Out on the unprotected jetty, the wind-driven downpour was merciless.
Dropping straight out of the ominous squall that spawned them, millions of raindrops hurtled towards the green, white-capping waves of the Brownsville ship channel. The wind whipping the water into a froth caught the dripping drops and accelerated them. Laughing maniacally, the raindrops aimed directly for the most improbable target they could find – the inside of my left ear.
Ever been given a wet willy by a storm? It’s not fun.
I quickly learned to hold up my left hand over that side of my face to cover my ear and eye. I had already slid my Buff off my face down onto my neck – when soaking wet they can suffocate you, and I had no interest in being water-boarded by a storm.
As we made our perilous way down the rock, I couldn't help but think that the New England jetty guys would be laughing at us - they probably fish in those conditions all the time. Stepping across a crevasse between granite blocks, my peripherals caught motion. Glancing over as I kept walking, I saw a blurred, upturned face with water streaming down it. A fellow jetty-goer, trying to shelter from the storm. The only problem was that there was no shelter to be had. The waves were slamming over the jetty by this point, giving us alternate soakings in salt and fresh water.
The short walk down the jetty had turned into hours, miles of jagged slick rocks and pounding surf. It was easy to compare to a huge, storm-born beast; slavering granite jaws, buffeting gusts of cold, stinging breath. Any misstep meant broken gear and blood, at the least.
A couple boats revved up and started chasing the ephemeral school, spooking the fish time and time again and only catching one of the small tuna. We watch, and grumble, and wait for our turn.
Capturing some filmage.
Suddenly, Don comes tight. I see him struggle with a knot in his fly line for a moment before it is ripped from his fingers, popping a snake guide and launching the top half of his rod out into the green swirling waters. I move quickly across the rocks to assist. Any second the hard-running tuna could pop a knot or graze a rock, and bye bye rod tip...
A little bit of chaos ensues - the knot is removed, the fish surfaces by the rocks, and the other half of the rod is safely retrieved. Whew. We were all a bit worried there.
After that the fishing settled down and the sun climbed up in the sky. A few small jacks and large ladyfish rounded out the morning, but no tarpon rolled and the bonito didn't deign to return close enough to the rocks to catch. So it goes. We walked back down the rocks vowing that it would be different when we had a boat to get out there and chase them... as generations of anglers have done before us. Despite the lukewarm fishing, it was great to get out there with my friends and enjoy a beautiful morning.
“Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: "What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”
― C.S. Lewis
Fly fishers are an eclectic group; we come from all walks. We are novice, expert, nice guy, jackass and all things in between. One thing for sure though is that I have never not had a good time getting to go fish with fellow fly flingers. We are the misunderstood crazy cousins to the rest of the fishing community, but that’s okay.
If I've learned one thing, it's that you don’t have to be understood to catch fish... but it's more fun when you're fishing the jetty with people that get it.
This weekend I had an opportunity to get to fish with a couple old fishing buddies. Don Alcala and I have known each other for several years now and fish together often. Jeremy Chavez lives up in the Galveston area and he had made it down to try and get some footage of some tarpon and go fishing with us out on the rocks of the local jetties.
We had been trading fishing reports and I was looking forward to getting Jeremy out and showing him the potentially explosive fishing available on our stretch of the surf.
After the early morning meet-up, we roll to the water's edge. Stepping onto the jetty, we are rewarded with few people contesting our favorite areas and a beautiful sunrise.
Our main competition for the day was to be the boats that rolled up and out in a steady stream, never seeming to stay long but running their engines enough to keep the end of the jetty disturbed and us land-bound fly flingers frustrated.
Winds were light, and the water clarity great. Baitfish circled in huge schools, occasionally being pushed up to the surface by attacking predators amid sprays of water and screaming seagulls. Jeremy set up his camera, capturing us going through the repetition of the jetty - strip out enough line for a long cast, rocket it all out there, strip back. Repeat. Pick out tangles, watch for fish. Repeat. Narrowly save your line from getting swept into the jagged, barnacle encrusted granite. Repeat. Grind it out and wait for that big bite.
From down the jetty, Don called out something that didn't carry over the breaking waves. I motioned that I hadn't heard, my eyes riveted on the boiling cauldron of fish stationed a couple hundred yards off the rocks.
And now it's a party.
Or was it? When you're stuck on the rocks, nothing is certain.
I recently had the great opportunity to fly across a whole lot of water to a small speck of rock in the middle of the pacific and though I only really had time to fish seriously for one day, I managed to connect! A big tip of the hat goes out to Clay over at Nervous Waters Fly Fishing for helping me out with a spot or two where I might run into a bonefish on a do it myself basis.
The habitat here is diverse - deep channels and flats, waist deep sandy pockets and mixed coral, all the way up to super skinny water that goes dry with a low tide and is nearly always subject to waves washing across it. I hit the water an hour before tide change, and saw a feeding pair almost right off the bat. Sneaking up on these fish while crunching across treacherous coral is no walk in the park. These guys got uneasy and cruised away to who knows where when I was trying to set up for the roughly 80' shot quartering into the wind. I had the hardest time seeing these fish if they weren't tailing - you old hands at the bonefish game are nodding and smiling right now, but for this redfish hunter they were grey ghosts indeed!
After the initial jolt of adrenaline from spotting my quarry, I was completely psyched up and eager to find some more. I slowed down my wading pace and went along as stealthily as I could. After another hundred yards or so I was rewarded with a large tail popping up at 40 feet, facing away - if you've never seen a bone tailing before it's like seeing a spike suddenly thrust from the water, their caudal fin is deeply forked and very pointed. I strained my eyes behind my polarized lenses but even in 5 inches of super clean water I just could Not see the fish. The best I had was a slightly darker green-blue smear attached to the tail. Seizing my chance, I quickly calculated the wind and laid a cast aimed at placing my fly a foot ahead and to the left of the fish. The loop straightened and dropped, and the tail went down... I waited, intense, and twitched the mantis shrimp imitation...
Twenty feet further on, the bone popped his tail up again to mock me. I quickly learned to appreciate how fast the fish were moving across the flat; I never had time to take more than two shots at any fish that I saw, and if I was further than a long cast from a fish that I saw tailing it was pretty much pointless to try and wade to the tail because they would be long gone by the time I got there over the coral.
The tide started to rise, prompting bigger fish to push up into the skinny areas and I started to see some very large. At least this Texas boy knows how find some tail! Walking slowly with the wind, into the tidal flow, I caught the flicker of a fin above the surface and snapped my attention to that spot. A bonefish was worming his way towards me into the wind with his back emerging up out of the water as I watched. I dropped to my knees, ignoring the coral biting into my kneecaps as I readied myself for the shot. He stopped and tailed on something at around 65 feet, and I almost cast to him but something stopped me; I decided to wait a bit more. My heart thudding in my chest, I held my leader as my fly swung loose in the breeze. I watched the fish's gleaming, shark-like profile get closer and closer.
At what I guessed as 45', the bone stopped with his head behind a knob of coral. I tossed the fly aside and rolled my line up off the water, back and then flicking out, landing the fly a foot to the fish's left, out of sight behind the outcrop. Sliding forward, the bone turned towards me slightly and I could see his head clearly, just under the surface. I made a 3 inch strip; the fish immediately turned on the movement. I made two tiny twitches; he simply swam over and ate it. Thankfully my hands knew what to do, because my brain was melting down. No way he just ate that! No WAY! As klaxons were screaming in my brain, my hands smoothly and swiftly executed a strip strike, lifting the rod quickly to keep tension and keep the leader above coral. In a giddy fog, I watched the fish as he cleared the remaining line and hit the reel. Lurching to my feet, I just held the rod as my reel arbor started to groan backwards, slowly growing in speed and pitch as the fish figured out he was hooked, and then the reel was screaming. I was grinning like a fool and watching him torpedo across the flat, slinging water and chunks of seaweed everywhere. I expected the fight to be over any second - any errant bit of coral could cut me off. To my surprise the fish tired out around 80 yards of backing into the run... or at least I thought he tired. Whipping around, he began swimming nearly directly back to me. My eyes were wide and my mouth started uttering all the proper profanity due the situation. Reeling furiously and backing up as quickly as possible, I was stumbling over coral and almost ended up on my back more than once.
I finally caught up to the fish and got tight again - no sooner had I a good connection than he burned off again, but this run was much shorter than the first and I began to dare to hope that I would land him. Gingerly controlling the bonefish, turning his head every time he tried to gain momentum, I worked him to my hand. I let out a little whoop of victory, and then yanked my head up to the unfamiliar sound of applause. Seems on Hawaii everyone either fishes or appreciates fishing as an art - my screaming drag and splashing around had attracted a small crowd of locals. Realizing I had to get rid of the fish before they figured out how good it was and got any closer, I snapped a couple hurried pics with my camera phone and gave him one more lingering look as I popped the hook from the corner of his mouth. Moving him once forward and back, I released his tail as he surged away from me. Turning back to the crowd, I waved and smiled. They were very disappointed that I released it and I explained to them that the fish had been small and that I would leave it for them to catch later. They brightened a bit at that idea, and wandered off without asking me what I had caught. Turning back to the flat, I closed my eyes for a moment and basked in the euphoria a bit more before going back on full alert and covering more water. That would be the only shot I had for the rest of the trip, but I didn't care much. I had already done what I came to do.
I was sitting on the very end of the Port Aransas south jetty in May, staring out over the windy, rolling chop as it was pushing in, when it occurred to me. “I want to catch a shark on a fly.” I said aloud to myself.
Why not? It's fairly common in Florida and other places around the world, but I only personally knew one or two guys here who had successfully targeted and caught them. One of these gentlemen was a man by the name of Clif, who happens to own the Texas state blacktip record on fly. He said that he had caught the 54.5” shark while out in a kayak past the breakers following schools of anchovies around. I figured if he could do it, so could I.
Now, I think most people that care to have, by now, seen or heard about the 12'6” tiger shark that was landed and released, (great job guys, by the way), over by Bob Hall Pier. Oh, we heard about it alright, saw pictures the day it happened. We watched the videos several times. Did this deter us from plunking ourselves into small plastic boats and paddling out past the breakers? Of course not. Hey, we never claimed to be smurt.
So the plan evolved and gained members, and we gathered the necessary safety gear and equipment to make our risk as low as possible. The group total came to 5, making for lots of eyes to make sure everyone was okay and lots of boats to distribute equipment around. All items in each kayak were safely leashed to the boat somehow; if you don't tie it down, you're asking to lose it. Just trust me. I've seen rods go swimming, and it ain't pretty.
After the seemingly inevitable rendezvous setbacks, (taco stops, forgotten tackle, you know the deal), we hit the beach. We decided to cruise the sand until we found a likely stopping point and strike out from there. After spotting big flocks of working birds in the middle distance, we stopped in line with them and loaded up our trusty vessels with a lot of very expensive gear that we hoped would still be attached to the boat when we got back to the sand. The surf was very slight and the flat conditions gave us the confidence that our little plan wasn't as insane as some of our doubters might've first thought.
After zipping out to where the birds were, we found huge anchovie bait-balls being completely molested by swarms of Spanish mackerel. The 'smacks', as they're affectionately known, were everywhere; free-jumping with bait in their mouths, schooled up under our kayaks, crashing the anchovie schools. It was chaos, casting into the frothing schools and the fish biting everything that was moving – connector knots, fly line, and fish slashing at anything remotely shiny in the water, including bare hooks. Anchovies schooled under my boat trying to use it as cover, and the streaking electric green and silver blurs that were smacks would rocket up from below to slash at them. It was every cast, can't not get bit for a short but furious span of time. I quickly got bored with underwater action and decided to try and feed my topwater addiction. I had never caught a smack on top before, and I wanted to add that to the list of accomplishments. A quick re-rig of my 40lb bite tippet – I don't use wire for smacks, just use a hand-over-hand retrieve as fast as possible – and I was blooping a gurgler through the swarms of screaming 'chovies. While my hook-up rate went way down, the way the fish kept blasting that poor fly made it worth the misses.
I was tired of the smack attack by that point, and was ready to drop something big down below the fray and see if anything of more substance lurked below the swarming mackerel. To my 25lb mono leader I attached a braided wire bite tippet attached to a heavy baitfish pattern tied on a 4/0 hook that I had made up the night before specifically for the trip. I laid my 10wt between my knees as I chunked the fly off to the side of the 'yak to organize the cockpit before heading off to the next spot. I looked up just in time to see the rodtip start to flex as something grabbed my fly and sounded for the bottom. Snagging the cork of my handle as it headed over the side, I found myself fast to a strong opponent. After an intense, bulldogging battle under the boat, I raised the fish close enough to the boat that I could see it – shark! I called out excitedly to my buddy and he drifted closer to see the action. After bringing the scrappy 30” shark to boatside, I veerrrry carefully removed the hook and snapped a picture to commemorate the moment. High fives all around!
That day and on subsequent trips we caught smacks, ladyfish, lots of atlantic sharpnose sharks (goal accomplished!), chicken dolphin (total surprise), kingfish, spadefish, some massive gafftop, small vermillion snappers and a small amberjack. Not bad eh? In short, it has proven to be a not-so-crazy way to go after some of the fish that're hard to reach from the beach. If you prepare correctly and use common sense, kayaking beyond the breakers (BTB) can lead to very rewarding fishing trips. If you have the gear, bluewater fly fishing can lead to some of the most intense encounters you will ever have while fishing.
‘Why do I even bother to look up wind predictions?’ I grumbled to myself as I unloaded my kayak in the grey-light of early morning.
‘6mph, my butt.’ But I didn’t call it quits. After all, I was already there, and I had confidence in my ability to put my fly where I wanted it even in the 20mph wind that was already starting to kick up. I switched reels to put on a heavier line, rigged up a heavier leader than the normal 12lb tippet I usually throw in the skinny water flats, and headed off with the sunrise coming up over my shoulder.
Fly fishing the Texas coast is something that many people prepare for months in advance – if you book a guided trip down here, most fly guides will recommend lots of practice casting into wind and double hauling. Fly fishing in freshwater will rarely call for the tricks and techniques we employ down here to beat the wind, and many a talented freshwater fly slinger has found themselves humbled when they come visit us.
Those of us that already live here already familiar with the wind, so we should have a huge advantage… but a lot of guys simply choose to stay off the water instead. If the strategy of waiting until the wind lays works for you, more power to you! However, if you’re my kind of crazy hear the siren’s call of tailing reds and rolling tarpon like I do, there are some tricks that can you can employ to make blustery day fly fishing a little easier.
One of the keys that I have found is learning to use the wind to your advantage. By positioning yourself so that the fish are directly downwind or quartering downwind, you can take accurate shots much more easily than trying to fight the wind directly. With a little practice, you might be surprised just how far you can cast by learning to ‘sail’ your line with the wind.
By using heavy enough rods and ‘up-lining’ a weight heavier than the rod weight calls for, (such as a 9 weight line on an 8 weight rod), an angler has the ability to adjust his tackle to suit the conditions if he or she expects the day to be blustery. On the flats, I would recommend a floating line for most conditions, but on windy days I’m not afraid to break out an intermediate line to help me carve a path for my fly to get in front of the fish. As for leader selection, I will generally use a 6-7ft 20lb leader tapered to a 15lb tippet on breezy days. The purpose is twofold; the short, stout leader helps roll your fly over in blustery conditions, and stands up better to the inevitable wind knots. I prefer not to remember all the times I’ve set the hook on good fish only to immediately break off at a knot in my leader.
In a pinch, if you don’t have a heavier line available to you, I have successfully used heavy clousers to help me get my backcast going into the wind. While I was limited to fishing channels and edges using this technique, it was better than sitting at home and not catching anything.
The point I’m trying to make here is that we live near some of the prettiest, fly-fisher friendly water anywhere around. If you aren’t comfortable casting when the wind is blowing, you don’t have to just give up – there are some great instructional DVDs out there, as well as qualified local casting instructors such as myself or Dave Hayward over at the Orvis shop in Rockport that can help you.
I got back to the truck that day with 3 keeper trout to 18” and a nice puppy drum on the stringer – not bad for a day that kept a lot of guys off the water. Don’t let a little breeze scare you – put in some practice and take that fly stick with you to the water even on windy days. You’ll soon see that with a little practice, fly fishing can be an everyday pursuit if you want it to be.