Southwest Fly Fishing

A Little Bit of Nirvana
By John E. Wood

Countless scenarios play out in our minds when we set out with rods and reels and flies to pursue finned quarry. In planning our angling adventures, we envision the Nirvana we all seek as respite from the daily life of work and chores: blue skies with a few high clouds or maybe a light drizzle depending on what we’re after, the perfect whisper of a breeze, and large, cooperative fish. That’s what we dream about. The fly-angling life offers so many idyllic scenarios.
   For weeks I had been planning my trip to Rockport, Texas, to fish with Captain Jeff Johnson of Fly Fish Rockport. Phone conversations with Johnson leading up to my arrival stirred my excitement with tales of red drum (aka redfish or reds) and the less-frequently sought speckled trout (aka specs or trout) he and his clients were taking. During our last conversation prior to my arrival, he described near-perfect conditions with warming water temperatures, low winds, and cooperative fish. Oodles of cooperative fish. Nirvana!
   Now might be the time to mention that spring weather can be a bit unpredictable on the Texas coast. When the weather cooperates, it’s awesome, but when it does not, at least there are other things to do.

 

Anything Worth Experiencing
On the morning after arriving in town, instead of wielding a fly rod on the water, I found myself sitting at a table in The Daily Grind coffee shop sipping a cup of Sandy Bottom Pecan with Johnson and Captain Gibson McGuire. Outside, the wind blew at a velocity unfriendly to boat navigation and fly casting. The thick clouds rolling in off the Gulf promised rain and threatened lightning. The waters of Aransas Bay churned with enough malevolence that San Jose Island, our planned starting point, though just a short boat ride away, might as well have been on the other side of the world. It wasn’t exactly the Nirvana I had dreamed of, but it did give us a chance to go over our game plan, and talk flies, techniques, and, inevitably, weather. 
   The next morning, with the weather still uncooperative, Johnson and I sat, drank coffee, and shuffled through a pile of maps while he pointed out the flats, cuts, lakes, and bayous he finds productive. He fishes and guides from Matagorda Bay, east of Rockport, all the way to Baffin Bay west of Corpus Christi. Originally, we had hoped to poke around most of the bays in that stretch, but the week’s erratic forecast threatened to consume too many on-the-water hours for us to cover it all. With that in mind, he chose to spend the majority of our angling time in the bays nearby Rockport.
   On my third day in town, the weather broke with an absolutely beautiful forecast. I met Johnson and David Sowell, who had agreed to let me tag along, at the Cove Harbor public boat ramp just after daylight to find glass-slick conditions with scattered cloud cover and a promise of sunshine later that morning. As we motored out through the no-wake zone, a pair of dolphins came alongside to escort us for a short distance, one just off the port bow, the other 20 feet out. When Johnson eased into the throttle, they vanished as quickly as they had appeared. 
   With winds forecast to build from the southeast, Johnson navigated us along a necessarily circuitous route to North Pass near Mud Island. The smattering of oil well platforms came as unexpected but not surprising sights. As we made our way around, he discussed at length the need for navigational maps, electronic navigation, electronic depth monitoring, and a keen sense of observation as being indispensable when boating these flats, especially at high speeds. Though the tides along the Texas coast are minimal as tides go, fluctuations during the day can render what is navigable in the morning impassable by afternoon or
vice versa. 
   By the time we reached the back side of Mud Island, the Nirvana I had envisioned was materializing before my eyes.Complete quiet spread across the slick expanse of water. Low, gray clouds filled the sky as bright beams of light periodically pierced through, adding color and brilliance to the landscape. Once everyone was in position, a calm settled in around us. There was a hum of an outboard in the distance, and hushed whispers between Sowell on the casting deck and Johnson on the poling platform were punctuated by the quiet surges of the push pole. Pelicans passed languidly overhead. The only creatures visibly in any rush were mullet and their seemingly aimless
airborne antics.
   Barely 10 minutes in, Sowell launched a well-placed cast, delivering a personal variation of Johnson’s special crab pattern, a parti-colored adaptation jokingly known between them as a Clown Car. The fish took, Sowell skillfully connected, and instantly calm silence became fast-paced commotion as I bailed from the boat to capture the scene from a distance. Within minutes, Johnson slid his hand under the silver/bronze beauty and lifted it from the water. Finally, after a stormy wait, we had a redfish alongside the skiff. Redfish can sometimes be quite finicky after a multiday storm system, but this was not one of those times. Yet instead of being recklessly cooperative, they did turn out to be somewhat skittish after all the commotion.
   For redfish, like most any wild creature, feeding and predator avoidance are top survival priorities. Johnson explained that in his experience, redfish are completely tolerant of even very loud sounds above the water but their negative reaction to sound waves in or on the water is proportionate to the degree of calm on the surface. The time we spent on the water in the following days helped to reinforce this conclusion. When the wind velocity reached 10 miles per hour, it was easy to slide to within 15 feet of cruising reds before they were hooked or flushed. On glass-calm mornings, happily feeding reds would disappear at the slightest disturbance. A rocking boat, the tap of a solid object on the floor of the boat, even vigorously picking up a coil of line from the water surface was enough to flush a red at 50 yards on a completely calm day.
   Johnson and Sowell worked along one side of the cut we were in, then back up along the other, spotting several reds as they went, but the fish were difficult, flushing long before the boat could get within reasonable casting distance. It was quite some time and distance before things settled and another redfish allowed a reasonable cast. The hookup resulted in a long-distance release, and thereafter, following another lull in the action, we decided to find an undisturbed location, one where my zeal to be in the water to shoot photos had yet to stir things up.

 

Where to Find Them
Oriented northeast to southwest, San Jose Island is surrounded by a series of three bays: Matagorda to the northeast, Carlos on the northwest, and the largest of the three, Aransas Bay, along the western side. On the eastern shore lie more than 18 miles of sandy beach and the Gulf of Mexico. The north end of the island is separated from Matagorda Island by Cedar Bayou, a narrow slice of water that divides private San Jose Island from the seashore portion of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, which covers the majority of Matagorda Island. At the southern end of San Jose Island, Lydia Ann Channel separates it from the well-known Lighthouse Lakes, a maze of mangrove islets popular with kayak anglers.
   Finding good numbers of redfish and speckled trout around San Jose Island is a relatively uncomplicated task if you know where to look. Feeding redfish and speckled trout are hunters that share the same general locations but in different ways. Redfish most frequently feed on the flats near deeper water while speckled trout feed along the edges of deeper water near the flats. Just like a good real estate transaction to target one over the other, it’s all about location, location, location. 
   When looking for redfish, check out the grass edges along the flats on the western side of the island. This western edge is just over 21 miles long but because of the number of backwater lakes, cuts, and channels, it has immeasurably more miles of fishable, vegetated “shoreline edges” adjacent to expansive shallow water flats that are perfect habitat for the prolific population of crabs. And where there are crabs, there are feeding redfish.
   These flats in addition to being perfect feeding grounds for the reds are also excellent for anglers. The firmly packed, light sand bottom and exceptionally clear water make spotting fish as straightforward as it gets. As locations go, redfish anglers could hardly ask for more. A quick aerial view on Google Earth will give an idea of just how extensive these grass shoreline edges are, every foot of which offers the possibility of holding redfish.
   The only drawback is that portions of these flats are not always navigable by boat. Depth fluctuations influenced by tide and wind can be tricky to predict for first-time visitors. The saving grace here is a hard-packed sand bottom ideal for wading, but anglers must stay in the water. San Jose Island is private property owned by the Bass family, descendants of the late Sid Richardson, a famous Texas oilman. This explains the frequent heifer sightings and the occasional small aircraft using the airstrip near Mud Island. Walking above the high tide line is considered trespassing.
   Occasionally, speckled trout will make their way onto these flats and when they do, they are almost always large specimens but targeting specs calls for a slightly different approach. They prefer slightly deeper water with breaks or changes in the bottom structure, oyster beds, and submerged seagrass beds that attract baitfish and shrimp.
   This is where studying a good aerial view can really pay off. As opposed to redfish, which hunt flats for their preferred dietary fill of crabs, adult speckled trout have a favored diet of shrimp and baitfish. Like any other predator fish, the larger the trout, the larger their prey. As a result, large specimens tend to feed less frequently so if you do spot trout cruising the flats, it is definitely on the hunt. Keeping a rod rigged with a large, brightly-colored shrimp or baitfish pattern is an excellent preparation for taking these cruisers.
   For anglers wanting to target speckled trout specifically, blind-casting over structure is the most frequently used technique. It is not as exciting as sight-casting to reds, but at times when the wind velocity is too high for accurate target casting, the reds are uncooperative or you just want something different, locating a school of specs can save the day. The key to success using this technique is to work around the targeted structure slowly until the fish are located. In most cases, where there is one, there are many.
   Reds and specs aren’t the only species available here. Black drum—which reach enormous proportions—and sheepshead cruise the same flats as redfish. These species are challenging to catch, often refusing flies that are placed with precision in every respect. Black drum feed by feel and smell so a well-placed fly can go completely unnoticed. Sheepshead are just simply some of the most skittish fish on the planet with excellent eyesight, a keen sense of smell, and the energy level of a
young Chihuahua.
   Other species to be on the lookout for on the bay side of the island are the crevalle jacks and tarpon that can be seen during the summer months near deep edges around the lower half of the island. They can be targeted but require excellent timing and an intimate knowledge of location.
   For something completely different, anglers can catch a ferry at Fisherman’s Wharf in Port Aransas for a short ride to the beach side of the island. This entire stretch of beach up to the vegetation line is accessible to the public via the passenger ferry. Bring the family, a picnic, and try a little surf casting, fish from the north jetty, or just enjoy the miles of pristine,
undisturbed beach.

 

Catch Them if You Can
Even with all the species available, redfish are still the main target around San Jose Island and for good reason. To say that catching them is challenging is an understatement but the challenge is the main reason it’s so exhilarating!
   On the last day of a pair of separate weeks in the area, for the most part as observer, photographer, and journalist, I finally got my day on the casting deck. Johnson had spent the previous day experiencing, as he put it, “an epic day of top-water action” with a pair of clients catching redfish and speckled trout. The possibility of a repeat lurked in the back of both our minds and exactly what brought us out on a day with predicted 25 mph winds. Starting from the boat ramp at Conn Brown Harbor Park in the town of Aransas Pass, he navigated us along the circuitous route out to Lydia Ann Channel then north. Using the island as a windbreak, we skirted behind Mud Island to a large open lake behind Paul’s Mott. 
   We began by checking a shallow cut in search of pods of black drum on a tip he had received from a local. Just two days prior,there had been numerous pods of large black drum scouring the area but the water appeared to have dropped a few inches and there were none to be found.The wind velocity was up ahead of the forecast and more from the west than predicted, driving home the point of how quickly things can change on the Texas coast. Luckily, Johnson always has a Plan B, which in this case resulted in an abundance of redfish. 
   Over the course of 10 nonconsecutive days on the water in my role as journalist, I had watched from the center seat or a second boat as other anglers manned the casting deck hurling flies at countless targeted redfish, only taking the casting position after our daily objectives had been achieved. Like an armchair quarterback, I enthusiastically cheered their successes and closely scrutinized every missed chance.
   Feeling a bit like the character Ralphie during the Black Bart scene in the film A Christmas Story, I stepped onto the casting deck with visions of pulling off spectacular casts with flawless fly placement, perfect hook sets, and catching fish Johnson hadn’t seen. Sometimes I’m the hero and sometimes I am the quintessential armchair quarterback.
   The first fish we spotted was gone like a shot without a chance, quickly followed by a nearly bungled chance that concluded with me boating my first sizable redfish in more than a decade. The fish was strong, the fight exhilarating, and the sensation epic!
   For the next three hours, Johnson poled me around the flat, paralleling the grass edges and spotting redfish as the wind steadily increased velocity. We spotted more redfish than I can count. I made dozens of casts, some good, most not so good. By the time we finally took a break, I had taken dozens of shots and landed five beautifully bronze-colored redfish. I had missed double the number of takes as fish landed and senselessly broke one off in a moment of hubris. My arm and back ached, my face was windburned despite the Buff pulled up under my glasses, my eyes were dry and tired from straining to see every fish Johnson spotted so effortlessly, and my stomach protested the fact I hadn’t thought to stop and eat while expending so much energy and emotion. I felt exhausted, beaten, humbled, humiliated, educated, and ecstatic. I couldn’t have been happier!
   Far from flawless, my day on the casting deck made several things clear that can’t be realized from behind the camera.
   From the casting deck, there are myriad details to take in, decipher, and assimilate in the instant a redfish is spotted, all of which determine the outcome: success, learning experience, or never had a shot. The distance, direction, traveling speed, attitude, and awareness of the fish, wind direction and speed, sun position and angle, guide position on the poling platform, and simply can I make that cast are absorbed in seconds.
   After a short ride, a quick snack, and time for my emotions to calm, we headed to Allyns Bight for a look around. It was obvious someone had already fished it that day but I wanted one last shot before leaving town and Johnson was eager to provide it. Twenty minutes down the one reasonably calm bank available, we simultaneously spotted a red on the edge of the grass. One cast, an instant hookup, fish landed, and photographs taken. Who could ask for a better end to a day?
I couldn’t.
   I can’t wait to get back there.

 

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