Southwest Fly Fishing

An Intriguing Landscape Up Close and Personal
By Lefty Ray Chapa

“Whee-eeeeee.” I felt like that very happy pig in the TV commercial with its head out the car window and holding a pinwheel. My expression turned to “no-oooooo” when Captain Thomas Barlow, taking a day off from guiding anglers on the Texas coast, shut down the boat engine and admonished Andy Abrahamson and me, “Watch out for gators!”
   Fly fishing alongside alligators in my home state of Texas is not an everyday thing, but in southern Louisiana, it seems to be an ordinary-everyday kind of thing. A 9-foot fly rod as my only defense seemed inadequate, but then on the other hand, I could use a new pair of alligator boots.
   We had launched from a very nice boat ramp in Orange, Texas, after a short-lived light rain delayed our planned dawn departure. Our destination was the neighboring Sabine National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), which is entirely within southwestern Louisiana. As we zoomed down the channel, my rain jacket kept me warm and a Buff pulled up over my nose and head prevented my face from feeling the sting of the cool morning air and my hat from blowing off. I lowered the Buff and, pointing to our left, asked Barlow, “Is that Louisiana?”
   He yelled over the motor noise, “We are in Louisiana. At the last turn, we were wholeheartedly in Cajun country.”
   With early teal hunting season in the air and a leftover rainbow in the distance, we had entered Louisiana, which could be Spanish for “sportsmen’s paradise,” the state’s license plate motto from time to time. Our aim was to chase the big saltwater three: redfish, speckled trout, and flounder, but especially redfish, also known as red drum.
   From the front seat of the center-console boat, I lost track of our course as the numerous turns and the lengthy first run became a huge blur in my mind. I just hoped Barlow’s mind and memory had plenty of battery juice to get us out safely at the end of the day. My plan had been to follow our path via an app on my new fandangled smartphone, but without any cell reception, it became a piece of dumb dead weight.
   We were in Barlow’s Fury, which is an East Cape Skiffs light poling skiff. This type of Florida-style boat is narrow enough to handle the thin channels that we maneuvered through all day. My buddy, Andy, was on the front deck with an 8-weight rig, ready to drop a fly at a moment’s notice on an unsuspecting redfish, while I kept an eye out for a pair of size 9.5 alligators.
   Getting to the first small lake, we had passed large expanses of tall yellowish-green grass intersected by various winding cuts and sloughs. Definitely bayou backcountry. If it weren’t for the salt in the water and the lack of mountains in the distance, the grassy meadows would fool anybody into thinking they were fly fishing in Yellowstone National Park.

 

Sabine NWR
This refuge, established in 1937, is a rectangular area similar to the shape of Pennsylvania. It is sandwiched between Sabine Lake to the west and Calcasieu Lake to the east. At more than 120,000 acres, it is the largest coastal marsh along the Gulf of Mexico. While the refuge is primarily intended for wintering waterfowl, fishing from a boat is allowed from March 15 through October 15. The refuge does not allow commercial guiding, so unless you’re lucky enough to count someone like Barlow, who knows these waters well, among your friends, this is a do-it-yourself boat fishery.

   The refuge is also a nursery for reptiles, including alligators, and home to mammals, and other marsh birds. Sabine NWR is part of the Southwest Louisiana National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which also includes Cameron Prairie, Lacassine, and Shell Keys NWRs. The wildlife diversity in this complex is second only to a rain forest. Birding is a big draw, as more than 300 species have been recorded in Sabine NWR. This refuge has been designated an “Internationally Important Bird Area” because of the diversity.
   Alligators share top billing with the birds as they seem to be everywhere. Everyone is cautioned to not approach or try to touch the gators. The refuge is no place for pets because gators will eat dogs. Gator baits dangling off stout sticks seemed to be around every corner. We did hear an occasional shotgun blast and presumed one had been dispatched and, I imagined, drawn one step closer to a custom boot maker.
   Andy pointed out that we were in a marsh and not a swamp. While both are similar, a marsh is wet grassland and a swamp is wet forest. The predominant grass was the ever-present yellow-green Spartina cordgrass, which grows long and skinny. This plant has no food value for most wildlife, but does provide shelter and concealment. One time when I was off the boat, I used it to try to sneak up on some cruising redfish to some success.
   Another common type of vegetation is Roseau cane (Phragmites australis), which grows in tall, dense stands. While pretty and critical to providing cover and nesting habitat, it also caught our fly lines behind us, so watching our backcasts became crucial to prevent tangling up.
   One plant we kept a watchful eye out for was the alligator weed. Not because an alligator might be lurking under it, but because this mat-creating plant is a sure indicator of fresh water. It cannot tolerate salt or brackish water and may even house some freshwater fish, but our quarry was definitely salt related.
   Most of the back lakes we fished were a nominal 2 feet deep. Water color ranged from clear to golden brown. The hidden underlying layer of impervious clay kept the water from penetrating deeper into the soil so the depths stayed constant barring any major gulf storm or river runoff. Wading is not recommended as most of the bottom is quite soft. Even the grass islands were mushy and hardly firm enough for wading.
   I do not know if the dark water color is created by detritus, the decayed material from the surrounding vegetation. Detritus is the first step in the marsh food chain as it feeds microorganisms like bacteria. Crabs, shrimp, and small fish also feed on the detritus, and in turn, such prey attracts redfish, flounder, and speckled trout.
   Although we were actually not that far from civilization, we felt like astronauts on the back side of the moon, away from prying eyes and insulated from the constant barrage of beeps and tones that come from three busy cellphones.
   Two large bodies of water, Greens Lake and Five Lakes, form part of the refuge, along with two smaller unnamed lakes. We entered from the north, coursing along part of Greens Lake, but for the most part, we stuck to the innumerable cuts and smaller lakes. There are several ways to get into the refuge. From the west side, you can launch on the east or west side of the Cameron bridge on the Louisiana/Texas border. From the bridge, go north a few miles to the many bayous that enter the refuge. They are all marked with signs to designate you are in the refuge and not going into private marshlands. Louisiana has lots of privately owned marsh, so make sure to fish only areas within the NWR.
   From the north end of Sabine Lake, you can launch in West Orange, Texas, at Adams Bayou boat ramp, Ancelet’s Marina, and a few other small ramps. From Orange, you boat south into the north end of Sabine Lake, where you travel down Black Bayou until you reach the signs that designate you are entering Sabine NWR.
   The Louisiana side of Sabine Lake offers many launch sites close to or leading directly into the NWR. A few miles into Louisiana from Cameron bridge, the public ramp at Johnson Bayou allows easy access to the west side of the refuge. Once you launch from the Johnson Bayou boat ramp, go north up Johnson Bayou until you enter Sabine Lake and then continue about 0.25 mile north; you will see many bayou entrances, all marked with NWR signs. You can boat into any of these bayous to reach some of the best redfish action on the Gulf Coast.
   The only launches actually on Sabine NWR are located on Louisiana Highway 27 on the east side of the refuge south of the town of Hackberry. These launch sites are posted with detailed maps of the refuge and lead into some of the most pristine marsh in the country.

 

Tactics
After stealthily poling through a boat-wide cut into a small lake, Barlow suggested we keep our eyes pointed toward the shadowed bank. He said to watch for redfish wakes, which would show up as white strips in motion. The reason for hitting the smaller lakes was that Barlow could thoroughly scan virtually all the real estate from his perch on top of the poling platform. Thus, he didn’t need to waste time entering areas where there were no signs of fish movement. In those instances, Barlow would just pole to the next lake entrance.

   One key to success, Barlow explained, is finding areas with grass bottoms. The grass helps improve water clarity and harbors food that redfish eat. On windy days, Barlow looks for glassy strips on the water’s surface, an indication of grass underneath. In his words, “I listen with my eyes for the glisten.”
   Redfish on the move are distinguishable. Their wake is U shaped rather than V shaped like that of mullet. A red’s broad shoulder pushes a wake in shallow water, making it easy to detect. Often while feeding in 15 inches of water or less, a red’s tail will extend above the surface and kind of wave as the fish moves nose down foraging for food.
   Depending on the time of the year, shrimp may be present. A sure sign is what looks like popcorn dancing on the surface of the water—shrimp trying to avoid being a redfish’s next meal. From a distance, frenetically feeding shorebirds or birds hovering over a spot are great indicators that redfish are causing shrimp to pop into the air.
   Fishing apparel is just as important as tackle. White hats are a no-no. The contrast of a white hat versus the sky is too great; the fish will see an angler before an angler sees them. The same goes for white or yellow shirts. Blue or green are preferable. Polarized sunglasses rank at the top of the required-gear list. Amber/brownish tinted lenses are the best because they enhance the contrast of fish in the water, making them easier to see. Often, a moving shadow is easier to spot than the fish itself because these types of sunglasses make the shadow appear darker. This lens shade will also cause red and orange colors to stand out more, so that redfish almost appear to glow underwater.
   Noise in the boat must be kept to a minimum as sound travels six times faster through water and easily frightens fish. Take care to close storage lids quietly, and gently step down from platforms rather than jumping.
   From the casting deck, pretend you are standing on a clock dial with 12-noon at the point of the boat. A fishing guide like Barlow will call out a redfish’s position with location and distance, such as, “Big redfish, 1 o’clock, 60 feet, moving toward us.”
   Keep your head in swivel mode, scanning from side to side, to detect redfish on the move. Sometimes this attentiveness causes mental overload as you see fish on one side of the boat and the guide spots others on a different side. In all cases, listen to the guide.
   Undoubtedly the best thing to do several days prior to arriving at the dock is to practice casting a fly. The ideal rod is an 8-weight and if you are unaccustomed to heavy rods, casting this size all day is much more demanding, no matter the brand, than a typical 6-weight rod. While repeatedly false casting is great for practice or for drying a dry fly, it is best to get in the habit of trying to make just a single backcast. Practice picking up the line, making one backcast, and shooting line to reach the target. If you practice, the entire dance becomes much easier once you are standing on an elevated casting platform on a boat.
   Pick up the fly line gently so as not to spook a red and then recast accurately in front of the fish. Numerous backcasts equal numerous forward casts, which can spook a redfish or blow your accuracy as the red may move out of position.
   For the most part, wind was not a factor when we were in the refuge with Barlow; we were lucky. However, an angler fishing at any saltwater setting should be prepared to handle the wind. One method is to learn to cast with your opposite hand, but barring that, the best tactic is to reverse your aim. This is called reverse casting—the forward cast becomes the backcast and the backcast becomes the forward cast. For most anglers, it’s much easier to learn than casting with your opposite hand.
   In most saltwater situations, keeping the rod tip as low as possible to the surface is the key to successful hookups. This technique will eliminate most fly line slack as you strip-retrieve a fly to entice a redfish. Casts typically range from 40 to 60 feet, but beware of the closer shots. In these instances, as Andy found out, keep stripping frantically until you gain sufficient tension. Otherwise, with too much slack line to manage, you will lose a fish every time when the fish opens its mouth and the fly falls out. Just ask Andy. He is now a believer.
   Once you do hook a redfish, maintain constant tension. To reduce the fight time to as brief as possible, flip the rod in the opposite direction from that to which the fish is headed, and continue to do so as the fish changes direction. Redfish often change directions quickly and repeatedly, so you may need to keep flipping the rod from one side to the other.
   In very shallow water, a red can only go away from you or toward you. That is why keeping tension is very important. With an approaching red, retrieving the fly line with the reel handle will not be fast enough. To avoid losing the fish, strip it in and strip to regain or uphold tension. Barlow agrees that most saltwater fish are lost when a sudden impact hits the leader. Avoid this by again keeping the tension constant.
   After the first run, expect a second run when the fish sees the boat. Prior experience will determine how much bend to put into a fly rod while fighting a strong 7- to 10-pound red. But if you are accustomed to freshwater fishing, remember: this ain’t trout fishing, so avoid the urge to lift that rod tip high overhead.
   Once a red is landed, a Boga-type tool is handy for a quick picture and instrumental for reviving the fish prior to release. Instead of the typical back-and-forth revival method, try moving the red in a figure-eight pattern with the tool. Andy did this and found that the constant forward motion revived his red very rapidly.
   Flies deserve a few words here as well. For the waters of Sabine NWR, you need flies that enter the water quietly and sink 15 to 24 inches quickly. Shrimp and crab flies work well, but have drawbacks, as many shrimp flies will foul in the dead grass found on the bottom. Crab flies tend to make too much entry noise upon hitting the water. Hence, weighted and unweighted bendbacks, in both drab colors like tan and bright colors like chartreuse, work well.
   Even better is the RCA fly pattern, which combines a Seaducer head with a bendback rear wing and body portion. The black/chartreuse version is effective in the turbid water. The palmered head pushes water, creating underwater vibration that fish feel with their lateral line, and draws them in to strike. The bendback-style wing keeps the RCA from fouling or picking up stray grass. You can also wrap lead wire around the hook bend to enable the fly to sink faster. The key to construction is to bend the
hook slightly.

 

Plenty Left for Next Time
I’ve spent many years casting flies for redfish and other denizens of the Gulf Coast saltwater fisheries, and getting up close and personal with Sabine NWR allowed me a chance to fish new waters in an intriguing landscape that was foreign to me. Dark clouds on the northwestern horizon cut our day with Barlow short, but not before we enjoyed consistent success on hard-fighting reds and enjoying remarkable sights in this wild watery frontier. On the way out, we saw plenty of alligators, though none seemed to be my foot size or willing to visit my custom boot maker without a tussle. Perhaps next time we come to visit.

 

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