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.
Spray sprinkled over his back, trickling in slow, salty rivulets. The windward side of the jetty surprised another wave, who had not heard about the granite tribute to human shipping and transport. Swirling water drove full force into the slimy, barnacle-speckled rock; the misty remnants arched across the jetty, driven by the stiff onshore breeze.
Perched on the farthest leeward jut of rock that could be reached, he swept a polarized gaze across the green water, watching for a sign. The shirt he wore rattled in the wind; what had started as a rich olive had faded to almost tan, sweat stained and sun-bleached from uncounted days in the heat. A beat up ball cap, sunglasses, and tarpon scaled buff shaded face and neck. His right hand gripped the worn cork of a 10wt – his left hand held the 80lb bite tippet, while the big baitfish fly swung loosely, waiting. A homemade stripping basket sat low on his hips, holding the coils of line he had stripped from the reel in preparation of a cast.
Rolling his shoulders against the ache of casting all morning, he glanced at the sun. Tide should be dropping anytime now. Fishing the incoming tide in the morning hadn’t produced, against all expectations. Now it was near noon, and the fisherman wasn’t nearly as confident.
The rocks shielded the area in front of him from the worst of the waves. In this relative calm, the water was dark with shifting clouds of small baitfish. A cruising school of larger mullet some distance from the rocks suddenly scattered, throwing roostertails of water into the air.
The random bait movement of slack tide started to change, and nervous water told the angler that predators were on the move. First randomly, then concertedly, Spanish mackerel began slashing through the rafts of mullet. The fisherman watched with slight interest, but did not cast. He had caught plenty of the small predators; today was about bigger game.
The man waited for what followed the s’macks, and what followed them was the stuff of baitfish nightmare.
Razor-lined jaws agape, the king mackerel lifted effortlessly from the water, leaving behind a bloody path of rent flesh and dying mullet. Death stalked among them and took freely. First one, then three, then suddenly a dozen kings were skyrocketing from beneath the mullet which scattered and panicked to no avail.
The first skyrocket was well beyond casting range, but the angler smiled. Showtime. Rolling his shoulders again, he turned and gauged the wind speed and direction, choosing his window of best casting space. Tossing the fly up into the breeze, he began the rhythm of the double haul. Straight into the wind he punched his forward cast, and on his back stroke he finished high and allowed the line to shoot.
And shoot it did.
The wind grabbed onto the sailing fly like a new toy, wrenching it through the air. The fly line dutifully followed, zipping up out of the stripping basket like slurped spaghetti. The line hissed where it contacted the guides and pinged tight against the arbor of the reel when it could fly no further.
The fly rolled over and landed with a slap in the nervous pod of big mullet. Darting, they slid away, then slowed. Twitch… twitch… the big fly undulated, shimmering, and then dropped again slowly. Drifting. Dying. Then another strip. Slowly, the fisherman worked the fly back.
Stripping basket full, the slender piece of graphite flexes deeply to overcome the headwind. Haul, slip line, haul and let ‘er go… hisssss-ping. Sinking, dying, undulating…
Suddenly the mullet go everywhere; the angler finds himself looking up at a king that seems to be lifting off. A glittering silver missile nearly 5 feet long, reaching altitude and leveling off a good twelve feet above the water before reentering with hardly a dimple.
The angler thought he heard someone gasp behind him, but he was intent on the water and the slow cadence of the strip. Strip, twitch, dying… and gone. Vanished in the middle of a swirl the size of a Volkswagen.
The line ripped through his fingers, burning deep lines in his skin; he swore and jerked his hand back. The reel screamed; a high, buzzing whine that intoxicated the angler’s senses and threw his adrenaline into over-drive.
Backing zinged through the guides; after many long seconds he dared start to palm the reel. He could feel the headshakes thrum thrumming back down the line, and the fish slowed. Sensing weakness, the fisherman really put the brakes on. He planned to try and release this fish; if given the chance the big king would fight to the death.
Cranking down on the drag, he began to pump the fish back to the rocks. Another short run; the king mack was spent. Quickly calculating the safest spot to land the fish, the angler gingerly made his way out on the slick rock. Leading the fish by in front of him, he grabbed the mackerel’s tail and popped the hook from the formidable jaws.
Suddenly a shadow fell over the water; looking up, the angler saw a nice looking family gazing somewhat incredulously at his catch, with a little girl clinging wide-eyed to her father.
Knowing he had no time to lose, the fisherman quickly began moving the king back and forth through the water, hoping for signs of recovery. The mack twitched and flexed, causing iridescent colors to play in a ripple down its flank. Gradually, the fish seemed to grow stronger. While the king revived, the man chatted with the parents. They asked about the catch and fly fishing, and the fish grew stronger and swam away well.
One satisfied angler.
The father asked what kind of fly the fish ate. The man replied that he hadn't named it yet, but after a fight like that it deserved a name.
He grabbed the bedraggled remains of the once proud fly and showed it to the little girl.
"What would you name it?"
She looked at it with serious brown eyes, considering. Decision reached.
“Cookie Monster.” she said.
Taking a look at the forlorn, shredded blue tuft of fuzz with its one remaining eye, he laughed.
“Cookie Monster it is, little miss.”
Saying goodbye to the family, he began back down the jetty toward land. The tide was still moving but he’d caught his fish.
Back at the truck, he turned the fly over and over in his hand, remembering the magnificent mackerel. An old book from childhood popped into his mind… If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.
The story goes that if you give a mouse a cookie, he’ll start making all kinds of demands and the moral is to never give a mouse a cookie.
The moral of this story? If you give a king a cookie, he’ll want to take all of your backing, break your rod, smoke your reel, and ruin your fly… But I bet you’ll be okay with that.
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…
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.