We were running a little behind, as you know sometimes happens on trips you’re trying to really prepare for. My buddy Adam (who writes a hilarious tale) was already at the rendezvous point, and I was quizzing him as to how the water was doing.
“Oh I don’t think we can go out there man. Way too dangerous. There’s three whole sets of surf and they look to be almost 18 inches tall…”, he said in a dire tone of voice.
I got the word via text – water looked good, the mackerel were in, and Chris just caught another one. I couldn’t jump in the truck fast enough. “Smacks” are toothy speedsters, usually the first pelagic fish to move in near shore and present fly chuckers a chance from the jetty. A small, flashy fly to imitate the anchovies that were schooled in abundance around the granite slabs, and it was game on.
Obviously my fishing buddy Austin was awake. Walking to the window revealed a gorgeous sight.
We hurriedly grabbed a breakfast taco and loaded the boat. The boat ride to the deep flat we wanted to fish seemed surreal as the water continued to reflect the sky with near perfection. A slight breeze kicked up now and again, but most of the run was spent cruising across a mirrored surface.
As we drifted across the potholes studding the grassy flat, I was struck by the beauty of the area. The sun was shining, the water was green and clear, and the boat drifted nicely - not too fast, not too slow. My buddy Austin and I scanned for fish, hoping our eyes could pick out the outline or shadow of a fish in time to make a cast. Suddenly, a big wake started pushing up ahead of us - I strained my eyes trying to make out the fish. Sheepshead! A whole school of the tricky buggers was already spooked and running away from us. Ah well - chances of catching them were pretty slim anyway. Besides the sheepie sighting, pickings were slim so we decided to anchor the boat and strike out in waders. This would allow covering the water slowly and deliberately, usually a must when the water is cold.
I don't know what it was but neither of us were feeling very confident about the spot, though it fit all the criteria for winter fish-holding water. I was considering walking to an area nearby that looked much shallower, but wanted to make sure that Austin agreed. As I started walking back towards him, he suggested that we should go check out the shallows that I already had my eye on! Sometimes you wonder about things like that... I laughed and said definitely.
So it was that Austin, myself, and his dog Goose found ourselves walking through some mangroves, instinctively trying to step quietly even though neither of us expected to see any fish.
My attention was attracted by a small flock of redhead ducks across the way, but Austin was practically on point when he asked me in a low voice if I saw the same fish he was seeing.
My head snapped around and I immediately found the spot he was looking at - the only ripple on an otherwise smooth surface. I then looked back further into the shallows and spotted three, four, five more glimmering spots...
"Redfish!", I said with a grin. "Backing redfish."
Wriggling around with their backs out of the water, these fish were spread out and foraging across the flat.
We started forward, gingerly working our way across the mucky bottom and trying to make as little noise as possible. While Austin approached the first glistening back we had seen, I split off and started to stalk a tailing fish.
Poor Goose was left staring after us on the shore, clearly unhappy with the turn of events.
I stalked after my fish, struggling to stay quiet and push as little pressure wave in front of me as possible. Even so, the fish seemed to sense me and moved steadily away, until I figured I had no chance. Suddenly, movement in my peripheral vision caused me to instinctively freeze; a fish was lazily tailing less than thirty feet away! I swore softly to myself and adjusted for the cast, dropping slowly to one knee as the fish meandered closer. Twenty feet... I flipped a cast ahead of him, the soft plop making him turn his head toward my offering. Twitch... and the fish surged forward, waking violently toward the 'shrimp' that had suddenly appeared in front of him. I waited for a sign that he had eaten it as I grinned like a fool; this, after all, was what it was all about. I waited and...
He missed it! Total wiff. Spinning quickly, he snatched for it again, but by that time the fly had sunk into the grass. Resuming his leisurely pace, the fish slid forward a few feet and then rested on the bottom... roughly twelve feet away from where I crouched. Totally screwed!
I was afraid to blink, afraid to even breathe hard. I slowly moved my phone into position and snapped the above shot. Seconds stretched into minutes and he still didn't move. I could hear Austin fighting a fish behind me and I wanted to get a picture so I lightly tapped the water with my rod tip to disturb him as gently as possible so he didn't blow up. That worked great right up until he started moving forward - evidently he saw me. Floosh! Away he went. Crap. Oh well.
I sloshed across the flat back over to Austin who was holding his fish up, and admiring it as it gleamed copper and silver in the sunlight...
I love getting to fish with a partner on days like that - sharing the moments of what I would describe as fishing bliss. The day that came before the day when you 'shoulda been here'. THE right spot at THE right time.
Austin carefully cradled his fish for a couple quick hero shots, and then eased it back into the water. We watched it swim off and traded high fives.
Splitting up again, we slowly shuffled our way across the flat, staying roughly even with each other as we went. Stingrays dotted the muddy patches between eel grass like landmines. Fortunately when they buried down in the silt they left a tell-tale blackened area, so they were easy to spot. Still a little nerve wracking though, especially when you're focused on a tail in the middle distance and glance down to see one right in your path.
Austin spotted a pod of tailing fish, and then I sighted another one; the closer we got to them, the more stingrays we saw. Picking our way to the schools of fish, we suddenly had a problem - we were surrounded! In front of us, a marauding pack of reds was slashing through small baitfish. Behind us, a school was moving up through the silt cloud we left behind as we moved. We thought quickly and overcame our tactical disadvantage as best we could; back to back, we cast at opposite schools and hoped for a double. Forgoing finesse, I plopped a fly into the heart of the school I faced; half a dozen strips and my fly was headed swiftly in the opposite direction, locked firmly in a fish's jaw. Austin quickly came tight as well, but that red managed to toss the hook in short order.
As we walked off the flat later that day, I reflected that it had been one of the most unexpectedly successful trips I had had in a long time. I guess after you fish water for a while you start to feel like you know it, and grow a little complacent. You start fishing spots you know instead of breaking out and fishing new water, taking the chance that you'll catch nothing but a day well spent. What had led us to that shallow backwater? I couldn't tell you exactly, but it stemmed from our innate desire to explore, to see what lay beyond the mangroves. So, take that journey - go around that river bend, just because it's there. The best way to go is with friends who feel the same way, sharing the adventure and increasing the safety for everyone.
The next time you head out, I hope you experience the fishing bliss that can be found in serendipity. That's what it's all about my friends.
So it turns out that the snook trip was just too much to encapsulate in a series of short stories like I prefer to write - we would've been on 'Snook Trip 23424545234' and y'all would be thinking that this was not only boring, it was getting out of control. Much like the Matrix series. So, in order to avoid that catastrophe, I'm going to sum it all up as best I can with a photo gallery and quotes from some of the characters that showed up for this event.
When asked about what they remembered of the trip, I got a rich hodgepodge of memorable moments. I had to whittle down many to a few, but here they are, unedited and straight from the horse's... mouth.
"Rain, fishing the flats, walking up 3 flights of stairs, Bobo the clown, Cops, the jetty walk in flip-flops, Getting Curtis' hitch stuck in the road when trying to back out of a driveway, while cops where pulling people over left and right, Curtis' getting stuck in the first ten feet of sand road, the great view from the top balcony, the mo-ped fisherman, the smokey ass grill, the sea hares, all the ladyfish tearing up shrimp...
"...how it smelled like someone dropped a deuce when the kitchen faucet ran."
"Running out of gas, eating lady fish, did i mention cops, new friends, paddling in the dark for hours looking for a lost clown with a blow up doll, hooking a snook and not landing it, night fishing in the lights while drinking a beer listening to live music getting photographed, Cops, beer, rain, wind, ticket for 8 over, sweet pad, great new friends, losing the blow up sheep on the bridge, and last but not least getting everyone home safely and COPS."
Hard to top off that boatload of memorocity, but my favorite memory from the trip was when several of the guys decided to brave the weather and go hit the flats for a while. Not only did we catch fish, but we ran into a local fly slinger who asked us where we were staying. We described the place, and he kinda chuckled and said ah yeah. That place used to be a gay bar.
Without missing a beat one of the guys piped up with something like 'Hey, that makes sense - Paul was getting a good feeling about that place; a good vibe, if you will."
When we got to the house, it was quiet. It didn’t look much like a house – three stories of brick and windows, buttressing right up to the water’s edge. We headed inside to meet the guys that had arrived while we were out on the water.
The first face I saw was Jeremy, the creator and organizer of the event. After shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries like ‘I was hoping you weren’t stupid enough to get caught out in that storm…’ we headed inside. And MAN! What a place.
You know when you were younger and walked into your grandmother’s house or maybe another older relative, and were warned to not touch or break or breathe hard on anything? This house was way too nice for a bunch of ribald fishermen, and that was before I went upstairs to see the massive showers. I kid you not dear reader, the bedroom in which I currently sit tapping away at the keys is the same size – perhaps a bit smaller – than the bathroom I used on the second floor. It had two showers. And the floor above that was a game room with a high balcony that served as a great observation deck…
Anyway. You get the point. All I needed was a dry, non-sandy spot to sleep on, and Jeremy gets us the Taj Mahal. For a great price, I might add. Kudos to you, sir.
So we walk out on the back deck and shake some more hands with guys I hadn’t had the pleasure to meet yet, and stand around talking about the fishing trips the days before and how pretty the water was. Pretty soon I get the itch to cast a line and I figure no one would mind if I walked away from the conversation to grab my 8wt to do a little snook prospecting under the dock connected to the house. I decided to slink a black tarpon bunny back in between the pilings as the sun goes down.
Tap… Thud! Suddenly, I’ve got an audience. Conversation stops and all eyes turn towards me, and for the moment, all my brain can yell is “Snook!” What a start this is, catching a snook right off the bat, and as the fish surges to the surface as snook will to head shake I can see that it’s…
A trout. A nice, solid speckled trout of around 18”, but no snook. Damn.
Hard to be disappointed with a nice fish like that… but I didn’t come down here to catch specks. Still, a fish like that seems to be a good omen, and the more skeptical non-fly rodders seem to gain a little respect for the fly method. This might turn out to be a great weekend after all, storms or no storms…
After we made it off the rocks and slumped, dripping, in the relative warmth of Don's truck, we had to laugh. Something about experiencing the rawness of nature and emerging safely always brings a smile to my face, a reminder of the unpredictability of my chosen passion. Take it each day at a time and live thoroughly.
We took some time to clean up and dry out, grabbed some food and made the decision to head over to The Salty Fly Shop in Port Isabel, owned by Larry Haines. Larry is famous for developing one of the most realistic shrimp flies around - the Haine's Supreme Hair Shrimp.
After stopping in and chatting a while, Larry gave us some very good tips on understanding snook behavior and suggested a few places we might like to try. It seemed that a moving tide was the key - without moving water the fish were lethargic and nearly impossible to catch.
The tide charts indicated we should be fishing and not standing around talking about it, so we thanked Larry and headed out.
First stop - South Bay. This was our first time fishing the fabled bay, and we were raring to go. After making our way there via kayak, we got down to the business of finding fish. When looking over a new patch of water for the first time, it can be intimidating. Gathering as much info as you can prior to your trip can be really helpful - we had a rough idea of where to go and what to look for. We slowly paddled along, eyes wide and ears open for the sights and sounds of feeding fish.
The squall we had gotten caught in that morning had roiled up the water so that sight fishing was difficult. Don decided to post up in a likely location and fan cast while I crept down a shoreline, sitting sideways in the kayak and crabwalking. The wind was blowing around 15 which made it hard for me to stand and pole, so I used it to my advantage to keep the boat close to the mangroves and other shoreline cover.
Using a topwater as a search fly, I covered every bit of structure I could see, hitting potholes, oyster piles, mangrove tangles, dropoffs and drains.
Nothing. Not even a piggy perch rise.
And then the tails started popping up - first, way down the shoreline. Then suddenly, all around me. Silvery grey like black drum, but not shaped right. I eased close to one, and found myself looking at the vertical black-and-white bars of a sheepshead. I'm telling all you sheepie hunters out there - you want a shot at a sheepshead on the fly, South Bay is the place to go find them. I saw hundreds of fish.
I could have stopped and fished for them but sometimes one has to make the decision to ignore fish to find fish. I continued my way down the shoreline, trying not to bump my boat into oyster patches and casting as I went. After a half mile of this I decided to post up on a grassy point and wait to see if I could find any activity. Resting in the grass, I watched dozens of sheepshead and mullet swim by in the green tea colored water.
I had been watching a wall of clouds far to our south, so I decided to pull out the phone and check the radar to get an idea of what was coming.
Yeah. It was time to go. We battled our way back across the increasingly windswept bay to the launch, and arrived mere minutes in front of the approaching squall.
Time to go meet the boys at the house and see the cast of characters we'd be fishing with for the next few days.
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.