“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.
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.
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.