot. The weight of the sunlight was almost a palpable thing, given mass by the humidity of the air.
My buff drank sweat directly from my pores, almost able to keep up with its wicking duties. I was consciously breathing through my mouth instead of my nose so that my glasses wouldn't fog.
None of this bothered me. I was born down here - hot summers are all I know. Hardcore steelheaders rely on the cold to keep the rivers clear of the unworthy; I have the heat.
Down the bank, my fishing buddy was cussing quietly as he missed a strike, and then suddenly came tight with a heavy strip strike. Gar are great training for tarpon - gotta hit ‘em hard. Go google a picture of a gar skull and you’ll understand why. They’re all bone.
The fish leapt from the water, showing itself to be a medium sized longnose. A fun catch, but not what we were after.
We had seen the Kraken, and we had our hearts set on nothing less than her.
So began the game - cast as absolutely far as you can, wherever you thought a ‘gator gar might be lurking. Slowly strip back, feeling for any deviation that might mean a fish has picked up your fly. Smell the river, watch the dragonflies, strip, cast, repeat.
A solid peck telegraphed down my line; a swift strip strike came tight to a fish buried in the murk of the river. It wasn't like hooking a brick wall, so I knew it wasn't the Kraken. A couple minutes later a nice spotted gar appeared from the depths. These are the prettiest of the gar, superbly mottled and camouflaged for their watery environ. I slipped on a glove for the final approach. Thus protected from the coarse armor, it was easy to pop the hook out and slip the fish back into the water.
This time back down towards my buddy. Flicking fly lines immediately split the distance between us. Two lines, one mustard orange and one light blue, drifted together down the lazy, swirling current. The flies sinking down, perhaps even now passing within inches of a gar, THE gar…
Strip, sink…. Strip, sink…
All the way back ‘til the leader connection is just outside the rod tip. Shake out a couple feet of line, roll cast to get everything going and the satisfying acceleration of a couple good double hauls. Then fishing again - the most zen part of fly fishing, in tune with everything and nothing at once. Reaching for the slightest hint… wait… there’s a bit of extra weight… a slight sluggishness… my left hand grips and rips the fly line back past my left hip as my right hand powers the rod back to the right. Or… tried to.
The movement of my right hand is arrested suddenly by a great weight attached to the end of my line. The line thrums with power and starts leaving, burning through the tight grip of my left hand. I had time to turn and look wide-eyed down the bank and succinctly sum up the situation to my fishing partner - “Oh s*^%.”
It was midafternoon. The Texas heat bore down on my shoulders as I stood silently by the riverside, listening to the background drone of katydids and cicadas. My fishing partner readied tippet and selected his fly down the bank a ways. I could smell the heat, and the river; a subtle bouquet of drying plant material and mud. I took note of all this, but my eyes never left the water. I was searching for a sign. As the water warmed its ability to retain oxygen decreased, and as a result a fish that could use it’s air bladder like a lung would have an advantage. A predatory advantage over the sluggish, oxygen-starved minnows and other prey. A gar advantage.
There. A subtle roll, not really a gasp for breathe just kind of a sip. Small gar, that one. Probably a longnose. Another rolled, and another.
Rod in my right hand, leader in my left. My fly hung a few inches below my left hand, swaying gently in the occasional puff of breeze that crawled through the riparian vegetation. My eyes slightly unfocused, looking at nothing and everything. The heat was hot, and the insects droned on.
Down the bank, my fishing partner waded gently out into the water, ripples emanating from his knees as he stopped and started stripping a pile of light blue line into the water.
From the corner of my eye I watched the pile zip up off the water as he flexed the rod through a double haul. I took a deep breath of hot, wet air, and stepped into the water. It was warm, but cool to my legs and the backs of my knees. I stopped and started making my own line pile, still watching.
Tha-wOOSH! Mid-river, a leviathan surfaced for a fleeting moment, gulping air and turning immediately back towards the bottom, throwing water with a caudal fin as big as my head.
I glanced over at my buddy down the bank. He grinned and motioned with his head towards the retreating ring of ripples created by the rolling alligator gar. Go get ‘em, he said without words. I nodded. So it begins…
One of my favorite parts of fly fishing or fishing in general is that it's something anyone can do. As a certified casting instructor, I run into many people who balance precipitously on the fence, not knowing whether to try fly fishing or if they'll just be made to look the fool. To any novices in the audience, I have a bit of a secret - we were all there once. Paraphrasing one of my favorite quotes on the subject, we all fall in the river sometimes. We all catch trees on our backcast occasionally, and we all cuss ourselves from time to time, but the challenge makes the victory that much sweeter. Helping someone gain the skills necessary to be a successful fly fisher is one of life's greatest joys to me. So, when I convinced my sisters to go fishing with me, it was a great day!
First up was my middle sister, home from college and eager to get out of the house for a bit. We invited a couple other people to join us and received incredulous looks. Nonbelievers. I just looked at my sister and shrugged. Hey, more for us.
I told the story of the past couple days and she was looking forward to getting to see some of these fish up close and personal. It didn't take long. She had brought a spinning rod as backup but I encouraged her to try out the fly rod - in the close confines of the river a roll cast was all that was needed and she quickly figured it out. Was it the most beautiful thing in the world? No, but it was what I call a fishing cast. As long as the bug gets in front of the fish and the fish eats it, it doesn't really matter to me how it gets there. And she got it there. After a couple missed rises from lack of experience in knowing what to look for I could see that she was getting serious. I spotted a small pod of perhaps 5 or 6 carp hanging in the shade near the bank, and we snuck in within range.The fish were moving in and out of the small patches of light filtering through the canopy and all I could pick out were golden glimmers of scale and orange tails. I gently coached her on where she needed to put the fly to get a good drift and she did a great job. A solid head rolling rise and she came tight to her first carp on the fly! There was a moment of chaos as she and the fish tried to figure out what was going on and how to best deal with this new situation, but soon the fish was to hand. She was all smiles as we watched it swim away.
Heading further on, I saw the tell-tale wake of a carp making headway against the current. We quickly and quietly made our way closer, locked on target like bird dogs on a covey.
Closer and closer we got, and once in range she made a couple great casts but the carp was head down and oblivious to anything else. Scanning the water while she focused on the first fish, I saw another pod working just upstream and directed our attention to them. Two casts later she was fast to another river carp, trying to turn it's head with side pressure. The fish wrapped around an underwater obstruction and popped the tippet sending the suddenly fly-less leader flying back directly in my face. Nothing like a little excitement to spice up the day eh?
She went on to land 4 carp to my 5 and we had a great time before it started getting hot and it was time to go. One of the most important things to know about taking a new person along fishing or any other activity is when to call it quits. If you leave the water with them wanting more then you are likely to have a fishing buddy in the future!
Next up was my youngest sister. After hearing the fish adventures of the day she was dying to get out on the water so after supper we headed down. After I showed her how to thread a mulberry onto a small circle hook and then gently flip it to the fish, she was quick to hook up on her first sight-cast golden bone.
The next morning found me back on the road to Texas, to Corpus Christi via Dallas.
My eyes strained behind my polarized lenses, trying to identify exactly which one of the cruising shadows was the one I was looking for. I could've sworn I had seen… there! A shadow that was slightly darker and more cigar-shaped than the others rose to the surface and sipped a mulberry delicately. Hidden from the sun behind my Buff, my lips curled back in a determined smile. This just got interesting.
Hello Mr. Grasser. I would like to make your acquaintance.
Over the years I have caught a great many species of fish, first on conventional tackle and then, as I progressed in my evolution as a fisherman, on fly tackle. As many species as I have put on the life-list though there has been one that had eluded me to this point – the grass carp. I had cast to many and seen some true monsters of the kind but had never even had one mouth a fly.
So when I thought I saw one as I studied the deeper pool I had crept up to, it was a surge of excitement and I immediately picked up a berry and tossed it into the general area where the slightly-different-than-a-carp shadow had been. And another. Common carp appeared quickly, swirling on top of the water and for a moment it appeared like a koi pond frenzy without the rainbow of colors.
On a hunch, I tossed a berry behind the main frenzy, and that's when my heart started pitter-pattering at the sight of the confident rise from a grass carp. That's a catchable fish, I said to myself. I checked connector knots over and ran my fingers down my tippet looking for any nicks that could ruin my day. All set and ready for launch. The fish was difficult to get to; he was in a slot sheltered from the current by a submerged tree. Most of the branches had been ripped from the trunk, but there was still a pesky branch with twigs sticking out of the water between the fish and I. Using a curve cast (a technique more at home on a trout stream, but useful in many situations), I threw a big upstream bend in my line to allow for a natural drift. Berries by nature find it difficult to swim, so imparting any motion at all to the fly would let the fish know something was up. I leaned forward slightly, watching line, fly and the spot where the fish had been. Again, the dark shadow rose up. Again, it deliberately moved to the berry. The white interior of the fishes mouth showed as it started the gill flare that would mean sweet success for me.
And then, it totally, utterly, absolutely refused and turned away.
Dear reader I am not ashamed to say that I stood there in shock for a moment. I felt a little betrayed, even. I have received refusals from a variety of fish (and uh, female humans), but never one like this. I retrieved the fly, inspecting it carefully. Ah, I thought. This fly has caught several common carp, perhaps it doesn't float high enough in the water column. Fresh fly selected (debating the berry-ness of each one to find the most realistic) and carefully tied on, I made another cast. The fish rose again, drifting backwards in the current studying the fly, and then sank from sight. At this point I maaay have started to mumble questionable things about the fish's mother. This wasn't friggin' blue ribbon trout stream fishing, ya know. Just eat the damn thing.
I rested the spot for ten minutes and then tried again, changing my angle of attack to high upstream so I could more effectively get around the raking twigs eager to snag my line and ruin my drift. I made my cast, dropping the berry from high up with a loud plop that I hoped would trigger the fish to eat without staring at the fly too much. Immediately two commons rose, but ahead of them came the grass carp. The competition was too much for the persnickety fish and he inhaled the fly and turned away.
I hit him with a strip and that fish went NUTS. I am not kidding you when I say he backflipped up out of the water, landed perfectly in the middle of the raking twigs that I had so carefully avoided, and thrashed like he was having an epileptic fit. This was too much for my poor tippet and the 8lb test parted, leaving me staring incredulously, again. Only ripples remained to tell the tale.
That... was... AWESOME!
I say this; Salud to you Mr. Grasser, wherever you are. I hope my fly causes you no undue harm and that the girl grass carp dig it. We shall meet again someday soon to match wits once again...
Day Two. The sun is high, the birds gently sing, and the cicadas buzz. It was pretty much Day One. It was glorious. And I was back for more.
I seeee you...
I started moving along the rivercourse, searching for signs of active carp. In places they were moving through water so shallow that I could see their v-wake from over a hundred yards downstream.
I never get tired of the game - first, find the fish. Then, somehow, get close to the fish. Then, even less likely, fool the fish into thinking that the fly is actually worth eating. Don't miss the hookset, don't break it off, don't straighten the hook... And then, maybe, you'll have the opportunity to hold a living, gasping, wriggling representative from another world. A link to the element that we have explored the least of them all. I love this game. The previous day had ended when I had come upon a large logjam piled up in a hole that the river had carved deeply when the water raged. Carp became more and more numerous as I had moved along and I had ended up landing 8 or 9 and losing many more. You know those days when you know, you KNOW you're going to get into the fish well? Yeah. I love those days too.
Once, I heard a protracted commotion upstream out of sight. Coming around the corner I saw a carp that had miscalculated and had himself highcentered on lip of sandy muck. I chuckled to myself as the fish gave a great heave and finally slipped off the bar.
Later I arrived at that spot and studied the lattice of slide trails going across the shallow spine of the river. You could see the network of carp tracks heading from river right to river left; the banks had shin deep water hugging them whilst the middle of the river was leaning towards dry. The only way across was a gutsy charge across the skinny.
Ah. The walk upstream. Treading softly past old bridge pilings and debris from flood years well within recent memory. Locals can remember a time when the roaring torrent crested just below the bridge I am now standing 40 feet underneath.These are reminders of the raw power that hides in the quiet burbling water tumbling downstream. Now though the slow, clear flow is confined to the deepest channels and holes.
Past the debris and well above the bridge I pause for a moment to remove my shoes. The soft rich silt layer of the riverbed oozes up between my toes in a delightful way, and the solid sandy layer just underneath provides traction. I like being barefoot in the water; for me, it's a more fulfilling connection to the environment that I am moving through. The heavy layer of organic sludge is what lends so much fertility to this watershed, and why the carp are so prevalent here.
No sooner did I have my shoes off and safely stashed in a hollow log on the shore than I turned around to see a cruising pair of carp sweep down the current and turn off into a shadowy spot under a mulberry tree. Ah yes. Let the games begin.
Stepping into the sunlight I made my way across the softly squishing riverbed and angled to a point slightly behind and downstream of my quarry. I had learned the basics of how to stalk wary fish in low, clear water here on this very river, and it had served me well on everything from freshwater trout to bonefish. Now here I was back in the river, and I was immensely satisfied to apply all that I had learned since then. It was like showing an old teacher that you had taken their lessons to heart and gone on to make something of yourself. Staying low and wearing drab clothing, I was as stealthy as I could be. Once in position, I flicked a cast under the overhanging branches and let my 'berry' fall with a satisfying plop.
The pair of fish practically tripped over each other moving to the source of the sound; two rubbery mouths emerged from the water, groping for what they thought to be a delicious berry. A long second happened, me intent on the fish, the fish intent on the fly. One carp shouldered aside the other and found success, slurping the berry down. An instant later, a strip strike set home with a watery explosion as the stuck fish streaked upstream. A game of ring-around-the tree ensued where I found myself run-sloshing through the water trying to keep the fish from breaking me off on a submerged stump. Clamping down on the reel as the fish bee-lined from there to a logjam, I executed a maneuver known to my friends and I as 'stop 'em or pop 'em'. This is where you're trying to handle a large fish heading for cover or maybe you hook into something a little too large to handle on the gear you have in hand. In this situation, locking up the reel with your hand or by jamming it into your thigh in order to either turn the fish or break it off might be the only thing keeping you from losing an expensive flyline and maybe all of your backing too. I locked down and angled my rod hard to the left; the carp slewed sideways in a powerslide, never stopping his tail as he continued to angle into the tangled mess of branches. Time slowed down. Then, with an almost audible creak, the hook bent and popped out, reducing my electric connection to a disappointing slack.
I took a deep breath as my world expanded again, away from the tunnel vision I get when locked onto a piscine target. I could again hear the birdsong floating through the trees, and notice that the wind had picked up a bit. Stripping in, I confirmed that it was indeed a hook failure. Mental note - use stronger hooks.